Ownership: Self-made or delegated?


Mustela nivalis

The subject of ownership is right at the centre of everything libertarian. John Locke laid down the principle: He who first appropriates an unowned object is the rightful owner. This is incontestable, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe has elegantly shown with his argumentation ethics. Simply put: the denial of the homesteading rule entails a performative contradiction, because one has to use one’s own body to perform the denial and therefore performatively declares original appropriation of the body.

However, although it is impossible to argue against the homesteading principle, there is still a problem hidden inside it: Yes, with the argumentation theorem I can prove that no person has authority over the use of my body other than I myself. In that sense, I am the “owner” of my body. However, we “own” ourselves in a categorically different way than we own, say, a stick, a stone, a house or a field. These latter objects we can acquire, either by “homesteading” them and/or “mixing them with our labour” (Locke again) or by exchanging them for labour or something else we have previously acquired. Not so, however, our own body. We didn’t make it, nor did we find it. We know our parents “made” us. (Sniggerers go to the back of class … thank you.) And in that sense, for a while, THEY “own” us. However, they only did their small bit to “make” our bodies. They didn’t make the DNA. They didn’t make the rules and traditions that govern the way they brought us up. In that sense, our parents were only the channels, the tools as it were, with which we were made.

Come to think of it, we “own” the sticks and stones, but we didn’t “make” them either. We found them. They may not be owned by any other (human). But are they “unowned”? And: once acquired, we made something with them, but only after we “found” a use for them which benefitted us and (usually) others as well. So, we had an idea. But again: Did we “make” our cognitive abilities? We may have trained up the prior existing grey cells a little bit, but even that was partly, mostly or wholly instigated by others, usually our parents and a few more or less capable teachers.

As soon as we are born (and even before), we are bombarded by influences that shape our whole being: language, food, climate, technology. Not forgetting early traumatising events. Until we are of a certain age, we cannot “choose” these things, nor can we choose how we react towards them. We simply absorb them. They become part of us. So who can honestly say that he is in autonomous control of himself? Certainly not in a way we can control property outside our bodies.

Gary North has a different approach to property and ownership, because he starts from the belief that the universe was purposefully created. We are then not autonomous self-owners, but stewards of the rightful autonomous owner (this being God): “Each person owns himself, not as a primary owner, but as a delegated owner.” (G.N., The Covenantal Structure of Christian Economics, p. 130) “Self-ownership must be seen in terms of covenant ownership. It is delegated. It is not autonomous.” (ibid, p. 131)

On its own terms, the secular libertarian theory of property is irrefutable. However, as an argumentative weapon it is blunt. It has no effect in real life, because in real life everyone must (!) first answer for themselves the question: Chance or purpose. If chance, then you may consider yourself the owner of your body, but someone else (or indeed you yourself) may consider it “unfair” that you have a healthy body and someone else hasn’t. That X has more than Y. Objectively, chance has been unfair. Matter has been distributed unequally in the universe. Intelligence, ability and talent have been distributed unequally among humans. If we assume that we humans have been created by random chance – and this is the basis of the dominating religion of our time – and combine that with our observation that, with the help of our reason and intellect (also evolved purely by chance), we can rectify this unfairness, then a powerful, almost irresistible force drives us in the direction of a centrally planned society.

Some might say: OK, I believe in chance, and yes, the universe is unfair, but the market is a much better tool to accomplish fairness than central planning. I agree with the latter part of that statement. However, I would have to define “fairness”. Here I would apply the non-agression principle. Assuming this is accepted by the opponent (a very big assumption), another problem arises: there is no “outcome” for the market process, which by definition is dynamic and open-ended. A debate between a libertarian and a non-libertarian on these kinds of issues usually ends when the pro-market side says: for the poor and disadvantaged, there is charity. However, to rely on charity is not good enough for someone who believes in the autonomous rational being. Essentially, from such a person’s point of view, a believer in “fairness through free market” would be denying the possibility of a (rational) purpose. And the great attraction of the central planners is that they think they have discovered purpose in their autonomous selves. An individual with a sense of purpose for the collective (AKA the greater good) will argumentatively always beat a individual whose declared purpose is “only” to be left alone to pursue his own ends. At least in the arena of popular opinion, which is the one that matters in the end, he will be defeated.

The planners of the modern “therapeutic managerial state” (Paul Gottfried) believe we can rise above chance (i.e. chaos) and create order, fairness etc “rationally”. This “rational” order is the new greater good. This belief is the source of the “hideous strength” (C.S. Lewis) of modern enemies of freedom: You may own your body and whatever you make with it, but you first need to sacrifice it on the altar of the greater good. After that, you can do what you like. What, in concrete terms, is this greater good? That is determined by whoever is strongest.

Those who resist power while standing on the spiritual foundation of chance have built on sand. They have two choices: adapt or die. Adapt may mean join the ranks of the ruling class, or be ruled. OK, there are two more choices: Resist and run away. The latter is a manifestation of “escapist religion”. That will not help in the long run. Resistance will not last on the spiritual basis of chance. Unless the resistor is physically stronger, that is. Which in turn means following “power religion”. Maybe a different flavour from the one he is fighting, but that’s all. The “rational” “fairness” argument will always appeal to the masses and thus beat individualist “self-ownership”.

Individualist “self-ownership” opposition against those who would enslave us therefore must be based on a deeper level: on the prior decision for purpose instead of chance. Those who decide they have been given their body for a purpose, that they are a steward, i.e. that their individual purpose is embedded in a purposeful universe, one in which there are clear rules which apply to each and everyone, those are the ones who eventually “inherit the earth”, meek though they may be. Because they will find in themselves a strength to resist the temptations and oppressions of power. Their resistance stands on a foundation of solid rock. That doesn’t mean they will survive resistance (in this life). But I anticipate that effective resistance will survive them.

16 comments

  • We both agree that God exists and created the universe.

    However, just as parents create their child but do NOT have the right to torture and murder their child, God created people but does NOT have the right to torture and murder people.

    God, being good, would be the first to agree with this.

    Those who define “good” as “whatever God does – or orders” convert the words “God is good” into a tautology.

    God is good because He makes a conscious choice to be good – and, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, He gives the people He creates the same basic characteristics.

    The ability, with effort, to tell moral good from evil (even if they have never heard a single word of scripture) and the ability, again with effort, to choice good against the desire to do evil.

    In these things humans are vastly inferior to God, but (at the same time) have a kinship. This is because God has made sure that it is so.

    When it is said we are “made in the image of God” it does NOT mean that God has a head and two arms (and so on), what is meant is our ability to work out moral good from evil, and our ability to choose to do good when we desire to do evil. When we fail in this (as we so often to) we fail in the purpose that God hopes we will achieve.

    We do not just let ourselves down – we let God down also.

    So, basically, I am in agreement with a lot of your article.

  • FRANK TAYLOR/RUNNYMEDE PROJECT

    Our first garment is a nappy, our last is a shroud. Neither of these garments contains any pockets!

    The concept of ‘ownership’ has a memetic implication that there is some form of physical umbilicous connecting us with what is ‘owned’. In a sense, however, it is all ‘borrowed’ from … as the item implies … from a pre-existing world … during our brief and mysterious lives.

    So perhaps ‘cusodianship’ better describes the reality.

    Indeed the notion of custodianship implies a ‘duty of care towards’ … that there is an abiding moral duty to care for, nurture, and leave behind in at least as good a condition as we found, all that which comes under our charge.

    The simple concept of ‘ownership. contains no such implication but, rather, infers that we may dispose of the world in any manner we see fit. Thus arises this commonly held notion that the world beyond our front doors is some enormous latrine provided specifically for own own private purposes, and which attitude might often snigger in contempt at so-called ‘tree huggers’.

    Perhaps the dominant motivation behind the notion of ‘ownership’ is the need for security. To have obsolute security within one’s own body and within our own domicile is a legitmate right and expectation of all.

    That said there arises the problem that what is ‘owned’ is not used, but merely held either by accident or intent in disuse and even dereliction. Here, matters get tricky, but the solutions offered by the competing notions of ‘ownership’ and ‘custodianship’ might tend to diverge.

  • You do not need assume the existence of supernatural entities in order to validate rights.
    To validate rights you need to validate the concepts of free will and man’s mind.

    I quote from Ayn Rand:

    “The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A – and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work [using his body -JW] for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational. Any group, any gang, any nation that attempts to negate man’s rights, is wrong, which means: is evil, which means: is anti-life.”

    And:

    “Since knowledge, thinking, and rational action are properties of the individual, since the choice to exercise his rational faculty or not depends on the individual, man’s survival requires that those who think be free of the interference of those who don’t. Since men are neither omniscient nor infallible, they must be free to agree or disagree, to cooperate or to pursue their own independent course, each according to his own rational judgment. Freedom is the fundamental requirement of man’s mind.

    So, I agree, you cannot defend freedom using the concept of “the body” alone – zombies have no rights.
    You require the body AND the mind – and to defend the mind you need a proper theory of free will and a proper theory of concepts.
    What you cannot do is defend freedom from characteristics which are entirely determined, for if concepts are dictated by nature so too will man be dictated, one way or another.

  • John – I have crossed swords on this point with the author of the post on this point.

    He will not accept that natural law “right reason” philosophers accepted that ethics would be the same if God did not exist.

    But they did – both Catholics Scholastics such as Suarez and Protestants such as Hugo Grotius.

    Before now he has demanded specific quotes (as if this was a contested point – rather than a well known matter).

    I have not bothered previously – but has it has come up again……

    First Suarez ….

    “even though God did not exist, or did not make use of His reason, or did not judge rightly of things. if there is in man such a dictate of right reason to guide him, it would have the same nature of law as now is”.

    natural law does not proceed from God as a “lawgiver” for it is not dependent on the “will” of God, God not being some tyrant with whim. The Christian God is not Allah – he is a God of regular laws (of reason).

    Even the Spanish Inquisition had no problem with this – it is entirely mainstream (although some modern Christians seem to have forgotten it).

    I do not have a copy of “De Legibus ac Deo Legislatore” (1619). So I am quoting from Rothbard’s “The Ethics of Liberty” – and I think it is known I am not exactly shy of attacking Rothbard when he gets history wrong, but he is not getting history wrong in this.

    It was a common place of Scholastic thought.

    Nor is it just Catholics.

    We do not need to go into Richard Hooker and so on.

    What about Hugo Grotius and De Iure Beilli ac Pacis – 1625.

    “What we are saying would have a degree of validity even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded with9out the utmost wickedness, that there is no God”.

    Or.

    “Measureless as the power of God, nevertheless it can be said that there are certain there are certain things over which that power does not extend….. Just as even God cannot cause that two time two should not make four, so He cannot cause that which intrinsically evil be not evil”.

    I even mentioned the “2+2=4” point in another thread – assuming the author would recognise that I was citing the best known Protestant legal thinker (Grotius) – but nothing, the author of the post did not spot the reference.

    Imagine a being that appears before you in a puff of smoke.

    He claims to be God – and does things to convince you he is.

    He turns stones into bread.

    He parts the sea.

    And on and on.

    Then he tells you to rape your daughter to death.

    He tells you this is “good” because he says it is.

    That is NOT God (it is the Devil – or God testing you NOT to do as He commands), because the order he is given is “intrinsically evil” – you know that.

    And NOT because you have looked it up in a book of scripture – not because you have read that it is bad in the Bible.

    In this the atheist Ayn Rand is actually a better theologian that the author of the post.

  • But, Paul, that is exactly what God says to Abraham – kill your own most beloved son because I say so.
    Follow these commandments – because I say so.
    As soon as Moses comes down from the mountain what is his first deed? – to join with his brother Aaron – a Holy man, a priest – in the slaughter of 3000 men and women because they were worshiping God in the wrong way.
    BTW why do you believe in God? Do you also believe in Adam and Eve and The Fall?

  • Julie near Chicago

    Yes, and then God rescinds the “order” to Abraham. He may have been “testing” Abraham, to see if Abraham had the brains, the conscience, and the stones to recognize a Wrong order and to stand up to it — although if I believed in God, at least in the conventional sense, which as it happens I do not, I would not believe that He would do such a thing as that kind of “testing.”The more common interpretation of that story is that God intended to instruct Mankind that sacrificial offerings of human lives in general were unacceptable, an abomination to Him, and that men should quit doing it.

    Either way, the point of the story is the exact opposite of “follow these commandments — because I say so.”

  • Julie near Chicago

    And as a matter of fact, God does not go around giving people “orders” in the first place. Perhaps suggestions, perhaps advice, for the sake of the argument — but not orders.

    “Ve vass only followink orderss” is incompatible with both Jewish and Christian ethical or moral doctrine — and kindly recall that “doctrine” means “teaching.”

  • It’s called The Ten Commandments not the ten suggestions.

  • Julie near Chicago

    In the case of the Ten Commandments, even assuming the original word is fairly translated as “Commandments,” the idea is that “Here is what I want you to do.” But in that time and at that place, God was trying to bring His children up properly. The House Rules, so to speak, were intended to encourage and foster ethical (and also respectful) behavior.

    Even Objectivists (if they have any sense) do not bring up their children on the basis of There Are No Rules — indeed, far from it! And only in the movies do parents explain to their 2-year-olds the real reasons for not sticking hairpins in the electrical outlets.

  • There is a huge difference between a set of rules based on A is A and another set of rules which explicitly denies A is A.
    Paul, above, points out, correctly I think, that many Aristotelian Catholics and their ‘protestant’ opponents assumed A is A, as did the Deists who took God to be a mere Prime Mover.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Sure. So if A is A — and most Christians, Jews, Objectivists, and I all agree that it is — where’s the beef?

  • Well, quite a few of our fellow human beings do not – and not just Mahometans and Christian miracle-believers [modern miracles were well out of fashion by 1700 in England.]
    Socialists do not, many scientists do not especially with regard to action – Hume, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre…
    And Aristotle himself was hardly consistent as he denied identity to consciousness – probably in fear of the mistaken belief that if consciousness had identity then it must distort reality.
    Even his concept of soul, in common with other Greeks, is more of a biological concept than a concept equivalent to consciousness – in fact we didn’t have a good, working concept of consciousness until Augustine came along and said, in effect ‘If I am mistaken it’s still me who is wrong.’

    Observe the fact that in the writings of every school of mysticism and irrationalism, amidst all the ponderously unintelligible verbiage of obfuscations, rationalizations and equivocations (which include protestations of fidelity to reason, and claims to some “higher” form of rationality), one finds, sooner or later, a clear, simple, explicit denial of the validity (of the metaphysical or ontological status) of axiomatic concepts, most frequently of “identity.” – Ayn Rand.

  • “If we assume that we humans have been created by random chance – and this is the basis of the dominating religion of our time – and combine that with our observation that, with the help of our reason and intellect (also evolved purely by chance), we can rectify this unfairness, then a powerful, almost irresistible force drives us in the direction of a centrally planned society.”

    As in “Nineteen-Eighty Four”? As in Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon”? As in Zamyati’s “We?” As in Lang/Harbou’s “Metropolis’? As in Rand’s “We the Living”? As in Lucas’s “THX 1138”? As in Wells’s “The Sleeper Awakes”? As in the Soviet Union? Venezuela? North Korea? Still Red China? All “centrally planned societies” of one form or another. The list is quite long. However, nothing drives us in any direction but a failure or refusal to think, which is not “chance” of any kind, but matter of choice and volition. Choice, thinking, and volition are the enemies of the “centrally planned society.”

  • A corrected reply:
    “If we assume that we humans have been created by random chance – and this is the basis of the dominating religion of our time – and combine that with our observation that, with the help of our reason and intellect (also evolved purely by chance), we can rectify this unfairness, then a powerful, almost irresistible force drives us in the direction of a centrally planned society.”

    As in “Nineteen-Eighty Four”? As in Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon”? As in Zamyati’s “We?” As in Lang/Harbou’s “Metropolis’? As in Rand’s “We the Living”? As in Lucas’s “THX 1138”? As in Wells’s “The Sleeper Awakes”? As in the Soviet Union? Venezuela? North Korea? Still Red China? All “centrally planned societies” of one form or another. The list is quite long. Nothing drives us in any direction but a failure or refusal to think, which is not “chance” of any kind, but matter of choice and volition. Choice, thinking, and volition are the enemies of the “centrally planned society.”

  • An individual with a sense of purpose for the collective…will argumentatively always beat a individual whose declared purpose is “only” to be left alone to pursue his own ends. At least in the arena of popular opinion, which is the one that matters in the end, he will be defeated.

    An interesting argument.

  • Pingback: The “Social Gospel” of the CofE Bishops is in Fact a “Statist Gospel” – And: The Importance of “Sanctions” | The Libertarian Alliance Blog

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