Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Libertarian tropes #1: self-ownership

This is going to be a thorough demolition of libertarianism in a handful of blog posts. Today self-ownership. What does it mean?

Devil's Kitchen, in a comment here, explains it to us.
a fundamental—actually, the fundamental—principle of libertarianism is that you own your body (and your life): it is your property (to claim otherwise is to claim that someone else has a higher claim on your life).

Any property which you have legitimately come by is as much yours as your body is—because it is by your body’s efforts (and your mind’s talents) that you have earned said property.
The idea of property, then, is being used to justify liberty. Nobody should interfere what is owned by another, and you own your body, therefore you are free.

It is a bit churlish to disagree because it is a good conclusion, as far as it goes. Although property - even the libertarian's absolutist view of property seems rather weaker than necessary. Self-something-much-stronger-than-ownership, would be closer to the mark. You can after all be sued for your property in settlement of a debt. The suggestion that "property which you have legitimately come by is as much yours as your body" therefore raises the spectre of slavery (for debtors) contrary to the first half of the argument.

More to the point, why argue that liberty is a kind of property at all? Why not argue, say, that property is a kind of liberty? Which it is: the liberty to stop somebody else using some stuff that is considered yours. So it is a liberty and a restraint on liberty at the same time.

Well to be fair, the appeal of the libertarian argument is precisely that property is a kind of liberty. If you are against slavery, you should be in favour of this notion of property of ours that is also against slavery. Other concepts of human rights aren't as much against slavery as ours is, so there. Ultimately we see this is circular thinking. But if you don't notice the circularity, everything seems very well established.

It is much better to argue for property and liberty on their merits, which are manifold. Why does it matter whether one is notionally based on the other? If A is good and we extend an analogy from A to get B, does this mean B is good? No.

The trouble is, that if you argue for liberty and property on their merits, then similar merits also support human rights and democracy, and other good liberal principles, which libertarians would like their concept of property to trump every time. The reason they bang on so much about something so obvious and uncontroversial as opposition to slavery (self-ownership) is that their particular formulation is opposed to a broader sense of human rights and democracy. It is tragically mistaken of course - democracy and broad human rights make slavery less not more likely.

And isn't there also something a little odd about deducing your beliefs about diverse questions of policy from a handful of very particular principles such as opposition to slavery? Would you deduce your position on free trade from your position on embryo research?

Time for an illustration from the comment thread I linked to earlier.

I said
DK, if your relationship to your body is merely ownership, and nothing stronger than that, does that mean if you owe me money, and have no other assets, I can sue you for your body. To feed my dogs or something.
DK replied
Well, in theory, yes;
(splutter) YES??!?!?! That's got tea all over my keyboard.
or, indeed, I could rent you my labour until the debt is repaid.
Well I'm glad its not the only alternative.
But, if there is a hierarchy in the principles, that of life is sacrosanct—thus, you may claim my labour to repay the debt, but you may not kill me.
IF??? So you're not sure whether I may kill you in redemption of a debt?

There is a philosophical principle at work here - a mistaken on in my view - called foundationalism. The idea is that knowledge is something that is deduced from obvious axioms. By this standard is it seen as principled rather than brutishly stubborn to stick to the conclusions you draw from your axioms, no matter how absurd or evil they seem. If anybody disagrees with those conclusions, then they are pro-slavery evil communists blah blah blah. More on this from James Graham.

It is better, I suggest, to reassess those axioms and that reasoning. Self-ownership is a poor relation of liberty.

Apologies are due to the other kinds of libertarians out there to whom this might not all apply: anarchists, geo-mutualists, etc. If there is a less ambiguous term available for the kind of libertarian I am talking about I would be happy to use it. "Right-wing libertarian" perhaps?

Further tropes are planned for non-initiation of force, and for the homestead principle. And I am open to requests.