Competing conceptions of self-ownership and the ghost of Ronald Coase

Alternative Title: Against Self-Ownership? Lit Review, Part 3a

In a previous post I presented Kant’s critique of self-ownership. Here, I will explore another argument against self-ownership. This second argument goes like this: self-ownership might be a fine concept at a high enough level of generality, but once we try to work out the operational details of self-ownership–once we try to define the scope of the claim rights that self-owners actually have–this concept is far too general and vague to be of any practical use. That is, the concept of self-ownership (contra Kant) might be logically coherent, but this concept is consistent with many different conceptions of rights–in a word, this concept is “indeterminate”.

To my knowledge, this devastating critique first appeared in a 2004 paper by Barbara Fried titled “Left-Libertarianism: A Review Essay,” which I consider to be the single-best theoretical paper on self-ownership that I have encountered thus far. In summary, Fried (2004) surveys the self-ownership literature from a “functionalist lens” or pragmatic perspective and concludes that self-ownership is an indeterminate and easily-malleable concept. To begin with, self-ownership is a such a broad and general concept that it is compatible with many different and competing conceptions of self-ownership rights; as a result, it is not surprising that libertarian theorists disagree on the practical implications of self-ownership–e.g. whether self-owners have the right to sell themselves into slavery, bequeath their property to their heirs, or blow smoke into someone else’s face. (See especially Fried, 2004, pp. 76-78.)

(By way of specific example, one of the main controversies–and one of the enduring sources of indeterminacy–with respect to self-ownership is the problem of natural resources. See, for example, Fried, 2004, pp. 84-91. Specifically, does self-ownership entitle one to assert private ownership rights over external natural resources? If so, is there a limit on how much natural resources one may appropriate for oneself? Post-Locke, this perennial and contentious set of questions has generated the main dividing line between “left-libertarians” on the one hand and “right-libertarians” or traditional libertarians on the other.)

Furthermore, as Professor Fried herself correctly notes (p. 77), these disagreements about the practical implications of self-ownership are insoluble to the extent they “derive from fundamental disagreements about what ends self-ownership is supposed to vindicate.” Broadly speaking, for example, right libertarians believe that self-ownership is about the right to be left alone (so-called “negative liberty”), while left libertarians believe that self-ownership is about the ability to make choices (“positive liberty”). Professor Fried thus concludes (p. 78): “Given their foundational disagreement about the meaning of self-ownership, it is hardly surprising that left libertarians cannot agree on how self-ownership gets cashed out at the level of property rights.”

But wait, there’s more! In addition to the indeterminacy critique, Professor Fried identifies an even deeper problem with self-ownership–a fundamental problem that bedevils all rights talk and that was identified as early as 1960 by Ronald Coase (pictured below) in his classic paper “The Problem of Social Cost.” To the point, even if we could agree on what rights self-owners have, these rights (however defined) will, by definition, impose corresponding or reciprocal duties on everyone else, and these duties will thus have the effect of reducing everyone else’s autonomy and liberty rights. In the words of Fried (p. 79): “A decision to enlarge your rights over your body … necessarily constricts my rights, often including right over the use of my body.

Professor Fried illustrates the reciprocal nature of the self-ownership problem with the following simple example (p. 78): “Suppose I stand two feet from you and blow smoke in your face…. Have I coercively interfered with your right to control your body?” If not, what if I am standing only one foot away from you? Six inches? At a minimum, most people agree that self-owners have the right to decide what they want to do with their own bodies. But even this minimum conception of self-ownership imposes corresponding or reciprocal duties on others. Does self-ownership–defined as the right to control my body–allow me to use force against you to stop you from blowing smoke in my face?

These two objections–the indeterminate nature of self-ownership and the problem of corresponding/reciprocal duties–are the best and strongest arguments against self-ownership. I will respond to them in my next post …

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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2 Responses to Competing conceptions of self-ownership and the ghost of Ronald Coase

  1. Pingback: The Law of Self-Ownership | prior probability

  2. Pingback: Closing thoughts on self-ownership | prior probability

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