Sunday, May 02, 2004

Richard Epstein on Self-Ownership versus Slavery

From "Simple Rules for a Complex World," by Richard Epstein [Page 54]

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. "Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all Men, yet every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his." He treated his position as a moral postulate, and not as a conclusion derivable from some other premise by some independent argument.

The conclusory case for his decisive premise has led other writers, most notably those who see a larger role for state control over both human and natural resources, to challenge his view by taking still a third tack. The centerpiece of John Rawls's magisterial Theory of Justice, published in 1971, is, after all, the proposition that the individual ownership of natural talents and abilities should be regarded as "morally arbitrary"; that is, though they may be taken into account in some extended scheme of political deliberation, they are hardly to be accorded any bedrock status.