The Essence of Liberty Volume III. Liberty: A Universal Political Ethic

A Condensed Version of: For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto

by Murray N. Rothbard

Compiled and Edited by Dr. Jimmy T. (Gunny) LaBaume

The Essence of Liberty: Volume I: Liberty and History: The Rise and Fall of the Noble Experiment with Constitutionally Limited Government (Liberty and ... Limited Government) (Volume 1)Involuntary Servitude

“Liberty“ and “slavery” are polar opposites. Slavery is forcing people to work for nothing but subsistence or less than they would have voluntarily accepted.


A draft means that youth are forced to register and carry their draft cards so, at the whelm of government, they can be seized and inducted into the armed forces. Upon induction, the draftee’s body and will no longer belong to him. He is forced to kill and to place his own life in jeopardy. How can there be a more blatant case of involuntary servitude?

The utilitarian argument that the government uses to support the draft is, “Who will defend us if we do not have a draft?” That is an illogical and invalid argument for several reasons.

First, if you and I think we need to be defended we have no moral right to coerce someone else into defending us. The inescapable sequitur to this argument is that the draftee owes his life to “society” or “his country” Well, if so, exactly who is this “society” or “country.” It is simply all individuals in the territory except the ones being conscripted. There is no such thing as “society” in and of itself. There are only groups of individuals interacting with each other. When the individuals disappear, there is no ghost like creature remaining that could be called “society.” This mythical abstraction is used simply to conceal the coercion.

Second, why is it necessary to conscript defenders? No one is conscripted on the free market, yet people manage to obtain every conceivable good or service. People are hired every day to perform dangerous services (fire fighters, underwater welders, etc). Why can’t soldiers be hired in the same way? Government employs thousands of people from truck drivers to scientists. Why is there no “shortage?” Even within the army itself there is no “shortage” of officers—no one has ever had to conscript generals. The answer is because the government hires them at the market wage. There is a shortage of buck privates because their pay is severely below the market wage. The way the market induces people to volunteer for hazardous jobs is to pay them extra.

Drafting doctors at ages far beyond anyone else is a special disgrace. What is the moral justification for penalizing those who choose to enter the vital health care industry? Is that any way to cure the shortage of doctors? Again, the armed forces’ need for doctors could easily be satisfied simply by paying them the market salary. If the government wants to hire nuclear physicists, it doesn’t draft them. It hires them at extremely handsome salaries.

The Army

Conscription is a form of involuntary servitude and there is also another—the structure of the army itself. In what other occupation are there penalties (including prison and execution) for quitting employment?

The concept of “term of service” is part of the problem. Suppose an engineer contracts with an oil company to serve for three years in Saudi Arabia but quits before the end of the 3-year term. Perhaps this exhibits a moral fault or a breach of a moral obligation but, although he did make a promise of future work, his body continues to be owned by himself alone. He might be morally criticized, perhaps blacklisted by other oil companies and forced to return any advance pay, but he will not be enslaved.

Why should the army be any different? The man who fails to complete his “term of service” will surely lose his pension rights. He may be morally criticized and might even be blacklisted from similar occupations. But he should not be enslaved.

A common protest to such a suggestion is that the armed forces are a uniquely important occupation that needs this sort of coercive sanction. However, we can see the fallacy of that by considering a comparable occupation in civilian life—the police. Every year people join and quit without any coercive attempt to bind his or her labor. Let the armed forces operate that same way.

It seems that many Americans have forgotten one of strongest elements of their heritage—fierce opposition to any suggestion of a “standing army.” As the founding fathers knew very well, a permanent army can only lead to the aggrandizement of the State and constantly poses a standing threat to liberty. Of course, any tax-supported institution is coercive, but an army is uniquely menacing because of its possession of the massive power of modern weaponry.

Anti-Strike Laws

In 1971 Richard Nixon obtained an injunction forcing the suspension of a dock strike and the head of the New York City teachers’ union went to jail for defying a law prohibiting public employees from striking. Although it may be convenient for the public to be spared such disruptions, the “solution” was forced labor for which there is no moral excuse.

Strikers assert that somehow, in some metaphysical way, they still “own” their jobs and are entitled to return to them once the dispute is settled. The simple remedy for this self-contradiction is not to pass laws outlawing strikes. The remedy is to remove the body of law that bestows special governmental privileges on labor unions.

Current labor law prohibits the courts from issuing injunctions in cases of imminent union violence and compels employers to bargain “in good faith” with any union that wins the votes of a (arbitrarily defined) work unit. It also prohibits employers from discriminating against union organizers. If these special privileges and immunities were taken away, labor unions would sink back to their previous negligible role in the economy.

Characteristically, the government has not repealed (and likely will not repeal) any of the union’s special privileges. Instead, it has placed special restrictions upon the unions. This may seem contradictory but, once one realizes that the State’s natural tendency is to grow, it makes perfectly good sense. The contradiction serves two purposes: First, to aggrandize government power over labor relations and second, to foster unionism as a junior partner in the government’s role over the economy.

The Tax System

Taxation is involuntary servitude. All of us work a large part of the year for Uncle Sam and forced work for little or no pay is, by definition, slavery.

Withholding is the linchpin of the system. Without the relatively painless process of deducting the tax from the employee’s paycheck, the government could never hope to collect the high levels of tax from workers in one lump sum. But, this system adds still more involuntary servitude in that the employer is forced to expend time, labor, and money to act as the government’s unpaid tax collector. In the same way, retail sales, excise, and admission taxes compel the unpaid labor of the retailer in collecting and forwarding the taxes to the government.

Furthermore, filling out the tax form itself is forced work at no pay. It is also a clear violation of the 5 th Amendment prohibiting the government from forcing anyone to incriminate him or herself.

Finally, the high cost of tax collecting is disproportionately heavy upon the small employer.

The Courts

Compulsory labor predominates our legal and judicial system. In the first place, justice rests upon coerced testimony. In addition, in an attempt to weaken our 5th amendment protections, the law allows a prosecutor to offer immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony. Furthermore, compelling the witness to accept this offer is compelling his/her testimony and, therefore is forced labor. It is also akin to kidnapping. First the person is forced to appear and then forced to give testimony.

In fact, subpoena power should be abolished completely. Even the accused should not be forced to appear because he/she has not yet been convicted and the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” is fundamental. The only exemption to the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition of involuntary servitude is “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” So, the most any court should be allowed to do is to invite the defendant (or his lawyer) to appear. Then, if he/she chooses not to appear or send a representative, the trial would proceed in absentia.

A criminal loses his rights to the extent that he has aggressed upon the rights of another. However, the purpose of imprisonment and punishment will be different in a free society. There will be no “district attorney” to try a case on behalf of some nonexistent “society” and then punishes the criminal on that “society’s” behalf. The prosecutor will always represent the individual victim, and punishment will be exacted to the benefit of that victim—e.g. if convicted, the criminal will be force to make restitution to the victim. Historically, restitution was the dominant punishment. Only as the State has grown has it encroached more and more into the process, increasingly confiscating more of the criminals’ property for themselves and neglecting the hapless victim. And, as the emphasis shifted from restitution to punishment for abstract crimes “committed against the State,” the punishments exacted by the State upon the wrongdoer became more severe.

Several other practices common to the present system are also objectionable. One is the lengthy jail term imposed upon the defendant while awaiting trial. The right to a “speedy trial” was supposed to be a way of minimizing involuntary servitude before conviction. Except in cases where the criminal is caught red-handed, it is impossible to justify any imprisonment before conviction. In order to keep such a system honest, the police and the other authorities must be subject to the same law as everyone else. If the defendant turns out to be innocent, then the policeman who apprehended and arrested him and the authorities who incarcerated him before conviction should be subjected to the same penalties as anyone else who kidnaps and incarcerates an innocent man. Exempting them from laws that apply to everyone else gives them a legal license for continual aggression.

The granting of bail is a halfhearted attempt to ease the problem but it discriminates against the poor. Then there is the common rebuttal that the courts are clogged. But, this is no defense of the system. To the contrary, it is an excellent argument for the abolition of government courts. Furthermore, a judge who has excessive and little-checked power arbitrarily sets bail. This power is particularly menacing for contempt of court charges where the judge possesses unlimited power to act free from any rules of evidence and trial.

Then there is compulsory jury service. There is little difference between compulsory jury duty and conscription. Both are enslavement. Both pay at slave wages. Jurors are not only coerced into appearing but are sometimes locked behind closed doors for weeks. This amounts to little more than involuntary servitude for non-criminals.

Some are quick to point out that jury duty performs an important civic function. That is very true. But, the fact that it is so vital is what makes it important that people do it gladly and voluntarily.

Finally, lawyers write the laws. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that lawyers are exempt from jury service. Do we detect a certain amount of class privilege here?

Compulsory Commitment

In previous generations, involuntary hospitalization was a measure against mental patients used to remove them from society. But, under 20th century liberalism, it is more humane but more insidious—these unfortunates are now incarcerated “for their own good.” And, this humanitarian rhetoric has permitted more widespread use of the measure.

In recent years, Dr. Thomas S. Szasz, a psychiatrist, has conducted a crusade against compulsory involuntary commitment. One of his arguments is that it is a violation of medical ethics. Instead of serving the patient, the physician serves others (the family or the State). Furthermore, he points out that compulsory commitment and “therapy” are far more likely to aggravate “mental illness” than to cure it.

The guiding rationale is that the patient might be “dangerous to himself or to others.” The first grave flaw in this argument is that it is only someone’s judgment that such an act might take place. This obviously provides an open sesame for unlimited tyranny. Anyone might be locked up because someone thinks he might commit a crime. This could easily be used to justify permanent incarceration of anyone under suspicion. Furthermore, it is immoral and itself criminal, to coerce anyone who is not an overt and present (vs. suspected) criminal.

Szasz points out that “helping” people by imprisoning them is a religious concept in the same way that “saving” witches by torture and burning once was. And, as far as being “a danger to one’s self” is concerned, a man’s body and soul are his own, not the state’s.

Furthermore, the mentally ill person being a “danger to others” is pure fantasy. Statistical studies show that mental patients are much more law-abiding than the normal population. Eighty-five percent of all ex-convicts will commit more crimes. Ghetto residents and teen-age males are far more likely to commit a crime than the average member of the population. Mental patients are statistically less dangerous than the average guy. So, if we are really concerned about danger, then we should first lock up all former convicts, ghetto residents, and teen-age males.

What about criminals that supposedly escape the “brutality” of prison and instead receive medical care through insanity pleas? In the first place, it is grotesque to claim that incarceration in a state mental hospital is “more humane” than prison. To the contrary, despotism in a state mental hospital is likely more severe and the prisoner has far less recourse in defense of his rights. That is simply because the “mentally ill” are placed into the category of “non-person.”

Furthermore, we must question the entire notion of taking anyone out from under the rule of objective law. To do so is far more likely to be damaging than helpful to the people thus singled out. For example, what if the State psychiatrist never considers the person “cured?” In such a case, the simple crime of theft could bring about lifelong incarceration. Sentencing someone on the State’s judgment of his psyche or spirit of cooperation constitutes tyranny and dehumanization. It also encourages the prisoner into engaging in deceptive behavior to “fool” the authorities. To call compulsory commitment “therapy” or “rehabilitation” is mockery. Treating every prisoner in accordance with objective criminal law is far more principled and humane.

To be continued

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The Essence of Liberty: Volume I: Liberty and History: The Rise and Fall of the Noble Experiment with Constitutionally Limited Government (Liberty and ... Limited Government) (Volume 1)  The Essence of Liberty: Volume II: The Economics of Liberty (Volume 2) The Essence of Liberty: Volume III: A Universal Philosophy of Political Economy (Liberty: A Universal Political Ethic) (Volume 3) Environmental & Natural Resource Economics: The Austrian View  


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The Essence of Liberty Volume I: Liberty and History chronicles the rise and fall of the noble experiment with constitutionally limited government. It features the ideas and opinions of some of the world’s foremost contemporary constitutional scholars. This is history that you were not taught at the mandatory government propaganda camps otherwise known as “public schools.” You will gain a clear understanding of how America’s decline and decay is really nothing new and how it began almost immediately with the constitution. Available in both paperback and Kindle versions.

You might be interested in the other two volumes of this three volume set: The Essence of Liberty Volume II: The Economics of Liberty and The Essence of Liberty Volume III: Liberty: A Universal Political Ethic. 


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1 Response to The Essence of Liberty Volume III. Liberty: A Universal Political Ethic

  1. Reblogged this on Land & Livestock International, Inc. and commented:

    A Condensed Version of: For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto

    by Murray N. Rothbard

    Compiled and Edited by Dr. Jimmy T. (Gunny) LaBaume

    Involuntary Servitude


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