Libertarianism - Self Ownership

Self Ownership

From the ideas contained in Natural Law, some Natural Rights emerge, one of which is the basic axiom of right to self-ownership. The right asserts that each individual human, by virtue of being a human, has the absolute right to own their own body and to control that body without any interference, coercive or otherwise. As Rothbard further elaborates: “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.”

To further make this point, it's helpful to look at the logical results of denying this right. Rothbard outlines this quite succinctly and better than I can, so I'll let him explain:

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
 (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 every-one 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 apart 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 every one 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. Finally however, the participatory communist world cannot be put into practice. For it is physically impossible for everyone to keep continual tabs on everyone else, and thereby to exercise his equal quotal share of partial ownership over every other man. In practice, then, the concept of universal and equal other ownership is utopian and impossible, and supervision and therefore control and ownership of others necessarily devolves upon a specialized group of people, who thereby become a ruling class. Hence, in practice, any attempt at communist rule will automatically become class rule, and we would be back at our first alternative.

To conclude this section then, the proof is in the pudding as it were that self-ownership is rightful, necessary and the only logical way for humanity to proceed. This part is actually the easier part to tackle; the concepts of ownership of non human objects adds some new levels of complexity that need to be considered.

Rothbard introduces this with “A more difficult task is to settle on a theory of property in nonhuman objects, in the things of this earth. It is comparatively easy to recognize the practice when someone is aggressing against the property right of another’s person:

If A assaults B, he is violating the property right of B in his own body. But with nonhuman objects the problem is more complex. If, for example, we see X seizing a watch in the possession of Y we cannot automatically assume that X is aggressing against Y’s right of property in the watch; for may not X have been the original 'true' owner of the watch who can therefore be said to be repossessing his own legitimate property. In order to decide, we need a theory of justice in property, a theory that will tell us whether X or Y or indeed someone else is the legitimate owner.”

We'll explore property rights further in its own section.