The Left

Not the Same at All

Rick Santorum
Rick Santorum
Rick Santorum, one of the candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential primaries. | Photo: | 2012 Election, Republican, Conservative,

Slavery is an overused metaphor

Did you know that having to pay taxes is the same thing as slavery?

That participating in the food stamp program is slavery?

That gay marriage is morally no different than slavery.

Joking? I wish. Those are the views of pundits Tibor Machan and Walter Williams (taxes), North Carolina Republican Greg Brannon (food stamps) and Rick Santorum (gay marriage).

Of course, I can see their point. What captures the essence of slavery better than free food, taxes and happy marriages? Wait ' they don't have a point at all, do they? Slavery wasn't about any of that.

Slavery was about transforming a human being into a piece of property with zero rights. Whether you born a slave or sold into slavery, you were a slave for life and your kids were born slaves after you. Some masters might be kind, but many were not. And even kind masters still owned human beings as property. They might make an effort to keep families together, but if money got tight, plenty of kind men broke up families to sell off the members. A slave with a decent master could easily pass to a tyrant through sale or inheritance. And that's not even discussing the countless owners who raped slave women.

Like I said, the analogy to taxes, food stamps or gay marriage isn't intuitively obvious. Machan and the others referenced above try to forge a connection, but in every case they fail.

Machan and Williams argue taxes are slavery because they're coercive. In American slavery, owners profited from taking the fruits of the slaves' labor and taxes allow government to profit from the fruits of our labor, so there you are!

Unfortunately for their logic, slavery was a lot more than just skimming a little off the top. Slaves were owned, body and soul. Slaves had no legal right to decide how much they worked or what they did. If Williams (who's actually written that American slavery worked out very well for black Americans) or Machan decides to retire and stop work tomorrow, nobody from the government is going to demand he get back to earning taxable income. He doesn't have to worry the government's going to have him whipped or sold for not contributing enough fruit. Taxes are coercive, sure, but slavery they are not.

Then there's Brannon, a Republican Senate candidate. He objects to taxpayer money being taken for food stamps partly because, he saysm the program "enslaves people" by creating dependency: "When you're at the behest of somebody else, you are actually a slavery to them [sic]. That kind of charity does not make people freer."

Of course the purpose of food stamps isn't to make people free, except from hunger. But it's hard to see how they enslave anyone either. Does Brannon imagine slavery any time in history was built around people voluntarily giving up their rights for free food?

And then we have Santorum's reasoning (I use the term loosely) that the fight against gay rights is exactly like the fight against slavery because they're both eeeeevil. Asked why he didn't want to leave gay marriage up to the states, he explained that "I believe as Abraham Lincoln did, that states don't have the right to legalize moral wrongs."

I fully realize that as a devout Catholic Republican conservative, Santorum thinks gay marriage is wrong'but slavery-class wrong? Is he seriously arguing that allowing gay couples to marry is a violation of human rights and principles equivalent to stripping every right and freedom from a human being?

Of course he is. My question was rhetorical.

There are some things that do resemble historical slavery, like, say, modern-day slavery (it's not as if the world has given the practice up). Anything else? Not even close. The next time any politician wants to explain how fighting their cause makes them the moral equivalent of the abolitionists, I hope he or she shuts up first.

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Updated Apr 22, 2017 5:50 AM EDT | More details

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