Happy Emancipation Day. I heard on the radio that this holiday is the reason the due date for your taxes is extended. I thought that was the most ironic thing I’d every heard, so I checked to be sure it’s real, and it is.
April 16th is apparently the anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but it’s not actually a national holiday. It’s a state holiday, in many states, but it occurs on different days in different states. I gather that April 16th is the date in Washington, DC, and in the early 2000’s Congress apparently extended the tax deadline by mistake (the mistake being that it’s a DC holiday, not a national holiday).
But that’s not the irony. The irony is that we’re to celebrate emancipation from slavery on the same date, almost, as the date taxes are due. In fact, we’re “emancipated” from the tax deadline for an extra day or two because of Emancipation Day. The amount of taxation we have means that we don’t finish paying the government until about June 17th, although that of course depends on where in the U.S. you live. That means almost half our income goes to one kind of tax or another.
Slavery means being forced to work for someone else. There were different kinds of slavery, in history. In Roman times, slavery was just a class distinction. In the middle ages serfs were tied to the land but were not “owned” by the feudal landlords. There have been many other kinds of slavery in history, but the most degrading, pernicious, and soul-effacing was chattel slavery, such as was practiced among Caribbean countries and in the American south during the heyday of the cotton economy. Some kinds of slavery reduce the enslaved to thinking of themselves as less than human, and that effect is passed down generations. Other kinds of slavery preserve more human dignity, but are properly described as “slavery” because of the coercive nature of the limitations on one’s freedom. I think it’s useful to look at the various kinds of slavery, through history, in order to try to distill down the essence of what slavery is. I think it comes down to this: limitation on freedom through coercion by those in power.
Bear with me, I’m going someplace with this, and I’m going to get back to taxes. You’ve heard the phrase “wage-slave,” I’m sure. It refers to someone who has not saved money and who, in consequence, does not have as much freedom as they’d like, to break away from their job, if they don’t like it, or go into another working arena that does not compensate as well. I remember when I was a young lawyer at a big firm, talking to a senior associate who was not going to make partner, for various reasons. He was unhappy, but he felt he had no freedom to do anything about it. One day in the parking garage he pointed to his nice sports car that he’d only had a few months, and said “that’s where my freedom went.” He didn’t mean the car by itself, but the lifestyle it represented. If he had saved money and consistently lived on less than he made, he’d have had more options. More freedom.
In some sense, we’re all wage slaves. Meaning that unless we inherited independent means, we’re forced to work, and we don’t have unbridled discretion about what kind of work we do. Saving money equals freedom, but the difficulty is that we don’t appreciate it, until we have accumulated enough that it makes a real difference. Like being able to retire early, while still healthy, and go do that thing we’ve always wanted to do. Or simply working a lesser-paying job, just because we want to.
But note that in talking about saving money and freedom, I’m already assuming limitation on freedom. We all operate with limitations on our freedom; it’s a universal human condition. So none of us are “free” in that kind of absolute sense. But we may be free of coercion, in that we do things that we consider to be maximizing our freedom. What we’re really doing is minimizing our limitations.
The reason this kind of quotidian thinking about our limitations does not cause us to invoke the dread word “slavery” is that these limitations are not imposed by coercion or threat of coercion by others. Our freedom may be limited by our own perfidy or negligence or lack of foresight, but unless it is limited by an outside agency, like the state, it is our own stupid fault.
I said that saving money equals freedom. Every dollar you have represents work. This is readily apparent to someone like you or me, who works for a living. If I take a dollar out of my pocket, I am very aware that I first worked, to put that dollar in my pocket. But a dollar is just a medium of exchange. If I spend it on a loaf of bread, then I have gotten that bread in exchange for what? Not a dollar, but rather the amount of work I did to generate that dollar. I have made a decision that I would rather have the bread than to be free of the work that generated the dollar.
We make that decision thousands of times a year. Because it is only a medium of exchange, and not the product of our labor itself, money is just a way of liquidating our work. The money in my pocket represents work I have already performed. Importantly, if I give the money in exchange for the bread, I do so voluntarily. This isn’t coercion. Therefore it isn’t slavery.
But what if I am required to buy the bread, whether I want it or not? Or worse, my dollars are taken from me for things I not only don’t get, but which provide no benefit to me, or worse still, are for things I affirmatively do not want? Now we’ve introduced coercion to the limitation on freedom. Now we have slavery.
Now I’m not saying that I’m reduced to Tom’s state at the hand of Simon Legree. What I’m describing is a long way from chattel slavery, in which I don’t even own myself. But it’s not so long a way from serfdom. If I haven’t paid off my taxes until June 17th, then I am a part-time slave. You can say that I get benefits (national defense, parks, public education, abortion-on-demand), but these are not benefits I chose to have, much less pay for. The money is simply taken from me. I’m enslaved a dollar at a time, this way. Or to be even more accurate, I’m enslaved to the extent of the work it took me to pay off the tax burden. What’s really happening is that my work is converted to dollars, and then many (far too many) of my dollars are taken from me.
Because dollars are a medium of exchange, my work is converted to dollars before being taken from me. In this way, my work is attenuated from the coercion. The government doesn’t come to me and say “do x work until I say stop.” Instead, all my work is converted to dollars, and then the government comes and takes such dollars as it wants. Because of this attenuating feature of money, I’m likely not to grasp that what has really happened is this: the government has made me work involuntarily.
That’s slavery. End of rant.