Of the three Jews described by George Steiner as, in Corey Robin’s summary, having formulated a great and demanding ethics/politics, Jesus is to me the most interesting.[^1] That thought struck me while reading Jerry Cohen’s Self-ownership, freedom and equality, a Marxist response to Nozick. As Cohen observes early on, Marxists seem to have a lot more difficulty responding to Nozick than do (US) liberals or social democrats. That’s because the notion of self-ownership central to Nozick’s argument is closely allied to the Marxian idea that capitalism inherently involves exploitation (that is, extraction of surplus value from labor). Nozick’s claim was that the same is true of taxation, or any kind of claim on private property imposed by the state.
I’ll come back to self-ownership in a little while. The more interesting point, to me, is that Nozick’s argument was refuted in advance by Jesus when he was asked by Pharisees (arbiters of the law laid down by Moses) whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the Romans. This was, of course, a trap, since he could be arrested for saying No and discredited for saying Yes. Jesus showed them a coin with the emperor’s head on the obverse and said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. And “when they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.”
Jesus’ point is just as valid if the coin is replaced by paper currency bearing the picture of a president, or rent from a land title issued by a state, or a dividend coupon from a corporation established under state law. All of these things were initially obtained from states under conditions that (in most cases, explicitly) involved the obligation to pay taxes as determined by the legal processes of those states. Someone who takes Caesar’s coin and then repudiates the associated obligation to pay taxes is, quite simply, a thief (of course, theft implies property, and vice versa).
How does all this relate to self-ownership? In my view, this is nothing more than a linguistic confusion.[^2] Our relationship to our bodies and thoughts, to our friends and family, and even to the objects we use in our daily life, is fundamentally distinct from the property rights we may, or may not, derive from, and have enforced by, states. That’s true even though the same grammatical structures (genitives and clitics) are used for both. This is most obvious from the fact that most (if not all) actually existing property rights in the world today can be traced back to systems which encompassed some form of slavery.
Moreover, systems of property that do recognise self-ownership must necessarily allow some form of slavery. Ownership implies alienability, so that freemen can sell themselves and their families[^3] into slavery, peonage or indentured servitude.
This brings us to the idea, shared by Marx and Calhoun (among many others) that wage employment is inherently a form of slavery. This conclusion, I think, reflects the fact that self-ownership is the wrong starting point for thinking about these issues.
The fact that most employment relationships involve some degree of exploitation of the worker by the employer reflects the fact that employers are mostly richer and more powerful than workers. A change in the formal relationship, doesn’t change the facts and is often associated withintensified exploitation. An example is the conversion of workers into nominally independent contractors, often used in Australia as a method of unionbusting.
To sum up, the whole idea of basing a theory of social justice on self-ownership, or any kind of natural right to property derived from self-ownership, is inherently self-contradictory. State-created and enforced property rights, including the associated taxation systems, are social institutions which may or may not contribute to socially just outcomes, but have no moral standing in themselves.
[^1]: All three have been badly served by (many/most of) their followers, which is, I suppose an inevitable consequence of the difficulty of their teaching. But the fact that the followers of Jesus, the first great preacher of universal love and non-resistance in the Western tradition, should go on to found the first real persecuting religion is a truly tragic irony.
[^2]: As I mention in the linked post, for example, no one has ever complained about the title of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin even though both Tom and the cabin are the property of the slaveowning Shelbys. We perfectly well understand that the sense in which both the cabin and Tom’s body are his bear no relation to the property system.
[^3]: In all actually existing cases of which I’m aware, the male head of the family (who might be the father of a nuclear family, a paterfamilias or a clan chief) owned the entire family. My own ancestry includes the MacLeods many of whom were allegedly kidnapped by their own clan chief, Norman MacLeod, with the aim of selling them into slavery in North America. At some point (not sure when) the US ended slavery for whites but not for blacks. It appears that free blacks could still sell themselves back into slavery, at least in some jurisdictions. http://books.google.com.au/books?id=eedAiD-1RMwC&pg=PA397&lpg=PA397&dq=could+free+blacks+sell+themselves+into+slavery&source=bl&ots=VzyPjSrQRB&sig=JOSj11YYnONxknEdWIsZrmZ9dbo&hl=en&sa=X&ei=W_UsVNCIBYWO8QWs-IKgAw&ved=0CGYQ6AEwCw#v=onepage&q=could%20free%20blacks%20sell%20themselves%20into%20slavery&f=false
But even if a system of this kind established gender equity and notionally gave everyone self-ownership, it would not change the dependence of children on their parents or other adults. So, by the time children reached adulthood, they could be burdened with unrepayable debts, as typically happens in systems of debt peonage.