July 25, 2012 columns

Self-Ownership in The Ethics of Liberty

Kuznicki explores the concept of “self-ownership.”

After rationality, the next really crucial idea in Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty is self-ownership. Together, these two ideas are the foundation of Rothbard’s argument for private property. Below I’m going to try to systematize, drawing heavily on Rothbard’s argument and (I hope) representing it faithfully, along with some extensions and criticism.

Let’s start with the question: Who is your rightful owner?

To answer it fully, I think we should consider two different assumptions (1) ownership of a self cannot be meaningfully divided and (2) it can.

(1) Assuming that selves can’t be meaningfully divided, there are only three types of answers to the question: Either (a) someone else owns you, (b) no one owns you, or (c) you own yourself.

(a) is easily dispensed with; it’s slavery, and it fails by almost any moral standard.

(b) is more interesting, and in discussions with people who don’t accept self-ownership, I have often heard variants of it. It is sometimes asserted that owning a person is a category error; one could no more own a person, properly speaking, than one could eat a song. Even if that person is oneself, ownership just isn’t possible for this category of thing.

There is somewhat of a problem, though, with asserting that no one owns you, including yourself.

One corollary of ownership as it is commonly understood is that ownership confers the right of use. Rothbard suggests that if no one owns you, then you don’t have the right of use over your own body. Any actions you take with it are therefore not rightful. (p 45, n)

Yet this puts you in an impossible position, because you have little choice but to go right on using your body. Even suicide isn’t an option, because it would necessarily damage some property you do not own. And by the terms of (1)(b) above, you have absolutely no hope of finding the proper owner and asking his permission. That’s because no one else owns you either. A complete lack of ownership implies a complete lack of use rights.

This sounds fairly damning, but there are two problems with Rothbard’s argument about ownership and use rights.

First, although the right of use is a common corollary of ownership, it may also be a corollary of other things, too. This possibility is surprisingly difficult to rule out.  

In the real world, people may acquire use rights not only through ownership, but also through lease, rent, borrowing, or other forms of agreement with the owner.  Although each of these (legal) forms does imply the existence—somewhere—of an owner, it is not necessarily clear that all types of use rights (which are moral, not legal claims) must stem from someone’s ownership somewhere.

This seems to require further demonstration; although I find it intuitive to assert that use rights stem from ownership, I’m not prepared to say that they never stem from anything else.  And if they can, then it might be the case that we have use rights in our selves without anyone, including ourselves, having ownership.

Might we hold our selves in trust from God? And might God still somehow disclaim his ownership of us? With God all things are possible, but these are metaphysical speculations of the sort Rothbard was eager to avoid. Rothbard saw all too clearly that the mid-20th century libertarian movement was in danger of bifurcating on the contextually irrelevant question of theism and atheism, and one of his great accomplishments was to argue forcefully that it need not do so. 

Here, I’m going to extend the project just a tiny bit: If we have use rights, but not ownership, many of the same assertions Rothbard later makes will still be valid. And if we have both use rights and the power to delegate use rights, then we in effect have ownership for all of his purposes.  Those who prefer to speak of use rights for metaphysical reasons may do so, and it will not matter.

Second, we haven’t considered the possibility that the self can be subdivided.  In this, case (2), we have several sub-possibilities to consider:

(2)(a) Selves can be divided, but someone else still owns all of you; you are perhaps subdivided and held by various people. Again, this is slavery, and even slavery by committee is morally off-limits.  Mutual partial ownership of others is, as Rothbard suggests, implausible without some underlying stratum of self-ownership, and whatever we build on that stratum requires its own justification; it can’t merely be asserted.

(2)(b) Selves can be divided, but no one can own you. This isn’t terribly interesting, because we’ve already dismissed the scenario in which no ownership exists.

(2)(c) Selves can be divided, and you own yourself.  This is where much of Rothbard’s later argument actually takes place.

It might be fair to ask—if selves can be divided, which part or parts of me own the rest?  

It is implausible that my hair can own anything. And many other parts besides, parts whose loss, if it can be imagined, would not obviously impair my ability to own property.

The part that does own things seems to be an aspect of mind. If I’m not being too abstract, I would suggest that this part is the reason in cooperation with the will.  This dovetails neatly with Rothbard’s earlier claims about human nature, and with the much larger natural law tradition of which he is a part.

The owning capacity, whatever it is, clearly owns the hair, and the eyes, and all the other parts, insofar as it can be said to own anything. But does it own itself

As said above, other-ownership is slavery, and even if other-ownership of some parts aren’t so terrible—I might sell my hair, for instance, or my writing skills for a time—the sale of the ability to own property is a fairly severe act, one that seems to fall much closer to slavery and might even be slavery. If that’s off limits, and if non-ownership isn’t an option, then we do own ourselves.

Next up: How do we come to own other things?