On the Renting of Persons: The Neo-Abolitionist Case Against Today’s Peculiar Institution

David Ellerman


Liberal thought (in the sense of classical liberalism) is based on the juxtaposition of consent to coercion. Autocracy and slavery were seen as based on coercion whereas today’s political democracy and economic ‘employment system’ are based on consent to voluntary contracts. This paper retrieves an almost forgotten dark side of contractarian thought that based autocracy and slavery on explicit or implicit voluntary contracts. To answer these ‘best case’ arguments for slavery and autocracy, the democratic and abolitionist movements forged arguments not simply in favour of consent, but arguments that voluntary contracts to legally alienate aspects of personhood were invalid ‘even with consent’ – which made the underlying rights inherently inalienable. Once understood, those arguments have the perhaps ‘unintended consequence’ of making the neo-abolitionist case for ruling out today’s self-rental contract, the employer-employee contract. The paper has to also retrieve these inalienable rights arguments since they have been largely lost on the Left, not to mention in liberal thought.

Published on 23rd March, 2015, in Economic Thought Vol 4, No 1, 2015