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KOL004 | Interview with Walter Block on Voluntary Slavery


Kinsella on Liberty Podcast: Episode 004.

Walter and me at my dad’s house in Prairieville, Louisiana, for a (Catholic) baptism party for my son, October 2003

My longtime friend Walter Block was recently in town and stayed over at my house one night. While we visited had several discussions on libertarian theory, as we usually do when we see each other. He agreed to let me record a discussion on one of the few issues we do not completely agree on: voluntary slavery; we recorded this last night. Walter believes voluntary slavery contracts ought to be enforceable in a private law society, and in this I believe he is in the minority of libertarians (with Nozick, say). We touched on a variety of issues, including debtor’s prison, how acquisition of body-rights differs from Lockean homesteading, and the like.

Some of my writing relevant to this topic and our discussion include:

Walter’s articles on this topic include:



Update: see this Facebook post:

  • Stephan Kinsella: I agree with David Gordon. I disagree with pro-voluntary slavery libertarians, like Walter Block (Thomas L. Knapp is another, though he pettifogs on the use of the term “voluntary slavery”).
  • Jeremiah Dyke: I too think it’s insane not to have the ability to contract any percentage of your labor for any duration of time. [Sarcasm]
  • Stephan Kinsella: This is not an argument. Abilities don’t come from opinions. Let’s be clear: to justify voluntary slavery means you have to justify the use of force by a would-be “master” against a would-be “slave”, if the slave tries to run away or changes his mind or disobeys an order. The libertarian thinks use of violence against another person’s body is unjustified aggression, unless it is (a) consented to, or (b) in response to aggression.
  •  But the slave has not committed aggression, so (b) is not a possible justification. Some alienabilists disingenuously argue that it IS “aggression” since the master owns the slave’s body, so it’s trespass (aggression) for the slave to use the master’s property (the slave’s body) in ways the owner (master) does not consent to. This argument is disingenuous because it is question-begging; it presupposes the legitimacy of body-alienability, in order to prove it. So this does not fly. I will say that I get very tired of people who engage in question-begging arguments. They do this all the time in IP — where they label an act of copying “stealing” in order to show that what was “stolen” must have been ownable property. Horrible reasoning. I hope you don’t engage in this kind of dishonest trick.
  •  As for (a); clearly the slave who tries to run away does NOT consent to the force the master wants to apply to him. The only way the alienabilist can get around this is to say that the PREVIOUS consent the slave gave (say, a week before) is still somehow applicable, i.e. that the slave cannot change his mind. Why not? because … well … because … well … because the slavery contract was binding! So we see, yet again, the sneaky and dishonest resort to question-begging; slavery contracts are binding because they are binding. Neat trick, that!
  •  The reason people can change their minds is that it does not commit aggression. And the reason a previous statement of intent is relevant is simply that it provides evidence of what the current consent is. It’s a standing order, but one that can be overridden with better, more recent, evidence. If a girl tells her boyfriend he may kiss her now, and any time he feels like it in the future, then when tomorrow comes he is reasonable in assuming that she is still actually consenting NOW to another kiss, even if she says nothing, because she set up that presumption earlier. Her previous statement was not a binding contract, but just a way of establishing a standing presumption about what her ongoing consent IS. But if he goes to kiss her and she says NO, then we know that the previous statement about what her future consent WOULD be, was a bad prediction and has been undermined by the better, present/current evidence she is giving.
  •  It is no different in all the voluntary slavery situations.
{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Richard Hunter August 28, 2017, 10:08 am

    To own something is to control something, to be able to use and dispose of it as you wish. In today’s society, you do, mostly, have the ability to control, use, and dispose of your body as you wish – but slavery is illegal – that is you are not allowed to sell yourself into slavery. This means that you are NOT able to use and dispose of yourself as you wish in this regards. In other words, you don’t completely own yourself. It would seem that the government at least partly owns you – maybe a 10% stake in you – which allows you to do most, but not all things, as you wish.

    I think, in short, that the assumption is often made, rather lazily, that we own ourselves, but when the issue is examined it will be found that it really isn’t that simple.

    • Stephan Kinsella August 28, 2017, 11:05 am

      Being unable to sell yourself into slavery is not a limit on ownership but a consequence of it. As for the state owning us, you need to distinguish between positive law and the rights that correspond therewith, from justified law and rights. It is true that the state acts as our masters and thus legally partially owns us, but this is not justified anymore than chattel slavery was. Each person is the 100% natural owner of himself.

      • Richard Hunter September 12, 2017, 1:21 pm

        Indeed there is a difference; and if you found yourself as a slave in Mississippi in the 18th century, you would certainly find out the difference: Both of us have the right not to be slaves, and that right is guaranteed to us because we live in a 21st century westernised society. We also have a moral right not to be slaves. However the 18th century slave only had the latter kind of right, and what difference did it make to his situation?

        Indeed his slave master not only had the legal right to enslave people, he believed he had the moral right as well!

        Moral or natural rights are ultimately no more than opinions that people hold. They are useful in that they can influence people and so lead to societies adopting them as legal rights.

        The trouble with talking of ‘natural rights’ is that it implies that theses are universal, but they are not. As I mentioned, not everyone was against slavery. There are legal rights and then there are opinions. To talk of ‘natural rights’ is to talk of nothing at all.

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