Murray Rothbard’s Underrated Argument for Self-Ownership
In his noneconomic magnum opus, The Ethics of Liberty (henceforth TEoL), Murray Rothbard outlined what he considered to be the fullest and most complete ethical system of freedom and libertarian natural law. Additionally—at least up until Hans-Hermann Hoppe introduced his argumentation ethics—Rothbard also considered this book to contain the strongest available ethical case for libertarian self-ownership, property, and the nonaggression principle. The most famous and elaborate component of Rothbard’s moral case is his natural law system, which was a renovation of older Scholastic and Thomistic natural law and took up the majority of TEoL’s early chapters. I do not, however, consider his natural law to be Rothbard’s strongest case for liberty, even though he seemed to think it was.
Natural law is very interesting and enlightening, but Rothbard’s real strongest argument is one which I rarely see mentioned (besides Kuznicki’s interesting summary) and which I call the Rothbardian trilemma. Rothbard lays it out almost offhand, to the side of what he seems to think is his primary argument, in chapter 8, “Interpersonal Relations: Ownership and Aggression.” Here is how he introduces it:
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.
Essentially, the argument goes like this: someone must control our bodies, because otherwise we are left in a contradictory state where we can do nothing with ourselves, not even commit suicide, because we would be controlling (or, in the case of suicide, damaging) property that we do not own. Now, if someone must control our bodies, there are three different ways we can arrange that right of control—which is what we call right of ownership—of bodies:
- Everyone owns (“the libertarian natural law for a free society”)
- Everyone owns everyone else equally (“Universal and Equal Other-ownership,” as Rothbard calls it)
- Some (group of) people own others (“Partial Ownership of One Group by Another”)
Only some of these are tenable, as we shall see.
Rothbard next begins to knock down alternatives (2) and (3)—either showing them to be untenable or unethical. First, he deals with (3):
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.
Essentially, option (3) fails the universalizability test: if you would choose this option, the burden of proof falls on you to show why some should rule. Ask yourself, what is it about a king or an aristocracy that gives them the right to rule their subjects? The the divine right of kings previously supplied just that sort of justification—yet even that justification fails, because it is an impossible task. Although there are many differences between rulers and subjects, there are none which are ethically relevant.
Next, Rothbard takes (2) out of the running. First, he points out that “if there are more than a very few people in the society, this alternative must break down and reduce to…partial rule by some over others.” This is because, he says, “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.” It is impossible, in other words, for every man to get permission from every other man before he does what he wants to do: we would all die before that was possible. Moreover, as Rothbard says in the next paragraph, “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!” For, how could they vote on what the other people should do, without exercising unilateral control over their own decision and mouths? If they did not exercise such unilateral control, there would first have to be a vote on how everyone could vote—ad infinitum! In this way, we can see that universal and equal other-ownership is already an impossible situation.
Now, it is possible that such control rights, which Rothbard would call ownership, could be exercised on a “retroactive” basis: essentially, everyone is free to exercise unilateral control over themselves until there are enough votes telling them to do something else to outweigh their partial share in their own bodies—two votes, in the case of equal other-ownership. This would solve the problem of infinite voting regress, but it would likely result in first-come-first-served aristocracy, where whoever can jet around the fastest (along with a buddy) and “command” the most people would own all of those people, including how those people vote. Additionally, this assumes that one needs only a majority of those present, and not a unanimity, to make a decision—an assumption which is in fact contrary to universal equal ownership. All this really devolves back to (3), since those who aren’t around currently don’t get to exercise ownership rights and become slaves of the person with the bigger army unless they bring an army of equal size. Also, this arrangement, where everyone has de facto control over themselves, but a different kind of control over others, which requires not their permission before their “property” is used, but their assertion of a contrary rule, is a double standard which would actually have to be voted for by an equal other-owning collective like the one described above, therefore not actually escaping infinite regress.
There are a few other options which Kuznicki mentions in his article which I would like to address briefly as well, since the natural objection to the Rothbardian trilemma is to attempt to break out of it. First, he muses that “in the real world, people may acquire use rights not only through ownership, but also through lease, rent, borrowing, or other forms of agreement with the owner….it is not necessarily clear that all types of use rights must stem from someone’s ownership somewhere.” My challenge to this, then, is to find just such a moral claim which does not simply regress to option (3) as the use-until-contradiction option I covered above does. This is a claim which would have to be substantiated, because as far as I am aware, partial ownership, no ownership, and whole ownership cover the entire breadth of possible arrangements of control rights. After mentioning briefly a possible theological turn for this, Kuznicki moves on to his final point on the subject: “if we have use rights, but not ownership, many of the same assertions Rothbard later makes will still be valid.” Here I would ask, What is the difference between having use, or control, rights, and having ownership? If I have a right to control every aspect of something, that is identical to full ownership: if someone else tries to control it, that means that for a time I do not have control of it. If I have only partial control rights over something, then I have partial ownership, which is already covered in the trilemma. Hence, we return to option (1): libertarian self-ownership, which reveals itself to be the only option which is both desirable and logically possible.
In conclusion, I find this to be a much stronger case for libertarian self-ownership than any other that I am aware of. It requires, moreover, very little buildup or framework, and makes almost no assumptions, making it ideal for those not already willing to consider libertarianism. In light of this, I am very surprised to find that it is not mentioned all that often. I think that, with some extending and defending, it could even be stronger than argumentation ethics.