The Return of Serfdom
Tibor R. Machan
The American Founders initiated a revolution by removing sovereignty from the government--kings and the like--and recognizing that it is individual human beings to whom sovereignty rightfully belongs. (Sovereignty means self governance, self rule.) By implementing the political philosophy of John Locke, who identified the natural rights of every human being to life, liberty, and property, the founders changed things radically, far more radically than did the communists later on who followed Karl Marx’s reactionary program of socialization.
But the American Founders did not eliminate one of the crucial features of the old order, namely, taxation. That is the system under which the government owns the wealth of a country and merely permits the people to live and work there, collecting a good chunk of their earnings as payment for the privilege. Serfdom, the other crucial feature of the old order, had however been overthrown in America. That was because individual rights are plainly incompatible with the government’s ownership of the people, which is what serfdom really amounts to. The serfs were supposed to belong to the king who gave them to the lords and other occupants of land, supposedly so they be taken good care of. In fact, of course, they were thoroughly exploited for the economic benefit of the ruling classes, including the royal court.
To remind ourselves that the elapse of time doesn’t always mean the improvement of circumstances, we should notice that in our day there is a slow, sometimes imperceptible return to the age of serfdom. The government now provides for millions of people, through various welfare programs for nearly every segment of society, supposedly to take good care of them. And all this is now being vigorously supported by some of the most prominent political theorists at America’s premier universities.
But so far the apologists for the massive and growing welfare state have only argued that the wealth of the country belongs to government instead of the citizens. (It is actually the corporate sector that is now the greatest recipient of welfare, of so called entitlements--via subsidies, protection against competition from abroad as well as domestic rivals.) They have openly, denied the right to private property in books such as The Myth of Ownership and The Cost of Rights, as well as various articles published in prominent magazines and journals. The idea is that individuals have no right to private property and government owns the country’s resources. The defense of this notion takes a variety of forms but the bottom line is the rejection of the Lockean individualist view in favor of a collectivist vision of society.
Few of these apologists have done so far as to claim that individual human beings belong to the government, although some, like the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, have argued that people’s lives belong to their communities, not to themselves. (Oddly, Taylor was a recent recipient of the substantial Templeton Prize! This despite the fact that John Templeton is reputed to be a defender of the free market, an institution that depends on the Lockean theory of individual rights!) In fact, however, with the growing number of citizens who demand entitlements from the government their claim that their lives are their own is unconvincing. When the government feeds you, houses you, provides you with medical care, with retirement benefits, and all the rest to which one is now entitled, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Americans are no longer citizens but have reverted to the status of subjects, if not outright serfs. Is your life really yours when you live off the state? No.
It is one thing to advocate a social order in which men and women freely help their needy fellows. That is what generosity recommends. It is an entirely different matter when men and women are coerced into involuntary servitude and the beneficiaries become beholden to them for nearly everything in their lives, starting from early childhood education all the way to old age pension.
Do not be surprised that very soon we will be hearing and reading explicit arguments for the claim that individuals do not own their lives--they have no right to it--but actually belong to the state; that they are actually serfs! And all this coming from the progressives among our political thinkers.