Peace Requires Anarchy

My Thoughts on “The Tale of the Slave” by Robert Nozick


The Tale of the Slave

The Tale of the Slave from Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 290-292.

Consider the following sequence of cases, which we shall call the Tale of the Slave, and imagine it is about you.

  1. There is a slave completely at the mercy of his brutal master’s whims. He often is cruelly beaten, called out in the middle of the night, and so on.
  2. The master is kindlier and beats the slave only for stated infractions of his rules (not fulfilling the work quota, and so on). He gives the slave some free time.
  3. The master has a group of slaves, and he decides how things are to be allocated among them on nice grounds, taking into account their needs, merit, and so on.
  4. The master allows his slaves four days on their own and requires them to work only three days a week on his land. The rest of the time is their own.
  5. The master allows his slaves to go off and work in the city (or anywhere they wish) for wages. He requires only that they send back to him three-sevenths of their wages. He also retains the power to recall them to the plantation if some emergency threatens his land; and to raise or lower the three-sevenths amount required to be turned over to him. He further retains the right to restrict the slaves from participating in certain dangerous activities that threaten his financial return, for example, mountain climbing, cigarette smoking.
  6. The master allows all of his 10,000 slaves, except you, to vote, and the joint decision is made by all of them. There is open discussion, and so forth, among them, and they have the power to determine to what uses to put whatever percentage of your (and their) earnings they decide to take; what activities legitimately may be forbidden to you, and so on.
    Let us pause in this sequence of cases to take stock. If the master contracts this transfer of power so that he cannot withdraw it, you have a change of master. You now have 10,000 masters instead of just one; rather you have one 10,000-headed master. Perhaps the 10,000 even will be kindlier than the benevolent master in case 2. Still, they are your master. However, still more can be done. A kindly single master (as in case 2) might allow his slave(s) to speak up and try to persuade him to make a certain decision. The 10,000-headed monster can do this also.
  7. Though still not having the vote, you are at liberty (and are given the right) to enter into the discussions of the 10,000, to try to persuade them to adopt various policies and to treat you and themselves in a certain way. They then go off to vote to decide upon policies covering the vast range of their powers.
  8. In appreciation of your useful contributions to discussion, the 10,000 allow you to vote if they are deadlocked; they commit themselves to this procedure. After the discussion you mark your vote on a slip of paper, and they go off and vote. In the eventuality that they divide evenly on some issue, 5,000 for and 5,000 against, they look at your ballot and count it in. This has never yet happened; they have never yet had occasion to open your ballot. (A single master also might commit himself to letting his slave decide any issue concerning him about which he, the master, was absolutely indifferent.)
  9. They throw your vote in with theirs. If they are exactly tied your vote carries the issue. Otherwise it makes no difference to the electoral outcome.

The question is: which transition from case 1 to case 9 made it no longer the tale of a slave?


My thoughts on Nozick’s The Tale of the Slave:

If slavery is synonymous with forced labor–that is, if a slave is defined as a person who is punished by someone (a master) for not working–then the transition from case 4 to case 5 made it no longer the tale of a slave.

This is true because in case 4 the person must work three days a week or else face punishment by the master, whereas in cases 5-9 if the person chooses to never work they will not be punished by any master.

Of course, in cases 5-9 if the person does choose to work, a certain portion of what they produce will be taken from them by “the master” under the threat of punishment. Some people wish to call this slavery too. I think it is more accurately described as extortion, a kind of theft. But I do see where these people are coming from: If you imagine someone having 100% of what they produce extorted from them on an ongoing basis, it does seem that the person is in some sense “enslaved.” In any case, regardless of what people call it, it should be made clear that it is distinct from the first kind of slavery (the historical kind): forced labor slavery. (Note: Hereafter “slavery” refers to forced labor slavery unless otherwise specified.)

It should be noted that to some degree the person in cases 5-9 is still a slave. This is because the master continues to enslave the person in emergency situations, as noted in case 5: “He also retains the power to recall them to the plantation if some emergency threatens his land.” In other words, if an emergency occurs and the master recalls the person, but the person chooses not to come, the master will punish the person, thus meaning the person is a slave.

In our present society, this emergency slavery takes the form of military conscription (the draft) and jury conscription (jury duty). If a government imposes a draft and a person refuses to serve, the government may lock the person in a cage. Note that if the punishment for a person dodging the draft was that the government would seize the person’s property, then this would merely be extortion, or theft, as noted above. Similarly, jury duty is only slavery if the punishment for refusing to sit on a jury involves punishment of one’s body (e.g. being whipped or caged).

Note that when the punishment for not paying a fine or a tax is imprisonment, the imposition of this fine or tax is enslavement (forcing someone to labor), since the government is threatening to punish one’s body (by locking him or her in a cage) if he or she does not perform the task of handing over their money (i.e. if they do not work).

On the other hand, if the punishment for not paying a fine or tax is merely that the government will perform the act of seizing one’s property, then one is not being forced to labor.

Therefore, in some cases, but not all, taxation, or more broadly extortion, is forced labor.

What is the case in reality? If a person refrains from paying taxes, for example, will the government merely seize their money or will will the government also lock that person in a cage? I believe imprisonment is usually the case. Note also that if a person has his or her money in Bitcoin, for example, rather than dollars in a bank, it may not be possible for the government to seize their money and thus the government may almost certainly choose to imprison them, if not to punish them then to attempt to persuade them to hand over their money.

Therefore, in practice, taxation is usually forced labor, although in principle it can merely be extortion.

Thus, in one sense (other than the jury duty / draft sense) nearly everybody is still a (forced labor) slave,  since nearly everybody must perform the act of paying taxes in order to avoid being put in a cage.

However, people today are not slaves in the sense that they are not punished for not working generally. This is an important distinction between people today and the slaves of history. It is this distinction that made me say that the transition from case 4 to case 5 in Robert Nozick’s “The tale of the Slave” made it no longer the tale of a slave. Due to the great significance of this distinction, I maintain that people today should not be called slaves, despite the fact that they do technically fit into the category of slaves since they are still forced to labor by governments in a few instances, as described above.

I’d argue that it is reasonable to say people today are not slaves despite these exceptions for the same reason that if a thief held a cashier at gunpoint and demanded that he or she hand over all of the money in the cash register, nobody would call the cashier a slave despite the fact that the thief was technically forcing him or her to work.

Anyway, what was the point of thinking through all of this? I wrote about it out of pure curiosity, but perhaps there is a good reason why even people who are not curious ought to be interested in Nozick’s tale. While the situation we find ourselves in is significantly different than the situation slaves found themselves in two hundred years ago, Nozick’s tale illustrates that certain features of our situation today are uncomfortable similar to features of slavery.

UPDATE 01/05/2014: “Slavery,” properly defined, is not quite a synonym for “forced labor,” as was pointed out here.


Author: PeaceRequiresAnarchy

“A consistent peace activist must be an anarchist.” – Roderick T. Long

3 thoughts on “My Thoughts on “The Tale of the Slave” by Robert Nozick

  1. I hope you don’t mind putting this article of mine here:
    It is also from Jan. 04 and goes into (not quite so much) Nozick’s Tale of the Slave. I’ve also decided to update my post to link to yours.

  2. Not at all. I’ll check out your post.

    I received some good criticism of mine from TheRealPariah on Reddit if you’re interested:

  3. Pingback: The State is Plunder; The State is Slavery | The Libertarian Liquidationist

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