Society March 25, 2014

Self-Ownership Kills Babies

And other inconvenient truths about radical libertarianism.

Jason Jones and John Zmirak
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Jason Jones and John Zmirak
March 25, 2014
Steve Rhodes
Last week one of us used the drug war as a launching pad for examining the theory of self-ownership, the radical libertarian principle which asserts that none of us owes anything to anyone, unless we have freely agreed to give it to him as either a gift or an exchange.  According to the self-ownership manuals penned by the likes of Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, each of us is a self-made man, the creator of his destiny, unbeholden to anyone or anything, a rugged individualist who has carved out all that he has and is from the rough-hewn stone of unforgiving nature, with a clear title to everything he attains or acquires.  This picture of man is echoed throughout popular culture in works where the misfit, the loner, the outcast is held up as a hero for refusing to be cowed or seduced by the crowd.  Philosopher Edward Feser summed up the underlying theory as follows:

“For many libertarians, the thesis of self-ownership is the foundation of their political philosophy. Natural rights to life, liberty, and property—the protection of which is, according to the libertarian, government’s sole legitimate function—derive from self-ownership, in particular one’s ownership of his body and its parts, of his capacities and labor, and, by extension, of whatever he can acquire by his non-coercive exercise of them…. [G]overnment cannot legitimately interfere with an individual’s use of his body, abilities, etc., where that use does not involve the infringement of the rights of others, even when that individual’s use is otherwise immoral. Even if, for example, one decides to use narcotics or to drink oneself into a stupor night after night, the state has no right to stop him from doing so.”

Conversely, for the libertarian if the state has no right to stop someone from destroying himself, it also has no responsibility to rescue him.  People who make themselves unemployable or sick through their own bad habits will have to deal with the consequences on their own, or with the help of voluntary charity.  Indeed, even those who through no fault of their own are too poor to afford housing, food, or medical care must be provided for through voluntary, private sector efforts; the state has no business redistributing income in pursuit of the vision of social justice imposed by those in power.

There is a strong surface appeal to this position, particularly in our current political context of galloping secular socialism that drags us toward its goal of the subhumanist nanny state.  Murray Rothbard’s version of libertarianism (anarcho-capitalism) has attracted a surprising number of otherwise prolife religious believers—no doubt because of its appearance of philosophical rigor, and its justified rejection of the intrusive secular state.  But let us listen to Rothbard on the subject of motherhood and the family:
 
“The proper groundwork for analysis of abortion is in every man’s absolute right of self-ownership. This implies immediately that every woman has the absolute right to her own body, that she has absolute dominion over her body and everything within it. This includes the fetus. Most fetuses are in the mother’s womb because the mother consents to this situation, but the fetus is there by the mother’s freely-granted consent. But should the mother decide that she does not want the fetus there any longer, then the fetus becomes a parasitic “invader” of her person, and the mother has the perfect right to expel this invader from her domain. Abortion should be looked upon, not as “murder” of a living person, but as the expulsion of an unwanted invader from the mother’s body. Any laws restricting or prohibiting abortion are therefore invasions of the rights of mothers.”

Self-ownership, as the ruthlessly consistent Rothbard construes it, has other implications for the rights and duties of parents, extending far beyond the intimacy of the womb. He writes later in the same chapter:
 
“Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive. (Again, whether or not a parent has a moral rather than a legally enforceable obligation to keep his child alive is a completely separate question.) This rule allows us to solve such vexing questions as: should a parent have the right to allow a deformed baby to die (e.g., by not feeding it)? The answer is of course yes, following a fortiori from the larger right to allow any baby, whether deformed or not, to die. (Though, as we shall see below, in a libertarian society the existence of a free baby market will bring such “neglect” down to a minimum.)”

So self-ownership, as a principle, prevents the state from intervening when parents starve their children. At this point it is tempting to simply toss the very concept aside as toxic, to decide that any theory which cannot account for and defend the most basic unit of society, the family, can hardly be trusted on larger and more complicated questions. But self-ownership is not entirely wrong.  It is radically incomplete, an important piece of the truth which when ripped out of its living context leaves a trail as bloody as any vital organ.
Last week one of us used the drug war as a launching pad for examining the theory of self-ownership, the radical libertarian principle which asserts that none of us owes anything to anyone, unless we have freely agreed to give it to him as either a gift or an exchange.  According to the self-ownership manuals penned by the likes of Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, each of us is a self-made man, the creator of his destiny, unbeholden to anyone or anything, a rugged individualist who has carved out all that he has and is from the rough-hewn stone of unforgiving nature, with a clear title to everything he attains or acquires.  This picture of man is echoed throughout popular culture in works where the misfit, the loner, the outcast is held up as a hero for refusing to be cowed or seduced by the crowd.  Philosopher Edward Feser summed up the underlying theory as follows:

“For many libertarians, the thesis of self-ownership is the foundation of their political philosophy. Natural rights to life, liberty, and property—the protection of which is, according to the libertarian, government’s sole legitimate function—derive from self-ownership, in particular one’s ownership of his body and its parts, of his capacities and labor, and, by extension, of whatever he can acquire by his non-coercive exercise of them…. [G]overnment cannot legitimately interfere with an individual’s use of his body, abilities, etc., where that use does not involve the infringement of the rights of others, even when that individual’s use is otherwise immoral. Even if, for example, one decides to use narcotics or to drink oneself into a stupor night after night, the state has no right to stop him from doing so.”

Conversely, for the libertarian if the state has no right to stop someone from destroying himself, it also has no responsibility to rescue him.  People who make themselves unemployable or sick through their own bad habits will have to deal with the consequences on their own, or with the help of voluntary charity.  Indeed, even those who through no fault of their own are too poor to afford housing, food, or medical care must be provided for through voluntary, private sector efforts; the state has no business redistributing income in pursuit of the vision of social justice imposed by those in power.

There is a strong surface appeal to this position, particularly in our current political context of galloping secular socialism that drags us toward its goal of the subhumanist nanny state.  Murray Rothbard’s version of libertarianism (anarcho-capitalism) has attracted a surprising number of otherwise prolife religious believers—no doubt because of its appearance of philosophical rigor, and its justified rejection of the intrusive secular state.  But let us listen to Rothbard on the subject of motherhood and the family:
 
“The proper groundwork for analysis of abortion is in every man’s absolute right of self-ownership. This implies immediately that every woman has the absolute right to her own body, that she has absolute dominion over her body and everything within it. This includes the fetus. Most fetuses are in the mother’s womb because the mother consents to this situation, but the fetus is there by the mother’s freely-granted consent. But should the mother decide that she does not want the fetus there any longer, then the fetus becomes a parasitic “invader” of her person, and the mother has the perfect right to expel this invader from her domain. Abortion should be looked upon, not as “murder” of a living person, but as the expulsion of an unwanted invader from the mother’s body. Any laws restricting or prohibiting abortion are therefore invasions of the rights of mothers.”

Self-ownership, as the ruthlessly consistent Rothbard construes it, has other implications for the rights and duties of parents, extending far beyond the intimacy of the womb. He writes later in the same chapter:
 
“Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive. (Again, whether or not a parent has a moral rather than a legally enforceable obligation to keep his child alive is a completely separate question.) This rule allows us to solve such vexing questions as: should a parent have the right to allow a deformed baby to die (e.g., by not feeding it)? The answer is of course yes, following a fortiori from the larger right to allow any baby, whether deformed or not, to die. (Though, as we shall see below, in a libertarian society the existence of a free baby market will bring such “neglect” down to a minimum.)”

So self-ownership, as a principle, prevents the state from intervening when parents starve their children. At this point it is tempting to simply toss the very concept aside as toxic, to decide that any theory which cannot account for and defend the most basic unit of society, the family, can hardly be trusted on larger and more complicated questions. But self-ownership is not entirely wrong.  It is radically incomplete, an important piece of the truth which when ripped out of its living context leaves a trail as bloody as any vital organ.


Private property and its protection from arbitrary confiscation or control are implications of human dignity—because property is at its heart the fruit of our labors, which ought to be free.  In that sense, we do own ourselves.  But let’s ask a few pointed questions about what that ownership really means, how far it extends, and in what ways that ownership is conditioned by what we have ourselves received.

It is clear that no human being is really “self-made.”  We are born to parents, without whose care we would quickly die.  Human beings are dependent for longer than any other creature on the constant protection of parents.  Nor, once we reach adulthood, can most human beings survive alone.  We are physically and emotionally dependent on cooperation with others.  Our very consciousness is constituted and formed into fullness through the mediation of language—of words and grammatical structures that we learn from others, who have themselves inherited them from the dead.  Likewise, we are the beneficiaries of the hard work done by our ancestors in establishing an orderly society that protects individual rights, and creates the infrastructure for education and technology. Think of the immense advantages in lifespan, opportunity, health, and wealth that a modern American or European enjoys over a persecuted Nuba tribesman or a Brazilian living in a favela; can any of us rightly take credit for these?  No, these are gifts that we have been given, and without them we would not have the knowledge, skills, freedom or physical safety that make possible our efforts at creating wealth. Two people with similar talents and comparable work ethics will fare very differently, if one of them is born on New York’s Upper East Side, and the other in an aboriginal community in Australia.  The discrepancy between the opportunities offered to these two people ought to show us the measure of how much we owe to others, how little of the selves that we have become for which we can take sole credit.  

We do not give birth to our bodies, nor create ourselves. We take a vast array of inherited gifts and opportunities and do our best to steward and make good use of them.  Given that fact, our ownership of our labor and our wealth is not complete and absolute.  That ownership is conditioned by what we owe to others who came before us.  For that reason, adults are expected to care for their aged parents.  But even more than paying back the care and opportunities we have received, we are expected to pay them forward, to offer the next generation the best chance to thrive in its own right.  This debt is more than a moral truth; it is a fact of mammal biology, of a race whose young are born from the bodies of parents, not hatched from abandoned eggs and left to fend for themselves.

In light of these social, biological, and moral realities, we can see that we do not own ourselves outright, free of any liens or claims.  By virtue of everything we have that sets apart from a stranded sailor alone on a desert island, we in fact owe a great deal to our parents (which might need to paid forward to our children), and significant debts to the society that shaped us, kept us safe, and made it possible for us to thrive.  We owe the most to those who are closest to us, to our parents and our children, and to our direct benefactors.  We owe a little less to those in our local community, and proportionately less to total strangers who are faraway fellow citizens. Our debt is least to people who live in distant countries with whom we interact little except to buy the fruits of their labor.  However, we still owe them something, a debt that may seem to materialists as intangible or meaningless—but which in times of crisis can mean the difference between life and death, peace and war, coexistence or repression and terrorism.  We owe every human being by virtue of his membership in the human family respect for his intrinsic dignity.  We owe even distant strangers the recognition that they are different from machines, that their equal humanity is not affected by differences of wealth, race, or religion.  We owe them the debt imposed by the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.


If it is ever hard to accept and internalize this truth, here is a helpful mental exercise:  When you look at some desperate refugee on television, waving an emaciated hand to keep the flies away from his eyes, do not compare him to yourself as you live now—in relative comfort and safety.  Remember instead that you and he were once just alike, tiny fetuses nestled inside another person, utterly dependent on her protection and goodwill, completely incapable of making any efforts on your own behalf.  At that point you were exactly the same, completely equal.  Then think of all the things that must have happened in his life, and yours, to land you in such very different places—and how few of them depended on your decisions, how little you really did to end up so much better off than this refugee.  That is the cold, unvarnished truth, and it isn’t a comfortable one. That is why we work so hard to hide it from ourselves.


Jason Jones is a producer in Hollywood.  His films include Bella, Eyes to See, and Crescendo. Learn more about his human rights initiatives at www.iamwholelife.com.

John Zmirak is the author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. His columns are archived at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall. This column is adapted from Jones’s and Zmirak’s upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroad, 2014).
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