The Concept of Self-Ownership

Self-ownership is often regarded as an axiom, if not the basic axiom, of Libertarianism. There are many formulations of it; the oldest one that I know of is by John Locke, who said that

… every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. (Second Treatise on Government, Ch. 2, Sect. 27.)

Quite as often, one hears Objectivists object to this; the common objection is that this make the right to property the basic right, while it is in fact a derivative of the right to life. And this, in its turn, just goes to show that Libertarians have no concept of a proper hierarchy of knowledge.

In a recent podcast, Leonard Peikoff answers a question about self-ownership, where he says:

Ownership is a concept that implies a relationship between you and an external object; there is the owner and the object possessed. How can you own yourself? Who is the owner who is doing the owning of the owner?

And he goes on to explain that the idea originally comes from some “frightened conservative”, by which term I have to assume that he refers to John Locke. The podcast is less than two minutes long, so you can easily listen to the rest of his answer.

So let us turn to Ayn Rand’s own writings. In his “money speech”, Francisco d’Anconia has this to say:

Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort. (For the New Intellectual, p. 89; italics mine.)

So not only does Ayn Rand say that self-ownership is a valid concept, she says that it is axiomatic! The axiom of self-ownership is not some Libertarian perversion; it is part of the “official Objectivist doctrine”! It is part of what she herself published or approved of during her lifetime.

Stuart Hayashi has written a Facebook note, giving some other quotes from Ayn Rand on this subject. I quote:

“What greater wealth is there than to own your life and spend it on growing?”
–Ellis Wyatt, Atlas Shrugged, Pt. 3 of book.

“For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbors — between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it.”
–John Galt, Atlas Shrugged, http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/good,_the.html

“But the ability to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ is the essence of all ownership.  It’s your of your own ego.  Your soul, if you wish.”
–Howard Roark to Gail Wynand, The Fountainhead. (All italics mine.)

It seems that the “frightened conservative” Leonard Peikoff is talking about is none other than Ayn Rand herself! (And pardon the sarcasm!)

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But what does it mean to say that self-ownership is axiomatic? An axiom is fundamental and irreducible; it stands at the beginning of knowledge and cannot and need not be traced back to something even more fundamental. In Ayn Rand’s words:

An axiom is a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not. An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it. (“Galt’s speech”, quoted from The Ayn Rand Lexicon.)

It is not hard to see how this applies to the well-known axioms of “existence, identity and consciousness”. But I am at a loss to see how it applies to self-ownership. Does it simply mean that one cannot disown oneself, no matter how hard one tries?

I think it is possible to see self-ownership as a corollary of identity. It is simply part of a man’s identity that he is himself and owns himself.

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Parenthetically: In 1987 I gave a lecture titled The Objectivist Validation of Individual Rights, which was basically an attempt to summarize Objectivism and relied heavily on Leonard Peikoff’s “basic course”. In an appendix, I wrote the following:

As for the alleged axiom of “self-ownership”, I agree completely with Tibor Machan’s criticism [which was the same as Peikoff’s criticism above]. The term is meaningless on the face of it, if taken literally. If you use the term at all, you must realize it’s a metaphorical usage. Historically, I think it goes back to a statement by John Locke that “every man has a property in his own person” – which is fine, as a rhetorical device but would not serve as a formal axiom.

[PS 2009: Today, I am uncertain about this paragraph. Francisco d’Anconia, in his money speech, says: “Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort.” So it seems that Ayn Rand (I assume that Francisco speaks for her) endorses the idea of “self-ownership” as an axiom. I have never seen or heard this particular point being discussed further by either Ayn Rand herself or other Objectivists. I’m trying to figure out how this relates to the rest of Objectivism.]

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Nevertheless, and regardless of what Ayn Rand wrote about the subject, I can see a problem with the concept of self-ownership:

If you own an object, there are various things you can do with the object:

  • You can sell it.
  • You can lend it out.
  • You can give it away.
  • You can bequeath it to you heirs.

But can you do this with yourself? With your person, your body, your mind?

To bequeath yourself to your heirs would be pretty pointless. What can they do with you after your death, except giving you a decent funeral? – which they will probably do anyway, regardless of what is stated in your last will and testament.

Can you give yourself away? Well, in a marriage, the spouses in a sense give themselves away to each other, but that is metaphorical language.

Can you lend yourself out? Again, metaphorically, you can lend another person a service –­ as in the expression “lend me your ear”, meaning “listen attentively to what I am saying”. But in a literal sense, no.

Can you sell yourself? Well, I have heard Libertarians argue that a man should be free to sell himself into slavery (i.e. that he should be free to renounce his freedom). For example, person A might have a debt to person B that is so huge that he sees no possibility to pay it back; then he might agree to instead work as a slave to person B for the rest of his life. (Such a situation is rare, but it is at least possible.)

Can you sell your mind? Well, you may perform some work of an intellectual nature for an employer, but what you are selling is then not your mind, but some of the products of your mind. What you do with your mind in your leisure time is none of your employer’s concern.

And, of course, people are selling their souls all the time – most often for a ridiculously low price.. But is this expression to be taken literally?

Also, you can misplace an object you own; but if you misplace your person, you are in serious trouble.

So there is a difference between owning an object and “owning one’s self” – and this far, Leonard Peikoff is actually right in the quote in the beginning of this post (except for the nonsense about “frightened conservatives”).

Not that I think this is terribly important (after all, it revolves around the question whether “self-ownership” should be taken literally or metaphorically) – but it seems to give rise to endless discussions among Objectivists. Objectivists are very keen on explaining to other Objectivists that they have misunderstood Objectivism.

Personally, I will put this in a file and save it for my forthcoming treatise Nit-Picking Objections to Objectivism.

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Update December 6: Nit-picking objections notwithstanding, I like this Auberon Herbert quote:

To abandon self-ownership is to become corrupt and servile in spirit, and for the servile and corrupt there are no great things possible. You cannot carve in rotten wood; you cannot lead to greatness those who have renounced the essence of their own manhood or womanhood.

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Is the Customer Always King?

Also published as a Facebook note.

If you have read The Fountainhead (and I assume you have, if you are interested enough to read this blog), you may recall what Howard Roark says to the Dean in the first chapter:

I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build.

An economist of the “Austrian” school, Mark Skousen, has taken issue with this, because it (allegedly) violates the principle of “consumer sovereignty”. He writes, among other things:

But the goal of all rational entrepreneurship must be to satisfy the needs of consumers, not to ignore them! Discovering and fulfilling the needs of customers is the essence of market capitalism. Imagine how far a TV manufacturer would get if he decides to build TVs that only tune into his five favorite channels, the consumer be damned. It wouldn’t be long before he would be on the road to bankruptcy.

There are so many things wrong with Skousen’s view that one hardly knows where to begin. But a good answer was provided by Stuart Hayashi in a Facebook note. (Also on Stuart’s own blog, Stu-Topia.) Stuart explains “Say’s Law of Markets”:

An actual understanding of Say’s Law of Markets recognizes that both sides of a voluntary trade are equally important to the trade, and that both sides of the trade are consumer and producer simultaneously. […] Consider the barter economy. Suppose I have a paperback book you want, and you have a flash light I want. We trade one for the other. In that bartering, who was the producer and who was the consumer? The truth is that each party was both the producer and consumer. That relationship does not change when we introduce money into trading.

And later:

Therefore, we can look at it this way. Howard Roark is not necessarily the subordinate to his client, Austen Heller. Rather, Howard Roark is a customer who is purchasing money from Austen Heller. Roark’s payment to Heller is that Roark be able to design Heller’s house in the manner that Roark prefers. If Heller considers that to be an unworthy form of payment, Heller does not have to accept it.

My own thoughts:

Is the owner of a pub serving beer in order to have customers? Or does he want customers in order to serve beer? Is a shoemaker, or a tailor, or a baker, making shoes, clothes, or bread in order to have customers, or does he want customers in order to make shoes, clothes, and bread?

This may sound like a nonsense question, for what difference does it make? Yet, it has a simple answer: the customer wants his beer etc., and the pub owner, shoemaker, tailor or baker simply wants to make a living.

So how does this differ from the Roark example? Well, Roark has something more on his mind than just making a living. He has a vision of what the world should look like – or at least what the buildings in the world should look like – and this takes precedence over making a living. True, he also has to make living – and he is willing to take a job in a quarry if he cannot survive by building.

And this is true of artists, composers, inventors – of all innovators. True, all of them need to make a living – they do sell their paintings, or symphonies, of inventions – but this is certainly not their sole motivation or even their main motivation. If they cannot sell their works – if the general public is not yet ready for them – they take a side job and wait for acceptance of their works.

But those innovators, if we are to follow Skousen’s logic, violate the principle of “consumer sovereignty”, simply because they create goods for which there is initially no demand!

Take any technological advance – from the invention of the wheel in pre-historic times to today´s computers and mobile phones: there was never any consumer demands for them before they even existed![1]

And is there today any consumer demand for vacation trips to Alpha Centauri (given that there is some inhabitable planet surrounding it)? Certainly not. Nobody has yet invented a space ship that can take us there – even less one that can travel so fast that we have a chance to arrive there within our life-time (and get back again, before the vacation is over and we have to get back on our job).

But let me take an example of actual consumer sovereignty: Last time I went to a pub in my home town, I was so badly treated by its personnel that I decided never to go back. So I exercised my consumer sovereignty by simply going to another pub. There are lots of pubs to frequent! But if pubs had been newly invented, and there were only one pub to frequent, this would not have been possible.

Consumer sovereignty is the power of the consumer to buy or abstain from buying. And, of course, this is a valid principle – within its context. The context here is that the consumer can choose between goods and services that already exist. It does not pertain to goods and services that are still to be invented.

And Howard Roark’s buildings (which were not just copies of other buildings) did not exist before he built them.


[1]) See, in this connection, Why Steve Jobs Didn’t Listen to His Customers by Gregory Ciotti. A couple of quotes:

A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.

How can people tell you what they want if they haven’t seen it before?

Any innovative company struggles with how much to listen to customers. Most realize that you cannot trust them to tell you what your next new product will be.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. – Henry Ford

Was Saint George Virtuous?

That unselfishness is a virtue and selfishness a vice is such a firmly established fact that only a dyed-in-the-wool Objectivist would ever be so presumptuous as to challenge it. So let me put it to the test by giving just one concrete example:

A dragon is holding a princess captive in a tower. Along comes Saint George: at considerable risk to himself he fights the dragon, manages to slay him and liberates the princess. Was this a virtuous act on his part or not?

This is a question of motive. Let us say, simply, that he wants to marry the princess and get half the kingdom in reward. That, of course, is a selfish motive, so his act wasn’t virtuous.

But let us say he does not care a hoot about the princess, because she is ugly and not terribly nice, and neither is she a good cook; and he already owns half the kingdom and is not particularly keen on getting the other half as well. Yet he risks his life to liberate her, because it is a categorical imperative that captive princesses should be liberated. Now, his act would be truly virtuous.

(There is of course a third alternative: that he marries the princess despite her ugliness and her bad cooking, just to get half the kingdom. That would be “selfish” in the bad sense of the term. And the marriage would be unhappy.)

So why bother about this now? We live in a world where most dragons have been exterminated and where monarchy is on the wane (except for North Korea and Cuba).

Well, my Facebook friend Stuart Hayashi is reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and quotes this line on Facebook:

You and I ought to reach this moral understanding not just so we can have a logically consistent conversation but because mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests. [Italics added.]

How can it be “mutually unselfish” to “pursue our interests”, given that we have those interests in common? – I answered as follows:

The line of reasoning is quite simple: There is only one way to be selfish, and that is to prey on other people. We should not prey on other people; therefore, we should be unselfish.

Next question: How do we know there is no other way to be selfish? Well, we have observed many instances of selfish behavior, and there is one common denominator, and that is preying on other people.

There might be a flaw in this reasoning …

Someone suggested that this is an example of the “naturalistic fallacy” – the idea that if something is in our nature, it must be good, and that bad things are bad because they are against our nature. But I disagree with this. Clearly, it is in our nature to have a capacity for evil as well as a capacity for good; and it is in our nature to be capable of acting unselfishly as well as acting selfishly.

No, I think the flaw is that the reasoning is circular or “question-begging”. It is simply assumed beforehand that “selfishness” is bad and the word a term of opprobrium. Thus, a person who reasons this way will see “selfishness” only in acts of preying on others. And he would, if he follows his own logic, see Saint George rescuing the princess as a bad act, simply because he want to marry the princess; and if the princess also wants to marry Saint George, that would be “mutually selfish” and thus “mutually bad”. Not that anyone is prepared to draw this conclusion, but it is still the only possible conclusion. (We should have a “logically consistent conversation”, shouldn’t we, Mr. Pinker?)

But certainly, there is such a thing as “predatory selfishness” – although it is just the other side of altruism’s false coin – and unfortunately, we see far too much of it, when we look at the world. Altruism says that we should sacrifice for others, and “predatory egoism” says we should sacrifice others for ourselves. And the sad thing is that altruists very seldom actually sacrifice themselves (if they did, we would soon be rid of them). But predatorily sacrificing others is a far too common thing.

Paul Krugman’s Dishonesty

One should not expect honesty from Paul Krugman, but this blog post takes the price.

Krugman starts out by trying to be funny:

One line I’ve been seeing in various places, including comments here, is the claim that the real way to deal with Wall Street is laissez-faire economics: no more bailouts! On this view, policy makers should raise their right hand in the air, place their left hand on a copy of Atlas Shrugged, and swear in the name of A is A that they will never again step in to rescue failing banks. And all will be well with the world.

And then goes on:

First of all, bank regulation is important even in the absence of bailouts. Don’t trust me, trust Adam Smith. Scotland invented modern banking; it also invented modern banking crises; and Smith, having witnessed such a crisis, favored bank regulations.

And then quotes Smith as follows:

Such regulations may, no doubt, be considered as in some respect a violation of natural liberty. But those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments; of the most free, as well as or the most despotical. The obligation of building party walls, in order to prevent the communication of fire, is a violation of natural liberty, exactly of the same kind with the regulations of the banking trade which are here proposed.

Krugman doesn’t supply a page reference for this quote, and with good reason. If people read this quote in its context, they would quickly see through Krugman. (If anyone wants to look it up, it is on p. 308 of the Cannan edition of Wealth of Nations.)

If one bothers to read the whole chapter, or at least the surrounding paragraphs, one would know what kind of restrictions Smith has in mind: they are all about restraining the issue of paper money! What view of paper money could be farther away from Krugman’s views on this subject?

So what does Smith say? This is the very next paragraph in Wealth of Nations:

A paper money consisting in bank notes, issued by people of undoubted credit, payable upon demand without any condition, and in fact always readily paid as soon as presented, is, in every respect, equal in value to gold and silver money; since gold and silver money can at any time be had for it. Whatever is either bought or sold for such paper, must necessarily be bought as cheap as it could have been for gold and silver.

In simpler words: Bank notes with 100% gold or silver backing are as good as gold or silver. What about notes with less than 100% backing? One paragraph later:

It would be otherwise, indeed, with a paper money consisting in promissory notes, of which the immediate payment depended, in any respect, either upon the good will of those who issued them; or upon a condition which the holder of the notes might not always have it in his power to fulfil; or of which the payment was not exigible till after a certain number of years, and which in the mean time bore no interest. Such a paper money would, no doubt, fall more or less below the value of gold and silver, according as the difficulty or uncertainty of obtaining immediate payment was supposed to be greater or less; or according to the greater or less distance of time at which payment was exigible. [“Exigible” is an old word which, according to my dictionary, means “able to be exacted; demandable; requirable”.]

Again in simpler words: Bank notes with less than 100% backing (or where the gold/silver backing for some reason is uncertain) are not as good as gold or silver.

So how can modern Keynesians – who dismiss gold as a “barbarous relic” – invoke Adam Smith and pretend he was on their side? Krugman is simply counting on his readers’ ignorance.

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It is a fashionable game among “social liberals” to quote Adam Smith out of context in order to insinuate that he was in favor of interventionist measures. Here is another example, which I routinely encounter in Sweden. They take the following quote (from p. 128 in the Cannan edition):

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

This sentence is taken to mean that Adam Smith was well aware of “market failures” and would approve of such interventions as price controls and anti-trust laws. But in this case, they do not even bother to ignore some earlier or later paragraphs in Smith’s text; they ignore the very next sentences in the same paragraph:

It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though they cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary. [Emphasis added.]

Smith then goes on to describe in some details how such assemblies are rendered necessary. But the main point here is that Smith advocates less government intervention, not more.

(Scandinavian readers may read this essay of mine on this subject from 1982.)

Late update (April 6, 2012): Stuart Hayashi blogged on this subject on the same date this was published with a link to this post. I didn’t see this until today.