I get tweets! I wish I got more mail so that I could claim that famous line, but it is what it is. I got a tweet yesterday from a twitter friend that simply had two links on “self-ownership” and a note that they were opposing articles. I think that @moralibertarian was trying to see what I thought of the two opposing views. So, since I hate to disappoint, I figured a good cup of morning coffee and a few minutes and I would help him out. So here goes.
First, let us define “ownership” to be “control”. We are talking here about who has control of the person by asserting that the person owns herself.
One of the links led an article with a standard Hoppe-Rothbardian line of ethical reasoning on how we come to own ourselves by Stephan Kinsella who I have read many times and agree with much of the time. It was entitled, “How We Come to Own Ourselves.” This article touches more on how children become mature self-owning adults than the idea of adult self-ownership itself. Well worth your time to read sometime.
The second link went to an article entitled, “Self-ownership is a meaningless concept“, by a fellow named Francois Tremblay who wants to claim there are no “rights” at all. Any “right” you have is just your using force to gain what you want. I find this barbaric. But worse he claims, “For one thing, there is no such thing as the self”. I don’t know what you think, but I think that I, my-self, was hit in the nose in 7th grade when that kid made the mistake of thinking I would not fight back because I was smaller than he was. Please, go read the whole muddled mess. It is a good example of the utilitarian argument style. By the way, try to ignore his writing as if he were the only “anarchist” and the Rothbardians are not. Silly man.
It is worth noting that Tremblay’s trying to base the totality of our belief in liberty and freedom on the ‘equality of value expression’ is contructing a system on a very shaky foundation indeed. And this after, in effect, accusing Rothbard of same. Astounding.
Putting aside these two men and their posts, let us look at self-ownership. At Wikipedia:
It has been argued by Austrian School economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe that self-ownership is axiomatic (Argumentation Ethics). His reasoning is that self-ownership is a presupposition of argumentation, thus a person contradicts oneself when one argues against self-ownership. The person making this argument is caught in a performative contradiction because, in choosing to use persuasion instead of force to have others agree that they are not sovereign over themselves, that person implicitly grants that those who one is trying to persuade have a right to use their body in order to argue. He then goes on to show that self-ownership is the only ownership norm consistent with this choice.
Dr. Hoppe makes a good point there and I agree with him, but I still think Rothbard’s argument is more to the point and easier for the common person to grasp. Also from the same Wiki article:
In The Ethics of Liberty, Murray Rothbard argues that “100 percent self-ownership” is the only principle compatible with a moral code that applies to every person – a “universal ethic” – and that it is a natural law by being what is naturally best for man. He says if every person is not entitled to full self-ownership, then there are only two alternatives:
- The ‘communist’ one of universal and equal share of each man in the body of every other man.
- Partial Ownership of One Group by Another – a system of rule by one class over another.
- Full ownership of each man over his body.
Let us hear from Rothbard himself on the issue. From his quintessential work For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto:
The most viable method of elaborating the natural-rights statement of the libertarian position is to divide it into parts, and to begin with the basic axiom of the “right to self-ownership.” The right to self-ownership asserts the absolute right of each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, to “own” his or her own body; that is, to control that body free of coercive interference. Since each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation.
Consider, too, the consequences of denying each man the right to own his own person. There are then only two alternatives: either (i) a certain class of people, A, have the right to own another class, B; or (2) everyone has the right to own his own equal quotal share of everyone else. The first alternative implies that while Class A deserves the rights of being human, Class B is in reality subhuman and therefore deserves no such rights. But since they are indeed human beings, the first alternative contradicts itself in denying natural human rights to one set of humans. Moreover, as we shall see, allowing Class A to own Class B means that the former is allowed to exploit, and therefore to live parasitically, at the expense of the latter. But this parasitism itself violates the basic economic requirement for life: production and exchange.
The second alternative, what we might call “participatory communal-ism” or “communism,” holds that every man should have the right to own his equal quotal share of everyone else. If there are two billion people in the world, then everyone has the right to own one two-billionth of every other person. In the first place, we can state that this ideal rests on an absurdity: proclaiming that every man is entitled to own a part of everyone else, yet is not entitled to own himself. Secondly, we can picture the viability of such a world: a world in which no man is free to take any action whatever without prior approval or indeed command by everyone else in society. It should be clear that in that sort of “communist” world, no one would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly perish. But if a world of zero self-ownership and one hundred percent other ownership spells death for the human race, then any steps in that direction also contravene the natural law of what is best for man and his life on earth.
Finally, however, the participatory communist world cannot be put into practice. For it is physically impossible for everyone to keep continual tabs on everyone else, and thereby to exercise his equal quotal share of partial ownership over every other man. In practice, then, the concept of universal and equal other-ownership is Utopian and impossible, and supervision and therefore control and ownership of others necessarily devolves upon a specialized group of people, who thereby become a ruling class. Hence, in practice, any attempt at communist rule will automatically become class rule, and we would be back at our first alternative.
I think that it is impossible to not believe that each person “owns their own self”. It is very possible to argue against that proposition because you don’t like the logical results that come from that axiom. Socialists or modern so-called “liberals” hate the idea of the self-ownership axiom since it gets in the way of their grand schemes of social engineering. Conservatives, likewise, don’t want to give up the idea of punishing those who “sin” in their eyes. Can you imagine any ‘drug warrior’ admitting that the pot smoker is the full owner of her own body?
The heart of the matter is that many moderns don’t like “natural rights” for a host of selfish reasons. The most important, in my humble opinion, is that “natural rights” sounds too much like we are trying to sneak God in the back door somehow. No. Rothbard was a non-observant Jew and never made any appeal to a divine law.
I own myself. I am not your slave. Deal with that.