George Monbiot


George Monbiot wrote an interesting article in The Guardian recently about a book called Democracy in Chains: the deep history of the radical right’s stealth plan for America. As you can see the book delves into how James McGill Buchanan ‘developed a hidden programme for suppressing democracy on behalf of the rich’. Buchanan was influenced by the neoliberalism of Hayek and Mises but also the ‘property supremacism’ of John C Calhoun.

But it seems to me that missing in this narrative is the influential philosopher Robert Nozick who provides much of the philosophical underpinning for Buchanan’s views in a book called Anarchy, State and Utopia, published in 1974, which itself owes much to Locke’s Second Treatise of Government

In this work Nozick argues in a highly sophisticated fashion for the notion of self-ownership. What this means is that I literally own myself and, therefore, only I can decide how my life proceeds. And this includes being forced to do anything to help others, like redistributive taxation which he calls ‘patterned principles of distributive justice’. He says “Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor” and therefore sanctions slavery. He has no objection to people voluntarily giving their time and money to help others. But from his fundamental position he argues for a small State and low taxes.

Nozick claims that self-ownership and equality are incompatible but the attractions of self-ownership are so great that we should abandon any notion of equality and embrace inequality.

Needless to say, I think there are some serious problems with Nozick’s position. One arises out of what we mean by ownership. Locke’s and Nozick’s view seems to embrace the Roman sense of dominion over an object which for the Romans, of course, included slaves. An alternative to that view is that ownership involves a relationship between people in which we may enjoy exclusive use of an object rather than dominion over it. In the second sense, it seems to me, Nozick’s absolute dominion over the self begins to be diluted. There is also a problem over how we own ourselves. If ownership is relational, how can we have a relationship with ourselves? It would seem that we need to have another super-self to own our self. But then, who owns the super-self? And so we descend into infinite regress. I think this is a problem even if we accept the absolute dominion version of ownership because we still think of a duality in ownership, of A owning B.

It also appears that the claim that denying self-ownership sanctions slavery is grossly over stated. Does it follow that without owning myself – always supposing that this is a coherent notion – I am or at least vulnerable to being someone else’s slave? I think not. I can have strong, even legal obligations to someone without them having slave-owner rights over me.

Furthermore, if we are concerned about individual autonomy then self-ownership is not necessary because I can be autonomous without self-ownership rights. The key is that I have control over my actions and rights, or as I put it earlier, exclusive use of them. And it is not sufficient because in the unequal world sanctioned by self-ownership one may have full formal self-ownership rights but little or no autonomy if you happen to be a property-less pauper.

In my view, then, if we abandon self-ownership we do not also necessarily abandon or curtail human freedom – and we are free to embrace equality. There is, however, much more to this argument than I have been able to explicate here but perhaps it might open up more discussions about tax. It also deepens our understanding of the neoliberal venture and its commitment to low tax, small state and inequality.