Murray Rothbard believes that each person has a right of full self-ownership, and that if we were consistent in recognizing this fact and its implications, we would see that anarcho-capitalism follows from it. Much of Rothbard’s written work is devoted to tracing out the implications of self-ownership, and critiquing the foundations and policy prescriptions of alternative ethical/political theories. And in this work there is much of value. (In this I largely agree with Caplan‘s analysis). But his argument for the self-ownership thesis itself is disappointingly weak.
Essentially, Rothbard’s argument amounts to the following:
(1) There are three and only three possibilities regarding ownership of the self: (i) each person is a full self-owner, (ii) “a certain class of people, A, have the right to own another class, B,” or (iii) “everyone has the right to own his own equal quotal share of everyone else.” [For a New Liberty (San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1978, p. 29)]
(2) (ii) “contradicts itself” because it proclaims that some humans have human rights of self-ownership while others lack them, and “violates the basic economic requirement for life” because it allows some individuals to live parasitically at the expense of others.
(3) (iii) is implausible insofar as it holds that people are entitled to partial ownership of others, but not of themselves; and it is impractical insofar as no one could survive if they required permission from all other persons before taking any action. Also, “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 this earth.” (FaNL p. 29).
(4) Since( ii) and (iii) are unacceptable and are the only alternatives to (i), we are left with (i) by default.*
(5) Therefore (i) is the correct position to hold with respect to ownership of the self.
This is not a very good argument.** Of course, if self-ownership were really an axiom, as Rothbard often describes it, the fact that he could not produce a good argument for it would not be a problem. That’s just how axioms work. But it’s not an axiom. Rothbard hasn’t shown that those who deny self-ownership thereby commit themselves to a contradiction. He’s simply given us an intuition pump. He thinks (ii) and (iii) commit us to implausible moral beliefs, and that (i) doesn’t.
But, of course, (i) does. Rothbard thinks, for example, that consistent recognition of self-ownership leads to anarcho-capitalism. And most people find this deeply implausible. He also thinks that consistent recognition of self-ownership leads one to the conclusion that the law “may not properly compel [a] parent to feed [his or her] child or to keep it alive” (The Ethics of Liberty, p. 100). Even most libertarians, I hope, would cringe at this.
But my point isn’t to argue that anarcho-capitalism is really a position that we ought to reject. Or even that we should reject Rothbard’s principle of self-ownership. My point is about how we should think about the role of foundational principles in moral and political arguments.
Rothbard seems to think that he can show us that we are committed to accepting self-ownership, and that once he does this we are committed on pain of irrationality to accepting everything that follows logically from it, no matter how absurd it might seem.*** But this is not how moral reasoning works, or ought to work. Demonstrating that a moral principle has some intuitive support gives you some reason to accept it. (e.g. “taxation is like theft and theft is wrong so taxation is wrong”). But that reason can be overcome if it turns out that the intuitive principle has deeply counterintuitive implications. (e.g., “it is wrong to tax $100 away from a millionaire to save the life of a starving child”). Good moral reasoning involves something like the back-and-forth method of reflective equilibrium. All but our most deeply held moral beliefs, and perhaps even them, are held subject to revision in the light of new evidence, new arguments, and new inquiries. This is why my own attraction to libertarianism is grounded in a kind of moral pluralism. Yes, I believe that coercion is a prima facie bad. But I also believe that it is prima facie bad for people to fail to get what they deserve, or for their basic needs to be unmet. These moral beliefs, to my mind, have just as firm a standing as my opposition to coercion. I see no reason to believe that in a conflict between them, the opposition to coercion should always trump. Of course, this also makes it difficult for me to support an absolute, bright-line, form of minimal state libertarianism, as opposed to a more modest form of classical liberalism (see here for elaboration of the distinction). But such is the price of nuance, I think.
* – This seems to be the unstated conclusion of the argument as it appears in FaNL. A somewhat expanded version appears in Rothbard’s essay on “Interpersonal Relations: Ownership and Aggression,” in The Ethics of Liberty. Rothbard appears to give somewhat more in the way of an independent argument for (i) there. I have yet to read this essay carefully and so will refrain from discussing it further here.
** – (1) ignores a host of relevant alternatives to (i), (ii) and (iii), such as, for example, (iv): “every person has a right to own (control) his person in the following respects 1…N, but not in the following respects in which his ownership of his person is subject to restriction or regulation by others in the following ways…”. The contradiction in (2) is not really a contradiction at all, and whether it violates the basic requirements for life is not at all clear, largely because the meaning of that phrase itself is unclear. The first half of (3) is an insufficient basis for rejecting (ii) insofar as it relies on a uncharitably implausible interpretation of how “universal communism” might be implemented. The second half of three is simply a howler. A world of zero land and 100 percent water spells death for the human race, but it hardly follows that any steps in this direction also contravene the natural law. Finally, (4) doesn’t work even if (i)…(iii) really are the only options, since showing that (ii) and (iii) are implausible is not sufficient to warrant that (i) is not even less plausible.
*** – Rothbard is not alone in (a) providing fascinating and informative arguments about what follows from a basic moral principle, but (b) providing scarcely anything in the way of credible argument for the basic moral principle itself. Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia has been (only somewhat unfairly) been characterized by Thomas Nagel as “Libertarianism Without Foundations” for the slight attention it gives to providing argumentative support for the basic libertarian rights. And even John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, a masterpiece of moral philosophy as far as I’m concerned, is at its weakest when it comes time to present any positive argument for the principle of utility. So Rothbard is, at least, in very good company.