Self Ownership Cannot Account For The Increased Freedom Of A Slave

For some anarcho-capitalists freedom is defined as being a full self-owner such that one is free in so far as one’s self-ownership is not being violated and are made unfree in so far as one’s self-ownership is being violated. Self-ownership is violated when one is coerced. Coercion is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else.

One problem with this approach to freedom is that it cannot account for increased freedom of a slave. Historically slaves lacked the right to issue complaints about their master in court but this right was granted under the Emperor Nero because of the advice of Seneca. Possessing the right to file civil complaints against their master increased their freedom in so far as an action that was previously not available to them became available. This increase in freedom cannot be explained in terms of the fact that they would no longer be prevented via coercion from complaining in court because there is a crucial difference between being prevented from breaking into a court room in order to complain about one’s master and being able to go through formal legal procedure against one’s master. The latter cannot be reduced to the absence of the former as it is not a wholly negative right but is a positive right. That is the slave is now free to do something and not just free from having something done to them.

Furthermore, the possession of this positive liberty in turn increase their power, where power is one’s capacity to get what one wants, since they now have the power to have their master legally disciplined for cruelty. This increase in power in turn increase their freedom from external constraints because while the obstacle of being owned and so being likely to suffer abuse from their master remains, their increase in power renders this obstacle less worrying. This is because if their master were to abuse them then they would have the power to discipline their master and given that the master would be aware of this fact, they the master would in turn be less likely to abuse their slave for fear of punishment. The right to complain before a court thus is both a positive right and so an instance of positive liberty and a right which in turn expands their negative liberty from external constraints. But a self-ownership view of liberty cannot even capture this because the increase in liberty is as a result of increase of one’s powers and not because of a fundamentally change in whether or not one’s self-ownership is being violated, after all the slave is still a slave.

From this argument we can infer that since the slaves freedom is clearly increased by having the right to issue legal complaints against their master and that self-ownership cannot account for this increase in freedom, it follows that self-ownership is an inadequate theory of freedom.

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