Debunking the argument for self-ownership.


A rare image of a human being owning itself. But does the owner also have an owner inside of it? The capitalist ubermensch is made of Russian nested dolls all the way down!

I have written a few entries on the nonsensical concept that we call self-ownership, but I have not yet discussed the argument put forward in its defense. I say “argument” in the singular because there is really only one, which has been reformulated in a few different ways. The two versions I will discuss are 1. the argument that denying self-ownership is a performative contradiction (Hoppe) and 2. the argument that either we own ourselves or someone else does (Rothbard). Let’s start with the first, although they are pretty much the same:

One cannot deny [the law of contradiction] without presupposing its validity. But there is another such proposition. Propositions are not free-floating entities. They require a proposition maker who in order to produce any validity-claiming proposition whatsoever must have exclusive control (property) over some scarce means defined in objective terms and appropriated (brought under control) at definite points in time through homesteading action. Thus, any proposition that would dispute the validity of the homesteading principle of property acquisition, or that would assert the validity of a different, incompatible principle, would be falsified by the act of proposition making in the same way as the proposition “the law of contradiction is false” would be contradicted by the very fact of asserting it.
Hans-Hermann Hoppe, The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, p405

As you may have noticed, Hoppe actually believes that our claim over our own bodies comes from the homesteading principle, that living as a body is the same as appropriating land by laboring on it. I am not going to analyze how absurd that is, but it really shows you how disconnected from reality these capitalists are.

Now, to the argument. I have no objection to the basic principle of performative contradiction. Obviously denying the law of non-contradiction is a silly thing to do and believing that the law of non-contradiction is false is nonsensical. The main problem (although not by far the only problem) with Hoppe’s argument is that he assumes one must have “exclusive control” over our own body in order to be able to make propositions. Why?

We know for a fact that we do not have such an “exclusive control” (we have no control over the vast majority of what happens in our own bodies, including our cognitive functions), and yet we clearly are able to make propositions, therefore Hoppe’s argument is simply mistaken in assuming that “exclusive control” is necessary. Hoppe provides no justification for this belief, merely restating it again and again:

To argue and possibly agree with someone (if only on the fact that there is disagreement) means to recognize the prior right of exclusive control over one’s own body. Otherwise, it would be impossible for anybody to say anything at a definite point in time and for someone else to be able to reply, for neither the first nor the second speaker would be a physically independent decision-making unit anymore at any time.
The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, p329

To recognize that argumentation is a form of action and does not consist of free-floating sounds implies the recognition of the fact that all argumentation requires that a person have exclusive control over the scarce resource of his body. As long as there is argumentation, there is mutual recognition of each other’s property right in his own body.
The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, p335

He repeats this over and over, but never actually justifies it; to someone who is so completely entrenched in the capitalist worldview, every issue must be seen as property issue. Hoppe is literally incapable of seeing it otherwise.

Observe this exact same error in Rothbard’s argument:

[E]ither we may lay down a rule that each man should be permitted (i.e., have the right to) the full ownership of his own body, or we may rule that he may not have such complete ownership. If he does, then we have the libertarian natural law for a free society as treated above. But if he does not, if each man is not entitled to full and 100 percent self-ownership, then what does this imply? It implies either one of two conditions: (1) the “communist” one of Universal and Equal Other-ownership, or (2) Partial Ownership of One Group by Another—a system of rule by one class over another. These are the only logical alternatives to a state of 100 percent self-ownership for all.
The Ethics of Liberty, p45

Rothbard likewise cannot envision any alternative to the view that we’re a piece of property, and the only dispute left, in his view, is who gets to own it. If we accept the premise that we are pieces of property, and also accept that the Libertarian/”ancap” concept of absolute and inalienable private property, then the argument makes sense.

The problem is that these two premises betray a myopic understanding of political theory, and in any other context I would say that they are amateurish mistakes. But in Hoppe and Rothbard’s case, they are not mistakes but corollaries of their circular adherence to capitalism. They start from property and market exchange and use them to conclude that property and market exchange are the best alternative.

It should therefore not be a surprise that Hoppe starts from the necessity of property rules and then “proves” from this that homesteading is the only meaningful solution, or that Rothbard starts from the premise of the human being as a piece of property and concludes that human beings are self-owned, and that they both go on to “prove” market exchange as optimal. Like religious fanatics, they’re trying to rationalize pre-existing dogma.

We must deny the truth of either premise. Human beings are not a kind of thing that can be owned, and absolute property is a theoretical construct of classical liberalism which finds no echo in human history (which is not too surprising, as any community or society built on absolute property rights would crumble in short order due to the impossibility of resolving disputes). Property rights do not exist. We deny the validity of objectifying human beings, even if it serves the ostensible, circular aim of making human beings objects “owned” by themselves.

Furthermore, since the concept of “human being owning itself” is incoherent, the only logical answers to Rothbard’s trilemma are communism or class rule, not market exchange. If a human being is necessarily owned, then it must be owned by other human beings.

Now, how do we make sense of arguing without self-ownership? As Murphy and Callahan discuss in Hans-Hermann Hoppe Argumentation Ethic: A Critique, Hoppe confuses using something with having “exclusive ownership” of it:

But now we move on to a more fundamental objection to Hoppe’s argument: One is not necessarily the rightful owner of a piece of property even if control of it is necessary in a debate over its ownership. Because of this fact, a crucial link in Hoppe’s argument fails. Someone can deny the libertarian ethic, and yet concede to his opponents the use of their bodies for debate…

[I]magine that a Georgist were to argue that everyone should own a piece of landed property. The Georgist could go so far as to claim that his position is the only justifiable one. He could correctly observe that anyone debating him would necessarily grant him (the Georgist) some standing room, and then he might deduce from this true observation the conclusion that it would be a performative contradiction to deny that everyone is entitled to a piece of land. We imagine that Hoppe would point out to such a Georgist that using a piece of land during a debate does not entitle one to its full ownership, and Hoppe would be correct. But by the same token, Hoppe’s argument for ownership of one’s body falls apart; Hoppe has committed the exact same fallacy as our hypothetical Georgist.

I quote the Georgist example because it follows Hoppe’s method to the letter and yet it is clearly invalid. Hoppe confuses need, which is a biological and psychological concept, with ownership, which is a political construct. We need to use our bodies and we need to use a piece of land in order to argue, but this does not prove that we own our bodies and own the piece of land. Even from the perspective of use/occupancy ownership, one may temporarily use an object or a space that belongs to someone else (and it’s a long way from use/occupancy to absolute property rights).

The “ancaps” cannot accept this conclusion because they have come to the conclusion that, because they have determined that self-ownership is the basis of freedom, there can be no freedom without self-ownership. Therefore anyone who attacks self-ownership is seen, in their eyes, as an enemy of freedom; just look at Stephen Kinsella’s hollow replies to my debunking of the self-ownership concept for a good example of that, or the comments other people posted on my entries. They literally cannot see past self-ownership and its allied concepts, free will and capitalist relativism.

They often reply that I am merely talking semantics. But I am not sure how I am merely “talking semantics” when I am destroying the fundamental basis of “ancapism.” If that’s “talking semantics,” then the “ancap” ideology must be mere semantics as well, and therefore worthless and inapplicable to real life. If “ancap” is not just semantics, then neither is my debunking of it. Furthermore, self-ownership is an empirical proposition which is falsified by the fact that we don’t control most of our own bodies, therefore it does have concrete, if nonsensical, meaning.

Self-ownership is not, and cannot, be the basis of freedom. Objectification is destructive of ethics, and it does not become any less destructive if we decide to practice it on everyone. The only logical conclusion of self-ownership as a principle is the general enmity of individual against individual in practice, which finds its expression in the “pure competition” of capitalism.

8 thoughts on “Debunking the argument for self-ownership.

  1. Mordanicus October 7, 2013 at 23:05 Reply

    The problem with folks as rothbard or hoppe, is that they are unable to distinguish between social constructs and real things. Property rights do only exists as long as people recognize the “existence” of such rights, and the only justification for such beliefs are the mere desires to have property (rights).

    Even under classical liberalism private property rights were not absolute, and could be limited for the sake of the public good. Capitalism, as defended by Libertarians/ancap, is a corruption of classic liberalism.

  2. Oli November 27, 2013 at 10:27 Reply

    It’s always seemed to me that the whole justification for self-ownership rests in conflating BEING oneself with OWNING oneself, without providing justification. Control of one’s own faculties (insofar as we have it) is a biological fact, and they implicitly claim it as a form of ownership, without being quite clear about it.

    And once you pass off human existence itself into ownership, the job’s basically done. It seems more or less correct to me that libertarian/ancap logic rests basically on semantics.

  3. James January 6, 2014 at 15:04 Reply

    I think Oli made a great point. Libertarian thinkers tend to conflate those two issues. This is also an awesome post, great work.

  4. Cammy January 27, 2014 at 22:23 Reply
  5. […] starts drawing from his ideological biases. I have analyzed one such instance in the entry where I debunk the arguments for self-ownership, because Hoppe argues that denying self-ownership is a performative contradiction. Why? Because his […]

  6. […] There is no such thing as a “freely chosen” act, and there is no such thing as a “self-owner.” So no, this is not the proper basis for the obligation to keep children alive. This is just […]

  7. That guy July 27, 2015 at 22:16 Reply

    I am owned by no one.

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