The Merits of Indentured Servitude

I remember being bemused by Aristotle's description of the more or less best-ordered society in the Politics. In it, one part of the populace was made up of full citizens, having a share in government and freely able to own property; the other part was made up of slaves. Yet after my initial incredulity had worn off, I saw that Aristotle's argument was hard to refute. He said that while many people are well suited to freedom, able to take care of themselves and their families and to best develop their talents, there are some people who simply are not cut out for the free life; these people, who Aristotle believed were best suited by nature to be slaves, simply couldn't handle living on their own, and would be happiest under the rule of another.

Life as an independent person is hard. You not only have to work for your keep, but you must manage your earnings and the property you accumulate. You must also confront the anxiety of being ultimately responsible for your welfare, and the welfare of those under your care. This anxiety is highly stressful; many people would prefer not to deal with it, to rely on someone else to take care of the details. Yet those not wealthy enough to hire personal asssistants must make do, or else blunder along from one misstep to another until some final bit of carelessness destroys all that they have worked to build.

The desire for security in exchange for dependence is quite powerful. Some people have that same impulse in the political realm; it is sometimes called the authoritarian personality. People who possess it instinctively support those leaders who promise to be most paternalistic, to remove from them to the greatest degree the anxieties of life. They are referred to derisively by some as "sheep."

I am certainly not about to argue that such people should be enslaved. It would be abhorrent to anyone who loves freedom. On the other hand, if someone is not suited to the independent life, why should we force him into it? Why not give him another choice?

The Torah describes a system of indentured servitude, in which someone may voluntarily sell himself into servitude for a fixed period (six years, or until the next Jubilee year, whichever is sooner). During that period, he will labor for his master, and the master will in turn provide him and his family with room and board. At the end of the term of service, the newly-free man is presented with a generous severance payment from his former master, in addition to the initial payment at the beginning of the term.

If such a system were standardized for the modern era, it could do a great deal of good. A contractual agreement between two parties would be perfectly legal, so long as all other laws were obeyed in the meanwhile. This would provide a means of livelihood, and more importantly of security, for people who choose not to run their own affairs; and they would be given a large cash settlement at the end of their term, which they could use to advance themselves in the future.

Meanwhile, the employer would be able to duck all sorts of payroll taxes (until the government changes the rules accordingly), and would probably save on the salaries themselves over the long run. Group housing and food would be much cheaper than individuals housing and feeding themselves, so effective pay would be much less. And with employees guaranteed by contract to stick around for lengthy periods, the employer would have an incentive to make them better workers—by giving them some sort of education or technical training.

I can't imagine why such a system should not be made available to people who might be interested, so long as it is very, very transparent; I can imagine plenty of ways that indentured servitude could be abused by the unscrupulous, in both directions. At best, such a system would afford a way out for people who need a change in their circumstances. The cash settlement at the end of service could be a powerful means to change your life.

Any thoughts, dear readers?


Scott said...

If I recall correctly, another requirement at the Jubilee year was that all debts were to be forgiven. In my mind the Mosaic Law was a unified whole as prescribed by Jehovah, and so I don't think that a society could really cherry pick ideas from it and make them work in modern society.

A fundamental problem with Aristotle's argument is the question of who decides who the slaves are and what are the criteria for making the differentiation. Basically he seems to be saying that people are incapable of change during their life, which is clearly false.

Mastiff said...

Please note that what I described would be purely voluntary for all sides. Aristotle notwithstanding, nobody should be forced into servitude (except perhaps as punishment for crimes).

Indeed, the Torah is a unified whole. But that does not prevent us from taking ideas from it, and examining them carefully to see whether they can be applied in other frameworks. I don't know whether the subject at hand is one that can be transplanted, which is why I asked.

In most cases, a person's term of service would be unaffected by the Jubilee Year, since it only came around every 50 years. That said, debts were also forgiven in the Sabbatical year, which came every seven years; so in all likelihood a newly-freed person would have a clean slate. Hmm. Perhaps a form of bankruptcy could be incorporated into the contract?

Anonymous said...

Actually, we do have a sysem now where some people can be "free" while others are"taken care of" -- in the economic sense. Those who are "free" are the entrepreneurs who are starting and running businesses of their own. They assume a tremendous amount of risk and uncertainty for the uncertain rewards of success, economic independence, and to be able to determine their own lives, schedules, and destiny. The others are the people who choose to work for the large corporations, the government, or even the smaller entrepreneurs. They just need to show up to work, do their jobs, and collect their paychecks. Many of these people stay in their jobs for the security of the position -- many seeing it as a lifetime committment (although corporations no longer see it that way) and so they don't need to make the difficult decisions and take the greater risks upon themselves. In effect, they are "indentured by choice".

To go to a true endentured servitude would be dangerous and foolish -- and may not be economically viable (if done properly, it is actually very expensive to be responsible for another person's well-being, which if you are married and have any children you will have already experienced). Slavery in any form is easily misused and abused. Also, if you were to have such a "voluntary contractual agreement" which didn't work out -- how could you fire such a person?

Just some thoughts.

Mastiff said...

"...how would you fire such a person?"

Yes, that is one of the things that would get in the way. I'm still trying to figure that one out.

"It is actually very expensive to be responsible for another person's well-being..."

Except that employers already are, given that they must pay salaries sufficient to live on. If you introduce group dormitories and other economies of scale, the cost to the employer should go down significantly.

"Slavery in any form is easily misused and abused..."

Agreed. I see indentured servitude as an option of last resort, which would let a person build up skills and capital without the expense of independent living. That said, there would have to be stringent legal protections in place, or else it could effectively become true slavery in all but name.