The following exchange took place in early February, 2010.
GS: In your various writings, you identify with libertarian/anarchist principles, but also with some socialist principles… where do you stand on the issue of self-ownership? Do you think it is compatible with equality?
NC: It’s not a matter of “also.” A standard term for anarchism, outside the US, is “libertarian socialism.”
I’m not sure what you mean by “self-ownership.” Ownership of oneself is not challenged by anyone (except totalitarians). Self-ownership and self-management by workers and communities is a core commitment of libertarian socialism, especially its anarchosyndicalist wing, as of left Marxism and other left positions.
GS: Self-ownership, as you say, does mean simply the ownership of ourselves. Many libertarians would consider it a founding principle. At least as far back as Locke, ownership of the self was claimed, as was the ownership of one’s labor by extension.
I would disagree that only totalitarians reject this. Kant rejected it, Rawls rejected it (on the grounds that our talents belong to the community as a whole), and some modern socialists such as G. A. Cohen reject it. They prefer to embrace the idea of autonomy, which is similar but different. The socialist problems with it are varied. But one example is that if one owns their self (and by extension their labor), on what grounds can redistribution occur? Marx and others claim that capitalists can’t deny a worker the fruits of “his” labor, but on the same grounds a strict capitalist or libertarian could argue that socialist redistribution is equally denying the worker fruits of his labor, even if the purpose is more justified.
So, the question becomes: would you say that man owns himself and his labor, or that he has autonomy but no intrinsic rights to the products he creates?
NC: I wasn’t sure how you meant the phrase. I see now that you mean it in the sense of American “libertarians,” who are radically different from traditional libertarians, among them firm believers in unaccountable private tyrannies, the worst kind of tyranny. The idea of owning oneself in this interpretation simply a justification for robbing the public and concentrating on one’s own material gain. It’s unfair to Locke to attribute this to him.
Suppose, for example, you write a book on a computer and send it to a publisher by internet. Do you own it? Do you have a right to the profits? Why not those on whose labor you relied in doing all of this? For example, taxpayers, who funded the development of computers and the internet for decades, in fact virtually all of the high tech sector? And the same is true for any of the other fruits of your labor. We draw from the community in which we live in innumerable ways, and from the contributions of others who have done the same.
There’s a good study of this by Gar Alperovitz (Unjust Desserts), though the basic points are clear enough without his careful exposition and estimates of the vast extent of this reliance on others.
GS: Professor, I am in absolute agreement with you regarding Locke. I have been doing in in-depth study of property theory for a while and some (such as Robert Nozick) trace American libertarianism to Locke, whereas others have claimed that his theories are not in conflict with the tenets of democratic socialism. Exactly where I fall has not been determined yet, but clearly it would be an error to attribute to Locke any interpretation that cannot be proven definitively.
I am taking your words to mean the following: you do not see the principles of self-ownership and redistribution to be in conflict. You would say that man owns himself, but any labor or capital produced cannot rightfully be called “his” and therefore can justly be redistributed (preferably in a humanitarian fashion).
What of the basic philosophical objection of Kant: that a) only things can be owned, b) man is not a thing, so therefore c) man cannot be owned (even by himself). Is Kant wrong or is this merely a semantic issue?
NC: I agree throughout. Pinning Locke down is not easy, on most issues. He wasn’t a systematic thinker by modern standards. Take freedom of speech. He is considered a leading proponent — but not for “papists.” And his Constitution for the Carolines is grotesque in this regard. Kant’s point seems to me insignificant, a question of what we want to call “ownership.”
GS: Regarding Kant, yes, that is what I meant by “semantics”. Whether man “owns” himself or not really comes down to what ownership means in this regard.
I think strictly speaking he was right, and the modern distinction between self-ownership and autonomy comes clear here: some would say ownership only exists if something is alienable. Yet, I would think man cannot sell himself into slavery. If he did, his right to autonomy would overrule any ownership claims and he could “un-sell” himself at any time.
But this is mostly just marginal nitpicking and probably wouldn’t really change the rightness or wrongness of the grand ideologies of socialism, capitalism, etc.