Who Owns You?

If in answer to the question “who owns you?” a person replies “I own myself” then we are dealing with a free person and not a slave. But where does this self-ownership arise out of? It’s a natural right. What’s a natural right? It’s a right that follows from being human; it’s not a right that is granted by anyone.

And from that natural right of self-ownership follow other rights. Those rights are negative rights. What are negative rights? They are rights that do not impose obligations on others to do something; only that others refrain from forcing one to do something. In contrast to that, positive rights impose an obligation on others.

An example of a negative right is a person’s right to life and liberty. That does not impose any obligations on others; only that others refrain from taking the life and freedom of the person. An example of a positive right is the “right to education” that the government of India has enacted. That imposes an obligation on taxpayers to fund the education of others.

To the extent that people of a society have positive rights, to that extent the society is not composed of free people; they don’t fully own themselves. If you are forced to work against your will for the benefit of others, you are a slave.

A state that protects the negative rights of citizens and does not grant positive rights is Robert Nozick’s minimal state. A minimal state is a protective state — one that only protects citizens. It does not produce other goods or services, does not interfere in the economy, does not redistribute income or wealth to achieve social justice goals, etc.

In his book Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), Nozick writes:

Our main conclusions about the state are that a minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified; that any more extensive state will violate persons’ rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified; and that the minimal state is inspiring as well as right. Two noteworthy implications are that the state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others, or in order to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection.

Along the minimal state-maximal state continuum, India falls close to the maximal state end of the spectrum. That fundamentally means that Indians are not free. They are slaves of the state. Slaves are never very productive.  Lack of freedom and lack of prosperity are twins: if you have the former, you necessarily have the latter.

Do Indians own themselves? Not really. There are laws that make Indian citizens wards of the state, and to that degree, slaves of the state. The Indian state provides all sorts of “free” goodies to its needy citizens, in exchange for which it enslaves them. That enslavement leads to more neediness, which the state then addresses by a little more enslavement. It’s a vicious circle of dependence and poverty.

I think here it would be appropriate to address a question from a comment to a previous post:

Question: There are consenting adults who want to commit suicide. Assume, I open a business which offers exotic and very satisfying pre-suicide and suicide experience. If you are in government, will you stop me?

Allow me to rephrase that question: “Is the government justified in stopping a person from committing suicide?”

The answer is, “It depends on who owns the person.” If the government owns the person, i.e., the person is the property of the government, then because it is wrong to destroy the government’s property, the government is justified in stopping the person from killing himself.

However if the person owns himself — the self-ownership condition — then it is no one’s business what the person does with his own self. Not only is he free to live or die, he is also free to use his body any which way he wants to, and he also owns whatever his labor produces.

When people lose their freedom, when they become enslaved through some process (which in most cases involve their consent to some extent), they become sub-human. They become chattel of the master.

In our case, the government is the master that owns the people. Therefore the people are not free, even to kill themselves.

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

10 thoughts on “Who Owns You?”

  1. Your points provoke thought for sure. The problem in this line of reasoning is that it assumes either people know what is in their best interest individually and/or collectively OR even the government does. Neither are necessarily right. Government is an diffuse agency representing diffuse societal interests made somewhat concrete by legal, political and processes.
    Most humans in the other hand, act out of compulsion influenced by limiting beliefs, outdated social constructs, habits, illusions derived from educational, social and other conditioning. If a person is not free from that, or be conscious in how they perceive reality, this economic or political notion of freedom to me is premature in terms of making real impact. If one doesn’t realize who really he/she is and see the life process as they really are, free from dogma, the chance of that person to live freely is next to none. The question is whose slave are you? A slave of the government? A slave of the society? A slave of a system? Or a salve of your own illusion?

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  2. The doctrine of natural right seems to me arbitrary.

    Taking it as a given for the moment. Coming on right to suicide flowing from self ownership. Consider a property you own that you use as collateral to take a loan.
    Before you haven’t paid back the loan with interest, you don’t have the right to dispose off the commodity the way you like just because you own it because there’s now stake of someone else in that property.
    In a similar fashion, a person may own himself or herself, but when someone marries, have kids, then the family has a stake in the life of the individual. Which is why there can be a case of law against suicide for a person with family.

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    1. The example of a mortgaged property is covered in my text.

      If you have already sold yourself to someone, then you are not a free person, and you don’t own yourself. And in that case, as I took enormous pains to explain clearly in my post, you are not free to commit suicide. Only free people, people who own themselves, have natural rights, and that right includes the right to do whatever they want to do to themselves.

      Furthermore, you seem to take corner cases (what if someone has obligations) and draw broad conclusions (all suicides should be illegal or immoral.) That’s an improper way of thinking. Corner cases should not drive analysis. When policy is made based on corner cases, it leads to stupidity and misery.

      An example. Consider the case for free speech. Free speech is a valuable freedom to have, both as a good in itself and as an instrumental good. The corner cases involve the abuse of free speech. Banning free speech on the grounds that it will be misused in some cases is stupid.

      Allowing people to trade freely is good. Justifying banning free trade because in some instances free trade would lead to harm is stupid.

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      1. When we offer property as a collateral, we’re not ‘selling’ it. Its ownership lies with us still. You may own something without being free to dispose it the way you like.
        Secondly, I haven’t said or concluded that all suicides are bad. I have merely pointed out at those people who keep a family and commit suicide.
        There are not lots of Sanyasis in the world, so I don’t know how I am taking a borderline case.
        All people with family have obligations. Those who have no family, like ascetics, should be free to commit suicide.

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        1. The interesting part was your definition of a slave.
          “If you are forced to work against your will for the benefit of others, you are a slave.”
          Wage slavery fits perfectly within its ambit.

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          1. What is “wage slavery”? If by that one means the enslavement of a person against his will, then of course it’s slavery. But if one freely undertakes to work in exchange for a wage, then it is a perversion of language and reason to argue that it’s wage slavery. When I have the freedom to work or not to work for wages, I am still a free person even though I am bound by a contract that says that if I don’t perform the work I agreed to do, then I don’t get paid. A slave does not have that exit option that is available to a free person.

            Like I said, it is a perversion of reason to insist that a person under a contract voluntarily entered into is a slave.

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            1. I think there is a misunderstanding of what freedom means in the context of this blog post. Here freedom means “not being subject to the arbitrary will of another.” It does not mean that there are no internal or external limitations. One’s physical limitations which make one unable to climb Everest is not a lack of freedom, for example. If someone prevents you from climbing Everest implies that you lack the freedom to climb Everest.

              If your only options are either wage labor or starvation, you have internal limitations (inability to be productive yourself), not a lack of freedom.

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        2. It does not matter whether your body is offered as a “collateral” or is sold — it amounts to the same thing — that a person is a slave and does not own himself.

          The original question was whether a person is free to commit suicide. My response was: “It depends.” It depends on whether a person is free or not. If he is free, then he can; as a slave he can’t. The condition of being a slave can be obtained by his own actions (having obligations to others) or being forced into slavery by an agency which has guns at its disposal (the government of India, for example.)

          A close reading of the original post would clear the doubts.

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