Walter E. Williams

During slavery, visitors to the South often observed "a great many loose negroes about." Officials in Savannah, Mobile and Charleston and other cities complained about "nominal slaves," "virtually free negroes," and "quasi free negroes" who were seemingly oblivious to any law or regulation. Frederick Douglass, a slave, explained this phenomenon when he was employed as a Baltimore ship's caulker: "I was to be allowed all my time; to make bargains for work; to find my own employment, and to collect my own wages; and in return for this liberty, I was … to pay him (Douglass' master) three dollars at the end of each week, and to board and clothe myself, and buy my own caulking tools."

There are some benefits to being a quasi free person such as Frederick Douglass. There are two ways U.S. Congress might force me to serve the purposes of another American. They might force me spend a couple of hours each day actually working, without compensation, for another American. Or, they might forcibly take a portion of my earnings so that American can hire someone. I see myself as being better off with Congress doing the latter -- taking a portion of my earnings and giving it away.

Some might be put off by my thought experiment and consider it an illegitimate use of the term "slavery." At what point should we consider ourselves a quasi free American -- when government takes two-thirds or three-quarters of our earnings?

Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
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