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A Minimal Conception Of Self-ownership Versus The Extensive Version

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Self-ownership is the concept that one has complete control over themselves, both physically and mentally and over their actions, in the absence of any interference or domination. It is one that is rarely seen to be present in modern society. This can be due to perceptions of the corruptibility of human nature in modern political parties or the inherent connection it holds with right-wing libertarianism. Debates over things such as redistribution policies usually center around ones right to self-ownership. With complete self-ownership comes the complete responsibility for one’s own actions and their consequences. During this essay, I will argue that the state should only respect a minimal conception of self-ownership rather than the extensive version that libertarianism puts forward.

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Prior to any analysis, this conception seems undoubtedly attractive and reasonable. Libertarian philosophers are divided on to what extent the state should respect self-ownership. Some, such as Narveson (Narveson, 2001), consider self-ownership to be the absence of interference from external agents. Others, with the argument being led by figures such as Nozick argue the individuals should have complete and utter self-ownership over their entity, product of their labour, the right to transfer these rights to others and the ability to gain compensation had their rights been violated.

Self-ownership as a simple concept is attractive for multiple reasons. On the most part, people respect individuals as self-owners of what is rightfully theirs – their body. This can be seen when we deem actions wrong due to the fact that the individual has not consented but are not wrong with consent. For example, we consider arranged marriage wrong because it involves a person being married against their free will, but not because there’s something inherently wrong with marriage. Furthermore, we consider rape wrong on similar grounds, but not sexual intercourse (Shaxton, 2014). The conception unequivocally supports the absolute sovereignty of the individual which invites further attraction from any who are sceptical or dissatisfied with the state. This feature of self-ownership allows this conception to attract people from all across the political spectrum. The scepticism engrained within anarchist ideology (suspicion of the elite state), in conservatism (pessimistic about human nature) and liberal ideology (minimal state) thus allows for this to remain a relevant topic, despite mainstream parties attempts to separate from this. The state should respect one’s anatomy and personal choices over their body as the state is unable not to. To attempt to own other people’s thoughts and physical behaviour would inherently mean they would have to use manipulation or mind control. This, regardless of being almost impossible when only within one state due to growing globalisation, which enables people and information to travel with ease across border, also can be seen as morally wrong and irresponsible. If the state did own one’s body and actions, this would pool power into the hands of a very small number, who, according to liberal ideas would abuse this power due to the corruptibility of human nature. Controversially, in some states they see that his utter control over one’s mind and actions is necessary because it is best for the people. To leave all decision making to the educated elite is preferred because “they know best” (Khan, n.d.). However, broadly speaking, this goes again the principle of democracy which I think should be respected more than one’s amount of self-ownership. Since the two cannot coexist in their most respected and logical forms, democracy should then be prioritised.

The idea of self-ownership is most often argued using its simplest analogy, in terms of money. The idea that Nozick presents explains that one’s right to self-ownership also means that one has the right to the product of their labour – their wages. Nozick draws to the conclusion that the policy of redistributive taxation, common in modern states, is morally illegitimate. He compares the process of taxation as a form of ‘forced labour’ whereby the person who is working and then taxed forcibly on a portion of the income can be interpreted to be involuntarily working for the state for the period of time they worked for the tax taken and this is violating the principle of self-ownership. The modern welfare state is thus immoral because they make citizens slaves of the state. Nozick argues that the only state that can be justified adequately is what he calls a “night-watchman state”, where the only job of the state is to protect individuals through strong policing and court systems. The idea that taxation cannot function within a state that respects self-ownership is flawed due to the fact that one does not have the right to the portion of their wealth that is taxed. In order for one to have a right, defined as a moral or legal entitlement, would inherently mean you have to justify your right to own it on either moral or legal terms. Legally, that the individual has a legal obligation to pay your tax. Those who don’t are supposedly meant to be found guilty of tax evasion or fraud. So, this then implies that to say you have a right to your pre-tax income is in moral terms. There is very little morality/justice in the fact that corporate owners or solicitors earn a vast amount more than scientists finding cures for diseases or teachers educating the future generations. There are very few scenarios where one receives what they deserve in pre-tax income (Chang, 2011). To assume that you have a moral right to your pre-tax income is to assume that what the market deals to people is moral and just – which it isn’t. In this way, it should be seen as the duty of the state to disrespect one’s self-ownership. The markets clearly fail to distribute income fairly and justly so the state should attempt to fix that with redistributive taxation. Even whilst taking a portion of one’s wage via taxation, they are not really disrespecting self-ownership because one did not ever have the right to own that pre-tax income.

To associate this question with libertarianism is almost juxtaposed. To proclaim both a state and the principle of self-ownership should co-exist is one that is complex. Right-wing libertarianism is absolutely and completely opposed to a state and borderlines onto anarchist thought. This question also forces you to consider what type of state should respect self-ownership. As in most states, the head of state, or effective ruler (prime minister, president), changes frequently, so the state cannot always respect self-ownership on the same level. A socialist state wouldn’t respect self-ownership as much as a liberal state because of their core ideas – socialism with equality and liberalism with minimal government. It is impossible to ascertain how much a state should respect self-ownership when the state never remains occupied by one singular philosophy.

As I have explored in this essay, it can be easily argued that the state should have very little duty to respect one’s self-ownership. There is little case against the individual’s right to own their thoughts and actions whilst being totally being independent of the state. It is unrealistic to think that the state could ever disrespect that, both lawfully and morally in the modern world. Self-ownership over one’s anatomy is also an ideal foundation for a state to build laws and rights upon – e.g. the right to free speech or rape being illegal. Commonly, using ownership of one’s body and mind to argue the case for self-ownership is almost a gimmick used to gear more people on side – and it works. To say the state should disrespect self-ownership is wrong too, it is wrong to assume just because you think you have a right to something, that you actually do have the right to something. To claim to have a right, one’s claim needs to be supported by both moral and legal justifications, and that is difficult to do so when applied to things like ones pre-tax income, within a state where 24% of all wealth is held by 1% so what you ‘own’ is usually not really what you deserve and thus, cannot be justified morally. Furthermore, the state cannot have an all-encompassing respect for self-ownership due to the contrast within the core beliefs of the different mainstream political parties. The libertarian idea that states should have respect for self-ownership at their core is fundamentally flawed. 

10 Jun 2021

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