Last week was the 2nd Annual Austrian Scholars Conference hosted by the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada at the University of Toronto. By my own estimate, a good time was had by all who attended. The lectures, given by scholars from across Canada and the United States, were both informative and thought-provoking. As is customary at academic events, first principles were reemphasized while theory was pushed into new boundaries. Topics of discussion ranged from the financial crisis sparked by unfettered credit expansion in Iceland to whether subjective value and free will have any role to play in behavioral economics. Taken as a whole, the lectures provided attendees with a basic understanding of the Austrian school of economic thought as well as libertarian political theory.
One presentation in particular stuck out from the crowd, if only for an off-hand statement made by the speaker at the end. Dr. Calvin Hayes of Brock University gave a lecture titled “Why Libertarians Should be Strong Opponents of Intellectual Property,” in which he argued against the legality of trademarks and copyrights from a mainly utilitarian standpoint. Come the obligatory question time, he was questioned as to whether humans do, in fact, own themselves. Surprisingly, his laconic reply was “no.” When pressed, he elaborated that ownership entails the right to “give away” and man lacks that function. He can’t necessarily sell himself into abject slavery
This was the kind of radicalizing statement that, as Ayn Rand liked to say, forced listeners to check their premises. A rebuttal was not quick to my mind. Dr. Hayes was correct in that ownership necessarily entails the right to dispose of property. But libertarianism as a philosophy is predicated on the truth that men do own themselves. It is from this right of possession that all other property rights stem. As John Locke wrote in The Second Treatise on Civil Government, “every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body (sic) has any Right to but himself.” From this axiomatic statement, Locke formulates the homesteading principle where individuals can justifiably bring tangible objects under their possessorship.
Whether this understanding translates into the rational ability for each man or woman to sell themselves into slavery is a curious proposition. Bondage certainly seems to be a contradiction of existence. If man is naturally free in mind and body, then he cannot necessarily be the belonging of another. But there is the other side of the coin: if he is unable to give away his self-ownership, is it really owned intrinsically in the first place? And if the principle of self-ownership is not applicable to reality, then surely all that follows fails the same test of validity.
It does not take a logically sound defense of voluntary slavery to make the case for human self-ownership however. There are many instances in which a man could conceivably rid himself of, well, himself. Organ donation is one such option, as is selling bodily appendages. The covenant of marriage is an agreement between two individuals (traditionally husband and wife) that carries the promise of a permanent interpersonal relationship. It may not be considered an act of commercial selling, but marriage at least implies fidelity without interference from third parties. It is a pledge of exclusivity for the purposes of establishing familial ties and child rearing.
The ultimate act of giving one’s self away, including full consciousness, is suicide. It would be hard for Dr. Hayes to deny that self-inflicted murder is not a means of relinquishing control of one’s body. The practice renders the physique functionless. Less reincarnation exists, death is when earthly personhood goes away for good. With the ability and possibility to accelerate nature in order to jump in the grave sooner than expected, there is always the option to leave your physical form essentially unowned. Though it may be immoral, the action of taking one’s life is still a means to give away that which rightfully belongs to you.
Even by spiritual standards, Dr. Hayes’s contention is still incorrect. Catholic social teaching holds that while every man’s bodily vessel is beholden to God, he is still blessed with free will. In his papal bull Sublimus Dei, Pope Paul III declares that the natives of the American continent were not to be made slaves as they were rational beings with souls. It was this recognition of an inherent right to liberty by virtue of being human that paves the way for autonomy. For if the Anglo settlers were forbid from making involuntary servants out of indigenous peoples who did not fully grasp the logic of private property, the only conclusion is that they had sole authority over themselves – at least in a tangible sense. In essence, self-ownership is transitory while in the temporal realm.
Rationally, the principle of self-ownership is true because of the human conception and natural understanding of possession. When that departs the vessel of containment known as the body, it ceases to be in the material world. So in a sense, the acts of organ donation, marriage, and suicide remain proof positive of man’s natural right to own himself. Denial would be tantamount to refuting your own existence. The right to self-ownership is really axiomatic and can be determined for the most part by logical analysis. As Murray Rothbard wrote in The Ethics of Liberty,
…if each man is not entitled to full and 100 percent self-ownership, then what does this imply? It implies either one of two conditions: (1) the “communist” one of Universal and Equal Other-ownership, or (2) Partial Ownership of One Group by Another—a system of rule by one class over another. These are the only logical alternatives to a state of 100 percent self-ownership for all.
The first proposition is nonsensical as it entails ownership potential while relegating it to small portions divisible by the population. The populace owns everything and nothing at the same time. The other contention, as Rothbard notes, leads to a ruling class that is somehow divined with the right of ownership while others are forcefully denied. There is also the possibility that no ownership exists at all. But it’s plainly obvious from introspection that humans have the ability to conceive of ownership and apply it to physical objects around them.
While Dr. Hayes’s assertion that man does not own himself because he lacks the potential to give himself away is intriguing, it fails the test of the logical deduction. There are a myriad of means that can be utilized to relinquish one’s life and body. I would not recommend self-mutilation, but the option exists. If Hayes would still insist that ownership of self is not a universal truth, I would only pose the following question: by what means are you issuing such a proclamation? If the combined forces of mouth, tongue, vocal cords, and brain volition are not owned, speech and thought would necessarily cease. And then we would be left nowhere, barely clinging onto the plane of reality. That’s not a great place to be, especially when debating the limits of the human person.