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I'm building a world based in a mid-future dystopia, where the government has consolidated all sovereign power under its control but has imploded under debt and now basically exists to funnel wealth to its bondholders (most of whom are running it). One of the ways it will do so is to sell people into slavery who have committed (or plead guilty to) crimes, or who have declared bankruptcy or been ajudged to be unable to pay debts (being bankrupt is a crime in this universe so it's all really the same thing).

I need a logical reason for the "Government" to be able to actively participate in this process, without a simple hand-wave that all present-day laws forbidding slavery simply no longer exist or are being ignored. Something where a privileged lawyer-type character in the book would be able to logically defend what the government's done so far (however appalling the state of affairs being described is to the reader), up until a specific line is crossed that is so blatantly wrong it makes that character question the whole thing.

The closest I have is some fictional landmark case from a stacked Court, that essentially de-fangs existing anti-slavery laws through an interpretation that reads their original meaning out of existence. Something like what the Slaughterhouse Cases did to the 14th Amendment's "Privileges or Immunities" clause. Such things have obviously happened before, and the Slaughterhouse interpretation of that clause still stands as the law of the land in the real-world United States, outlasting many other decisions attempting to mitigate the effect of the Reconstruction Amendments.

Does anyone else have a good idea for a mechanism by which the "Government" can condone and participate in slavery in a universe where the laws are still ostensibly on the books and the legal system is not completely ignoring them?

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    $\begingroup$ The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution still allows an individual to be passed into slavery. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Oct 14 '15 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ True. So, criminals entering into a condition of slavery is still nominally legal, then you just make being in debt illegal (it pretty much already is, at least debt owed to a government) and in my dystopia you have all the slaves you want. Make this an answer and I'll accept it. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Oct 14 '15 at 17:18
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    $\begingroup$ Easy! It's called debt. Sure it's technically more like indentured servitude, but still. A good example of this is found in Ready Player One $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Oct 14 '15 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ Just revoke the bankruptcy laws. Then there will be no escape from debt. Read some Charles Dickens, this is the past, not the future. $\endgroup$ – Jodrell Oct 15 '15 at 9:12
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    $\begingroup$ What about being drafted? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Oct 15 '15 at 14:46
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According to the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, slavery is outlawed in all its forms "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted".

Thus, if you're looking for an environment similar to or derived from the U.S., you can enact any law you want that indicates an appropriate punishment for violating it is a form of indentured servitude or slavery.

Since slave owners would be responsible for maintaining living conditions and providing food for slaves, tallying the expenses for that maintenance and applying it against the individual would allow the system to perpetuate, creating a new slave class of people unable to work enough to pay off their mounting debt.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this the best, as I indicated to your comment. The one thing such a system might not allow that I'd want is the explicit labeling or treatment of slaves as property a la chattel slavery. However all I really need is the ability of one person to "buy" another person who is then bound to do the other person's will for an indeterminate time. Some metaphorical linguistics will blur the line for all practical purposes between de jure and de facto chattel slavery even if I choose to have a character make the distinction. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Oct 14 '15 at 21:02
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    $\begingroup$ Well, another company bought my student loans.... $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Oct 14 '15 at 22:26
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    $\begingroup$ @KeithS You are free to devise any laws you deem necessary concerning the movement of indentured individuals. The purchase of debt could necessitate the movement of the associated individual. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Oct 15 '15 at 0:57
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    $\begingroup$ Also since it is technically as a punishment for crime and management of convicts can be privatized, you can simply sell the management contracts. And the management companies can sell the labor contracts. Either would be functionally equivalent to chattel slavery. It would result in split responsibility between the management company (probably licensed and somewhat regulated) and the people buying the labor. But that division presents a natural spot for confusion, corruption, and hence plot... $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Oct 15 '15 at 1:40
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithS: A very clear line between indentured servitude and chattel slavery is that in the latter, the children of a slave are born property of the master. While it might be possible for the line to be blurred in societies in which children can be involuntarily emburdened with their parents' debts, in most societies children who reach the age of emancipation have no obligation to their parents beyond those they voluntarily choose to accept. A child might decide to accept a lifetime of servitude to prevent their parent being forced to work in a deadly job, but that would be their choice... $\endgroup$ – supercat Oct 15 '15 at 17:59
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One of the great things about humans is that they often don't let laws stop them from doing the terrible things they've always done. In the case of slavery, it's easy to find examples of of it, even after the 13th and 14th Amendments.

For instance, there have been many systems created both in the past and today where people themselves are free to choose, but only have one good option, which usually benefits someone else. For instance, say you are a blacksmith, but some rich man owns your tools, or you're a farmer but someone else owns your land, or you're a factory worker and someone owns your tools, land, house, and all nearby businesses. You're tied to this owner, almost as if they own you, but really all they're doing is controlling your source of income. If you choose to leave, and you can choose to leave, all you'll be taking with you is your inalienable rights; if you have a family, leaving behind your house, your job, and the tools of your trade is not an option.

Aside from that, I think a form of slavery disguised as punishment should be well within the rights of the law. Just look at prisons, where prisoners all have jobs to do. Maybe instead of cleaning toilets or crushing rocks, a prisoner can be contracted out to a private business. In fact, I know this already happens; my sister used to work with prisoners in a restaurant. I don't really know the details, but it seems to me as though if someone is in jail, they have just enough freedom lawfully removed from them to be used in a form of slavery. You may have to pay them, but it doesn't have to be minimum wage.

This system reminds me a lot of indentured servitude, which as far as I can tell is a mostly ethical form of slavery, so long as you make the deal of your own will. If you choose to become a 'slave' for a certain period of time, after which you are freed, and both parties agree upon this contract and outline the parameters, I don't see why it wouldn't be legal for indentured servitude to exist.

I think what it comes down to is that you should avoid the kind of chattel slavery that was present in America as much as possible, but build up a system that closely resembles it. Make it somewhat voluntary or crime-based, offer some sort of payment (whether it's up-front, over time, or after the fact), make it temporary, and if none of that works, make it a system where trying to leave is tantamount to suicide, even if it's perfectly legal.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's the 13th Amendment that outlaws slavery in general; the 14th Amendment deals with rights of a citizen and powers of the States to infringe on those rights. Other than that, very good points. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Oct 14 '15 at 17:16
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithS Good call, I have edited accordingly. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Oct 14 '15 at 17:35
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Historically indentured servitude was the answer to this.

In the modern era I would suggest highly specialized training putting workers in debt combined with Intellectual property and non-disclosure laws, essentially giving no other employment opportunity to the worker.

There is also the old 'company script' routine, '16 tons and what do you get...'

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  • $\begingroup$ Theoretically the 13th Amendment also bans most instances of indentured servitude, but your point is well-taken. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Oct 14 '15 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ Solid answer, welcome to the site. $\endgroup$ – James Oct 14 '15 at 19:19
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Indentured Servitude

In most Gulf countries, the company pays for a laborer or worker to fly over, get their residency visa, and housing set up. Then, they may hold onto the passport of the worker for as long as they deem the debt has been paid off.

For some (like me), it was fair: we got to keep our passport, travel with our time off, etc.

For others, it is a nightmare of slavery: there were reports of laborers being kept longer because they 'didn't work hard enough,' or maids whose passports were kept by their 'masters.'

In the latter, it was even more like slavery, in that most large villas had tiny maids rooms with no windows, and there were often reports about locking them in at night. Also, all refrigerators that you can buy, at least in the UAE had locks on them so that maids couldn't eat/drink what was in the house.

(note that the horror stories were minimal, but very real)

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Do what countries have done for centuries to get around anti-slavery laws: Make prisoners work for free. To help gets lots of prisoners, you could make all drugs illegal and then implement a "three strikes and you go to jail" policy. Oh wait, they did that already.

Remember - even though they're mostly black, they're not slaves now, they're prisoners.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good point, but I want to go even further without getting too political about the status quo, because the norm of "prison industry" is exactly that. Prisoners in the U.S. still get an unbelievable amount of jobsite protection compared to overseas workers. I want a post-industrial Roman society, where if your owner sees a benefit in your public, drawn-out and very painful death, that's what happens, and that's considered normal. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Oct 15 '15 at 22:15
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How does the U.S. reconcile torture and bombing of civilian targets and unlimited detention without due process and warrantless spying on everybody with their laws? Just do it, deny parts of it, deny carefully constructed straw men, and call the rest something else. When in doubt, cite national security and a state of war and say that the country has to be able to defend itself against attackers and enemy combattants and that anybody against that is a supporter of terrorism and not a patriot wanting to serve his country.

It worked in fascist Italy, France, and Germany, and still works in military-industrial U.S.A.

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  • $\begingroup$ Too "current-events" and too foreign. The government might declare war on a subclass of its own people thus making them traitors of the state by definition, but that might actually be going too far in dehumanizing the lower class. It's not in the government's interest to kill people outright, there's more profit in selling them to the highest bidder, and there are far more plausible labels than calling the entire 99.99% "terrorists", but would accomplish exactly the same thing. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Oct 15 '15 at 22:20
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Slavery as an institution can persist well outside the realm of slavery as a legal status.

Wage slavery is a sort of slavery that's frowned upon in many countries, but still exists. Basically, you are paid, but not enough to ever leave your employer or rise above poverty. The employer can induce you to do many things simply by threatening to fire you. This is exacerbated in situations like corporate towns, where one huge corporation is really the only game in town if you want a job (think of the mining town in the movie October Sky), and that corporation also owns the land your house was built on, the stores you buy your necessities at, and the bank you store your money at. That way, they pay you, and your paycheck goes right back to them as a revenue stream, and they can control you by hiking prices. Other ways wage slavery is exacerbated exist when a group of employers are conspiring together to refuse employment to people who want to be paid more (collusion), or when debt can land you in prison (there are laws against that in most countries, but they don't always work).

Touching off that last bit, slavery can also exist inside prisons. In the USA, many (most?) of our prisons are actually run by private for-profit corporations, which are legally allowed to employ their prisoners below minimum wage. This gets ugly when the prisons lobby for laws that make it easier for people with debts or minor, common infractions with high recidivism to get back in jail - they aren't provided with the tools in jail to avoid getting right back in once they're out, and thus it becomes a cycle of wage slavery enforced by the penal system.

Those two means of legally condoned slavery are real and exist in our world today. I'd also like to touch on ways that slavery could come to be in a first-world country at some point in the future.

One way this could occur would be if we digitize our consciousnesses and upload them to a large computer network, living a simulated reality. On the face of it we are simply recreating life inside a computer system, so all the same laws and regulations should hold - but at the same time, you are also making yourself into, essentially, a program. Programs are works of art and subject to copyright and patent law. If a person copies themselves, it is arguable that they can claim they own the copyright on that copy - yet a copy of a person is another person. Owning the rights to a person - owning a person - IS slavery. To avoid this you'd have to update personhood laws (at which point theoretically non-human programs could also become people, which is problematic to say the least) or else copyright laws (at which point you run up against a huge corporate lobby and the very real problem of potentially rendering profit impossible in a digital economy).

Alternatively, imagine a monstrous version of Monsanto (it's not so hard, is it, lol?) that has created some DNA which your genetically-engineered body is using. They might be able to charge you licensing fees for the use of that DNA. It would become slavery (or at the least, an insane form of indentured servitude) if that same corporation created people whose DNA was entirely synthetically-created and patented by that corporation.

There were other ways I intended to write down here, but I forgot. I'm sure you get the picture though; through technology, anything is possible!

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  • $\begingroup$ Your last paragraph: sounds like Michael Criton's novel Next. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Oct 15 '15 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ Very good point; slavery still exists in the real world which has nominally outlawed it. However, it has to be clear this is an institutionalized, State-administered program, which can only function if what's illegal by the long-standing laws is somehow not what the government is doing. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Oct 15 '15 at 22:23
  • $\begingroup$ I'd argue that my second example - that of the prison-enhanced wage slavery - is an institutionalized, state-administered (or if not state-administered, then at least state-authorized) program, which can only function because it does not technically violate laws about wage slavery or other slavery in general. $\endgroup$ – Eschaton Dec 11 '15 at 18:35
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Government should not consider that they are doing slavery. In my opinion that criminals should first sign a really bad contract with the government for protection and health, but if you don't follow the rules well your contract says that I can treat you as a good and not anymore as a person.

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  • $\begingroup$ Intriguing, but I'm looking for a "no second chances" type system; making the contract so hard to comply with that nobody can is a possibility, but I'm looking more toward a system where the person "chooses" to enter slavery even if there's really no other choice; the contract would be more like a plea agreement, and not copping a plea is pretty much suicidal. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Oct 14 '15 at 17:22
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I'd say to somehow combine the Collegiate Sports / Roman Gladiator models. Everyone wants to be the best or at least try to be. The penalty for not doing it is to either remain incarcerated in a cell and die there, or maybe they "escape" (get taken) and mysteriously "disappear" from existence (with concrete shoes in the ocean) and maybe their family too. No one in the public will be the wiser and the excuse will be that they were criminals after all, who knows what they're capable of wink, wink! You make them entertain people, paying them nothing and housing them in a sort of free-range compound, then reap the profits from merchandising and ticket sales. Legal slavery, and everyone is on board.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not unlike what I've envisioned; like any business selling goods there are different grades, with the "premium" outlets selling high-grade product and the "bargain basement" selling cheap commodity-level goods. Slaves who don't cooperate with their owners are re-sold on street corners, and the people who buy those slaves aren't interested in pursuits that require the slaves' cooperation. So even for a slave, there's a rock bottom that is to be avoided at all costs. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Oct 15 '15 at 22:30

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