Contra the Self-Ownership Principle: The Nightmare of Libertopia

This is an interesting critique of the self-ownership principle, and one that other libertarians ignore at their own stupidity. The lack of nuance that Rothbard sometimes presented in his theoretical and philosophical abstractions is a problem for relating theory to praxis in the case of libertarianism and propertarianism. Lewis rightly points out that the prevailing moral psychologies and legal precedents negate the views of Rothbard on things like children and the totality of a contractual society. However, I disagree with his view that social contractarianism is the negation of a contractual society. Rather I believe they can be complementary in their creation of solid, customary law through common law courts and juries, and the mindset and customs of a natural law society which negate the capabilities of parasitism and state-based coercion. (by the blog author)


by Todd Lewis

Contra the Self-Ownership Principle: The Nightmare of Libertopia

Recently I have been reading Ed Feser’s blog entries on Murary Rothbard here:

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/08/rothbard-as-philosopher.html                            http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/08/rothbard-revisited.html

With Feser’s insights, along with my own separate inquiries facilitated by my friend Brock Bellerive, I have found Rothbard to be a very shoddy philosopher and anarcho-capitalism in general bereft of any serious intellectual firepower. The specific point that Feser was critiquing was Rothbard’s concept of self-ownership, which Feser handily disposes of with rigorous use of logic. This in turn facilitated some of my own thoughts on the self-ownership principle and found it wanting both intellectually and morally. The thrust of this paper is to show that self-ownership is both intellectually and morally bankrupt.

Intellectual Bankruptcy of Self-Ownership

1.1

Self-ownership is the foundational principle of libertarianism in general and anarcho-capitalism in particular. From this single principle derives the Non-Aggression-Principle (NAP) and various definitions of rights and restrictions placed on individuals. I will argue that self-ownership is intellectually bankrupt based on its own intellectual absurdity.

1.2

The definition of self-ownership that I will be using is one I think most anarcho-capitalists would find unobjectionable, the definition given by Murray Rothbard. Rothbard defines self-ownership in For A New Liberty thus:

“The right to self-ownership asserts the absolute right of Property and Exchange each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, to “own” his or her own body; that is, to control that body free of coercive interference.”[1]

The obvious problem with self-ownership is that the owner and the thing owned are the same thing. Ownership in any normal usage of the word assumes a distinction between the owner and the thing owned. For example, if x owns y, then it is entailed by that statement that x is independent and distinct from y. If, as in the case of self-ownership, x and y are identical, then no such relation of ownership could possibly exist since x and y are one and the same thing: the “I” and “my body”. This is clearly an incoherent statement. Saying that I own myself has about as much meaning as saying that a chair owns itself.

1.3

Anarcho-captialists argue that one can acquire legitimate ownership over property in one of three ways: (1) homesteading, (2) purchase, or (3) gift. An individual can mix his labor with some unowned piece of land or property and acquire ownership over it, or he can purchase property from a seller who legitimately acquired the property or be gifted the property from someone who legitimately acquired the property. The obvious problem with self-ownership is that one is unable to acquire control over one’s body in any of the aforementioned ways. It would make no sense to argue that you purchased or were gifted your body, since you would have to exist before you existed. It is also impossible to acquire possession of your body through homesteading, since you would have to exist before you existed to mix your labor with your body. You first have to have a body to mix labor with, but if the labor you are mixing is with your body it is a hopeless contradiction.

In fact, if anyone were to own your body, it would be your parents since they mixed their sperm and egg to create you. This in turn leads to the ad hoc nature of the anarcho-capitalist conception of self-ownership: that justly acquired property has an expiration date of ownership. If I acquire any form of property via the aforementioned three methods, according to anarcho-capitalists my control is total and indefinite; i.e. no one can legitimately tell me what or what not to do with or on my property and that my duration of control over that property is unlimited unless or until I sell it, destroy it, or die. With legitimately homesteaded children we have the bizarre situation in which the duration of control over justly acquired property is limited. This expiration date is determined by Rothbard to be the point when a child can leave:

“For the child has his full rights of self-ownership when he demonstrates that he has them in nature-in short, when he leaves or “runs away” from home.”[2]

There are two problems with this date of expiration: it is ad hoc and it is patently false. Firstly, why should it be the case that a child becomes a self-owner when it runs away? If we take that definition, then a dog has proven his self-ownership rights when he runs away. Since the capacity of running away says nothing about the mental aptitude of the agent, it is absurd to use such a justification with regards to children. Secondly, this is patently false, since the capacity to run away is not at all determinative of the rational capacity of an individual and his ability to exercise self-ownership rights. For example, a three year old could run into the street or a ten year old could really run away and get himself lost. Rothbard further compounds this absurdity with the monstrous claim that:

“Parents may try to persuade the runaway child to return, but it is totally impermissible enslavement and an aggression upon his right of self-ownership for them to use force to compel him to return.”[3]

On top of an arbitrary point of independence, Rothbard compounds his error by stating that parental negligence is the only ethical position available to parents in a libertarian social order. Since to seek to bring that ten-year old back by force would be slavery, I guess I would also be guilty of enslaving Fido if I attempted to retrieve him after he ran away? I would hope that such people do not have children, or we might have hordes of roving feral youths while concerned parents and citizens remain unable to compel them to return to their parents for fear of treating them like slaves. Oh wait, we already have such an outcome in the inner cities of the United States. That has turned out so well, hasn’t it? As I will show later, there is absolutely no reason to argue that one acquires self-ownership rights in lieu of acquiring rational faculties.

I have heard at least one anarcho-capitalist[4] try to answer the problem of acquiring self-ownership when questioned by an anarcho-communist. His position was that by eating food and turning it into more of his cells, he has thus mixed his labor with himself. This novel belief would, if true, prove that all animals and possibly even plants have self-ownership rights, since animals consume plant matter or flesh to create new cells and plants process sunlight into cellulose. If anarcho-capitalists were to retort that the animals are not rational, that would be completely irrelevant, since when said anarcho-capitalist eats food the process by which food is turned into cells is not a rational process; it happens automatically just as the beating of one’s heart. One cannot confuse homesteading, a process with direct rational intent, with eating, digestion, and cell creation which are natural actions that do not demand the use of one’s reason, as proven by the example of plants and animals.

1.4

One of the seminal examples of Rothbard’s incompetence as a philosopher is illustrated in his account of alternatives to self-ownership:

“Consider, too, the consequences of denying each man the right to own his own person. There are then only two alternatives: either (1) a certain class of people, A, have the right to own another class, B; or (2) everyone has the right to own his own equal quotal share of everyone else. The first alternative implies that while Class A deserves the rights of being human, Class B is in reality subhuman and therefore deserves no such rights. But since they are indeed human beings, the first alternative contradicts itself in denying natural human rights to one set of humans. Moreover, as we shall see, allowing Class A to own Class B means that the former is allowed to exploit, and therefore to live parasitically, at the expense of the latter. But this parasitism itself violates the basic economic requirement for life: production and exchange.

The second alternative, what we might call “participatory communalism” or “communism,” holds that every man should have the right to own his equal quotal share of everyone else. If there are two billion people in the world, then everyone has the right to own one two-billionth of every other person. In the first place, we can state that this ideal rests on an absurdity: proclaiming that every man is entitled to own a part of everyone else, yet is not entitled to own himself. Secondly, we can picture the viability of such a world: a world in which no man is free to take any action whatever without prior approval or indeed command by everyone else in society. It should be clear that in that sort of “communist” world, no one would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly perish. But if a world of zero self-ownership and one hundred percent other ownership spells death for the human race, then any steps in that direction also contravene the natural law of what is best for man and his life on earth.”[5]

It seems that Rothbard is trying to illustrate the alternatives to self-ownership and then subsequently disprove them, leaving the reader with the conclusion that only one of the three is valid, i.e self-ownership. Yet even a cursory glance at this list shows us that Rothbard has failed utterly to account for all the different options. He has failed to account for the possibility of at least four alternatives. To illustrate this, I will reproduce Ed Feser’s list:

“The claim that there are “only two alternatives” to denying the thesis of self-ownership is just obviously false. Here are some further alternatives that Rothbard fails to consider: (a) no one owns anyone, including himself; (b) God owns all of us; (c) one class of people has a right to only partial ownership of another class (e.g. the former class has a right to the labor of the latter class, but may not kill members of the latter class, or refuse to provide for their sustenance, or forbid them from marrying, etc.); (d) everyone has partial and/or unequal ownership of everyone else (e.g. everyone has an absolute right to bodily integrity, but not to the fruits of his labor, which are commonly owned; or everyone has an absolute right to bodily integrity, and an absolute right only to some percentage of the fruits of his labor, with the rest being commonly owned; or everyone has a presumptive right to bodily integrity, which might be overridden in extreme cases, with a right to a percentage of the fruits of his labor; or the weak and untalented have an absolute right to bodily integrity and to a large percentage of, though not all of, the fruits of their labor while the strong and talented have an absolute right to bodily integrity and to a much smaller percentage of the fruits of their labor; or the strong and talented, unlike the weak and untalented, have only a presumptive right to bodily integrity, which might be overridden if someone desperately needs an organ transplant; and so on and so forth).”[6]

We see here that Rothbard has not only two but six alternatives to self-ownership to concern himself with. By examining Rothbard’s options, as well as each alternative that Rothbard failed to recognize, we will see that self-ownership is not self-evident.

Rothbard’s first example is “Class A owns class B”. Rothbard concludes that such a relationship assumes that class B is sub-human. No such assumption need be made. Walter Block, in his Toward a Libertarian Theory of  Inalienability: A Critique of Rothbard, Barnett, Smith, Kinsella, Gordon and Epstein, whether he intended to or not, shows that there is no contradiction in assuming that the person owned is not a person. In fact, in Block’s case, the very fact that a person is a self-owner allows him to sell himself into slavery. An anarcho-capitalist might complain that the example by Block is voluntary and the example by Rothbard is not. That is irrelevant since the status of being sub-human is dependent on being owned or not, not how one came to be owned. With this objection, Rothbard also begs the question, since what Rothbard is trying to prove is whether people have rights that might rule out slavery. Rothbard, expounding on the relationship of class A to class B, claims that class A is a parasite in that it lives off the work of class B. The parasitism of Class A violates, according to Rothbard, the “economic requirement for life: production and exchange.” This is of course patent nonsense, since plants and animals do not produce or exchange goods and do quite well living.

Rothbard’s secondary alternative is the claim that “everyone has the right to own his own equal quotal share of everyone else.” Rothbard argues that a contradiction arises and it would make human action impossible: “…proclaiming that every man is entitled to own a part of everyone else, yet is not entitled to own himself.” Yet no such absurdity arises. There is no contradiction in saying that someone owns a child’s labor, since anarcho-capitalists are not averse to child labor, and the child does not own himself anyway. The other contradiction is that no one would be able to do anything, since everybody would have a claim to his labor, but this again is not true. If we look at historic anarchist communes, for example the kibbutzim, where such a view of labor was assumed, people did in fact act and produce goods. A stunning revelation!

It is to be made clear that Rothbard does answer at least one of the other possible ownership arrangements that Feser makes consideration: (a) no one owns anyone, including himself. Rothbard in a footnote in The Ethics of Liberty states this:

“Professor George Mavrodes, of the department of philosophy of the University of Michigan, objects that there is another logical alternative: namely, “that no one owns anybody, either himself or anyone else, nor any share of anybody.” However, since ownership signifies range of control, this would mean that no one would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly vanish.”[7]

Rothbard’s argument here is clearly absurd. Clearly having range of control over a thing does not show one has ownership of said thing. Animals have a range of control over their bodies and environment, and Merry and Pippin had a range of control over Farmer Maggot’s garden, but that did not entail their ownership of the garden; in fact, they pilfered Mr. Maggot’s vegetables. In responding to a similar argument made by Mr. Feser, Gerard Casey argues that Rothbard’s statement in regards to George Mavrodes was not a conditional, but a biconditional:

“But what Rothbard actually says in the passage is not “If I own x, then I have a range of control over x” but “[o]wnership signifies range of control” which is capable of being read either as a single conditional (“If I own x, then I have a range of control over x”) or as a biconditional (“If I own x, then I have a range of control over x AND if I have a range of control over x, then I own x”).”[8]

This solution makes matters even worse. Mr. Casey has proven that animals have ownership over their bodies and environments, since it is obvious that animals have a range of control over their bodies and environments. In fact, a carjacker owns whatever vehicle he chooses to take, because after he has taken it, regardless of whether or not he owned it prior, he has exerted a range of control over the car and hence owns it. In order to illustrate the absurdity of Rothbard’s and Casey’s position, I will prove that animals have self-ownership rights: “If a dog has a range of control over (his body or territory), then the dog owns (his body or territory).” I did not know that Rothbard and Casey were actually closet PETA supporters! Who knew?

Clearly, Rothbard’s slipshod work is there for all to see, for not only did he fail to account for at least three other alternatives to his trilemma, but he fails to show any contradiction in accepting any of the three acknowledged positions, let alone the three that he failed to conceive.

1.5

In his book, For a New Liberty, Rothbard grounds self-ownership in the necessity for survival:

“The most viable method of elaborating the natural-rights statement of the libertarian position is to divide it into parts, and to begin with the basic axiom of the “right to self-ownership.” The right to self-ownership asserts the absolute right of each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, to “own” his or her own body; that is, to control that body free of coercive interference. Since each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation.”[9]

This argument is also deeply flawed, for Rothbard has not come close to showing what he wants to show. Even if rights are needed to live, thrive, and survive, there is no reason to believe that self-ownership is one of them, or that all rights are derived from self-ownership. As anarcho-capitalists are ever fond of reminding socialists and statists, just because one needs something for life means neither that one is entitled to it nor that it is a right. This argument here opens the flood gates to the positive rights of socialists, since they can argue with good reason that a man cannot live without food, clothes, or shelter. Also animals live, survive, and flourish without any such rights or conception of rights, which invalidates the claim that an organism needs such rights to flourish. We see again the ridiculousness of rights talk, for once you give the grounding for rights to man, it is impossible to restrict it to humans only, and inevitably it will be extended to animals, something nearly all anarcho-capitalists would not do.

1.6

In his discussion of animal rights in The Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard grounds rights in the fact that man has reason and animals do not. He states:

“No other animals or beings possess this ability to reason, to make conscious choices, to transform their environment in order to prosper, or to collaborate consciously in society and the division of labor.”[10]

Here we see the claim that rationality implies self-ownership. Yet this is clearly not the case. There is nothing in the conception of rationality that demands we must own anything. For example, if I say I cannot own myself and cannot own others, but I can act in a rational way in the world, no logical contradiction has occurred; rationality does not entail self-ownership, and self-ownership does not entail rationality. As I have shown, the three alternatives to self-ownership that Rothbard considers entail no inherent contradiction. Ergo, rationality in and of itself cannot confer self-ownership. It is just the juxtaposition of two ideas in a completely ad hoc and arbitrary manner. I could just as easily say that a chair is a self-owner because it is not rational, since the juxtaposition of irrationality and self-ownership is just as arbitrary as the juxtaposition of rationality and self-ownership. I could easily argue, as have many environmentalists, that animals have rights because they are sentient, i.e. feel pain. Therefore, we could conclude that anything that feels pain has rights. Why locate the property of rights to those beings endowed with reason rather than sentience? There is no non-arbitrary reason to do so. And, as we have seen with Rothbard, Casey, and Kruger’s attempts, to claim ownership of your body from “range of control” to “eating food to generate new cells” also applies to animals, and, in the latter argument’s case, plants. Finally we see the absolute absurdity of rights talk. There is no non-arbitrary way in which to define what does or does not give one rights. This absurdity was seen by Thomas Tayler in his 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Brutes, mocking the notion that men and women have rights by showing that such rights language can very easily be used to give rights to animals and vegetables and minerals. Just as Mr. Tayler shows this absurdity in the insane conclusions it will reach, we should junk all talk of rights as woolly-minded nonsense and see it for what it is: the very shabby attempt at putting man back on the pedestal of creation he was knocked off of when God was denied.

Moral Bankruptcy

2.1

In this section I will be castigating anarcho-capitalists for denying rights to children; this might seem strange after my earlier denial of rights. I bring up rights in the second half of this essay in order to highlight the hypocrisy of those who use rights talk to abuse other people. I myself believe our actions are guided not by rights, but duties and obligations imposed on us by God. The concept of self-ownership leads to many obvious, inevitable, and morally obnoxious outcomes. I will deal with two: (1) abortion/infanticide and (2) lack of positive moral obligations. The world that would result from putting such ideas into practice would be so repugnant that no right-minded person would want to live in it.

Abortion/Infanticide

2.2

Rothbard and Block will be the focus of this section, given that the former speaks for nearly all anarcho-capitalists, and the only really viable alternative presented to Rothbard’s position from within the movement is Walter Block’s. They will be dealt with in turn. Before I go on, let’s define what the word “murder” means. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, murder is defined as the crime of unlawfully killing a person, especially with malice aforethought. This definition must be kept in mind as Rothbard and Block seek to wriggle out of its implications towards abortion.

In The Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard argues that the fetus is a parasite on the mother if she decides that she no longer wants the trouble of keeping it alive in her womb. He states:

“The proper groundwork for analysis of abortion is in every man’s absolute right of self-ownership. This implies immediately that every woman has the absolute right to her own body, that she has absolute dominion over her body and everything within it. This includes the fetus. Most fetuses are in the mother’s womb because the mother consents to this situation, but the fetus is there by the mother’s freely-granted consent. But should the mother decide that she does not want the fetus there any longer, then the fetus becomes a parasitic “invader” of her person, and the mother has the perfect right to expel this invader from her domain. Abortion should be looked upon, not as “murder” of a living person, but as the expulsion of an unwanted invader from the mother’s body.  Any laws restricting or prohibiting abortion are therefore invasions of the rights of mothers.”[11]

Here we see the dark specter of self-ownership rear its ugly head. Rothbard argues that because a woman has self-ownership rights over her body, she is within her rights to expel the fetus to the point of death. Rothbard would reject the notion that an abortion is murder. He does so by asking the imagined Catholic interlocutor (who advocates that persons have a right not to be murdered): what right does a person have to remain unbidden on someone else’s property? That is, of course, irrelevant; shooting an insane man who refuses to leave, and since being insane renders him unable to be held accountable for trespass, would be murder and there are clearly more peaceful ways of removing him. The same holds for the fetus.

Rothbard argues that the fetus is a ‘parasite’ and an ‘invader’ and the mother is within her rights to abort the fetus. This argument is transparently absurd. For a person to be an invader that person must with premeditated action move onto your property. For example, an animal is not legally an invader, even if its presence is not wanted. No one would call a mentally ill person or a toddler trespassing on his property an invader, since they of course lack the premeditated intent to ‘invade’ property. Also it is rather interesting that Rothbard would resort to statist totalitarian language, by using the term parasite to refer to a fetus. The implications of such logic are obvious when seen in light of totalitarian references. The Nazis referred to Jews as parasites[12] and Communists referred to capitalists as parasites[13]. The classic totalitarian tactic is to render a certain class of humanity, such as Jews, kulaks, petite-bourgeoisie, fetuses, and infants as parasites; by doing so, these classes of human beings are removed from the class of human beings proper, and thereby lose any rights they might have had being attached to this class. Once that has taken place, their extermination is more or less inevitable. The irony of Rothbard using totalitarian language is lost on anarcho-capitalists.

Rothbard’s attempt to turn the tables on the pro-life catholic by implying that no ‘fetus’ has the right to trespass on someone indefinitely highlights his disconnect from reality. One cannot apply the normal rules of conduct and laws that we normally apply to adults to children. This is absurd. This is also why our legal system tries minors differently than people who have entered their majority. In response to Rothbard’s quip,“What person has the right to invite someone onto an airplane and then kick them out at 15,000 feet?” The real problem here is that Rothbard is using terms that are loaded. A parasite and a trespasser and an invader, when used in reference to persons, assumes intention, but obviously a fetus, toddler, or very young child does not have intention and therefore cannot be guilty of any of these transgressions. It should also be noted that human offspring are completely incapable of independent life until at least their mid-to-late teens where they are physically at least able to fend for themselves, even if they might not be mentally. This treatment of non-rational actors such as fetuses and toddlers as equivalent to rational actors is absurd and dishonest.

Rothbard also argues that one can practice infanticide via neglect. He argues that the principle of self-ownership demands that people have no positive obligations to others, since the act of enforcing said obligation would be an act of aggression against the person, and from that a parent may not murder his child through assault, but cannot be compelled to feed, clothe, or nurture a child. We see in Rothbard’s own words the chilling reality of self-ownership applied:

“Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die.”[14]

We see the obvious contradiction in this statement in that a parent is not allowed to murder a child, but is able to let it die. Since when was starving someone to death not considered murder? What court would take that as a serious objection? Rothbard also contradicts himself vis-à-vis fetuses. Why is the mother allowed to take action against (aggress) a fetus to remove it, presumably right up to the moments before birth, and a parent is not allowed to aggress against a child once it is fully exited the womb? What moral quality does being in or out of the womb have at all? A toddler is just as much a ‘parasite’ as a fetus, since the toddler is living on the land of his parents. In the nightmare world of anarcho-capitalist parenting, one is not allowed to spank children or compel runaway children to return home in order to not violate their property rights, but a woman is allowed to turn her own womb into a charnel house of death and leave one’s toddler as food for wild animals, much as the ancient Greeks did. Far from being progress, this is reverting to the primitive practices of the Igbo.[15]

Block, in a very strange way, both tempers and heightens the insanity of Rothbard’s position on children. Block continues the totalitarian rhetoric in Compromising the Uncompromisable: A Private Property Rights Approach to Resolving The Abortion Controversy, by referring to fetuses as parasites. He wants to find a middle ground between pro-choice and pro-life sides, but in reality only defends “abortion-light.” Block argues that one has a right to expel unwanted trespassers from one’s property, but with the caveat of increasing scales of violence. For example, if Fred trespasses on Sam’s land, Sam is not in his rights to immediately whip out a bazooka and blow Fred away. Sam must first exhaust every possible non-lethal form of dissuasion before resorting to force. In like manner, according to Block, a woman cannot first resort to violence to evict an unwanted parasite, but must first exhaust non-lethal forms. The problem with this model is that it is in fact abortion-light, and it is no compromise at all, for as Block admits, his solution is technologically contingent:

“True, one hundred years ago the only way to rid herself of the unborn human within her would have been to put it to death; one hundred years from now, it will presumably be possible to transfer it to a test tube or a host mother without disturbing it in the slightest.”[16]

“One hundred years ago, this would not have had much practical import; eviction necessarily meant killing. One hundred years from now, presumably, we would have the medical technology necessary to preserve the life of the fetus outside the natural mothers’ womb during any stage in its development (whether in a test tube or in the womb of a host mother, etc.)”[17]

With Block, we go from mass murder to Brave New World in only two pages. The obvious problem here is that it really is abortion and he admits that eviction a hundred years ago, and in most cases today, means killing. Block is technically correct that evictionism shares some beliefs with the pro-choice and the pro-life side, but what in theory is possible is in reality impossible, such as the concept of an a posteriori analytic statement. Like evictionisman, an a posteriori analytic statement is intellectually possible, but actually nonsense. Like Rothbard, Block will still let children be murdered. For more details on some of the morally obnoxious implications of self-ownership, see Radical Austrianism, Radical Libertarianism Lecture 8 Abortion by Walter Block where you learn that it is alright to kill an unwanted child. Here, Block disagrees with Rothbard on this: one may do violence to a toddler. Gee, I wonder how? By slitting his throat perhaps? But not to worry. Block implies this will be unlikely, and that is obviously reassuring:

“Would it ever be possible, under libertarian law, for a baby to be abandoned by its parents, for there to be no other adult willing to care and feed it, and the baby be relegated to death? Yes. However, this could occur only under the condition where the entire world in effect was notified of this homesteading opportunity, no roadblocks were placed against new adoptive parents taking over, but not a single solitary adult stepped forward to take on this responsibility. Since there are no positive obligations in the libertarian lexicon it is logically possible for such a sad state of events to take place”[18]

From this it should not be taken that Block is some sort of evil sadist or unconcerned with the rot of society. He admits to be so concerned here:

“Fleming is particularly exercised about this issue, characterizing my views as “morally revolting,” “repugnant,” “horrifying.” I hate to say this, but, truth to tell, I really do share many of his sensibilities. For example, I am appalled, but not equally so, by, in addition to the aforementioned prostitution, pornography, addictive drugs and homosexuality, also such things as unkindness, disloyalty, lying, excuse making, tardiness, bestiality, incest and coprophagia (to be fully and totally disgusting). But this is all entirely irrelevant to the point at issue: to uncover what a just legal system would prohibit.” [19]

We see that an otherwise decent man is forced by an absurd philosophical framework to defend the murder of innocent children. Furthermore, does anybody seriously believe that in a world where we owe nothing to our fellow man that such altruists would exist to buy the unwanted children? Perhaps some, but the actions of a few decent altruists could not hold a candle in the face of the darkest of horrors that would arise in such a world. There would likely be buyers, but they would probably be pedophiles, sex traffickers, or scientists intent on human experimentation. You cannot violate rights if said individuals do not have them.

Given that Rothbard and Block both tried to dodge the claim that fetuses have rights by ridiculously claiming that they intentionally trespass on the mother’s body, we have to go back to the question which they refused to answer: do fetuses have rights? The anarcho-capitalist answer would seem to be no. As I have discussed earlier, Rothbard denies that children have the right of self-ownership. Most pro-abortion advocates deny that fetuses or toddlers are persons since they do not have the power of rational choice. Yet if we accept that standard, then people in comas, with mental illness, with Alzheimer’s, or those who have dared to go to sleep at night could rightly be killed on similar grounds. Also having labels with some arbitrary standard means that people above and below the magical standard of rationality are non-persons. The next logical step is similar to the one that the Soviet Union took: labeling people who disagreed with dialectical materialism as insane. If mentally ill persons are in fact non-persons, and if mental illness can be identified with denying the societal dogmas (in the case of the USSR dialectical materialism), then an anarcho-capitalist landlord would be fully within his rights to kill Socialist or Christian tenants as non-rational non-person parasites who deny the ‘self-evident truth’ of ‘self-ownership’ or ‘NAP.’ A very good anarcho-capitalist discussion of these semantic absurdities can be found here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5X6uYqSSQGc). It is sad that otherwise decent people will defend or resort to such inhuman actions in the service of a bankrupt ideology. If any anarcho-capitalist objects that such a state of affairs could occur, then remember that in the late 19th century most socialists would have denied that such a thing could happen; there would be measures in place to prevent that within their envisioned system. So they said. Yet in the USSR it did happen. If no measures are in place, then the logic of the argument will win out.

No Positive Obligations

2.3

Anarcho-capitalism holds to the belief that each man has no non-consensual obligations to his fellow man; or, put another way, a man is not obligated to perform any action he as has not voluntarily submitted to. Rothbard states:

“On the other hand, the very concept of “rights” is a “negative” one, demarcating the areas of a person’s action that no man may properly interfere with. No man can therefore have a “right” to compel someone to do a positive act, for in that case the compulsion violates the right of person or property of the individual being coerced. Thus, we may say that a man has a right to his property (i.e., a right not to have his property invaded), but we cannot say that anyone has a “right” to a “living wage,” for that would mean that some- one would be coerced into providing him with such a wage, and that would violate the property rights of the people being coerced. As a corollary this means that, in the free society, no man may be saddled with the legal obligation to do anything for another, since that would invade the former’s rights; the only legal obligation one man has to another is to respect the other man’s rights.”[20]

Since such a view is often held by anarcho-capitalists, I will limit myself to Rothbard in this instance due to lack of anarcho-capitalist dissenters. The monstrous implications of this doctrine are clear, including the often mentioned account of allowing a drowning man to die, even if it is within your power to save him.[21] This example could be multiplied many times over. No one has an obligation to provide for one’s children (which we have already covered), provide for one’s elderly parents, respect ones parents, aid one’s extended family in distress, or any number of sensible and normal human duties. Both Socialists and Conservatives agree that people have non-consensual obligations to each other, and both agree that it is rooted in the historical development of the family. We see, for example, that both Roger Scruton in his How to be a Conservative and Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid A Factor of Evolution that positive obligations derive from family relationships. Scruton points out that in any social contract society[22] there eventually develops non-contractual relations:

“Furthermore, the social contract makes sense only if future generations are included in it. The purpose is to establish an enduring society. At once, therefore, there arises that web of non-contractual obligations that links parents to children and children to parents and that ensures, willy-nilly, that within a generation the society will be encumbered by non-voting (or in Rothbard’s case non-contract making) members, dead and unborn, who will rely or something other than a mere contract between the living if their rights are to be respected and their love deserved”[23]

“We can envisage society as founded in a contract only if we see its members as capable of free and responsible choice that a contract requires. But only in certain circumstances will human beings develop into rational choosers, capable of undertaking obligations and honoring promises, and oriented themselves towards one another in a posture of responsibility. In the course of acquiring this posture towards others, people acquire obligations to parents, to family, to place and community, upon which they have depended for the nurture without which the human animal cannot develop into the human person. These obligations are not obligations of justice, such as arise from the free dealings of human adults… unchosen obligations are not only vital to the building from below of a durable social order, but also properly owed to God.”[24]

Kropotkin also links unchosen obligations in the family:

“Like facts are met with by the score; so that, when we see that these same loving parents practise infanticide, we are bound to recognize that the habit (whatever its ulterior transformations may be) took its origin under the sheer pressure of necessity, as an obligation towards the tribe, and a means for rearing the already growing children. The savages, as a rule, do not “multiply without stint,” as some English writers put it. On the contrary, they take all kinds of measures for diminishing the birth-rate. A whole series of restrictions, which Europeans certainly would find extravagant, are imposed to that effect, and they are strictly obeyed. But notwithstanding that, primitive folk cannot rear all their children. However, it has been remarked that as soon as they succeed in increasing their regular means of subsistence, they at once begin to abandon the practice of infanticide. On the whole, the parents obey that obligation reluctantly, and as soon as they can afford it they resort to all kinds of compromises to save the lives of their new-born.”[25]

“With the Dayaks—we were told lately—the feuds had gone so far that a young man could neither marry nor be proclaimed of age before he had secured the head of an enemy. This horrid practice was fully described in a modern English work.(42) It appears, however, that this affirmation was a gross exaggeration. Moreover, Dayak “head-hunting” takes quite another aspect when we learn that the supposed “headhunter” is not actuated at all by personal passion. He acts under what he considers as a moral obligation towards his tribe, just as the European judge who, in obedience to the same, evidently wrong, principle of “blood for blood,” hands over the condemned murderer to the hangman. Both the Dayak and the judge would even feel remorse if sympathy moved them to spare the murderer. That is why the Dayaks, apart from the murders they commit when actuated by their conception of justice, are depicted, by all those who know them, as a most sympathetic people.”[26]

“The medieval Italian painters were also organized in guilds, which became at a later epoch Academies of art. If the Italian art of those times is impressed with so much individuality that we distinguish, even now, between the different schools of Padua, Bassano, Treviso, Verona, and so on, although all these cities were under the sway of Venice, this was due—J. Paul Richter remarks—to the fact that the painters of each city belonged to a separate guild, friendly with the guilds of other towns, but leading a separate existence. The oldest guild-statute known is that of Verona, dating from 1303, but evidently copied from some much older statute. “Fraternal assistance in necessity of whatever kind,” “hospitality towards strangers, when passing through the town, as thus information may be obtained about matters which one may like to learn,” and “obligation of offering comfort in case of debility” are among the obligations of the members (Nineteenth Century, Nov. 1890, and Aug. 1892).”[27]

What we see here is the untenable nature of a purely contractual society. This conception of society commits four errors: (1) treats rational and non-rational agents as the same, (2) cuts off the process by which individuals learn obligations, (3) confuses positive obligations with legal obligations, and (4) reduces all levels of cooperation to the third and lowest level of friendship.

As mentioned above in the discussion about children, anarcho-capitalists make the obviously stupid error of bestowing equivalent agency upon both rational (parents) and non-rational (children) agents. In law we have a clear distinction between minors and adults, and insane and sane persons. The law judges minors and insane people differently than sane adults. To treat an insane man and a sane man identically for manslaughter would be admitted by all as a grave misconduct of justice. The insane man, precisely because he is insane, is not held responsible for his action, whereas a sane man knew what he was doing or, if a crime of passion, had the rational faculties to think about his action before endeavoring to commit it. A minor is different than an insane man in the sense that the minor, in the normal course of development, will develop rational faculties that an insane man will not. Yet like the insane man, the minor is unable to act rationally. Treating minors as identical to adults is as much an abortion of justice as treating an insane man and a sane man identically.

Given that children are not rational until the age of majority, which is contingent upon the minor’s rate of maturity, they must first learn how to keep an obligation. Such obligations must of necessity be non-consensual, since children cannot consent[28]. In fact, any anarcho-capitalist that argues a child can consent and happens to perform an act of pedophilia with said minor[29], he would be guilty of fraud. It is a well-known fact of law that a contract can be nullified if the signatory was unaware or unable to understand certain obligations and concepts within the contract. As such, a child cannot consent to sexual intercourse since a child does not even know what that entails. Imagine a toddler consenting to an act of pedophilia; does he even know what he is doing or what is being done to him? This would seem to be completely legal within an anarcho-capitalist society, since they treat minors and adults identically before the law. It should be noted that the effects of pedophilia on children are almost never discussed, even in liberal society. Yet the nature of Alfred Kinsey’s experiments on children as young as three months old were of a pedophile nature, and yet we don’t even know who most of these victims have grown up to be. If they were well-adjusted adults, would not the liberal media hail their experiences as sexually liberating? The fact that their identities are still unknown would indicate their psychological scarring after such barbarous acts had been performed on them. The very nature of a child’s non-rationality entails that if he is to learn how to keep obligations, those obligations must be non-consensual; for by the time he is of age of consent and has not learned how to keep an obligation, he will have no practice in keeping up his end of the bargain. Training children to abide by the terms of obligations is one of the fundament responsibilities of parents and a parent is criminally negligent if he does not do so.

While it is obvious that no legal obligation demands that you save a drowning man, and good arguments can be made that such an act should not be legally required, only a fool would argue that we can conclude we have no moral obligation as such to him. For example, throughout most of human history, there were obligations that were enforced by societal pressures and not by the law; we often saw people who repeatedly flouted the norms of a society end up being shunned or exiled for failure to abide by the societal obligations. Such non-consensual obligations are the purview of societal disapproval, and denying that they even exist because they are not obligations of justice is absurd.

Aristotle defined three levels of friendship: utility, pleasure, and love of virtue. The friendship of utility is the friendship of the market place, or as Scrooge said of his partner Marley, “He was a good man of business.” The second form of friendship is one of pleasure; for example, associating with someone whom you find funny for his jokes or mannerisms. The last and highest form of friendship is the love of virtue or the love of a friend’s soul. This is best illustrated in the relationship between the biblical figures of David and Jonathan. This third and highest form of friendship is the glue of society in which social order is maintained between free men joined together in a fraternity of friendship, friendship being the third and highest form. We can see the push to sexualize male friendships as a means to prevent the formation of such fraternities because such fraternities of men are the only real threat to the power of tyrants. A people, having been severed from one another by the reductionist’s razor, are left alone and without purpose or identity. The radical freedom that is sought by libertarians is a bridge too far; while freedom is essential to human nature, it is not human nature itself. Like any ideology, libertarianism takes one aspect of human nature and causes it to consume the whole of human nature. In its wake, the desolation of the family unit, and hence the community, will follow, and I believe we are standing at the end of this transition. It is no mistake that power is flowing from the atomized individual and into the hands of those who are clever enough to manipulate man’s frailty in isolation. Positive obligations are essential to the fraternity of men and the organizations they create. Positive obligations are essential to the family and the societies they create. Positive obligations, in sum, are essential to forming lasting counterweights in man’s ever continuing struggle for power. It is the balance of power and the security that it brings which is the goal of lasting civilization. Positive obligations are the lock and key for the success of civilizations, for by fostering these virtues, all sorts of fraternities of decent men become possible, and the family becomes a microcosm of good governance itself. Man is allowed to be man, and he is taught his own perfection throughout his youth by means of obligation. The abolition of positive obligations is the abolition of man himself, for he becomes a spiritual black hole in the wake of this discovery: that he is an animal, and as an animal, owes nothing to everyone, and therefore all material (for that is all there is, they say) belongs to he that can take it and keep it. We finally arrive at nihilism, and nothing good abounds within that abyss.

In short, we see that by denying positive obligations, libertarians have destroyed the very elements that hold society together, namely family and fraternity. Such a world would not last for any great length of time; for its terminus is facilitated by the destruction of their own young, much the way Sparta disintegrated by treatment of its most helpless and dependent.

Conclusion

3.1

Here we conclude this discourse on the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the dogma of self-ownership. I showed in 1.2 that ownership entails a distinction between what is owned and the owner; self-ownership conflates the two, rendering the concept of ownership incoherent. In 1.3 I demonstrated that if self-ownership, given the three modes of acquiring property justly (homesteading, purchasing or receiving a gift), applied to an individual’s body is logically nonsense; or, if certain odd notions of homesteading are to be taken seriously, it gives rights to animals, a conclusion that most anarcho-capitalists would not accept. In 1.4 I showed that Rothbard failed to account for at least four alternatives to self-ownership and actually demonstrated that animals have rights. In 1.5 I showed that the necessity of survival does not confer rights and if it did animals would have them to. In 1.6 I pointed out the ad hoc and arbitrary manner in which rights were grounded in human reason, rather than sentience or existence. In 2.2 I demonstrated that the principle of self-ownership really entails a totalitarian dehumanization of children, the elderly, the mentally ill and ultimately anybody who disagrees with the self-ownership principle. Lastly in 2.3 I demonstrated that the very bonds that hold society together are cut asunder by the principle of self-ownership rendering organized human existence impossible. In conclusion, the principle of self-ownership as defined and argued for by Rothbard is an obscene moral monstrosity that allows for the murder of people (fetuses or the mentally ill ‘read everybody else’) in the name of self-ownership and non-aggression.

[1]Murry Rothbard, For A New Liberty (Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006), 33-34.

[2]Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (New York University Press, 1998), 103

[3] ibid

[4] Robert Kruger from Voluntary Virtues Network I believe here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8L_vAVEGZGQ makes such a claim. 1/16/2016

[5]Murry Rothbard, For A New Liberty (Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006), 34

[6]“Rothbard as a Philosopher,” last accessed January 16, 2016,  http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/08/rothbard-as-philosopher.html

[7]Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (New York University Press, 1998),  45

[8]http://libertarianpapers.org/wp-content/uploads/article/2009/lp-1-34.pdf 1/16/2016

[9]Murry Rothbard, For A New Liberty (Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006), 33-34

[10]Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (New York University Press, 1998), 155

[11]Murry Rothbard, For A New Liberty (Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006), 132

[12]“The Jew as World Parasite,” last modified January 20, 2016, http://research.calvin.edu/german-propaganda-archive/weltparasit.htm

[13]“Producers and Parasites,” last accessed January 20, 2016 , https://www.marxists.org/archive/keracher/1935/producers-parasites.htm

“Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” last accessed January 20, 2016, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/ch08.htm

[14]Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (New York University Press, 1998), 100

[15] The Igbo would practice infanticide on twins since they perceived twins to being bad luck and an affront to the gods.

[16] Walter Block,“Compromising the Uncomprisable: A Private Property Rights Approach to Resolving The Abortion Controversy,” Appalachian Journal of Law (2005): 24.

[17]Ibid.,25.

[18]Walter Block, “Libertarianism, positive Children’s rights obligations and property abandonment: children’s rights,” International Journal of Social Economics, (2004): 281.

[19]Walter Block, “Objections to the Libertarian Stem Cell Compromise,” Libertarian Papers Vol.2, ART. NO. 34 (2010): 7.

[20]Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (New York University Press, 1998), 100

[21]Walter Block, “Libertarianism, positive Children’s rights obligations and property abandonment: children’s rights,” International Journal of Social Economics, (2004): 275.

[22] In this case he is speaking of modern democracies, but I the hyper-contractual nature of anarcho-capitalism lends itself to the same criticism. Anarcho-capitalism is really the purest form of a social contract state, it takes Spooner’s criticism of the US constitution to its logical conclusion and creates a totally contractual society.

[23]Scruton, Roger. How to be a Conservative.Bloomsbury, 2014. Kindle edition.

[24] ibid

[25]“Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution,” last accessed January 20, 2016 , https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/kropotkin-peter/1902/mutual-aid/ch03.htm

[26] ibid

[27] “Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution,” last accessed January 20, 2016, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/kropotkin-peter/1900s/1902/ch05.htm

[28] The absurdity of children consenting to anything can be illustrated by asking can a toddler consent to a time out? What does that even mean?

[29] The question of pedophilia is one that is not touched by anarcho-capitialists and will in all likelihood be accepted as totally compatible with anarcho-capitalist theory after the society at large as normalized such behavior as in the case of homosexuality.

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4 thoughts on “Contra the Self-Ownership Principle: The Nightmare of Libertopia

    • I’m in agreement with you. However what I think is interesting about this essay by Lewis is that it reveals lack of context and nuance on the part of Rothbard in his elucidations on the self-ownership principle.

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  1. Chris Shaw, I am of the opinion that if I do something stupid to myself, the price should be mine to pay. Not society’s price to pay. Not that I would do drugs, however, if I smoked marijuana or snorted cocaine, that should be my decision to make. With some leaders in the U.S. admitting to using illegal drugs and wanting to deny us the right to do the same, I would consider that a double standard, not to mention hypocritical.

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