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.


Jock Coats said...

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?

Mutualist Kevin Carson christened the term "vulgar libertarian". Though I really think that would apply more to, in the popular opinion it seems, people like Jeremy Clarkson. I'm not sure that DK fits that description. It seems to me from those quotes that he's more "shooting from the hip" in response to others' questions rather than taking the time as I am wont to do to explain it a bit more accurately (and which is probably why I am at 189 in the Wikio politics rankings and DK is up there in the top ten or so - he is more entertaining than I am wonkish!

For what it's worth, I think your criticism misses an awful lot of what I think is sound thinking on self-ownership and enforcement of restitution in a properly anarchist society.

Market anarchist and Austrian economist and philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe explains all this quite well. The idea of "self-ownership" is not based on anti-slavery, though lack of "self-ownership" is a form of slavery.

It is based on two logical arguments:

a. that even in a perfectly plentious world where there would be no scarcity of any external good (scarcity leads to conflict and therefore requires some principles upon which to build a social order that avoids conflict) there would still be two scarce goods - each individual since there is only one of each and the space that they physically occupy at any point in time since no two can occupy precisely the same space.

So even in this veritable paradise we need to find a basic rule about who has the right to own and control one's body and its inherent faculties like opinion, speech. To be equitable such a basic rule ought to be in the form of a universal ethic - one that applies equally to everyone.

Only two possible alternatives actually exist logically - either you yourself have such ownership and control or someone else does over your own body (and allied to that the possibility that *everyone* owns a part of everyone else). If someone else has the right to own you, it cannot be a universal ethic at all, since if A owns B (which is where the slavery comes in) two distinct classes of people are created and the ethic cannot apply universally - owners and owned. If everyone else owns an equal part of everyone else, whilst you would have an ethic that did apply universally, society, indeed individuals, could not function, for you would need to obtain permission from everyone else to do anything, including granting the permission. You could somehow collectivize the "voting rights" of everyone in everyone else and call it a government, but then you'd be back to creating two classes, the rulers with the albeit temporary perhaps ability to control everyone else and the ruled....cont'd

Jock Coats said...


Incidentally "self-ownership" is not really a libertarian idea at all. It goes back at least to Locke, though for him you do give up some of it voluntarily to government on the condition that government serves thge people well - you can assert your self-ownership and dismiss your chosen government if they stop serving and become the masters.

Nor is external property ownership based on the same logic. The logic here is that the self-owner who first appropriates a scarce good from nature and makes use of it becomes its legitemate owner and has rights to defend it. For what is the alternative to that? Well, you could say not the first appropriator but some subsequent one - but then there would be little incentive to be the first appropriator and the subsequent one would become the first and not have the incentive too. Or, again, everyone has common rights to absolutely everything regardless of who first puts it to good use, and again there would be little incentive for the first user to bother if most of his efforts are going to go into everyone else's pocket.

I will wait till you write about homsteading and non-agrression to write more because the response to your question about handing oneself over into the ownership of another to pay a debt for example touches on that too.

But finally on your point about axioms, well that is precisely what the Austrian method believes. That in economics in particular, too much emphasis has been turned to creating an empirical science whereby each and every idea has to be proved constantly with empirical evidence., But that is just wrong. In political economy the economics is more like a liberal art than this dubious claim to being an empirical science. Just as you cannot either argue against nor prove empirically that two plus two equals four, so it is a similarly invariable axiom that for example, if more money is chasing the same quantity of scarce goods, the money price of those goods will rise.

Anyway, enough for now.

Joe Otten said...

Thanks Jock. Two quick points.

You'll notice that I wasn't disagreeing with a universal ethic of anti-slavery. My problem is more with the use of word games to channel revulsion at slavery into opposition to taxes, etc.

Why is it useful to elide the distinction between property and liberty?

2. I don't see empiricism as the alternative to foundationalism. Of the various rival epistemologies, I am probably closest to critical rationalism, and I suggest it works as well for politics and value-laden knowledge as it does for science.

Maybe I have missed what you are getting at here.

Bernard Salmon said...

Quite right, Joe. The other problem with DK's approach is that phrase 'property you have legitimately come by'. I would challenge any libertarian to say exactly how any property is ultimately 'legitimately' derived. Almost all notions of property rights rely on somebody at some point having claimed ownership over something which wasn't theirs to start with.

Jock Coats said...

Not such a great challenge actually Bernard.

Property is granted to the original appropriator, his or her successors, or those to whom that original appropriator sold th property to.

There has been much discussion about this obviously. It does not mean to say that anyone who has de facto possession of something today would necessarily be regarded as the best claimant come the anarchist revolution. Indeed to announce that would simply produce an incentive for those currently in power to grab what they can now and register a claim, have it granted and then declare it legal when the revolution happens.

Property is a solution offered to the problem of social order. In a world where many goods are scarce there is likely to be conflict between those who wish to use such a scarce resource. So there needs to be some foundational rule to help prevent that conflict. Property rights are the solution, because once they are vested in someone that someone can then defend them via the rule of law rather than just fighting over everything.

If the first appropriator does not acquire rights in what he or she appropriates, who does? The second one to come along and claim it? But then the first would never bother - the effort involved will give him no benefit, then the second becomes the first and why wouldd he if the subsequent one would be assigned the rights? Similarly if you say they are common property, why again would someone go to the effort of making something useful out of something appropriated if he is only going to be entitled to a one six-billionth of what results?

But there are other possible rules to add - what, for example, counts as "making use" of something. Would it be enough to put flags round a piece of land say to mark the boundaries and then do nothing more with it? Someone coming along subsequently and wanting actually to make use of that land could be ruled to have a better claim.

There's lots of literature on all this, it's not as shallow as lots of you all seem to make out.

Joe Otten said...

Save it guys, I'll do homesteading next.

Anonymous said...

I think the idea of self ownership as in, your body is your property, is always going to bit awkward.

But the idea that you're born and your life is yours doesn't seem an especially objectionable thing to assert.

There's also rather good arguments for explaining why individuals should, as a rule, be allowed to sort things out for themselves rather than have the state attempt to 'balance' things in one group's favour against another.

The problem as you rightly notice is the way that people attempt to philosophically link these things together to form some golden rules that must be obeyed.

The reality is that there's enough factual evidence to support free trade and a liberal, non 'side taking' government on their own merits without any philosophical underpinning.

Libertarians are, generally speaking (and not really including myself), too clever for their own good - they try too hard to prove conclusively that Libertarianism is the only way to intellectuals and not to, you know, normal people.

The problem you have is you're arguing against the philosophical argument being used as the underpinning of policy and I think I actually agree with you to a certain extent. But that doesn't mean the *policy* is bad.

Joe Otten said...

Charlotte, yes I agree.

The philosophy is not necessary to justify something like opposition to slavery. It's function is to try to assert that universal healthcare or education is a kind of slavery.

The problem for the libertarian intellectual with merely justifying free trade and liberty on their merits is that at least a basic level of universal healthcare and education can also be justified on their merits; rejecting them then requires a trump card.