Libertarians and anarcho-capitalists argue that absolute self-ownership is a more consistent alternative on which to base freedom and laissez-faire economics, one that is better than a utilitarian justiﬁcation for liberalism (see for example Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty for the self-ownership argument and Ludwig von Mises’s Human Action for the utilitarian argument.) In addition, self-ownership serves as an essential foundational element for the libertarian non-aggression principle and the illegitimacy of taxation and the state.
However, while very sympathetic to the principle of self-ownership, I have had serious difﬁculty accepting certain of its logical ethical consequences and have wondered if there are other non-utilitarian and non-self-ownership philosophical alternatives that can serve as a more solid foundation to laissez-faire economics.
The utilitarian justiﬁcation for laissez-faire liberalism is open to the following criticism: Since utilitarians argue that objective ethics do not exist, they have no way of anchoring freedom in anything other than the whims of public opinion. But what if the majority believes in state interventionism or socialism or economic nihilism? asks Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty. What would prevent that majority from acting in ways contrary to the protection of private property, freedom, limited government and other values of liberalism?
Instead of public opinion, Rothbard sets out to base liberty on a universal rational ethical system and borrows from the work of John Locke the concept of self-ownership. Rothbard uses reductio arguments in which alternatives to self-ownership result in absurdities, hence claiming that self-ownership is the only logical conclusion. He considers two alternatives: one, partial ownership of men by one man or by a group of men, and two, common ownership of all men by all men. Because the ﬁrst alternative creates two classes of individuals, one group with rights, the other group with partial or no rights, the principle cannot be applied to all men universally, hence violating the requirement that he sets out to prove, that is, a universal rational ethic; therefore, Rothbard rejects it. Because the second alternative implies that no one could do anything without prior approval from everyone else, resulting quickly in the death of the human race, he rejects it too. He also argues that if every man violated someone else’s self-ownership by using violence to acquire control over that person’s self or private property, production would erode to the point of causing everyone’s death. In this way he deduces that absolute respect for someone else’s property and person are of paramount importance and that taxation and the state are illegitimate institutions.
Rothbard explored the ultimate consequences of absolute self-ownership in the case of the right of a woman over her fetus and the right of parents over their children. For example, the fetus is the “parasitic invader” of a pregnant woman, in which case the woman, because she owns her body, has a right to expel or evict the unwanted invader from her body, indirectly causing the unintended death of the fetus. Parents do not have the obligation to nourish or care for their children and can therefore cause the unintended death of their children, similar to the Roman practice of infant exposure.
Rothbard adds nuance to his position by stating that he is not trying to establish the morality of abortion and child abandonment, which is left up to the individual’s ethic, but its legality. I ﬁnd his distinction unconvincing. Any legal system is inexorably linked to an ethical system given that human laws emanating from a legislative body or opinions from a judge about the law presuppose categories such as private property, which require ethical judgements. Oddly, the objective of Rothbard’s project is to determine the morality of private property, not its legality. If abortion is a private moral matter protected by legislation or legal opinion, shouldn't theft be a private moral matter protected by legislation and legal opinion? And while Rothbard may have proven the immorality of theft, shouldn't its legality be a matter for legislation and legal opinion?
Moreover, because the condition of the human person exists in a spectrum of developmental ability, a bright line of distinction separating human beings as independent self-owners capable of reason, of use of language, of selecting ends and choosing means, does not exist. Rothbard does not make this argument, but logically then, an ethic based on absolute self-ownership must extend the same Rothbardian treatment given to the fetus and to children to other situations in which the person, while no longer a fetus or child, permanently or temporarily remains or regresses to a condition similar to that of a fetus or child incapable of self-ownership. These include cases of severe mental retardation or physical disability due to birth defects, advanced age, accidents, or disease.
Because these ethical consequences are logically and unavoidably derived from the premise of man’s absolute self-ownership of his body, contra Rothbard, I must reject self-ownership as a foundation to libertarianism. With Rothbard, however, I reject utilitarianism as the foundation for laissez-faire. With Rothbard, I also reject Kantian apriorism as a justiﬁcation for the axiom of human action. The axiom is essential to build the ediﬁce of laissez-faire economics and states that human action is the deliberate behavior to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs with a less satisfactory one.
The axiom cannot be grounded on Kantian apriorism because a priori propositions, like those of mathematics and causality, are empty and do not contain any empirical knowledge. The axiom of action does contain empirical knowledge given that it is derived, at least partially, from observation of empirical reality; therefore it cannot be an a priori proposition.
Having rejected all of these essential foundational elements, are there other alternatives that can be used as a solid foundation for libertarianism, laissez-faire liberalism and the axiom of human action? Rothbard himself hinted at a possible alternative. He wrote extensively about the historical connection between Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Late Scholastics of the School of Salamanca, and economic liberalism. This historical connection, for example, leads Friedrich Hayek to write:
The basic principles of the theory of the competitive market were worked out by the Spanish scholastics of the 16th century and that economic liberalism was not designed by the Calvinists but by the Spanish Jesuits!
Rothbard is sympathetic to Saint Thomas, concluding (as Aquinas would have), that natural law is discoverable by reason, that it is universal, absolute and immutable and that it provides objective ethical norms by which to gauge human actions. However, I cannot ﬁnd in Saint Thomas any justiﬁcation at all for absolute self-ownership. In fact, absolute self-ownership is contrary to Thomistic philosophy. This is because Aquinas starts from a rational proof that God exists and that God created man in His image, with intellect, intelligence, reason, and free will. Man cannot be an absolute self-owner because he cannot claim as his that which does not come from him, starting, most radically, from the fact that he is, that he exists, that he has being. While it appears to some that man acts as if he is the owner of his body, what Aquinas posits instead is the existence of a power in us, the will or rational appetite, that controls human actions voluntarily, that is precisely those actions which are in principle within the power of the agent and that have as their purpose an end that is known to the agent. In this manner, self-ownership as conceived by Locke and Rothbard is not only not necessary to explain control over human actions of the self but is even contrary to Aquinas’s system.
What about the non-aggression principle? This principle, essential to libertarianism, states that any initiation of aggression against others is illegitimate. For Aquinas, the relationship between man and his neighbor is the dominion of God because neither man is self-owned and because both are owned by God; therefore all men must radically recognize, respect, and not invade, the person of the other. Abortion and child abandonment are contrary to the principle of God’s ownership of all men, and so are slavery, voluntary slavery contracts, wars of conquest and aggression, indiscriminate killing of civilians, genocide, apartheid, etc. In addition, contra libertarianism, some positive moral duties must exist as man ought to actively protect and care for his neighbor’s condition of being owned by God; therefore, positive obligations exist for the care of children and those with severe mental retardation or physical disability due to birth defects, advanced age, accidents, or disease. This is the Thomistic reformulation of the non-aggression principle.
I cannot emphasize enough that while scripture asserts that man does not have self-ownership (e.g., in 1 Corinthians: “You are not your own property; you have been bought and paid for”), scripture and religion are not the basis of Thomistic philosophy. Instead Aquinas starts from a God that can be demonstrated rationally. And while the relationship between God and His Creation will not appeal to agnostic and atheist libertarians or liberals, this relationship is absolutely essential to establish a rational ethic that does not rely on self-ownership, that avoids the justiﬁcation for abortion and abandonment of other human beings unable to claim independent self-ownership, and that is more than just indifferent towards others.
What about the axiom of human action? Just like Mises argues that the person who acts must act for a goal to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory one, and that a person who does not act is satisﬁed or content, so does Aquinas argue as follows. If man did not act to obtain a certain effect, all those effects would be indifferent to him, and if he is indifferent to those alternatives, he would not act; therefore, because man acts, all his actions must tend toward an effect, and this is called his end. Mises’s contentment corresponds to Aquinas’s indifference and both authors claim that human action is goal-oriented. Aquinas proves, then, that any action of any person is illogical if not ordered toward and end. This is the Thomistic basis for the axiom of human action.
This Thomistic derivation of the axiom of human action allows us to avoid the need to use Aristotelian self-evidence, Kantian apriorism, Lockean self-ownership, Rothbardian Crusoe economics, Libertarian non-aggression principle, praxeology itself, Hoppean argumentation ethics, and so forth. What we have, therefore, is the same axiom of human action, from which Mises derives the whole ediﬁce of laissez-faire economics, founded within the philosophical system of Saint Thomas. And while it is not the purpose of this essay to discuss it, as collateral beneﬁt, Thomism securely anchors other critical Misesian and laissez-faire philosophical categories such as teleology, intelligence, reason, free will, cause and effect, and truth.
What about private property rights? Aquinas and the Late Scholastics argue that God created nature so that man could use its resources for his own development; therefore, it is necessary to establish the best method to administer those resources, which await their transformation through work so that they can meet the needs of man. The system that makes those resources most plentiful for the enjoyment of the greatest number of men is private property. Aquinas proves this on utilitarian grounds. He argues that private property is necessary to human life for three reasons. First, because man cares more for what is his own than what is common to many. This is evident because under common property man would avoid work and leave it to others to take care of the common property. Second, because human affairs are more orderly if each person takes care of some particular thing himself and because there would be confusion if everyone had to look after everything. Third, because a more peaceful state of affairs is produced when each person is content with his own, and that is the reason we see more quarrels when there is no division in property.
But this right to private property is subordinated to the principles of human dignity and right to life (both concepts derived because man’s end, according to Aquinas, by reason of his intellect, is to know God; therefore, we can conclude that the human person has a unique and special value in all of creation.) So in extreme situations in which death is imminent, the right to private property is not absolute and it can be violated without that action constituting a violation of someone’s private property right and without it constituting theft. While many classical liberals, libertarians and anarcho-capitalists may be concerned about this limitation as an unwarranted concession, Saint Thomas and the Late Scholastics accept it in the name of the right of the person who is in extreme need to secure his life. This is the Thomistic derivation of the right to private property.
What about the division of labor as the manner in which society overcomes scarcity? Saint Thomas posits that man is a social being unable to survive on his own, that he faces scarcity of resources, that in order to provide for his needs he must engage in social cooperation and that society must employ the division of labor. It is worth quoting him in this brilliant and short passage from the Summa Contra Gentiles Book III, Chapter 85, that is densely packed with all these essential laissez-faire economics concepts:
Again, man is naturally a political animal, or a social one. This is apparent, indeed, from the fact that one man is not sufﬁcient unto himself if he lives alone, because nature provides but few things that are sufﬁcient for man. Instead, it gives him reason whereby he may make ready all the things needed for life, such as food, clothing, and the like; one man is not sufﬁcient to do all these things. So, to live in society is naturally implanted in man.
Aquinas later in Chapter 129 of the same book of the Contra Gentiles argues that it logically follows that everything that promotes social cooperation is beneﬁcial and is to be pursued and everything that does not promote cooperation is harmful and is to be avoided. This Thomistic utilitarianism is perfectly compatible with laissez-faire economics and is the justiﬁcation for social cooperation and the division of labor based on the economic concept of scarcity.
And ﬁnally, what about the state and taxation? Aquinas justiﬁes in On Kingship the authority of governments as follows:
...among the members of a body, one, such as the heart or the head, is the principal and moves all the others. Therefore in every multitude there must be some governing power.
To be fair, Aquinas did not have in mind the modern nation state when he wrote. Instead he had in mind a very limited state, so I ﬁnd no inherent contradiction between the Thomistic tradition and a classical liberal minimal state.
Libertarians and anarcho-capitalists, however, will reject the Thomistic tradition because it does not in principle prove without doubt the illegitimacy of the state’s territorial monopoly of force and taxation. My observation about this anarcho-capitalist position is as follows. Can we really speak about the conclusions of political philosophy and their practical real world applications with the same degree of certainty as a metaphysical demonstration (like the existence of God), an ethical demonstration (like the right to life), or a praxeological demonstration, (like the Ricardian law of association)? I do not believe so. To pretend that we can rationally demonstrate without doubt a political philosophy advocating the absolute illegitimacy of the state using Lockean self-ownership, is, to borrow a Hayekian expression, “a pretense of exact knowledge that is likely to be false.”
Having said that, however, a fully voluntary and stateless society, including one in which the privatization of all public goods and services—such as roads, the administration of justice, and defense—is complete, is not inherently incompatible with Thomism. In order to see this, we need to complement Thomism with other principles that, again, are not incompatible with Aquinas, such as, to those familiar with Catholic Social Teaching, the principle of subsidiarity (“that a community of a higher order should not interfere with the internal life of a community of a lower order,”) and to those familiar with Hayek, spontaneous order (that because of our limited knowledge, human actions can result in order without a plan, e.g. language, the market or the legal system.) But in asserting compatibility between Thomism and a possible future without a state, I am not saying that we can prove beyond doubt the illegitimacy of the state. Instead, statelessness and “taxationlessness” are principles to be resolved in practice.
Readers will argue that I have assumed a Thomistic starting point to criticize the Misesian and the Rothbardian starting points and that this assumption begs the question of establishing the validity of the Thomistic starting point. Fair enough. But the same accusation can be made of Mises and Rothbard. There is no non-question-begging starting point. What I claim instead is the superiority of the Thomistic starting point over Lockean absolute self-ownership once we evaluate the implications of their respective positions.