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):
- Libertarian self-ownership: Each man has full ownership of his own body.
- Communism: No one has 100% of his own body; each person has an equal part of the ownership of everyone’s body.
- 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.