Who Owns You?

The philosophical justifications for liberty

By: David Gordon

It doesn’t require much philosophical argument to see that to launch a war in Iran would be a bad idea or that to turn our economy over to Obama and his minions has little to recommend it. Many people have come to realize that something is radically wrong with our customary American politics, and libertarianism, ably represented on the national scene by Ron Paul, has aroused great interest. According to libertarians, the role of government should be reduced to a minimum, if not eliminated altogether; economic affairs, in particular, are impeded rather than helped by the heavy hand of the state. Given its sharp break with conventional political views, the question inevitably arises: does this way of looking at politics rest on a sound philosophical basis?

To some people, this query rests on a misapprehension. One cannot properly inquire whether libertarianism, or any other political system, is true or false. Questions of fact have an objectively true answer: we can estimate, e.g., how likely it is that Iran will obtain a nuclear weapon; and, if it does, whether the device is likely to be used against us. We cannot, though, factually say whether it is good or bad that Iran acquire this type of weapon. We may not want it to do so, but this merely is a preference. It makes no more sense to claim that it is objectively better that Iran not obtain an atomic bomb than to insist that vanilla ice cream is objectively better than chocolate. To think otherwise is to commit the supreme sin of inferring a value from a fact. David Hume long ago exposed this fallacious pseudo-inference.

But is it really a fallacy? Murray Rothbard, the foremost 20th-century libertarian and a major intellectual influence on Ron Paul, did not think so. In his The Ethics of Libertyimage, Rothbard, following Leo Strauss, argues that Hume made a mistake. (As we will see later, Rothbard and Strauss diverged sharply on other matters.) Suppose that you are waiting in line for a movie and, just as you are about to reach the cashier, someone jumps ahead of you. Surely it is right to say that he has behaved rudely. There are objective criteria for rudeness, and our miscreant’s act qualifies. Thus it is a “fact” that he is rude; but is it not also true that using the term “rude” carries with it a negative value judgment? The gap has dissolved.

For another example, let us return to Iran and nuclear weapons. Suppose that atomic war between America and Iran resulted in the deaths of millions of people. Is it really reasonable to say that it is a mere matter of opinion that this outcome would be a bad thing? Supporters of the fact-value gap have counterarguments, and I won’t go further into the debate now. But at the very least it isn’t obvious that the gap exists.

If Rothbard is right about this, how do we go on to arrive at libertarianism? Rothbard, taking his cue from Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, maintained that a system of precepts—natural law—could be derived from the needs of human nature. But he had to confront an obvious objection. Aristotle and St. Thomas, though philosophers of the highest distinction, were hardly libertarians. How did Rothbard then propose to get libertarian conclusions from their framework for natural law?

Rothbard’s response to this question posed a fundamental challenge to an influential thesis defended by Leo Strauss. In Natural Right and Historyimage, Strauss contrasted classical natural right to its modern successor. Classical natural right stressed virtue and was oriented toward the polis, i.e., the relatively small city-state. Strauss held that modern natural right, as found in Hobbes and Locke, broke with virtue and put in its place the individual pursuit of power and wealth. It was not concerned with the good of man as the Greeks understood that notion.

Rothbard emphatically disagreed. Though he had little use for Hobbes, he thought that Locke had developed classical and medieval natural law in a new and fruitful direction. Locke took self-ownership to be the key principle of political philosophy: each person had the right to dispose of his own body and labor as he wished. (One complication: Locke thought that at the most basic level, God owns everyone. It is only as regards other human beings that each person owns himself. You do not have to answer to others how you understand God’s commands, but you do not have the right to kill yourself.) Further, individuals could acquire land by laboring on it: once someone did so, he had the right to exclude others from using his property. Property acquisition, on this view, does not depend on the state for its validity: property rights exist in the state of nature.

In placing so great an importance on individuals and their rights, Locke did not, pace Strauss, break free from classical natural law. He too addressed himself to the needs of human nature. On this foundation of self-ownership, libertarianism quickly follows. Once given individuals and the rights to property they have acquired, no room remains for any other sort of rights. In particular, there are no welfare rights. To claim that the poor or disabled had a right to help would be to aver that their infirmities made them the masters of the labor and property of their more fortunate fellow citizens. Rothbard certainly did not deny our moral duty to be charitable. (In this respect, he differed from the egoist ethics of Ayn Rand.) Rather, what concerned him was the proper use of force, in his view the defining topic of political philosophy. The duty to be charitable was one of many moral obligations
that one cannot use force to compel people to fulfill.

What happens, though, if you think that Hume was right? Suppose that there is a gap between facts and values and, accordingly, natural law in Rothbard’s style must go by the board. Are there still good philosophical arguments for libertarianism?

To answer this, it is imperative to grasp a key point that people often miss. Even if you cannot derive values from facts, it does not follow that ethics reduces to arbitrary preferences. There can be ground level, objective moral truths. In other words, some moral truths do not have to be derived from facts about the world. Just by thinking about these moral claims, we can grasp that they are true. (This position in philosopher’s trade talk is called “intuitionism.”)

Aside from his main natural law arguments, Rothbard in Ethics of Liberty also deploys intuitionist considerations. Isn’t it obviously true that slavery is morally wrong? As Lincoln, not a favorite among libertarians, rightly said, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Rothbard argued ingeniously that if you reject slavery, and think through the implications of your rejection, you will see that you must embrace libertarian self-ownership. If it is wrong for some people to own others, what but self-ownership is left? Alleged third alternatives, such as contemporary democracies that fail to recognize full self-ownership, reduce to variants of slavery. In an unlimited majority-rule democracy, the majority “owns” each person, taken as a separate individual. If you are drafted into the army by virtue of democratically sanctioned legislation, you are just as much a slave as if someone had bought you in a slave market.

Yet another type of moral theory can be used to support libertarianism. We have so far considered attempts to derive moral truths from facts about human nature and claims that moral propositions can directly be seen to be true. Some philosophers try to justify morality in a different way. Are there truths of morality that reason requires us to recognize? Kant and his successors answered with a resounding yes. Just as someone who affirms both sides of a contradiction has violated a requirement of theoretical reason, so someone who refuses to accept the “categorical imperative” has transgressed a demand of practical reason.

The details of Kant’s argument need not detain us. I mention him only to provide the necessary background to understand the argument advanced by one of Rothbard’s most important followers, Hans-Hermann Hoppe. In his The Economics and Ethics of Private Propertyimage and other works, Hoppe offers a strikingly original argument in defense of libertarian conclusions. (He arrived at this argument by modifying work of his teacher Jürgen Habermas and of Karl-Otto Apel, both philosophers with very different political views from Hoppe’s.)

Hoppe defends self-ownership by asking us to consider what happens if someone denies it. He says that anyone foolish enough to do so is caught in a “performative contradiction.” One could not make the statement, “I do not own myself” unless the statement were false. Just as one cannot say, “I am now dead” unless one is not now dead, so one cannot deny self-ownership without being a self-owner. In order to make any statement, Hoppe claims, one must own one’s own body. His argument has generated much interest and controversy among libertarians, and whether he is right, you will have to judge for yourself. His argument stands squarely within the Kantian tradition: a principle of morality is held to be a requirement of reason. He derives other tenets of libertarianism using the same strategy, as readers of his books will see.

I have tried to show that several different approaches to morality can be used to support libertarian conclusions. One cannot ignore the fact, though, that most contemporary political philosophers reject libertarianism. Why do they do so? The most common reason for skepticism about libertarianism is an argument found in the most influential book of the 20th century about political philosophy. In A Theory of Justiceimage (1971), John Rawls assailed what he termed the “natural system of liberty.” In a libertarian society, what you earn depends on the money that people are freely willing to give you for your services. People with greater natural abilities, who are talented in ways that people value, will fare much better than people less well endowed with these gifts. Rawls contends that this disparity is “arbitrary from the moral point of view.” Tiger Woods earns millions of dollars because of his superlative golfing skills. He did not acquire these skills through moral merit: he just happened to be born with extraordinary athletic aptitude.

Rawls thinks that Woods does not deserve to make more than his less talented competitors. Inequalities, according to Rawls’s famous “difference principle,” are allowable only to the extent they benefit the worst off. If Woods is allowed an exceptional income, e.g., he will work more than he otherwise would. Doing so will make available more funds for redistributive taxation.

Rawls’s Harvard University colleague Robert Nozick gave the best answer to Rawls in his Anarchy State and Utopiaimage (1974). As he points out, Rawls treats individuals’ abilities as if they belonged to society collectively. Since, in Rawls’s opinion, you do not deserve to profit from your natural abilities, the value of these abilities belongs to “society”—in effect, to the state. Such collectivism ill comports with the liberty that Rawls elsewhere in his book professes to defend.

But Nozick strikes at Rawls with another, though related, fatal thrust. If one strips individuals of their talents and abilities, holding them to be morally arbitrary, what is left? Nothing but a bare self without attributes: any individual property will be deemed the product of arbitrary influence from heredity or the environment. The proper subject of political philosophy, Nozick holds, is people as we really find them, not selves run through a sieve to drain them of what Rawls thinks they do not “deserve.”

If several promising arguments support libertarianism, and the main consideration advanced against it utterly lacks merit, is there not excellent reason for everyone who recoils at our present political morass to give this philosophy his utmost attention?

David Gordon is a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of
The Mises Review.