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The Ethics of Liberty by Murray N. Rothbard

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WE HAVE SO FAR been discussing the free society, the society of peaceful cooperation and voluntary interpersonal relations. There is, however, another and contrasting type of interpersonal relation: the use of aggressive violence by one man against another. What such aggressive violence means is that one man invades the property of another without the victim’s consent. The invasion may be against a man’s property in his person (as in the case of bodily assault), or against his property in tangible goods (as in robbery or trespass). In either case, the aggressor imposes his will over the natural property of another—he deprives the other man of his freedom of action and of the full exercise of his natural self-ownership.

     Let us set aside for a moment the corollary but more complex case of tangible property, and concentrate on the question of a man’s ownership rights to his own body. Here there are two alternatives: either we may lay down a rule that each man should be permitted (i.e., have the right to) the full ownership of his own body, or we may rule that he may not have such complete ownership. If he does, then we have the libertarian natural law for a free society as treated above. But if he does not, if each man is not entitled to full and 100 percent self-ownership, then what does this imply? It implies either one of two conditions: (1) the “communist” one of Universal and Equal Other-ownership, or (2) Partial Ownership of One Group by Another—a system of rule by one class over another. These are the only logical alternatives to a state of 100 percent self-ownership for all.[1]

     Let us consider alternative (2); here, one person or group of persons, G, are entitled to own not only themselves but also the remainder of society, R. But, apart from many other problems and difficulties with this kind of system, we cannot here have a universal or natural-law ethic for the human race. We can only have a partial and arbitrary ethic, similar to the view that Hohenzollerns are by nature entitled to rule over non-Hohenzollerns. Indeed, the ethic which states that Class G is entitled to rule over Class R implies that the latter, R, are subhuman beings who do not have a right to participate as full humans in the rights of self-ownership enjoyed by G—but this of course violates the initial assumption that we are carving out an ethic for human beings as such.

     What then of alternative (I)? This is the view that, considering individuals A, B, C . . ., no man is entitled to 100percent ownership of his own person. Instead, an equal part of the ownership of A’s body should be vested in B, C . . ., and the same should hold true for each of the others. This view, at least, does have the merit of being a universal rule, applying to every person in the society, but it suffers from numerous other difficulties.

     In the first place, in practice, if there are more than a very few people in the society, this alternative must break down and reduce to Alternative (2), partial rule by some over others. For it is physically impossible for everyone to keep continual tabs on everyone else, and thereby to exercise his equal share of partial ownership over every other man. In practice, then, this concept of universal and equal other-ownership is Utopian and impossible, and supervision and therefore ownership of others necessarily becomes a specialized activity of a ruling class. Hence, no society which does not have full self-ownership for everyone can enjoy a universal ethic. For this reason alone, 100percent self-ownership for every man is the only viable political ethic for mankind.

     But suppose for the sake of argument that this Utopia could be sustained. What then? In the first place, it is surely absurd to hold that no man is entitled to own himself, and yet to hold that each of these very men is entitled to own a part of all other men! But more than that, would our Utopia be desirable? Can we picture a world in which no man is free to take any action whatsoever without prior approval by everyone else in society? Clearly no man would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly perish. But if a world of zero or near-zero self-ownership spells death for the human race, then any steps in that direction also contravene the law of what is best for man and his life on earth. And, as we saw above, any ethic where one group is given full ownership of another violates the most elemental rule for any ethic: that it apply to every man. No partial ethics are any better, though they may seem superficially more plausible, than the theory of all- power-to-the-Hohenzollerns.

     In contrast, the society of absolute self-ownership for all rests on the primordial fact of natural self-ownership by every man, and on the fact that each man may only live and prosper as he exercises his natural freedom of choice, adopts values, learns how to achieve them, etc. By virtue of being a man, he must use his mind to adopt ends and means; if someone aggresses against him to change his freely-selected course, this violates his nature; it violates the way he must function. In short, an aggressor interposes violence to thwart the natural course of a man’s freely adopted ideas and values, and to thwart his actions based upon such values.

     We cannot fully explain the natural laws of property and of violence without expanding our discussion to cover tangible property. For men are not floating wraiths; they are beings who can only survive by grappling with and transforming material objects. Let us return to our island of Crusoe and Friday. Crusoe, isolated at first, has used his free will and self-ownership to learn about his wants and values, and how to satisfy them by transforming nature-given resources through “mixing” them with his labor. He has thereby produced and created property. Now suppose that Friday lands in another part of this island. He confronts two possible courses of action: he may, like Crusoe, become a producer, transform unused soil by his labor, and most likely exchange his product for that of the other man. In short, he may engage in production and exchange, in also creating property. Or, he may decide upon another course: he may spare himself the effort of production and exchange, and go over and seize by violence the fruits of Crusoe’s labor. He may aggress against the producer.

     If Friday chooses the course of labor and production, then he in natural fact, as in the case of Crusoe, will own the land area which he clears and uses, as well as the fruits of its product. But, as we have noted above, suppose that Crusoe decides to claim more than his natural degree of ownership, and asserts that, by virtue of merely landing first on the island, he “really” owns the entire island, even though he had made no previous use of it. If he does so, then he is, in our view, illegitimately pressing his property claim beyond its homesteading-natural law boundaries, and if he uses that claim to try to eject Friday by force, then he is illegitimately aggressing against the person and property of the second homesteader.

     Some theorists have maintained—in what we might call the “Columbus complex”—that the first discoverer of a new, unowned island or continent can rightfully own the entire area by simply asserting his claim. (In that case, Columbus, if in fact he had actually landed on the American continent—and if there had been no Indians living there—could have rightfully asserted his private “ownership” of the entire continent.) In natural fact, however, since Columbus would only have been able actually to use, to “mix his labor with,” a small part of the continent, the rest then properly continues to be unowned until the next homesteaders arrive and carve out their rightful property in parts of the continent.[2]

     Let us turn from Crusoe and Friday and consider the question of a sculptor who has just created a work of sculpture by transforming clay and other materials (and let us for the moment waive the question of property rights in the clay and the tools). The question now becomes: who should properly own this work of art as it emerges from the fashioning of the sculptor? Once again, as in the case of the ownership of people’s bodies, there are only three logical positions: (1) that the sculptor, the “creator” of the work of art, should have the property right in his creation; (2) that another man or group of men have the right in that creation, i.e., to expropriate it by force without the sculptor’s consent; or (3) the “communist” solution—that every individual in the world has an equal, quota1 right to share in the ownership of the sculpture.

     Put this starkly, there are very few people who would deny the monstrous injustice in either a group or the world community seizing ownership of the sculpture. For the sculptor has in fact “created” this work of art-not of course in the sense that he has created matter, but that he has produced it by transforming nature-given matter (the clay) into another form in accordance with his own ideas and his own labor and energy. Surely, if every man has the right to own his own body and if he must use and transform material natural objects in order to survive, then he has the right to own the product that he has made, by his energy and effort, into a veritable extension of his own personality. Such is the case of the sculptor, who has placed the stamp of his own person on the raw material, by “mixing his labor” with the clay. But if the sculptor has done so, then so has every producer who has “homesteaded” or mixed his labor with the objects of nature.

     Any group of people who expropriated the work of the sculptor would be clearly aggressive and parasitical—benefiting at the expense of the expropriated. As most people would agree, they would be clearly violating the right of the sculptor to his product—to the extension of his personality. And this would be true whether a group or the “world commune” did the expropriation—except that, as in the case of communal ownership of persons. (In practice this expropriation would have to be performed by a group of men in the name of the “world community.”) But, as we have indicated, if the sculptor has the right to his own product, or transformed materials of nature, then so have the other producers. So have the men who extracted the clay from the ground and sold it to the sculptor, or the men who produced the tools with which he worked on the clay. For these men, too, were producers; they too, mixed their ideas and their technological know-how with the nature-given soil to emerge with a valued product. They, too, have mixed their labor and energies with the soil. And so, they, too, are entitled to the ownership of the goods they produced.[3]

     If every man has the right to own his own person and therefore his own labor, and if by extension he owns whatever property he has “created” or gathered out of the previously unused, unowned state of nature, then who has the right to own or control the earth itself? In short, if the gatherer has the right to own the acorns or berries he picks, or the farmer his crop of wheat, who has the right to own the land on which these activities have taken place? Again, the justification for the ownership of ground land is the same for that of any other property. For no man actually ever “creates” matter: what he does is to take nature-given matter and transform it by means of his ideas and labor energy. But this is precisely what the pioneer—the homesteader—does when he clears and uses previously unused virgin land and brings it into his private ownership. The homesteader—just as the sculptor, or miner—has transformed the nature-given soil by his labor and his personality. The homesteader is just as much a “producer” as the others, and therefore just as legitimately the owner of his property. As in the case of the sculptor, it is difficult to see the morality of some other group expropriating the product and labor of the homesteader. (And, as in the other cases, the “world communist” solution boils down in practice to a ruling group.) Furthermore, the land communalists, who claim that the entire world population really owns the land in common, run up against the natural fact that before the homesteader, no one really used and controlled, and hence owned the land. The pioneer, or homesteader, is the man who first brings the valueless unused natural objects into production and use.

     And so, there are only two paths for man to acquire property and wealth: production or coercive expropriation. Or, as the great German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer perceptively put it, there are only two means to the acquisition of wealth. One is the method of production, generally followed by voluntary exchange of such products: this is what Oppenheimer called the economic means. The other method is the unilateral seizure of the products of another: the expropriation of another man’s property by violence. This predatory method of getting wealth Oppenheimer aptly termed the political means.[4]

     Now the man who seizes another’s property is living in basic contradiction to his own nature as a man. For we have seen that man can only live and prosper by his own production and exchange of products. The aggressor, on the other hand, is not a producer at all but a predator; he lives parasitically off the labor and product of others. Hence, instead of living in accordance with the nature of man, the aggressor is a parasite who feeds unilaterally by exploiting the labor and energy of other men. Here is clearly a complete violation of any kind of universal ethic, for man clearly cannot live as a parasite; parasites must have non-parasites, producers, to feed upon. The parasite not only fails to add to the social total of goods and services, he depends completely on the production of the host body. And yet, any increase in coercive parasitism decreases ipso facto the quantity and the output of the producers, until finally, if the producers die out, the parasites will quickly follow suit.

     Thus, parasitism cannot be a universal ethic, and, in fact, the growth of parasitism attacks and diminishes the production by which both host and parasite survive. Coercive exploitation or parasitism injure the processes of production for everyone in the society. Any way that it may be considered, parasitic predation and robbery violate not only the nature of the victim whose self and product are violated, but also the nature of the aggressor himself, who abandons the natural way of production—of using his mind to transform nature and exchange with other producers—for the way of parasitic expropriation of the work and product of others. In the deepest sense, the aggressor injures himself as well as his unfortunate victim. This is fully as true for the complex modern society as it is for Crusoe and Friday on their island.

[1]Professor George Mavrodes, of the department of philosophy of the University of Michigan, objects that there is another logical alternative: namely, “that no one owns anybody, either himself or anyone else, nor any share of anybody.” However, since ownership signifies range of control, this would mean that no one would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly vanish.

[2]A modified variant of this “Columbus complex” holds that the first discoverer of a new island or continent could properly lay claim to the entire continent by himself walking around it (or hiring others to do so), and thereby laying out a boundary for the area. In our view, however, their claim would still be no more than to the boundary itself, and not to any of the land within it, for only the boundary will have been transformed and used by man.

[3]Cf. John Locke, Two Treatises on Government, pp. 307–8.

[4]Franz Oppenheimer, in his book The State (New York: Free Life Editions, 1975), p. 12, said:

There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others. . . . I propose . . . to call one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others, the “economic means” for the satisfaction of needs, while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the “political means.”

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