Wind the clock back a couple of hundred years. Here's Amos, a slave in the American South, and emancipation is impossible. Can he consider himself free? If so, would anyone else?
Obviously not, on the surface. But wait: Hamish McCallum, his owner and master, is not all that bad. He works his slaves hard, but treats them quite fairly; there are plenty worse. He provides housing, albeit cramped, he gives time off for church, he even provided land and materials to build one, and paid for the pulpit to be engraved with a text from Ephesians 6. Amos has a wife and two children, and if anyone get sick he gives medical help. When buying new slaves, he takes care not to break up families. He furnishes food for cooking - simple, but adequate. And while all are working the fields, they don't understand economics too well but do have a sense that the better they raise his crop, the better able he will be to go on providing those benefits.
Being observant and talkative, Amos gets news from outside the plantation and when a new slave joins it he hears about what life is like back in Africa. He learns that housing there is even more primitive, that food is sometimes so scarce that famine strikes, that there is no modern medicine. On the whole, except for this freedom thing, life is actually better here than it was back there.
He talks also with people around the plantation who are not part of it - they are all free, and have jobs they can change at will. Generally, they have a better standard of life - though there are some exceptions, because nobody takes care of them when nobody wants to hire them; they are responsible for their own housing and food and medicine. So while there is talk of freedom, it comes with a flip side.
Then one day an itinerant teacher called Yarrum Bardroth pays a visit, spending a few days explaining to Amos and any other slaves who will listen, what he has found about human nature. He says we are all of the same race, and differ from the higher animals in that we reason things out - to a degree that none of them come remotely close. He points out that we each make choices, every day; so we are reasoning, decision-making animals. Because of those things we have a moral sense, of right and wrong, and that by right, nobody can own any of us except ourselves. Amos thinks on that, and has to agree; Mr McCallum reckons he owns him, but how did he acquire him? He purchased him, but the trader who sold Amos to him kidnapped him back in West Africa; so McCallum purchased stolen property, and knew that perfectly well. Originally Amos owned himself, and by right, he alone can do so.
Bardroth resumed his travels, but what all had learned made so much sense they found it liberating! Nothing outward had changed, but now they knew for sure that they were not just machines in the hands of a cotton farmer, with no control over their existence. Amos' height was 5'10", but he felt ten feet tall. Master McCallum is not of a higher class of human - in fact, since he's violated Amos' right to run his own life, the opposite is the case and he must live with a bad conscience. He still has the de facto power to control him, but no longer need he suppose that he has it de jure - by the right of natural law.
Inwardly, therefore, Amos is free and sovereign! This made a huge difference to his enjoyment of life. Naturally, he wondered about making it all real in practice. If in some way he could escape the plantation, he'd not necessarily be better off - and he'd run the heavy risk of being recaptured and punished. And what of his family? - his wife heard Bardroth too, and didn't disagree, but she's a very practical lady and wants to be quite sure the children are well cared for. Life on the lam brings her little attraction. In fact, he finds that most of his friends agree with her. Some have, like him, gained the great satisfaction of understanding which way is up, but living with one eye constantly over the shoulder lest McCallum's friends lay a heavy hand upon it is just not their idea of fun. His fellow slaves who did not absorb what Bardroth said held that opinion even more strongly; we may not have much, they said, but we don't live in fear and apprehension and we don't have to beg for a job from people who might well betray us.
Amos and his friends spent a deal of time around the fire of an evening, discussing whether and how they all might live as Nature meant them to live. They see there are two enormous tasks: to be liberated from slavery, then to be liberated from government. They rightly see that everyone who isn't called a slave is actually a slave to government, in part; even McCallum has to obey it, for if he were to repudiate its authority in some way he would be unable to continue to own slaves - he needs government to recapture them, if any escaped. So there was a double layer of enslavement; a prison within a prison.
They concluded, rightly and very sadly, that there is no way to break these double chains. It's one of the great tragedies of history. Had I been among them, I cannot think of any suggestions I could have made, which might have rid them of the curse of government.
When Amos became old and gray, the inner prison was opened - but the outer one, of government, which had made the inner one of slavery possible, remained - and in the South, low-skilled workers with white skin made use of government to keep ex-slaves from taking "their jobs". So again, it was formidably difficult to see a way to break the grip that government held on everyone, because the only way to do so was to persuade everyone not to work for it. However, there were by then some hopeful signs.
Lysander Spooner, up there in Massachussets, had actively pushed for an end to slavery and had also seen and written about the bogus nature of government itself. Resistance to it was therefore gaining a foothold in white, educated society. A little later Benjamin Tucker published the magazine Liberty, with the same aim, of explaining why government was not necessary and that freedom is "not the daughter but the mother of order."
That was after Amos' time, but as the 19th Century ended it would have been possible to bring about a completely free society, had these great thinkers concluded what he and his fellow slaves had figured out several decades earlier: that government would vanish only on the day that nobody would work for it. My What Might Have Been outlines what could have been done.
More than another terrible century was to pass, however, with unprecedented government slaughter. More great thinkers realized and taught how utterly destructive was that institution; Rand, Rothbard, Friedman and many others uprooted the prevailing orthodoxy and showed how a stateless society would work and prosper.
Soon after that Century ended a method evolved for bringing such a society into being - but even when it did, some alleged freedom seekers belittle or ignore it. Like Amos and his friends, they are stuck in a state of half freedom; they know they are rightly their own masters, but do nothing to create a society in which everyone shares that knowledge.
Amos and his friends had every excuse: the task was impossible. Today, it's not, and they don't.