Possessive Individualism: Can We Really Own Ourselves?By John Médaille for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
The bedrock principle of all Liberalism, whether of the Right or the Left, is Locke’s assertion that “every man has a Property in his own Person.” If is from this principle that Murray Rothbard can assert, “The right to self-ownership asserts the absolute right of each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, to “own” his or her own body; that is, to control that body free of coercive interference.” And one has only to peruse the defenses of contraception and abortion to see that they are rooted in this principle of possessive individualism, the absolute and inviolable ownership of each person over their own bodies. Or as C. B Macpherson put it, “What makes a man human is freedom from dependence on the wills of others.”
Indeed, this would almost seem to be an intuitively obvious and self-evident principle. After all, if I don’t own my own body, who does? And if I don’t own my own self, then what can “self” possibly mean? Nevertheless, I would like to assert the contrary principle, namely, that of all the objects in the universe, the one thing we cannot own is ourselves. We can stake a claim to the moon, gain title to the Sun, wrench vast wealth from the Earth and claim it as our own. But ourselves, we cannot own.
We cannot own ourselves for the simple reason that we cannot create ourselves; we cannot seize control of our origins or be present at our beginnings. Rather, all of us are called into being through an act of love into the ready-made community of the family. From this little society, we receive certain gifts. The gift of being itself, in the first instance, and a sufficiency of material gifts—food, clothing, shelter—or else we would not have survived. But beyond these material gifts, we are graced with other kinds of gifts: language, culture, our first ideas of right and wrong, our first experience of love and beauty. But if we are initially the repositories of grace, the creation of gifting communities with whom we can exchange no gifts, then are we just a “we,” a community with no room for personality?
This fear of being subsumed into the community, of failing to be or become an “I” is the fear which motivates Liberalism, in whatever form we find it. For to find ourselves, they believe, we must lose the community, or at least lose any restrictions the community would impose, other than those we voluntarily select. Liberalism, it is argued, frees us from that familial and communitarian “we” to finally become an “I.” The family and the community are the institutions which Michael Novak and Ludwig von Mises derided as “hegemonic,” and from which Liberalism seeks to free us. These hegemonic institutions must of necessity exercise over us precisely that “coercive interference” with our individualistic development that Rothbard feared.
Moreover, this self-ownership is viewed as the ultimate protection against slavery, which is the opposite of self-ownership. So between freeing us from the wills of others, which would inhibit our humanity, and insuring that no one can enslave us, which would end it, we find the whole of Liberal polity. But let me suggest that self-ownership accomplishes neither goal. Indeed, once the idea of any kind of ownership of a person is admitted, slavery is an unavoidable consequence. For if you can own yourself, you can also sell yourself. And if another can get ownership of you by sale, they can get it by other means; they can “repossess” your body for debts, or create economic conditions under which you have little choice but to sell yourself in return for subsistence. What is owned by one, can be owned by another.
And so far from developing apart from community, it is only in community that “development” has any meaning whatsoever. Even from the standpoint of individualism, what would free exchange mean if there were no communities with which to make an exchange? But that being said, we still need to locate a “self” that participates in this community; we need to locate something that is ours and ours alone, something that we indeed have made from things that we ourselves own.
If we cannot own ourselves because we cannot create ourselves, then we must ask, “What then can I create that is truly mine, something that is in some sense truly ‘me’?” The answer, I think, is that we create our personalities. We take the gifts we have we have been given, and make a decision about how to use them and how to react to them. We repeat actions, for good or evil, and by that repetition they become virtuous or vicious dispositions; we elect to train ourselves to certain skills and certain habits of mind; we choose to react to certain situations in certain ways, until our reactions become second nature. We become these habits, dispositions, skills, etc.
But even here, a problem remains. For the personality is constructed from materials that the person receives from the outside: language, class, gender, social position, received ideology, the particular opportunities presented to each person, etc. What proof is there that the so-called “person” is not just an accidental configuration of social forces and pressures? A libertarian might assert that “there is no such thing as society,” but surely the same evidence leads equally well to the opposite conclusion: that the “reality” of the person is an illusion and we are all just molecules in a social formation. So how can we assert the reality of our individual identity in a way that really makes it “ours”?
To answer this, I think we must go back to our origins, which are undeniably tied up with the fact of “gift.” But how could our parents give us the gift of life, and all the other gifts, except that they “owned” these things. And here, I think, we find the answer to this whole riddle: they claimed ownership of these things by giving them away. We never deny that we received life from our parents and thus we affirm their ownership of something that may be given. In giving us food and love, they assert these things were theirs to give, and in accepting them, we affirm their ownership. Thus we come to a great paradox: we own that which we give away; we affirm the self in the gift of self.
We this in mind, we no longer need to fear the “we” as Ayn Rand did, with a sort of pathological vehemence. To be sure, the “we” can be an oppressive collective of “owners” each seeking to increase his holdings at the expense of the others. Such is the nature of both slave societies and a certain kind of competitive commerce. But the “we” can also be the gifting community, in which each person affirms themselves by sharing. Indeed, this is always the structure of village life, where honor and not gold is the coin of the realm, and commodities circulate as gifts given in return for honor rather then money. But as societies grow beyond the limits of the village, when most people we meet are strangers rather than friends, and most of our goods are supplied by people we will never meet, can such a principle be any more than a platitude?
Indeed, if the principle has no application to the ordinary world of getting and spending, then it is a mere platitude, a pleasant pastime for bored intellectuals, but one that may be safely ignored by everyone, including the intellectual, when they go shopping, as they must. Nor are we permitted to merely denigrate this world of getting and spending, for in a material world, even our gifts (including gifts of love) must be funded. Hence, if this principle means nothing in the world of commerce, the world most of us occupy most of the time, then it means nothing at all.
There can be doubt that the exchange of gifts which is the lifeblood of the village must be replaced by the exchange of goods and money if society is to move beyond the most primitive state. Nevertheless, even in the most mundane exchange, the aspect of the gift remains. And the degree to which it remains is the measure of the level of civilization in any social order. And to go even further, it is the measure of economic rationality. To understand this, we must understand the nature of commercial transactions.
In every commercial exchange, there are two values in play: exchange-value and use-value. The exchange value, at optimum, is the lowest price that will fairly compensate all factors of production for their contributions to production. But there is also the use-value, the utility the items in the trade have to each of the traders. Now, the use-values must run in opposite directions for the buyer and the seller; the buyer must have a greater use for the item than for the money, while the seller must value the money more than the item.
Now the use-value for the buyer must exceed the exchange-value by some amount, or the exchange will not take place. Now one will pay $10 for an item that has only $5 of utility. In fact, they won’t even pay five, absent force, fraud, or desperation, or the exchange would have no meaning. Hence, there must always be a gap between the use-value and the exchange value. This gap is precisely the measure of the gift involved in a transaction. The buyer, to be sure, must be willing to pay a fair price, a price that will fairly compensate all who gave up something—land, labor, or capital—to produce the item. The buyer naturally seeks to get things at the lowest price, but that price should never be based on oppression, on a wage that destroys the dignity of the worker; to do so is to destroy not only the gifted nature of the exchange, but the economic rationality which balances supply and demand.
This gap between the use-value and the exchange-value is not only the measure of the gift, but the measure of the economic wealth created by the trade. For wealth, properly understood, is not measured in money, but in use; the more use I get out of a thing, the more value it has. The car I drive for 10 years creates more wealth then the car I drive for five. But this wealth can be diminished when the seller seeks to absorb as much of the use-value into the price as his power permits. This, unfortunately, is the basis of all “utility pricing” theories. The schoolmen of the middle ages, from Aquinas onward, recognized utility pricing as a violation of the 7th commandment, because the seller was selling that which was not his. As Louis Molina of the School of Salamanca put it,
That one may not accept a higher price by reason of the advantage of gain of the buyer is proved from the fact that the advantage is not something of the seller’s but the buyer’s; therefore the seller may not accept payment for it; otherwise he would sell what is not his (1759, Disputation, 348:6).
The price the buyer pays, when it is a just price, is the gift the seller gives to the producers; the commodity the seller surrenders is his gift to the buyer, and the size of that gift is the gap between use and exchange values. Thus, even in our mundane transactions, the element of the gift remains; an attempt to eliminate this gift destroys both economic rationality and the basis of a rational social order. Gift, that is, grace, is not a mere platitude, but a practical principle of economics and politics. To deny this in favor of the cramped rationalism of possessive individualism is to replace the economy of grace with what John Milbank called “a mean little heresy.”
We do not so much “own” as “owe,” and by discharging the debt we come to own what we give. And in giving ourselves, we come to own ourselves. The ultimate gift is the self, which we only own when we give it away. My life is not really my own until I am willing to give it to family, community, and vocation; to lay it down for a friend.