Self-Ownership and the Limits of Libertarianism

Social Theory and Practice 31 (4):465-482 (2005)
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In the longstanding debate between liberals and libertarians over the morality of redistributive labor taxation, liberals such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin have consistently taken the position that such taxation is perfectly compatible with individual liberty, whereas libertarians such as Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard have adopted the (very) contrary position that such taxation is tantamount to slavery. In this paper, I argue that the debate over redistributive labor taxation can be usefully reconstituted as a debate over the incidents (or components) of self-ownership, with liberals arguing for a narrow definition of the concept and libertarians arguing for a broad one. By using what Alan Ryan has called the “language of proprietorship,” I pinpoint precisely the source of the disagreement between liberals and libertarians and assess the relative strengths of their arguments. I also show that the respective definitions of self-ownership used by liberals and libertarians are deeply problematic—though for strikingly different reasons.

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Robert S. Taylor
University of California, Davis

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