Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Libertarianism and slavery

Posted Feb 28, 2011 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

We need to keep exploring the box we are in if we want to change it.  Much of the box’s construction occurred during the 18th century emergence of capitalism, or at least the ideology of capitalism, and the reality of slavery.  The box belongs to the Atlantic bordered by Europe, Africa, and the Americas.  It is a box supported by the labor of slaves and mystified by stories of liberty based on the ownership of property.

In John Locke’s writing, for example, liberty is based on self-ownership.  Why the emphasis on ownership by a philosopher who invested heavily in the slave trade?  Could it be that he saw two kinds of people—slave and free—and correctly saw the difference: the free were not owned by anyone else and the slaves were?  Could it be that libertarianism has its roots in this contrast with slavery?

The fault here, of course, is to take a historical event as an ontological truth.  Slaves were owned property.  True.  Still, that did not mean they were ontologically different than others.  Women too were owned property, as were children.  Now we may stuff these historical facts in the closet of history and pretend that libertarianism today is something much different.  As long as we do not change the box in which we live, however, this legacy of liberty will continue to shape our perceptions of what we have in common and how we should live together.


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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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