Strange Things Allegedly Believed by Others
“I see it’s ‘Dump on Libertarians Week’ again at Crooked Timber,” said the Stoic.
“Indeed,” said the Cynic. “It appears to be a regular feature there.”
“What is it this time?” asked the Stoic.
“The usual. Some libertarian said something stupid, and off they went,” said the Cynic.
“If only all ideologies had to police themselves so carefully,” said the Malthusian. “But who would do all the work?”
“Don’t ask the libertarians,” said the Academic. “They’re rather busy at the moment.”
“Better question: Who would listen when their own preconceptions were challenged, rather than the strange things allegedly believed by others?” said the Cynic.
“Well, let’s at least weigh the charges against the libertarians this time,” said the Capitalist. “What are they, anyway?”
“Libertarians,” said the Stoic gravely, “want to enslave us all.”
“Is it really that bad?” asked the Epicurean.
“Oh definitely,” said the Stoic. “Slavery sucks.”
“No — I mean — does the charge stick?” asked the Epicurean.
“Here’s the problem,” said the Stoic. And he read:
Libertarians – propertarians, anyway – rather notoriously maintain that you really ought to be able to sell yourself into slavery, if you want to. After all, you’re your property. You should be able to dispose of yourself as you see fit. (Some libertarians don’t go so far but many do. Nozick, for example. I think it’s pretty hard to resist this conclusion, in principled fashion, once you’ve bought the strong self-ownership principle.)
Now: suppose we drop, experimentally, just the libertarian ‘self-ownership’ assumption, while keeping the ownership model. Imagine a society in which everyone belongs to their parents, at birth. (Or, if their parents belong to someone, to their parents’ owners.) The libertarian logic of this is clear enough, I trust. (I don’t say all libertarians should be bound by logic to embrace this vision of utopia on the spot, but they ought to recognize libertarianism, minus assumed self-ownership, as a form of the philosophy they advocate, albeit an extreme form.) You didn’t make yourself. You are not the sweat of your brow. Someone else made you. And people are the sort of things that can be owned. So you are a made-by-someone-else thing. And made to be owned. Why shouldn’t you be born owned by whoever went to the trouble (two someones?)
It would be kind of fun to sketch a hyper-propertarian society, organized along these lines. It’s not obvious how such a society would work. Obviously it could work (or fail to) in a lot of different ways. It wouldn’t have to turn out radically differently than what we’ve got now. Most parents love their children, so they would free them – officially at birth, or when they turned 18 or whatever. But it could turn out quite differently, if different social patterns developed. You could have your free children and also your slave children, and you might regard them very differently.
“It’s a sorities problem, after a fashion,” said the Academic. “If you can sell bits of yourself, why can’t you sell it all? Libertarians are totally fine with you selling your labor, your real estate, your personal effects, your hair, your kidneys, your various privileges and capacities. Why not the whole hog?”
“And yet,” said the Stoic, “I’ve read the entire Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, cover to cover, several times, and I am not sure I find any support within it for the proposition that you can sell your entire self. Robert Nozick famously defended all sorts of things that aren’t necessarily parts of libertarianism, including everything from animal rights to some downright strange notions about the true purpose of yoga.”
“What?” they all asked.
“Never mind. No one reads that book anyway,” said the Stoic.
The Academic winced. “But everyone does read Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” he said after a moment, “and that book appears to defend the principle that voluntary slavery could be just fine in a libertarian world.”
“The animal rights bits are in there too,” said the Stoic, “but it’s not like they’re canonical either. Get a bunch of libertarians together, and animal rights is a sure-fire conversation-starter.”
“Do you mean to say that there are tensions, then,” said the Academic, “within libertarianism? Perish the thought!”
“Being unsure about slavery is one hell of a tension,” said the Skeptic.
“It would be a slavery unlike any other,” said the Academic. “The one Nozick imagines would certainly not be hereditary, or racial, and it would only be entered into by voluntary agreement. There would be none but happy slaves.”
“Really?” asked the Skeptic. “Isn’t that what they used to say in the South, too?”
“There are strong prudential reasons against even consensual slavery,” said the Malthusian. “It would be virtually the perfect disguise in which to hide non-consensual slavery. It may well be that this particular sort of freedom — the freedom to enslave oneself — is one that violates the law of equal freedom, because it tends to attack the freedoms of others who don’t want to be slaves. If so, then we’ve found our way out of the dilemma.”
“Also, consensual slavery attacks my own freedom,” said the Stoic. “Because if I decide to be a slave today, I might be happy with the decision. But if I change my mind next year, what am I to do? The master keeps all of his freedom, and he could release me if he wanted, but he might not want to. Meanwhile, my ability to leave the arrangement is nil. Not only that, but I’ve alienated a whole slew of rights commonly described as inalienable — my ability to try to acquire or alienate particular property being first on the list.
“We are no longer living, then, in a society of equal liberties, and that’s a serious red flag, isn’t it? Here I am, profoundly subject to the arbitrary will of another. It’s the very thing libertarianism wants most to abolish. This is why some rights can’t be surrendered, and hyper-propertarians forget it at their own peril.”
“It seems to me that this is a universal problem, though, and not one particular to libertarianism,” said the Academic. “Throughout the entire western legal tradition, there are two principles that stand in tension with one another: honor promises and honor individual autonomy. These principles clash with each other all the time, whatever your ideology is. The result, in practice, is known as contract law. Some contracts are kosher, others aren’t. The boundary changes all the time. Did you expect a sorities problem to have a neat, simple answer? But why is it, then, that the lack of a neat, simple answer — a problem common to all law systems in the West — falls solely on one very recent ideology, and not on western law as a whole?”
“A good question,” said the Skeptic. “But there’s another thing at work here, though, one we’ve neglected all along — the coercive power of the state. Without the state, a slavery contract isn’t a binding obligation. It’s just BDSM for lawyers.”
“Which should by no means be illegal,” said the Capitalist, a little too quickly.
“So one libertarian answer might look like this,” said the Skeptic. “Make your contracts. Whether or not they are enforceable, and how, will be decided by the community, according to norms of individual autonomy that are not necessarily of your own making, and that may give you more freedom than you claim to want. And remember, as you grumble about the libertarian polity, that most other polities have certainly erred in the opposite direction. We already know how that turns out, and we’re not interested.”