Freedom Circle logo
Freedom Circle

Where Can You Find Freedom Today?

The principle that each individual owns his or her body and life

Self-ownership (also known as individual sovereignty) is the concept of property in one's own person, expressed as the moral or natural right of a person to have bodily integrity and be the exclusive controller of one's own body and life. Self-ownership is a central idea in several political philosophies that emphasize individualism, such as liberalism and anarchism.


Alternative Medicine Is Libertarian Medicine, by Butler Shaffer, 2 Dec 2006
Discusses several aspects of healthcare, including self-ownership, being responsible for our own care, decentralized information, the collapse of external authorities and the dehumanizing decisions resulting from institutionalized healthcare
How many of you own yourselves? I ask my first year property students this question ... to get them to focus on the functional reality of the property concept. If you do claim self-ownership, I ask them, why do you allow the state—or anyone else—to control your life? And if you do not claim self-ownership, upon what basis can you object if the state—or anyone else—decides to claim what you do not want? This question leads us into the Dred Scott case, in which the slave, Scott, appealed to the courts to have his claim of "personhood" recognized under the law. His claim of "self-ownership" was, as we know, denied.
An Arrow against all Tyrants, by Richard Overton, 12 Oct 1646
Full title: An Arrow Against All Tyrants And Tyrany, shot from the Prison of New-gate into the Prerogative Bowels of the Arbitrary House of Lords and all other Usurpers and Tyrants whatsoever
Letter addressed to "Mr Henry Marten, a member of the House of Commons", after two months in Newgate Prison having been arrested for publishing "An Alarum to the House of Lords"
To every individual 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 has a self-propriety, else could he not be himself; and of this no second may presume to deprive any of without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature and of the rules of equity and justice between man and man ... No man has power over my rights and liberties, and I over no man's. I may be but an individual, enjoy my self and my self-propriety and may right myself no more than my self, or presume any further ...
Auberon Herbert, Part 1, by Wendy McElroy, Freedom Daily, Feb 2011
First part of biographical essay on Auberon Herbert; discusses Spencer's influence on him, his views on anarchism vs. voluntaryism, self-ownership, majority rule, war and imperialism
The foundation of Herbert's political convictions was "the rights of self-ownership" which "express the limits of rightful and wrongful action." These were the natural rights that a person had over his own body and the products thereof (property) against which no one else could properly aggress. Since they were based in man's nature, these rights were possessed in equal measure by every man. Herbert declared, "If we are self-owners (and it is absurd ... to suppose that we are not), neither an individual, nor a majority, nor a government can have rights of ownership in other men."
Benjamin Ricketson Tucker, Part 1, by Wendy McElroy, Freedom Daily, Aug 2007
Biographical essay on Benjamin Tucker from birth to the early years of the periodical Liberty
Sovereignty of the Individual was also known as "self-ownership"—the principle that every person, simply by being human, possesses an inalienable jurisdiction over his own body and the peaceful use thereof. This universal right carried a corresponding duty to respect the self-ownership of others ... Cost the Limit of Price is an American version of the labor theory of value, which claims that all wealth is created by labor and ... belongs to the laborer. Tucker viewed the right ... as a direct extension of self-ownership and condemned capitalistic practices such as charging interest as unjust.
Benjamin Tucker, Liberty and Individualist Anarchism [PDF], by Wendy McElroy, The Independent Review, 1997
Presents a short biography of Tucker and then the history of the Liberty journal, including its major themes, the debates over Stirnerite egoism vs. natural rights and its literary and international coverage, concluding with commentary
The first [theme] was "the sovereignty of the individual," sometimes expressed as "self-ownership"—a term popularized by Garrisonian abolitionism. Self-ownership maintains that every human being ... has an inalienable moral jurisdiction over his or her own body and over what he or she produces. This universalizable right, or claim, was what Tucker meant whenever he used the Spencerian phrase "the law of equal liberty." As Tucker (1893) wrote, "Equal liberty means the largest amount of liberty compatible with equality and mutuality of respect, on the part of individuals living in society ..."
Benjamin Tucker, Individualism, & Liberty: Not the Daughter but the Mother of Order, by Wendy McElroy, Literature of Liberty, 1981
Bibliographical essay covering the people and radical movements that influenced Tucker in his founding and publishing of Liberty, its major themes and contributors
American libertarianism of the nineteenth century ... revolved around two themes: the sovereignty of the individual, sometimes expressed in terms of self-ownership; and the labor theory of value, often expressed as "cost the limit of price." Sovereignty of the individual referred to the absolute moral jurisdiction of each person over the use and disposal of his or her own body. The labor theory of value, which claimed that all wealth was created by labor and usually implied that it therefore belonged to the laborer, was considered to be a direct extension of self-ownership.
The Economics of Self-Ownership, by Michael S. Rozeff, Mises Daily, 6 Sep 2005
Explores ten economic arguments in justification of the self-ownership axiom
To have self-ownership is to be able to make one's own choices in all spheres of one's life. Self-ownership amounts to an undiluted right to one's life and the liberty to pursue one's happiness. If one has complete self-ownership, then one is not being aggressed upon. And if one (or one's property) is not being aggressed upon, then one is free to pursue one's own interests ... With self-ownership comes individual flourishing, free markets, cooperation, and learning. Without [it] comes suppression of the individual, controlled exchange, greater conflict, and a dulled spirit.
The essence of liberty: What is it that really makes one a libertarian?, by David Nolan, Libertarian Party News, Mar 1995
Discusses five points of "no compromise" that Nolan considered essential to libertarianism
First and foremost, libertarians believe in the principle of self-ownership. You own your own body and mind; no external power has the right to force you into the service of "society" or "mankind" or any other individual or group for any purpose, however noble. Slavery is wrong, period. Because you own yourself, you are responsible for your own well-being. Others are not obligated to feed you, clothe you, or provide you with health care. Most of us choose to help one another voluntarily, for a variety of reasons—and that's as it should be—but "forced compassion" is an oxymoron ...
Herbert, Auberon (1838-1906), by Eric Mack, The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, 15 Aug 2008
Biographical and bibliographical essay
Herbert offered two main arguments for the proposition that each person possessed rights over his own person, faculties, and energy. First, each person should pursue happiness and moral development. To do so, each person must be left free to devote his faculties and energies as he judges will best promote that happiness and development. It was therefore crucial for each individual to enjoy a right to exercise his own faculties and direct his own energies. It follows, he argued, that no one can correctly ascribe this right of self-ownership to himself and not also ascribe it to everyone else.
How We Come to Own Ourselves, by Stephan Kinsella, Mises Daily, 7 Sep 2006
State laws, regulations, and actions are objectionable just because the state is claiming the right to control how someone's body is to be used. When the state drafts a man or threatens him with imprisonment if he violates its narcotics laws, for example, it is assuming partial control of his body, contrary to his self-ownership rights.
Individual Rights or Civil Rights?, by Sheldon Richman, Freedom Daily, Dec 1995
Contrasts the right not to be discriminated against with the right of freedom of association and concludes that one of them is invalid, also discussing private vs. government discrimination
The conflict between the right not to be discriminated against and the right to free association should be obvious. The right to free association is logically entailed in the basic right to life or the right of self-ownership. That right holds that an individual may do anything with his person and legitimately acquired property that does not involve the initiation of force against another person. If an individual owns his life, he has the right to choose with whom he'll deal. That right to choose logically entails the right to use whatever criteria the person wishes.
Life of Liberty: Robert Nozick, R.I.P., by Richard Epstein, National Review Online, 24 Jan 2002
Memorial tribute, comparing Nozick to Hayek and discussing some of the arguments he made in Anarchy, State and Utopia
For [Nozick] justice was not simply the some ideal end state, but a process by which people entered into transactions and made their way into the world. Starting with this perspective, Nozick quickly reached the conclusion that all individuals begin life with a system of self-ownership, which is then extended into the world by a principle of justice in acquisition whereby unowned things in the natural world received single owners. These owners in turn are allowed by virtue of the principle of justice in transfer allowed to convey the property to someone else who in turn inherits all the rights of the owner.
Locke, John (1632-1704), by Eric Mack, The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, 15 Aug 2008
Biographical and bibliographical essay
In the state of nature, each individual has rights over his own life, limb, and liberty. The law of nature, which Locke held governs the state of nature, requires that we all are bound to respect each other's natural rights. For each of us, these rights also include a right over our own labor. We acquire rights to particular external objects by mixing our labor with some previously unowned material. Having so mixed our labor, we cannot be deprived of the transformed object without being deprived of our rightfully held labor. Hence, we now have a right to the transformed object.
Module 2: John Locke's Two Treatises of Government
Second module of the Cato Home Study Course, includes link to listen or download audio program (2:41:50), questions and suggested readings
Each of us, Locke argued, has "a property in" his or her person, and that property is inalienable, that is, it cannot be transferred to another. Locke insisted that government cannot rest, as previous thinkers had argued, on the total transfer of the rights of the people to the sovereign, for the simple reason that some rights are by nature inalienable. Just as one cannot transfer one's moral responsibility for one's acts, one cannot alienate one's right over one's own life.
Murray Rothbard's Philosophy of Freedom, by David Gordon, The Freeman, Nov 2007
Examines the arguments made by Rothbard that, given the premise that slavery is wrong, self-ownership, private property rights and a free market without government interventions follow
Murray Rothbard ... based his political philosophy on a simple insight: slavery is wrong ... If we reject slavery, then are we not saying that each person owns his own body? Just what seems immoral about slavery is that some people, the slave owners, have the right to control the bodies of those under the-ir domination. The owners can tell the slaves what to do and force them to obey if they refuse to com-ply ... Democracy, in Rothbard's view, is a system in which each person owns a share of everyone else ... The choice cann-ot be evaded: one must either favor self-ownership or slavery.
The Natural Right of Property, by Sheldon Richman, The Goal Is Freedom, 17 Aug 2007
Examines Thomas Hodgskin's philosophy, in particular his writings on property rights in The Natural and Artificial Right of Property Contrasted (1832)
[Hodgskin] goes so far to say that the right of property is embedded in the very idea of individuality ...
Mr. Locke says, that every man has a property in his own person; in fact, individuality—which is signified by the word own—cannot be disjoined from the person. Each individual learns his own shape and form ... These constitute his notion of personal identity, both for himself and others; and it is impossible to conceive—it is in fact a contradiction to say—that a man's limbs and body do not belong to himself: for the words him, self, and his body, signify the same material thing.
Property and Force: A Reply to Matt Bruenig, by Sheldon Richman, The Goal Is Freedom, 22 Nov 2013
Responds to blogger Bruenig's criticism of the essay "One Moral Standard for All"; with quotes or examples from Roderick Long, Murray Rothbard, Gary Chartier, David Hume and Karl Hess
When [Mr. Bruenig] wrote that a purported trespasser is an aggressor only if you think the "victim" owns the property, I commented, "And a rapist is aggressive only if you think the woman owns her body." I received no reply. Why should persons be free of bodily restraint, able to walk about the world freely? The likely answer is that each owns himself or herself, body and mind, and thus has a right to autonomy. But if that is so, they may not ignore the equal freedom of others—otherwise all are not free—and they should not do so because a fully human life consists in a life of reason, not force.
The Roots of Individualist Feminism in 19th-Century America, by Wendy McElroy
Introduction to Freedom, Feminism, and the State, a collection of 22 essays edited by McElroy
As an organized force, feminism dates from abolitionism in the early 1830s. Abolitionism was the radical anti-slavery movement which demanded the immediate cessation of slavery on the grounds that every man was a self-owner; that is, every human being has moral jurisdiction over his or her own body ... Abbie Kelley (1810-1887), an abolitionist-feminist, observed: "We have good cause to be grateful to the slave, for the benefit we have received to ourselves, in working for him. In striving to strike his irons off, we found most surely that we were manacled ourselves."
Self-Ownership: The Foundation of Freedom, by David MacGregor, 1 Feb 2005
Self ownership means just one thing, that YOU are the owner of your life--your body, your mind, your energy, and any consequent results of your life's efforts. If you are not sure of this--or disagree--then simply ask yourself, 'If I am NOT the rightful owner of my own life, then who is?'
A Tax Even Libertarians Could Love?, by Matt Zwolinski, 4 Mar 2016
Discusses Henry George's proposal for a Single Tax and his moral and economic arguments in favor of imposing the tax
[George's] moral argument starts from the same place as John Locke’s famous discussion of property, with the claim that each individual is the sole rightful owner of his body and labor. Because George accepted Locke's idea of self-ownership, he argued that most forms of taxation are unjust–essentially a form of theft. If you own your labor, and you choose to sell your labor to somebody else, no third party–including government–can legitimately demand that you give them a portion of the income you've received. To do so would be, in effect, to steal your labor.
Related Topics: Economics, Henry George, Land, Taxation

The introductory paragraph uses material from the Wikipedia article "Self-ownership" as of 3 Oct 2018, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.