ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Monday, December 13, 2004

Contract, slavery, and wage slaves

The "almost forgotten contractarian tradition" underlying some theories of slavery is explored in a new article by economist David Ellerman, called Rethinking the Employment Contract: What Can Today's Corporate Reform Movement Learn from the Old Anti-slavery and Democratic Movements?

Ellerman argues that the same problems that infect the contractarian theory of slavery make current employment relationships non-voluntary, and argues that workers should take control of the enterprises they work for.  Click on the "continue reading" link below for the abstract.


Liberal thought is based on the fundamental question of consent versus coercion. The autocracies and slavery systems of the past were based on coercion whereas today's democracy in the political sphere and employment system in the economy are based on consent. This paper retrieves an almost forgotten contractarian tradition, dating from at least the Middle Ages, that based political autocracy and economic slavery on explicit or implicit voluntary contracts. Hence the democratic and antislavery movements had to hammer out arguments not simply in favor of consent and against coercion, but arguments based on the distinction between contracts to alienate (translatio) sovereignty versus contracts to only delegate (concessio) self-governance rights. They argued that the alienation contracts were in a certain sense inherently invalid so that those basic rights were inalienable even with consent. These inalienable rights arguments from the democratic and antislavery movements are also retrieved, arguments that liberal thought neglects when the basic question is simplistically posed as consent versus coercion. Finally, it is noted that the basic inalienable rights argument—that a de facto person cannot fit the de jure role of a thing even with consent—applies equally well to the employment contract which can be seen collectively as a contract for the employees to alienate management rights over their work to the employer or individually as the contract to rent oneself to the employer for limited periods rather than to sell oneself as in the self-enslavement contract. In conclusion, the paper considers various paths to get from the employment relation in a firm to a democratic firm where the members are the people working in the firm.

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