How we come to own ourselves

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    I’ve been puzzling over this for years.

    Locke had a very elementary (and unsatisfying) treatment of this – for example, see here:

    I like the direction of Kinsella’s article on this, but I find it tentative and unsatisfying: It also reveals the lack of consistent libertarian thought on the topic.

    Surely there must be a more thorough treatment of this topic somewhere? This is so fundamental to libertarian philosophy, but I can’t seem to find a “meaty” treatment of the topic anywhere.

    By “meaty” I mean it should address topics such as the following:
    – Parents and children disagreeing over whether a child is ready to be “on their own”
    – Custody disputes
    – Rights and self-ownership of the developmentally disabled
    – Rights and self-ownership of the mentally ill
    – Rights and self-ownership of the mentally incapacitated (e.g., loner in a coma)
    – Rights and self-ownership of elderly with dementia (with or without aggressive tendencies)

    The fundamental problem seems to be: who decides?

    If it’s anyone (or any collective) other than the individual himself/herself, then this is basically another way of saying that there are certain circumstances where self-ownership is not as inviolable as we would like to claim it to be.

    And this leads to the even trickier question: Who gets to decide which circumstances apply, in which the violation of the principle of self-ownership is allowed or even required?

    There will obviously be disagreement here. And such disagreement comes with its own package of intractables… which leads to another series of questions… which I will leave for another time. 🙂

    If this is already covered somewhere in the literature, please point me to it — I’d love to get my teeth into something like that.


    Someone making decisions on your behalf does not imply they own you. The caretaker of a mentally ill person does not have the right to physically abuse them. As a matter of convention, communities have entrusted the people you listed to those who will tend to hold their best interests at heart. It’s an imperfect solution, of course, but there’s no morally superior alternative.


    The concept of self-ownership would seem to exclude the idea of a community overriding one’s own decisions about one’s sovereignty.

    How does libertarian thought address this?



    Before I respond, these are great questions, and I do not propose that I am a libertarian spokesperson, nor an expert, but a fellow researcher like yourself. So with that in mind, I look forward to your responses to my responses to your questions, as I think we can eventually squeeze out some gems from this back and forth, but it might not be a quick process.

    Each one of those topics has a subtle difference to the overall idea of self ownership.

    First, if we are to assume the Libertarian umbrella, I believe we can safely assume a minarchist mindset, which still includes the trappings of statism. It may be a more subdued and less intrusive form of the State but a State non-the-less. So from that view point, I will address your argument (as apposed to a strict Anarcho-Capitalist view point).

    – Parents and children disagreeing over whether a child is ready to be “on their own”
    As there is a State, there is a “legal age” in which a child is still the financial liability of the child’s parents and/or guardian. The child does not own its actions, as it is not financially liable for them. If it were to act violently in a crime, of which it can be proven the child acted in full knowledge/understanding that their actions were violent, they may be tried as an adult (that would be up to municipalities/individual States).

    – Custody disputes
    Since the child does not posses full custody/responsibility of their lives until legal age (i.e.- 18 years old) they are the responsibility of two parents in the case of custody disputes. It should be a 50/50 split unless one can be seen as dangerous to the child. It would not be automatic given to the wife (just using a nuclear family in this example. Check tumbler for the 700 new genders which exist now – *sarcasm font*) and it would not be given automatically to the parent of greater means.

    – Rights and self-ownership of the developmentally disabled
    “Does someone have the legal obligation to take care of someone who cannot take care of themselves who have reached legal age under a libertarian umbrella?” is more the question.
    If they are disabled from birth, the parents have been legally responsible for this child for 18 years. Kicking this person out of their house onto the street would result in this persons potential death (different degrees of probability here depending on many variables). This hearkens back to the idea that if you push someone into a lake and they are now drowning you have a responsibility to help right that wrong, but if you didn’t push someone into a lake you do not have a responsibility to help that person, as you did not cause the harm to begin with. I am not suggesting that someone born developmentally disable was harmed intentionally or unintentionally by their parents, but that the parents do take a calculated risk in having a child, and part of that is the state of how the child is born.

    – Rights and self-ownership of the mentally ill
    First, there needs to be a mechanism to determine “mentally ill” (voting for Bernie based on sound economic policy comes to my mind – *joke font*). But society/state would need a body which decides when someone is mentally ill and is a danger to others. Not themselves. They own their body and can do what ever they want to themselves. If they are mentally ill and want to stay a hermit and eat nothing but frozen pizza’s and watch Fuller House that is up to them. If they want to try and kill the neighbor lady with the left over frozen pizza for making him watch Fuller House, which was just voices in his head telling him to do so (but it could have been self defense as Fuller House is a terrible show) then the local hand of the State would have to get involved in order to keep that person from harming others. If that person becomes mentally ill later in life, after being a self directing member of the country since the legal age (18) then they are responsible for their actions, if they have always been mentally ill, it gets a bit grey – many variables here including being mentally ill and falling into your last question. But lets say they have the voices in their head like the pizza dude/Fuller House, but they have it at age 12. I kind of think the parents are obligated to help their child, and it would be in their best interest as they are legally/financially responsible for their child’s actions.

    – Rights and self-ownership of the mentally incapacitated (e.g., loner in a coma)
    Generally, the beneficiary or person with power of attorney would have the ability to make legal decision on behalf of someone in this state, much like the courts have now. If that person was married, the spouse has this right under contract law (I believe). If they are not married, the next of kin would be my next reasonable guess. Any express written instructions would have to take president, and would direct the family and any legal guardianship over the body by those written wishes.

    – Rights and self-ownership of elderly with dementia (with or without aggressive tendencies) – You always retain rights. A unborn child has a right to life while it is imprisoned in the mothers womb. It can not act on its own, and it has no idea of where it is, what name it has, who is president, who is running (lucky them), and an even worse case of dementia than an elderly person who might even retain the memories of yesteryear. I would argue that once you hit legal age and are not the liability of anyone you are always in retention of self-ownership, even if your mind has dementia. Kind of like my response on the mentally ill applies here.

    While I am in two masters math classes at the moment, I do not have a lot of time to dive into the texts to find great “reference this” and “reference that” points, but I was hoping to at least get a dialogue started, as these topics interest me as well.




    Thanks for the post!

    I’ve been reading through your post and giving this some thought.

    I suppose most of these problems go away if we assume a “minarchist” state that has some legal constructs like an arbitrary “age of adulthood”. That seems to have been the best idea that John Locke could come up with.

    But in that situation, the questions are more around what the boundaries should be out around the State to keep it minarchist, and how are those boundaries perpetuated, in order to prevent the State from growing in scope and power beyond acceptable minarchist levels.

    I’ll try to respond in more detail over the weekend.

    I’m not looking for references to “back up” your argument – but if you do have references to where there might be more detailed reading on these topics, I’d appreciate your sharing them.



    How is the State continuously kept in a perpetuated boundary?

    If you have not already, I would recommend Anatomy of the State by Rothbard

    On the great ability of the State in keep its own power limited.



    What are your thoughts on someone with Stockholm syndrome?



    Was the person originally held against their will and then they decided to submit and follow their “captors” demands?



    Michael, thanks for the recommendation, I will read this as soon as I can.


    << What are your thoughts on someone with Stockholm syndrome? >>

    That’s a very general question. I think Stockholm syndrome is a fascinating and tragic psychological phenomenon. But I’m not sure that’s the answer you are looking for?


    Michael — Re-reading your original post, your initial paragraphs all rely on the “legal age” idea — which just seems arbitrary to me. This is a concession — if even only a small one — to the “social contract” idea, in which you are born into a society with a “legal age is 18” rule, whether you like it or not. You are subject to this rule, whether you like it or not, whether you gave your consent or not. This does not seem to square with a libertarian philosophy of rights.

    << But society/state would need a body which decides when someone is mentally ill and is a danger to others. Not themselves. >>

    Same here. You are basically conceding that the society/state DOES have some role where they are “legally authorized” to override an individual’s right of self-determination.

    In both of these cases, the concept of self-ownership is subservient to the decisions of the society/State. It concedes that ultimately the power that authorizes self-ownership is not actually the individual, but the State, which claims the right to deprive an individual of self-ownership. Once this concession has been made, what is to stop the State from finding other situations where the State can assert the right to deprive an individual of self-ownership?


    Perhaps another way to approach this would be to acknowledge the rights of all individuals to protect themselves against the dangers of other individuals who may be mentally unstable — or dangerous in any number of ways.

    Thus, no individual or group would have no right to intervene in the affairs of a mentally unstable person, but would only have the right to prevent the mentally unstable person from coming onto their property or causing them personal harm.

    This still doesn’t address the case of children.



    just as a point of order: I am not conceding anything to a social contract. I stated originally that I am coming from a minarchist perspective, which is still a Statists perspective.

    My own views, and the views expressed here, are necessarily aligned.



    Michael Tabone wrote:
    << I am not conceding anything to a social contract. I stated originally that I am coming from a minarchist perspective, which is still a Statists perspective. >>

    Good point. 🙂

    If we agree we need some kind of minarchist state, then the set of fundamental questions change — self-ownership isn’t the big fundamental question anymore.

    The questions shift to things like preventing a small, local, limited state from morphing into a large, national, powerful state — and you’ve already referred me to one of Rothbard’s books for that topic. So I suppose I’ll have to go read that, before I’ll be able to carry on a meaningful discussion here. 🙂

    Thanks again! I really appreciate the dialog.




    Personally, I do not agree we need any kind of minarchist state. But that was not the original question you raised.

    This is a popular Venn Diagram, and a good starting point I feel, for the breakdown of different political concepts as discussed above:;

    Libertarians might encapsulate Classical Liberalism, Minarchist, Paleo-Conservatism or Voluntarism, but cannot really be applied to Modern Conservatism, Liberalism or Total Socialism. Though it can be said that the NAP is heart of the Libertarian philosophy, Libertarians would have to admit that even the least invasive of these classifications into someones life is still an invasion, and only true Voluntarism does not ethically violate the N.A.P., it would generally go to underline the saying “I was a minarchist till I ran out of excuses”.

    Look into these classifications as a base line. Then your question exists in several different shades of Libertarian thought, and even beyond.


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