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Can you sell yourself into slavery?

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Murray Rothbard argues that you cannot sell yourself into slavery. But how is that compatible with the principle of self-ownership? Ownership is the authority to do what you wish with your property. That includes alienating it from your ownership by voluntarily transferring it to another. Why should we be allowed to do that with the rest of our property, but not with our own bodies? The effect of making many property-based transactions (e.g. credit card agreements) is to place us in partial slavery, from which we may never be able to escape. So why can't we sell ourselves into complete slavery? Rothbard writes:[1]

The distinction between a man’s alienable labor service and his inalienable will may be further explained: a man can alienate his labor service, but he cannot sell the capitalized future value of that service. In short, he cannot, in nature, sell himself into slavery and have this sale enforced—for this would mean that his future will over his own person was being surrendered in advance. In short, a man can naturally expend his labor currently for someone else’s benefit, but he cannot transfer himself, even if he wished, into another man’s permanent capital good. For he cannot rid himself of his own will, which may change in future years and repudiate the current arrangement. The concept of “voluntary slavery” is indeed a contradictory one, for so long as a laborer remains totally subservient to his master’s will voluntarily, he is not yet a slave since his submission is voluntary; whereas, if he later changed his mind and the master enforced his slavery by violence, the slavery would not then be voluntary.

Suppose that you and I make a contract that, in exchange for you giving me a badly-needed $20 today, I will mow your lawn tomorrow. Then suppose that after I spend the money, I change my mind about the wisdom of this deal. Can I repudiate the contract on the grounds that my labor for you is no longer voluntary? If so, then people will have no incentive to provide payment for services in advance, and it will hinder the economy in many cases.

Why do we need a rule against people selling themselves into slavery? When has that ever been a common practice? If someone is dumb enough to do so, don't they deserve the consequences? Those people will, like many other losers, weed themselves (and their foolish tendencies) out of society in a Darwinian manner, and it will cease to be a problem. But in order for that to happen, you have to let the market be free.

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