September 2, 2016 12:52PM

Forced Labor In Venezuela — and In Postwar Britain

As Venezuelan socialism descends into tyranny, hunger, and chaos, a milestone came in July when a government ministry announced Resolution No. 9855, under whose provisions, quoting CNBC, "workers can be forcefully moved from their jobs to work in farm fields or elsewhere in the agricultural sector for periods of 60 days." Amnesty International says the decree "effectively amounts to forced labor." Strongman Nicolas Maduro has likewise imposed harsh legal penalties on businesses that close down their operations.

It all echoes the Directive 10-289 (all workers "shall henceforth be attached to their jobs and shall not leave nor be dismissed nor change employment," with businesses similarly bound) from Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged. Readers may assume that Rand based her fictionalized directive on the track record of the sorts of dictatorships that outlaw political opposition. But in fact elements of forced labor have cropped up in socialist experiments even in nations with strong track records of constitutional government and civil liberties, such as postwar Britain.

In 1947, two years after war's end, the Labour government led by Prime Minister Clement Attlee decided to extend a wartime emergency measure by means of what was called the Control of Engagements Order, intended, as one sympathetic account put it, to correct the "failure of labour to go where it is most needed." To quote a contemporary account, the order, applying with scattered exceptions to all men 18 to 50 and all women 18 to 40 not mothers, "compels [employers] seeking workers and workers seeking employment to use employment exchanges. Unemployed persons who, after having been offered a choice of jobs, refuse to accept essential work, will be given 14 days to think it over. If they still refuse, they are liable to be directed."

Britain was of course a democratic nation and the Control of Engagements Order promptly became a topic of hot controversy, with critics of the Labour government arguing that it exemplified the prediction of Friedrich Hayek, in The Road To Serfdom (1944), that socialist control of the economy would lead by logical steps to a severe constriction of personal freedom. Whether or not because of the outcry, the measure was short-lived, and repealed within a couple of years. As of June 1949 only 95 persons had been subjected to explicit orders of coercion under the order. Some, like Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom, have concluded that the quick demise of the order demonstrated that in a nation with a tradition of liberty like Britain, even a committed socialist government would not be willing to pursue the notion of "centralized allocation of individuals to occupations" to the point of "trampling rough-shod on treasured private rights."

A young Conservative Party politician at the time, however, pointed out in an exchange with a Labour incumbent that the harshness of the order in practice must not be underestimated: 

The small number of cases in which compulsion has had to be applied is often acclaimed by the Socialists. The figures considered alone are misleading. It must not be forgotten that they relate only to the formal directions which the Ministry issues as a last resort. The majority of people, when threatened with direction, "go quietly;" but it is the existence of these powers which causes them to go. Such persons are in fact, though not in law, directed, and they are far more numerous than the hardy spirits who hold out until compelled to give in.

And further:

Less than 72 hours before I spoke to the Young Conservatives, my attention was drawn to a case of a person who was negotiating direct with another employer for a better job. He was informed that such action was prohibited under the Order, that he would require to secure his release from his present employment and apply through a labour exchange. There was then no guarantee that the exchange would send him to the job he wanted, but they might direct him to another. He considered the risk of not getting the post too great, and is still in his present work.

While it may be argued that that person was not legally prevented from taking the new job (though he may have been had he chosen to have gone through with it), the fact remains that owing to the existence of the Control of Engagement Order and the wide powers of direction held by the Minister of Labour, he is now one rung lower on the ladder than he would otherwise have been. This is only one instance. I could cite others of a similar nature.

That brisk account came from the pen of Conservative candidate Margaret Roberts, better known by her later married name of Margaret Thatcher.

From here in the United States of America, many of whose finest political thinkers have been associated with the principle of the freedom of labor, Happy Labor Day.