What is Freedom? (3): The Paradox of Self-Ownership: The Right to Sell Yourself Into Slavery

Self-ownership, or the property of your own person, is a metaphor for the right to exclusive control of your own body and life. It captures some important intuitions: for example, that you should have a right to end your life as they see fit, that no one should be enslaved and that you generally have a right to decide what to do with your own life. As such it supports the idea of personal autonomy. For some, it also supports the right to abortion and it invalidates taxation.

Others even believe that self-ownership implies a right to sell your own body and life, just as you have a right to sell your other property. If that’s the case, then you have a right to sell yourself into slavery.

However, if self-ownership is understood as merely a metaphor for autonomy then there can’t be a right to sell yourself into slavery. Autonomy, or any other value for that matter, can’t be made to include the seeds of its own destruction. In other words, autonomy can’t include the right to autonomously abdicate your autonomy. Take this quote from Mill:

The ground for thus limiting his power of voluntarily disposing of his own lot is apparent, and is very clearly seen in this extreme case. … [B]y selling himself for a slave, he abdicates his liberty; he foregoes any future use of it beyond that single act. He, therefore, defeats in his own case, the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself. (source)

If you insist that values or rights should be made to include their own negation, you’ll end up in Absurdistan. Democracies, for example, should then include the possibility to vote democracy away. Freedom should include the freedom to create totalitarian government. Tolerance should include tolerance of intolerance and of the forces intent on destroying tolerance. I don’t think we want to go there.

So, autonomy must include certain limits if it’s not to collapse under its own weight. This means that it’s legitimate to deny the moral value of – and perhaps even to forbid – autonomous actions that forfeit autonomy. Just like democracy is limited and suppresses anti-democratic movements and votes, and just like tolerance is limited and excludes tolerance of intolerance.

More on self-ownership here.

1 thought on “What is Freedom? (3): The Paradox of Self-Ownership: The Right to Sell Yourself Into Slavery”

  1. “…If that’s the case, then you have a right to sell yourself into slavery….”

    That is a contradiction in terms. An incorrect use of language. One can not ‘sell oneself’ into slavery any more than one can ‘agree’ to be raped. Slavery (or rape) must occur WITHOUT consent, and by force, or the threat of force…. as soon as consent is given it can no longer be called slavery (or rape).

    If one really is *consenting* to be a slave then one is entering into a voluntary contract with your master(s). This means voluntarily agreeing to be bound by a predefined set of terms and conditions which means it cannot be defined as slavery.

    Bowing to threats of violence or other types of coercion (or deception) is obviously not the same as ‘selling oneself’ AKA consenting. One can be sold into slavery, if that means one slave owner selling you to another slave owner, but one cannot sell oneself into slavery.

    “….if you insist that values or rights should be made to include their own negation, you’ll end up in Absurdistan..”

    Not at all. One of the most fundamental (and common) expressions of property rights (including self ownership) is the giving away of one’s property. The surrendering of one’s property rights, if you like.

    For example: I own an apple. I grew it on my land or perhaps I bought it this morning in the supermarket. It belongs to me. I have property rights over this apple. Now I give it to you. I surrender my property rights over this apple and pass those rights over to you. Are we now in Absurdistan, or have I merely given you an apple – as humans have done throughout history, without getting remotely confused or freaked out? ;)

    The same can apply to self ownership. Voluntary acts of (mild or extreme) self sacrifice are a kind of surrendering of self ownership. I plan to do some gardening one day. A car crashes outside my house. I surrender my plans, my body, my actions, my time in order to help the victims escape the wreck and get to hospital. Perhaps I risk my own life in the process.

    So one certainly *can* surrender one’s property – including one’s self/ freedom/ body/ health – and my examples prove it. Are you therefore suggesting one should not be *allowed* to do so? Are you suggesting some agency of force should intervene to stop us from surrendering ownership of our apples or our bodies or our time? Am I not allowed to give you an apple? :(

    “….Democracies, for example, should then include the possibility to vote democracy away….”

    The absurdity of such an idea is the absurdity inherent in democracy itself, and has nothing to do with self ownership. In democracy you only get to vote once every five years and your vote only has any effect if there is a tiebreak and even then the only effect it has is to determine which figurehead gets to represent the government, which always remains in power in a democracy and gets to rule society through the initiation of force against them.

    In a world based around self ownership you could still choose (if you so desired) to voluntarily (contractually) surrender certain predetermined aspects of your self ownership and whatever amount of property rights you wanted to anyone willing to take ownership of these things from you.

    By doing so would you would be able to recreate the conditions of a statist society: the surrender of some of your property rights and self ownership to the state, expressed as taxation and laws etc.

    The difference would that it would be voluntary surrender rather than a forced surrender. And so it would be more like being tied up by your boyfriend in a rape scenario role play, rather than being actually tied up by a rapist.

    And so in a world based around self ownership you could still choose to live under a statist society (democracy, communism, fascism) if you really, really wanted to ….. OR you could choose retain FULL ownership of your self and property and thus live in a free society. It is only when you consider this choice existing that it is possible to understand what democracy really is.

    In a free society (self ownership, full property rights etc) no one could force anyone else to live under a statist regime, but anyone would be free to buy some land and create their own mini statist commune and invite people to join them if they wanted to live that way. And so YOU could not force ME to live under your democracy, but I could not stop YOU from living under a statist society if you wanted – as long as you didn’t impose it on me or anyone else.

    In a free society which respects self ownership and property rights everything and anything is possible without impinging on anyone else. One starts with full property rights and self ownership and one has the freedom to give up or retain as much or as little of this as you choose, according to one’s personal preferences.

    And so you could arrive at the front gates of this statist commune and agree to sign a contract with them at reception in which you surrendered all the rights associated with a free society and accepted all the conditions of the statist commune society (let’s say this contract is valid for ten years, at which point you are free to leave them). After signing up you are issued with a SS number and you get to join the little self contained statist society which is an exact replica of what we have today with its own mini government of force, mini taxation of your earnings, mini police force, mini armies, mini laws and courthouses, mini welfare state, mini government schools, mini corporations, mini economic collapses, mini protesters getting tasered in the face by the mini riot police etc…After five years you get to ‘vote’ for another figurehead and everything!

    You get to live under democracy without imposing it on me or anyone else. Sounds fair doesn’t it? Of course it needn’t have to be in a walled in commune (although that would make it more practical). You could choose to pay your taxes and be bound by the numerous statist laws and regulation in the wider society if you wanted ….. just as long as you didn’t force others to sign up to them too. In that scenario our tax would be just like my private health (or whatever) insurance – except my private health insurance would be much cheaper because it would have to be competitive in the free market. None of my money would end up paying for expensive wars or bloated departments like your taxes would!

    In a free society based on property rights, the non aggression principle and self ownership you or anyone else would be free to live under statist rules IF YOU CHOSE TO LIVE THAT WAY. Maybe you would choose to live that way but I seriously doubt it. (just saying)

    And so the idea of voting democracy away is only absurd because a democracy has absolutely nothing to do with having any choice to begin with. Democracy (voting) is merely a suggestion box for slaves to keep them happy. Living in a democracy is to live under rulers who rule you by FORCE. There is no contract and no accountability on their part. They let the public vote for different figureheads (the blue team or the red team) and make such a massive deal about it just to give the slaves the feeling of having a choice. What would change if voting was abolished and the red and blue teams just agreed to rule for 5 years each? Answer: nothing! No one would be able to tell the difference. They never give the slaves the choice to LEAVE the system and live free from their rule by force. Democracy is just a more productive and efficient way to own and manage the slaves …. to farm the tax cows! That’s all it is.

    Future generations will piss themselves laughing at how people fell for such a scam for so long, or perhaps they will weep with sadness…

    “…Freedom should include the freedom to create totalitarian government…”

    You’re confusing freedom with possibility. A totalitarian government is an imposition upon society, it is an use of extreme and wide ranging FORCE against society by a small group. The freedom associated with self ownership prevents others from imposing their totalitarian governments onto anyone else (or any other kind of force).

    Again, one could still in theory *volunteer* to live under such a system in some kind of commune or fantasy role playing holiday camp (which would make it more of a private service for masochists, rather than a true totalitarian regime), but one could not impose it onto the rest of society, if that society lived according to self ownership.

    Democracy, on the other hand, has never protected us from totalitarian governments has it? In fact governments of any kind (including democracies) greatly aid the formation of totalitarian governments because every government is – in essence – a monopoly on the right to use force against the public, which includes skimming half of everyone’s wealth each week by force. Governments are the machines of totalitarianism which we must always hope are driven by nice, incorruptible, saintly folk but which always seem to end up being driven by tyrants. All that needs to happen to turn a so called democracy into a so called totalitarian regime is for some nasty men get into power (or compromise that power from the outside) and “bingo!” you end up with a totalitarian government.

    If we all asserted our self ownership we would have full property rights and there would be no taxation. Under those circumstances a totalitarian government could never form. It would be impossible from a practical point of view as much as any other. If you think it could form please tell me how you think it would happen.

    “…So, autonomy must include certain limits if it’s not to collapse under its own weight…”

    I think what you mean here is that our personal freedoms (self ownership) must not impinge on other’s freedoms. This is a fundamental principle of freedom. It is this principle which makes government, democratic or otherwise, a violation of this most fundamental freedom.

    For example I do not support the illegal Iraq war. I do not want to fund the Iraq war through taxation. But if I withhold my taxes I will be dragged off and thrown in a cage by the state. If you support the state you are supporting a third party (government) using violence against me to force me to fund its terrorism (which is an act of terrorism in itself).

    This makes governments and all those who support government terrorists by definition. Here’s a dictionary definition of terrorism.

    the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.

    Everything the state does at home or abroad is based on using violence and intimidation to pursue its political aims. All governments are terrorists by definition. And like all terrorists they condemn the violence of others as evil but justify their OWN use of force, coercion and violence by saying it is for ‘the greater good’.

    That is the diabolical reality. One cannot argue against this fact using reason and evidence …… only more propaganda.


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