Rothbard's Ethics of Liberty, Libertarianism

Reading The Ethics of Liberty, Part 4 – Rothbard’s Second Argument for Self-Ownership

In my last post, I argued that Rothbard’s discussion of self-ownership in chapter six of The Ethics of Liberty rests on a fundamental confusion between descriptive and normative claims. Individuals in the state of nature might control their own bodies and certain external resources, but this is insufficient to establish ownership, since ownership is a fundamentally interpersonal and normative concept.

In this post, I turn to chapter eight, in which Rothbard presents a second, independent argument for the claim that individuals are full self-owners, and delves deeper into questions pertaining to the ownership of external goods and the wrong of aggression. There’s actually quite a bit packed into this chapter, but the concept of self-ownership is so important as to deserve a post of its own. So self-ownership will be the exclusive focus of this post. I’ll return to chapter 8 to talk about some of the other issues it raises – including the issue of ownership of external property – in a separate post.

The argument for self-ownership presented in chapter eight is essentially the same as the argument Rothbard gives in his more popular book, For a New Liberty. I have criticized the argument as he presents it there in an earlier post on this blog, and think that everything I said about it applies to this version as well. However, I will not rehash those arguments here. Instead, after summarizing Rothbard’s argument, I want to try describing the problem with it in a different and more fundamental way. Rothbard’s argument for self-ownership, I will argue, reveals a basic mistake in his understanding of the concept of property – a mistake that plagues not only a great deal of Rothbard’s thought on the subject, but that of many other libertarians as well.

Rothbard’s argument begins with the premise that there are three, and only three, possible views to take on the issue of self-ownership (45):

  1. Libertarian self-ownership: Each man has full ownership of his own body.
  2. Communism: No one has 100% of his own body; each person has an equal part of the ownership of everyone’s body.
  3. Class Rule: One group within society fully owns themselves and owns everybody else.

Option 2 cannot be realized in a large society, since it implies that “no man is free to take any action whatsoever without prior approval by everyone else in society,” and such approval would be “physically impossible” to obtain (46). Besides, says Rothbard, it is “absurd to hold that no man is entitled to own himself, and yet to hold that each of these very men is entitled to own a part of all other men!” Option 3, on the other hand, is ruled out because it is not a properly universal ethical rule (45). That leaves us with option 1 by default. Libertarianism wins.

As I said before, I think there are a lot of problems with this argument. But the fundamental problem, I now think, has to do with Rothbard’s understanding of what it means to “own” something. In fairness, this problem is not unique to Rothbard. One finds it in Locke, too, and in much political thought that follows in his path. But it is an absolutely fundamental problem that infects much of libertarian thought in general, and Rothbardian thought in particular.

Rothbard’s argument is based on the assumption you either own something or you don’t, and those are essentially the only two possibilities. “Ownership,” for Rothbard, means “full” ownership, and the unstated assumption is that there is some clear and determinate natural fact about what precisely that entails. And this is true even when Rothbard seems to complicate matters by allowing for “partial” ownership as in the case of universal communism. For what “partial” ownership seems to mean, in this case, is simply that you’re given an equal vote with your co-owners about how to exercise the rights of full ownership that you all jointly wield.

So, for Rothbard, ownership means one thing, and either you have it or you don’t. And if that was really true, then there really would seem to be only three possibilities regarding the ownership of A’s body – 1) A himself owns it, 2) Everybody owns it, or 3) Some group larger than (1) but smaller than (2) owns it.

The problem is that ownership isn’t this simple. There isn’t any obvious natural fact regarding what it means to “own” something. Instead, ownership can mean different things – can have different moral implications regarding the rights and duties of the owner and others – in different situations. And so, as a result, there aren’t just three possible options regarding ownership of the self. There are infinitely many options.[1. An extended version of an argument similar to that which I present below can be found in Barbara Fried’s review essay on left-libertarianism (published version available here, gated).]

Consider the ownership one might have in a piece of land. At its core, we might think, to own a piece of land is to have the right to use the land as one sees fit, and to exclude others from using it without one’s permission. But even if we grant this “core” concept of ownership, it leaves a great number of questions unanswered. What rights does one have to, say, the minerals located below the surface of one’s land, and how deep do one’s rights go? How high above one’s land do they go? High enough to prohibit planes from flying over it? Satellites from orbiting above it? Does your ownership give you the right to dam any rivers that might flow through your land and onto mine? If your land blocks the only path between my land and some valuable unowned resource, like an ocean, do I have the right to cross your land without permission to get there?

The point of this litany of questions – and it is one that would be easy to extend ad infinitum – is not to push a kind of skepticism. I’m not saying that these kinds of questions are unanswerable, or that all answers are equally good. What I’m saying is that different answers to these questions will get you different accounts of what it means to own something, and that Rothbard’s “either you own yourself or someone else does” argument depends on illegitimately ignoring a vast range of conceptual possibilities.

Because what is true of your ownership of land is true of your ownership of yourself. One possibility, to be sure, is that we all own ourselves in the robust libertarian way that Rothbard assumes. But there are plenty of others. We might own ourselves in this robust way except that others have a claim-right against us that we provide them with assistance in situations of dire emergency. We might own ourselves in the sense of being able to use and sell our labor pretty much as we see fit, but lack the liberty-right to sell body parts like kidneys or hearts. We might have the liberty-right to use and sell our labor, but not the claim-right to the full market value of our labor. And so on.

All of these positions, of course, would need to be argued for. The mere fact that they are conceptually possible doesn’t itself entail that they are morally defensible. But the same is true of Rothbard’s own position. Rothbard’s argument “works” by wrongly claiming that there are only three possibilities regarding self-ownership, two of which are obviously insane, and therefore his position wins by default. But if there are infinitely many possibilities, this victory-by-elimination strategy won’t work. The libertarian position of full self-ownership, just like every other conceptually possible position one might take on the issue of self-ownership, stands in need of independent moral argument.

Here’s one take-away point from this somewhat abstract discussion: denying full libertarian self-ownership doesn’t require you to believe in the legitimacy of slavery, or forced eyeball-transfers, or any of the other bugaboos that libertarians like Rothbard invoke. Everyone agrees that those things are wrong, and so everyone agrees that we “own” ourselves in the sense of possessing rights over our bodies necessary to block those kinds of forced use. But that leaves open whether we own ourselves in the more robust way that distinguishes libertarianism from other contemporary liberal or conservative positions. Maybe we have the right not to have our labor taxed and maybe we don’t. But the fact that chattel slavery is wrong doesn’t settle it.

  • “Does your ownership give you the right to damn any rivers that might flow through your land and onto mine?” Kind of appreciated the typo here. 🙂

  • More seriously, though, thank you for addressing this head on. This kind of simple elimination to get to self-ownership is what made me think for a long time that libertarianism was a bunch of nonsense. If people in the media like to call libertarians “market fundamentalists,” there might be good reason for that: the proper definition of “fundamentalist” is one who believes in going back to the fundamentals and stripping away generations of accumulated tradition surrounding a set of beliefs. For the libertarian, it often seems enough to reiterate the fundamental point that rights are individual and not collective, rather than get into the dirty work of determining what exactly those rights are and what they mean practically.

  • Aeon Skoble

    Matt, your objection hinges on this claim: “Because what is true of your ownership of land is true of your ownership of yourself.” But why is _this_ true? You point out a variety of potential complications in understanding property rights in land (e.g. does it extend into space), and then infer that because these are non-trivial with non-obvious solutions, that therefore ownership of other things besides land must be similarly complicated, ergo Rothbardians (and Lockeans generally) have blundered. While your premise is completely right (and we solve those problems best with common-law, not Rawls), I am not following the inference. Flip it around: can others legitimately claim to own me? If so, I’ll need the argument. But if not, then it seems that self-ownership does come out on top. Now, I’ve seen good arguments against self-ownership on metaphysical grounds, e.g. in NoL chapter 9, but in a purely political context, self-ownership is a perfectly good heuristic, and you seem to be objecting to _that_. I’m not yet on board.

    • Dshapiro

      I had a similar thought to Aeon’s. Your analysis of Rothbard’s argument about property in external objects (external to one’s body and mind) is spot-on. But regarding ownership of one’s body and mind, I don’t see it. Someone who proposes that they own my body has at least a very strong presumption against their view. This is why, e.g., those who support drug laws have a rough argumentative road to hoe. Am I missing something obvious here?

    • It’s possible that I’m misunderstanding your point (and Danny’s). But it sounds to me that you’re making a claim about the plausibility of the Rothbardian story about self-ownership, vs. the relative implausibility of that account for ownership of external goods. But in this post, I’m not actually making any claims about the all-things-considered plausibility of either of those accounts. I’m simply focused on Rothbard’s argument for self-ownership, and its dependency on a claim about the conceptual possibilities regarding self-ownership. Rothbard’s argument is that there are only three possibilities, and two of them are very bad, so the third (libertarian) option must be right. My point is that there are many more than three possibilities, and so this argument-by-elimination doesn’t work. Self-ownership in the Rothbardian sense might be intuitively plausible; it might be all-things-considered plausible. But you’d need to argue for it in a different way than this.

      • Aeon Skoble

        Well, I’m not seeing the connection you make here: “Because what is true of your ownership of land is true of your ownership of yourself.” Why does “it works like this with land” imply “it works like this for your body/mind”?

        • I see no reason to think that the conceptual space is narrower in the case of one’s body than it is in the case of land. And I think I put forward considerations in the post to suggest that it isn’t narrower. Ownership in one’s self consists of a bundle of rights in just the same way that anything else does, and sticks can be added or removed from that bundle giving us different accounts of ownership.

          • Aeon Skoble

            But the reason we use the bundle idea for property rights is that it’s a complex thing in all the ways you note. But I don’t see why one’s own self has the same problems – there’s no question as to whether we reach the sky etc. Might be circular.

          • Arhur Krolman

            Ownership of land and the space above the land out beyond the galaxy might indeed physically conflict with other’s ownership rights. But please provide a scenario where my trading my kidney for something of my liking physically conflicts with someone else’s property rights. Thanks.

      • Kevin Swinson

        As far as the example of land goes, I feel the problem you propose is not a question of what ownership is (which I think is what you intended) but rather what is owned in that scenario. I assume Rothbard means by ownership “the right to exercise control over,” and as far as self-ownership goes its very clear exactly what he’s referring to.
        Also, with your examples, assuming existing titles are valid those questions are easily answered, infact mineral rights are often specifically adressed in most contracts pertaining to land. (Im a dumb college kid so dont quote me on this but I believe airspace is owned by the state at a certain altitude) Damning the river seems to be rather straightforward as well; if the river is owned by one entity than they can damn it as they please, if you find their river intrusive on your own property they must either redirect it around their property (through their own or a consenting third party/parties’ property) or, if no such option exists, damn the river.

        Most likely it is because I, by my own decree, am a dumb college kid but I fail to see how these examples kill Rothbard’s argument for self ownership specifically.

  • Nice discussion, Matt. Just one comment:

    “The point of this litany of questions – and it is one that would be easy to extend ad infinitum”

    Presumably that is another typo: it is not possible to extend the list ad infinitum in a finite time. But it is perhaps easy to see how the list would be extendable ad infinitum.

    Incidentally, I have stopped receiving notifications of new posts on this site. Has something on the site changed or is my email playing up?

    • erniebornheimer

      Maybe “ad nauseam” would have been better.

  • “Maybe we have the right not to have our labor taxed and maybe we don’t. But the fact that chattel slavery is wrong doesn’t settle it.”

    Have you written about Nozick’s “Tale of the Slave”? For what it’s worth, I don’t think it commits the Sorites fallacy; I think it takes stock at each point to see whether the principle has changed, not just whether each step is very similar to the previous one.

  • Ricketson

    If this is typical of Rothbard’s style, then I have no idea of why people think he was a great thinker. Not only has he limited his attention to ridiculously extreme options (ignoring the moderate/practical/common-sense alternatives), but his definition of “communism” is completely fabricated.

    In practice, Communist rule was class rule. In theory, communism involved group ownership of goods (particularly durable goods), not of bodies. There are reasons to connect the ownership on one’s body and the ownership over the product of one’s labor, but it is ridiculous to treat them as identical.

    • martinbrock

      If I own everything except human bodies, then I may demand the marginal value of human bodies as well. If I own only all of the Oxygen in the universe, and if no one else monopolizes another element like Nitrogen, then I may also demand the marginal value of every human body. If I corner the market on Oxygen, then the rent I may charge you to use my Oxygen is everything you else produce above subsistence plus everything else you own.

      So a state owning all durable goods ultimately owns all human bodies as well.

      • erniebornheimer

        I think this makes sense. But I would point out there are forms of socialism which reject ownership in all its guises, including group or state ownership.

  • I would also say that one can salvage at least this much from Rothbard’s argument: interferences with liberty amount to a claim of at least partial ownership over other human beings. Claims of ownership, even partial ownership, over other human beings are repugnant; therefore etc.

    • Fair enough, though I wonder if the repugnancy claim will bear all the weight that’s put upon it once we get clear on the many and varied things that ownership might mean. Of course ownership in others is repugnant if it means you have a right to enslave them or steal their eyeballs. It’s much less clear that it is if all it means is that you have a right to their assistance in cases of dire need.

      • Aeon Skoble

        A right to whose assistance? This is the, well, a conceptual problem with alleged positive natural rights: who bears the corresponding duty? When positive rights are created by contractual arrangements, we know who has the duty to provide the thing. Outside of such an arrangement, the positive right will be incoherent unless we know who bears the duty. So if Bob has “dire need,” he has a right that he be helped by… who? Tom? Tim? Why Tom and not Tim? Make it more concrete: say I’m starving, so on your view I have a right to be given food – that means someone has a duty to give me food, but who? The first person I see? The richest person I see? The answer can’t be “everyone has this duty,” because after Tom has given me food, Tim can’t be said to have the duty anymore, because I’m no longer in dire need. So why was it on Tom to give me the food?

        • But the positive rights created by contractual arrangements split off some of your self-ownership rights. If I contract to deliver X to Pete today at 3.00, I no longer have the right to spend that time dancing. If Tom has paid me never to wear my favourite, brightly-coloured Hawaiian shirt, I no longer have the right to wear that shirt. If I have a contract of employment, I cannot just wake up in the morning (on a work day) and decide to spend the day in the park. Of course, I can still DO any of these things. People often do what they do not have a right to do. But they are then open to censure and perhaps to claims of compensation.

          • martinbrock

            Why aren’t all rights contractual? If I agree not to kill you while you agree not to kill me, then we each have a contractual right not to be killed by the other.

            What else is a right to life?

            If I agree to defend your life against others, then we have a defense contract. If you also agree to defend my life, we have a mutual defense agreement.

            A mutual defense agreement does not create a right not to be killed by others. It asserts no duty of others not to kill us. It only asserts our willingness to impose our will upon others to defend our lives.

            When we impose our will upon others to defend our lives, why don’t we just say that?

          • Aeon Skoble

            But those aren’t examples of your not having rights to x, they’re examples of your using your right-to-yourself to trade bits of lesser value for bits of higher value.

          • You could be saying either of two things here. I will comment on both.

            (1) The examples concern trading one thing for another; they do not concern trading bits of oneself.

            The response to this is twofold. First I could have picked the example of selling a kidney or clippings of my hair or portions of my blood or semen. Second, ‘self-ownership’ means the right to use one’s body and mind as one wishes. All the examples I gave are instances in which someone cannot use his body and mind as he wishes because he has accepted duties to use them as other people wish.

            (2) You can engage in exchange (legitimately) only if you already own what it is you are trading. Thus, all my examples, in which I sell parts of the right to own me, presuppose that, before the trades, I owned myself. Contracting away bits of self-ownership presupposes original self-ownership.

            That is quite correct, so I suppose it is what you are saying. We then face the boundary problem. My right to swing my own arm stops at your face (was that Nozick?). If we each have the right to self-ownership, then we each have the duty to respect other people’s right to self-ownership. If Ted wants to sing, but his flatmate wants to sleep, they cannot both do as they wish. They are both self-owners, but they cannot both succeed in using their bodies as they wish. They need a rule demarcating where one person’s self-ownership ends and the other’s begins. It is no use saying simply: they can trade. Until there is a rule (at least de facto) there is nothing to trade.

            So far I have been speaking as a libertarian. But, as we know, most people are not libertarians. Some will claim, for example, that other people have, in some circumstances, a right to our assistance. Some of them will construe that right to assistance in ways which are demanding; some in ways which are very demanding. If any of these people are right, our self-ownership does not extend as far as we libertarians think it does. As Matt says, there is, in principle, an infinite number of places where that boundary could be drawn. Where it should be drawn is a substantive question. To answer it, we need arguments.

          • Aeon Skoble

            I agree with your analysis, but don’t see how it’s an argument against mine. Ted and his flatmate have rights to use their bodies as they wish in non-rights-violating ways, but if they want to share a flat, they’ll need to agree on rules. This is an explicit contract between the two of them, and presumably is mutually beneficial. This is totally different from the suggestion that others with whom they have _not_ made a contract have some claim on space in the flat.

          • Whatever rules Ted and his mate agree on, they will find in the course of time that there are situations for which they need further rules. If they had anticipated the singing-sleeping clash and written it into a contract (that is a big ‘if’), there will be other clashes they did not think of, for example, if the noise of Ted’s weight-training prevents his mate from enjoying a book he is reading. There is always a penumbra of vagueness around any right, including self-ownership rights. This compares with Matt’s example about the plane flying over your property. So, even if we manage to privatise all the public spaces, we won’t have got around the problem; because creating property rights involves spelling out rights which can only be spelt out so far. The world always throws up situations we never thought of. This, of course, is one of Hayek’s points in L, L & L, Vol 1.

            Perhaps the main point Matt was making, though, was the one I made at the end of my previous message, namely, that because self-ownership rights can be divvied up, it is a substantive question about where the line for ‘original self-ownership’ should be drawn. To say that, in ‘a state of nature,’ I fully own myself is either simply a consequence of the definition of ‘a state of nature’ or it begs the question. Which question does it beg? This one: what ought to be the extent of self-ownership?

            Don’t get me wrong: I am a libertarian, and an emphatic and possibly even extreme one. But I think libertarians need better arguments than many of those they have been using in the past.

          • Aeon Skoble

            I’m not sure I even want to characterize Ted and his roommate’s living arrangements as a rights issue in the first place. That they live together at all is presumably something they want to do, and while living together requires compromise of preferences, that’s not something characterize as a rights issue. Where it would become a rights issue would be if, e.g., Ted’s flatmate thought that because they had agreed to share a flat, he was entitled to 2/3 of Ted’s salary, and helped himself to Ted’s wallet each night. That’s theft, regardless of whether we would also counsel Ted to move out. I am still not seeing how self-ownership can be divvied up. Either others have a natural (viz pre-political or pre-contractual) claim on my life or they don’t, It’s proponents of the former, not the latter, who a story to tell.

          • Let’s call Ted’s roommate ‘Jed.’ We could put the issues between Ted and Jed in this way. If Ted has a right to use his own body, should he not have the right to sing when he wants (even if Jed is trying to sleep)? If Jed owns himself, surely he is entitled to read when he wants (assuming the book is his)? But if Ted owns himself, surely he has a right to exercise when he wants (even if it prevents Jed from reading)?

            They need not live together for these problems to arise. They could be in adjoining flats or even adjoining houses (as long as the walls are not particularly thick).

            The fact that people are self-owners entails that they have claims upon each other, namely, not to violate each other’s self-ownership. And the fact that one person’s use of his body can interfere with another person’s use of his body means that self-ownership is vague around the edges.

            Further, it is a substantive, and contested, question whether we owe non-contractual moral duties to each other over and above respecting each other’s private-property rights. If we do have such duties, then, since duties curtail liberties, and since self-ownership involves liberties as well as rights (and authorities, immunities, etc.), it is quite possible that these duties delimit our self-ownership.

            The points made in the last two paragraphs indicate that self-ownership is not an all-or-nothing affair. It is rather a matter of more or less, and the question is where to draw the line. It seems that you and I agree that the line should be drawn in a place that makes the right to self-ownership extensive and robust. I think we also agree that this is in some sense a natural place to draw the line (though I think we disagree over the interpretation of ‘natural’). So far as I can make out, you think that, if the line is not drawn in that place, what we have left is not self-ownership. I am not sure whether this last issue is a substantive or a verbal one.

          • Aeon Skoble

            “If Ted has a right to use his own body, should he not have the right to sing when he wants (even if Jed is trying to sleep)?” No. His rights are bounded by the equal rights of others. He has the right to sing in a shared flat only if his roommate consents. If it were Ted’s solely-owned house, then he’dhave the right to sing even if Jed were asleep (although this might be morally bad, it wouldn’t be a rights violation). If it were Jed’s house, Ted would have no right to sing at any hour without Jed’s consent. But if it’s a shared house/flat, they’ll have to have a contractual arrangement spelling out things like this.

          • “He has the right to sing in a shared flat only if his roommate consents.”

            That sounds comical. Who is his roommate? Hitler?

            “If it were Ted’s solely-owned house, then he’d have the right to sing even if Jed
            were asleep (although this might be morally bad, it wouldn’t be a rights

            Well, it would be a rights violation if Jed is paying rent and the agreement says that Ted is not to disturb Jed’s sleep.

            “If it were Jed’s house, Ted would have no right to sing at any hour without Jed’s consent.”

            Again, unless the agreement they had made specified that Ted had the right to sing (but not in the middle of the night, perhaps).

            “But if it’s a shared house/flat, they’ll have to have a contractual arrangement spelling out things like this.”

            Except that it is unlikely that the agreement they have made will include any such term. If Ted’s singing turns out to be a problem for Jed, they will have to agree on new terms or split.

            There are two points here: that rights can be divvied up; that rights are never completely defined.

          • Aeon Skoble

            If it sounds comical, it’s because you’re assuming I think rights theory is exhaustive of ethics, which I don’t. I can imagine people treating each other badly where no rights violations are occurring. But I agree with you that there would right violations if they had a contractual arrangement and one of them broke it. I am still not seeing how the possible difficulties that are engendered by having roommates is evidence that the putative right to self-ownership is vague in the way that Matt says land rights are.

        • martinbrock

          If you have a right to a parcel of land, who bears the corresponding duty to walk around the land rather than cross it without your consent? If I don’t need to cross the land, a duty to walk around it imposes no cost on me, so your right to the parcel seems to impose costs only on particular people, and thus it seems to be a “positive” right rather than a “negative” one. Why isn’t it?

          • Aeon Skoble

            Needs don’t create rights. You don’t have a right to cross Bob’s property just because you feel the need to cross it. Bob’s property right is a right to not be trespassed against, not to be taken away, not ti be used by another without Bob’s consent. These are all negative rights which impose a duty on everyone equally to refrain from these actions. That said, it’s certainly possible that, as a contractual matter, Bob’s property right may be mitigated, e.g. if the contract through which Bob acquired it included a clause granting Tom access or whatever.

          • martinbrock

            I don’t need a right to cross a parcel of land. Bob needs a right to forbid me crossing the land without his consent. Bob needs to keep me off the land without his consent, because he feels a need for this right.

            Why doesn’t Bob need a contract with me to impose this cost on me, because Bob says so, because John Locke says so, because Murray Rothbard says so, because Moses says so, because you say so? Why is no one asking me? I’m the one bearing the cost of walking around the land, not you or Moses or Rothbard or Locke or Bob.

  • If libertarians believe in letting people work things out without direction from above, why can’t we let people work out what ownership means?

    • martinbrock


    • Because sometimes when you let people work out what ownership means, they decide your property rights don’t matter.

      • martinbrock

        If you don’t like how others work out what ownership means, they presumably don’t like how you work out what ownership means either, so you and the others shouldn’t associate.

      • That’s the typical argument against a free market in anything. If we leave health care up to the people, won’t poor people die of cancer?

  • martinbrock

    Consider the ownership one might have in a piece of land.

    Rothbard’s view of ownership leads him to many absurd, essentially royalist conclusions, like title in perpetuity.

    According to Rothbard, ownership of land cannot amount only to a right to the value of improvements (which depreciate), because this value exists in the minds of other people (their subjective preferences). A person cannot have a right to the content of another person’s mind, he says.

    On the contrary, market value, existing only in people’s minds, is the only thing free people may have a right to. Your ownership of a parcel of land is my willingness to exchange something for its fruits (including use of the land itself), and that’s all it is.

    All of these positions, of course, would need to be argued for.

    These positions are subjective preferences, like the preference for a gram of silver vs. a loaf of bread.

    But that leaves open whether we own ourselves in the more robust way …

    In my way of thinking, you own yourself however you want to own yourself. I don’t get to tell you how you own yourself, because you are free of me.

    Maybe we have the right not to have our labor taxed and maybe we don’t.

    I suppose I have a right to have my labor taxed, i.e. I have a right to surrender a portion of my labor, without a market exchange, to other people in an association agreeing to respect the terms of association, including all of my rights within the association.

    But the fact that chattel slavery is wrong doesn’t settle it.

    I suppose I have a right to subject myself completely to another person and to serve whoever this person tells me to serve. Am I a chattel slave in this scenario?

    I don’t suppose that many people are truly willing to subject themselves to another person this way, but that’s a separate issue.

    • Hi, Martin. I’m a bit pressed for time today, so I beg your pardon for focusing in on only one small part of your post. You write:

      In my way of thinking, you own yourself however you want to own yourself. I don’t get to tell you how you own yourself, because you are free of me.

      But I’m not quite sure what this means. Ownership claims are, as I argued in my last post, claims on other people. When I claim that I own something, I am making a claim about duties that you have. So it seems a bit puzzling to say that people can own themselves however they want. What exactly did you mean by this?

      • martinbrock

        I’m trying to be more libertarian than thou, and I possibly overreach, but I don’t presume to tell you the rules you must follow, even the rules governing what you govern, even the rules governing the extent of your governance of yourself. You decide the extent of your governance of yourself, and you may decide yourself completely subject to another person, even to a fictional character, like Jesus. I decided myself subject to Sherlock Holmes, as a younger man, for example. He was my hero, even though he never existed, arguably.

        The object of your subjection is your choice, not mine, but in my way of thinking, the object of your subjection is always a formal system, a system you choose to follow along with others choosing to follow the same system.

      • martinbrock

        Ownership claims are claims on other people.
        An ownership claim claims that other people follow rules that you assert. Either the claim is true, or it’s false. Either people do follow these rules, or they don’t.

        Libertarians agree that people choose the rules they follow, and that’s all. A right to life, self-ownership, Lockean property in the land, hereditary title, income sharing, none of these rules are necessary, but liberty rules none of the out. Only each individual’s freedom to choose the rules he follows is necessary.

  • Matt: He wasn’t much of an economist, and he certainly wasn’t a good philosopher. Why bother with him?

    • I think a lot of his work is worth reading, even with its flaws. His Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, for instance, is absolutely fascinating. And instructive, even if some of the scholarship is a bit questionable.

      But, more importantly, Rothbard has become for many young libertarians definitive of libertarian philosophy and economics, largely due to the work of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A lot of libertarians think his work is unassailable. And, sadly, there just isn’t much good stuff out there assailing it. So I want to get a serious philosophical assessment “on the record,” so to speak.

      Plus, given that I’m writing a history of libertarian thought I figure I’ve gotta work my way through this stuff anyway. Might as well double-dip. 🙂

      • Aeon Skoble

        I would strenuously disagree with the idea that Rothbard is “definitive of libertarian philosophy and economics,” but nevertheless affirm that he offers some good insights and arguments. His essay from Nomos, “Society without a State” is quite good. Barnett is better, but arguably we needed Rothbard to get to Barnett.

      • Sean II

        Many young libertarians pass through a period where their only choices are to worship Rothbard or to pretend he doesn’t exist. Same goes double for Rand. The results can be kind of tragic.

        I remember being 19 years old and thinking: “What does it mean that the only argument against Rand seems to be a dismissive, vaudeville eye-roll from my philosophy professors? Where are the papers, where are the critiques? Where is the thoughtful opposition?”

        In the end, I decided my professors must simply be full of shit, because if they really cared about young minds they could hardly fail to engage with someone who captured them so powerfully – even, and especially, if they regarded her merely as a sophist and a seducer of confused kids.

        The libertarian movement needs to come to grips with its cults, using at least the same patience and decency it shows to its statist opposition. The way Roderick Long writes about Rand is a good model: respectful, courteous to her fans, but in the end unsparing of her flaws.

        I think it’s great to see Rothbard get the same treatment.

        • Fallon

          Ok, you think you can take down Rothbardians on economics too? Or are you content with labeling them a cult?

          • Sean II

            That’s not fair. The split here is between people who think Rothbard deserves to be read, interpreted, discussed, etc., and those who think he isn’t worth the bother at all.

            Clearly I am one of the former, very much opposed to the latter. In that respect we are on the same side. Of course that doesn’t stop me from calling Rothbard a cult figure, in much the same way that I wouldn’t hesitate to describe “Assault on Precinct 13” as a cult film.

            In both cases I mean something like: “This man (or movie) has plenty of merit, but try not to get trapped in a lengthy bong session with one of his (or its) diehard fans. They tend to overstate things a bit and can sometimes react dramatically to even the most carefully ventured criticism.”

            That’s not really so bad, is it?

      • Carl

        I have never encountered a single libertarian who regards Rothbard’s work as “unassailable”, let alone “a lot” of them. I’ll just have to take your word for it. Then again, maybe they just agree with much of what he said. What a notion!

      • Sol Logic

        Well thanks for assailing it. It’s been very helpful. I wonder why more Libertarian philosophers don’t?

    • Fallon

      “He wasn’t much of an economist”…Thems fightin’ words. Wanna back that up with something? Think you can go toe-to-toe with the Rothbardian Austrians, huh? Well, do ya?

    • Victoria Granda

      Jason, I personally am trying to learn as much as possible about the different schools of thought within libertarianism (I believe they all have value and insight, and as an aside, I think the internal bickering is petty and counter-productive), so I am genuinely asking who would you recommend then? Who do you think is indeed a “good” philosopher and/or economist?

    • Carl

      You sound like a buffoon. Whoops, guess I’m in a cult.


  • If you’re the sole human on an island, and you gather some food that you want to save for the next day, you know animals will get it while you’re sleeping unless you hide it well. Your claim of ownership means nothing because the cohabitants of the island don’t understand it. Your claim is no more valid than your ability to physically safeguard the property. We can also live that way in human society, but we don’t want to. So we invent property rights.

  • With ownership comes responsibility. You are responsible for what you own, but you are free to use what you own as you see fit as long as you don’t harm or endanger others.

  • J. P. Martindale

    Perhaps i’m misunderstanding you here Matt, but i’m not sure what you’ve said here is altogether relevent to Rothbard’s point. Rothbard says that for any object (say a piece of land) that is owned, there are only the three ownership possibilities outlied above. What you seem to be suggesting is that there are several ways in which we can argue as to what the boundaries of that object are; i.e. whether that peice of land should said to include space below and above it etc, what actions on that property constitute infringements on other peoples property (the river example) etc. But disagreeing about what constitutes the boundaries of an object doesn’t in itself seem to respond to Rothbard’s claim that, once we know what the boundaries of an owned object are, only three potential ownership claims can apply to this object (even if Rothbard doesn’t seem to give this other boundaries question the attention it deserves).

    • That’s a nice point, J.P. Part of the problem is, as you say, getting the boundaries of the owned object right. But I don’t think this accounts for all of the difficulties with Rothbard’s account. Take the case of easements. If A owns a piece of land X, one question we will want to ask is whether B has a right to move through X in certain circumstances. If we decide that he does, then A’s ownership of X is missing one of the sticks that normally goes into the bundle of ownership. His ownership has changed, not because we’ve refined the nature or boundaries of the object that he owns, but because we’ve changed the rights he has over that object. I think a lot of property questions are like this.

      • Also, if he rents out a part of the land, he still owns it, but he cannot do with it as he likes any more. He has some rights of a ‘full owner’ (if that makes sense) but not all of them. Compare that with a contract of employment. During working hours, the employee does what his boss says: he cannot do what he pleases. He has less control over his body and mind than does a self-employed person or someone who is retired, for example.

      • tehol

        Building off this concept that JP has here: Don’t you think that any single right in a property bundle is subjected to the three uses identifiedby Rothbard?

  • dan dennis

    This blog post is spot on.

    Everything comes down to what people DO. What activities each person performs,
    where one person’s activities may impact on which activities someone else can
    engage in. Talk of ownership is a very vague and indirect way of talking about

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  • Scottgenstein

    One cannot reasonably accept, reject, or entertain the question of owning ONESELF except as a joke–unless one is so caught in the grip of a theory one can no longer see straight.

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  • Akal Singh Krau

    FYI, that Rothbard quote in paragraph 5 should read: it is “absurd to hold that NO man is entitled to own himself, and yet to hold that each of these very men is entitled to own a part of all other men!'”

  • sirhotalot

    >Everyone agrees that those things are wrong,

    No they don’t, morals are relative and many people in the world are okay with slavery. Even in the US slavery still exists in many forms.

  • Matt Tanous

    I fail to see what the possible distinction over what constitutes a unit of land somehow muddles the definition of ownership. Someone is confused as to what constitutes ownership, and it is not Rothbard. Rather, Zwolinski, you have confused the issue. As usual.

    • Wickman

      Yes, true. Also, the question “what does it mean to own a piece of land” is not at all undefined. It just depends on your deed. Most land contracts stipulate just the area, but it could as well specify the *volume* of land you own. In practice, drawing your land on a map is usually sufficient, but it could, in some cases include the exact dimensions in 3 dimensions.

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  • Anne_Ominous

    I have a number of issues with your logic, most of which I won’t go into here. As for the “Left Libertarian” argument about property, it seems prima facie self-contradictory, and I often wonder why some otherwise intelligent people don’t see that.

    For one thing, the numbers simply don’t add up. “Enough, and as good” a share, as per Locke, must by definition be an equal share, or it cannot be “as good”. And it cannot therefore be due to the fruit of your labors, or it would violate the “as good” principle.

    If we took it less literally, at its apparently superficial meaning, i.e. you can make more than your neighbor if you work harder or better, but only up to a certain “share” of the world’s wealth, then who owns that share before you acquire it? There must be a surplus; some kind of “pool” of wealth from which you take your extra “share”. Which would require some sort of management. Who “owns” that pool of resources? A State?

    The remaining possibility is that there is no such pool of wealth (or that it is small), and that the harder / better worker is actually producing the additional wealth by him- or her-self. In which case, by what right do others deserve “as good” a share, since this represents wealth that would not otherwise even exist?

    Of these 3 scenarios, the first is obviously not what the “Left Libertarians” actually mean. Of the other two, the former represents the stereotypical Leftist myth that economy is a zero-sum game; and the latter is the one that so-called “Left Libertarians” seldom acknowledge is possible or even desirable.