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Rothbard as a philosopher

Murray Rothbard was an influential proponent of an extreme version of libertarianism known as anarcho-capitalism, according to which all taxation is theft and government per se is intrinsically evil. In several recent posts I have expressed a low opinion of Rothbard as a philosopher, and some Rothbardians think I have been unfair to him. In this post I want to examine a typical piece of Rothbardian philosophical argumentation, which I think will show that my estimation of his philosophical skills is warranted.

The example is “typical” in three senses. First, it concerns the very foundation of Rothbard’s moral and political philosophy, rather than some peripheral matter about which a lapse in argumentation could easily be excused. Second, it is an argument that Rothbard repeated in several contexts in virtually the same form over the course of many years, so that it is obvious that he regarded it as a good one. Third, it seems to me to be exemplary of the degree of precision, depth, and detail that characterize Rothbard’s arguments in moral and political philosophy in general (i.e. not a very high degree at all). If Rothbard was capable of giving an interesting philosophical argument, then, we would naturally expect to find one here, and yet (as we will see) we don’t. While I do not claim that this one example decisively establishes Rothbard’s philosophical mediocrity all by itself, I do think it provides a pretty strong indication. And I also think that anyone who reads further in Rothbard’s work will find that it doesn’t get any better.

I want to make it clear at the outset that my low opinion of Rothbard as a philosopher is not based on the fact that I find his arguments ultimately unpersuasive, or even on the fact that I think many of them are just flat-out bad arguments. Obviously, there are lots of important philosophers who have given unpersuasive and even bad arguments. The reason he is a bad philosopher is that he seems incapable of producing even a minimally respectable philosophical argument, by which I mean an argument that doesn’t commit any obvious fallacies or fail to address certain obvious objections. (An argument can be ultimately unpersuasive or even bad while still being minimally respectable in this sense. For example, I think that Rawls’s argument for his two principles of justice is ultimately unpersuasive, but it is not a flat-out bad argument and is certainly at least minimally respectable. And I think Wittgenstein’s argument against the privacy of sensations is a flat-out bad argument, but it too is at least minimally respectable insofar as the fallacies it commits are not obvious ones and he does try to deal with obvious objections.)

I should also make it clear that my low opinion of Rothbard’s philosophical abilities has nothing to do with the particular conclusions he wants to defend. I certainly share his hostility to slavery, socialism, communism, and egalitarian liberalism. I also agree that much of what modern governments do is morally indefensible and that many of the taxes levied by modern governments (maybe even most of them) are unjust. And while I strongly disagree with his claims that government per se is evil and that all taxation is unjust, these are at least philosophically interesting claims. The problem is just that Rothbard seems incapable of giving a philosophically interesting argument for his claims. (Moreover, the claims in question were borrowed by Rothbard from 19th century anarchists like Lysander Spooner, so even where Rothbard is philosophically interesting he isn’t original.)

Here, then, is the example. It is Rothbard’s main argument for the thesis of self-ownership, which is, as I have indicated, the very foundation of his moral and political philosophy, without which his moral case against taxation and government totally collapses. I know of at least three places where he presents it (there may be others): in his book For a New Liberty (first published 1973, revised 1978); in his essay “Justice and Property Rights” (first published 1974, reprinted in his anthology Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays, 2nd edition); and in his main work on moral and political philosophy, The Ethics of Liberty (1982, revised edition published in 1998). In the revised edition of For a New Liberty, the argument begins as follows:

“Since each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation. Consider, too, the consequences of denying each man the right to own his own person. There are then only two alternatives: either (1) a certain class of people, A, have the right to own another class, B; or (2) everyone has the right to own his own equal quotal share of everyone else. The first alternative implies that while Class A deserves the rights of being human, Class B is in reality subhuman and therefore deserves no such rights. But since they are indeed human beings, the first alternative contradicts itself in denying natural human rights to one set of humans. Moreover, as we shall see, allowing Class A to own Class B means that the former is allowed to exploit, and therefore to live parasitically, at the expense of the latter. But this parasitism itself violates the basic economic requirement for life: production and exchange.” (pp. 28-29)

The rest of the argument attempts to rule out alternative (2) and has its own problems, but I won’t bother with it because the passage quoted is enough for my purposes. I think this argument is a very bad one; indeed, I think that to anyone with any philosophical training it will be quite obvious that it is bad. And not only is it bad, but given that Rothbard says nothing more in defense of the claims made in this passage (apart from trying to rule out alternative (2)), I think it is clear that the argument fails to be even minimally respectable in the sense described above. I suspect that most readers can immediately see at least some of the problems with it. Here are the ones that occur to me:

1. Even if it were true that “each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish” and that “the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation,” it just doesn’t follow that anyone has a right to self-ownership. For all Rothbard has shown, we might also be able to think, learn, value, etc. even if we didn’t have any rights at all. (That X could get us Z doesn’t show that Y wouldn’t get it for us too.) Or we might need some rights in order to do these things, but not all the rights entailed by the principle of self-ownership. Or we might really need all the rights entailed by self-ownership, but nevertheless just not have them. After all, the fact that you need something doesn’t entail that you have it, and (as libertarians themselves never tire of pointing out), it certainly doesn’t entail that you have a right to it. For example, wild animals need food to survive, but it doesn’t follow that they have a right to it (indeed, Rothbard himself explicitly denies that animals can have any rights).

Furthermore, why should we grant in the first place that “each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish”? Children survive and flourish very well without choosing most of their means and ends. Some adults are quite happy to let others (parents, a spouse, government officials) choose at least some of their means and ends for them. Many physically or mentally ill people couldn’t possibly survive or flourish unless others chose their means and ends for them. Even a slave or serf could obviously survive and even flourish if his master or lord was of the less brutal sort. And so forth. And if surviving and flourishing are what ground our rights, how could we have a right to suicide or to do anything contrary to our flourishing, as libertarian defenders of the thesis of self-ownership say we do?

Also, why should we grant that respect for each individual’s self-ownership really would ensure every individual’s ability to choose his means and ends, etc.? A leftist might argue that respect for self-ownership would benefit some but leave a great many others destitute and bereft of any interesting range of means or ends to choose from.

Of course, there might be some way a Rothbardian could reply to these objections; I certainly don’t find all of them compelling. But the point is that they are obvious objections to make, and yet Rothbard doesn’t even consider them, much less answer them. Even a brief acknowledgement of some of these objections and a gesture in the direction of a possible reply might have been enough to make the argument minimally respectable, but Rothbard fails to provide even this.

2. The claim that there are “only two alternatives” to denying the thesis of self-ownership is just obviously false. Here are some further alternatives that Rothbard fails to consider: (a) no one owns anyone, including himself; (b) God owns all of us; (c) one class of people has a right to only partial ownership of another class (e.g. the former class has a right to the labor of the latter class, but may not kill members of the latter class, or refuse to provide for their sustenance, or forbid them from marrying, etc.); (d) everyone has partial and/or unequal ownership of everyone else (e.g. everyone has an absolute right to bodily integrity, but not to the fruits of his labor, which are commonly owned; or everyone has an absolute right to bodily integrity, and an absolute right only to some percentage of the fruits of his labor, with the rest being commonly owned; or everyone has a presumptive right to bodily integrity, which might be overridden in extreme cases, with a right to a percentage of the fruits of his labor; or the weak and untalented have an absolute right to bodily integrity and to a large percentage of, though not all of, the fruits of their labor while the strong and talented have an absolute right to bodily integrity and to a much smaller percentage of the fruits of their labor; or the strong and talented, unlike the weak and untalented, have only a presumptive right to bodily integrity, which might be overridden if someone desperately needs an organ transplant; and so on and so forth).

Alternative (b) was defended by Locke (for whom talk of self-ownership was really just a kind of shorthand for our stewardship of ourselves before God), and it would also have been endorsed by natural law theorists in the Thomistic tradition. Rothbard explicitly cites both Locke on self-ownership and the Thomistic natural law tradition, so this alternative should have been obvious to him, and yet he fails even to consider it.

Alternative (c) was the standard view taken by defenders of slavery, most of whom would not have endorsed the unqualified ownership of other people implied by Rothbard’s alternative (1). One would think that Rothbard, who fancied himself a historian of ideas, would be aware of this, and yet here again he simply ignores what should have been another obvious possible alternative.

Some version or other of alternative (d) is arguably implicit in the views of many leftists, very few of whom (if any) would really claim that all of us have equal quotal ownership of each other. At the very least, a minimally charitable reading of left-wing arguments about taxation and redistribution would acknowledge that this, rather than Rothbard’s alternative (2), might be what egalitarian leftists are committed to. But Rothbard fails even to consider the possibility. He suggests (later on in the argument, after the passage quoted above) that “communist” ownership by everyone of everyone would entail that no one could take any action whatsoever without the permission of everyone else, but while this might be true under option (2), it would not be true under the less extreme egalitarian possibilities enshrined in (d).

Alternative (a) is one that Rothbard finally did consider – almost a decade after first giving the argument and after once again ignoring this alternative when repeating the argument in “Justice and Property Rights” – in a brief footnote in The Ethics of Liberty. (He attributes it to George Mavrodes, apart from whom, apparently, Rothbard might never have seen the obvious.) Rothbard’s reply to it is to say that “since ownership signifies range of control, this [i.e. no one’s owning anyone, including himself] would mean that no one would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly vanish.” But the badness of this argument should also be obvious. While having ownership of something does imply having a range of control over it, having a range of control over it doesn’t imply ownership. I have a certain “range of control” over my neighbor’s flower bed – he couldn’t stop me if I walked over right now and pulled some flowers out of it – but it doesn’t follow that I own it. Animals have a range of control over their environment, but since ownership is a moral category implying the having of certain rights, and animals (by Rothbard’s own admission) have no rights, it follows that they have no ownership of anything. And of course, their lack of ownership of anything hasn’t caused animals as a whole to “vanish,” “quickly” or otherwise, which makes evident the absurdity of Rothbard’s claim that alternative (a) would entail the extinction of the human race.

3. Alternative (1) just obviously doesn’t imply that the members of class B are “subhuman.” Not all defenders of slavery have denied that slaves are fully human; their view is just that some human beings can justly be owned by other ones. Rothbard’s assertion that this “contradicts itself in denying natural human rights to one set of humans” is just blatantly question-begging, since what is at issue is precisely whether there are any natural human rights that might rule out slavery.

4. Rothbard’s claim that the “parasitism” entailed by alternative (1) “violates the basic economic requirement for life: production and exchange” is also just obviously false. Animals do not engage in “production and exchange,” certainly not in the laissez-faire economics sense intended by Rothbard, but they are obviously alive.

In this one brief passage, then, Rothbard commits a host of fallacies and fails even to acknowledge, much less answer, a number of obvious objections that might be raised against his argument. Nor is this some peripheral argument, which might be written off as an uncharacteristic lapse. It served as the foundation of his entire moral and political theory, and was repeated several times over the course of a decade virtually unaltered. And if things are this bad in the very foundations of his moral and political theory, you can imagine how bad the rest of his philosophical arguments are.

It only compounds the offense that Rothbard was so self-righteous, strident, and uncharitable in his criticisms of those who disagreed with him. The more extreme and untested one’s ideas are, the more rigorous one’s arguments for them need to be and the more tentative and humble one ought to be in presenting and defending them. Yet Rothbard, though his ideas could be very extreme indeed (see here for a particularly grotesque example) gave flimsy arguments for them and tended to dismiss those who disagreed with him as wicked apologists for “statism” and “aggression.”

It is no defense of Rothbard to note that there may be ways for Rothbardians to try to surmount the objections I have raised. No doubt there are, but that is beside the point. What matters is that Rothbard himself never tried to surmount them, nor did he even consider them, even though they are extremely obvious objections. That is the mark of a bad philosopher.

It is also no defense of Rothbard to suggest that he was better as an economist than as a philosopher. Perhaps he was – I’ll leave it to the economists to judge – but that is irrelevant since his moralistic stridency, and in particular his claims that government and taxation are inherently unjust (and not merely inefficient), could only be justified by philosophical arguments, not economic ones. And as I have argued, his philosophical arguments come nowhere close to justifying either the claims themselves or his unshakable confidence in them.


Good post, Feser. I think the many of your criticisms, especially when it comes to ancipating objections and charitability towards opponents, could be extended to Ayn Rand.

"The more extreme and untested one’s ideas are, the more rigorous one’s arguments for them need to be and the more tentative and humble one ought to be in presenting and defending them."

A good example of a libertarian philosopher that engages in careful, humble, and rigorous scholarship is Randy Barnett.

Murray was a good friend. As some of you may know, I taught at UNLV from 1989 to 1996. Murray was in the economics department and I was in philosophy.

I don't want to speak to Murray's philosophical acumen, but I can tell you that he was delightful man and a good friend.

Greetings Dr. Feser,
I guess I need to ask this question: Are there any natural human rights that rule out slavery?

As for the post overall, points one and two were devastatingly good. I have a question about three up above. Point four seems rather strained, or maybe I am just confused by the relavance of animals as a guide to economic prosperity.

"The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one." - Abraham Lincoln

You quote Rothbard as saying “Since each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation." What has always puzzled me about the concept of self-ownership is its provenance. It's an axiomatic deus ex machina. And upon that axiom Rothbardians build a stateless utopia. I'm not quite sure I how they do it, but I suppose it's something like this:

If each of us owns himself, no one can do anything to another person without that other person's permission. The state is therefore unnecessary because each of us is a self-owner (circularity). But (brace yourself for a contradiction) just in case others might try to do something to us without our permission, we can hire private defense agencies to settle our interpersonal disputes. And (huge assumptions here) those private defense agencies (1) are not equivalent to states (even though we would give them enough power to settle interpersonal differences), and (2) would not turn upon us, collude with each other, or war with each other -- just because we are self-owners.

Anyway, that's what I make of the essentials of Rothbardianism, which is to say that it's hopelessly unrealistic. Is there more to it than I think?

Hello Step2,

You ask "Are there any natural human rights that rule out slavery?" I would answer from a natural law perspective, and the answer is that what most people these days mean by slavery -- chattel slavery, kidnapping people to make slaves of them, regarding them as less than fully human, enslaving them on the basis of their race, etc., i.e. the sort of thing associated with the African slave trade -- is inherently immoral from the point of view of traditional natural law theory. The reason is that since every human being has certain natural ends the fulfillment of which constitutes the good for them, and certain moral obligations that follow from those natural ends, the natural law entails that they must also have certain rights not to be prevented from realizing those ends and fulfilling those obligations. It follows that no one can have ownership of another human being, because to hold another person as one's property would entail having a right to do whatever one wished with that person, even if it meant frustrating that person's ability to realize what is good for him and to fulfill his obligations. But no one can possibly have such a right over another.

I realize that people often claim that natural law theory was traditionally used to justify slavery, but the problem with this claim is that it ignores the fact that the kind of "slavery" that natural law theorists have defended was very different from what most people today think of as the paradigm of slavery. First of all, it involved, not ownership of a person as chattel, but rather only a right to the person's labor, and entailed also a duty to provide for that person's material and spiritual well-being. Secondly, it had to do with things like paying off debts and punishment for crimes (on the theory that if a criminal did something deserving of death, say, he could also be given a lesser punishment of being forced to work for another). In other words, it was something that in a way still exists even today in the form of prison. The basic principle was that labor is, uncontroversially, something that can under certain circumstances justifiably either be sold or demanded as punishment, so that it cannot be ruled out absolutely that a person might sell many years worth, or even a lifetime supply of, his labor in order to pay off a debt or lose it in punishment of a crime. But it was just the labor -- and not the person himself -- which could be sold or alienated in this way.

So this sort of "slavery" is not considered to be always inherently immoral from the point of view of traditional natural law theory. Still, as an institution it nevertheless came to be seen as involving too many moral hazards to be justifiable in practice. Even if in theory a debtor or criminal in servitude might not be considered another's property, when the practice becomes at all widespread it seems inevitably to lead to treating them as if they were property.

So, in short, natural law theory says that chattel slavery is always and inherently a violation of natural human rights, and that while servitude as a way of paying off a debt or being punished is not inherently a violation of rights, it is nevertheless so morally hazardous that in practice it cannot be approved of.

Re: point four, Rothbard's aim is to argue that denial of self-ownership is somehow inconsistent with the preconditions of human biological existence, so that my point was just that the case of animals, who have no rights whatsoever even on Rothbard's view (and thus no self-ownership) shows that he is obviously wrong about this, since animals quite easily exist despite their lack of self-ownership.

I suppose Rothbard would say that human beings, unlike animals, need to reason, engage in economic exchanges, etc. in order to survive and thus need self-ownership, but this is obviously false too. At most what it shows is that _some_ human beings need just enough freedom of thought and action to generate just enough wealth to keep themselves alive, which is consistent with others living off these productive people, and nobody having what Rothbard calls "100% self-ownership."

Moreover, the very idea of "100% self-ownership" is a very recent novelty, unheard of for most of human history, and would have been denied even by such alleged precursors of Rothbard as Locke, who (as someone who denied that we have a right to suicide or to sell ourselves into slavery) would never have said that our "self-ownership" is "100%." Indeed, by Rothbard's own account, most of human history has been a nightmare of oppression, with the trampling on people's alleged right to self-ownership being the rule. Yet somehow, despite 99.99% of the human beings who have ever lived not having for a moment believed in or respected Rothbardian self-ownership, the human race has survived anyway! So how can the denial of self-ownership be inconsistent with human existence?

Maybe Rothbard would respond by claiming that whether or not people have acknowledged or respected self-ownership, they have implicitly presupposed it anyway. Thus some Rothbardians claim that even to deny self-ownership you have to make use of your rational and communicative faculties, in which case you must own them. But (a) this goes well beyond anything Rothbard actually says in the argument I quoted, so that it is irrelevant to my point that Rothbard's own defense of self-ownerhsip is extremely flimsy, and (b) it is, in any event, itself a very bad argument.

Here are some problems with it:

(1) In order to use my rational and communicative faculties, all I need is the bare ability to do so, not a moral right to do so, in just the same way that I can quite easily pull out my neighbor's flowers even if I have no moral right to do so. (And again, an animal is quite capable of using its faculties even if it has no moral right to do so because it cannot be said to have any rights at all.)

(2) Even if I did need some kind of right in order to use my faculties, all I would really need is a "right" in the sense of a liberty to use them rather than a "right" in the sense of a claim against others that they not interfere with my using them. (Cf. Wesley Hohfeld's influential discussion of the different senses of "having a right.")

(3) Even if I did need such a claim against others, it wouldn't follow that I needed an absolute claim to use my rational and communicative faculties however I wanted under all circumstances, etc.

(4) Even if I did have such an absolute claim, it wouldn't follow that I also had a liberty right or claim right, much less an absolute claim right, to my other faculties, to my body and labor, etc.

And so on.

This goes far beyond what I need to make my point (or answer your question!) but it further illustrates how hopeless are the philosophical arguments given in support of Rothbard's system.

Hello Tom,

In fairness to Rothbard, I don't think the circularity or contradiction you're accusing him of is there. Rothbard's claim isn't that self-ownership entails that the state is _unnecessary_, but rather that it entails that the state is _unjust_ (since it involves taxation, which in Rothbard's view is always a violation of your right to the fruits of your labor, which derives from self-ownership). He does also think that the state is unnecessary (since you can, he thinks, defend your rights by retaining a private protection agency) but that is a separate and logically independent argument. Furthermore, he doesn't say that private protection agencies will automatically and just out of the kindness of their hearts respect self-ownership, but only that there will be economic incentives for them to do so (for the most part) and that on balance a world of private agencies will at least respect self-ownership more than a world of governments would.

That's not to say that I buy all this -- I don't buy it for a moment. (See e.g. my book On Nozick, where I argue, in agreement with Nozick, that Rothbard is just wrong to claim that self-ownership entails that government is intrinsically immoral, and also that Nozick is right to say that private protection firms would be morally obligated to take on the powers of states, and thus become de facto states.)

Re: the basis of self-ownership, Rothbard does indeed claim that his system is "axiomatic," but he also, as I've indicated, tries to give some justification for the principle, however ineptly.

Other attempted justifications include the following (the list is not meant to be exhaustive):

(a) arguing that commitment to self-ownership is presupposed by certain widely shared moral judgments, such as that slavery is wrong. (Strictly speaking, this wouldn't prove that the thesis is true, but at most only that certain people who might otherwise reject the principle, e.g. egalitarian liberals, cannot do so consistently with some of their moral commitments.)

(b) arguing, as Locke does, that fulfilling our obligations to God, who owns us, requires our having a high enough degree of freedom from interference from other human beings that with respect to them (though not with respect to God) we can be said to be "self-owners" (though "self-stewards" is really a better way of putting it).

(c) arguing that our ability to flourish (a la Aristotelian virtue ethics) and/or fulfill our natural ends (a la classical natural law theory) entails that we have a bundle of rights over ourselves that plausibly constitutes self-ownership.

(d) arguing that a Kantian respect for persons as ends-in-themselves entails treating them as self-owners. (This argument is at least implicit in Nozick, though he doesn't spell it out in any detail.)

(e) arguing that contractarian moral reasoning (of the sort advocated by Gauthier and Narveson) entails treating others as self-owners.

(f) arguing that denial of self-ownership somehow leads to a self-contradiction (a strategy I discuss in my reply to Step2 above).

For what it's worth, when I was a libertarian I tended to favor approaches (a) and (c), but I would not favor them now, at least not without serious qualifications. For one thing, while (a) might be a useful way of arguing with liberals, it is useless against others. For example, no classical natural law theorist has any reason to believe that rejecting slavery requires acknowledging self-ownership, for reasons made clear in my response to Step2 above.

For another thing, I would now say that whether or not (c) could justify a commitment to "self-ownership" in some qualified sense, it certainly cannot plausibly justify Rothbard's claim that we have "100% self-ownership." The reason is that the very premises that underlie classical Aristotelian and natural law theory entail that we have certain unchosen positive moral obligations -- including obligations to others, especially to our families and (for natural law theory) to God, and also at least to a limited extent to our fellow human beings (with decreasing levels of positive obligation the farther we get from immediate family and friends) -- that are inconsistent with "100% ownership" of our bodies, talents, abilities, and labor. For example, I have no natural right to deny my parents at least some assistance should they become destitute through no fault of their own -- I would do them an injustice if I denied it to them -- which entails that I do not have "100% ownership" of the fruits of my labor.

(Might I still have a large enough bundle of rights over myself to justify calling myself a "self-owner" (at least 90%, or whatever, even if not 100%)? Maybe so -- I'm not convinced that this isn't correct, anyway -- though I guess in that case it isn't as clear what the point is of talking about self-ownership. In criticizing a certain tax, say, why not just say "Government has no right under natural law to tax me in order to fund an anti-smoking campaign (or whatever)" rather than "I'm a self-owner"?)

Of course, some people are attracted to the idea of self-ownership for less intellectually respectable reasons. For example, some people no doubt want to believe in it because it would, they think, justify them in engaging in behaviors that could otherwise be condemned as immoral. (When I've taught Nozick to students, some of them absolutely love the idea of self-ownership -- at least until they realize that it might entail that they have no right to a federal student loan -- and it isn't because they are viscerally opposed to socialism!)

With other people, I think, the fear is that unless you believe in self-ownership, you have no way of objecting to socialism, communism, Nazism, egalitarian liberalism, etc. on grounds of justice. But this is just ridiculous. Certainly classical natural law theory entails that socialism, communism, Nazism, egalitarian liberalism -- and, for that matter, Rothbardian libertarianism too -- are all unjust.

Hi Professor Feser,

Maybe I misunderstood Tom, but what I thought he was getting at could be illuminated by the following argument:

(1) According to Rothbard, people have 100% self-ownership, i.e., there can be no justification for interfering in their thinking, their learning, their valuations, and their choosing their own ends.

(2) However, Rothbard thinks it is okay freely to join a private protection agency that would settle disputes with others.

(3) The problem is, in order to settle disputes with others, a private protection agency needs sometimes to use coercive force against others, even if those others are not themselves members of a private protection agency (and therefore, have not agreed to the conditions the agencies set out for membership).

(4) By definition, coercive force interferes with another person's complete self-ownership, and so is unjustified. (By (1))

(5) Therefore, Rothbard must either give up (1) or (2).

Basically, what Tom's argument shows is that it is not at all clear how Rothbard can square his endorsement of 100% self-ownership with his endorsement of the use of protection agencies coercively to settle disputes or his (presumable) endorsement of a right to self-defense.

Dr. Feser,
Thank you for the clarifications. The practical moral hazard of indentured servitude you refer to seems to come from the totally incongruent power arrangement. It is one thing to owe a huge debt to the mortgage company, where the law can intervene to punish either party who acts in bad faith. It is something else to owe a huge debt to a mobster who enforces his own rules of debt collection.

When you wrote, "(1) violates the basic economic requirement for life: production and exchange", I took it to mean economic life/activity. If biological life is in fact what Rothbard was referring to, he went warp speed into incoherence. Since he was proposing an economics based system, I figured he was just putting an emphasis on active participation and open markets.

Hi Bobcat,

Just to show I can be fair to Rothbard, let me once again try (partially) to defend him. What he'd say is that if a private protection agency arrests or punishes someone for an offense committed against one of its clients, this is perfectly legitimate from a moral point of view since the offender has lost the right to his liberty, etc. by virtue of his offense. (Rothbard does not think self-ownership rights are inalienable -- you can lose them if you violate other people's rights.)

Still, this doesn't address the question of whether a private agency would do an injustice to a person it merely suspects of a crime and who is in fact innocent, or questions about cases where two parties to a dispute reasonably disagree over whether an offense has been committed or what the appropriate punishment should be. If you and Tom are saying that this is the problem you see in Rothbard's view, then I agree. In fact, this is, I think, the main issue between Nozick and Rothbard, insofar as Nozick's case for the state rests in part on the idea that a private protection firm would necessarily (and, he argues, in a way that violates no one's rights) have to take on state-like powers to deal with cases like this. Again, see my book On Nozick, in which I defend Nozick's argument for the state against Rothbard's criticisms.

Hi Step2,

The context in question makes it clear that Rothbard does indeed have in mind "maintaining" oneself and "surviving," not in the marketplace specifically, but just as a human being. Moreover, the whole point of the argument is to build up to a defense of a laissez-faire economic order, in which case he can't presuppose it. Finally, it is in any case quite easy to maintain oneself in the marketplace without "100% self-owhership" -- on Rothbard's own view, people's "100% self-ownership" isn't respected today, but most of them are nevertheless able to support themselves in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, Rothbard's only speed was warp speed (as you put it) -- he was always in an awful hurry to denounce the next enemy, or imagined enemy, of "liberty" that he could lay his hands on -- and predictably, this often led to the incoherence you speak of.

Painfully aware that I may only be repeating what's already been better said ...

I slapped my head in disbelief at a very early phase when I first ran into the "self-ownership" argument. I'm not even sure how to explain my problem with it. But (waving my hands futilely): How can you "own" yourself? I mean, really, can someone explain this? I can own a penknife, or property, or rights. But how can this thing called "I" be held to "own" this thing called my "self"?

I confess that I don't know how to go on. I mean, who's standing outside of what in order to grant rights to who over what, exactly? ... My mental transmission gets gummed-up. My mental engine overheats.

All I know is that my mind winds up boinging around like a ball in a carnival game trying to comprehend how Rothbard et al expect me to let him get away with this. But maybe that feeling of disbelief-crossed-with-high-blood-pressure is a sensation the hardcore libertarians take to be the same as "freedom"?

Hi Michael,

Boy, who would have expected that I'd keep defending Rothbard (partially anyway) in the comments section of a post in which I attack him?! But here goes...

To own something is just to have a bundle of rights over it, e.g. the right to use it, the right to sell it, the right not to have it taken from you without your consent, the right to destroy it, etc. The more rights one has over it, the more full one's ownership. Having every possible right over something would constitute 100% ownership of it, lacking some rights might leave you with 95% ownership, or 90%, 80%, 50%, 25%, or whatever.

Now if this is correct, then since it also seems correct to say that we have certain rights over ourselves -- the right to use our bodies and their parts at least in certain ways (e.g. those that don't involve hurting others), the right not to be killed, etc. -- then, at least if (as seems plausible) we have, if anything, an even greater number of these rights over ourselves than we have rights over ordinary examples of property (one's house or car, say), then it seems at least plausible to suggest that there's a sense in which we might "own" ourselves.

The concept of "self-ownership," then, seems perfectly coherent, at least to me (and also to some philosophers who are very hostile to the use to which the concept is usually put, e.g. G. A. Cohen). The real question, in my view anyway, is whether we can plausibly be said to have enough rights over ourselves to make talk about "self-ownership" a useful shorthand, and if so what degree of self-ownership we have. (Compare: if I have only 5% of the rights one could have over a piece of land -- say, all I have is the right to walk over it to get to a hospital in an emergency -- then it doesn't seem very useful to suggest that I "own" it even partially, since my "parital" ownership is so slight; but if I have 85% of the rights to it one could have, then it does seem that it is useful and informative to say that I own it.)

I think it is plausible to suggest that we have enough of the rights one could have over ourselves to say that there is a non-trivial sense in which we "own" ourselves, with qualifications. But I also think that it is not at all plausible to say we have "100% ownership" of ourselves, as Rothbard holds, certainly not from a natural law point of view (which Rothbard claims, quite ridiculously, to represent).

Edward -- Many thanks for the patient explanation. I doubt I'll ever get past my balking though. The idea that "I" have rights over my "self" seems like a Rube Goldberg argument to me. "I" is the equivalent of my "self," no? (If not, what's the difference between them? Does Rothbard take this up?) Or at least there's a lot of overlap. So who is owning what?

And how? On a simple mechanical level (or something), how can that even take place? How can either "I" or my "self" be said to exist (even for a flicker of an instant) on a different level than the other, one that enables it to "own" the other? After all, ownership is generally "over" something.

I'm obviously just spritzing, but I even have misgivings about the idea of having "rights" over, say, my arm. I mean, sure, yeah, in some instances we maybe need to discuss things and relations in these terms. But they seem inadequate. The idea that "I" exist somehow apart from "my arm" strikes me as at best half-valid. Oliver Sacks is very good on how people's sense of themselves is often dramatically affected by what happens to their bodies. In my life, I had an uncle, for instance, who lost a leg in WWII. According to everyone (including him), he was one guy before losing his leg and another guy after losing it. (Incidentally, for metaphysical/religious purposes, I'm happy making a distinction between "me" and "my body" -- I'm a soul incarnate in this world, etc. Feels about right to me. But when we talk about rights we aren't talking about religion, as far as I can tell.) In my own case, I had surgery a while back during which a gland was removed. My experience has been that the surgery changed who "I" am in very significant ways.

Anyway, when I look at the sentence "I own myself," I don't see meaning, I see two cars crashing into each other. But I'm grateful to you for your very interesting discussion!

Hi again Michael,

You're right that when someone says "I own myself," "I" and "myself" refer to the same thing. But why is this a problem for self-ownership? After all, you can (as this example shows) _refer_ to yourself, so why can't you own yourself? Yes, in the normal case what is owned is different from what does the owning. But how does that show that they must _always_ be different? (Similarly, in the normal case when you refer to something, it is to something different from you, but that doesn't mean that you can't refer to yourself too.)

(This is true whether or not we have souls, by the way, which would be part of our selves and thus presumably part of what is owned by the self according to defenders of self-ownership. Of course, for theological reasons there are still problems with the suggestion that a person could have "100% ownership" of his soul: presumably God would have a claim here, whatever Rothbard thinks...)

But given how odd the "I own myself" usage is, shouldn't the burden of proving-plausibility be on Rothbard, and not on common sense, common experience, and common usage? The slim possibility that "I own myself" might make a bit of sense in some special, hard-to-explain way hardly supports the idea that it's a good idea to base a political philosophy on it.

I'm not sure how my being able to refer to "myself" has much bearing on whether or not I can own myself, btw. A reference by me to myself is a flickering, quick thing, where me owning myself would presumably be an ongoing thing. Common experience suggests that, yeah, sure, we can all get outside ourselves in imagination for a short bit, and we all have a sense of ourselves as someone or something. We do it all the time. Then, quickly, we're back to being ourselves (which we were all along anyway). And where would language be if it didn't allow us to refer to ourselves? But what suggests, or even hints at, the possibility that we might be capable of standing so far outside ourselves for such extended periods of time that we can be said to own ourselves? It seems to invite problems, too. For instance: since the ability to refer to "myself" seems to depend at least in part on empathy, sympathy, and imagination, does that mean that people who are lacking in empathy, sympathy, and imagination own themselves less than the rest of us own ourselves?

I dunno. Making a big deal of "I own myself" as Rothbard did suggests a kind of either massive "I am the world" egocentricity or maybe brain damage to me. But it's fun and instructive to have the chance to swap notes with you about this, tks.


I am not nearly as articulate as Edward Feser is. But let's take the "What it means to own oneself" discussion into practical reality for a moment.

Let's say the Colorado legislature was debating a ban on the music of K.C. and the Sunshine band. The proposed legislation would say that anyone caught listening to or possessing the music of K.C. and the Sunshine band will be fined $20,000 and subject to 5 years in state prison.

Any objections to the proposed legislation?

Well, if you are a fan of K.C. and the Sunshine band, perhaps you would travel to the state capital (in my home city of Denver) and say to the state legislators, "Don't vote for the ban. I really enjoy the music of K.C. and the Sunshine band."

Or if you don't like the music of K.C. and the Sunshine band you might go to the state capital and say to these politicians, "Yes. Please ban that music. I never cared for that song 'Celebration' anyway."

But shouldn't the legislative vote count on whether to ban or not to ban the music of K.C. and the Sunshine band depend on something more than K.C.'s popularity among the Colorado voters?

Shouldn't this debate be decided on more abstract principles?

One such abstract principle might be the principle of, you guessed it, self-ownership.

So any old abstraction in a pinch? It doesn't matter whether it's a worthwhile (useful, sensible, tried-and-true, whatever) one or not? Hmm.

But I'll shut up now. I've used up more than my fair share of bandwidth.

I think Ed's suggestion is that self-ownership is coherent if it is strongly reducible to a set of other statements (which then might of might not be true) for which the paradox Michael senses would not arise. So, e.g., "I have the absolute right to decide when and for whom I will work" might be one such proposition, and it doesn't raise any of the questions about how "I" can own "myself" since these are the same. If various degrees of self-ownership just _meant_ some set of such propositions, there wd. be no problem with coherence.


Perhaps you don't support banning the music of K.C. and the Sunshine band.

Okay then.

What abstract principle would you point to that would assist you in opposing such a ban?

If you say, "Banning K.C. and the Sunshine band is a stupid idea," my response would be that this isn't an abstract principle, just a reaction.

Saying,"I like the music of K.C. and the Sunshine band," makes it sound like you might oppose banning their music but might be persuaded to support banning Electric Light Orchestra.

When people say, "You can't tell me what music I will listen to, which employer I will choose to work for (and what the employment contract will entail), whether I get a tattoo or a nose ring or whether I choose to drink vodka and orange juice," perhaps they are applying the principle of self-ownership.

If not, what abstract principle are they applying?

The Return of the Bandwidth Hog!

Lydia -- I semi-get your point, as I semi-get Edward's. But if extraordinary moves have to be made to jigger "I own myself" into plausible/coherent shape, doesn't the question come up: Then why bother with "I own myself" at all? (Actually, doesn't the further question arise: "What the hell was Rothbard really up to, given that 'I own myself' is such a weird thing to assert?") And given the extraordinariness of the backing-and-filling that has to be done in order to make something semi-plausible out of "I own myself," doesn't that seriously undermine its attractiveness as something to base a political/economic philosophy on?

AngelM -- I apologize, but I don't understand what your point is.


Murray Rothbard isn't the only person who subscribed to the idea that human beings own themselves.

I could argue that Abraham Lincoln subscribed to the self-ownership principle when he said in a debate with Stephen Douglas, "The black man may not be the equal to the white man in terms of race or maybe in other respects. But in terms of the right to eat the bread that he has earned, he is the equal of every other man."

Some people think that slavery is wrong because it violates the principle of self-ownership.

Do you think slavery (defined as the ownership of one man by another) is wrong? If so, why? If you don't subscribe to the principle of self-ownership (the ownership of each man of himself or herself), on what grounds do you oppose the ownership of one man by another?

Perhaps you oppose slavery because it "feels" like a bad idea. Fine. But I'm sure you can understand why some people might want to base their political beliefs on something other than emotions, like maybe philosophy......


Let's take on this self-ownership principle in another way.

Nearly all of us think that sending someone to a gas chamber because of their religious affiliation (Hitler's concentration camps, for example) is wrong.

The self-ownership principle is a principle that philosophers use to demonstrate why Hitler's concentration camps were wrong.

Sure, one can form his political views based on peer pressure (I support policy "A" because all my friends say policy "A" is a good policy) or on emotion (I oppose policy "B" because it just feels mean-spirited).

But some people think that basing one's political beliefs on peer pressure or emotion is rather arbitrary.

If you don't agree with the self-ownership principle at least provide an alternative principle that would prohibit slavery and Hitler's holocaust.

AngelM -- If you want a "philosophy" that can help you decide that concentration camps were bad or that slavery was wrong, then I'm glad if the "I own myself" argument serves your purposes. I'm still unsure what that has to do with whether "I own myself" makes much sense as a statement, though, let alone enough sense to serve as a plausible foundation for a useful political philosophy for the general run of people.


I'm still unsure what that has to do with whether "I own myself" makes much sense as a statement, though, let alone enough sense to serve as a plausible foundation for a useful political philosophy for the general run of people.

"I own myself" might seem like a hard statement to understand because you haven't seriously considered the alternatives, like "I am owned by my master" or "the state owns me" or "the tribal chief owns me."

There's one thing you can bet your bippy on whether or not Rothbard's statement makes sense to you, and that's sure as hell other people think they own you. Does that justify Rothbard's position? I'll let the philosphers muddle it up, but if it implies maximum control of self within the limitations of law and civility then it's a baseline or even a sine qua non of self defense against the predators of past and present statism.
It's a commentary on our decline that a mouthpiece for collectivism like Rawls, dreaming up self serving thought experiments that belong in a childs fantasy coloring book, get the admiration. With Rothbard on the other hand we puzzle over what "self ownership" means while others of differnt political persuasion ignore it entirely.
Regard it as a foundation or starting point of individualism and it may be more palatable, as the origin of privacy and freedom more acceptable, and think about the alternatives.

Edward Feser,

It looks like the commenters (including me) have retitled your post from "Rothbard as a philosopher" to "Self-ownership as a principle."

I haven't read any of Rothbard's work, mostly because I was a bit turned off by what I heard, that all governments are illegitimate.

But how about a quote from Charles Murray's "What It Means to Be a Libertarian."

Page 5
A child learns that the use of force is wrong because it's not right to hurt other people. More deeply considered, the ban on force derives from this principle: Each person owns himself. Self-ownership is unalienable, to borrow a word from the Declaration of Independence --- a person cannot sell himself, any more than he can sell his rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is wrong for me to use force against you, because it violates your right to the control of your person. I may try to persuade, harangue, or cajole you. I may appeal to your reason, honor, virtue, or greed. I may obtain your voluntary agreement in a contract. But no more than that. My intentions are irrelevant. I may have the purest motive in the world. I may even have the best idea in the world. But even these give me no right to make you do something just because I think it's a good idea.


Self-ownership is far from the only principle that would allow one to oppose things like sending people to the gas chamber.

How about the principle of utility? It is wrong to send people to the gas chamber because that does not maximize pleasure for the greatest number of people.

How about the autonomy formulation of the categorical imperative? It is wrong to send people to the gas chamber just becuase it makes you happier to do so because doing so treats those people as mere means to the end of your happiness and not as ends in themselves.

I'm no fan of libertarianism, but I'm having trouble seeing what the initial conceptual worry is supposed to be about self-ownership.

Just make a list of the propositions that need to be true of X and Y to say of X that it is owned by Y (e.g. X ought not to be used by others without Y's permission; Y has the right to any benefits flowing from X, unless Y has transferred those rights to others; etc.). Then, see whether those propositions come out true when X and Y are the same person.

If there is a sticking point, it is probably somewhere around the idea that if X is owned by Y, then Y can dispose of X at will. But that is false of us humans, whether we take a Kantian, natural law, or any theistic view. But we might nevertheless say that we own ourselves in a limited way -- the way that some folks think we own dogs, or irreplaceable artworks.

"Just make a list of the propositions that need to be true of X and Y to say of X that it is owned by Y."

How about, for instance, "X must be different than Y in order for Y to be said to own X"?

Really: How many examples can you come up with of Y owning X where they aren't two different things? Yet in the sentence "I own myself," what's the difference between "I" and "myself"? If "I" is something that has the ability to own "myself," then what does "I" have that "myself" doesn't? (Or vice-versa, I guess.)

1) What's the difference between "I" and "myself"?

2) If there is no difference, then how can one be said to "own" the other?

3) And if intricate tap-dancing has to be done to come up with rationales why they make sense, then why should we (who presumably want a reasonable political/economic environment) even consider using such a statement as the basis for a down-to-earth politics or economics?

I'm sorry to be coming back to this thread so late in the game. I'm grateful to Prof. Feser for addressing my original comment, and to BobCat for his gloss on it. I think we're agreed that Nozick's case for the (minimal) state is superior to Rothbard's case against the state.


Q: Who gets to decide whether or when Michael will brush his teeth?

A: Michael.

If the answer was "Fred," then I suppose that would represent a rejection of self-ownership, since Fred is making decisions on behalf of Michael.

So, when political phiolosophers mention self-ownership they are referring to the principle that people have the right to make decisions for themselves.

In the real political world in which we live, self-ownership has less to do with whether I get to decide whether or when I will brush my teeth and more to do with whether I should be allowed to worship Jesus instead of Allah or enjoy Led Zepplin instead of Mozart or have an earing in my earlobe.

The principle of self-ownership might even inform the debate over whether the government should make prostitution legal or whether the government should make cigarette smoking illegal.


You seem like an intelligent person. Don't tell me that you don't understand the difference between slavery (where one man owns another) and self-ownership (where each person owns himself).

You are teasing us, right?

Michael B.:

Of course you can't come up with lots of examples where things own themselves. For each potential owner A, there are zillions of things not identical to A that A might own, and only one thing identical to A that A might own. I was offering a non-question-begging way of solving the problem of whether there can be self-ownership. If you would rather beg the question over and over, feel free.

Hello everyone,

Yes, this discussion has gotten a bit off topic. As I have said, my post was concerned not with Rothbard's specific claims (e.g. about self-ownership) but rather with his arguments for them. Having said that, I also have made it clear that I'm not convinced that there is anything conceptually incoherent in the idea of self-ownership, and that I think that we may have enough rights over ourselves to make it plausible to say that there is at least a sense in which we "own" ourselves.

At the same time, I have also made it clear that I don't think it is at all plausible to say that we have "100% ownership" rights over ourselves, at least not from a classical natural law point of view (which is my point of view). The reason, in a nutshell, is that the same natural law that generates rights (such as the rights that define "self-ownership") also entails certain obligations that we cannot possibly have a right not to fulfill. To take only the most obvious example (out of many), I cannot possibly, according to natural law theory, have a right to commit suicide. It follows that my rights over myself are not absolute and that I don't have "100% self-ownership."

I have also indicated, though, that natural law theory would rule out chattel slavery -- as well as genocide, totalitarianism, and all sorts of other nasty things -- even if it doesn't entail self-ownership. Therefore, it is just false to say that unless you accept self-ownership you have no way of objecting to these things from a moral point of view.

Re: johnt's point about Rawls and Rothbard, the reason Rothbard doesn't get the respect Rawls does is only partly because of left-wing bias among academics. It is also at least largely because, as I have tried to show, whatever one thinks of Rothbard's conclusions, his arguments for them are just bad. Nozick -- who also believes in self-ownership -- gets far more respect. Indeed, G. A. Cohen, who is a prominent Marxist philosopher, takes Nozick and the thesis of self-ownership very seriously indeed, and has devoted an entire book (Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality) to trying to respond to Nozick. Along the way, he even goes so far as to defend the idea of self-ownership against various criticisms that he thinks are no good.

So, not everyone on the left is dismissive of self-ownership. Moreover, there are also some very good libertarian philosophers who have defended the idea with much greater sophistication than Rothbard ever did (e.g. Eric Mack) and whose work does get some attention from left-of-center political philosophers.

There is even a group of left-of-center philosophers who concede self-ownership and then try to combine it with an egalitarian theory of property in external objects. This is known as
"left-libertarianism," and is advocated by people like Peter Vallentyne, Hillel Steiner and Michael Otsuka.

If self-ownership means that only my decisions are relevant to what actions I commit, it is utopian. It is like an inverse communism, where state interests are absolute it substitutes personal interests. Note that both philosophical systems are economically based and require a significant change in priorities.

The fact is that society does have an interest in extreme behavior. What drugs you use, whether you sell your body for sex, or if you are planning the overthrow of the government. That does not mean you cannot defy those interests, it just means that society is justified in responding against that.


If self-ownership means that only my decisions are relevant to what actions I commit, it is utopian. It is like an inverse communism, where state interests are absolute it substitutes personal interests.

Perhaps. But many libertarians argue for drug legalization and the legalization of prostitution on "self-ownership" grounds. They argue that each person has a right to decide for themselves how they will treat their body (drugs) and their soul (prostitution).

Maybe they have a point. But perhaps a better case for drug legalization is that the prohibition on drugs (a) doesn't stop drug use and (b) creates all kinds of other problems, such as gang activity.

Regarding prostitution, one argument for legalization is that currently prostitutes are routinely beaten up by pimps and their customers because they are operating "outside the law." But this can also be an argument against legalization, because a dangerous environment possibly deters many from entering into it.

I have to admit that I am not completely sold on drug legalization or the legalization of prostitution. But I think the self-ownership idea is an interesting principle. The idea that I as an individual is more interested in my happiness than someone else is, thus, I, not someone else, should be allowed to make decisions about my life.


I like to think of self-ownership as though it were a "non-agression pact" between two or more human beings (similar to such pacts between nations).

Of course, since I am not an anarchist or a Rothbardian, I think that government must enforce these "non-agression pacts" and that compulsory taxes are required to fund government.

So, I believe that the self-ownership principle can be reconciled with a competent government. But I don't believe that the self-ownership principle answers all political questions. For example, you and I could both agree that "each man owns himself," but we could have different views on same sex marriage or the United States being a member of NATO.

Given that my initial crack about "self-ownership" was meant as nothing but an aside, I'll express regret for the way that it has hijacked this conversation.

I'll also note that for all the fancy and entertaining conceptual algebra that a lot of people have offered up in defense of "I own myself," no one has volunteered ONE SINGLE EXAMPLE (sorry, got a little carried away there) of a real-world thing that owns itself; I'll ask one final question ("Doesn't that leave you with ... I dunno, a few misgivings?"); and then I'll really shut up.

Looking forward to Edward's next posting.


Isn't it a fairly simple idea? The idea that you are neither a slave nor a master because each person owns himself.

What's complicated about it?

What is complicated about it is that it becomes more amoral the closer it gets to 100%. It is virtually solipsistic in its implications that rights only exist at the individual level. It tries to do an end run around laws and justice, by making the individual's rights sacrosanct.


It is virtually solipsistic in its implications that rights only exist at the individual level. It tries to do an end run around laws and justice, by making the individual's rights sacrosanct.

You seem to be saying that you understand the self-ownership principle perfectly but you have decided on reflection that you disagree with it.

Fair enough. But I don't think that the principle is difficult to understand, even if people might have different attitudes about how the self-ownership principle ought to be applied in terms of deciding current political controversies.

I'm not sure that I can necessarily endorse the idea that we have 100 percent ownership of ourselves. Still, I think that the principle of self-ownership (or perhaps "autonomy" is a better word for this) is an important consideration when deciding the proper relationship between a government and a free people.

Take fast food as an example, especially greasy cheeseburgers. Let's say that most health care professionals announce that the consumption of greasy cheeseburgers are clogging the arteries of Americans and, thus, we must impose a "junk food tax" or perhaps an outright prohibition on unhealthy food or perhaps allow people who have consumed large numbers of greasy cheeseburgers at fast food chains to sue for damages.

Perhaps there are many arguments that could be used to persuade people that the above mentioned proposals should be rejected. But the self-ownership principle points toward the correct direction.

If you don't like my fast food/cheeseburgers example, what about rock climbing or skydiving? I think either of these activities are more dangerous than riding on an exercise bicycle in your house. But should government ban these activities? The answer might come down on where you come down on a scale of zero to one hundred in terms of what percentage of "self-ownership" human beings have.

I am willing to concede that the questions I raised are not "no-brainers." But let's admit that the self-ownership principle might help us illuminate on why we disagree on them.

"Thinking, learning, valuing",wouldn't mean much if you can not claim primacy for and of yourself. The example of children given above describes, unintentionally, your status as well as your future.
" I own myself", a statement no more illogical than any other conjunction of I and self, tautological perhaps but not illogical. As the two can't be separated no proof of difference or otherness is required. Nor does it make any sense to try.
Amorality and solipsism. Where? To recognize the concept is automatically to recognize and honor the claim of others to a similar claim. To deny it to others and claim it for yourself is to reject it it as a principle. The whole point being that it is true of all, the person who denys it for others negates it as a moral value or claim for himself.

AngelM - If I completely own my decisions and reject this principle in its absolute form am I caught up in a paradox? Perhaps someone else made the decision for me.

johnt - Are you willing to accept the hedonism that the principle requires you to accept? Public sex acts, drug use, gladiator competitions, prostitution? If so, please explain where morality fit in?

Step2 If the gladiator competitions involve only liberals I might be interested, if the public sex acts involve liberals I wouldn't be surprised but would not be interested. Drug use is tricky and I'm in favor of decriminalizing certain aspects of it.
You may make me aware of Rothbards penchant for hedonism but to date I'm not. In any case a hedonist need not accept or practice the pleasures that you mention. Though I must confess to a passing interest in witnessing E J Dionne and Pinch Sulzberger hacking at each other with trident and gladius.
I am not a hedonist and don't see what or why I am required to accept any more than I am required to accept all of Murray Rothbard, which is why it's fun being an individualist.
A closer rereading of my post, which mentions amorality and the negation of moral value,is a start. But further, I sense the notion that government is the guardian of our morals when the reverse is closer to the truth. It does not follow that in a state where libertarian principles are in place that people will degenerate to barbarism, or that even greater numbers of them will.
Clearly you don't wish to respond to my two posts taken as a whole and instead prefer the sex in the alley and blood in the sand approach. Curious, but from where I sit it is the left that has taken to hedonism more so then the right or even most libertarians.
Where does morality fit in? Where it always does, in the mind and heart of the individual and the institutions,churches,traditions, communities, and personal discipline that are the bedrock of a civilized society. A free economy destroys this?
In the absence of gladiatorial combat from our history you may find insights into the whys of prevention. Although that Dionne/Sulzberger battle to the death is tempting.

johnt- Rothbard's system is not just about a free economy, it is about maximal individual freedom and non-inteference. If you do not accept all the consequences of the system, then somewhere along the way you will have to give up on the notion of 100% self-ownership. I am not attacking the idea of some degree of self-ownership, just the absolute form of it. Neither am I promoting pure statism, just some degree of it.

Government laws are not the only way to encourage moral behavior and may be less effective than some other means, but I would object to the idea that they have no impact on behavior or that they are automatically immoral (which appears to be your position).

Step2, I'm not very sure how you can have maximum individual freedom and not have a free economy but in any event if Rothbard doesn't believe in a free economy then water runs uphill. Yes, there are related issues but Rothbard is after all an economist,right? At least I had that impression from Man, Economy,and State, his magnum opus. I did say that I am not required to accept, nor do I, all of Rothbard so your comment about 100% is not relevant. But I do recognize self ownership as a baseline, which I said in an earlier post!
Nor did I say, and I don't think implied, that laws are automatically immoral. I did mention " the reverse is CLOSER to the truth" in my 5/2 10:25 pm post.
For example; laws against murder and manslaughter are appropriate, although I do think a waiver of these laws would be fitting if ever we can get E J Dionne and Pinch Sulzberger in the center of the Colosseum. Jeez, couldn't you have picked out wife beating?


How would you address the externalities that result from certain social behaviors?

For example, say you legalize heroin for everyone 18 years of age or older. Doesn't this legalization make it marginally easier for 17 year olds to have access to heroin?

And how would you handle drugs that are currently only available by prescription? How about certain antibiotics that, if used improperly, can become less effective over time?

Also, how would parents prevent their children from seeing billboards advertising prostitution in the society that you envision?

These questions get us back to Edward's argument that once we start considering externalities, we haven't resolved as many issues as we originally thought.

By pure coincidence, scientist have recently discovered how to make water run uphill. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4955398.stm

johnt- My arguments have been aimed against what Dr. Feser described as the primary moral principle of Rothbard's system. After rereading your previous post, you are placing the emphasis on self-ownership, which is not the same as absolute ownership. If that is the case, we may disagree about degrees of self-ownership, but we do agree on some basic precepts about social governance that Rothbard would reject.

A hit and run comment, admittedly picking up on something off-topic: AngelM, a better argument against legalization of prostitution is that most women enter it and, even more, stay in it less-than-fully-freely anyway and that, since men are on average physically stronger than women, pimps can keep women in bondage (both by threats and by drug addiction) in ways that are not applicable to, say, cotton picking. All this means that the sex trade would almost certainly still go on after legalization, with coercion, but that the legalization would provide pimps with a prima facie legal front for their activities, so that they could then run a sort of Potemkin village (hope I got that allusion right) where they could place a few better-treated women who claimed they were free employees in view of any regulators to cover the enslavement going on behind the scenes. Because the activities would now be prima facie legal and the pimps re-labeled as bona fide employers, raids would be harder to excuse and it would be that much harder to free and assist by direct action the women enslaved either directly by threats of violence or indirectly through deliberately encouraged addiction. Legalization advocates assume, wrongly, that prostitution is just another form of work like any other and hence that mistreatment arises from illegality and could be regulated into rarity by legalization. One way to look at it is this: If, in a non-legalized setting, outright slaves are unable to get away to seek help, how plausible is it that, in a legalized setting, such slaves would be more able to complain to the local employment bureau or to the police or to form a union? Why should pimps submit to regulation when pimpery is legalized if that would mean that they had many fewer girls to sell?

Okay, I won't say anything more about that now. I encourage anyone interested to read more from Donna Hughes, the only professor of Women's Studies I've ever heard of who seems to be doing legitimate work. :-)

I am not a libertarian. I consider myself a paleoconservative or perhaps just very conservative, but I do think that the Rothbardians at Mises and lewrockwell.com are an important part of any future, outside the mainstream, counter-revolutionary coalition. They are philosophical liberals at base, but because of their antipathy to the modern state, many are functionally conservative. Hoppe defends monarchy and closed borders, DiLorenzo defends secession and batters Lincoln, for example. I can make common cause with theistic and Christian Rothbardians without much heartburn.

That said, I think my objection to the idea of self-ownership is more theological than philosophical. Would not a Christian objection to the concept of self-ownership be that we are actually "owned" by our Creator, God? Rothbard bases his argument on the overwhelming moral importance of self-ownership (as well as the other leg of Rothbardian morality, the non-initiation of force.) So to transgress self-ownership is to be immoral and unjust. But doesn't a moral argument have a theological as well as a philosophical basis? My knee jerk response is to ask Dr. Rothbard to "show me a verse" supporting self-ownership. I know he was a non-believing Jew, but I can still ask.

Red Phillips wrote:

DiLorenzo defends secession and batters Lincoln, for example.

I read DiLorenzo's book, "The Real Lincoln," and it's true that DiLorenzo does put the hatchet to Lincoln. But if you read a broader selection of Lincoln's speeches and a broader history of the American Civil War, it becomes pretty clear that Lincoln wasn't an admirer of slavery.

DiLorenzo's book didn't have much to say about the Dred Scott decision (he did mention it, but for only a couple paragraphs).

Among the four candidates for President in 1860, Lincoln was the only one who opposed the extension of slavery into the Western Territories.

Most Southern leaders couldn't accept that the Western Territories would be free states because, as the 1860 election demonstrated, the free states had much more population than the slave states. This meant that the South would be outnumbered in the US House of Representatives and would have a difficult time winning the presidency.

Lincoln won every free state except for New Jersey and lost ever slave state. Tell that to anyone who says slavery wasn't the main issue in the 1860 election.

The Senate was the South's only hope if they were to continue to have the option of blocking anti-slavery legislation.

The idea that people can form a new nation whenever they disagree with the policies of the nation they currently live in might sound good in theory, but it simply can't work in practice. The actions of the South in the Civil War period demonstrates why.

The South confiscated properties owned by the federal government: forts and mints. And somehow this isn't an act that the federal government ought to punish? Any government that made it legal to confiscate the government's property wouldn't exist very long.

I wonder what neo-confederates would say if some Marxists in Colorado started confiscating property from the government and property owners and announced that Colorado was no longer part of the United States and was now a Marxist nation, independent from the United States.

Some Coloradans would demand to remain in the Union just as some Southerners demanded to stay in the Union in the 1860s.

A famous minister from Eastern Tennessee said, "We will fight the secessionists until hell freezes over and then we will fight them on the ice."

Suddenly forming a new nation out of an old one doesn't sound so easy, does it?

Step2, sorry for not getting back to you sooner. Safe to say I take an eclectic approach in my beliefs, a little from Rothbard, a little from Friedman, Frank S Meyer, and would you believe, Edmund Burke. The list is longer but why bore?
As such your last response to me is agreeable & I'm content with at least a recognition on your part that an element of self ownership is a fundemental of freedom.

AngelM By externalities I take it you mean consequences, externalities implying extisting situations, consequences= results.
I did say that I favor decriminalizing some drug laws but also referred to it as a tough call, imparting I hope a certain ambiguity. You ought not to gather from this that I favor America as being a free trade zone for self abuse, certainly it is not what I envision.
You make the mistake of conflating economic freedom with libertinism, as in libertine, or as in debauched. As in earlier posts, not mine, you may be introducing the concept of a degraded hedonism or utilitarianism into the discussion as well as confusing decriminalization with legalization or worse yet, total legalization of all drugs.
In general I am reasonably sure that my exchanges with Step2 have touched upon this but if not allow me to close, and in a degree of hyperbolic shorthand, with a quote from the great Wilmoore Kendall, whose books BTW should be snuggled under your pillow, re the 1st Amend and it's debasement; "Yes,you are free to say anything you please, and we are free to tar and feather you and run you out of town".


I will try and bring this back around to the topic at hand as soon as I can. I do not want to run afoul of the administrators. Don't know how strict they are here.

Some Confederates have for obvious reasons tried to downplay the slavery issue as you suggest. (Please do not call me a neo-Confederate. I ain't neo nothing. Pardon the bad English. Unreconstructed is fine.) This is a mistake. First because slavery was clearly a major cause of SECESSION, and when folks claim it was not they can be easily made to look naive. But secondly because it confuses a very essential issue. Slavery was a major cause of SECESSION. But here is the critical point. It was not a cause of the War. There was ONE AND ONLY ONE cause of the War and that is that Lincoln and the Union invaded us.

To confuse the causes of secession with the sole cause of the War is to accept the Yankee argument that secession was in and of itself a provocative act. Tantamount to a declaration of war. But that betrays a very un-American vision of government. Secession is a peaceful act. It was peaceful when the Confederate States lawfully seceded. Shots were not fired at Ft. Sumter until Lincoln tried to reprovision the troops there, in a fort that he no longer controlled. That was clearly a cynical attempt on his part to provoke the Confederacy into firing the first shot. He needed that incident because the Union did not by and large favor invasion and war. (For me it is self evident that when the States seceded they reclaimed any federal property that was in their sovereign territory. If that is not self evident to you, as you imply, remember that the Confederacy sent peace emissaries to try and negotiate and Lincoln refused to meet with them. It is likely that those emissaries would have offered compensation for federal facilities located in the Confederacy. It is not our fault that Lincoln refused them.)

I do not think that DiLorenzo is being naive. The point he is making, which is correct, is that Lincoln did not invade to free the slaves. Lincoln is so clearly on the record on that point that it is hardly debatable. He did not like slavery as you say, but his goal in invasion was to "save the Union" not free the slaves. One reason he wanted to save the Union is because he had a false conception of it. That we were a French Revolution style modern state, instead of a limited federal republic. (Whether he just cynically adopted this or really believed it is debatable.) But the issue of collecting tariffs to protect Northern Industry and to fund his grand internal improvements as DiLorenzo points out was the proximate cause of why he could not countenance Southern independence and hence invaded.

Now the original point was that secession is in the service of the conservative (at this point actually radically counter-revolutionary) goal of restoring the original character of our republic. Here the farther right paleocons such as I and the Rothbardian paleolibs are working toward a common goal. To reject the French Revolution style unitary modern state (to use the words of Dr. Donald Livingston) in favor of the more local and decentralized vision of the majority of our Founders and the type of polity that predominated prior to the French Revolution.

Red Phillips,

The reason why secession cannot be tolerated in all circumstances is because doing so would result in anarchy.

If you support secession in all circumstances, what do you do to people who live within the borders of a seceding state who want to remain with the original nation?

At some point, a just government must tell a minority living within its borders that it cannot secede. Otherwise, every individual could conceivably form his or her own "personal nation" and refuse to obey the laws of the larger nation.

There might be some instances where secession is justified and should be supported. (One example is the American Revolution against British colonialism.)

But the idea that when a group of people announce secession they have a right to their new nation is impractical and unrealistic.

If the Denver city council announced it was seceeding from the United States and was to become an Islamist theocracy, most reasonable people would argue that the federal or state government would have the right to prevent the secession.

Why should we reach a different conclusion regarding the secession of the South in 1860-1861?

Professor Feser,

You state in your article that you might concede to Mr. Rothbard that "some taxes are unjust."

My question for you is, assuming that all taxes are coercive, what makes a tax just or unjust? What makes someone unjust for refusing to pay a certain tax?


I do more than "concede" that "some taxes are unjust." I quite flatly assert (as you'll see if you re-read the post) that "many of the taxes levied by modern governments (maybe even most of them) are unjust."

I don't myself think that "coercion" is a helpful concept here. A thief is "coerced" to go to jail when he is arrested by the police, but he suffers no injustice thereby. (And to re-define "coercion" to get around such counterexamples seems arbitrary.)

What ultimately matters is not whether we're "coerced," but whether what we're coerced into giving up when we pay taxes is something we have a right to. And sometimes it isn't, but sometimes (probably usually, in contemporary circumstances) it is. There's also the question of how we should act in the face of an unjust law. So there's no way to answer your question adequately except to present a theory of property rights, and a theory of when we are obliged to obey the law, and I'm not going to try to do all that here! Suffice it, then, to say the following.

Radical libertarians like Rothbard, and like my former self, would say that there are two components that go into property, at least in the simplest and most straightforward case: one's labor, and the external resources one acquires with one's labor. They would also say that one has an absolute right to the former, and can come to have an absolute right to the latter.

I would now deny both of these claims. First, there can be no _absolute_ right to any external resource, because external resources have a natural end under natural law that excludes such a right; namely they exist in order to allow human beings to sustain themselves. And natural rights (I would argue) only exist to help us fulfill natural ends, and derive their content from such ends. So (contra Rothbard) no one can form a right to, say, all the water in a certain area that is _so_ strong that he can justly prevent others from accesssing it just because he feels like it.

I hasten to add that this does _not_ entail that government can just redistribute wealth willy-nilly in the name of people's need for such-and-such resources. Far from it. The point is just that property rights cannot be _absolute_, so that there can in principle be cases that justify interference with someone's use of his property. (And maybe just his use of it -- indeed, only certain uses -- not his possession of it.) I do not think this justifies anything close to what egalitarians favor, but it does make things far more complicated than Rothbardians think they are.

Part of the reason it doesn't justify much in the way of redistribution is that most of what makes a resource a piece of property -- and a valuable one (given subjective preferences in the market) -- is the labor the appropriator has put into it, and our labor is something we have a much stronger claim over than any external resource. Even this claim is not absolute, though, because we also have under natural law certain obligations toward others, above all our families -- parents, siblings, children, and so forth -- and in some circumstances they have a claim on a portion of our labor.

The circumstances under which this could justify any governmental action are even rarer than where external resources are concerned. Still, it does entail that things are far more complicated than Rothbardians suppose.

Part of the problem here, though, is that libertarians as well as socialists and other egalitarians have a false model of human relationships. The latter think in terms of the "community" or "scoiety" and tend to see individuals in terms of the role they play relative to it. The former think in terms of individuals and think of larger social units as (where they are justly formed, anyway) mere contractual constructs out of the choices of individuals. But the right model, I would say, is to see individual human beings as social animals having inherent (non-contractual) moral ties and obligations to others, but where these others are _first and foremost_ to one's kin. Thus the family is the right level to start with where social theory is concerned, not the autonomous individual and not the "community" or "society."

Now our property rights too must be understood in this light. We have natural non-contractual obligations to others, so our property rights cannot be as strong as libertarians think. At the same time, those obligations mostly concern, and are strongest relative to, our families, and diminish in number and importance the farther we get away from family and others close to us. At the level of the nation they amount to little more than on obligation to provide for the common defense and those few other functions that lower levels of society cannot handle. Here the principle of subsidiarity -- that action by higher level institutions of society is called for only where lower level institutions cannot suffice on their own -- is key.

Since the family is intermediate between the individual and the "community" or "society" as a whole, but far closer to the former than to the latter, the correct view of property rights is, in my view, going to resemble a libertarian view far more closely than it will resemble a socialist or egalitarian view. But it definitely won't actually be a libertarian view either.

In any event, most of the things governments do these days are in my estimation things they have no right to do under the principle of subsidiarity, and in effect they are to a very great extent stealing from breadwinners the resources they need, and have a right to, in order to provide for themselves and their families and others close to them. So those who take what in my view is the correct (classical Thomistic natural law) view about property have, or should have, much in common with libertarians where the critique of modern levels of taxation and government spending is concerned. But the views are definitely distinct and (I would say) incompatible.

(The question of whether one can justifiably refuse to pay certain unjust taxes is another question, and depends on other factors, such as the general grounds for obedience to the law.)

Anyway, that is, believe it or not, the short answer...!

"1. Even if it were true that "each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish" and that "the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation," it just doesn't follow that anyone has a right to self-ownership."

The right to self-ownership does however, follow from realizing that the act of denying that anyone has a right to self-ownership results in a performative contradiction because the person attempting to deny this demonstrates through his very act of attempting to deny it that he presumes it in himself. Therefore, he must refute his denial in his very proposing of it, thereby demonstrating the right to self-ownership as undeniable."

"For all Rothbard has shown, we might also be able to think, learn, value, etc. even if we didn't have any rights at all."

There is only a very limited array of arrangements possible to allocate property, and property must be allocated because people will always have conflicting ends with which they will wish to control scarce means to achieve their ends. A property ethic is necessary to avoid conflict over these resources including our own bodies. A need for property rights is therefore unavoidable to avoid conflict. Universal rules over ownership of individuals can be thought of in only three pure forms:

1) We either have 100% exclusive ownership over ourselves;

2) We all have a 1/n the ownership in everyone and they in us;

3) a class of specially privileged individuals have 100% ownership over an unprivileged class.

The second scheme, if followed religiously results in a very quick death of the human race. The third scheme is feasible, but cannot be justified due to its violation of the principle of universalizability and also its tendency to encourage conflict. Only the first right to property in one's self can be justified via the universalizable homesteading principle and allows for conflict avoidance. There are essentially no other schemes of rights in property of one's self; they can only be hybrids of these three. Saying no one has any right to anyone or anything is simply to avoid reality. Because men can and must act, they will always control scarce resources starting with their own bodies to achieve their ends. To avoid conflict, universally acceptable rules of establishing rights to such property are required. So while scheme three would allow everyone to continue to think, learn and value, it would not be justifiable and would not help avoid conflict.

"(That X could get us Z doesn't show that Y wouldn't get it for us too.) Or we might need some rights in order to do these things, but not all the rights entailed by the principle of self-ownership. Or we might really need all the rights entailed by self-ownership, but nevertheless just not have them. After all, the fact that you need something doesn't entail that you have it, and (as libertarians themselves never tire of pointing out), it certainly doesn't entail that you have a right to it. For example, wild animals need food to survive, but it doesn't follow that they have a right to it (indeed, Rothbard himself explicitly denies that animals can have any rights)."

What is the point to this? We simply need justifiable property rights rules in order to avoid conflict. Anyone who discusses the need or lack of a need for a conflict free ethic has already demonstrated a value for conflict avoidance. There is no further question once we see that all participants in argumentation implicitly demonstrate a value of conflict avoidance.

"Furthermore, why should we grant in the first place that "each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish"? Children survive and flourish very well without choosing most of their means and ends. Some adults are quite happy to let others (parents, a spouse, government officials) choose at least some of their means and ends for them. Many physically or mentally ill people couldn't possibly survive or flourish unless others chose their means and ends for them. Even a slave or serf could obviously survive and even flourish if his master or lord was of the less brutal sort. And so forth. And if surviving and flourishing are what ground our rights, how could we have a right to suicide or to do anything contrary to our flourishing, as libertarian defenders of the thesis of self-ownership say we do?"

The question is confused. The issue is property rights: what is a universally valid system of property rules that allows conflict avoidance? It is a system based on respect for the homesteading principle, ownership in all that is produced by one's labor and previously homesteaded resources, and also through other contractually agreed upon arrangements. No one who poses such a question as "Why should we grant...", can argue against granting such a universal ethic which he already must presuppose as valid in the act of asking the question and casting doubt on it.

"Also, why should we grant that respect for each individual's self-ownership really would ensure every individual's ability to choose his means and ends, etc.? A leftist might argue that respect for self-ownership would benefit some but leave a great many others destitute and bereft of any interesting range of means or ends to choose from."

It is not just about "ensuring every individual's ability to choose his means and ends"; it is about enabling this to take place UNMOLESTED by aggressors. It is about instituting an ethical and justifiable system of property rules that enables conflict avoidance. There is no such thing as a just egalitarian system. The nature of man is that he is not equal to his neighbor. To attempt to make him equal requires aggression, confiscation and extortion against some men and unjust transfer of wealth to others. Such behavior encourages conflict.

"Of course, there might be some way a Rothbardian could reply to these objections; I certainly don't find all of them compelling. But the point is that they are obvious objections to make, and yet Rothbard doesn't even consider them, much less answer them. Even a brief acknowledgement of some of these objections and a gesture in the direction of a possible reply might have been enough to make the argument minimally respectable, but Rothbard fails to provide even this."

Rothbard has addressed these points. However, it is unlikely his answers could strike a chord with the egalitarian heart. Hans Hoppe has formalized Rothbard's approach and made it more robust with his Argumentation Ethics.

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