Rights Theory, Libertarianism

Self-Ownership Theses

In this post, I will introduce various forms of the self-ownership thesis, the claim that persons are sole and extensive owners of themselves and the fruits of their labors. In academic philosophy, libertarianism is almost defined by endorsing the self-ownership thesis. It is what unites philosophical left-libertarians and philosophical right-libertarians. But the self-ownership thesis can vary in a number of different ways. Let’s begin with a simple definition (that I take from here):

The Self-Ownership Thesis: Each person enjoys moral ownership of himself or herself (his/her body and mind). 

A corollary of the self-ownership thesis is the misleadingly named “non-aggression axiom.” Consider Murray Rothbard’s words:

The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. “Aggression” is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else.

But this definition supposes that persons enjoy moral ownership over their person and property, that is, the fact that persons own themselves provides us and others with reasons to not interfere with their use of their bodies (and property). Rothbard was not making the non-normative claim to body ownership, as this would only amount to the claim that we have power of disposal over ourselves. So it seems that self-ownership is the fundamental principle, not the non-aggression “axiom.”

Self-ownership theses are often coupled with and sometimes taken to imply a principle governing the acquisition of external resources. However, there is substantial and deep philosophical disagreement about what that principle is. The plurality view amongst those who affirm the self-ownership thesis is undoubtedly some right-libertarian principle of initial acquisition and transfer. If a person finds something unowned and mixes her labor with it, it becomes hers and she can transfer it to others on whatever conditions she likes. However, left-libertarians couple a principle of self-ownership with some egalitarian principle of ownership of external property. And geo-libertarians find themselves in between, defending a right-libertarian principle of initial acquisition for everything but land and natural resources and defending a left-libertarian principle of acquisition for land and natural resources (an egalitarian principle of equal distribution of welfare/opportunity).

Self-ownership libertarians (S-OLs)  also disagree on many other important matters. Here are three.

(1) They disagree about the conditions under which you can dispose of your person and property. Some libertarians have held that in virtue of owning your body, you can do whatever you want with it, even selling yourself into slavery (like Walter Block). However, other self-ownership libertarians strenuously deny that a free society would enforce voluntary slavery contracts (like Roderick Long).

(2) They disagree about the extent to which risk can be imposed upon others in ways compatible with their self-ownership. Everything I do with my person and property can potentially impinge and your person and property given some sufficiently small probability. Nozick worried about this at length (see Chapter 4 of Anarchy, State and Utopia), and other libertarians have weighed in, on both the right and left libertarian sides of the question.

(3) Self-ownership theorists disagree about the similarity between ownership rights over one’s body and ownership rights over external property. Some libertarians think that the principles governing the two are distinct but others think they are symmetrical. This matter relates to how one’s conception of personal identity bears on the question of ownership of the body.

So in sum, the self-ownership thesis gives rise to a number of interpretations that vary along at least four dimensions: (i) how to acquire ownership over natural resources, (ii) whether self-ownership permits selling one’s self into slavery and related forms of servitude, (iii) how much risk one can impose on others without violating their bodies or property and (iv) the relationship between personal identity, the body and external resources. These dimensions are interrelated.

At some point I will argue that the counterintuitive implications of the self-ownership thesis are only worth paying (in terms of theoretical costs) if it delivers on other grounds. The most attractive grounds are (i) the self-ownership thesis is simpler than many alternatives and (ii) the self-ownership thesis can yield determinate recommendations. I have not drawn out the counterintuitive implications of the self-ownership principle (the most notorious one is that an easily preventable mass starvation could occur with no injustice done), but we can see from the foregoing that the apparent simplicity and determinacy of the self-ownership principle is likely illusory.

  • The thing that bothers me about the self-ownership principle as stated is that it presupposes that people are members of that class of entities in the universe that can be owned. Then the claim of self-ownership just collapses to a first-acquisition claim over that particular chunk of the universe you call yourself, and moral arguments against slavery are just legal claims of theft according to the extant rules of society.

    It seems much cleaner to me to assert that entities in the universe fall into two distinct classes; non-sentient objects that can be owned and sentient beings that can do the owning. That makes claims that one owns another human as a slave akin to a claim that your car “owns” a tire. Basically a category error.

    What difference this makes to the rest of libertarian/liberal thought is something I’m not sure about.

    • Andrew Prock

      “The thing that bothers me about the self-ownership principle as stated is that it presupposes that people are members of that class of entities in the universe that can be owned.”

      Quite.  This presentation appears to be an attempt to explain libertarianism.  Unfortunately, these explanations only raise more questions.  This isn’t so much as an explanation or a justification of libertarianism, as it is a sort of bestiary documenting variation.

      The problems with Kevin’s discussion include:
      – No real definition of ownership
      – No justification for self ownership extending beyond the self
      – No discussion of the difference between property ownership and self ownership
      – No justification for a person owning the fruit of their labor
      – No discussion of how something can be unowned
      – No discussion of whether an owned thing can become unowned

      While I’m sure many of the answers seem obvious to some, based on Kevin’s discussion it’s apparent that there is variation amongst libertarians on how these questions are resolved.

      The biggest concern is that muddled concepts like that of “self-ownership” appear to be central to dogmatic libertarian thought.  At the same time, there appears to be no rational justification for applying self-ownership principles beyond the self.  This leaves the impression that doctrinaire libertarianism is, at it’s core, a political philosophy of personal ideology.  To the extent that this resonates with natural libertarians own ideologies, it provides a home.  But when personal ideology is used to justify the radical views espoused by many libertarians (see comments below), this only leaves the natural libertarian wondering whether to walk or run away.

      It’s all well and good for a political philosophy to be based on personal ideology.  Unfortunately, that leaves those of us who try to approach society from a rational perspective looking for somewhere other than libertarianism.  What we need is a framework which can sensibly weave the interests of the self with society in a meaningful way.

      • Anonymous


        At the same time, there appears to be no rational justification for applying self-ownership principles beyond the self.”

        Have you ever heard of argumentation ethics? You may not agree with it, but it’s certainly not “irrational.”

  • Jameson Graber

    Since I myself am a religious man (albeit of a moderate/liberal sort), perhaps this comment will simply be lost in a discussion of academic philosophy; but I really think our rights derive mainly from the idea that a human person is in some sense sacred. Why should the idea of ownership have primacy in our moral universe? The concept of ownership only seems to become important after we agree that living together in peace is a good thing, and we then observe that well-defined property rights help foster peace. But without the a priori assumption that human life is something worthy of flourishing, I don’t see why property would enter into our moral imagination.

  • Kevin, this article is very good and highlights what I consider to be the most central and important issue surrounding what it means to be libertarian.

    I just want to add what I’ve said before about there being no such thing as an “absolute property right” in anything, including in oneself, even though I believe self-ownership is a primary (albeit obscure or latent) Constitutional objective. 

    For example, even if we were successful in one day claiming that our labor is our property, and not income, one’s labor could still be taxed as property under the Direct Tax Clauses (though it’s unlikely because the federal government would rather collect taxes directly from individuals, rather than rely on state governments to collect). 

  • Gordon Sollars

    You are doing a good job of stating these concepts, but I am not sure what your standard for “implication” or “could”  is.  Logical, casual, likelihood?  For any given foundational choice, self-ownership or otherwise, I claim that there is a thought experiment that ends in moral disaster if you use any strong form of “implication”.  I confess that I would be happy with a principle that fails only in possible worlds that we do not inhabit or are not very likely to.

    • Anonymous

      You (as well as several other commenters on this blog) seem bent on trying to finding a set of deontological principles to live by, based on the utilitarian consequences you think they’ll imply.

      This seems kind of  oxymoronic to me.

      If you see “avoiding disaster” as an overruling motivation for ethical decision-making, simply define that as your goal and call yourself a utilitarian, then at least you can be honest to yourself.

      • Gordon Sollars

        Did you intend the above as a reply to me?  There are worse things than being a utilitarian, but I’ll hold off until you have a chance to clarify.  I was simply casting some doubt on the approach of “claims rebutted by unlikely counterexamples”, as Nozick says in the preface to AS&U.

  • Anonymous

    The Retributive theory of property is not “libertarian” but it might be described as rooting property in “self ownership.  See http://www.tomkow.com .

  • Anonymous

    “Anybody who wouldn’t steal a loaf of bread from a billionaire to save their child’s life is dogmatic”

    What if, instead of stealing from the billionaire, you could have given the child a loaf of bread from your own small but sufficient stash? Would you still propose stealing?

    Also, I think the problem with the ethics of those who like to bring up this billionaire-and-starving-child analogy is that it usually doesn’t differentiate between the case of…
      -> “If I were personally in this situation, and had exhausted all other possibilities, I’d steal from the billionaire as a last resort.”
    …on the on hand, and…
     -> “Government, which is inherently incapable of making fine-grained and efficient decisions, should routinely engage in coercive wealth redistribution to cover all possible cases of starving children without other solutions even having to kick in.”
    …on the other hand.

  • Anonymous

    I think the “stealing a loaf of bread from a billionaire” scenario misses the point of the NAP and Self-Ownership though.  They don’t specify absolute morality, but rather act as the basis for the a political framework (ie. the legitimate use of coercion), that sets up how property rights are handled. It’s all about claims to scarce goods and resources, not nessecarily right and wrong. So stealing the loaf of bread from the rich man to feed your starving child may not be “morally wrong”.  However, the rich man now has a restitutive claim on the value of what was stolen, and possibly some compensation on top that.

    So you may have a situation where you do something “morally wrong” but “legally neutral” (like cheating on your partner), a situation that is “morally neutral/good” but “legally wrong” (like stealing bread to feed your starving child), and a situation that is “morally wrong” and “legally wrong” (like stealing bread because you’re feeling peckish and not near a convienence store).  Likewise  trolley-car scenerios, where you must choose between letting five people die through inaction, or acting by killing one person to save the other five, can be solved.  While it may be ambiguously morally good to save five lives at the expense of one, that still doesn’t clear you from having to pay for the life your action took to their family. 

    So, no matter how you cut it, taxation is theft.  Stealing bread out of desperation is also theft, but in a different moral category.

    • Anonymous

      “The debate is over what those circumstances should be. The challenge is that we all arbitrarily draw the line in different places so how could we ever resolve this debate? Why is where I draw the line any better than where you draw the line? ”

      You’re missing the point.  A primary purpose of property rights is to create a forum to resolve these debates. In your bread-from-a-billionaire scenerio, there are only two parties involved: The desperate parent and the billionaire.  The fact that it’s theft means that the injured party has the claim on the property that was stolen.  If the billionaire thinks it was MORALLY justified, he may let it slide.  Just like if your best friend punches you in the face in a heated argument at the bar, you can choose to not charge him with assault.  It’s a debate between the two parties involved in the initial aggression, not a debate between the victim and the whole of society.

      Taxation is theft without the restitutive claim.  The injured party gets his property stolen via taxation, then the state/governing body claims that because it represents “society”, it is justified.  However this doesn’t make the claim to restitution of the injuried party go away, it just gets ignored because the same party that’s doing the stealing also controls the legal system.

      Letting the tax payer choose (from an approved list of course) where the taxes go isn’t recognizing a claim to restitution.  That’s like a thief stealing your TV, then letting you choose which corner of his living room his puts it in.  The only way your idea would work would be if “give me my money back” was listed as an option on your tax form.

      • Anonymous

        Sorry, Xerographica, but the idea that a coercive monopoly institution like the state could be empowered to take money from you, by force, and then that same institution would allow you, as an individual, to spend that money any way you choose to have it spent, seems pretty far-fetched to me. Once you allow other people to have that kind of power over you, they’re going to get what they want from your efforts. You would have nothing meaningful to say about how your taxes were spent.

        • Anonymous

          Oh, I understand very well how the invisible hand works. But you’re not talking about the invisible hand. So I have to wonder if YOU understand how the invisible hand works. What you advocate requires having an organization that posseses the authority to forcibly separate people from their money. That’s not the invisible hand. The invisible hand involves voluntary exchange, driven by the self interest of each of the exchangers.

    • Damien S.

      Taxation is theft if you assume taxation is theft.  If you assume it’s more like club dues, then hey, it’s not theft.

      Property rights, especially at the billionaire level, don’t exist in a vacuum that government comes and intrudes in.  They’re society saying “yeah, you can have that to yourself”, and society can add “but…”

      • Anonymous

        Club dues are voluntary because membership entry and exit is also voluntary. You have no choice about taxes. You can assume they are the same thing– but you would be wrong. 

        • Damien S.

          How about a ‘club’ like a homeowners’ association that you’re born into?  Or the rent paid to the landowner of where you were born.  You didn’t agree to the rules or rent, and you’re free to leave — if anyone else will let you in.  Just like countries.

          • Anonymous

            Good point again. You have said this before. There can indeed be private tyranny. It is possible that life under the USA as a political master is better than life in an independent private holding, however small. Recall the tragedy of  the Jim Jones colony. Another example is when some Russian nobility switched over to quick rents upon “freeing” their serfs, which amounted to just another form of extraction too.  

            I think a key factor is ideology. If there is a reigning free-market individualism in a self-selected community– then surely the said housing association would have procedures for amendment and an out clause. True, you cannot choose what situation you are born into. It is also true that neighboring communities might not want to let you in upon your escape. (There may be a solid case for easements under a competitive property regime too.)

            But again, market societies see people as assets. So what is the likelihood of not being wanted anywhere? 

            Current states do live an anarchic world. But it is a world that rationalizes taxation and conquer. What if the same states were to embrace merely the classical liberal idea? Then you would see this anarchy create a giant free trade zone with low taxes, etc. So the anarcho-capitalists say,  dispense with the giant states altogether because the key point is individual property, not state conglomerations of monopoly violence. You would then be left with a  giant free trade zone and no taxes.

            So would private estates under anarchy amount to the same as today’s countries? To be sound, let’s compare relatively same-sized entities with same/different ideologies. The key difference is the free market idea. The more oppressive an estate, big, small or whatever, the less viable it is. For surely a non-trading slave estate is less likely to win in a confrontation with a free market estate of the same size.  Of course, all bets are off if there is no desire for or knowledge of the value in the market division of labor.

            Great question. More to be done here for sure.

          • Damien S.

            “ideology… if there is a reigning free-market individualism”

            That’s a rather huge ‘if’, on the order of Marxist-Leninism would have worked fine if everyone involved were proper communists rather than self-interested party apparatchiks.  And hey, the Soviet Constitution had secession clauses…

            People as assets?  So skilled people will have choices, unskilled and uneducated ones not, or perhaps no better choices than they have at ‘home’.  Keep your slaves ignorant.  But the world knew that already.

            “What if the same states were to embrace merely the classical liberal idea”

            This is basically the utopian dream of every ideology.  “If everyone agreed with me…”  What people really want is “free trade for you, protection for me”.

            “The more oppressive an estate, big, small or whatever, the less viable
            it is. For surely a non-trading slave estate is less likely to win in a
            confrontation with a free market estate of the same size.”

            For surely I see a huge excluded middle, filled by almost every real country in history, especially modern ones, which combine market productivity with coerced contribution to defense and public goods and market regulation.  How many free markets have defended themselves against a conscript army?

          • Anonymous

            When you add the libertarian outlook to the Austrian economic theory– they are separate things by far– you definitely create a world view as encompassing as Marxism. The major difference is that Marxism/Leninism and all anti-market outlooks are bat-sh#t crazy. 

            It is not necessary nor realistic to expect everyone to be ideologically the same. My comparisons were for thought experiment only; a mental model. If in reality enough people generally believe in trade and individual sovereignty then forward movement, civilizing prosperity, can take place. That momentum can build on itself materially even if the number of adherents stay the same. And the more dynamic that production becomes– the less that land property matters to the power structure. In other words, the ability to dominate another human being becomes more off-set by independent (or should I say interdependent) sources of power.

            Whereas communists and statists are social cannibals– and if they cannot plunder or enslave they will end up eating themselves. That goes for cartelists as well. Though cartels will mostly destroy the cartel– oft leaving productive forces to resume socially validated actions (market activity).

            I by no means meant to hold up classical liberalism as the ideal. For sure– ideologically supporting even a minimalist state is corrupt. As you pointed out, people tend to want ‘free trade for you and protection for me’. The best form of protectionism is the state. The state, I might add, lives as an idea first. That’s why it can be manned by so few while the many assume the role as sheep and servants.  But take away its legitimacy and it will crumble.

            Again, when thinking about comparisons it is good to examine like for like in size as a thought experiment. You can’t really see it play out in the real world because of complexity. But modeling is no good without applicability. It is an empirical task to see where your model best fits: e.g.  how long would N. Korea last in a fight with S. Korea if all the other states in the world did not get involved? Of course– there is always uncertainty in war…

            I am not convinced you found ‘a gaping hole in libertarianism’. For even under the worst private property scenario– when an estate begins to tax, conscript or enslave through trickery– there still would be no justification for meeting this statism with …yet another statist situation.

            These are not the last words either. I am paying close attention to Dr. Vallier’s approach to the concept of property, the self and external world. Lots to learn. And I will be weighing what i can against Hans Hoppe and the up and comers at the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS).  Some would call this Right v. Left libertarianism– but the labels do not work for me at this time.

          • Damien S.

            And yes, I’ve brought the point up before, and I probably will again.  It’s a gaping hole in libertarian thought.  Without a justification of how the world becomes private property that’s applicable to the real world, libertarianism is always going to seem like an attempt to enshrine past injustices as the status quo.  “Sorry about about all the theft and exploitation your ancestors or you may have suffered, but from now on property is sacred!  Yes, I happen to have most of it, what’s your point?  Markets!”

          • Anonymous

            Just curious: how do you think property becomes justly owned in the first instance?

          • Damien S.

            I wing it. “Earth belongs in usufruct to the living.”  Lockeean argument, with Lockean proviso.  Taking land from people using it to live so that you can profit is unjust.  Geolibertarianism.

            Private property is useful, not foundational, to me, so winging it’s fine.  Libertarians claim it as far more important, and claim far more deductive and deontological power from it, so their inability to answer hard questions about it is a lot deadlier.

          • Anonymous

            You are not winging it, you are being incoherent. When you say “taking land from people,” you are implicitly claiming that the victims owned that land. Without a theory of original appropriation, you have no basis for your assertion, because there is no way to determine if the land was EVER justly owned. And, if it was never justly acquired, it could never be justly transferred to the victim before it was “stolen” from them. Libertarians do have a workable theory, but I doubt you even want to hear it.

          • Anonymous

            Rather, libertarian thought can modify and expand to cover past wrongs.  Markets are necessary for advanced civilization. No past wrongs can negate this logical fact.  The state as means has been the #1 creator of past mass injustices anyway.

          • Anonymous

            should read quit-rents, not quick rents. must have been thinking about quicksand, as it might describe the feudal rent experience…

  • Anonymous

    “The point that you’re missing is that we all let stuff slide for different reasons. Therefore, we either allow taxpayers to directly allocate their taxes…or we abolish taxes all together…or we continue debating why where I draw the line is better than where you draw the line.”

    I’m not missing that point, it’s a key part of my position. We all let things slide for different reasons. If we’re not given the option of “give me my money back”, then it’s not really not a choice about “letting it slide”. You have to accept it or they throw you in prison. Is it less objectionable than the current scheme? Moderately, but it’s still not consistant.

    As a bizzare coincidence, just after I posted my last comment, I had a knock on my door from an interviewer from the Department of Commerce trying to get information on how my taxes should be spent. It was interesting, but it took almost an hour for the process to get my opinion on just one potential federal program. And that was me being co-operative and not objecting to the premise of most of the questions, or going into my full thoughts on the impacts of the program. Something makes me think I’d really dread doing that for my whole tax return, much more than the 1040EZ, ha.

    • Anonymous

      I’ll take a look at that link, but your assertation that “99.9%” of taxpayers are OK with taxation is a bit of a laugh.  How many people pay taxes because they’re willing to let the theft slide, and how many people pay taxes because it’s backed up by threat of violence?

      Obviously I’m in favor of abolishing taxation.  If we have a minarchist system though, the money to run it has to come from somewhere.  This may better be run through a generalized tarriff, and use-fees (ie. tolls and other fees), which would certainly be better than a tax-payer directed income tax.  How many people would really send their money to support the court system when there’s much more visible and emotional causes?  More importantly, what kind of people would be incentivized to direct thier taxes towards the courts, regulators, etc.?  Smells like a path to rent seeking and regulatory capture.

      • Anonymous

        Before I go any further, are you operating under the assumption of a progressive tax?  This has some implications to how the tax funds would tend to be allocated.

        Also I’m skeptical you’d ever see a system where private law plays any significant role while you still have a system of widespread income taxation and an assumingly robust public law system.  The monopoly on law and enforcement is basically the defining trait of the state.

      • Damien S.

        In 2008 Massachusetts voters got to vote on an initiative to abolish the state income tax.  They rejected the initiative, 2/3 to 29%.  (I assume some voters not voting on the question.) http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/Massachusetts_State_Income_Tax_Repeal_Initiative,_Question_1_%282008%29
        Not 99.9%, though also not a vote on the entire system of taxation.

        As for funding courts: “law and order”, a rather emotional subject.  Regulators: “clean air, safe food, safe banks”.  You might well get more funding for these things from voters than from captured representatives.

        http://financialedge.investopedia.com/financial-edge/0411/Why-People-Dont-Lie-On-Their-Tax-Returns.aspx
        ‘According to the survey, in 2010, 97% of people either completely agreed
        or mostly agreed with the statement, “It is every American’s civic duty
        to pay their fair share of taxes.” Furthermore, 80% of survey
        respondents said that their personal integrity has a great deal of
        influence on whether they report and pay their taxes honestly.’

  • CFV

    I think you are moving too quick. I don’t quite see that “one of the most notorious counterintuitive implications” of the self-ownership thesis  is that “an easily preventable mass starvation could occur with no injustice done,” and that “the apparent simplicity and determinacy of the self-ownership principle is likely illusory.”

    The idea that that self-ownership is indeterminate has been pointed out by, among others, R. Dworkin. But I don’t think he’s right.

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