Nozick’s libertarianism and self-ownership

Joshua Asked:

How does self-ownership relate to Nozick’s libertarianism?

Answer by Paul Fagan

In order to answer this question a reading of Robert Nozick’s work from his Anarchy, State and Utopia of 1974 is presented here. It will be ventured that self-ownership is an integral part of Nozick’s libertarianism and that his theorising is also very dependent upon accepting his notion of individuals’ rights.

To understand Nozick’s self-ownership, one must first accept that individuals own their talents absolutely; and such talents must never be considered to be a ‘collective asset’ held by society (p. 228). After this, one may accept that persons are ‘entitled to’ the products of those exercised talents and all of the holdings that subsequently arise (pp. 225-6). Following this, one may consider one’s produce as an extension of oneself, over which one has the full rights of disposal.

With regard to individuals’ rights, Nozick believed that persons should be recognised as ‘ends’ rather than ‘means’ (p. 31), and that individuals may never be used by others (pp. 31-2).    By applying these tenets to the extended self, as described above, then it is akin to a violation of one’s rights to have any of one’s produce expropriated. This recognition of the rights of others should ideally ‘constrain’ one’s own behaviour in one’s daily life (Nozick 1974: 29), as not to violate others’ property, and by doing, respect others’ extended selves. Hence, Nozick’s notion of rights may be interpreted as being a protecting guard for the concept of self-ownership.

At first glance, all of the above may seem both logical and intuitively sensible: people should be allowed to accumulate holdings, and naturally they should enjoy rights that protect their property. However, Nozick’s arrangement has been subjected to some very deep-seated criticisms and examples of arguments that attempt to undermine his theorising will now be provided.

Firstly, communitarians may maintain that before a talented individual may exercise her talents, a supporting society must exist in the first place. It is therefore, illogical to view a talented individual and her produce in isolation. Individuals and their produce are best considered to be an integral part of a community. Although, libertarians may claim that individuals constantly test their surroundings and therefore should not be considered to be cogs in a machine, it is apparent that the continued existence of varying, identifiable cultures would indicate that peoples’ values are strongly influenced by the greater society enveloping them (similar arguments may be found in Will Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy (2002, Oxford: OUP), pp. 225-6; although a wider discussion is provided in a section entitled ‘The Unencumbered Self’, pp. 221-8).

Secondly, some may argue that the untalented do not really have rights under Nozick’s arrangement as it effectively licenses starvation for the least talented who do not have enough ability to produce goods or sell their labour (Kymlicka, p. 119). Although Nozick would expect charity to prevail (p. 267), within a stringent regimen of self-ownership, it is a transparent fact that no one could ever be compelled to assist the least talented.

As presented here, self-ownership is at the heart of Nozick’s libertarianism and it is also protected by his notion of individuals’ rights. That said, it should be noted that convincing arguments, which weaken the perceived importance of either self-ownership or individuals’ rights, can threaten to discredit Nozick’s libertarianism.

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