Mises Wire

The Power of Self-Ownership

As every reader of Murray Rothbard knows, the principle of self-ownership stands at the basis of libertarian thought. Each person is the owner of his or her own body. If we add a principle for homesteading land and natural resources, we can without much trouble get to an anarcho-capitalist society. But even on its own, the self-ownership principle rules out the welfare state. You cannot be compelled to labor for someone else, even if the other person “needs” your labor more than you do.

You would expect Marxists to brush aside self-ownership as bourgeois apologetics, and for most part they do. G.A. Cohen, a Marxist who taught political theory at Oxford University, was an exception. In his book Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge University Press, 1995), he says that he finds self-ownership intuitively plausible:

In my experience, leftists who disparage [Robert] Nozick’s essentially unargued affirmation of each person’s right over himself lose confidence in their unqualified denial of the thesis of self-ownership when they are asked to consider who has the right to decide what should happen, for example, to their own eyes. They do not immediately agree that, were eye transplants easy to achieve, it would then be acceptable for the state to conscript potential eye donors into a lottery whose losers must yield an eye to beneficiaries who would otherwise not be one-eyed but blind.” (p. 70)

As Cohen rightly notes, your right to your own body outweighs commonly used socialist principles that mandate redistribution. You are entitled to keep your eyes even if the fact that you have two working eyes is a matter of genetic luck and even if a blind person “needs” an eye more than you do. (You could still see with one eye but he cannot see at all.)

Cohen must now confront a dilemma. He finds self-ownership prima facie plausible. But self-ownership rules out the welfare state, and even worse, is a big step toward a fully free market society. What can he do to escape the dilemma?

Two courses of action suggest themselves. He might admit self-ownership, but deny that it leads to free-market capitalism. Alternatively, he might claim that, in spite of its surface plausibility, self-ownership ought to be rejected. It is the latter tactic that he adopts. He readily acknowledges that self-ownership rules out the welfare state.

Cohen says that the force of self-ownership really derives from something else. We have a strong belief that it is wrong to interfere with the integrity of someone’s body, and this, he thinks, is different from self-ownership. He asks us to imagine that everyone is born with empty eye sockets. The state implants two eyes in everyone at birth, using an eye bank it owns. If someone lost both eyes, wouldn’t we oppose an eye lottery to remove forcibly one eye from a sighted person to help the blind person? But in the example the state owns all the eyes. Cohen concludes that our real objection to an eye lottery in the actual world is not that it violates self-ownership but that people have a right to bodily integrity.

The “suggestion arises that our resistance to a lottery for natural eyes shows not belief in self-ownership but hostility to severe interference in someone’s life. For the state need never vest ownership of the eyes in persons.” (p. 244)

A defender of self-ownership can readily acknowledge that it would be wrong to remove someone’s eyes in Cohen’s science-fiction case. All he needs to preserve his principle is the fact that you own your eyes adds to the moral badness of making you enter the eye lottery. Bodily integrity and self-ownership supplement each other: they do not compete for our allegiance, as Cohen seems to think. The fact that Cohen had to resort to a bizarre example to try to escape self-ownership shows its power. Once you think about it, self-ownership is hard to reject.

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