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Slavery Reexamined, Part 1

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Slavery is a powerful word, evoking ugly and horrifying memories in our society during the past centuries. We assume that our kind of slavery was the world’s worst, and that the abolition of slavery throughout the world was the most important social accomplishment of the last century. No doubt it was, but it was not the worst kind of slavery. History records a form of slavery that had a far greater impact on civilization than chattel slavery. And with our guard down, this kind of slavery – worse than chattel slavery – may be the greatest danger to a free society in the next century.

For many centuries, the greatest minds in our civilization have pondered the issue of slavery, as well as the types of slavery. Besides chattel slavery, where one person is owned by another, there was land slavery, sometimes called real slavery, where the person belonged to the land. Whoever owned the land owned the slaves because they could not be separated from the land. Interestingly, a study of land values in White Russia during slavery times discloses that land free from serfs was more valuable than land with serfs.

Then there is what we can call political slavery, where you are the property of your government, and you have no rights to speak of, save what the state wants to give you. Until this decade, the Soviet Union was a bastion of political slavery. My late father-in-law, who lived his life in Russia, would often tell my wife when she was a little girl that they were only slaves. He meant political slaves owned by the state. There are still such places today, such as Cuba and Iraq, among others.

Chattel slavery and land slavery were abolished by European nations by the moral force of Christianity. Russia alone kept its serfdom until the 1860s, at the very time America was getting rid of its chattel slavery. Portugal and Spain were the last holdouts, but by the end of the 19th century, all vestiges of chattel slavery in European nations were gone. While there are still a few small pockets of slavery in Africa and the East, chattel slavery, like smallpox, has by and large been eliminated from the earth.

The ancient world never had any problem with the institution of slavery. Even the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, did not condemn slavery. It was treated as just a fact of civilized life, an economic factor everywhere. It was not racial; most often it was a matter of misfortune. The spoils of war included the ownership of everything, including the defeated population. Pirates were also a source for slaves. The cargo of a captured ship included crew and passengers. The great slave auctions on the island of Delos near Athens had facilities for more than 10,000 slaves – the big business and commerce of that day. In the early days of Christianity, slaves were recognized, and even popes and cardinals had a few slaves.

A New Form of Slavery

Towards the end of the Roman period, a form of slavery took over the Roman world that brought about the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the Middle Ages, shaping civilization for more than a thousand years. This innovation was tax slavery. It can be traced to the emperor Diocletian in the third century A.D.

As taxation in the Roman Empire became increasingly intolerable, with rates doubling and then doubling again, farmers found a loophole in the system. Every five years, the Roman government made a tax census for everyone in a particular locality. Unhappy taxpayers would simply move to a new district and be off those tax rolls for the remaining years until a new census. There was a saying among the Romans at that time: “A man was free so long as his name was not on the tax rolls.”

Diocletian plugged the loophole by ordering everyone to stay put. No one could change residency or even one’s job. The famous Roman historian Rostovtzeff described Rome under Diocletian’s measures to protect the tax revenue as a “vast prison for scores of millions of men.” But how did this form of tax slavery change the world for a thousand years and usher in the Middle Ages?

The five-year census tax was on agriculture. It was a crop tax based on production, or on what production should be. That way there were no audits, just land measurements using Euclidean geometry. The tax was easy to enforce – just make everyone stay put. And stay put they did. The Romans had a nasty habit of using the death penalty to maintain order, for even trivial matters, like inflation control. (Any merchant raising prices above those set by the government was put to death.)

There was another five-year tax, which, unlike the farmer tax (payable in September at harvest time), was a tax on nonagricultural endeavors. It was payable only once, every five years. That doesn’t sound too bad, but this levy was extremely brutal. Writing in the fourth century A.D., during Rome’s decline, the Greek historian Zosimos describes the effect of the rack and scourge (whip) used against noncompliant taxpayers: “Mothers sold their children, and fathers prostituted their daughters” to raise money for the tax, payable in silver or gold.

Diocletian’s new “stay put” order for tax control was the muscle that the Roman government used to enforce both of these taxes. Taxes were now evasion-proof. The revenue of the state was protected, or at least that’s what the tax bureau believed. But the tax collectors had failed to learn from human nature – and from history.

Iron Law of Tax History

There is an iron law of tax history that when a government taxes excessively, taxpayers will respond in some direction for relief. It may be flight to avoid tax; it may be fraud to avoid tax; it may be violence – but it is a certainty that taxpayers will react. Angry French taxpayers started the horrible French Revolution; angry Americans revolted against Britain; Southerners tried to secede from the Union.

Strangely, however, the Romans found relief from taxation in chattel and land slavery. Being a slave to a master was better than being a taxpayer to the state. Taxpayers discovered that they could surrender themselves to a powerful landowner and they would ipso facto be removed from the tax system. No tax identifying number, so to speak. It was a question of evils to be sure, but tax slavery was undoubtedly worse than chattel slavery.

By becoming a slave, no longer would mothers have to sell their children, and no longer would peasant farmers have to face powerful taxmen. One abused Roman farmer petitioned the emperor for relief from his tax thugs. These taxmen “descend on us, take us from our work, seize our plough and oxen and illegally extort what is not due them…. Our resources are exhausted and the lands deserted.”

It was in this chamber of horrors that the alternative to tax slavery came into play. By becoming a slave, life would be tolerable. Dealing with a master was better than dealing with a taxman.

The masters and owners of the great villas were able to evade the taxes that the little taxpayer could not. They would lobby for a tax moratorium through the Senate or bring about a cancellation of delinquent taxes they had not paid. This resulted in

“the bankruptcy of the enormous State at the same time as these small privileged groups, while they evaded taxation, heaped up riches and created around their villas economic and social microcosms completely cut off from the central authority. It was the end of the Roman world. It was the be-ginning of the Middle Ages.” (Aurelio Bernardi, found in Carlo Cippola, ed., Economic Decline of Empires [London, 1970], page 72.)

The economic structure created by this flight of taxpayers into slavery or serfdom to powerful lords became the social and economic structure of Western civilization for more than a thousand years, and it was the direct consequence of Roman tax slavery. If one wants to judge which was worse, tax slavery or chattel slavery, tax slavery wins hands down.

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    Charles Adams, the world’s leading scholar on the history of taxation, is the author of For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization, 2nd edition, 1999, from which this article was derived. He was the winner of the 2000 Paradigm Book Award for his book on the Civil War, When in the Course of Human Events.