Today is a little unusual for me. I feel like I spend much of my time around here giving the ant farm a sharp shake and then watching for anything instructive in the ensuing activity. But not today. Today I’m delighted to announce that I’ve discovered that most elusive of things: A moral consensus that truly unites America. Not only does it unite us, there’s a credible argument our society could not function without it.
The depth and breadth of the consensus is so great that I must confess I feel a little sheepish in not recognizing it before. This is something that crosses the seemingly ever-present aisle that divides Democrats and Republicans, something on which the major political-philosophical schools of thought agree, and to which Christians and non-Christians subscribe with seemingly equal certainty.
That’s not to say that these disparate groups all agree on the extent to which we ought to apply the principle. But we are nearly unanimous in our conviction that the principle is both inherently good and pragmatically necessary.
This consensus even survives the acid test: How closely does our money follow the principle we profess? On that metric, we score huge. At the federal level we support this principle with a full 2/3rds of our yearly government expenditures. That’s putting your money where your mouth is. Needless to say, upon discovering the mammoth proportions of this consensus, I felt like the scientists who discovered a single Armillaria ostoyae mushroom colony that spans 2,200 acres under the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. I never thought I’d find something quite that big!
Like the mushroom, this principle is subterranean, but frequently breaks the surface to reach up into broad swathes of our society. It controls a significant part of our economic lives, colors our cultural perceptions, makes government the central reality in our lives, and is arguably even responsible for nascent classes – real ones, not just income stratifications.
Now, here’s the thing – I’d like to tell you what this principle is, but its name is . . . um, a little impolitic. Old-fashioned, too. It carries some unwelcome connotations from an age in which we considered this principle an obviously inappropriate restriction on one’s freedom. And our Constitution forbids it in most circumstances, which makes things a bit awkward. But it’s so central to how we’ve organized ourselves that I’m certain we would quickly ratify an amendment removing the ban if necessary to protect the principle’s continued vitality.
So what is this unmentionable moral consensus? Just this: We agree that involuntary servitude is a moral imperative that should have a significant role in defining and controlling our economic relationships. Remember involuntary servitude? I know – we need to reach back into antiquity for the definition. Its essence is the requirement that, against your will, the benefit of your work goes to someone else without receiving anything in exchange.
We’ll be able to see the modern expression of this type of economic relationship more clearly, I think, if we take a moment to identify the components of a typical economic transaction. All such transactions consist of four components: Producers, value, motivation, and recipients. Value is the wealth you (the producer) create through your labor. The recipients are – obviously – those who receive the wealth you create, and motivation is the rationale that moves the value from the producer to the recipient.
We normally pay attention to all four components only in the day-to-day transactions in which we personally engage. So, for instance, I go to the office and provide some legal services. Then I go to Starbucks and buy a non-fat grande cappuccino (but not in a paper cup – they change the taste too much). The “value” is the wealth I (the producer) created through the legal services I provided. Starbucks is the recipient of part of that value, which I freely give because in exchange they give me joy and well-being in a mug. That’s the motivation.
We all see involuntary servitude every day, but without recognizing it for what it is. I think that’s because we focus almost exclusively on the “recipient” component of the transactions. In fact, so complete is our concentration on that component that the name of the transaction changes with the identity of the recipient – even though its always the same transaction. So it’s “investment” when the recipients are corporations like General Motors, Solyndra, and Fisker. When the recipients are people who have chosen to retire without sufficient assets to support themselves, we call the transfer Social Security and Medicare. And it’s welfare when the recipients are those who don’t create enough to sustain themselves during their working years.
When we look at the other components to these transactions, it becomes apparent that they bear all the indicia of involuntary servitude. The thing the recipients are receiving is, of course, value. But this isn’t manna from heaven we’re talking about – the value came from somewhere in the physical plane. More specifically, it came from someone. That is to say, the welfare recipient is receiving wealth created through the hard work of a specific individual. That accounts for three of the four components of an economic transaction. We’ve identified the producer, the value, and the recipient. There remains only the motivation component.
This is where we encounter the heart of involuntary servitude. The producer is not freely giving value to the welfare recipient or corporation in exchange for a return benefit, so it’s not like my daily sojourn to Starbucks. Nor is he freely giving value to the recipient out of the goodness of his heart without expecting anything in exchange, i.e., he is not making a charitable contribution. Instead, he is being compelled (through taxation) to transfer a part of his wealth to someone else without receiving anything in return. The motivation component in this economic transaction is coercion. And that is what makes this involuntary servitude: The producer is compelled to work for the benefit of another. The fact that we implement the transaction through a tax changes precisely nothing about the nature of the transaction’s components.
Involuntary servitude, in its modern manifestation, is an episodic thing. We aren’t compelled to work year-round for the benefit of others, just part of the year. Tax freedom day (the point after which we have worked enough to pay all our federal, state, and local taxes) will be sometime in mid-April this year. We know that about 2/3rds of our federal expenditures go to wealth transfer programs. If the same proportion holds for state and local taxes, our yearly period of involuntary servitude is approximately 2.3 months.
Different segments of society will argue over whether this period should be longer or shorter, but virtually no one challenges the institution of involuntary servitude itself. Conservatives, for example, want to revamp Social Security and Medicare so that they will be there for future generations, not so that they can free people from this destructive economic relationship. Churches happily support involuntary servitude because it allows them to focus their resources on something other than caring for the poor. Liberals embrace involuntary servitude with passion and look for ways of delaying the point at which you achieve your yearly economic freedom.
So involuntary servitude isn’t just for punishing crimes anymore (as the 13th Amendment says). We have worked it into the basic weave of our society so thoroughly that, if we removed it all at once, we would risk losing social cohesion (sociologist-speak for violence in the streets). I challenge anyone to find another modern moral consensus this complete.