Saturday, March 13, 2004

Richard Epstein on "Self-Ownership"

From "Simple Rules for a Complex World," by Epstein [Pages 54 and 57]
The first of the rules is one of individual self-ownership, If you go around the world trying to figure out who owns each of us, you would find nothing writ in stone which says that self-ownership is a necessary truth. To put it another way, to deny the proposition of individual self-ownership is not to engage in any logical self-contradiction. Slavery may be an evil system, but it is not internally inconsistent. Yet this system is vastly inferior to a position of self-ownership, and the comparison of the two has led many authors in the natural rights tradition to posit the moral necessity of self-ownership. John Locke, for example, took the view that we could properly say that each person owns his or her own labor. "Through the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all Men, yet every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, is properly his." [Locke's Second Treatise of Government (1690)] He treated his position as a moral postulate, and not as a conclusion derivable from some other premise by some independent argument.

Even though talent, circumstance, and luck play a role in human behavior, we all are spared an enormous administrative burden if we mutually renounce any claim to these assets of others. A rule of self-ownership, far better than any of its alternatives, allows us to move on with the business of life. A rule of self-ownership selects the single person to be the owner of each person's natural talent, and picks that person who in the vast majority of cases tends to value those assets the most: each obtains control over his or her own body. At least for adults (and there are, of course, qualifications for children), the rule offers the shortest path from initial entitlement to productive human activity.