Against Rothbard, Hoppe and Molyneux.

Self-ownership is a central concept for Libertarians, the core component of the Libertarian framework for all ethical rules and property rights. In the ethics of Liberty, Rothbard argues that self-ownership is not just a nice idea or a good practical tool, he argues that it is a proposition with a concrete proof. Hans Herman Hoppe has offered his own proof, and Molyneux has promoted a very lightly modified version of Hoppe’s proof to his large audience.

If it were true that we could prove the ethical validity of self-ownership, Libertarians would have a powerful tool to convert the masses: we need only show them this brilliant proof that we have an indisputable claim to 100% self-ownership, and we’ve won the ideological case; we would just need to sort out the practical aspects of a transition.

Unfortunately, this is not the case, and the arguments advanced on self-ownership as a logically infallible principle are false. I actually don’t believe that Rothbard or Hoppe intend to deceive others with their arguments – I believe that they have a strong, correct belief in the usefulness of the principle of self ownership, and that having formulated a convincing defense of an idea they already strongly believed in (for other reasons), they simply didn’t subject these ideas to strong scrutiny.

Fatally flawed

But the idea, as advanced by Rothbard, and re-formulated by Hoppe (and repeated to a large audience by Molyneux) is wrong. There is no proof of self-ownership, simply because such a proof runs afoul of the much bigger is-ought problem of philosophy: you cannot, through observation of what is, come to a conclusion about what ought to be.

There’s an obvious objection to what I’ve said, and that objection is that my position is extremely sceptical – that, whilst it’s true from a strictly philosophical point of view that you can’t prove anything, adopting that approach consistently to morality and ethics would leave us completely unable to construct any principles of right or wrong, objectives for living or any meaning whatsoever.
This is true, but it doesn’t invalidate several problems with our continued propagation of “proven self-ownership”:

  1. It creates the situation that two of anarcho-capitalism’s philosophical heavy hitters (and it’s most influential contemporary personality) are advancing an argument that is incorrect. Without work on a substitute and acknowledgement that we took a wrong turn, someone who figures out that Rothbard, Hoppe and Molyneux were wrong on one of the building blocks of libertarian ethical thought might conclude that the entire philosophy is half-baked
  2. It pretends we don’t need to persuade someone of the actual practical merits of self-ownership. By advancing a (false) proof, we say “you are being illogical not supporting self-ownership, even if you don’t understand it’s consequences and believe that it is a principle that would lead to worse outcomes for most people”. People do not find this convincing. They’ll read Rothbard or Hoppe on self-ownership, won’t find it convincing, and move on. The false argument has denied us an opportunity to actually convince someone that self-ownership is a good idea.

Still a good idea

Self-ownership is a good idea. It’s a really good idea that we can stand behind. But we need to do so on practical, consequentialist grounds. The reality is that everyone is a consequentialist: we wouldn’t adopt a rule based approach unless we:

  1. Accepted at face value a false is-ought argument, or
  2. Were convinced the rule framework would lead to good consequences

Ultimately, then, libertarians need to make a consequentialist case for self-ownership; I outline my case below.

The case for self-ownership

Self-ownership, as it used by libertarians, is a principle for the formulation of legal theory and for ethical actions. As such it fits inside the larger discipline of political philosophy. It should be acknowledged that some assumptions are necessary before proceeding further – we need to set out what political philosophy should be trying to achieve, something that cannot be proven – however, it’s possible to set out parameters for the purpose of political philosophy that most, indeed near all people would agree with, and show how people who believe in this should completely support self-ownership in all but the most extreme, short term scenarios.

Good consequences

Most people, when they think about political philosophy, don’t want to design a society that doesn’t deliver good human outcomes. Drilling down to exactly what good human outcomes are, is a bit more tricky, but from a universal humanist perspective, we can say that we generally want humans to be happy (this does not necessarily mean that people are in a state of ecstacy all the time, but might also include some combination of intellectually fulfilled, contented, relaxed, free from pain), prosperous (they have the material goods they desire) and healthy. Most would agree, I think, that political philosophy should aim to set up rules for a society where these conditions are maximised.
However – and this is important – would we want such a society that did so for nearly everyone, but also cruelly exploited some members – if they were subject to, for instance, unfair and capricious incarceration, torture, rape or murder? Once again, I think most people would say no, that those things should be minimised, even for a small minority, and if at all possible, completely eliminated. That is to say, we have a strong preference for the maximisation of positive human experiences for the many, and an even stronger preference to prevent “outrage” against individuals, even if they represent a tiny minority of society. These are our assumed “oughts”, which I think the vast majority of people would agree with as excellent principles for thinking about political philosophy.

Human development

Now that we’ve established this groundwork, we can deal with self-ownership. No matter our views on ownership of the body, it clearly each person is the effective “occupier” of their body. They have effective control of their body, which is to say, that they direct the actions of their body, moment to moment. They also control their own mind and thoughts, and experience pain and pleasure through their bodies’ experiences and environment. It is through plans and actions of human brains and bodies that we produce all the material goods that make all humans happy. If happiness, prosperity and health for humans are our aims, we need each human body (and brain), as much as possible, to be looked after, tended to and developed. That is to say, that the asset of the human brain and body needs to be as well managed as possible. We already know that the most efficient method of managing assets aligns use with ownership. That is to say, that an owner occupier will in general, look after an asset better than a mere occupier (tenant). This creates a strong presumption in favour of self-ownership: by owning our bodies and the outcomes of our actions, we are maximally incentivised to improve ourselves and act productively, maximising happiness, prosperity and health.

Minimising outrage

Looking at the second proposition, that we should try to minimise or eliminate outrage, once again, self-ownership proves to be an excellent principle: all manner of outrages involve, at some level, a violation of self-ownership. If there is a legal and ethical framework that upholds self-ownership, outrage is by definition outlawed.

Self-ownership then, is a generally applicable rule that appears on the first look, to optimise for good consequences.

Dealing with objections

Now that we’ve moved the self-ownership principle from an unquestionable dictat to a useful rule, we can look at how it can be applied and under what circumstances it holds it’s usefulness or breaks down.


Australian libertarian John Humphreys once gave me the following scenario to demonstrate that self-ownership and the property rights that flow from them are not the most important thing. The scenario goes as follows:

“There is a mad gunman on the loose shooting people at random. Nobody else is armed, people are running and seeking cover. You are next to a car, inside of which is a fully loaded assault rifle. You are a trained marksman. The car has a clear note on the inside of it, which says ‘Under no circumstances should anyone break into my car or use my gun, including to protect oneself or others’. Do you break into the car to get the gun?”

I would do it. Rothbard can drag me off to jail now.

One might imagine that even if the owner was present, but holding the gun, and refusing to use it or give it to me, that I would forcibly take it from them, if it was safe to do so.

I, and I believe all reasonable people, would do so because the violation of property rights and self ownership is sometimes necessary to achieve better consequences. There. I said it, and now let me qualify it heavily because to stop there would be to give a very distorted view of where a reasonable person should stand on self-ownership.

Ultimately, there will be bizarre scenarios that show a perverse outcome from applying self-ownership as an unbreakable ethical rule in all circumstances. However, whilst these scenarios might justify an ad-hoc, on the spot violation as the lesser-of-two-evils, they never extrapolate out to longer term contracts where all parties can communicate and anticipate each other’s actions. That is to say, they don’t apply to the scale that government and other societal institutions actually operate on day to day.

Many people might already be onto this, but they probably don’t know exactly why. Another classic moral dilemma is the trolley experiment, specifically the scenario where there is one person on an alternative track, but 5 people on the track that an out of control trolley is hurtling down. Unless you switch the track, the trolley will hit and surely kill these people. If you switch, one person who wouldn’t otherwise have died, will be killed. Do you switch the track?

Most people answer yes, as I would.

Now think about this dilemma: a doctor has 5 people in hospital, who each need a critical organ(s) (lung, liver, heart, kidney) to survive. All are expected to die that day if a donor cannot be found. The same doctor has one healthy patient who has come in for a simple operation on his foot. If the doctor removed the organs from the healthy patient, he could save 5 lives, at the expense of one person. Should the doctor do so?

Most people answer no, as I would.

Both scenarios involve the sacrifice of one person to save five. If it isn’t the principle of self-ownership, then what is guiding our apparently different decision in the two scenarios?

Systematising outrage

I would argue that it’s the institutional framework that changes the way we think about the ethics of the situation. Whilst an individual who happens to be on the spot at the track controls when a crisis occurs can make the decision to minimise harm by sacrificing someone, a doctor in a persistent organisation should not be allowed to do so. In other words, we don’t like the idea of systematising outrage. An institution, a persistent system, should find a better solution, and shouldn’t be allowed to justify outrageous actions on the basis of consequentialism. That is to say, a rule proscribing outrage (such as self-ownership), should be applied more strictly to institutions than individuals.

A final moral dilemma, this one used to gauge ethical reasoning in children, is Koblenz’s scenario of Heinz with the sick wife:
A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

Apples and oranges

Most (adults) argue that Heinz should steal the medicine because that is the lesser of two evils. I agree. But doing so is completely different to saying “because sometimes individual circumstances might dictate that self-ownership should be put aside, we should have a permanent institution, that runs all the courts and employs all the soldiers and police, that is entitled to violate self-ownership whenever it determines, which it does, continuously”. One can immediately see both that the first does not imply anything remotely like the second, and, many, many reasons why such a permanent institution will not necessarily promote good consequences. I speak here of the State, one or other of which asserts it’s ownership of every human on earth. And yet, whenever we promote libertarian ideas, people think of individual circumstances where strict adherence to self-ownership would create perverse outcomes.


I think any reasonable person, could, when they see it in these terms, understand the distinction – that self-ownership is an excellent presumptive rule, that is not the final word on all ethics, but it nonetheless precludes the formation of a permanent, violent institution that writes its own rules on when it can violate self-ownership – as this will surely lead to less happiness and more outrage (as history has amply demonstrated).