What is Freedom? (2): A Right to Self-Ownership?

Libertarians stress the importance of the right to self-ownership. I would argue that it’s an interesting and useful right in the context of human rights more generally, but also one that is a bit of a problem. When we say that people have a right to self-ownership we mean that they own themselves in just the same way that they can own objects. It follows that people have the same rights over themselves and their bodies as they have over objects:

  • they are free to use their bodies as they please
  • they can claim that others, including the government, refrain from using it
  • they can use the government to protect themselves against others trying to use it
  • and they can transfer property rights to others.

Self-ownership rights understood in this sense are the core of libertarian philosophy and are believed to justify standard libertarian policy recommendations such as the elimination or reduction of taxation, the freedom to sell organs, use drugs, engage in all forms of consensual sex etc. And indeed, self-ownership can be an attractive right to non-libertarians as well: it can be used to justify the prohibition of slavery and rape, to protect people’s rights to euthanasia and assisted suicide, to solve the forced transplant dilemma, to support the rejection of capital punishment on the basis of a theory of non-instrumentalization etc.

However, useful as the right to self-ownership can be, it’s not without drawbacks. The right can, and in the minds of most libertarians does imply a denial of the obligation to help others in need (apart from an obligation based on prior wrongdoing and assistance based on voluntary agreement). Such an obligation would be a form of slavery. It would mean the forced use of our bodies and labor power for the benefit of others. Libertarians often reject taxation for the same reason. All this seems needlessly selfish and contrary to moral intuition.

It also seems incoherent. Most if not all libertarians accept taxation for the funding of some collective goods such as highways and the police force. It’s not clear how they can accept a limitation of the right to self-ownership for the sake of some types of taxation but not others. Taxation is always the non-consensual use of persons for the benefit of others, whatever its purpose.

If you view the right to self-ownership as an absolute right – or axiomatic – you may wind up accepting some absurd conclusions: you’ll have to claim that it’s impermissible to gently push the arm of a driver holding his steering wheel and heading towards of group of school children, because that would mean using the body of the driver without his consent to aid others in need. Self-ownership therefore can’t be an absolute right, at least not in a non-solipsistic world. Minimally, it should be limited for the sake of the self-ownership rights of others: imprisoning murderers or slave holders means limiting their self-ownership rights for the sake of the same rights of their potential victims. And, on top of that, it’s probably also necessary to limit self-ownership rights for the sake of certain other values. The problem is that it’s difficult to think about a limited right to self-ownership: every limit to that right seems to destroy it completely. Either you own yourself or you don’t.

There are, I think, three ways to react to these problems with the right to self-ownership.

  • You can bite the bullet and maintain that the right to self-ownership is the fundamental right and should be absolute whatever the consequences.
  • Or you can hold on to the right but only as one value amidst others, and to be balanced against others.
  • Or you can abandon it, claiming that it only has a rhetorical value, and that it’s better to focus on the “derivative” rights – such a the right not to suffer slavery – and try to justify those derivative rights independently (e.g. an anti-slavery movement doesn’t need the concept of self-ownership in order to be effective).

As a good value pluralist, I prefer the second option. The rhetorical and unifying force of the right to self-ownership should not be underestimated. If we manage to prune its extreme libertarian outgrowths (such as selfishness and extreme marketization in the form of organ sales or the “right” to sell yourself into slavery), we’re left with a powerful concept that can be of great value in the struggle for individual liberty (which isn’t a libertarian monopoly by the way). But it can’t guarantee liberty by itself. It depends on and is only meaningful together with a theory of ownership of the rest of the world. Imagine that one other person owns the entirety of the world, minus yourself (i.e. you only have self-ownership). That means that when you want to eat you’re a thief, and when you want to move about you’re trespassing. That’s hardly freedom. Self-ownership without a theory about how the rest of the world is owned can be utterly meaningless.

So the question then turns to the way in which nonhuman things and beings should be owned and distributed. Who can own what? Libertarians would claim that self-ownership provides a basis for ownership in general, and they use Locke’s theory of property to argue for that claim (I own myself, therefore also my labor, therefore also the fruits of my labor – since hardly anything in the world today hasn’t been touched by human labor, almost everything can be said to be owned by someone).

However, I argued elsewhere that this is a difficult if not impossible move. Hence, ownership should be justified independently from self-ownership, and should probably include the notion of a “fair share”, whatever that means. Perhaps this notion can be based on another element in Locke’s theory, namely the “Lockean proviso” that we should leave enough and as good for others, or on some form of sufficientarianism (meaning that all should have enough resources for basic subsistence, for a decent life, for a life worth living etc.). Or it could be based on the persuasive claim that the earth is the common ownership of all, regardless of the labor some have put into it. But I’ve already discussed those issues here and here respectively.

Migration and Human Rights (32): A Human Right to Free Movement and the Common Ownership of the Earth

I’m consistently in favor of increased immigration, and skeptical of the arguments against (such as those based on notions like “importing crime”, “importing poverty” or “watering down culture”).

However, if the arguments against immigration fail, how about the quality of the arguments in favor? Poverty reduction is a strong one: the prosperity of immigrants obviously increases when they are allowed to immigrate, but so does the prosperity of the families left behind (as a result of remittances). But a more interesting argument is based on the concept of the common ownership of the earth. Humanity collectively owns the earth and its resources because the earth is simply there. No one has created it and no one therefore deserves credit for it. Consequently, all individuals have an equal claim to every part of it and collectively own every part of it. (That’s an old idea, going back at least to Kant and Grotius).

Accidents of birth do not destroy this common ownership. They don’t yield private ownership rights to those parts of the earth where they take place. Hence, these accidents should not determine who gets the exclusive usage rights over parts of the earth. Immigration restrictions are morally arbitrary since they differentiate between people based on the lottery of birth. They take the accident of being born somewhere and turn it into a rule to stay there. They are equivalent to other morally arbitrary differentiations, such as those based on race or gender. However, contrary to what happened to those other differentiations, a majority of public opinion has yet to be convinced of the morally arbitrary nature of immigration restrictions.

From the notion of the common ownership of the earth follows that every kind of private property, not only the state as the exclusive property of a part of the earth claimed by the citizens who happen to live in that state, is a privatization of common resources. I think any justification of such a privatization, and therefore any justification of any type of private property, is bound to be difficult.

If the justification of privatization – whether of territory or commodities – does not succeed, then private property and the state are by definition illegitimate. So there’s a lot at stake here. The reason why such a justification is difficult, is that private property is necessarily based on an original theft of common ownership. Even if you cultivate the land you appropriate or privatize (or better steal from the collective of humanity), and even if you incorporate your labor in the product you make based on natural resources (Locke’s justification for private property) and thereby create added value, that doesn’t change the original sin: you’ll still be like the thief who takes care of the car he’s stolen and gives it a new color.

The same is true for a farmer fencing a part of the earth, a state imposing a border and restricting immigration, an oil company extracting the oil and refining and selling it, and a primitive tribe settling down in the jungle somewhere and keeping strangers out. Even nomadic tribes are guilty of the same sin by letting their cattle graze the land and keeping other tribes away.

So this reasoning a priori invalidates all talk about immigration restrictions. But it seems that I have proven too much: all private property, not just private property of land or a country, is, in the words of Proudhon, theft. Yet, private property is extremely important from the point of view of human rights. Private property also seems to be fueling economic efficiency, as the communist experiments have shown, a contrario. Especially private property of land – important in the context of immigration – is important for prosperity. I don’t want a justification of policies removing immigration restrictions that destroys all possible justifications of all forms of private property. Moreover, while I consider existing immigration restrictions unjust, I do recognize the value of some types of restrictions. Some restrictions used by citizens to limit access to a territory that they claim is theirs are legitimate. A state is necessary for democratic self-government and for the legal and judicial protection of human rights, and it would seem impossible to imagine the concept of a state without some immigration restrictions.

These are moral goals – rights, democracy – that are at least equivalent to the moral goal of not stealing and to the moral rights of immigrants. The problem is that stealing – namely stealing a part of the earth from humanity – is precisely what seems to be necessary to achieve these moral goals. So we have a conflict between moral goals. The fact that these moral goals all seem to be equivalent – it’s not obvious that stealing is always more wrong than protecting human rights for instance – indicates that it should be conceivable to violate – or limit the force of – the principle of the common ownership of the earth in order to create private property, both of commodities and land/territory. Hence, immigration restrictions are not necessarily morally wrong, although I would still claim that the existing restrictions of all countries in the world go much too far: they don’t take the moral claim of the common ownership of the earth seriously enough, and they overemphasize the goals of residents over those of immigrants.

So how exactly do we balance these different and equivalent moral goals? For example, a country violating human rights has less rights to impose immigration restrictions because such restrictions will not serve the goal of rights. (Unfortunately, this won’t promote migration since such a country will not attract many immigrants if it winds down its immigration restrictions). A wealthy country – like wealthy people – have less rights to exclude others from a share of their wealth, since their wealth is based on the use of common property. In that case, immigrants can demand entry rights based on common property.

While national borders are drawn in a morally arbitrary way, as argued above, and while immigration restrictions that go together with the drawing of such border are therefore equally arbitrary, they are not morally meaningless. They are a morally arbitrary fact that has acquired moral significance: they have resulted in a tool – the state – that can do morally good, e.g. protect human rights and democracy.