Self-Ownership and the Right to Say No

Dan Russell,

Release Date
August 30, 2013


Free Markets and Capitalism

Did you know you own a person? It’s you. When you own something, you have the right to determine who has access to it. This goes for your car as well as for your own body. While this may seem like a simple concept, it makes a big difference in how we live our lives.
Prof. Dan Russell uses an example to discuss how important self-ownership is. If we did not own our own bodies, we could be easily abused. Without self-ownership, others could try to use our bodies, our talents or abilities, or the things we produce for their own gain without our permission. Since we own our own bodies, however, people need our permission before they can have access to us or our talents or production.
If someone wants our help with something, we have the right to give that help freely or to say no. When it comes to our labor, we may make a trade with someone. We may, for example, choose to work for someone in exchange for monetary compensation. The point is, the choice is ours. We can say yes to arrangements that seem beneficial to us and we can say no to the things in which we don’t want to take part. And the right to say no and self-ownership are incredibly important to our everyday lives, although we may seldom realize it.

Milton Friedman – Self-Interest & Self-Ownership (video): Professor Friedman explains fundamental principles of Self-Ownership and self-interest to Phil Donahue
The Philosophy of Liberty Self Ownership  (video): An animated video on the principle of Self-Ownership
Rothbard’s Second Argument for Self-Ownership [article]: Rothbard’s argument for Self-Ownership in his book The Ethics of Liberty
Self-Ownership in The Ethics of Liberty [blog]: Jason Kuznicki breaks down the principle of Self-Ownership in The Ethics of Liberty
Sobel’s New Argument Against Self-Ownership [article]: Kevin Vallier breaks down David Sobel’s two arguments against Self-Ownership

Self-Ownership and the Right to Say No
Is it okay to own people? Actually it’s more than okay. Everybody owns somebody because we all own ourselves. When you own something, you have the right to decide who else has access to it. If you own a bicycle, people who want to use your bicycle have to get your permission. And it’s the same with your body. You can decide who has access to it. You have a right to say no. In other words, you own yourself. Now this is a very simple idea, but it makes a big difference in our lives. Let’s think about Fred.
Fred needs a new wall, and he’d like to enlist the help of George, Sam, and Jill. Now Fred gets a clever idea: Why not just stack them up and use them for a wall? Well that’s easy. George, Sam, and Jill are off limits. They’ve already been spoken for by themselves. They have a right to say no.
But maybe Fred is still in luck because as it happens George can drive a truck and Sam can carry heavy loads and Jill can even lay bricks. So maybe Fred has to leave their bodies alone, but can he use their abilities just whenever he wants and get his wall that way? Well again, no. People own themselves. They have their own lives to live and their own choices to make. We can use tools just whenever we want, but we can’t use people without their permission. People have a right to say no.
Well Fred’s really clever and he has a couple of other tricks up his sleeve. Maybe he could just wait until George, Sam, and Jill build a wall anyway and then come in and say it is his now. Or maybe he could let them go ahead and build their own wall and keep it, but only if they build another wall for him first. Would those things be okay?
Well the whole point of people having their own lives to live is that they get to make their own choices about what they want out of life and how they’ll get it. George, Sam, and Jill chose to use their time and their energy to build a wall to create something for their future. By just taking the wall, it’s as if Fred forced them to work for him anyway, to work for his future instead.
Now a much better idea would be for Fred to offer George, Sam, and Jill something that they want in exchange for the wall that he wants. That would take their ownership of themselves seriously. It would treat them with basic decency and it would let them all create more prosperous futures for themselves.