Who-Owns-You

Written by Christophe Cieters.

Our starting point lies in the notion that every man is “a self-owner, having absolute jurisdiction over his own body. In effect, this means that no one else may justly invade, or aggress against, another’s person” (Rothbard, 1982).

This central theme of self-ownership[1] has been voiced by many authors, but generally its official origin is traced back to Locke’s saying that every person “has a right to decide what would become of himself and what he would do, and as having a right to reap the benefits of what he did”, or more concisely: “every man has a Property in his own Person” (Locke, 1690).

To many individuals this axiom may seem obvious and in need of little explanation; few would argue that their body and mind are not their own, but this in itself does not prove anything per se. Even from personal experience I know that there are in fact people who oppose even the principle of self-ownership, so I believe it best to not just let ourselves be satisfied with a priori statements but instead explain the reasoning behind the concept in full.

There are three possible conditions of ownership of the self (Rothbard, 1998):

  1. each person owns a part of everybody else (collectivism in theory)
  2. some (groups of) people own (groups of) others completely (collectivism in practice)
  3. each person owns himself (individualism)

It could be argued that there is a fourth condition, in which nobody is owned by anybody, including themselves. However, as we will see below, this a road that simply leads back to the third condition listed above.

Number one is the collectivistic approach. Much can be said about it – and I will do so extensively over the course of this book – but for now it suffices to state that even with all moral and economic objections aside and without mentioning any obvious technical difficulties, even on a merely practical level this is an unfeasible proposition. People simply are unable to constantly monitor every other of several billion living human beings, and if consent has to be found for every action any other human being wishes to undertake – as owners have to consent with what their property is used for, even if and when they are not the sole owners – the world would grind to a standstill.

Perhaps the most telling analogy to be drawn when talking about the consensual governing of human behaviour is found in the parliament of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the mid-seventeenth to late eighteenth century, where even the problem of constant monitoring was not an obstacle. During that period in time, the Polish-Lithuanian parliament abided by the so-called “liberum veto” principle[2], which consisted of the legal right of “each member of the [parliament] to defeat by his vote alone any measure under consideration” (Encyclopedia Britannica, emphasis added). What it meant in a practical sense was that any member had veto rights over any and all matters to be decided upon. As a logical result all votes had to be unanimous, as would be required for every human action in case everybody is the partial owner of everybody else.

As most modern observers would expect, the amount of vetoes rapidly started to increase[3] up until the moment that the whole system became deadlocked in a stasis of mutual frustration and was finally abolished by the constitution of 1791, at which point the damage had been done and the nation was already reduced to a shadow of its former self (Rohac, 1998).

Naturally then, as the first option renders itself irrelevant it can only deteriorate into the second alternative, where some people are owned by others who claim ownership of their subjects, perhaps through brute force if needed. However, just like a company might have property rights over a building, it is the owner of the company who decides what to do with that building as control ultimately rests with him and his will to use it one way or another. Property rights need to end up at a particular person who owns them in order to be relevant. If the company has no owner then the company cannot exercise any property rights itself. If A does not control herself and is not herself controlled by somebody else, she cannot be the proprietor of B. As a result, if A owns B, she de facto also has to be owned by somebody else – just like a company – or she has to “own herself” in order to exercise her ownership and control of B according to her personal will. In any case the chain of control necessarily ends up in the hands of a person who owns himself as well as his subjects. In this situation there would then be people who somehow do not own themselves on the one hand, and people who do own themselves on the other.

But as such, self-ownership is established through the existence of the owning group or person: one has to own the authority over oneself in order to be able to own and wield one’s authority over somebody else (or to delegate that authority to a different person). Through the existence of A (or her owner in turn), the initial basic question of whether or not self-ownership exists consequently is transmuted into the paradoxical situation wherein ceteris paribus one human being supposedly has a natural right to self-ownership while somehow the same does not apply to another for no apparent reason.

Adding to this, it can be argued that even “if I obey another, I must always make the decision to do as he wishes; and the threat of violence on his part should I follow my own course leaves the situation unchanged. I must decide whether to accede to the threat” (Gordon, 2009, emphasis added). Purely on an ethical level there are from this point of view consequently no grounds to be found for a sort of a priori moral caste system that differentiates between self-owners and non-self-owners; as even when one obeys, one does so only while passing through the mental consent of the obeying individual (even if compelled to act this way or another under coercion). The self-ownership of the person under threat is implicit throughout the process.

From this it also follows that it is not only morally but also practically impossible for one individual to own another, as one’s internal will cannot be transferred. This might seem poor consolation for the forcefully enslaved, but this does not need to diminish the implications: consolation as such is not a necessity for validity. The external manifestation of the will – which is a different thing altogether – can of course be manipulated through voluntary agreement (whereby the will of both individuals and its external manifestation is in fact aligned towards the same intent) or through use of force (whereby the will of the oppressed remains unchanged even though its external manifestation is altered), but in each case the will itself does not change hands but remains the property of each individual person.

This leaves us only with option three – each person owning himself – as a relevant route to explore. It is from this notion of self-ownership that we also automatically arrive at the non-aggression principle: if we accept that each person owns himself then it is morally unjust to use coercion against said individual[4]; in a moral sense it is only the individual who is allowed to decide what to do with his personal property (in this case himself).

Self-ownership

But perhaps some still remain unconvinced that every person owns himself. They might argue that there is actually a seemingly overlooked fourth option where a person is not owned by anybody at all, not even by himself. Say we do not agree on the principle of self-ownership. Who then has the right, for example, to decide what should happen to one’s own eyes? It is the owner who decides to what use his property will be put and it is the owner who, through his ownership, has the right to exclude others from doing so. If we do not own our eyes then how can we prevent anybody (or for the sake of the discussion a hypothetical non-human entity) from putting a claim on them and thereby acquiring ownership over them, like plucking an apple from a tree of a newly discovered island? And in another sense, how could we legitimately decide to have them treated and modified through laser surgery or justify our own exclusive use of them either way?

Let us follow this through. “Were eye transplants easy to achieve, would it then be acceptable to conscript potential eye donors into a lottery whose losers must yield an eye to beneficiaries who would otherwise not be one-eyed but blind?” (Cohen, 1995).[5] I cannot be certain, but I expect that few people would be in support of this scheme. Perhaps they will declare to those who feel that they have a right to one of their eyes that only they themselves are to decide what happens to them, thereby claiming the property and excludability thereof.

It seems plausible that people feel that the naturally felt right to their own body – their self-ownership – outweighs the socialist and utilitarian principles of redistribution: “you are entitled to keep your eyes even if the fact that you have two working eyes is a matter of genetic luck and even if a blind person ‘needs’ an eye more than you do (you could still see with one eye but he cannot see at all)” (Gordon, 1998). What this example ultimately says is that if you do not have ownership over your own body, somebody or a hypothetical something else is de facto free to claim it, or you can at the very least not object to anybody enforcing ownership over it through coercion as your property would not be violated by doing so.

While this might seem to be a ludicrous as well as impossible situation, the mechanics at work behind the scenes are not: it brings home the concept of self-ownership through the naturally felt right to bodily integrity. The rest is only a matter of degrees with the same underlying principle.

But there is another way to approach the question of self-ownership in case one still remains unconvinced. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, an economist of the libertarian tradition (Hoppe, 2001), points out that by arguing against self-ownership, one is caught in what is known as a performative contradiction[6]: “argumentation is a form of action requiring the employment of scarce means; and furthermore that the means, then, which a person demonstrates as preferring by engaging in propositional exchanges, are those of private property. For one thing, obviously, no one could possibly propose anything, and no one could become convinced of any proposition by argumentative means, if a person’s right to make exclusive use of his physical body were not already presupposed” (Hoppe, 1993).

In other words: through the act of arguing against the concept of self-ownership, one is actually proving its existence. When trying to persuade somebody that self-ownership is fictitious, the self-ownership of the person to be persuaded is “implicitly recognized” (Terrell, 1999). Through the employment of persuasion and argumentation, the other party is de facto considered to be free to accept the validity of the argument or not: without self-ownership the attempt at persuasion would otherwise be irrelevant. Thus, anyone who denies that self-ownership exists is formulating the best proof to the contrary; “by his very engaging in cooperative and conflict-free activity of argumentation, he necessarily recognizes the right of his listener to be free to listen, think, and decide. That is, any participant in discourse presupposes the non-aggression axiom” (Kinsella, 1996). From self-ownership of the will also follows self-ownership of the body, as one’s will was the first to put one’s body to use and thereby claim it.[7]

This is the basis of the non-aggression principle, which defines “aggression” as the initiation of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property (note that the non-aggression principle does not preclude violent self-defence). Anchored on the non-aggression principle and the notion that individuals are self-owners, they cannot be supposed to simply disregard their preferences in order to adjust to some government’s discriminatory practice. Expecting this mistakenly downplays morality as well as the importance of freedom of choice as one of the most significant dimensions of personal well-being (Duclos, 2006) (Collard, 2006). Limiting people to an externally decided “good life” is thereby de facto immoral, no matter what the underlying intentions are.

Footnotes

[1] To “own” something means “to have, possess and control as property”.

[2] Latin for “I freely forbid”.

[3] Sometimes fuelled by the bribery of State officials by opposing foreign nations of the time like Russia and Prussia, who in their own interests wanted to destabilize the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

[4] Which says or implies nothing about it being impossible to do so anyway through immoral acts.

[5] Interestingly, this example in support of self-ownership was actually provided by Gerald Allan Cohen, a Marxist political philosopher (see for example (Cohen, 2001)). He himself was convinced of the notion of self-ownership – as his example and his further analysis of it also shows. He even accepted that self-ownership necessarily negates socialism. However, for a Marxist, this conclusion seems rather implausible, so I expect my readers to be as surprised as I was when I first read what Cohen had to say about this. Upon further inspection it became clear that his defence of socialism actually has nothing to do with self-ownership as such. He does not seek to deny or argue against it, but simply overrules his own conclusions on the matter by the utilitarian practice of whimsically claiming that it is “unfair that some individuals are in a position where they have better chances at being better off than others” (Gordon, 1998, emphasis added) (through genetics, luck, etcetera). Further discussion of Cohen’s views is outside of the scope and relevance of this book, but for those interested I suggest reading (Gordon, 1998) for a clear rebuttal of Cohen’s statements in this regard.

[6] For example, in “performing” the act of speaking, one contradicts himself when saying “I am not able to speak”; the claim is contradicted by the act of making it.

[7] The link between mental and physical self-ownership is essentially an inherent result of the homesteading principle discussed in the next Chapter.

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Christophe is a guns and gold loving anarchist from the geographical area known as Belgium. He spends his days slaying dragons and rescuing damsels in distress, invigorated by bathing in statist tears on a daily basis. He was put on this world to kick socialist ass and chew bubblegum – and he is all out of bubblegum.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider purchasing his book The Road to Anarchy and leave a review.

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