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

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


Why Rothbard’s Argument Against Voluntary Slavery Fails

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.

Rothbard’s Arguments Against Utilitarianism

In ‘towards a new liberty’ chapter 2 Rothbard makes among others two arguments against utilitarianism. The first is that if it is legitimate to apply value judgements to the consequences of x then why is it not equally legitimate to apply value judgements to x itself? May not certain actions be good or evil by their very nature? The second argument is that utilitarians do not adopt a principle as an absolute and consistent yardstick (other than utility of course) to apply to the real world and so use their principle as a vague guide line, tendency or aspiration. Historically this resulted in the fatal compromise of the libertarian creed and thus the failure of the British radicals to make progress towards liberty.

The first argument makes the question begging fallacy since it gives no reasons for why x can be inherently good or evil. The second argument isn’t in fact an argument against utilitarianism but actually is a utilitarian argument. He is stating that thinking in utilitarian terms has bad consequences since it ensures that liberty, whose implementation has good consequences, is not achieved. A utilitarian can therefore respond that if Rothbard’s argument is true then it maximizes utility to view moral rules as more absolute and less as rules of thumb. Therefore both arguments fail.

Although Rothbard’s understanding of utilitarianism is at least better than Molyneux’s…