Over the years, most people that I have talked to in real life have always been the sort of people that believed individuals own their own bodies, even if they don’t know exactly what all the implications of that belief might be. This instinctual feeling seems to be an inborn belief with many (most?) humans that is stamped on our very soul at birth. If one stops and thinks if over, he will see that we can, like Murray Rothbard, start with the single proposition, that we all own ourselves, and expanded that insight into a full blown political philosophy. We can began with “slavery is always wrong” which is just another way of stating that we own ourselves and end up with full blown libertarianism. There are those that disagree of course, there always are.
While most would grant self-ownership as a self-evident axiom, I once read a post by Daniel Krawisz where he argued that “self ownership” was not a moral absolute as far as he was concerned:
Among libertarians, self-ownership is generally held to be a moral absolute. Under this view, it is not permitted ever that one person may be owned by someone else, even if he should attempt to sell his body voluntarily. The nonaggression principle and the self-ownership principle may be seen as equivalent or one may be seen as a consequence of another. However, none of these is correct; while the principle of nonaggression is a priori, the principle of self-ownership is not, and it is therefore impossible that there could be a logical relationship between them.
I fail to see how he got so quickly from self-ownership to one can not sell himself if he wanted to under libertarian philosophy without so much as a paragraph of discussion, but there you have it. I once read that people would sell their future labor for a certain period of time for the price of passage from Britain to the ‘new world’. There is an example of men “selling their body” is it not? Anyway, he goes on to assert that “self-ownership” can not be a universal principle since there might be space aliens who have more than one body, or more than one mind. I figure a guy has lost it when an appeal to weird space aliens is need to make a point.
The concept of a body is only an interpretation we make of a particular configuration of matter which a person feels more directly in control of than other things, and while this interpretation ordinarily makes sense for humans, for other imaginable beings it may not.
On the other hand, most libertarian writers I have read agree that self-ownership is a basic axiom of our philosophy. Michael Rozeff writes:
Libertarianism builds upon the self-ownership axiom. But why is self-ownership right (and just)? How do we justify the self-ownership axiom?
Rothbard stated the self-ownership axiom in this way: “…the basic axiom of libertarian political theory holds that every man is a self-owner, having absolute jurisdiction over his own body. In effect, this means that no one else may justly invade, or aggress against, another’s person.”
Block states the non-aggression axiom as follows: “It is illicit to initiate or threaten invasive violence against a man or his legitimately owned property.” More loosely, Thomas Jefferson argued that all men by their nature have the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
These several wordings amount to the same thing. To have self-ownership is to be able to make one’s own choices in all spheres of one’s life. Self-ownership amounts to an undiluted right to one’s life and the liberty to pursue one’s happiness. If one has complete self-ownership, then one is not being aggressed upon. And if one (or one’s property) is not being aggressed upon, then one is free to pursue one’s own interests and one owns oneself. Therefore, as Rothbard says, the non-aggression axiom is equivalent to the self-ownership axiom.
The economic content of (full) self-ownership for every person is that an individual may make any desired choices as long as he does not initiate or threaten violence against another person or his legitimately held property.
A good deal of philosophical discovery comes from understanding the economic laws that the Austrian School of economics has shown us. The Austrian methods include a priori knowledge, deduction from basic axioms like a Geometry proof, and understanding of human nature and its subjective valuation of situations. The Austrian School has informed us that society will be much more wealthy and contented if it allows each individual to do as the individual thinks best for himself, as long as that individual does not aggress against anyone else. That is the economic argument, but the moral argument has always tended to say more to me than the economic one. I am not saying the economic argument is not important as it surely is, but just that my soul tends to listen to the moral argument.
Murray Rothbard once asked if a man does not own himself, just who does? Would anyone argue for a man X owning a man Y simply by force or intimidation? Would anyone argue for slavery? Of course not. But if a man does not own himself and some other man does not, then the only possibility left is that the collective owns us all. We all own each other to the same degree. My, oh my, but that is an interesting possibility. That means I need to get 100 percent agreement on each action I take. Wait, I can’t get agreement because I would need prior agreement to just go ask for agreement! Oh hell, my head hurts now.
There is no way to have 100 per cent co-ownership. There is no moral argument at all for ownership of humans by other humans — slavery is a horror. There is only self-ownership as a realistic ethical possibility. We would all recognize that except that admitting that position leads to the full corpus of libertarian thought and some people just can’t go there.
For example, if each man is a self-owner then no one may take any of his property or make demands on his time or labor without the free-will agreement of the individual. Hence, taxation is simply immoral and wrong. And please, don’t hand me that old saw about taxes being part of some “social contract” that was forced upon us all at birth — that is just another way of saying the collective owns me.
There is no way to justify the state’s claim to a monopoly on the legal system either. A free self-owning man should not be forced to use the state’s system but rather pick and choose from competing legal services systems. In fact, if you get down to the matter we may have a State or we may have self ownership but we can’t have both. The reason is the state asserts that it ultimately owns you, or at least part of you. Hence you can’t own yourself 100 percent if the State owns a portion.
Where do you stand? Will you seek self-ownership and be an enemy of the state? Or will you acquiesce and concede a portion of your soul to the state? I concluded long ago that the state is illegitimate.
The moment one realizes that the State itself is illegitimate he then is obligated to consider how society should be constituted. The fact is that without the monopoly coercion of the state society would find its own path as millions upon millions of people interact with each other to the benefit of all. That my friends, odd as it sounds, scares some people. They want guarantees on how it would all work out. Some seem to think that staying in the arms of the tyrannical state beats hell out of the unknown. How do we get like that? How can we not say that even the unknown beats hell out of the state? The state that killed over 200 million people in the 20th century alone and is simply a gang of thieves writ large is obviously the enemy of mankind and needs to be tossed on the garbage heap of history.
Don’t you think it is time to reject the legitimacy of the state? Past time really.