Self-ownership and Teeth-ownership in Communist China: A Lesson for Confused Libertarians

A recent NPR feature, The Secret Document That Transformed China (h/t Vijay Boyapati), tells the fascinating story about one of seminal events at the dawn of the modern Chinese experiment in their version of capitalism.

In 1978, the farmers in a small Chinese village called Xiaogang gathered in a mud hut to sign a secret contract. They thought it might get them executed. Instead, it wound up transforming China’s economy in ways that are still reverberating today.

The contract was so risky — and such a big deal — because it was created at the height of communism in China. Everyone worked on the village’s collective farm; there was no personal property.

“Back then, even one straw belonged to the group,” says Yen Jingchang, who was a farmer in Xiaogang in 1978. “No one owned anything.”

At one meeting with communist party officials, a farmer asked: “What about the teeth in my head? Do I own those?” Answer: No. Your teeth belong to the collective.

Because of communism, “In Xiaogang there was never enough food, and the farmers often had to go to other villages to beg. Their children were going hungry. They were desperate.”

So the farmers agreed to a form of personal property, where each farmer could keep some of his own crop, above a certain threshold. This would give them incentives to work harder and the ability to keep some of the fruits of their labor. However,So, in the winter of 1978, after another terrible harvest, they came up with an idea: Rather than farm as a collective, each family would get to farm its own plot of land. If a family grew a lot of food, that family could keep some of the harvest.

This was done in secret for fear of reprisal by the state. Their agreement “recognized the risks the farmers were taking. If any of the farmers were sent to prison or executed, it said, the others in the group would care for their children until age 18.”

Their new pact was a success: “At the end of the season, they had an enormous harvest: more, Yen Hongchang says, than in the previous five years combined.”

However, the communist party officials noticed, and Yen Hongchang was berated and treated like a criminal by officials at the local Communist Party office. But at this point in time, “Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who would go on to create China’s modern economy, was just coming to power. …So instead of executing the Xiaogang farmers, the Chinese leaders ultimately decided to hold them up as a model.”

Now something in this story called to mind an issue that has long bugged me: when libertarians, or others, criticize the libertarian idea of self-ownership. When libertarians do this, it is usually because of the simpleminded and confused argument that it “makes no sense” to say “I” am a self-owner because I am myself. Or that it makes no sense to say I own my body because I am my body. Often it is a materialist or atheist libertarian who makes this argument; it’s as if they fear that admitting that I own my body implies there must be some supernatural realm where “I” am really a soul, and I-the-soul am the user or inhabitant or possessor or owner of a material body. They think self-ownership implies mystical or supernatural or religious ideas. They think it implies a view such as that of C.S. Lewis: “You don’t have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body.”1  And when outsiders criticize self-ownership, it is sometimes for these reasons, but sometimes also because they truly believe in a form of collectivism and other-ownership: they do not think you have the right to decide what to do with your body–that conscription or imprisonment for drug or tax crimes is sometimes justified. These people understand what self-ownership is, and they reject it. Some religious conservative types seem to oppose self-ownership since they believe it is contrary to God’s ownership of us.

As an example of the former criticism, in a lengthy thread discussion to a post by David Brin about libertarianism, one commentator, “Marino”, wrote the following, in response to my comment that libertarians recognize self-ownership (his comment has apparently been deleted, but I had quoted it in a reply):

“just one simple question. Why “everyone owns his/her own body” should be a “self-evident truth”?

IMHO it’s pure metaphysical nonsense.

It means that there is something (the “I”) owning the body as if the body were a separate entity. Now, it’s really “ghost in the machine” Cartesian mind( or soul)/body …”

Or this comment on another thread:

There is no such thing as self-ownership. It is an incoherent concept and should be dropped. I do not own my self, I am myself.

Or former libertarian Francois Tremblay’s post Self-ownership is a meaningless concept (follow-up post). As I note in my post Leftist: Only Capitalists Believe in Self-Ownership, Tremblay writes, in a claim so stupid that it staggers the mind:

“Self-ownership” is nonsense, but let us be clear on the goal of such a concept. Self-ownership is a capitalist attempt to justify individual freedom in a world where property reigns.

Now I have explained the errors in this confused argument against self-ownership in a number of places: see, e.g., The relation between the non-aggression principle and property rights: a response to Division by Zer0; also What Libertarianism Is and How We Come to Own Ourselves. As I wrote in Intellectual Property and Libertarianism:

The libertarian view is that each person completely owns his own body — at least initially, until something changes this, such as if he commits some crime by which he forfeits or loses some of his rights. Now some say that the idea of self-ownership makes no sense. You are yourself; how can you own yourself? But this is just silly wordplay.

To own means to have the right to control. If A wants to have sex with B’s body, whose decision is it? Who has the right to control B’s body? A, or B? If it is A, then A owns B’s body; A has the right to control it, as a master to a slave. But if it is B who has the right to decide, then B owns her own body: she is a self-owner.

And of course, self-ownership is what is implied in the nonaggression principle. Ayn Rand famously said, “So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate.… No man may start — the use of physical force against others.” To initiate force means to invade the borders of someone’s body, to use her body without permission or consent. But this presupposes that that person has the right to control her body: otherwise her permission would not be needed, and it would not be aggression to invade or use his body without his consent.

So the libertarian property-assignment rule for bodies is that each person owns his own body. Implicit in the idea of self-ownership is the belief that each person has a better claim to the body that he or she directly controls and inhabits than do others. I have a better claim to the right to control my body than you do, because it is my body; I have a unique link and connection to my body that others do not, and that is prior to the claim of any other person.

Anyone other than the original occupant of a body is a latecomer with respect to the original occupant. Your claim to my body is inferior in part because I had it first. The person claiming your body can hardly object to the significance of what Hoppe calls the “prior-later” distinction, since he adopts this very rule with respect to his own body — he has to presuppose ownership of his own body in order to claim ownership of yours.

The self-ownership rule may seem obvious, but it is held only by libertarians. Nonlibertarians do not believe in complete self-ownership. Sure, they usually grant that each person has some rights in his own body, but they believe each person is partially owned by some other person or entity — usually the state or society. Libertarians are the only ones who really oppose slavery, in a principled way. Nonlibertarians are in favor of at least partial slavery.

This slavery is implicit in state actions and laws such as taxation, conscription, and drug prohibitions. The libertarian says that each person is the full owner of his body: he has the right to control his body, to decide whether or not he ingests narcotics, works for less than minimum wage, pays taxes, joins an army, and so on.

But those who believe in such laws believe that the state is at least a partial owner of the body of those subject to such laws. They don’t like to say they believe in slavery, but they do. The modern left-liberal wants tax evaders put in jail (enslaved). The modern conservative wants marijuana users enslaved. [endnotes omitted]

I am always surprised when libertarians, of all people, deny the validity of self-ownership. It just means one owns one’s body. As Hoppe writes, “Every person is the private (exclusive) owner of his own physical body.”2 And as I have written previously, “each person is prima facie the owner of his own body.”3 Why prima facie? Because, as noted above, these rights can be alienated or forfeited by committing aggression.4 The objection to the notion of self-ownership on the grounds that it is incoherent or implies religious or mystical views is without foundation. The body is a scarce resource, and to avoid conflict over its use, either the person whose body it is owns it, or someone else does. The choice is self-ownership, versus other-ownership, i.e. slavery. The quintessential libertarian view is self-ownership. And this common sense, natural, intuitive notion is not new or hard to appreciate. As Richard Overton wrote in 1646, in An arrow Against all Tyrants: “To every individuals in nature, is given an individual property by nature, not to be invaded or usurped by any ; for every one as he is himself, so he hath a selfe propriety, else he not be himselfe”. And Locke, in 1690: “Though the Earth, and all inferior Creatures be common to all Men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to  but himself.”5 As Rothbard wrote in The Ethics of Liberty, “The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that each person must be a self-owner, and that no one has the right to interfere with such self-ownership” (p. 60), and “What … aggressive violence means is that one man invades the property of another without the victim’s consent. The invasion may be against a man’s property in his person (as in the case of bodily assault), or against his property in tangible goods (as in robbery or trespass)” (p. 45)

To return to the story about China: what struck me about this story was this line:

At one meeting with communist party officials, a farmer asked: “What about the teeth in my head? Do I own those?” Answer: No. Your teeth belong to the collective.

This is a brilliant illustration of the libertarian view on self-ownership and that to deny it means someone else owns your body. It’s either you or master. It’s either self-ownership or slavery.

When someone denies self-ownership, I am reminded of Francisco D’Anconia’s “Money Speech” in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: “Run for your life from any man who tells you that money is evil. That sentence is the leper’s bell of an approaching looter.” Likewise, anyone who opposes self-ownership is either a fool or an advocate of slavery. In neither case is he a libertarian. (See also my post Against the Non-Aggression Principle and Self-Ownership? Run!)

The next time some libertarian denies the validity of the concept of self-ownership, point him to this article–or be prepared to run or grab a weapon.

  1. Quoted in Bob Murphy’s post Can God Own Your Soul? 

  2. Hoppe, State or Private-Law Society

  3. Kinsella, What Libertarianism Is

  4. See Kinsella, Punishment and Proportionality: The Estoppel Approach. Instead of viewing rights as having been forfeited, another way to look at it is to say that you never had a right to be free from responsive force in the first place, but only the right to be free from aggression. 

  5. John Locke, Second Treatise of government (1690), chap V, 27. 

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • This reminds me of a lady I know who is a anarcho-communist, as in she considers private property to be aggression.

    I used the example of someone wanting to have sex with her whether she wanted to or not, “After all, you’re not using {it} right now, so you don’t own it by your own definition”, but this so offended her that she never replied.

    Oh well, I’m just glad I’m not the only one to whom this particular example of “self ownership” occurred.

  • Whoa … this brings to mind a discussion we recently had.
    Here, you write that self-ownership “can be alienated or forfeited by committing aggression.”
    Elsewhere, however, you scoff at the notion that self-ownership rights can be voluntarily alienated by their original owners (what you condescendingly call “‘voluntary’ slavery.”
    Is it really your position that my ownership of my body is not subject to alienation by me at will, but is subject to confiscation by others if, in their judgment, I have aggressed? If so, that’s a damn weird definition of “ownership.”

    • Knapp: I have always said you can only forfeit rights if you commit aggression. This is not incompatible with objecting to the bizarre view a small minority of libertarians like you have that you can sign on a piece of paper and then you have sold your body to someone for life.

      The thing is: a victim is justified in using force against me because I committed aggresison. His force is “responsive.” Responsive force–force in respones to aggression–is always permitted under libertarianism.

      But if you use force against me b/c I signed on a piece of paper this force is not in response to any aggression by me. That is the difference that you seem unable to see.

  • Thank you for providing a resource to me through which I will draw from when I communicate, as a philosophical libertarian/anarchist, to others.

  • Oh give it up already, Kinsella. No one owns their own body. You are just making yourself look worse and worse with each new reaffirmation of your bizarre belief.

    • Tremblay, is your body a scarce resource? Yes. Who do you think should be able to decide who gets to use it? Presumably you do. We call that “ownership,” the right to control, though I realize some lefties don’t like thinking in clear or coherent terms or having clear definitions and meanings.

      • “Tremblay, is your body a scarce resource?”
        No you doofus, my body is not a resource. My body is me.
        “Who do you think should be able to decide who gets to use it?”
        No one “decides” who gets to use it. My subconscious takes about 99.9% of all the decisions needed to run my body. I already told you this. You still don’t get it.
        “We call that “ownership,” the right to control, though I realize some lefties don’t like thinking in clear or coherent terms or having clear definitions and meanings.”
        You know, this arrogant pretense of knowing what you’re talking about would work IF YOU KNEW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT. Otherwise, you just look like a douche.

        • Francois Tremblay said: “No you doofus, my body is not a resource. My body is me.”

          You can, presumably, walk, talk, eat, bathe, laugh, and defecate without help. With that in mind, I think someone like Stephen Hawking might disagree with you that your body isn’t a resource. Also, I wonder what he would also say about the question, what is “me?” Is his “me” the ravaged shell of his body, which you assert, or is his “me” his mind? In this scenario, the mind is the owner of the body, which I think is the correct answer.

          Francois Tremblay said: “No one “decides” who gets to use it. My subconscious takes about 99.9% of all the decisions needed to run my body. ”

          So then, as you say, the subconscious is controlling your body. If this was true for humans, then it would mean that the conscious mind is meaningless. I have trouble seeing how that could be true, but assuming it is, does it not tie into what I said before? The mind directs the body, and the mind is the owner.

          Francois Tremblay said: “You know, this arrogant pretense of knowing what you’re talking about would work IF YOU KNEW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT. Otherwise, you just look like a douche.”

          I can agree Mr. Kinsella tends to have little patience and can be rude and insulting when debating others on the internet, but your posts here are no better.

        • ….Kinsella’s reasoned response as to why self-ownership is both true and obvious makes him look bad, while your response which does nothing to dispel it makes you look good?

          A rather bizarre standard for rational inquiry.

          • “your response which does nothing to dispel it”
            Entirely a matter of opinion. I think you ancaps are just blind to the facts because you have surrendered your moral compass in favor of voluntaryist childishness.

    • Let’s say there was a sociopathic man that chopped off thumbs. All victims were left without a scratch, save missing thumbs. Since, as Francois Tremblay said, “No one owns their own body,” the people without thumbs aren’t victims of a crime. I have to say I completely disagree with that line of thought. If some lunatic took my thumbs from me by force, I’d consider it crime.

      There’s a reason if someone accidentally slams the door on your hand, people say, “$#@&! My hand!” It’s *YOUR* hand, because you own it in the same way you say it’s *YOUR* body, because it is without question, *YOURS.* That is the principle of self-ownership.

      • “Let’s say there was a sociopathic man that chopped off thumbs. All victims were left without a scratch, save missing thumbs. Since, as Francois Tremblay said, “No one owns their own body,” the people without thumbs aren’t victims of a crime.”
        Wow. Because YOU see crime as merely an extension of property does not mean that everyone does. How sheltered do you have to be to say such a thing?

        • Tremblay. Please elaborate on how you think there’s no such thing as self-ownership. I guess what you’re implying is ownership doesn’t exist, therefore self-ownership does not exist. Would the term “self-possession” be a better word to use for you?

          • Kinsella already posted the entries where I discuss this. Just go ahead and read them.

  • I appreciate all the work you’ve done over the years, Stephan, such as helping people better understand the unjust nature of IP laws. Here’s my take on this present topic. I came across the idea that we can’t/don’t “own” ourselves a couple years ago. It reminds me of the other ongoing libertarian debate about whether or not “rights” exist. As in all disputes of this nature, epistemological clarity is needed. Ad hominem fallacy definitely derails things.

    As Stephan has articulated, to own is the right to control. Specifically, ownership denotes the right–i.e., freedom in a social context–to use and/or dispose of something. Now, following from this definition, what exactly can be owned? Pretty much everything, based on the principles of first possession/claim and voluntary transfer. Ownership enables utilization of finite resources to further human flourishing, as well as conflict resolution. (So-called intellectual “property” is a misapplication of the ownership principle, mainly because such information patterns can be duplicated without conflict (leaving originals intact).)

    Regarding the concept of self-ownership, we face the philosophical question of whether it’s logically consistent that an owner can use and/or dispose of the very thing that is doing the owning–a reasoning mind. Can/does one’s faculties of reason and volition _own_ one’s faculties of reason and volition, i.e., higher level brain processes? Yes, and this is the most fundamental tautology of the axiomatic concept of consciousness. Recognition of this tautology fosters human flourishing in society: we want to respect people and their property, once we recognize the nature of self-ownership.

    After all, does a person have the right to sell or give away his or her own various body parts, to the point of ending his or her own life (notice the concept “own” here too)? Libertarianism, acknowledging the truth of self-ownership, answers in the affirmative. As Rand noted, existence is identity, and consciousness is identification. The phrases “I am myself” and “I own myself” are as tautological as the phrases “Existence exists” and “A is A.” Both articulate the metaphysical nature of axiomatic concepts, which can’t be reduced to anything more fundamental (and upon which any and all proof is based).

    In contrast, the phrases “I am not myself” and “I don’t own myself” (or “Another owns me”) are metaphysically (and politically) contradictory. They beg the question, because “to be” and “to own” entail a reasoning animal both being and owning (i.e., using and/or disposing of something, which necessarily includes itself). Ownership is an idea (and resulting behavior) that arises from a reasoning mind. Not to apply it to the very thing that grasps the concept, contradicts the whole purpose of the concept: autonomous functioning, individual flourishing, and respectful human interaction.

    Thomas above wrote: >Is it really your position that my ownership of my body is not subject to alienation by me at will, but is subject to confiscation by others if, in their judgment, I have aggressed? If so, that’s a damn weird definition of “ownership.”<

    A "contract" to enslave oneself is necessarily invalid. Being a slave to another entails not acting in accordance with one's will (i.e., volitional, reasoning mind), a will which is required in the ironic attempt to nullify itself via enslavement. Further, the principle of self-ownership entails restitution if it's violated. Obviously, restitution can be coerced (extrinsically motivated), yet true restorative justice entails remorsefully making peace with those harmed and repairing what's been damaged (intrinsically motivated). The latter scenario demonstrates an enlightened society that's abandoned domination structures of punishment.

    • Forgive me if I sound ad hominem. I’m just trying to better understand how your logic would work in the real world.

      Are you perfectly okay with someone raping you?

      • Rape is an assault against your REAL rights. You have the right to your own sexuality. How hard can it be to understand that you don’t need make-believe rights (like “self-ownership”) when you already have real rights?

  • This is the type of insanity that the libertarian philosophy leads to and is the reason why I am not a libertarian. Ownership of bodies would learn to all sorts of bizarre conclusions like ability to sell or rent your spouse into slavery because they are “community property.” Ownership of live bodies simply does not apply, does not make sense, and would completely invalidate the whole idea/concept of ownership.