On Self-Ownership

Short take: John Holbo needs to meet more reasonable libertarians.  Now to elaborate on that…

He’s expanding on the previous discussion into libertarian views on self-ownership — or, at least, the views on such he’s encountered from self-identified libertarians.  As for those views…hoo boy:

Libertarians – propertarians, anyway – rather notoriously maintain that you really ought to be able to sell yourself into slavery, if you want to. After all, you’re your property. You should be able to dispose of yourself as you see fit. (Some libertarians don’t go so far but many do. Nozick, for example. I think it’s pretty hard to resist this conclusion, in princpled fashion, once you’ve bought the strong self-ownership principle.)

To answer a very awkward question: No, you cannot sell yourself into slavery.  Being a slave means that you are someone else’s property, & not your own.  The second the “sale” was finalized you would forfeit the ability to do anything else, while your “owner” could dispose of you as property — literally.  This is why though there had been mentions of “indentured servants” during the era of slavery there was no meaningful difference in practice: sure, you could’ve drawn up a contract and everything, but all the power was in the hands of your “owner”, who could change your arrangement at will anyway.  When any other form of property is exchanged under false pretenses, we treat the sale as void, and selling yourself as a slave is inherently a transaction that cannot be fulfilled.

I suspect there’ll be arguments that this is wrong, that you can sell yourself like you would sell anything else.  Two things to say to that:

First, re-read the above again.  If you say slavery, you should mean slavery, otherwise use another word.

Second, not being able to truly sell yourself doesn’t mean you can’t rent.  In fact, this is what most people do.  Instead of a tenant or borrower, we call our clients by other names: managers, supervisors, foremen, bosses, etc.  This arrangement is so common because of deliberate decisions over time which have had the effect of limiting ways of making a living without such submission.  Outside of farming, self-employment or syndicalist-style labor organization, your options are effectively rent yourself out or starve.

It’s an interesting thing to observe the concept of self-ownership being used to argue willing enslavement, primarily because I see it completely different: the story of labor has actually been a fight for recognition of self-ownership, as owning yourself is what makes you NOT a slave.   I get the feeling this is an alien concept to the crowd than John has been dealing with…


About b-psycho

Left-libertarian blogger & occasional musician.
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2 Responses to On Self-Ownership

  1. vache folle says:

    I reckon way too much is made over the concept of self ownership. You own yourself only insofar as you can keep somebody else from enslaving you.

  2. b psycho says:

    Good point. The problem with philosophy is, and has always been, that people exist who frankly don’t give a fuck. Sometimes all you can do is make acting on Stupid too expensive…

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