A New Logical Category

We all know about the synthetic a priori and the analytic a priori. Let me introduce a new logical category: the desperate a priori. The desperate a priori arises when one wants to imagine that all moral rules and all law can be spun out from some logical axiom, such as "self-ownership." Inevitably, one will hit cases where one's chain of logical deductions doesn't get one where one wants to be. At that point, the "desperate a priori" enters the scene: it consists in the frantic effort to show that the result one wants, which is seemingly denied by the plain meaning of one's axioms, is actually necessitated by those very axioms!

Rothbard, for instance, wants to derive all law from the principle of self-ownership*. But when he comes to voluntary slavery, he is forced to pause. The principle of self-ownership would seem to require that we permit voluntary slavery: after all, an important component of ownership is alienability. If I really do own myself, I damn well ought to be able to sell myself! But Rothbard (quite rightly!) finds the idea of legal slavery unpalatable. So what does he do? Why, he simply declares voluntary slavery, an institution that existed for thousands of years, to be logically impossible!

"The concept of 'voluntary slavery' is indeed a contradictory one, for so long as a laborer remains totally subservient to his master's will voluntarily, he is not yet a slave since his submission is voluntary; whereas, if he later changed his mind and the master enforced his slavery by violence, the slavery would not then be voluntary." (And, in the same way, no one can voluntarily take a flight on a plane, since if, halfway across the Atlantic, you demand to be let off, the airline will force you to finish the trip.)

So there you go, problem solved: we don't need to deal with the legal status of voluntary slavery because it is impossible! Apply broom to problem, lift rug, problem solved!

If Rothbard had not been so anxious to sweep this problem out of sight, he might have noticed that, in the process of doing so, he had created a teeny difficulty for his "system." Rothbard writes, "The right of property implies the right to make contracts about that property: to give it away or to exchange titles of ownership for the property of another person." Therefore, if I owned my will I could sell it, and, since Rothbard says I can't, then I must not own it. Then, per Rothbard, the only alternatives are "(1) the 'communist' one of Universal and Equal Other-ownership, or (2) Partial Ownership of One Group by Another - a system of rule by one class over another." So it turns out that my will is either owned by everyone or by some ruling elite!


* The whole concept of "self-ownership" is of course nonsense. I saw a wonderful way of putting this on a bulletin board: "Calling [one's relationship to one's self] 'ownership' would be like letting ids file lawsuits against egos."


  1. I'll have to go with Rothbard on this one. Even if I find his system very flawed (as any rationalist system), I think he's right. He refers to the concept of property, which is only relevant to moral agents against non-moral things, such as natural resources. On his rationalist mind, it's evident that "voluntary slavery" can't persist if it ceases to be voluntary. You can't resign your free-will unless you kill yourself.

    Another issue that people often get wrong is his case for 100% reserve banking. He says, that given a present good, it's logically impossible for many people to be its owners. I don't feel comfortable deriving an "ought" from an "is", but given his system, he is right.

    One of the greatest flaws of his system is, I think, his idea of speciesism. That one shows how Rothbard, a self proclaimed methodological individualist, throws out his method and states:

    "Thus, while natural rights, as we have been emphasizing, are absolute, there is one sense in which they are relative: they are relative to the species man. A rights-ethic for mankind is precisely that: for all men, regardless of race, creed, color or sex, but for the species man alone."

    Why stop at that level? Why don't go down to, let's say, the individual? He says things have a nature, but one must be able to account for that nature on an individual scale. I think he would have been much more consistant had he said that the nature of things should be grasped for individual objects, rather than for any "arbitrary" classification made by us. But if we had gone that path, his conclusions would have been much more difficult to accept.

  2. "He refers to the concept of property, which is only relevant to moral agents against non-moral things..."

    Yes, Ivan, that is correct, but that is NOT what Rothbard thinks! He builds his whole system on "self-ownership"!

  3. Another issue that people often get wrong is his case for 100% reserve banking. He says, that given a present good, it's logically impossible for many people to be its owners.

    I don't think this is right (after all, it's possible for a married couple to hold property in common). But even if it was true it wouldn't hold much relevance for FRB, since FRB doesn't require you to have multiple owners of the same good.

    Rothbard's views on FRB banking is a pretty good example of the desperate a priori in action. On the one hand, Rothbard believes that FRB leads to a boom/bust cycle, and therefore is economically destructive. On the other hand, Rothbardians believe that the only basis for banning a transaction is that it involves force or fraud. If FRB isn't fraudulent, then Rothbardians are stuck in the position of saying that FRB will destroy the economy even in a perfectly free market system, and that there is nothing you can do about it.

    So to get around this difficulty, Rothbard just arbitrarily decrees that banking is warehousing, regardless of what the individuals actually involved in banking might think or want.

  4. Right on, Edward! Rothbard couldn't say something should be illegal simply because it wrecks social order or anything trivial like that. It can't be illegal unless it is a NAP violation, so one had to be made up for FRB.

  5. I might be completely misreading Rothbard here, but it seems like the reason he's saying you can't voluntarily sell yourself into slavery isn't that there's some exception to rights of title transfer when it comes to your "self" but rather that in order to transfer ownership the item must be alienable to your will as a constitutive matter of such a transfer. In other words, I believe he thinks it's impossible to transfer ownership (in any meaningful way) of something which you literally cannot cede control over. Once your body was removed from your will (control), I don't think there's any conflict in transfer of ownership however. So, I couldn't transfer ownership of my arm while I still had primary control over it. If I severed my arm, however, I could then sell it.

    Obviously, I don't think that's a knock-down argument for Rothbard. But I think it's consistent both with his views on self-ownership and title transfer, as well as his belief that the concept of "voluntary slavery" is nonsensical.

  6. Ryan, I understand Rothbard's argument, and I think it is correct. But it is a dodge! One cannot handle the matter of an actually existing social institution by declaring it to be ontologically impossible!

    If you are asked to comment on a real world social practice, and you show how by your definitions that practice is impossible, then what you have shown is that you are not discussing the matter at hand, since what is really going on is obviously not impossible!

  7. Hmmm...that's an interesting way read Rothbard because my interpretation is somewhat different. And, again, I might simply be reading him wrong - I'm only familiar with his major works. but I never get the impression that he thinks slavery is nominally impossible in a de facto sense. What I gather when reading Rothbard on slavery is that he's talking about ACTUAL proper ownership of other sentient human beings. In other words, I think he has a technical problem with saying that anyone OWNS anyone else (voluntarily or otherwise). He's not saying that extremely coercive relationships can't exist between two beings.

    Maybe, in some sense, this is a similar "anti-concept" problem that we're discussing in the other thread. When he talks about slavery, I believe he's talking purely about legitimate property title exchanges of humans - and how they haven't, within his framework, existed nor could they ever coherently exist. So maybe a "slave" in the Rothbardian sense is not a "slave" in the pre-Civil War sense is not a "slave" in the wage "slave" sense is not a slave in the "slave" to my addictions sense.

    Given that, I still don't think he's being inconsistent at all. Selective about his terminology, sure; but I don't think he's denying, for instance, that chattel slavery existed. I think, more clearly, he's denying that titles of ownership over human beings were really exchanged. To use another analogy, a slave-owner (in the Rothbardian framework) would "own" a person in the same way an armed robber owns a bank-teller.

  8. I understand the problem of selling one self into voluntary slavery that way:

    I contract with you that I am willing to be your life-long slave for 1000 Dollar payment and provision of food and lodgings. Of course I can obey your command according to the contract. But if lets say after 1 year I think oh I don't want to be a slave anymore, I stop being your slave. Of course this means I broke the contract.

    What would a judge do now? He would demand that I have to compensate you for the broken contract but he cannot force me to fulfill the contract. So I only have to give you 1000 Dollar plus interest back. That's all. Not different as with any other contract that is broken.

    According to self-ownership (as I understand it) the content of a contract never can be enforced literally. Only the one who breaks it must compensate the other one with something valuable like money.

    I am no self-ownership guy or Rothbardian, but I don't see a problem with self-ownership and voluntary servitude.

    What is wrong with that argument?

  9. Does selling oneself into slavery require that one owns oneself?


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