A Circumstance Beyond Our Control, Oh Oh Oh Oh

There is a significant slave population in the United States today. We call them prisoners. The difference of a (pre-modern) slave from a (modern) prisoner, is that prisoners are not much good to anyone at all; including themselves. Some readers might be inclined to equivocate and draw lines between prisoners and slaves to separate them. The reality is that a prisoners are a subset of slaves. All the descriptors of slavery apply to prisoners.

Because I’m not insane, I’m in favor of prisons and jails. Making slaves of criminals (for a time)–i.e., to put them under the legal authority of another more competent, temperate, and law-abiding person to control them–is a superior choice over the alternatives to either execute all criminals or allow them to wander around. It would be superior still to control them to good purposes.

There are also other kinds of slaves, in other institutions, and with varying degrees of personal freedom and worth: juvenile delinquents, the elderly in nursing homes and hospices, those under power of attorney, military personnel, and the mentally ill.

Just as with my contemplation on what fatherhood is (especially from the Biblical perspective): Once I recognized with horror that I was actually in favor of slavery[1] …all grounds for liberalism within my mind were harrowed. An add-on effect is that I understood slavery in the Bible better. It was no longer an unconsidered evil tolerated by benighted desert nomads.


[1] Under certain circumstances and for certain people and only for certain periods of time.

7 thoughts on “A Circumstance Beyond Our Control, Oh Oh Oh Oh

  1. I have read that prisoners work for slave wages, and the work benefits certain corporations. That may be a reasonable working definition of a slave: someone who is denied the fruits of his labor, which we all are at least partially.

    You could add ex-husbands under alimony orders to the list of non-incarcerated slaves. And one can easily make the argument that marriage itself has become a sort of indentured servitude for men. The benefits for men are often not forthcoming, so to speak, but the servitude is not diminished in any case.

  2. The 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which made slavery generally illegal, specifically allows for slavery to continue as a punishment for criminal offense. This is why chain gangs, laundry duty in the prison, making license plates, etc. is still permitted. There is no good legal reason under the 13th amendment that prisoners convicted of felonies cannot be sold as slaves. It might even be that some especially obnoxious white prisoners might be bought as slaves by wealthy blacks in today’s society. I mean really, would you not love to see Anthony Weiner being auctioned off to Kayne West?

  3. None of the groups of individuals discussed in this article are slaves. By this type of logic anyone with limited agency would be considered a slave, including children being slaves to their parents. Slavery involves property rights to the individual person themselves, not to the productive fruits of their labor. If it applied to their labor anyone under contract with someone else for something would also be a slave.

    Fatherhood is not slavery either in the broadest sense, though the modern family court system may turn it into essentially indentured servitude.

    I don’t think you need to view any of these things in that light to understand slavery in Biblical times wasn’t an “unconsidered evil tolerated by desert nomads.” Of course, the system of slavery in that period was different than what most people today think of when they hear the term, that of slavery in the post-war South. Slaves in Roman times maintained ability to own property, ability to purchase/gain freedom, etc… And they also weren’t limited to menial labor and uneducated. For instance, Epictetus, one of the main stoic philosophers, was a slave.

    Now as to the waste of a potentially productive labor force from the prison population, that is tragic. Not just from an economic perspective, but from a rehabilitation perspective as well (at least for those that there’s a chance of rehabilitating.)

  4. Cain
    Question, have you read Aristotls view on slavery? It might clarify things more, as he calls slavery a character trait.

    There are certainly slavish people in our times, ones we would call free men. Sadly,the denial of such prohibits the just call that those who benefit from their labor treat them as properly as they should

  5. Also remember that in our context, there was a mandating freeing of slaves every several years. Generally, Christian societies have done well by sticking more to punitive restitution over incarceration. And it does seem weird to have one name for “prisons” being “penitentiary” ie. a place to think.

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