He commences his argument by offering an axiom that isn’t an axiom – at least not in the sense of a proposition that is irreducibly basic, self-evident, or requires no further elucidation, and can be combined with other statements to derive a system of propositions that is perfectly self-consistent.
Specifically, R. posits the non-aggression-”axiom”, which roughly states that aggression is admissible only when resorted to for the purpose of self-defence, i.e. to fend off transgressions against the own self and property legitimately associated to the self.
In order to derive a proof for the “axiom”, R. introduces the term self-ownership. Every human being is supposed to have “an absolute right to self ownership”. Self-ownership is nature-given; for if a person is denied the exercise of the right to self-ownership he cannot ensure his survival.
The only system of law that is truly compatible with a consistent, universalisable ethics must be based upon the idea of “absolute self-ownership.” The only alternatives to this system of law are (1) communism, and (2) the dictatorship of a minority over a majority, i.e. (ad 1) the ownership of all by all, or (ad 2) the ownership of all by a minority. R. supposes that in reality (1) leads to (2), while (2) is not an ethically acceptable regime of law as – of necessity – it precludes universal application of the law.
With his ethics of absolute self-ownership, R. believes to have elucidated a theory and an order of (natural) law that is entirely conclusive and morally impeccable.
Self-ownership is a demand of nature herself, a demand of natural law. He who violates natural law acts contrary to nature, contrary to natural law. Since the state curtails the right of self-ownership, the state is contrary to nature, contrary to natural law. Freedom requires that human beings can live according to their right of self-ownership; hence it is necessary to abolish the state if freedom is to prevail.
In my opinion, Rothbard’s argument can be shown to contain a number of errors. However, before turning to these flaws, a preliminary consideration is in order:
Human beings as individuals betray features of personal autonomy, i.e. certain qualities inhere in the individual that entirely depend on the specific person, and cannot be effected by or occur in anyone else but that specific person. Such features range from nature’s call to personal associations motivating specific human action.
To buttress his argument, R. highlights a subset of these features of personal autonomy, namely those that concern the individual’s ability to ensure his survival, declaring these to be manifestations of the nature-given self-ownership of each human being.
However, at this juncture of the unfolding argument already two errors have slipped in.
Considering the use by R. of the same term “ownership” in two different contexts, it is important to recognise the clear distinction between features of personal autonomy as anthropological phenomena as opposed to legal circumstances that are referred to by the term “ownership.”
From the fact that human beings reveal features of personal autonomy does not already follow which property rights prevail, which property rights are desirable or may be looked upon as desirable, or which property rights can feasibly be established given the historic conditions.
While features of personal autonomy are nature-given, it is not true that certain distinct legal or property relations are prefigured within these features. The kinds of ownership rights that an individual may have or considers desirable are determined by processes that are in no way specifically fixed by features of personal autonomy. Rather to the contrary, features of personal autonomy are encountered invariantly in the most diverse range of legal and property orders.
Casually speaking, the propertyless Neanderthaler was no different from propertied modern man in that he too could not have another man do his breathing in his stead.
R. does not take notice of the fact that anthropological self-ownership is first and foremost coerced ownership, imposed ownership, a gift one might happily accept in certain circumstances, while wishing it away in different circumstances, for it is not ownership of the fungible, not of the alienable type, while it is often burdensome, torturous, dangerous or deadly, like a man’s death by cancer that no other person can suffer in his stead.
Instead, R. highlights one-sidedly and arbitrarily those features of personal autonomy that play a role in ensuring survival, while at the same time overdrawing the role played therein by the individual’s mind and action, his free will in its capacity as a tool of survival.
As if in his efforts at survival, the individual were not also vitally dependent on factors that precede, make possible to begin with and indispensably complement personal autonomy. Man must be sired, born, raised and educated. All along he is dependent upon traditions and social relations that do not belong within the range of personal autonomy. Man’s dependence on influences that lie outside of the command of his personal autonomy entails the permanent need to accept, seek and adapt to constraints of his “right to absolute self-ownership.”
If there is indeed something nature-given among matters pertaining to the law, it is the need for man to incessantly and often severely curb his demands for self-ownership. Man needs to relinquish “absolute self-ownership” in order to survive. The exact opposite of R.’s contention that man has a right to “absolute ownership” since such ownership is needed to ensure his survival.
To be continued at Elementary Errors of Anarchism (2 of 2).