Frederick Douglass, Slavery & the Welfare State

Conservatives ought to read the biographies of Frederick Douglass. He wrote three, all of them masterful and articulate, in which he explains the true nature and meaning of freedom. Exemplary is his explanation of the importance of individual self-reliance and self-development, as opposed to the collectivist tendency to rely on others for one’s sustenance. The slaves, reliant upon their masters for their very sustenance, and were taught that everything they were, had and did, belonged to those masters in the chains of a system that denied them the fundamental right to own their bodies and minds. The slaves, of course, were brought here and kept enslaved by force. But they were also kept in ignorance. Douglass realized that this ignorance was as great a prison as the force of chains, and he describes eloquently this enlightenment on the path to freedom. It begins with a deep belief in his right of self-ownership, and is realized when he struggles to teach himself to read. It is the skill that opened the door to a better life, because, as he says, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

However, reading as a simple skill is never enough. One must learn to think, as well. A keen observer of reality and a keener abstractor of the truth, Douglass analyzed the tactics slave owners used to keep their slaves in check. One method, he observed, was to give slaves a holiday each year from Christmas to New Year’s Day, encouraging them to remain drunk the whole time by supplying them with booze. Thus, through their limited pleasure, the slaves were disaffected with the notion of real freedom, which would mean paying for their pleasure instead of receiving it as a gift from their slave owners. The slaves failed to realize that they were already paying for their holiday’s pleasure by slaving for the rest of the year. The psychology behind this inducement is undeniable. The more dependent one becomes on a thing, the less he is willing to break away from it, even if it provides only short-term gains, and costs much more in the long term.

On the surface, the holiday granted by slave owners might seem like a kind and positive benefit. But, as Douglass makes clear, the so-called generosity of slave owners was false and deceptive. In reality, their supposed generosity was a tactic to distract slaves away from any notions of freedom and thus to keep them from desiring their freedom so much that they might rebel. They failed to realize that, even though rebellion would have cost them much in the short term, it would have yielded much greater benefits. But struggle is difficult and sometimes what is perceived as the path of least resistance, in the case of the slaves, a literal one, is inviting because it seems easier at the time. On this, Douglass says, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.” 

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The intentions of the welfare state can be accurately compared with the intentions of the slave owners of Frederick Douglass’s day. They pose as generous benefactors by offering what seem like benefits in the short term, but the costs are heavy in the long term. Politicians who espouse and promote the welfare state offer so-called benefits as generously in exchange for support of their programs, hence for their continued power in office. They buy votes with false promises and unsustainable entitlements.

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It is a truth about human psychology that the more dependent one becomes on a thing, the less likely he is to exert the effort needed to break away from it, even if it provides only short-term gains, and costs much more in the long term. The slaves’ Christmas holiday was brief, only a week. As Douglass complains, they bought the short term benefit and paid the long price. But their ignorance was the key to their acceptance. As he says, “I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason.”

Slaves were mostly illiterate, and were certainly inexperienced with true freedom. Consequently, their willingness to trade a week’s drunken holiday for a year, in deed a lifetime, of slavery, was somewhat more understandable for the time in which it took place. However, modern Americans are not slaves and are hardly kept in ignorance, notwithstanding the current efforts afoot to destroy American education. American citizens should not be so quick to trade their long term freedoms, freedoms they have experienced for most of their lives, for short term gains they think they are getting from government. Just like the slaves with their short-sightedness, many Americans nowadays seem willing to trade their most valuable asset, their freedom, in exchange for government-conferred benefits. The politicians know they cannot steal freedom all at once, but must convince the people that what is happening to them is worthwhile. They cannot do this all at once, but must do it gradually, bit by bit, changing law after law, until they have what they want. Instead of rebelling against these encroachments, it seems that the more people are given, the more benefits they seem to demand, and, like the fisherman gaffing his hook in a big fish, they accede to these demand.

Once in a while, a few people see a flickering vision of their eroding freedoms and begin to demand them back. But politicians of the welfare state cleverly overcome these pesky demands by extending the “slaves'” holiday a bit more, promising emptily their magnanimity will continue unendingly, thus the ever more ignorant population are provided an enduring motive to support the politicians in power. If enough people believe the false promises and continue to vote the benevolent politicians back into office, the downward spiral continues.

The short-sightedness of too many Americans resembles that of the slaves, content with their drunken holiday. They do not take account of the reality that these promised benefits must be paid for out of the pockets of people who mostly do not receive them. And eventually, when the producers of wealth tire of it being stolen from them, they will cease to produce it out of a loss of initiative. This is as true of socialism and communism as it was of slavery.

Welfare State politicians would not like anyone to realize this. Their desire is to keep citizens in ignorance, just as did the slave owners of Frederick Douglass’s time, in the drunken bliss of their short-lived welfare holiday. Indeed, Douglass’s words may be easily applied to the level of awareness held by many an American citizen today. “He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.” One could easily replace the word “slavery” with the word “welfare” and Douglass’s statement becomes as timely today as it was in the nineteenth century when he made it. The government hopes to keep its citizens from realizing this, because, as Frederick Douglass said, “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.” Truth, once realized, can and almost always will, set people free.

Reality is always grimmer than the promises and when one is finally forced to confront it, the taste can be bitter. In this regard, a couple of sayings come to mind. One, a Marxist maxim, says “from each man according to his ability, to each man according to his need.” Should the productive continue to support the unproductive? The answer is that it can’t. Eventually, the resources run out. Then, another reality must be confronted, encompassed by another, curiously contradictory Marxist maxim that says, “He who does not work, shall not eat.” That one is never spoken openly at first, because it discourages those who want to be idle and receive, rather than contribute, the benefits of the welfare state. But its reality comes out harshly after the money runs out. And the money WILL run out. The saying that comes to mind thereafter is, “There is no such thing as a free lunch” and that one is true, because the free lunch will last only as long as productive people who provide the wealth that is so wantonly seized by the state are willing to produce that wealth. The Soviet Union is a good example of this eventuality. The benevolence of communism was proved when long lines of people waiting to receive a small, measured allotment of eggs, bread or meat, was the norm. It may have been free, but it there was very little of it, because poverty is always the state of collectivist societies. It should be noted that bureaucrats and politicians in the Soviet Union had special stores in which to obtain these and more luxurious goodies without having to wait in line. Politicians never deny themselves what they want, even while its policies impose hardships and want on their citizens.

Slaves appreciated the free drunken holiday while disappreciating the requisite labor of the rest of their year, even though an equal effort to seizing their freedom, while appearing to be more costly in the short term, would have yielded REAL benefits that would have existed in perpetuity. The truth is that freedom tends to be self-perpetuating because it produces far greater gains than a welfare check could possibly ever provide. This brings up perhaps the most appropriate of Douglass’s quotations for the purpose of expressing the importance of regaining the freedoms Americans once readily and easily enjoyed, but which are now endangered by the encroachments of government. “I have observed this in my experience of slavery, that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom.” Please, my fellow citizens, let us make plans.

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