Sunday, June 05, 2005


Despite the name, the core value of "libertarianism" is not liberty, but rather, self-ownership. Libertarians hold that each person owns themselves, and others may not make use of their property (i.e. them) without their consent. Just as others have no right to shelter a homeless man in my house, so they have no right to tax the products of my labour and redistribute to the needy. So claims the libertarian.

As a brief aside, it's worth contrasting the libertarian "consent principle" with the Kantian principle that one always treat others as ends in themselves (and never as a means only). These are often confused - especially by libertarians who want to make their position sound less awful. G.A. Cohen offers some helpful clarifications:
The difference between them is the condition satisfaction of which does allow you to use another person as a means: for Kant, using someone is all right provided that you treat the person you use as (also) an end, while, for Nozick, it is all right provided that you have his consent. To see the difference between these provisos notice that a capitalist employer may scrupulously observe Nozick's consent requirement while not caring two hoots about the welfare (or anything else relating to their status as ends) of his employees, and that the state which taxes the able-bodied violates Nozick's consent requirement but may nevertheless respect their humanity. (Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, p.241)

Now, one way to argue against the libertarian defence of capitalism is to grant them the self-ownership thesis, but deny the assumed right to acquire external resources. We might instead say that only provisional/custodial rights will meet the requirements of justice in preserving natural resources for future generations. Or we might hold that natural resources are initially owned by everyone rather than no-one. On this view, a self-owning individual may not make use of the common resources without others' consent. (And perhaps the price of that consent will be that the products of his labour must be shared between them all.)

This demonstrates that self-ownership is a merely 'formal' notion that does not guarantee any substantive freedom or power over one's own life. As Kymlicka asks, "how can I be said to own myself if I may do nothing without the permission of others?" (p.122) But the poor and disadvantaged face the same problem within a capitalist system, and right-wingers are unconcerned by their lack of substantive freedom. Thus they have no grounds on which to complain against this egalitarian dystopia, for it violates no rights that capitalism doesn't.

But we should reject both systems, if what we really value is substantive self-determination. Our aim should be to enable as many people as possible to live the lives they want to live. We should ensure access to education, healthcare, and basic human needs like food and shelter, since all of these are essential prerequisites to any form of freedom worth having. If provision of these requires us to compromise self-ownership, so be it. The latter has no value in the absence of the former in any case. (Besides, self-ownership has the absurd consequence of condoning parental neglect.)


  1. Richard, I'm afraid Nozick's defence of liberty by self-ownership is as threadbare as you say it is, but what you are criticising is not libertarianism.

    Despite Nozick's weak defence of liberty being popular in the academies, is not one to which libertarians generally subscribe.

    I comment on your recent arguments against libertarianism on my blog today. Naturally I disagree with your coslusions, in the main because I disagree with Nozick's starting point. Nozick-ism is not libertarianism.

  2. See here for my criticisms of mainstream libertarianism.

  3. Seth, you assume a false dichotomy. Perhaps slavery is the extreme opposite of the self-ownership thesis, but of course there are all sorts of intermediate positions. This should be obvious. To say that people might rightfully be taxed some small portion of their earnings, is not the same as making you "my slave". In case you're still having trouble following this, here's the difference made explicit:

    Self-ownership: No-one may ever make me do anything (e.g. pay taxes) without my consent.

    Slavery: My owner may make me do anything (e.g. spend all day spit-shining his boots) without my consent.

    Intermediate positions: There are some things that others may legitimately demand of me, and other things that may not be done without my consent.


  4. I really don't know what Libertarianism is but if self- ownership means that one does not have to pay taxes to help the poor - then, of course, another would not have to pay taxes that are used to support war ... or education, or abortion, or whatever. It would seem to be that this principle would imply that paying taxes would be a matter of choice. Societies in general, do not respect this notion very much. You have the freedom not to pay your taxes - but unfortunately you will go to jail. We have the famous case of Henry David Thoreau in the U.S. He refused to pay a poll tax that was to be used to support what he thought was an unjust war against Mexico. He went to jail - briefly. Then wrote his famous triste on Civil Disobedience. Gandhi refused to pay the salt tax - he also went to jail. In a democratic society you have the right (freedom) to work within the system to petition your representatives to change any law that you oppose. But if you choose to disobey a law that has been enacted, you will go to jail. Many people have done just that in their attempts to change what they considered unjust laws. You have the freedom not to support war also - the social tradition has put most of those who take this position in jail - in the past they were often killed. You have the freedom to oppose anything that you choose - but it may cost you your life - Give me Liberty of give me Death!
    Choice - This was the defense of the Marquis de Sade. He only tortured or sexually mis-used individuals who consented - He spent most of his life in prison as far as I know. There is a difference between social law and moral law. Moral laws are violated everyday - people cheat on their spouses etc.
    Justice is a human condition decided on by society - there is no absolute justice, nor is there absolute freedom. You have the freedom to conform to the dictates and limitations of your nature. You can choose not to conform, maybe - we really don't know if that is actually possible - but whatever you choose, you will have to suffer the consequences.
    Can a man freely choose to be another man's slave - to give away his freedom by contract; to turn over the right to any of his future children to his legal owner etc.? This was attempted here in the United States after the Civil War - It was declared illegal.
    Justice - since no man has had a choice in his existence,all of existence is unjust if freedom of choice is to be the standard.

  5. as in everything, i am an absolutist on the subject of self-ownership

    i own myself: my mind, my body, my thoughts...whatever i produce through the exercise of those three, belong to 'me'

    i'm no libertarian...i'm not hobbled by someone else's notion of what it is to own property

    in fact, i could not care less what anyone thinks about concerns are mine and mine agendas are mine and mine alone

    the poor, the wretched, the disenfranchised...if 'you' wish to support them then -- with your resources -- you can do as you like

    i decline to participate

    at age 44, i've come some significant way down the path to separating myself from those who want my money and time simply because i have some and they don't

    i'm not rich by a longshot, but i work hard -- on my own terms -- for every penny...and you can't have it

    i've also separated myself to a large degree from those who believe themselves morally or ethically superior (those who 'care')

    i don't, so leave me be... --h.quirk

  6. on the subject of taxes: it's only an issue if you're traced and caught

    if -- as the government does -- you act out of self-interest and fly low (don't draw attention to yourself) and employ yourself in ways that are equally low key (obviously, i'm talking about self-employment) then you too can be a criminal (equating to autonomous individual)


    btw: instead of reading marx, try max stirner

  7. 'Our aim should be to enable as many people as possible to live the lives they want to live.'

    (((if it gives you pleasure to devote yourself to the above proposition, then go to it...again: i decline to participate...why? because 'your' aim is not 'my' aim)))

    We should ensure access to education, healthcare, and basic human needs like food and shelter, since all of these are essential prerequisites to any form of freedom worth having.

    (((then you should work hard to see this come to pass...just make sure 'you' can pay for it all...i, of course, decline to participate)))

  8. I dont think the breach of property rights is what annoys people about slavery.

    I think it is mostly the idea that one group feels itself to be beter than another group AND can bend that other group at a very personal level to their will.

    So associating taxation and slavery is not really associating what we really think is the bad part of slavery with anything.

    rather like
    1) nazi are bad
    2) nazi opposed communism (although that isn't why mot people think they are bad)
    THEREFORE communism is good

  9. Hi Richard :)

    Came to see what you say about "self-ownership" and was surprised that you didn't mention the arguments against the validity of the term. I know this is an old discussion (2006) but I hope you can give me your thoughts on this.

    Here is the excerpt from Wikipedia:

    From my run-ins with right-libs, they seem to think it's "semantics". The point I bring up is that if it is simply the case of a word/term not conveying the truth/concept, or mis-representing it, then why are we still using it?

    Personally, I feel that if you have the wrong WORD, but the right idea, you MUST change the word to match the idea in order to preserve TRUTH and truthful communication. I haven't gotten an answer yet, but I have a feeling they are clinging to this flawed term because *the acutal wording* is supporting their entire idealogy/theory of property rights.

    My vote is to replace self-ownership with 'sovereignty', or 'individual sovereignty'. Sovereignty functions just like "Self-ownership", but without any of the dysfunction that arises out of using the latter.

    The reason it can do this is because sovereignty has more to do with BEING, while ownership has more to do with HAVING (if you wikipedia "To Have" it redirects to Ownership).

    So if you attach property rights to "being" instead of "having", it suddenly applies to "Right to Life" and NOT "Liberty" (you have the right to mix your labor with the land, and to the fruits of your labor, not because you are free or because you own yourself, but because it is necessary to maintain your LIFE = being).

    This is grounded in reality. The first forms of property were tools used to hunt food or prepare food (right to life). And of the few mammals aside from Humans that have been observed to use tools (octopus uses shells to hunt, apes uses sticks to hunt ants) they do so for the sake of their security, not their liberty. Birds building nests = labor + land = Property = for purposes of survival.

    If you follow this train of thought, you'll notice what starts happening when you replace "having" with "being" as the justification for acquiring and possessing property (you are not allowed to exclude anyone from the commons - fundamentally, you cannot stand between another person and the land). The validity of property rights starts shifting towards George/Proudhon, etc. It ALL starts shifting to the left.

    Here is a great vlog about this (good discussion in the comments) and by a Randian Objectivist no less!

    Titled "Reason vs. Self-Ownership"

    Would love your thoughts on this :)


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