Monday, August 25, 2008


Admittedly, the libertarian concept of "self-ownership" is bit troublesome. Unlike other libertarians I do not to invest a lot of intellectual capital defending it philosophically. But I do think that it provides a useful set of metaphors to help clarify many key issues. In classical liberalism and economic theory, there is a longstanding tradition of dividing up the world into persons and property. Persons are living beings that possess attributes such as consciousness, sentience, self awareness, and intelligence. These attributes plug into our Judeo-Christian notions of rationality, free will, and moral and legal responsibility. Property is non-conscious, non-sentient, non-self aware and non-intelligent. The things that we own or want to own. Every non-person is either owned by some person(s) or unowned. A lot of economic theory is about how unowned property can be acquired and how it can be fairly tranferred from one person(s) to another. The obvious problem with self-ownership is that it blurs the longstanding distinction between persons and property. On the other hand, it really does provide a useful set of metaphors that help libertarians draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable treatment of property and/or persons. For example, the concept of ownership sets fairly clear boundaries as to how you might treat my guitar without my permission. You can't steal it. You can't destroy it. And you can't transfer it to someone else without my permission. If I were five years old, you might talk me into trading my valuable Martin guitar for a bag of one dollar bills, say 200 dollars. But if you did that you would be assuming that a five year old child has the intelligence to engage in a complex contract like that. Most governments prevent adults from exploiting children in contracts like this. Now back to self-ownership. . . If I own myself in a broadly metaphorical sense, what would that imply in terms of how others might treat me. Well, if I own myself you cannot steal me, destroy me, or give me to someone else without my consent. Of course this raises interesting questions concerning the status of young children. Clearly, they cannot own themselves because they lack the intelligence to rationally negotiate with adults. Therefore, there are two ways to frame the moral status of young children. You could argue that children are the property of their parents or you could argue that they are public property. Libertarians are more likely to trust parents than government in protecting the interests of children. In fact, most of us find the whole idea of "public property" to be incoherent. (More on that in a later blog.) Take a look at what usually happens to public property. Simply put, when everyone owns something, nobody owns it. Philosophers and economists call this the "Tragedy of the Commons." When governments take children away from their parents a similar phenomenon takes place. Do you believe that governmental agencies do a good job of owning "our children?" What do you think about the quality of public education, child protective services, children's health care etc? From personal experience I can say that when my children were young I treated them as infinitely valuable property. I would never kill them sell them or anything like that. Similarly, if you are going to treat me as property, treat me as self-owned, infinitely valuable property. Before you do anything to me, my wife, or our children you had better ask for our permission. So although the concept of self-ownership is a bit clumsy, it does put you into the libertarian mindset. It really does provide a useful starting point for discussions about zygotes, fetuses, children, comatose adults, persons suffering from intractable pain and devastating disabilities, and even dead persons. At a bare minimum, start with the assumption that persons own their own bodies. Personally, I think we're all better off we do not allow government to turn our bodies into public property. Unless you think the government has done a good job caring for other forms of public property such as the air quality over Cincinnati or the water quality of the Ohio River. What do you think?

Freedom's Philosopher

No comments: