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Monday, July 20, 2009

The Philosophy of Liberty

Understand personal liberty, economic liberty and property rights in 8 minutes.

Posted by Freedom Manitoba on July 20, 2009 in Libertarianism | Permalink


Scott, you have posted an excellent video. It is very simple and to the point, and it shows that us libertarians are not anarchists, anti-left, anti-right wing whackos, but we only believe in freedom for all. Something like this should be shown in schools, but in most institutions it would probably be banned because it teaches people to think for themselves.

Posted by: Doug Gilchrist | 2009-07-20 11:12:49 AM

Heh. This is very old. This is recorded from a Flash video which has been around for years (maybe as far back as 2003). Still very cool though.

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-07-20 11:13:06 AM

The metaphor of self "ownership" is nonsense. People are not property. Yes, they are sometimes treated as property, but that does not make them so. Any past or present attempts by some people to claim ownership of others have always been illegitimate. Claims to "own" one's self or one's own life are nonsense.

To deny self "ownership" (or "owning" your own life) need not be to asert that someone else or some other group of people "owns" me. It can simply be to reject the idea that any person can be owned by anyone - even me by myself. It is simply to say that what can count as "property" does not extend to people and anyone who treats people as property (even when talking about self "ownership) has made a category mistake.

In fact, to take seriously the metaphor of self "ownership" is to open the door the the legitimacy of slavery. If I own something, I can transfer ownership of it to someone else. Any restriction on me doing that infringes my property rights. So if I own myself, I could transfer that ownership to another person and if later I decided I did not like the deal, too bad for me. I would be a legitimate slave. And insofar as it is reasonable for there be legal mechanisms to enforce property rights, there would be an obligation of legitimate authority to ensure I remained a slave. It is only by rejecting the metaphor of self "ownership" that one can reject the possibility of legitimate slavery.

If liberty is based on self-ownership, then it is doomed. Fortunately, it isn't based on any such nonsense, no matter what cartoons tell you.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-07-20 11:44:17 AM

Slavery demonstrates only that theft of property is possible. The slaves can and did still own themselves even if that property had been stollen.

Slaves, at least not the ones your refering to, did not sell themselves. They were captured with force and held there with various types of force and intimidation.

Posted by: V. M. Smith | 2009-07-20 12:33:31 PM

This particular animation has been around since 2005


@ Fact Check //Claims to "own" one's self or one's own life are nonsense.//

Why. My body and life are mine aren't they? If not, then whos?

//If liberty is based on self-ownership, then it is doomed. //


//Fortunately, it isn't based on any such nonsense//

What is it based on in your opinion?

@ V.M. //Slavery demonstrates only that theft of property is possible. //

Thank you.

Posted by: Scott Carnegie | 2009-07-20 1:49:58 PM

FC is spot on here. VMS you miss the fact that in the past (and I am not talking about Biblical times) individuals were able to sell themselves into slavery when unable to pay their debts. That is exactly the point FC is making.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-07-20 1:52:30 PM

Fact Check,

You have NO IDEA how often Jaworski and I have made that very point.

At the very least, self-ownership allows the idea that persons are property in the door. The next question is, if persons are property, can the ownership of a particular person be transferred to some other person?

If yes, then your moral theory allows for slavery, in the sense that it allows for the possibility that one person will come to own another. All that remains to be determined is the set of circumstances under which one can legitimately become a slave.

If persons are not property, and nobody owns anyone, then you cut off this chain of reasoning before it even begins.

In addition, denying that persons are property supports intuitions most of us have about the distinctiveness and dignity of persons, i.e. that they are fundamentally different than mere things (which can be owned, and have worth but not dignity.)

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-07-20 2:01:58 PM

@ Alain //individuals were able to sell themselves into slavery when unable to pay their debts//

I don't see the problem with this provided it is voluntary. For example, with a restitution based justice system (which would be superior to our current system) a person who couldn't afford to pay restitution could do some sort of hard labour for a period of time; call it being a "salve" if you want, I don't think that definition fits in this sort of case.

Posted by: Scott Carnegie | 2009-07-20 2:10:15 PM

I'm not sure if I would put things in the same Kantian fashion that Terrence likes to (although the technical Kantian lingo is "things have a price or a dignity"...), but I am persuaded that talk of self-ownership is just a category error, as Fact Check points out above.

The claim is that no one can own persons, because persons are not the kinds of things that can be owned. The question, "if I don't own myself, then who owns me?" is akin, on this view, to the question: "Well if the number 3 is not red, what colour is it?" Just as numbers are not a kind of colour, so, too, are persons not a kind of property.

We should talk in terms of "sovereignty" rather than self-ownership. Each human being is sovereign over themselves, can decide what to do with him or herself, but does not count as property. Notice that sovereignty talk is co-extensive with everything that we could possibly want from self-ownership talk, but does not overlap with the stuff that we don't want -- namely, questions about whether or not we can sell ourselves into slavery (a question that doesn't make sense in the language of sovereignty), and so on.

This is splitting some very fine hairs. Nevertheless, it is important hair-splitting.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-07-20 2:12:13 PM


The truly technical Kantian lingo is the original German. I'm pretty sure, but not positive, that I read a translation that used the word value instead of price.

So there! :-)

And you have to admit, the Kantian claim does wrap things up nicely: not only does it explain why persons aren't property, but it also goes some way to explaining how they should and shouldn't be treated.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-07-20 3:05:16 PM

This is splitting some very fine hairs. Nevertheless, it is important hair-splitting.


I think I disagree. The criticism you have over the term self-ownership seems to be a bit shallow, I think.

For one, the term self-ownership as a necessary trait of personhood is already self-limiting to the "self". It stops being self-ownership if one tries to transfer ownership to another, and therefore falls outside the boundaries of the definition, which is why I think this talk is nothing the more than word semantics.

If self-ownership, which I believe I have, is a necessary quality in the definition of rights, then for the above reason it implies that it's non-transferrable to begin with.

I just don't buy that the concept of self-ownership is vulnerable to slavery. You can't stop owning yourself. And any contract you sign to the contrary is illegitimate.

The concept of non-transferrable property is certainly not a foreign concept in law, and there's no reason why the concept of self-ownership cannot be asserted in that way.

Even Terrence in the past agreed that there are different kinds of property which exhibit different limitations, and this is no different.

You own yourself, and no matter what contract you sign to the contrary, you continue to own yourself. Self-ownership is immutable.

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-07-20 3:20:52 PM

I move that Fair Commenter's last comment be redacted from the second paragraph onwards.

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-07-20 3:42:55 PM

Scott the example you cite is about selling one's labour, and like you, I do not see a problem there. It remains very different however from being owned.

One can reject the concept of owning one's body, in the sense that it cannot be owned, and yet recognise that one is born free and is entitled to remain so. Communism rejects this and considers that people are owned by the state and socialism is close behind.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-07-20 3:47:14 PM

Fair Commenter, I suggest that you have a better chance of convincing people by providing reasonable arguments. The name calling and personal attacks turn most people off.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-07-20 3:54:03 PM


Some good points. Self-ownership might be non-transferable, as you say. But I'd expect there to be a reason for that: what makes ownership of the self different from other kinds of ownership in which the right is transferable?

And if the explanation is something like "People are not like other things that can be owned," then (at that point) I think the difference between your position and ours would be basically semantic.

Even though I endorse limits on ownership, there always has to a reason for them. This case is no different. Explaining why self-ownership is different may be even more complicated than my "nobody owns anybody" story.

It may be that self-ownership differs from other forms of property ownership in several ways. Indeed, self-ownership might be a very special kind of ownership, perhaps more akin to stewardship, guardianship, trusteeship, etc (this seems to have been -- or should have been -- Locke's view, which is why he rejected any right to commit suicide.)*

I'm okay with this line of reasoning (maybe not the no suicide part), but you have to admit that it's more nuanced than "I own myself" seems to imply.

* - I'm stealing this point from Jaworski, who definitely made it first.

(By the way, I suggest we ignore Fair Commies. Keep him in a metaphorical box, maybe, for amusement purposes. But he hasn't said anything worth addressing, or even relevant to this discussion.)

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-07-20 3:54:38 PM


I actually think it's more succinct than that.

Self-ownership is the basis by which all right are derived, up-to and including the right to own stuff. To sell yourself into bondage is to violate this precept.

It's not that "nobody can own anyone", but rather, it's not possible for you to stop owning yourself, because your ownership over yourself is fundamental.

Even if you forlorned your claim to your body, you'd be able to reclaim the ownership of yourself at a whim.

This is similar to when someone signs an injury waiver in a boxing match. You always retain the right to demand the other person end any physical aggression against you. You lose the match, of course. But these fundamental rights are non-tranferrable and non-abridgeable. Even by
voluntary contract.

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-07-20 4:13:53 PM

J.S. Mill's argument against:

"By selling himself for a slave, he abdicates his liberty; he foregoes any future use of it beyond that single act. He therefore defeats, in his own case, the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself.... The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom to be allowed to alienate his freedom".

In other words, non-enforcement of slavery contracts is required by the principle of liberty.

Posted by: DJ | 2009-07-20 4:15:20 PM

Self ownership is a natural right. Anything beyond that requires the owner to make a choice.
I choose not to abdicate ownership of myself to anyone else, ergo: I own me. Period.
Forced slavery, financial or physical is a crime.

Posted by: The original JC | 2009-07-20 4:21:46 PM

JC- What about voluntary slavery, aka arranged marriage? I suppose I should call it semi-voluntary slavery. My girlfriend lived in virtual slavery, until her husband decided to play chicken with a semi.

There were no physical restraints, but the psychological bonds are very strong. Preventing her from learning English. Preventing her from getting a drivers license. Making sure they lived in a neighbourhood with very few non-Asians.

I suppose it would offend you guys, if I were to suggest this practise should be stomped out?

Posted by: dp | 2009-07-20 4:35:38 PM

@ PM
I think calling it "sovereignty" has a nice dignity to it. In reality it wouldn't be different as self-ownership as far as the outcomes of the principles in action.

Posted by: Scott Carnegie | 2009-07-20 4:41:31 PM

@ Fair Commenter, please stay on topic and be cordial in your posts

Posted by: Scott Carnegie | 2009-07-20 4:45:16 PM


Wouldn't offend me, although hopefully such a practice could be discouraged without having to actually stomp out any people.

I once knew a woman in a similar situation.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-07-20 5:53:29 PM

What about voluntary slavery, aka arranged marriage?
Posted by: dp | 2009-07-20 4:35:38 PM

The institution of marriage is not by itself, slavery. We all know that.
"Arranged" marriages are in my mind immoral,
Brides "for sale" should be illegal and probably is, but it happens anyway.
Too often the women are conned into an arrangement with promises of a better life only to find out they are "property".
If that's the aspect you'd like to see stomped out...I'm with you. Its completely immoral.

Posted by: The original JC | 2009-07-20 5:57:52 PM

"The institution of marriage is not by itself, slavery."

JC, by any chance are you married? ;-)

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-07-20 6:21:06 PM

Terrence, Appreciate your sense of humor.
And yes I am, second time. I put 20 years between the first and second though, The second time I'd had time to do my homework.
And you could ask Matthew and he'd tell you why I'm happily married. ;-)

Posted by: The original JC | 2009-07-20 6:42:00 PM

Scott, sovereignty would be more appropriate. I admit that I fail to see the reason for needing to see people as private property in order for them to be free. When we say we own something, it refers to something we purchased or inherited or even perhaps won as in a lottery. To pursue this line of thinking would mean our parents own us, which is not true. We do not own our children but we do (or should) have authority over them until they are major. This also implies that we are responsible for them and are not entitled to treat them as chattel.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-07-20 7:57:59 PM

@ Alain //I admit that I fail to see the reason for needing to see people as private property in order for them to be free.//

I don't think that's the intent of the video, or the philosophy. It's about the understanding that a person is an individual and is "worth" something.

As for kids, I often say that I have a stewardship over them, that will expire when they decide I no longer have it.

Posted by: Scott Carnegie | 2009-07-20 10:19:42 PM

I admit that I fail to see the reason for needing to see people as private property in order for them to be free.

Alain, I think that "people" is a general term and by itself does not help demonstrate the point.
The idea, I believe, is that each individual is his or her "own property" and when applied to people in general, that idea must be respected by all individuals. Respect for self and respect for others as sovereign "individuals".
Otherwise the idea will not work well.

Posted by: The original JC | 2009-07-21 6:07:59 AM

That's a great video I am going to show it to some people who are just not quite getting the idea of liberty.

Posted by: Calgary Libertarian | 2009-07-21 7:26:50 AM

One reason to abandon talk of self-ownership is because it appears to get the justificatory story backwards (or, better, it puts the justificatory cart before the normative horse). In the abstract, we're required to tell a story of how and why ownership of all sorts is justified, we cannot begin with ownership, and explain why we ought to be free to do what we want on the basis of ownership.

Talk of sovereignty doesn't cover this fact up. But talk of self-ownership is sometimes seen as the ground floor, as the starting point, as the "big intuition" from which everything else flows.

What justifies talk of sovereignty is a story about the dignity of human beings, about the value and worth of our agency and autonomy. The ground floor, the "big intuitions," ought to be about agency, autonomy, and dignity, not ownership.

That's one important reason to stop talking in terms of self-ownership.

A separate reason is the confusion surrounding children. Just what sort of "property" are they? If we're going to talk in terms of self-ownership, we'll need to know how and why they get it, and why most people tend to think it's all right to force toddlers to consume medicine when the toddlers are sick, and why parents get to decide the geographic location of the child, etc. Self-ownership implies absolute authority over these things, but few of us will want to grant an 8-year-old full authority (and for good reason). So what gives?

Scott pointed to the concept of "stewardship." That's close, I think. "Guardianship" is the better concept here. To be a guardian over x is to be morally required to heed the well-being of x, to be a steward over x is to do with x whatever accords with the well-being (or preferences) of relevant third parties. We steward forests (when we don't own them, like when a private charity purchases forests for parks or for campgrounds and hires us to oversee the properties, etc.), but are guardians over children.

Getting clear about our concepts like this helps a great deal. It allows us to see when we're giving moral reasons, and when we're drawing moral conclusions.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-07-21 8:23:56 AM

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