A number of libertarian concepts have troubled me for years. In at least three cases, my discomfort results from the manner in which the concept is being presented. Accordingly, I am throwing my doubts and conclusions into the movement ether in order to test them against feedback.
Men are self-owners.
A common criticism of the self-ownership concept is that it converts a man’s body into a form of property. This is a problem because a defining characteristic of property is transferability. But a man cannot transfer his essential humanity to another person because his free will and moral sense are inalienable. He cannot become a slave, commit rape, and have his ‘owner’ sent to jail for the crime. The man himself remains legally and morally responsible because he retains his moral agency.
Another common criticism is that self-ownership bifurcates man. That is, one individual becomes both the owner and the owned. His mental or moral faculties are divided from his body even though logic demands that they reside within his body. The libertarian philosopher Tibor Machan has called self-ownership “a conceptual oddity” because “the owner is the self and what is owned is also the self.”
The answer to both criticisms is in a return to the concept’s original roots. The term “self-ownership” gained popularity due to the 19th century American abolitionist movement which argued against the right or ability of one man to own another; it argued specifically against slavery. Thus, “self-ownership” became the common term to describe the moral authority each man had over himself and against being owned by another. The term was appropriate to the task at hand but it was a shift away from the concept’s original formulation.
The concept dates back at least as far as the 17th century Leveller movement in England, which primarily sought religious freedom. The Leveller leader Richard Overton stated “No man hath power over my rights and liberties, and I over no mans.” This was a claim of freedom of conscience which all men shared to an equal degree because all men drew their own conclusions based on experience. The Levellers favored the term “self-proprietorship” to describe the authority a man had over the integrity – the oneness – of his body and mind. Like the abolitionists, the Levellers addressed a specific issue in an historical context. Namely, who had moral jurisdiction over a man’s conscience: the state or the man. .
Self-proprietorship was a statement of authority, not of property ownership. In other words, among the rights a man possessed was the right of decision-making over his own body. The term did not bifurcate man; it meant that a man’s rights and his decision-making were an indivisible package with which outside authorities could not properly interfere.
There is a natural harmony of interests among men.
If the nature of man is the basis of a universal harmony of interests, then an issue must be addressed. What of man’s capacity for savagery that co-exists with his empathy and reason?
The very concept of justice is an admission that conflicts of interest do and will exist within society and so there needs to be principles of resolution. This is the utilitarian definition of justice: principles by which conflicts are resolved so that each party receives what he deserves. If there were no conflict of interests, then libertarianism would have not have evolved the admonishing tenet “the initiation of force is never justified.”
Since some conflict in society is inevitable, the question becomes “how do we maximize harmony and minimize conflict?”
The answer is to introduce a universality of rights, the exercise of which are based on self–proprietorship – the right of decision-making over one’s own body. (Universality means that all men have the same rights to the same degree.) This makes ‘a harmony of interests’ conditional: namely, given the presence of equal rights, a natural harmony of interests exists between men in expressing those rights. For example, one man’s exercise of free conscience does not impinge upon the same exercise of freedom by others. Equal rights becomes the tool by which harmony is maximized and conflict is minimized. A justice system would still be necessary because, except in utopia, the equal rights principle will always be breached by someone.
Libertarianism is strengthened by making natural harmony conditional upon the presence of equal rights. For one thing, it counters the most common objection to natural harmony; namely, that man is also savage and disharmonious. Moreover, most principles are conditional in some manner. Even Objectivism, which is often viewed as dogmatic, is conditional. In discussing Objectivist values, Rand clearly states “given that life is of value”…and then she proceeds to argue for life-sustaining values such as rationality. Objectivism has not been weakened by Rand’s conditional formulation because being precise and honest can only strengthen an argument.
Libertarianism is based on negative rights.
Libertarianism is said to consist of “negative rights,” which obligate people not to act against each other without consent. This counters “positive rights,” which obligate people to take action on behalf of others whether or not they wish to do so. An example of a negative right is freedom of religion, which no one can properly restrict. An example of a positive right is the ‘right’ of universal education which means people are taxed to provide public schools.
There is a better juxtaposition of negative and positive rights.
Returning to basics…Rights are the enforceable claims that you have against others. Duties are the enforceable claims that others have against you. Within libertarianism, freedom – or the exercise of rights – is closely tied to property ownership. For example, a man has freedom of speech but only on his own property, or with the consent of another property owner, or on so-called public and unowned property. This makes libertarian rights essentially positive; that is, a man has a right to use and dispose of his own property according to his own wishes. Libertarian duties are essentially negative; that is, no one has the right to interfere with a man’s use and disposal of his own property. This avoids the problem of libertarianism being introduced as a “negative” concept.
Moreover, by linking rights and duties to property ownership, the problem of liberty being defined as “do whatever you want” is also avoided.
And now I have a question for readers. Which concepts within libertarianism trouble you…and why?