Argumentation ethics and the question of self-ownership.

Author:Young, Andrew T.
  1. Introduction

    Do humans have rights? If so, why? Some argue that individual rights are ethically prior to the consequences that follow from them. Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard provide arguments along these lines. This perspective is also, broadly, that of natural rights theorists such as John Locke. For other libertarians, the ethical proof of the rights-based pudding is in the eating. Economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek advocate the provision of individual rights because they lead to a more prosperous society. Individual rights--in particular, well-defined and enforced rights to one's person and property--facilitate social cooperation. They are ethically desirable from what economist Leland Yeager (2001) has referred to as an indirect utilitarian perspective.

    As a libertarian, I admit that arguments for the ethical priority of rights have always been appealing. Inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property? As does The X Files' Fox Mulder, I want to believe. But questions regarding which rights are or are not natural or inherent or ethically necessary to our existence are fraught with difficulties. Yet, some libertarians have become enamored with various "proofs" of ethical priority that rely on what I will term gotcha! tactics. These tactics are designed to involve opponents (real or imagined) in alleged self-contradictions or other absurdities. As an economist, I find these tactics to be unproductive and distracting. There are strong theoretical and empirical cases to be made for the role of individual rights in a prosperous society.

    Rothbard (1998) provides an excellent example of what I would characterize as a gotcha! tactic with his argument that 100 percent self-ownership is the only permissible ethic. What if people are not 100 percent self-owners? Rothbard sees only two logical alternatives: (1) one group of people are owners of another group and (2) every individual is an equal part owner of every other individual (i.e., what he considers a "communist" ethic). Alternative 1 is rejected because it does not imply a universal ethic--one that applies to and for all individuals. That leaves option 2. According to Rothbard (1998, p. 46), here is the problem with it: "Can we picture a world in which no man is free to take any action whatsoever without prior approval by everyone else in society? Clearly no man would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly perish" (emphasis in original). You think you favor a communist ethic? Gotcha!--everyone's dead. Happy?

    As an economist, I find these sorts of tactics to be unproductive. There are strong theoretical and empirical cases to be made for the critical role that individual rights play in a prosperous society. However, making those cases involves acknowledging that the world is complex; not everything is black and white; not everything is reducible to an a priori punch line. Falling victim to a gotcha! tactic like Rothbard's is unlikely to convince anyone not already sympathetic to self-ownership. Among other objections, a critic can point out that Rothbard's natural rights approach is fuzzy on the distinction between discovering empirical versus normative truths about the world. (1)

    More recently, however, Hans-Hermann Hoppe (1993, 2004) attempts to reach precisely Rothbard's conclusion but via a non-natural rights approach. Hoppe aims to provide a rigorous argument for the ethical necessity of 100 percent self-ownership and properly appropriated private property as a solution to the problem of social order. Many libertarians have warmly embraced Hoppe's approach. My own undergraduate mentor, Walter Block, goes as far as to say this: "One would have thought that all libertarians would have received such doctrines as Hoppe's [1993] with extreme satisfaction. ... This is a magnificent book" (pp. 164-65). (2) However, I will argue that Hoppe's approach merely offers a different gotcha! tactic in place of Rothbard's. In particular, Hoppe claims that to deny one's 100 percent ownership of self involves an internal (or performative) contradiction. The claim does not stand up to scrutiny.

    This is not to say that Hoppe's methodology and conclusions should not be treated seriously. Many prominent libertarians have perceived the arguments to be forceful (e.g., Block 1996; Kinsella 1996; Eabrasu 2009; van Dun 2009). Also, this type of argumentation-based ethics is associated with the likes of Jurgen Habermas (1990) and has been defended in this context by the philosopher Frank van Dun (2006). (3) Furthermore, the approach in this context is certainly novel and gives rise to many thought-provoking insights. However, in Hoppe's analysis, argumentation-based ethics is employed ultimately to lay an intellectual snare trap for nonlibertarians--one...

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