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Friday, April 29, 2005


Self-Ownership is a definitional issue for libertarians. It is what unites the three libertarianisms and makes each libertarian. The idea behind self-ownership is that each individual human owns herself. She owns her mind, her thoughts and her physical body, and has final veto power over what is to be done with her mind and body. This is what makes the individual free. This is liberty.

I defined self-ownership here in an EXTREMELY negative fashion on purpose. "Negative liberty" is usually described as the "the right to be left alone", but my description here is even more narrowly negative - "veto power". This is because the inherent problem of what to do with external objects that multiple persons may want to use results in restrictions on positive freedoms. Who makes these restrictions, how they are made, and the content of these restrictions are what separates the three libertarianisms. It is impossible to define liberty as more than veto power over you body because any of the three broad theories can develop restrictions on the use of external objects logically consistent with self-ownership that can effectively prohibit an individual from doing anything. A libertarian socialist system can be set up that prohibits all private use of external objects for production of goods or services, and forbids the acceptance of money, goods, or services in exchange for performing any labor. A right-libertarian system can be set up such that all external objects are already owned by other individuals when you are born, and none of the owners ever chooses to sell anything other than immediate consumables (such as food and entertainment), and instead leases all land, transportation, furniture, and clothing with severe contractual limitations on their use. A left-libertarian system could declare all atoms external to live humans to be owned in common, and require a democratic consensus for any proposed use. Almost nobody actually supports any of these extreme and unfree versions of the three libertarianisms - they are usually conjured up in the heads of libertarians of the other two stripes (and sometimes by non-libertarians) as a way of claiming that form of libertarianism to be UN-libertarian. But they work as criticisms because each is a logical possibility under that libertarianism's premises.

However, while each form of libertarianism can be stretched to restrict actions to a very unfree degree, what NONE of them allow is to COERCE an individual to do anything. Slavery, forced labor, rape, assault, and military conscription are forbidden under ALL forms of libertarianism. Libertarianism does not require society saying "Yes" to everything an individual wants to do. But libertarianism does require that the individual be allowed to say "No" to anything.

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