29 Nov 2009

More On God and Self-Ownership

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Stephan Kinsella brought this article by Skyler Collins to my attention. Since we have been discussing the intersection of Christianity and libertarianism lately, I thought it would be a good thing to analyze.

I think Collins’ piece is mostly correct insofar as it goes, but I also think he hasn’t proved as much as he thinks he has proved. He writes:

Whether or not you believe that God exists, or that he owns our bodies, it must be understood that libertarian philosophy only concerns the relationships between mortal men. It does not concern the relationship between men and animals, or men and the earth (insofar as it unrelates to other men). And it absolutely doesn’t concern the relationship between men and God.

Don’t misunderstand me. What a man does with himself in relation to anything may or may not be God’s concern (I believe it is), but the libertarian principle of self-ownership is used to distinguish what men can legitimately do to each other. Not what God can do to man.

This quote by James A. Sadowsky is instructive,

“When we say that one has the right to do certain things we mean this and only this, that it would be immoral for another, alone or in combination, to stop him from doing this by the use of physical force or the threat thereof. We do not mean that any use a man makes of his property within the limits set forth is necessarily a moral use.”

It really says it all. The purpose of arguing for self-ownership is to understand if the actions of other men are justified. Though God may own our bodies, this fact would not alter the relationship between men. For example, I own a laptop computer. I acquired this through trade. What I traded was legitimately earned, therefore this laptop computer is legitimately my property. It is an extension of myself. If a man named John took my laptop computer without my permission, that would rightly be considered theft and a violation of my property rights to my laptop computer. God only enters the equation if John claims God told him to take the computer from me because it was his will that John have the computer instead of me. Unless God corroborates this claim to me personally, I can rightly consider it theft and a violation of my property rights.

So as I said, I don’t object to the above per se, but I think Collins believes he just disposed of theocracy. I don’t think he did.

First, what if “God corroborates” the claim not directly to the alleged sinner/property violator, but in a book codifying His views that even the alleged sinner/violator endorses? For example, Jewish adulterers in the time of Jesus. They couldn’t honestly say, “Oh c’mon, you’re telling me God doesn’t want me sleeping out of wedlock? How do you know–did a burning bush appear?”

Second, I think many secular libertarians are taking this type of view to demonstrate that people trying to enforce “God’s will” are necessarily committing aggression. But even if that’s true, it’s not a decisive end to the issue. For example, I’m sure the pagans who were slaughtered by the Israelites when they came into what they called “the Promised Land” didn’t agree that the Lord owned the earth and could divvy it out to whichever people He wanted. But I doubt Collins (LDS) would say the Israelites under Joshua really should have relied on Lockean reasoning as opposed to divine revelation.

OK let me now address the obvious (and horrified) retort. “Is Bob endorsing theocracy?!” No I’m not. Let’s quote from the object of Collins’ critique, Gabriel Fink, who had previously written:

Libertarian theory holds that adultery is not a crime, because no forgery or robbery has taken place. If two unmarried people decide to have intimate relations, there is no property violation, and hence no crime has been committed. A law prohibiting adultery therefore would be considered unjust. If man is the rightful owner of his body, then this understanding would be correct.

As has been shown however, man is not the rightful owner of his body. One of the terms and conditions set forth by the Lord for those who chose to receive the stewardship of a physical body is that sexual relations are only authorized between a man and his lawfully wedded wife. Any person who does not adhere to this restriction has aggressed against the property of the Lord and is in violation of the principle of non-aggression.

This is how adultery was considered a crime, and is defined as such in scripture. The Lord has given man the authority to punish the crime of adultery. Civil laws which punish adultery are not a violation of the non-aggression principle. All acts of adultery however, are a violation.

OK so Collins’ attempt to rebut these types of claims (both in the comments of the original piece, and his own full article) is to state that property rights deal with relations between people. I’ve already shown why I think that’s an inadequate response, and I wouldn’t expect Mr. Fink to change his views based on the argument.

However, there are all sorts of things in the Mosaic Law that are a bit…harsh. Does Fink endorse all of those too? Note that this wouldn’t prove him wrong, I’m just wondering how far he takes the principle he’s supporting.

No, I don’t think the political authorities should punish adultery. Why not? First, I think political government is itself in violation of Christian principles. You’ve got the LORD’s warning–in the Old Testament of all places!–of the dangers of establishing a king, and there is plenty of other Scriptural evidence in favor of Christian anarchy. (Try this, though I don’t necessarily endorse everything Redford writes here.) If this is shocking to you, try this route: I think there is a strong case for pacifism based on Jesus’ teachings; Tolstoy thought the same. If Jesus doesn’t want us to resist evil (especially with swords), then I would argue He doesn’t want us to employ men with guns to throw adulterers in a dungeon.

I find it ironic that Fink would choose adultery as his illustration, since we know exactly “what Jesus would do” when asked whether to enforce the Mosaic Law against an adulteress caught in the act.

Now you might be wondering, “Well what the heck, Bob, why are you bringing this up if you generally agree with the conclusions of the secular libertarian anti-statists?”

The reason is that a lot of libertarians use abstract reasoning to “deduce” the legitimacy of their views, and to “prove” that everyone else is wrong. If my observation about God owning people’s bodies (and everything else physical) is correct, then those “proofs” are wrong and libertarians should stop invoking them.

Stephan Kinsella has responded to my point on this when I made it with Gene Callahan in our JLS critique [.pdf] of Hans Hoppe’s argumentation ethics. Stephan recently wrote:


I’m not surprised you bring this up–you raised a similar notion as some sort of criticism of Hoppe’s argumentation ethics years ago in this piece. In my reply thereto, I noted:

MC introduce supposed “counterexamples” of God and slavery. … As for God – you can’t just posit that God owns everyone and “therefore” we are not self-owners. Moroever, even if God does own us, it could be that we are still self-owners vis-a-vis each other. In any event, this in no way refutes the conclusion that only the libertarian norms can be argumentatively justified in discourse.

If there is a God, since He is Good, we can assume he’s libertarian and has decreed a libertarian moral law within his universe. So even if God owns A and B, A still has a better claim to A’s body than B does.

OK two quick observations:

(1) In our article Gene and I did not “just posit that God owns everyone.” We said that it was a logical possibility, and that Hoppe had not disposed of it in his proof. Since his proof concludes, “…and therefore everyone starts out as a self-owner,” his proof is obviously incorrect. I would give an analogy here, except I think it would just confuse things because we’d then be arguing about why the analogy was or was not analogous. It frustrates me that Stephan still doesn’t get our basic point on this.

(2) What if the parents leave the house and tell the babysitter that the 8-year-old can’t use the computer? Then the 8-year-old starts using it, and the babysitter picks him up and walks him out of the room, locking the door behind him. The 8-year-old, if a fan of Kinsella, could argue, “Sure my parents ultimately own the computer and can lay down the rules of engagement, but as far as my claim on the property versus the babysitter’s, I have the stronger claim–I will inherit it all eventually. For all I know my parents never told my babysitter I couldn’t use the computer. So the babysitter just violated my property rights.”

Yes, the 8-year-old would be right as far as he goes, but what is the proper libertarian response to all this? Does the babysitter have to slap his forehead because he didn’t get a notarized letter from the parents expressing their wishes, or record it on his iPhone? No, he enforces the will of the actual property owners, and dismisses talk of “well excluding the views of the actual owner, my claim is stronger than yours” as irrelevant.

All right, I’ll stop here while I still have some loyal readers. I do believe I managed to disagree with everyone who has chimed in on these matters!

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