Reply To: How we come to own ourselves


Sorry for the slow reply! I can’t always find time to respond, even though I find this discussion very interesting, and personally very important to arriving at a consistent political philosophy. I hope the pace of the discussion is OK with you!

The excerpt on sorites / “heaps” is a useful one. Thanks!

<< I think it is fairly clear that an entity such as a chair is not the kind of thing that can be an owner of anything, not even of itself. >>

This seems to be steering the discussion away from “negative rights” more toward “positive rights”. Isn’t self-ownership a “negative right” like all other rights, in that it is really asserting that nobody should be allowed to force the individual to do anything against his will? Talking about the self-ownership of a chair is meaningless not because it’s simply obvious that it’s meaningless, but because if you say a chair has self-ownership you are saying nobody should force the chair to do something against its will. The chair doesn’t have a will so this doesn’t make any sense — and that’s why the chair doesn’t have self-ownership. (Right?) Rather, the chair already has *an owner*, so the discussion about the rights of chairs is really about the rights of owners — nobody should be able to force the chair to do something against the will of the chair’s owner. (Right?)

<< ‘Block & Barnett come more or less to this conclusion. “There is a way to address this problem that does not rely upon some necessarily arbitrary point along the continuum; it is to resort to common (economically efficient) practice.” Such reasonable judgements, in fact, are the function of the municipal law, as specified in a particular community by tradition, custom, practice, experience, and so on. >>

This essentially concedes that the foundational concept of self-ownership is subject to the determination of the society/State, and NOT to the individual – right? Then the real question is: *what else* is subject to the determination of the society/State rather than the individual?

<< Within the context of the non-aggression principle, any society is free, consensually, to organise its own affairs. In some matters, members of any society are likely to avail of various forms of expertise—medical, arbitration, etc. And it is in this context that contested cases will be arbitrated. >>

Let’s say a society has 100% consensus that they need an armed security force to protect themselves from aggressive invaders. So they voluntarily fund and supply and commission this armed security force, with specific guidelines on their scope of activity. So far so good, I suppose. However, there are boundary cases here — what if some members of the society are found to be colluding with the invaders? Does the armed security force have the right to forcibly expel the colluder? Who decides? It is unlikely that every contingency will have been outlined in the actual charter of the security force. Does every situation require a consensus of the society to act? Of course this is impossible, since the colluder is a member of that society and would not give consent.

Another example, literally a boundary problem. 🙂 Let’s say two neighbors argue about the location of the boundary between their properties. They cannot agree, so one proposes arbitration. The other neighbor refuses — and happens to be richer, better armed, and more influential in the local society. What recourse does the poorer neighbor have in this case?

<< Now any legal system would have to have the means to address contested cases, and in a libertarian society, it would be foolish to leave such things to chance. >>

I agree – but what is the solution?

<< I believe that, given the nature of such possible disputes, any libertarian society would have to accept some method of resolving them in a way that is broadly acceptable. >>

I tend to agree, but this leaves the fundamental question unresolved. The foundational concept of libertarianism — self-ownership — from which all the other rights (private property, etc.) derive — is found to be subject to “broad acceptability”. And there doesn’t seem to be any way around this.

A “minarchist” libertarian philosophy seems to concede this. But anarcho-capitalism would seem to decry it. But I don’t see a way around it.

So then, is the real foundational concept of anarcho-capitalism “broad acceptability” — in other words, I can do whatever I like, as long as it is broadly acceptable?

That almost sounds snarky or cynical, which is not my intent — I am really asking this honestly. 🙂

<< I am in substantial agreement with this comment of yours, right up to the last sentence! >>

Then I must not be so far off! 🙂 The problem is, my last sentence was, in fact, a question. 🙂 Which makes me wonder — does libertarian philosophy not have an answer?

The crux of the matter is — if the real fundamental principle is “broad acceptability” — well, the problem is, we have that NOW. Most people — if you look at who bothers to get involved trying to change society — don’t feel the interest or desire to change the status quo, or are OK with the status quo. Or they feel powerless to change anything. “Broad acceptability” is found well within the boundaries of “the index card of allowable opinion”, and there are all kinds of social and political dynamics that keep it there. H.L. Richardson’s little book, Confrontational Politics, gives a really good, clear explanation of how those dynamics work in state legislatures and American partisan politics — he gets into the human and social aspects of the problem, which seem as ancient as the Athenian city-state.

But if the foundations of libertarianism also concede to “broad acceptability”, then what real difference can libertarianism actually make, to bring about real change?