Voluntarism, Social Anarchism and Coercive Expropriation

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A common set of questions by Anarcho-Capitalists to Anarchists is something along the lines of ‘would you use coercion in order to prevent capitalism? And if you would does that not contradict your alleged Anarchism?’ The Anarcho-Capitalist asks this question for two reasons. The first reason is that they believe that Anarchism is the political philosophy that is opposed to coercion, rejects the state because it is coercive and consequently advocates a stateless voluntary society[1]. The second reason is that they believe that socialism is almost always based on coercion against capitalism. Thus, their question is asking, how can one believe in coercing capitalists while nonetheless advocating a voluntary society? In this essay, I shall first assume that  capitalism can exist without the state and is voluntary and answer the Anarcho-Capitalist question by arguing that there is no contradiction between advocating coercion and being an Anarchist in the sense that Social Anarchists use the term. I thus wish to argue that even if capitalism is voluntary Social Anarchists ought to prevent capitalism through, although not necessarily through, coercive means. In short, I shall be arguing that Social Anarchists should not advocate an entirely voluntary society, only a predominately voluntary society.

Voluntary Association VS Free Association

The Anarcho-Capitalist definition of voluntary association is derived from their definition of ‘coercion’ (or ‘force’ or ‘aggression’, the terms are usually used interchangeable by Anarcho-Capitalists). They define ‘coercion’ as the “initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else”. Given this definition an action is defined as voluntary if the agent does not perform the act because they were coerced. Anarcho-Capitalists believe that stateless laissez-faire capitalism is a voluntary society in the sense that it is a society which is not based upon coercion. For example, Rothbard writes in ‘For A New Liberty’ that, “The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the nonaggression axiom.”[2] In virtue of accepting this principle, “The libertarian favors the right to unrestricted private property and free exchange; hence, a system of laissez-faire capitalism.”[3] While in ‘Man, Economy and State’ Rothbard writes that, “Agreements by individuals to make exchanges are called contracts, and a society based on voluntary contractual agreements is a contractual society. It is the society of the unhampered market.”[4] Thus, Rothbard adheres to the non-aggression principle and consequently advocates a voluntary society based on voluntary association and contracts between individuals. Rothbard believes that such a society would be a system of laissez-faire capitalism.

At first appearance, it can seem that Social Anarchists too believe in such a voluntary society and that individuals should be free to voluntarily associate in any given manner. Kropotkin writes that in an Anarchist society “harmony [is] obtained… by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being.”[5] While Berkman writes that under anarcho-communism “You are to be entirely free, and everybody else is to enjoy equal liberty, which means that no one has a right to compel or force another, for coercion of any kind is interference with your liberty.”[6]

Nevertheless, such a first appearance may be a false one. This is because all Social Anarchists believe in the expropriation of the private property of capitalists by the organised working class and peasantry. For example, Kropotkin argued that the anarchist revolution aims at “abolishing the exploitation of man by man” via “the complete expropriation of all those who have the means of exploiting human beings”[7] That is to say “everything that enables any man — be he financier, mill-owner, or landlord — to appropriate the product of others’ toil.”[8] Thus an Anarchist revolution “would take care not to touch the holding of the peasant who cultivates it himself …without wage labour. But we would expropriate all land that was not cultivated by the hands of those who at present possess the land.”[9] The involuntary nature of this expropriation is made apparent by Schmidt and Walt who write that, “to allow the ruling class to retain its privileges until it is willing to concede to anarchism, on the grounds that everyone must enter anarchism voluntarily, is to provide that class with a permanent veto on the emancipation of the great majority of humanity.”[10]

The principle that one ought to expropriate private property in the transition from capitalism to socialism also seems to apply to instances of private property that may re-emerge within socialism because the principle is grounded in the belief that it is just to expropriate property based on exploitation. Clear evidence of this is that Kropotkin writes that, “when we see a Sheffield cutler, or a Leeds clothier working with their own tools or handloom, we see no use in taking the tools or the handloom to give to another worker. The clothier or cutler exploit nobody. But when we see a factory whose owners claim to keep to themselves the instruments of labour used by 1,400 girls, and consequently exact from the labour of these girls …profit…we consider that the people …are fully entitled to take possession of that factory and to let the girls produce . . . for themselves and the rest of the community …and take what they need of house room, food and clothing in return.[11] 

To an Anarcho-Capitalist, it will appear contradictory that Social Anarchists, on the one hand advocates a society based on free agreements and on the other hand advocates coercion against a certain type of agreement – the agreement between worker and capitalist – and advocates the use of coercion in order to destroy the material basis for such agreements, namely private property. Such a contradiction only emerges if we (a) consider the agreement between worker and capitalist to be a free agreement, believe private property to be non-coercive and not reliant upon state enforcement or if we (b) believe that Social Anarchists seek to promote an entirely voluntary society. Given that I am assuming for the sake of argument that private property is non-coercive and that capitalism can be voluntary I must reject (b) and argue that Social Anarchists do not seek or at least should not seek an entirely voluntary society.

I do not believe that it can be argued that the classic Social Anarchist thinkers believed that they were advocating a non-voluntary society. Rather they viewed Capitalism as stemming from violence and the state and so thought Capitalism to be inherently involuntary. Malatesta wrote that the capitalists “have taken what they possess by force”[12]. While Berkman argued that since “the whole system of law and government upholds and justifies [the] robbery” of capitalism, “when government is abolished, wage slavery and capitalism must also go with it, because they cannot exist without the support and protection of government“[13]. The closest, to my knowledge, that any classic Social Anarchist thinker comes to the conclusion that Social Anarchists advocate a non-voluntary society is Malatesta’s insistence that anarchists advocate restricting the freedom of those who restrict the freedom of others. He writes that anarchists support “freedom for everybody … with the only limit of the equal freedom for others; which does not mean … that we recognise, and wish to respect, the ‘freedom’ to exploit, to oppress, to command, which is oppression and certainly not freedom.”[14] And he later claims that  one must have a “right and the possibility to live in a different regime, collectivist, mutualist, individualist — as one wishes, always on the condition that there is no oppression or exploitation of others.” Given that the reason Malatesta offers for restricting the freedom of others is to stop exploitation and oppression and that exploitation and oppression can occur within voluntary associations, it follows that individuals have the duty to restrict the freedom of those who are exploiting and oppressing others even if it is within a voluntary association. One way that one can stop such exploitation and oppression is through coercion.

This point can be clarified by a distinction between two sorts of association. An association is voluntary if and only if those who comprise the association were not coerced into associating into it. An association is free if and only if it is a voluntary association and if those who comprise it are free within it. Thus while all free associations are voluntary associations, not all voluntary associations are free associations.  In order for an association to be shown to be voluntary but not free it is not sufficient to merely point out that certain members of the association are unfree because they could be unfree as a result of events outside of the association which the association is not contributing to. Thus, it is a sufficient condition of a voluntary but unfree association that there is a relevant causal link between the particular person’s unfreedom and the association. Concretely, a tennis club is not a voluntary unfree association if a member is unfree because of an abusive partner; while an abusive relationship in which a person is not coerced into staying within it, is a voluntary unfree association.

If we apply Malatesta’s principle to this distinction individuals possess the right to free association but not unfree voluntary association. In instances of unfree voluntary association others have the moral duty to stop the freedom limiting occurring within the association, either by enabling those who are unfree to leave the association, abolishing the association itself or by removing the freedom limiting person(s) from the association.

Moral Rights and Indirect Consequentialism

This position outlined above can be further clarified with the use of basic normative ethics within analytic philosophy. To do so I must first explain two theories within normative ethics. The first ethical theory is rights theory.[15] Rights are usually defined as entitlements to perform or not perform certain actions or entitlements that others perform or not perform certain actions.  Every right has four elements. Firstly, every right has a subject, meaning the holder or bearer of the right. Secondly, an object, which is the person or persons against whom the right is held. Thirdly, the content, as in what the right to do or have done is. Fourthly, the strength, which is the rights level of resistance to rival normative considerations. To illustrate this, the inalienable right of Jim to not be tortured can be broken down into its subject, Jim, its object, all other people capable of having duties, its content, not to be tortured, and its strength, it cannot be overturned by any other rival normative consideration as it is inalienable. Rights can further be broken down into different sorts of rights. Moral rights are rights grounded in moral reasons, legal rights are rights derived from the law and customary rights are rights derived from convention.

The second ethical theory is Consequentialism[16], which is the ethical theory that places primary emphasis on the ends which actions are aimed to promote, or what is usually called ‘the good’. What actions are right to perform and what people should be like can then be understood in terms of the extent to which a given action or a given character trait promotes the good. Consequentialism is thus the position that the correct moral response by an agent to a value that is identified as being good is to promote it. The goal of ethics is therefore to promote the good, whatever that is. Different theories of consequentialism emerge depending upon what the good is taken to be and how it is thought that we should go about promoting the good. What the good is taken to be can be anything which can be promoted, for example one could argue that the good is the number of dogs the Queen owns such that an action is the right action to the extent to which it increases the number of dogs that the Queen owns. This is not to say that such a theory of the good would be remotely plausible or persuasive but that such a theory could be outlined in a consequentialist framework. Perhaps the most historically famous consequentialist theory of the good is utilitarianism, according to which the good is utility. However, there have been other plausible consequentialist theories of the good, such as respect for persons, freedom or dignity. Some consequentialists are pluralists whereby they believe there are multiple goods which ought to be promoted, while others are monists who believe that there is a single good which ought to be promoted.

The good may be pursued directly, by aiming at promoting it at every instance, or indirectly, by aiming at other goals whose accomplishment achieves the ultimate goal of promoting the good. An obvious example of such an indirect approach would be the goal of happiness. In order to achieve the goal of happiness it is best to aim to achieve other goals whose fulfilment results in happiness, such as engaging in fun activities or speaking with people whose company you enjoy. The usual line of argument for indirect consequentialism is that agents are fallible, at least in the heat of decision making, and that as a result of this, were moral agents to promote the good directly, by calculating which action produced the best consequences any time they made an ethical decision, the good would not ultimately be promoted as people would make poor decisions. Thus, agents may best promote the good in behavioural choices if they restrict the tendency to calculate the consequences of their actions to only very specific circumstances, such as disaster scenarios, and so not calculate in day to day decision making. In everyday scenarios, or moral dilemmas that are not disaster scenarios, agents should accept and internalize a set of constraints on their direct pursuits whose adherence generally promotes the good. If one advocates pursuing the good directly then there is no room for rights theory in the promotion of the good. While if one advocates pursuing the good indirectly, then rights theory can serve an important role as a set of constraints on one’s direct pursuits.  Hence in order to make room for rights one must advocate an indirect approach.

On the assumption that such an indirect approach is correct, we can adopt moral rights as our constraints. If we do this, a moral right will count as genuine just in case its recognition within some conventional rule system is morally justified, where the standard of justification is promotion of the good. For example, in general the moral right to not be tortured promotes the good and as a result people ought to internalise the moral right to not be tortured as a constraint on day to day actions, such that all people have a moral right to not be tortured and moral agents have a duty to not torture any given person. Thus, when making moral decisions the moral right to not be tortured acts as a defensive barrier to other normative considerations and cannot, except in specific circumstances, be overridden by rival normative considerations. This means that one cannot generally seek to promote the good via torture because torturing violates a person’s moral right to not be tortured. Thus even if torturing a person would result in better consequences than not torturing them, on this view it would still be immoral to torture them. Nevertheless, since it is the case that within a consequentialist framework no moral right is inalienable, because all moral rights are justified in reference to their promotion of the good, it would be moral to torture a person if the normative consideration was greater than the right’s strength.  Perhaps in the case of torture, it is moral to torture a person if and only if doing so overwhelmingly promotes the good. An obvious example would be torturing someone when doing so will almost certainly prevent a nuclear war resulting in nuclear winter.

Given this ethical framework, Social Anarchists can argue that individuals possess the moral right to voluntary association but that the strength of this moral right is up to the point whereby the association is a voluntary unfree association. At this point, other normative considerations, namely stopping unfreedom and specifically domination and exploitation, override the moral right to voluntary association such that the moral right to voluntary association of individuals who are making other individuals unfree no longer trumps the normative consideration of promoting the good via coercion.

Of course how one ought to act in promoting these other normative considerations varies according to the sort of association in question and the type of unfreedom occurring. Obviously one will respond differently to a verbally abusive partner than to a capitalist. In instances of voluntary unfree association, where coercion is an appropriate means of promoting overriding normative considerations, there is a prima facie case to use coercion. This does not mean that coercion is always the most just or the most efficient or the only means of promoting these overridden normative considerations.  Whether it is can only be decided after an analysis of the specific concrete event in question and the predictable consequences of the known possible actions and the extent to which said consequences promotes the good or not.

There may for example be situations where preventing private property via non-coercive means are superior to coercive means. For example, were an individual to set up a capitalist workplace within an anarchist society, anarchists would not necessarily have to resort to expropriation. Rather the Anarchists could spread propaganda among the workers informing them that they could work in a nearby federation and so encourage the workers to leave the capitalist workplace, or they could out-compete the capitalist workplace by selling the relevant commodities at a far lower price, or distributing them for free according to need. Both of these actions, if successful, would give the capitalist no choice but to close his firm and so cease to exploit workers as he would have little to no workers and little to no market share.

Indeed many Anarchists doubt that anybody would work for a capitalist under socialism in the first place. Kropotkin wrote that, “an anarchist society need not fear the advent of a Rothschild who would settle in its midst. If every member of the community knows that after a few hours of productive toil he will have a right to all the pleasures that civilization procures, and to those deeper sources of enjoyment which art and science offer to all who seek them, he will not sell his strength for a starvation wage. No one will volunteer to work for the enrichment of your Rothschild.”[17]

But were a capitalist business to grow within an Anarchist society, despite the attempts by Social Anarchists to non-coercively prevent its growth, Social Anarchists would have a moral obligation to promote the normative considerations of stopping exploitation, domination and unfreedom via coercive means, on the condition that the use of coercion would result in a greater promotion of the good than were coercion to not be used. This coercion would not be targeted against the workers but the Capitalist, via the expropriation of her private property, and if necessary those who defend via violence the Capitalist’s claim to private property. This is because the moral right to voluntary association is only overridden, in this instance, if one is exploiting and dominating others, and since the workers are not doing this, were a Social Anarchist to coerce any worker they would be violating the workers moral right. It is also crucial to note that the Capitalist would not be sent to a prison, or a work camp or killed. The only thing that would happen to her is that she will be deprived of her private property, which is her means of exploiting and dominating workers, and possible banned from entering into any Anarchist federations because she is an enemy of the working class.

In summary, in virtue of an indirect consequentialist approach to ethics, individuals possess a moral right to voluntary association. This moral right trumps any normative consideration that the good ought to be promoted via coercion, except in instances of voluntary unfree association, in which case the moral right is overridden by the normative consideration of preventing unfreedom and specifically domination and exploitation. Although coercion is only justified prima facie and in any given concrete situation whether or not the good of preventing unfreedom will best be promoted via coercion can only be decided via an analyses of the situation itself and the predictable consequences of the known possible actions and the extent to which said consequences promotes the good or not.

Freedom as A Social Phenomenon

It should by now be clear that Social Anarchists advocate restricting an individuals freedom in order to prevent them from limiting the freedom of others, that is producing some unfreedom in order to create far more freedom overall. This view can be better understand when we consider the broader Social Anarchist attitude to freedom.

Social Anarchist believe that freedom is a social phenomenon and arises only in society and the relations between individuals. Bakunin wrote that, “freedom itself, the freedom of every man, is the ever-renewed effect of the great mass of physical, intellectual, and moral influences to which this man is subjected by the people surrounding him and the environment in which he was born and in which he passed his whole life.”[18] Moreover, “man completely realizes his individual freedom as well as his personality only through the individuals who surround him, and thanks only to the labor and the collective power of society…Society, far from decreasing his freedom, on the contrary creates the individual freedom of all human beings. Society is the root, the tree, and liberty is its fruit.” From these remarks, it follows that “I can feel free only in the presence of and in relationship with other men.”[19] It is further believed by Social Anarchists that freedom understood as such is not maximised by any form of organisation one could care to imagine, but arises and grows to great heights only under conditions favourable to liberty. Social Anarchists believe that such favourable conditions are a decentralised, non-hierarchical, stateless socialist society.

Given these beliefs Social Anarchists can understand restricting the freedom of those who organise in a centralised, hierarchical and capitalist manner as preserving the conditions from which freedom is maximised via limiting the freedom of those who threaten said conditions. Social Anarchists therefore believe that it is legitimate and just to restrict freedom if freedom would destroy the very conditions from which freedom itself arises. On this account, Social Anarchists advocate a society comprised primarily of free association with elements of coercion and freedom limiting as one of the means by which the free associations are protected from far greater coercion, tyranny and domination.


I shall conclude by answering the Anarcho-Capitalist questions directly. In answer to the first question, ‘‘would you use coercion in order to prevent capitalism?’, any Social Anarchist must answer yes and given their strong commitment to preventing exploitation answer so even in instances of voluntary capitalism because exploitation is exploitation, be it voluntary or involuntary and that while one possesses the moral right to free assocation one does not possess the moral right to unfree voluntary association. In answer to the second question, ‘if you would does that not contradict your alleged Anarchism?’, Social Anarchists must answer no because in prohibiting capitalism via coercion, and thereby limiting the freedom of another, they are promoting greater overall freedom via ending the domination and exploitation of workers, and protecting the conditions from which freedom itself is maximised.

I wish to end by stating that I hope that the theory I have outlined in this essay enables Social Anarchists to better understand and articulate these answers, and is not seen merely as intellectualizing of no worth to political anarchism. I wish also to note that I am well aware that this theory is insufficient to justify these conclusions, as it rests on the premise that capitalism is exploitative, a premise that has not been defended in this essay. The defence of this premise must be made either by economists who articulate and defend a theory of exploitation based on the extraction of surplus value or some non labour theory of value equivalent such as John Roemer’s theory of exploitation, or by ethicists who articulate and defend a theory of exploitation based on some moral notion of exploitation such as taking advantage of.

[1] For a critique of this account of Anarchism see my ‘Anarchism Is More Than Anti-Statism Parts 1 & 2’

[2] Rothbard, For A New Liberty, p27

[3] Rothbard, For A New Liberty, p28

[4] Rothbard, Man, Economy and State, p91

[5] Kropotkin, ‘Anarchism From The Enclopedia Brittanica 1910

[6] Berkman, What is Communist Anarchism

[7] Kropotkin, Words of A Rebel p206, 207

[8] Kropotkin, Conquest of Bread p61

[9] Kropotkin, Words of A Rebel p214

[10] Schmidt and Walt, Black Flame, p203

[11] Kropotkin, Act For Yourselves p105

[12] Malatesta, At The Cafe

[13] Berkman, What is Communist Anarchism

[14] Richards (Ed.); Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p53

[15] For more information see Sumner, ‘Rights’,

[16] For more information see Pettit, ‘Consequentialism’, A Companion to Ethics p230

[17] Kropotkin, Conquest of Bread

[18] Maximoff, (Ed.); The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism, p167

[19] Bakunin, Man, Society and Freedom

Written by anarchopac

January 5, 2014 at 9:03 pm

Interesting Ideas – Mill on Co-ops

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In Principles of Political Economy Part II, chapter VII: On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes, Mill writes about co-ops.

He  argues that, “The form of association, however, which if mankind continue to improve, must be expected in the end to predominate, is not that which can exist between a capitalist as chief, and work people without a voice in the management, but the association of the labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers elected and removable by themselves.”

He writes later that, “The other mode in which co-operation tends, still more efficaciously, to increase the productiveness of labour, consists in the vast stimulus given to productive energies, by placing the labourers, as a mass, in a relation to their work which would make it their principle and their interest—at present it is neither—to do the utmost, instead of the least possible, in exchange for their remuneration. It is scarcely possible to rate too highly this material benefit, which yet is as nothing compared with the moral revolution in society that would accompany it: the healing of the standing feud between capital and labour; the transformation of human life, from a conflict of classes struggling for opposite interests, to a friendly rivalry in the pursuit of a good common to all; the elevation of the dignity of labour; a new sense of security and independence in the labouring class; and the conversion of each human being’s daily occupation into a school of the social sympathies and the practical intelligence.”

He believes that labour and capital will be able to and should co-exist, “Under the most favourable supposition, it will be desirable, and perhaps for a considerable length of time, that individual capitalists, associating their work-people in the profits, should coexist with even those co-operative societies which are faithful to the co-operative principle.” This is because “Even in ordinary business, the competition of capable persons who in the event of failure are to have all the loss, and in case of success the greater part of the gain, will be very useful in keeping the managers of co-operative societies up to the due pitch of activity and vigilance.”

But he thinks, “When, however, co-operative societies shall have sufficiently multiplied, it is not probable that any but the least valuable work-people will any longer consent to work all their lives for wages merely; both private capitalists and associations will gradually find it necessary to make the entire body of labourers participants in profits. Eventually, and in perhaps a less remote future than may be supposed, we may, through the co-operative principle, see our way tooi a change in society, which would combine the freedom and independence of the individual, with the moral, intellectual, and economical advantages of aggregate production; and which, without violence or spoliation, or even any sudden disturbance of existing habits and expectations, would realize, at least in the industrial department, the best aspirations of the democratic spirit, by putting an end to the division of society into the industrious and the idle, and effacing all social distinctions but those fairly earned by personal services and exertions. Associations like those which we have described, by the very process of their success, are a course of education in those moral and active qualities by which alone success can be either deserved or attained. As associations multiplied, they would tend more and more to absorb all work-people, except those who have too little understanding, or too little virtue, to be capable of learning to act on any other system than that of narrow selfishness . As this change proceeded, owners of capital would gradually find it to their advantage, instead of maintaining the struggle of the old system with work-people of only the worst description, to lend their capital to the associations; to do this at a diminishing rate of interest, and at last, perhaps, even to exchange their capital for terminable annuities. In this or some such mode, the existing accumulations of capital might honestly, and by a kind of spontaneous process, become in the end the joint property of all who participate in their productive employment: a transformation which, thus effected, (and assuming of course that both sexes participate equally in the rights and in the government of the association)* would be the nearest approach to social justice, and the most beneficial ordering of industrial affairs for the universal good, which it is possible at present to foresee.”

Nor does Mill ignores how the state apparatus will be used to attack co-ops or that co-ops will have to resist crisis, as he writes “The vitality of these associations must indeed be great, to have enabled about twenty of them to survive not only the anti-socialist reaction, which for the time discredited all attempts to enable workpeople to be their own employers—not only the tracasseries of the police, and the hostile policy of the government since the usurpation—but in addition to these obstacles, all the difficulties arising from the trying condition of financial and commercial affairs from 1854 to 1858. Of the prosperity attained by some of them even while passing through this difficult period, I have given examples which must be conclusive to all minds as to the brilliant future reserved for the principle of co-operation”

Mill’s error seems to be in thinking that the state can be altered by parliamentary action such that it no longer is used to repress co-ops and that this anti socialist repression is because of the sort of government it is rather than because the state serves the interests of the capitalist class. Thus if we combine Mill’s liberal values with a revolutionary socialist analysis of the state, I don’t see how one can deny that socialism is the inheritor of classical liberalism.

Written by anarchopac

December 13, 2013 at 2:06 pm

Posted in Interesting Ideas

Do You Control Your Body? – A Response

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One of the first things many anarcho-capitalists and right-libertarians say when they come across people who claim not to own themselves is to ask questions like ‘do you control your body?’ In doing so they seem to believe that if you answer yes then you believe in self-ownership and that if you answer no then you do not believe in self-ownership and so believe that people should be free to do whatever they want to others, such as murdering or raping. The idea being that any sensible person will accept self-ownership since they don’t want their beliefs to entail that immoral actions are permissible. Both of these claims are false.

Before I explain why I must first define self-ownership. Rothbard defines self-ownership most clearly as “the absolute right of each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, to “own” his or her own body; that is, to control that body free of coercive interference.” For Rothbard “man has rights because they are natural rights.” A natural right is a right that an individual possesses irrespective of the right being enforced, recognised or there even being any mechanism of right enforcement. Thus to say that a person owns themselves is to say that they possess a natural right to exclusively control and hence own their body as property and in virtue of this ownership have a right to be free from coercion.

I shall now explain why both claims are false. The first claim is false because control and just ownership are distinct things. For example, the fact that a thief controls a bicycle does not negate the fact that someone else owns the bike. This is because ownership is not determined exclusively by control but also by individuals having the normative right to control. In the case of the thief, she cannot claim to own the bike not because she does not control the bike but because she lacks the normative right to do so. It is therefore not sufficient in an argument for ownership to merely point to the fact that a particular individual controls their body. One must offer arguments for why people ought to control their body and specifically for advocates of self-ownership, why people possess the natural right to control their body. Another reason why it does not follow from the fact that people do control their bodies that they ought to control their bodies is that to make this claim is to invalidly infer an ought from an is. Thus, one can quite consistently claim that one controls their body while nonetheless believing that they don’t possess a right to exclusively use and control it.

From this it follows that if by self-ownership we mean being able to control one’s body then self-ownership can no longer be used to argue for anarcho-capitalism and right-libertarianism. This is because a conservative could easily concede that people control their bodies while nonetheless insisting that the state ought to prevent people from engaging in homosexual acts, or a social democratic could concede that people control their bodies while arguing that private companies ought to be regulated by the state. It is because of this that anarcho-capitalists and right-libertarians must make sure to not conflate the ‘is’ of bodily control with the ‘ought’ of self-ownership.

The second claim is false for two reasons. The first reason is that it does not follow from the fact that people do not possess free will that people are morally insignificant and that there are no reasons not to interfere with other people. I shall demonstrate this with an analogy. It is arguable the case that sheep do not possess free will, but it does not follow from this alone that there are no reasons why people ought not to harm sheep. Since even though the sheep does not possess free will it can still suffer and this fact gives us reason to believe that sheep are morally significant in a way that a non living object such as a sock isn’t. Likewise, humans remain morally significant even if they do not possess free will, as they can still suffer and have their preferences violated. Given the moral significance of people, one could argue that people ought not to be interfered with, providing that they do not coerce others, because this has good consequences, such as people not suffering as a result of being coerced. The second reason is that that there is no contradiction between rejecting free will and accepting a very similar claim to self-ownership. One can argue that while it is true that people do not control their bodies people nonetheless possess a natural right to not be coerced because such a natural right does not rest on the truth of free will. Therefore, one can argue from a natural rights perspective and from a consequentialist perspective that people ought not to interfere with one another even if it is not the case that they freely control their bodies.

In summary, asking the question ‘do you control your body?’ is not an effective means of arguing for self-ownership because the answer yes entails control not self-ownership and the answer no does not entail that people should be free to do whatever they want.

Written by anarchopac

December 10, 2013 at 3:16 pm

A Critique of Rothbard’s Arguments For The Natural Right to Self-Ownership

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In this essay I shall begin by outlining self-ownership and then Rothbard’s version of self-ownership specifically. I shall proceed to assess whether or not Rothbard’s arguments for the natural right to self-ownership are convincing and conclude that they are not. I do not intend to show in this essay that i) self-ownership is a false position and that  ii) Rothbard’s arguments for the natural right to self-ownership cannot be used to show that self-ownership as a legal right ought to be enforced. I shall consider these points in the future.

Defining Self-Ownership

The term self-ownership tends to be used in three distinct ways yet for some reason they are often conflated as the same thing, when they are not.

1) Bodily Control : x controls their body
2) Non-Propertarian Self-Ownership: x has the moral right to exclusively use and control their body
3) Propertarian Self-Ownership: x has the moral right to exclusively use and control their body in virtue of the fact that they own their body as property.

I only consider propertarian self-ownership to in fact be a form of self-ownership. I do not consider bodily control to be a form of self-ownership because self-ownership is used in right-libertarian theory as a normative claim about what rights individuals have to do or not do certain things, it is not a descriptive claim about the fact that it is the case that people control their bodies. People controlling their bodies may be a premise in a sound argument for self-ownership and so be a necessary condition of self-ownership but it is not itself a form of self-ownership. To avoid complications in this essay I shall assume that people do consciously control their bodies. While I do not consider non-propertarian self-ownership to in fact be a form of self-ownership because ‘self-ownership’ contains the word ‘ownership’ and so implies a property relation and since it is non-propertarian it contains no such relation and so cannot be properly called a form of self-ownership. I shall instead call this bodily sovereignty. The fact that many anarcho-capitalists and right-libertarians use self-ownership to refer to both bodily control and bodily sovereignty only shows either their lack of reading on the subject or their inability to understand what they are reading. Having restricted self-ownership to the position that ‘ x has the moral right to exclusively use and control their body in virtue of the fact that they own their body as property’ I shall now outline Rothbard’s particular version of this position.

Rothbard’s Definition of Self-Ownership

Rothbard defines self-ownership most clearly as “the absolute right of each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, to “own” his or her own body; that is, to control that body free of coercive interference.” [1] Therefore, for Rothbard to own something is to control it. This interpretation is supported by Rothbard’s statements elsewhere, such as his claim that when an individual man “discovers the natural fact of his mind’s command over his body and its actions” he discovers “his natural ownership over his self.” [2] While the right-libertarian scholar David Gordon writes that by “ownership Rothbard means control” [3]. It would however be an error to infer from this that Rothbard is not an advocate of propertarian self-ownership but instead merely believes in bodily sovereignty. This is because in Chapter 1 of ‘The Ethics of Liberty’, he writes “[w]e shall be speaking throughout this work of “rights,” in particular the rights of individuals to property in their persons and in material objects.” [4]

But what exactly does Rothbard mean by a ‘right’? ‘In the ‘Ethics of Liberty’ Rothbard uses the definition of a right by James Sadowsky:

“When we say that one has the right to do certain things we mean this and only this, that it would be immoral for another, alone or in combination, to stop him from doing this by the use of physical force or the threat thereof. We do not mean that any use a man makes of his property within the limits set forth is necessarily a moral use” [5]

Moreover, Rothbard is an advocate of natural rights. ‘In the Ethics of Liberty’ he writes, “man has rights because they are natural rights.” [6] The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy defines a natural right as “[r]ights which belong to us simply because of our humanity and not because of any special legal, political, or social institutions.” [7] A natural right is therefore a right that an individual possesses irrespective of the right being enforced, recognised or there even being any mechanism of right enforcement.

To summarise Rothbard’s views, to say that a person owns themselves is to say that they possess a natural right to exclusively control and hence own their body as property and in virtue of this ownership have a right to be free from coercion.

Rothbard’s Arguments For Self-Ownership

I shall begin with Rothbards argument for self-ownership in chapter 2 of the ‘Ethics of Liberty’. His starting point is Crusoe alone on an Island with amnesia. Rothbard uses this scenario as a tool with which to explore what inescapable natural facts confront people as they begin to experience the world. After discerning certain basic inescapable natural facts, Crusoe introspects about his own consciousness and discovers his free will, that is to say “his freedom to choose, his freedom to use or not use his reason about any given subject”. He then also discovers “the natural fact of his mind’s command over his body and its actions: that is, of his natural ownership over his self.”[8] Here Rothbard appears to be arguing that in exercising control over his body Crusoe establishes his ownership of his body. This interpretation is supported by the fact that later Rothbard argues that if Crusoe mixes his labour with unclaimed land he transforms the land, that is to say he exercises control over the land, and thereby owns the land. Thus for Rothbard control of unclaimed objects entails ownership of said objects.

The error of Rothbard’s argument is that he asserts the truth of bodily control as if it were an argument for the right to self-ownership. The mere fact that a person does exercise control over something does not establish the normative proposition that they ought to exercise control over it let alone that they possess a natural right to own it. For example, the fact that a thief controls a bicycle does not negate the fact that someone else owns the bike. This is because ownership is not determined exclusively by control but also by individuals having the normative right to control. In the case of the thief, she cannot claim to own the bike not because she does not control the bike but because she lacks the normative right to do so. It is therefore not sufficient in an argument for ownership to merely point to the fact that a particular individual controls their body or exercises control over a piece of land. Rather, one must argue that either, said individual ought to possess the legal or customary right to own their body or the piece of land, or that they possess the natural right to do so. Rothbard has failed to do this, therefore his defence of self-ownership in chapter 2 of ‘The Ethics of Liberty’ is unconvincing.

Rothbard’s second argument is that humans possess the natural right to self-ownership because it ensures that individuals are free to perform specifically human actions. In ‘For A New Liberty’ Rothbard begins this argument by writing that,

“the nature of man is such that each individual person must, in order to act, choose his own ends and employ his own means in order to attain them. Possessing no automatic instincts, each man must learn about himself and the world, use his mind to select values, learn about cause and effect, and act purposively to maintain himself and advance his life. Since men can think, feel, evaluate, and act only as individuals, it becomes vitally necessary for each man’s survival and prosperity that he be free to learn, choose, develop his faculties, and act upon his knowledge and values. This is the necessary path of human nature; to interfere with and cripple this process by using violence goes profoundly against what is necessary by man’s nature for his life and prosperity. Violent interference with a man’s learning and choices is therefore profoundly “antihuman”; it violates the natural law of man’s needs.” [9]

He writes shortly later that,

“[s]ince each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation.” [10]

The problem with this argument is that Rothbard is not here arguing for the natural right to self-ownership. All his argument claims is that were humans to have the natural right to self-ownership then they would be free to perform certain actions and that this is a good thing because to stop people from performing these actions is ‘antihuman’. But this argument is not sufficient to demonstrate the natural right to self-ownership because it does not follow from the fact that the natural right to self-ownership is a means to certain desired ends that people do in fact possess this natural right. Just as it does not follow that people possess super human strength from the fact that were people to possess super human strength they would be free to perform new actions, such as lifting airplanes with their hands, and that being free to do so would be good. Moreover, one need not hold that the possession of a natural right is the only means to these desired ends.  One could argue that people ought to have the legal right to self-ownership because were people to have this legal right they would be free in certain respects, and this freedom would have good consequences, while people lacking this freedom would have bad consequences. Thus, Rothbard’s argument at best demonstrates that the right to self-ownership ought to be enforced because its social enforcement is a prerequisite to people having “the right to perform these vital activities without being “hampered and restricted by coercive molestation”. But it in no way shows that people do in fact possess the natural right to self-ownership.

Rothbard’s third argument is that out of the logically possible forms of ownership, self-ownership is the most persuasive [11]. He claims that either people fully own themselves or they do not. If they do not fully own themselves then there are only two other logical alternatives; either everybody owns each other or some group or person owns themselves and everybody else. The possible positions to take on the issue of self-ownership are therefore:

(i) libertarian self-ownership: each person is a full self-owner of their body.
(ii) Communist ownership: no person is a full self-owner of their body and each person has an equal part of the ownership of everyone’s body. Concretely this means that “an equal part of the ownership of A’s body should be vested in B, C . . ., and the same should hold true for each of the others”.
(iii) Class Rule Ownership: “one person or group of persons are entitled to own not only themselves but also the remainder of society”.

Rothbard rejects (iii) because it is not a universal ethical rule that applies to all humans because it requires that those who are owned are “subhuman beings who do not have a right to participate as full humans in the rights of self-ownership enjoyed by” their owners. He rejects (ii) because it is “physically impossible for everyone to keep continual tabs on everyone else, and thereby to exercise his equal share of partial ownership over every other man.” Even if it were not impossible it is “absurd to hold that no man is entitled to own himself, and yet to hold that each of these very men is entitled to own a part of all other men! “. He argues that a society organised on this principle would perish because people would not be free to act and so survive and that it would not be a desirable society because people would not wish to live in a society where they were not free “to take any action whatsoever without prior approval by everyone else in society”. Given that (ii) and (iii) have been rejected, and the only other logical alternative on the question of self-ownership is (1), (1) must be true.

This main problem with this argument is that the three options he lists are not the only logical alternatives. Perhaps the most obvious alternative for those who reject self-ownership is that individuals do not own themselves or anybody else. Yet Rothbard did not consider or respond to this alternative in either ‘For A New Liberty’ or his essay ‘Justice and Property Rights’ [12] where he repeats the above argument. Rothbard finally responded to the alternative nine years later in a footnote in ‘The Ethics of Liberty’. He writes, “since ownership signifies range of control, this would mean that no one would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly vanish” [13]. This argument is however not convincing. Rothbard makes the same error here that he does in chapter 2 of ‘The Ethics of Liberty’. He confuses control with ownership. Rothbard fails to realise during his discussion of self-ownership that while ownership implies control, control does not necessarily imply ownership. Thus, individuals may not own themselves but nonetheless control themselves. Given that this is the case, were people to not own themselves they would still have the capacity to control their body in the manner required for survival and so would not die out. One could even argue that people ought to be free to control themselves unless they perform certain freedom limiting actions, such as murdering another, because this has good consequences such as people not experiencing the suffering and preference violation that comes with one losing control over one’s body as a result of the actions of another. Rothbard has therefore failed to establish that libertarian self-ownership must be true as the other alternatives are not persuasive.

To conclude, none of Rothbard’s arguments for the natural right to self-ownership are convincing. The primary reasons being that Rothbard conflates control and just ownership and offers arguments for why the right to self-ownership ought to be enforced, not for why people do in fact possess the natural right to self-ownership.


[1] Rothbard ‘For A New Liberty’. p33-34

[2] Rothbard, ‘The Ethics of Liberty’. p31

[3] Gordon, ‘The Essential Rothbard’. p90

[4] Rothbard ‘The Ethics of Liberty’. p24

[5] Rothbard  ‘The Ethics of Liberty’. p24.

[6] Rothbard ‘The Ethics of Liberty’. p155

[7] Bunnin & Yu ‘The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy’. p457

[8] Rothbard, ‘The Ethics of Liberty’, p31

[9] Rothbard, For A New Liberty. p33

[10] Rothbard, For A New Liberty, p34

[11] The argument is first made in Rothbard, ‘For A New Liberty’ p34-35, second in Rothbard, ‘Egalitarianism As A Revolt Against Nature’, p97-98, and lastly in  Rothbard, ‘The Ethics of Liberty’, p45-46

[12] Rothbard, ‘Egalitarianism As A Revolt Against Nature’ p84

[13] Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, p45

Written by anarchopac

December 8, 2013 at 7:12 pm

Quick Thought – Why Rothbard’s Argument Against Voluntary Slavery Fails

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The argument that self-ownership entails voluntary slavery is as follows. If individuals possess the right to exclusively control the use of their person, then they also possess the right to voluntarily transfer the right of exclusive control to another person. To transfer this right would be to transfer one’s ownership of one’s self. To be owned by another is to be a slave. Therefore self-ownership entails voluntary slavery.

In chapter 19 of ‘The Ethics of Liberty’, as part of a discussion of legitimate contracts, Rothbard gives the following argument against the possibility of voluntary slavery:

“Suppose that Smith makes the following agreement with the Jones Corporation: Smith, for the rest of his life, will obey all orders, under whatever conditions, that the Jones Corporation wishes to lay down. Now, in libertarian theory there is nothing to prevent Smith from making this agreement, and from serving the Jones Corporation and from obeying the latter’s orders indefinitely. The problem comes when, at some later date, Smith changes his mind and decides to leave. Shall he be held to his former voluntary promise? Our contention—and one that is fortunately upheld under present law—is that Smith’s promise was not a valid (i.e., not an enforceable) contract. There is no transfer of title in Smith’s agreement, because Smith’s control over his own body and will are inalienable. Since that control cannot be alienated, the agreement was not a valid contract, and therefore should not be enforceable. Smith’s agreement was a mere promise, which it might be held he is morally obligated to keep, but which should not be legally obligatory.”

In short, voluntary slavery cannot occur for two reasons. Firstly, an agent cannot alienate their free will and therefore their control over their own body to another agent.  Secondly, given the first reason, another agent cannot control another agent’s free will and since control is a requirement for ownership, one agent cannot own another agent as property. Since the transfer of self-ownership cannot occur, voluntary slavery is not a legitimate contract but instead a promise to perform certain actions, and therefore ought not to be enforced by law.

The problem with this argument is that the debate over voluntary slavery is concerned with the transfer of the moral right to control permissible use, that is, the moral right to control which actions are or are not performed. Voluntary slavery is not concerned with the transfer of the psychological capacity to directly control a human body. Clearly one cannot transfer one’s free will to another and one person cannot own another person’s free will. However, these two truths in no way demonstrate that one individual cannot possess the moral right to exclusively control the body of another. In Rothbard’s example the Jones corporation does not own or control Smith’s psychological capacity to control his body, rather they possess the moral right to determine which actions Smith performs and Smith does not possess the moral right to determine which actions that he himself performs. Rothbard’s argument therefore misses the point and so fails.

Written by anarchopac

November 22, 2013 at 2:47 pm

Posted in Quick Thoughts

The Execution of the Haymarket Martyrs

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On the 11th of November 1887 the anarchists Engel, Fischer, Parsons, and Spies were executed by the American state. They were falsely charged with being responsible for the throwing of a bomb at police breaking up a demonstration despite there not being a shred of evidence to support these charges. They were innocent and murdered by the state.

Just before they were hanged Spies shouted through his hood “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!” “Hurrah for Anarchy” cried Fischer loudly, “hurrah for Anarchy” shouted Engel still more loudly, “This is the happiest moment of my life” exclaimed Fischer. There was a seconds pause and then Parson’s voice was heard, “Will I be allowed to speak, O men of America? Let me speak, Sheriff Matson! Let the voice of the people be heard! O-.” The sounds of Parson’s last words were lost in the loud bang of the plunging trap as the four men shot downwards together. Seven minutes and forty five seconds after the drop, all four anarchists were pronounced dead. The necks of none of the men had been broken, they had all died via slow strangulation.

The anarchists were buried on Sunday November the 13th. Their funeral began with a procession through Chicago’s streets. Huge crowds estimated at more than 200,000 lined the streets of downtown Chicago as the bodies were taken towards Wisconsin Central Station, from which the bodies would be taken by train to Waldheim cemetery along with the friends and families of the deceased. 10,000 people attended the burial. Nearly all wore badges made of red ribbon while the coffins were decorated in scarlet, the colour of anarchism and revolution, and even the bodies of the dead had been wrapped in red sashes.

The majority of Americans greeted the executions with approval and, except for labour and radical journals, the press exulted. For instance, the Chicago Tribune proclaimed “Law has triumphed over anarchy” and “Those who draw the sword against peace and law in this free country will perish by the sword.” While the Times of London praised “Chicago Justice” and commended the hangings as an example to be followed by the British state in dealing with labour unrest and looked enviously across the Atlantic where policemen carried revolvers and used them “without mercy when they see signs of resistance.”

Benjamin Tucker’s ‘Liberty’ contained the following tribute to the executed men. Below the masthead the entire front page was blank except for this verse from Byron’s ‘Marino Falerio, Dogs of Venice.

“They Never fail who die
In a great cause: the block may soak the gore;
Their heads may sodden in the sun; their limbs
Be strung to city gates and castle walls-
But still their spirit walks abroad. Through years
Elapse, and others share as dark a doom,
They but augment the deep and sweeping thoughts
Which overpower all others, and conduct
The world at last to freedom.”

Source: Paul Avrich – The Haymarket Tragedy

Written by anarchopac

November 11, 2013 at 9:47 pm

Quick Thought – Anarcho-Capitalism and Somalia

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A number of natural rights anarcho-capitalists argue that states are coercive because one cannot opt out of statism in general, only move to another state. Thus if one had the right to opt out of a statism, irrespective of one’s means to do so, then no state in which one had the right to opt out would be coercive because by staying in a state one would be tacitly consenting to the state and therefore not be coerced. Luckily for anarcho-capitalists everywhere, Somalia was defended as an instance of statelessness by Yumi Kim in 2006 and Robert Murphy in 2011. Therefore, as long as Somalia is stateless, no state in which people have the right to leave the state and live in Somalia is coercive, because one has the right to opt out of it. Thus any anarcho-capitalist who argues that states are coercive because one cannot opt out of statism tacitly consents to their state if they have the right to leave their state and live in Somalia. Given the fact that the majority of anarcho-capitalists live in the United States of America, e.g 69% of r/anarchocapitalism live in the U.S.A, and that in the United States one has the right to leave the state for Somalia, it follows that all American anarcho-capitalists tacitly consent to their state and therefore can no longer argue that taxation is theft, as they consent to be taxed by staying in the United States.

Written by anarchopac

November 8, 2013 at 8:53 am

Posted in Quick Thoughts


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