Self-ownership is a key concept in libertarian ideology. It means exactly what it sounds like: self-ownership is the idea that every person owns themselves.
This sounds like common sense but it presents some semantic challenges. Most people know they own themselves in the sense they have autonomy, that is to say they are not a slave.
But on the other hand, most people do not consider the idea that they own themselves like they would own an object.
To really understand what self-ownership means, we must first truly understand what ownership is. To most people, to own something means to have something. Most people can basically agree on who owns what and why.
For example, most people would agree that a person owns a car if they have the car’s title, or that they own the sofa in their house. However, when asked to elaborate on the specifics of ownership, most people do not consciously understand the deeper details of what it means to own something.
Everybody knows enough about ownership to get by in everyday life, but most people fall short in knowing how the idea of ownership can empower their own lives and how it can drastically improve the human condition.
What is ownership?
To own something is to have the right to control it. If you buy a sofa, then you own that sofa and can decide what you want to do with it.
You can then sell it to someone else, give it to someone as a gift, lease it to someone, or you can sit in it, destroy it, or throw it in your dumpster. In fact, you can do whatever you want with it as long as you don’t harm others in the process.
To own the sofa also means that nobody else is allowed to do anything to it without your permission; if they do then it’s called theft or vandalism. Even if a person “borrows” something that they do not own, it is still stealing if the actual owner doesn’t consent.
Ownership means you cannot suspend control based on a situation. Think of situations where someone says, “Oh I’ll just use it for a few days and then bring it right back before he even comes home,” or “He doesn’t deserve to have it because he is a millionaire and I need it more than him.”
Fairness is determined by who rightfully owns something, not how much someone needs something. Owners are entitled to the full control of the things they own and nobody is entitled to another person’s stuff whether they need it or just want it.
How do you own something?
There are two fundamental ways of owning something: Being the first person to use an unused resource or receiving something from someone else with their consent. In the case of owning yourself, you are the first user of your life and of your body so you own yourself.
This is expressed through self-control and free will. Only you can think your thoughts, say words from your mouth, move your limbs, or make your choices. Nobody else is responsible for what you think, feel, say, or do.
Ownership is not a social construct that humans invented. It is a natural phenomenon that even non-human animals exercise, such as ravens that hide their resources and trick would-be thieves into thinking their food storage is somewhere else.
Do you actually own anything?
Here’s the uncomfortable part: If owning something means having the absolute right to control it, then do you really own things such as your land if you have to pay a property tax on it, your business if you have to obey regulations on how to run your business, or do you even own yourself if you can’t choose to work somewhere for less than a minimum wage?
The answer is yes, in part: you still own yourself and those things, but your right to have absolute control over yourself and your property is being violated. In the current state of human society, nobody is free to express their right of ownership in full.
Anytime the right of ownership is violated, a crime is being committed against the true owner. If a car is stolen, the true owner misses out on their right to use their car until it is returned. If the car is damaged, the true owner misses out on enjoying the good condition their car was in before it was stolen.
A better way: true self-ownership
Thus comes the inevitable retort: “Okay, but we need regulations, taxes, and laws. Even though self-ownership sounds good, it isn’t practical.”
I will make the point that respecting self-ownership is more practical than whatever we do now. Since you have the final say over what you think, say, do, or feel, you are closer to knowing what is best for you and to achieving what you want out of life; others can only guess. Besides, if you are a fully-functioning adult, then your well-being is not anyone else’s responsibility.
Instead, they should worry about their own well-being. This is the most effective way to organize society and it is the most effective way to allow the greatest number of people to be the happiest they can be.
To that end, every human interaction should be consensual and all property rights should be respected. We tolerate necessary evils in society, but some necessary evils are in fact quite unnecessary and are simply a result of a lack of thinking.
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This piece was first published on the Students For Liberty website.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.