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Slavery in North Korea and the U.S.


Sometimes the mainstream media can be entertaining without intending to. A good example appeared yesterday in an article about slavery in the New York Times.

The article, entitled “North Koreans in Russia Work “Basically in the Situation of Slaves,” details the lives of North Koreans who travel to Russia to work.

Russians have embraced the North Korean workers.


Because they work so hard. Referring to North Korean painters, Yulia Kravchenko, a 32-year-old homemaker, said, “They are fast, cheap and very reliable, much better than Russian workers. They do nothing but work from morning until late at night.” Home repair companies in Vladivostok “boast to customers how North Koreans are cheaper, more disciplined and more sober than native Russians.”

For their part, the North Korean workers love going to Russia and working there. Some of them even pay bribes to North Korean officials to get a permit to work abroad.

The reason? They love the money they make. One 52-year old painter told the Times that “he liked the work and the opportunity to earn foreign money for himself and his country.”

So, what’s not to like? That’s where the entertaining part of the article comes into play. It turns out that North Korea’s socialist regime confiscates 80 percent of workers’ income, which causes critics to exclaim that the plight of the North Korean workers is akin to slavery.

Why is that entertaining? Because the critics fail to realize that what they’re doing is pointing out what we libertarians have been pointing out for decades about the U.S. system — that any system in which the government wields the power to seize a portion of people’s income is akin to slavery.

An interesting question arises: What would the critics say if the percentage taken from the North Korean workers was, say, 30 percent instead of 80 percent? In fact, as it turns out, that’s the percentage of income seized by the North Korean government from North Koreans who work abroad in the construction industry.

According to the Times article, the critics still call that slavery.

The reason this is so entertaining is that if you were to ask the Times and those slavery critics whether they feel the same about American workers, they would be shocked — shocked! — at such an outlandish notion. Everyone “knows” that American workers aren’t slaves, they would respond. Everyone “knows” that America is a free country. Everyone “knows” that the United States has a “free enterprise” system.

Yet, as we libertarians have long pointed out, the situation here in the United States is no different than it is for those North Korean workers, at least not in principle. Sure, Americans have a higher standard of living. They make more money. They live far better lives economically. But in principle, the plight of the American people is no different from that of those North Korean workers.

Think about the situation that existed here in the United States from 1791 to 1913. For almost all of that time, there was no federal income tax. Americans were free to keep everything they earned and there was nothing the government could do about it. You made it, you kept it. No mandatory charity programs, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, or foreign aid to dictators. No national-security state, no massive standing army, no CIA, no NSA. No foreign wars or entangling alliances.

That necessarily meant that most Americans were free and sovereign and that the government was subservient and subordinate.

There was one big exception — slavery. American slaves were not free to keep everything they earned. They weren’t even free to choose their own employment. They were forced to devote 100 percent of their labor to an employer they had not voluntarily chosen. That compulsion is what made them slaves, notwithstanding the fact that they were provided a guaranteed job and “free” food, housing, and healthcare.

Everything changed with the enactment of the federal income tax in 1913. Even though slavery had been abolished by that time, the relationship between the American citizen and the federal government was turned upside down. The government now wielded the power to set the percentage of income it could lawfully take out of people’s income. If they were nice, it would be set low. If they weren’t nice — if the government had a bunch of bureaucrats, programs, or wars to pay for — then it would be set high.

But what mattered, as far as the concept of freedom and slavery were concerned, was not the percentage that was set but rather the fact that the government now wielded the authority to seize people’s income.

In other words, suppose U.S. officials announced today that they were now taking 80 percent of people’s income. That would obviously be less than the 100 percent of labor effort that slaves in the Old South were being forced to give to their employers. But not much less. It would be the same percentage that the North Korean government is taking from some of those North Korean workers, which the critics rightfully call slavery.

Would an 80 percent take by the IRS constitute slavery for Americans? The question misses the point. The percentage is irrelevant. What matters is that when the state wields the power to seize whatever portion of a person’s income it wants, it becomes the sovereign and the person becomes the serf or the slave.

Thus, if the percentage that the IRS takes is, say, 30 percent, or even just 3 percent, the person is still as much as slave as the person who has 80 percent or 100 percent of his income seized. Of course, people are better off when they’re being permitted to keep more of their income — just as the North Korean workers who are having 30 percent seized are better off than those who are having 80 percent seized. But as the Times article points out, they remain slaves nonetheless — better-off slaves, much like those slaves in the Old South who worked on better plantations or had better jobs on plantations.

Here is another funny part about the Times article: To buttress its slavery argument, it points out that the North Korean government takes out even more money “to cover living expenses, mandatory contributions to a so-called loyalty fund and other ‘donations.’”

It’s particularly funny that the article places the word “donation” in quotation marks. That’s undoubtedly because the Times doesn’t view them to be genuine donations given the fact that the state mandates them.

But would the Times recognize that the same principle applies to the money that is taken out of the paycheck of American workers to cover Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, Homeland Security, or other U.S. welfare-warfare programs? Of course not. The Times would undoubtedly say that unlike the North Korean exactions, those U.S. “donations” are what freedom and free enterprise are all about.

In a sense, the American people are more enslaved than the North Korean people. The reason is summed up in the words of Johann Goethe: “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.