Opening Another Can o’ Libertarian Worms: Self Ownership

Sunni's picture

I’ve been having a conversation with a dear friend about rights, and property rights in particular. It took me back to this discussion. Then, in the midst of pondering all that, I came across an observation regarding self ownership that got my li’l reptilian going again. Fastening seat belts and/or taking blood pressure meds before stepping in to the debate room is advised.

One of the fundamental elements of the freedom philosophy is that of self ownership: each individual has the right and responsibility of controlling his body and its effort. In actuality, however, the world doesn’t work that way, because human infants are incapable of assuming those responsibilities immediately after birth. It takes years for a person to gradually acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to start becoming responsible for oneself.

The assertion put forth was that libertarian ideology is wrong about self ownership, because an individual does not (and cannot) create himself. While I don’t think that, in and of itself, is sufficient to negate the entire concept of self ownership, it does leave us without a clear benchmark. And I suppose now is as good a time as any to say that I’ve never really fully understood the idea of self ownership anyway. I cannot completely control my body’s activities—hell, I am never even fully aware of all of them. Lest someone accuse me of being facetiously ridiculous, that isn’t my intention. To control something requires awareness of it, and the ability to control it. To speak in broad absolutes about controlling oneself when one doesn’t even know what all that might entail is absurd.

To my mind, any hardline stance is simply begging for trouble. We recognize this in the inadequacy of age–restricting laws to encompass all individual variation. There is no magic to being 16 that means one is now capable of driving or holding a job; nor to 18 and voting or 21 and drinking alcohol. To insist on similar clear and absolute demarcations in pro–freedom ideology is equally magical thinking. It seems to me that the more freedom lovers hold and espouse such ideas, the more open to ridicule they are.

It seems especially difficult in our society today to reach self ownership as conceived of in the freedom philosophy, as many systems and cultural norms implicitly or explicitly encourage victimhood ... blaming others, the environment, and/or one’s faulty genes for all manner of unhappy outcomes. It’s sad that as we’re able to get a better idea of the complexity of this world and its workings, we are concomitantly taught and encouraged to try to solve problems with simplistic rules that actually work worse than having no rules. And, of course, these trends make it all the harder for a person to truly mature cognitively.

My thoughts

I own several things that I did not and can not create. My car, my computer, my guns, fossils, etc. Even if I could build some of them from constituent parts, I can't produce the raw materials all by myself. But I DO own them (despite The State's illegitimate claims on my property).

A baby does own itself even if it is not able to exercise that ownership fully right now. It is a separate, fully-functional human being. If it doesn't own itself, who does own it?

Just like with your ability to "control yourself" there is a spectrum rather than a on/off switch. None of us is completely incapable of controlling ourselves and none of us can completely control everything about our bodies (if I could I'd change some physical features and abilities).

Maybe my concept of "ownership" is a little different from yours, but I do own myself, and no one else.

Full agreement

I don't have to understand or control every atom of my body or the cow I milk in order to own them. Must we, then, never do or say anything until we have 100% understanding or control?

If I don't own my body, just who does? That seems to be the crux of the thing to me. I own myself, even if it is quite imperfectly.

Transitivity

Grammatically speaking, I've long found the concept of self-ownership to be a bit strange. The verb "to own" is transitive: X owns non-X. Certainly no one else owns me, and that is the essence of freedom; but that doesn't mean, by process of elimination, that I must own I myself. However, perhaps I'm simply being a linguistic fuddy-duddy, because I'm perfectly comfortable with the concepts of self-control, self-mastery, self-governance, and the like...

"X owns non-X" <-- cool,

"X owns non-X" <-- cool, all sorts of religous underpinnings hidden there. Am "I" more than, or other than just a meatsack?

Body, Mind and Soul...

When I work for an employer, am I renting out some units of my limited lifetime?

Can I sell just my soul? Oh, someone already wrote a story where that happens. Maybe a genre worth of stories.

Why must there be ownership of an individual?

I agree with you, Saint, so of course I’m going to say you aren’t being a linguistic fuddy–duddy. Is a person an ownable thing? Mama Liberty and DullHawk would apparently say yes; but then if that’s so, then it becomes permissible for another to own a person.

Truth be told, the idea of the entire planet being subject to divvying up and being owned by individuals, in the American real–estate sense, horrifies me.

Possible, but...

I do think a person can own a person (it is "possible"), but that it isn't right to assert ownership over anyone other than yourself. Possible doesn't equal "permissible", nor does "permissible" equal right.

How so?

but then if that’s so, then it becomes permissible for another to own a person.

Of course it is "permissible" - if the one to be owned agrees to it. All of the people who insist on being owned by the state are quite welcome to that status.

Voluntary servitude is not the problem.

And what would you suggest in place of private property? What other way of dealing with finite resources would create incentive for rational (and peaceful transfer of) use?

The tragedy of the commons comes to mind.

Mama Liberty usually has

Mama Liberty usually has good answers.

Involuntary is what makes it bad.

And being owned by the nanny state is not the same as being free. (Slightly more free than an infant, free to wipe my bottom as much or little as I choose, not free to decide how many gallons per flush I'll be using. There's still limits on what I can put in my mouth.)

One idea

And what would you suggest in place of private property? What other way of dealing with finite resources would create incentive for rational (and peaceful transfer of) use?
The tragedy of the commons comes to mind.

As far as I understand it, the nomadic Native Americans mostly got on just fine without owning property land, and without any tragedy of the commons situations coming about. If that’s accurate, then it suggests that the tragedy of the commons is a result of extending the concept of property ownership to land.

From what I understand they

From what I understand they often trashed an area, and then moved on. When there aren't too many people you can do that and the land has time to recover before the next group stays there. Not saying that what they did was wrong- in that circumstance it didn't hurt anyone.

one of the stories I

one of the stories I heard...

When Lewis & Clark got to the Columbia River they were getting hungry and tired of eating horse meat. There was lots of salmon, the local tribe traded dried salmon with tribes in Idaho. Clark & company thought salmon was gross and traded with children to get puppies (which are more tender than old horses)...

I think that means children owned dogs. And the children did not own the giant piles of dried salmon.

think I heard the story from a tour-giving park ranger on the river... it's very possible that feredal agents are telling untrue stories...

Trashed?

Not to mention that whatever was done to trash an area pales in comparison to how modern agribusiness and industrial activities wreck an area.

Maybe

I have read contemporary reports of how far away some of the Native villages were "aromatically offensive" due to the garbage. Perhaps this was cultural bias, but I doubt any village anywhere, of any culture, was very clean by our standards.

I think it's the same misperception that give rise to the myth that no part of the bison was wasted. Yes, there was a use for every part, but not every part of every individual bison was used.

I'm not denigrating Natives at all, as I have a deep respect and kinship with them, but some things get a little glossed over as the years go by. Things change and acts that would be devastating now had little lasting impact when there were so few people around. And it's not only humans, either. Look at the damage a large herd of herbivores can do to an area in a short time.

Yes, rotting garbage is less harmful in the long-term than industrial or agricultural waste (at least as far as we know), but both are a real danger to health if you can't move away from them.

But Not All...

Not all Native Americans had no concept of property rights. I had a discussion some years ago with a Native from Vancouver Island - I think it was the "Cowichan Band" and apparently, they have had a concept of property rights for generations.

Those that did not have a concept of property rights - did they _really_ "get on just fine?" I don't know - just wondering.

Student Of All, Disciple Of None
Fly Fishing

I suppose it depends on definitions

Those that did not have a concept of property rights - did they _really_ "get on just fine?" I don't know - just wondering.

I suppose that depends upon how one defines “get on just fine”. To my mind, the fact that many tribes were doing well on this continent long before Europeans arrived and attempted to “set them straight” in any number of ways suggests they did get on just fine, overall. For anyone interested in learning more about what and how the Native Americans did prior to 1492, I highly recommend the excellent book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann. Something else led me to that book, and I’m basing my assertion above on the information Mann presents—although, to be clear, I hadn’t started reading the book when I first asserted it in this thread.

And can I add that it’s great to see you in these parts again, my friend? Well, I just did, so there ‘tis.

I'm not so hot on the idea

I'm not so hot on the idea of the whole planet being under the control of countries (which have governments). But here we are.

Outer space is pretty interesting, nobody holds a valid stake anywhere.

I think "ownership" is just

I think "ownership" is just a metaphor that works for some things and doesn't work for others. The main function it serves is to make clear that you *aren't* owned by anyone else, and aren't to be used as a means to an end.

But some other metaphor might be better in some ways.

IMO it makes sense to say that you *are* a self, and have an agency over yourself that can never be alienated.

Good point.

Except that some people do use the term literally, rather than metaphorically.

We are selves with millions of other selves inhabiting us, without which we cannot live. That’s a big part of why I find the idea of self ownership and a high degree of control over oneself rather silly.

can o' worms

Hi Sunni,
That is one of my favorite topics, and it’s the one where I part company with a great many libertarians.

Self-Ownership, I think a good technical term is “Sovereign Individual”.

Ownership and control are not the same thing. Can you own land? And you control the weeds that grow there, the amount of sunlight and water that enter your property? You don’t own a dog or horse until you’ve trained him? And nobody really owns a cat. Entropy, everything is moving forward in time and aging, beyond anyone’s control to stop. See? Doesn’t really make sense.

If you own property, that means you can do whatever you want with it. Don’t have to ask anyone first, don’t have to explain it. And there is a matching responsibility that you respect others equal rights.

I recently learned the 1780 definition difference between Liberty and Freedom. Freedom means you can go where you want, choose your own career and job, other basic Rights. Liberty is a special kind of freedom that gives you legal standing to own land. Land is a special kind of property. All matter is property, some owned, some unclaimed. Some property can be used as capital, which is very important in an economic system that uses capital investment. Pounds of gold can be used by an investor as capital. Land is special because it is the only kind of capital that cannot be easily moved or concealed.

Culturally, we’ve long ago given up on the idea of Liberty, maybe even on property ownership in general. It was a very bad mistake made by generations before mine. If you own something, you can do what you want with it, sell it, give it away, destroy it, apply labor and brainpower to increase its value… I think liberty and freedom are pretty neat ideas.

It’s wrong to initiate force (or fraud, or the threat thereof). I wouldn’t force freedom or liberty on anyone. Because it is wrong to use force on someone who’s willing to leave me alone.

Right, a human baby is not a Sovereign Individual. You need to twist some definitions to get there.

The freedom philosophy falls apart when if demands that all individuals be forced into freedom. And they don’t all agree in the concept of ownership. Can I raise puppies for food and sell them BBQ’d out of my house? How about a gun of my own design? Can I make and sell those?

Picking a birthday as a magic freedom date is a might goofy idea. I guess under natural law, a child is the property of their parent or guardian and gradually gains their independence by successfully asserting it. Choosing your own bedtime, clothing and friends are some of the noteworthy steps on that journey.

Our culture doesn’t have a “rite of passage”. As we are often reminded, in 1780 America not all people were free. And not all liberty. It took an overt action to become a citizen of a state (it is very rare in pre-WWI writings to see someone refer to themselves as an American, Thomas Jefferson was a Virginian). Citizenship gave a person the right to own land, enter contracts (and be sued, a legal standing), vote, be on a jury, pay taxes. No taxation without representation. I wonder how many people would surrender their right to vote if it also meant giving up the right to jury duty and the right to be taxed?

Freedom Lovers hate slavery. That’s an axiom. But a paradox is created if you say a person is not property that cannot be owned, but a free person owns their self.

I know the answer. Slavery as a birthright is a messed up idea. That was institutionalized as a result of the Glorious Revolution (1688), prior to that it varied between the various governors, in some places the African slaves were freed after 7 years (based on some Bible verses), rules kept changing in different towns and states. Veterans of the Glorious Revolution were able to retire with solid income streams by leveraging the capital of breeding slaves. Grandchildren of the Glorious war heroes didn’t fare as well economically since so many jobs were taken by African slaves (Descendants of that activity still dominate pro sports in America.) And it was setup so that it couldn’t be stopped later, even if the majority thought it was a terrible idea… Hey, that’s a bit too similar to our GI Generation.

In 1790, a child had the same legal standing and rights as a slave. Sometimes an apprentice would be sold to a master. When he was 11, George Washington was sold to his older half-brother.

Something like that...

Thanks for the historical background

Very thought–provoking contribution, REC; thanks.

I recently learned the 1780 definition difference between Liberty and Freedom. Freedom means you can go where you want, choose your own career and job, other basic Rights. Liberty is a special kind of freedom that gives you legal standing to own land. Land is a special kind of property. All matter is property, some owned, some unclaimed. Some property can be used as capital, which is very important in an economic system that uses capital investment. Pounds of gold can be used by an investor as capital. Land is special because it is the only kind of capital that cannot be easily moved or concealed.

If some were to try to extend how we treat land to air and water, many problems would ensue. Actually, this is already apparent in the west, in water rights law. And it could become more of an issue as increasing pollution and chemical sensitivities collide. Water and air are matter, and therefore property according to your definition; but they are also forces of nature and cannot be completely controlled by man.

It took an overt action to become a citizen of a state (it is very rare in pre-WWI writings to see someone refer to themselves as an American, Thomas Jefferson was a Virginian).

Could you (or anyone else who knows) elaborate on this, please? What action(s) were necessary to become a citizen?

And how did George Washington get free of his half-brother?

Thanks Sunni, I haven't yet

Thanks Sunni,
I haven't yet researched the citizenship rules for the several States. I imagine there's a story related to changing rules and the era of the carpetbaggers.

George Washington went to public school for two years to learn mapmaking and surveying (which would have included lots of applied geometry & trig), then got a job as county survyor for Fairfax County VA at age 17 (using his brother's connections). Lawrence was being a responsible older brother at a time when a lot of people died before thier kids were grown and a lot of kids never got to be grown ups.

Water rights are a special case (air and any form of run off polution should follow the same basic rules). It's not ok to damage somebody else's stuff, the criminal has to pay compensation to the victim (based on actual damages). It's not ok to mess up your downstream neighbor's water.

It works best when water rights are clearly described in the homesteading rules that are in place when the land is 1st claimed. Any disagreements can be resolved using the courts or bloodshed. And there will always be disagreements because nature will cause damage that crosses property lines and sometimes the damage could have been prevented by proper custodianship of the land.

The part that makes it seem so complex is we have government agencies that exist to protect the ones causing the damage (Nobody thinks the EPA or others are trying to prevent BP from harming the environment, right?). Even pre-Magna Carta the king could grant permission to foul the waters.

Actually, BP in the gulf is a fine example for thinking about water rights. BP should have to pay everyone they "damaged". They should have paid right away, probably should have been broken into small pieces and sold at public auction. The money should have been then given to the damaged parties (minus legal and administrative costs not to exceed 3%)... but that didn't happen - not even close.

If you do stuff on your land that only damages your land, its your business (in every sense). New adults like to buy messed up property because they can't afford to pay regular prices. It's even better when someone turns land into a business where people want to work or buy stuff from.

Inconceivable

Apparently, kettle of fish and horses of a different color are synonyms for can of worms. Perhaps this comment isn't a can of worms so much as a kettle of fish (the two can be related, no?). Language is often ridiculous. How many arguments can be boiled down to differing opinions regarding semantics?

The term "ownership" has come up as a pivotal linguistic roadblock already. I'd have to agree with The Saint that the self-ownership language does a disservice to the concepts being conveyed. It inevitably also leads to necessarily delineating everything to belonging to someone, as Sunni stated. This concept of property is way too dogmatic for my comfort, especially when self-control, self-mastery, etc. work just fine.

It seems to me that the parent-child relationship of control - one that diminishes gradually over time as the child ages and matures, starting at full control and devolving into offering (possibly helpful) advice - more closely (obviously not perfectly) identifies the attitude of the state toward "constituents" than does an owner's control over physical property. To use the physical property point of view the term "self-ownership" often implies, would that make children metaphorical share-croppers of their own bodies, earning ownership a little at a time?

PoS

Murphy's Bye-Laws

Dogma vs. karma?

Or am I using the worms to land a juicy fish from your kettle? I’m so confused ...

I'd have to agree with The Saint that the self-ownership language does a disservice to the concepts being conveyed. .... This concept of property is way too dogmatic for my comfort, especially when self-control, self-mastery, etc. work just fine.

Thanks for extracting the crucial element so neatly, Pint. Individuals can control and discipline themselves, without the concept of ownership. (And, as REC already pointed out, property owners do not have full control over their property ... but we tend not to think about how the forces of nature change it.)

Regarding your question about children, your analogy resonates with me.

Dogbert vs. Cartman

I agree that this is mainly a semantic dilemma. Perhaps the issue properly falls into the category of "negative" vs. "positive" rights. "Self-ownership" could be viewed as a "positive" right. Might it be preferable to assert that "no others have any rights over this person"? That leaves the remaining specific provisions of the arrangement to be negotiated between you, and, um, you...

Sounds reasonable to me.

Sounds reasonable to me.

@ AleG

""no others have any rights over this person"?"

That is the essential premise of self ownership. I see no difference and agree with Dullhawk, Mamaliberty and all alike others. Since property ownership also means "no others have any rights over this land". All that is being said when you say "I own myself" is "no others have any rights over my person".

Now as for Sunnis statement that Native tribes did not own property I think that is ridiculous. The natives had possessions of their own, which they alone had the right to trade or use at their personal will. These include personal pipes, clothing, furs for warmth, bows, knives, horses, etc. Though some things were communally provided not all were. I do agree that most did not have a system of owning land in the way that we own land. However, the separate tribes did have specific territories, hunting grounds and herds that they protected and forbid other tribes from using. There were also wars between tribes from time to time over border disputes or slaughter of a buffalo from another's herd and so on. It was not the Classical Anarchistic utopia that you seem to envision. There were even hierarchies Chiefs, Vice chiefs, councils of elders which determined laws (which were not numerous) and punishment for those who broke them.

Oops!

Now as for Sunnis [sic] statement that Native tribes did not own property I think that is ridiculous.

Yes, it is. I meant that many of them didn’t extend the concept of ownership to land. Thank you for pointing that out—I’ll correct my previous comment to reflect what I meant.

Even that is inaccurate

"Users' rights were protected and specified in various traditions, but there was no such things as land "ownership". Generally, individuals could clear as much land as needed for farming; this land would remain in a family's possession as long as they continued to use it. Once it was abandoned, anyone else could cultivate it.
Indians readily understood and entered into treaties concerning rights to land use, but the idea of land sales was alien to them." They understood the concept of land ownership just not as we do currently in the sense that you can sell and trade it.

See the link for more detail: http://www.landandfreedom.org/ushistory/us1.htm