Rothbard's Ethics of Liberty, Rights Theory

Reading The Ethics of Liberty, Part 3 – Rothbard’s Confusion About Self-Ownership

In the previous post in this series, I discussed the natural law foundation of Rothbard’s Ethics of Libertyand suggested that it runs into difficulties with David Hume’s famous “is-ought” problem. In this post, I move on to chapter six of Rothbard’s book, and argue that his continuing conflation between normative and descriptive claims leads him into a serious confusion about a concept that constitutes the foundation of his political-moral theory: the concept of self-ownership. There are other problematic discussions in this chapter too – his argument for free will, for instance, and his claim that the objective moral value of life cannot be denied without self-contradiction. But for reasons of space, I must pass over these topics here.

Rothbard begins Part II by trying to do for ethics what his mentor Ludwig von Mises did for economics: to build it up, step by step, starting with the “Crusoe” case of “an isolated man face-to-face with nature” (29). By examining such a case, Rothbard thinks, we can get clear on fundamental ethical concepts like “ownership,” “freedom,” and “value” in their simplest form. The additional complexities that come with interpersonal relations can then be considered later, once these fundamental concepts are firmly in place.

When we examine the case of Crusoe, Rothbard claims, we are confronted with a number of “inescapable,” “natural facts.” Crusoe has only his own body to rely upon; he has no instincts to tell him automatically how to live; there are various natural resources that can be used to satisfy his desires, some in their raw form, some only after having been transformed by human effort. Crusoe must produce before he can consume, and reason is his means of survival (30).

Fair enough, so far. But where in this catalogue of natural facts are we to find morality? Where is the “ought,” the normativity that is the characteristic mark of moral and political thought? For Rothbard, the key transitional concept is ownership. For when Crusoe examines his own situation, Rothbard claims, he discovers “the natural fact of his mind’s command over his body and its actions: that is, of his natural ownership over his self” (31).

Self-ownership, for Rothbard, is a natural fact, constituted by our control over our self (our body and our actions). My body is mine because I alone determine how it moves and what it does. And so self-ownership extends naturally to ownership over external goods. For by “mixing our labor” with the land, we come to have control over it, too. And our property in it extends only so far as our control extends – to stand on the shore of a new continent and claim ownership over the entire thing would be “empty vainglory” (34). True property in external goods is equivalent to actual control over them (34).

There is, however, a serious confusion at work in this argument. It is a confusion that stems partly, I think, from Rothbard’s Crusoe methodology. Part of the greatness of Human Action is how well that approach works for the analysis of economics. Mises is able to show that even economic concepts that seem essentially interpersonal, like that of “exchange,” are really fundamental features of human action discernible even in the case of “autistic” action.

But it’s just not clear that you can do this with ethical concepts like “ownership.” And that’s because ownership really is an essentially interpersonal concept. To claim ownership over a thing – or over one’s self! – is to make a claim against others. It is to claim, at a minimum, that they must refrain from interfering in your use of the thing.

That kind of interpersonal claim is the essence of property. Without it, you simply don’t have property. A thief might control the purse he has stolen from you, but he doesn’t own it. Your ownership of the purse, in contrast, isn’t defeated by the fact that the thief is now controlling it. What gives you ownership is not actual control, but the normative right to control.

I’m not saying that Crusoe doesn’t own himself, or the nuts and berries he mixes his labor with. I’m saying that Rothbard hasn’t shown that he does. Pointing to the “natural fact” that Crusoe controls himself and his berries does not establish that he owns them in the sense of having a moral claim against others. To think that it does is to confuse the “is” of what Crusoe possesses with the “ought” of what he has a right to possess.

Unfortunately, Rothbard proceeds to argue in the chapters that follow as if he had established the normative claims of self-ownership and ownership of external goods. Indeed, his entire understanding of the free society is based on these concepts (40). And so, the oversight here is not a minor one. It is, instead, absolutely fatal.

But there is, perhaps, one glimmer of hope for Rothbard. For in chapter 8, Rothbard returns to the idea of self-ownership and provides what appears to be a separate and entirely independent argument for it. I’ll explore that argument – soon! I promise – in the next installment of this series.

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Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • Ebauer

    I would say that he does somewhat clarify this later on when he discusses a thief having ownership but not just ownership of the property. That is he is in both possession and control of a property title illegitimately. I think you’re correct in some of your assessments because as you say his definition here as being without interpersonal relations essentially doesn’t allow a definition of ownership or property. I think though he was also intending to refute as he does later someone claiming a continent for some other country, which would be illegitimate. Certainly not his clearest chapter or thesis, and certainly not what I had come to expect from him which is usually clear and logically correct analysis. This is one of my least favorite of his books. I find his chapter on fetuses as parasites lacking in some manner, and perhaps that’s my emotional reaction, but to me doesn’t seem ethical.

  • Agreed on that one.

    Just one quibble:

    ‘To think that it does is to confuse the “is” of what Crusoe possesses with the “ought” of what he has a right to possess.’

    It might be better to say: to confuse the ‘is’ of what he controls with the ‘ought’ of what he has a right to.

  • Eventually we will have to deal with the issue that truly matters; does a person own himself or not? If the answer is yes the fact that you quibble with one particular argument that Rothbard has given is not very important. If the answer is no you better have a good argument to support your conclusions.

    • gcallah

      1) The moon is made of rocks, that is true. But it is not a “quibble” to criticize an argument that says “The moon is made of rocks because children threw them there.” That is a terrible argument for a true conclusion, and well worth debunking.

      2) If there were any good argument for self-ownership, we would need better counter-arguments to defease them. If there are no good arguments, however, it is enough to show there are no good arguments.

  • Sean II

    The argument against anyone else owning me really is better than the argument for me owning myself. You gotta admit that’s funny.

    Also, Rothbard totally should have used Friday instead of Crusoe when making this particular argument. True, he still wouldn’t have discovered the axiom he was hoping for, but there would be some extra cool points to compensate him for that.

  • Does not Crusoe retain at least the value of the labor he put into picking the berry? As the labor of obtaining something often(not in every instance I assume) can not be separated from the ‘thing’, either the entire is owned or the value of an inseparateable portion is. Obviously (?), the value of a berry in the hand is greater than a berry somewhere on a bush and the difference is the ‘labor’ which either remains with Crusoe or is sold/abdicated but not extingushed.

    • Same problem. Who, as a matter of fact, increased the value of the berry? Crusoe did. Who ought to have the value of the berry? Different question.

      • Intrinsic value is like potential energy. Unless you are suggesting that there is another potential owner of the berry on the deserted island…? To get from intrinsic value you need to add ‘work’ or labor. An unpicked berry is available to anyone that walks by, but once picked, it’s value is greater due to the work added. I am unaware of a way to unpick, or separate the value of the picking leaving the value of the picked berry a function of it’s intrinsic value plus the labor – which I think all agree belongs to the laborer.

        What other issues are ‘ripe’? If you have an idea of ‘who ought’ other than the above…?

        • “the labor – which I think all agree belongs to the laborer”

          Same problem. Perhaps all agree that the labourer controls his labour. But all do not agree about who ought to control it.

          Perhaps all can agree that Crusoe increased the value of the berry to himself. But all do not agree that he owns it. Some may even deny that ought to have it.

          • Sorry, Tracy, I did not make that first point at all well. Here is a better way of putting it.

            The labourer controls his labouring activities. But the question is, who ought to decide how he spends is labouring time?

          • Ah. Well, this may make clear my position: being a slave is a choice. My actions are, at all times, my choice. Crusoe always had the choice to pick the berry or not.

          • It is true that your actions are your choice. We agree on that. My point is that, as well as that factual matter, there is also a moral question: what ought you to do? Many people think that, in at least some respects, you ought to do as you are told by whoever it is that has the legitimate authority (not just power) to tell you. Libertarians tend to think that no one has such legitimate authority over another (unless that other is, for some special reason, unable to look after himself). But there are not that many libertarians; so they need moral arguments to make their case.

          • I am not libertarian – though I have been accused as such in the past! I don’t recognize any authority over me except that which I have granted – either implicitly by accepting the social contract of civilization – or explicitly when I served in the military. I was trying to limit my positions here to the situation provided: Crusoe on an island. There is no other authority dictating to Crusoe whether he should, or should not pick the berry – I assume he had a need for food. But this is going afield.
            Does Crusoe, by the exercise of his labors, obtain ‘ownership’ of the berry? I argue that that his labor – which is owned by Crusoe – imparts value, inseparatable value to the berry that constitutes ‘ownership’: a right to control.

          • That is the point at issue. Rothbard thinks Crusoe owns the berry because he has worked on it in some way. But ownership is a social relation: it involves rights for one person and obligations for others. Although there is no-one else on the island, there are other people who may visit the island. It is a substantive contention that Crusoe owns the berry and that these others have an obligation to allow him to do so.. That contention needs to be argued for. Perhaps Crusoe will eventually have to compensate those other people for what he did on the island because he had no right to do it. On the other hand, if there is only Crusoe left in existence, there is no longer any property.

          • On that, I agree with Rothbard. I think, for me at least, you are demanding an argument to determine fact when no such thing exists. Choice is a scientific theory. I can say all actions by humans are a function of choice, and evidence and prediction with support it – but we can never know in every instance whether a human action is a function of that human’s choice. There is no ‘fact’. In every instance of Crusoe and the berry, the work added to the berry creates additional value in the berry that can not be separated from it. Having removed the berry, Crusoe has limited access to it, even by his future self.

            I have for a long time bristled at the concept of negative rights – my exercise of a right means/implies/demands that you have a non-right in opposition. Or, the right to pick a berry includes the right to NOT pick a berry. People have ‘rightly’ suggested my discomfort does not change anything. However, my right to live does not imply your right to not live in my stead. Maybe I am reaching too hard. Rights are not facts, they are part of a Theory, and to try and establish ‘ought to’s’ or negative rights by referring to the known but undefinable difference between Theoretical right and Factual right seems like a debate on the correct shade of blue.

          • Marco Antonio Arrieta Maynetto

            I argue that there is no alchemy to make you own something, anything, outside your work.
            If there is demand for the berry, by scarcity or ambition of some castaway second or native.
            Then your job to pick the berry, not be enough to make yours berry without someone else to take it away jump

        • martinbrock

          When you pick a berry from a bush, you make the berry more valuable to you and less valuable to the bush. If the bush is indifferent, why does it bother growing the berry in the first place?

          Rothbard posits that human cognition is necessary for “value” to exist in this sense, but he would. He could as easily posit that descent from Abraham through Isaac is necessary for title to land between the Euphrates River and the Mediterranean Sea. Surprisingly, he doesn’t.

          I can make a berry you’ve picked from a bush more valuable to me by picking it from you. In the state of nature, nothing else matters. Far be it from me to dispute the wisdom of Nature.

          If I’m able to take a berry from you, then you have a right to the berry when I agree not to take it from you. Human civilization differs from the state of nature only in this respect. Every other assertion of propriety is wishful thinking.

          Of course, some people will believe almost anything, so telling people that you have “natural” or “God given” rights can be a fruitful occupation. If I tell you that God tells you to give me the berry and you surrender it without a fight, so much the better.

  • Perhaps Rothbard would have been better to begin with a small village of differentiated workers and build from there. That way he could show the importance of property rights in the exchange relationships which cause the group to grow and prosper.

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