36. “Self-Ownership, World-Ownership, and Initial Acquisition”


Abstract: G.A. Cohen was perhaps libertarianism’s most formidable critic. In Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality he levels several strong criticisms against Robert Nozick’s theory put forth in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. In this paper, I counter several of Cohen’s criticisms. The debate operates at three stages: (1) self-ownership, (2) world-ownership, and (3) initial acquisition. At the first stage, Cohen does not attempt to refute self-ownership, but weaken its force in providing moral grounds for capitalism. Here I argue that Cohen’s attempt to overturn Nozick’s slavery argument is unsuccessful because partial-slavery, while normatively different from full-slavery, is still normatively wrong. At the second stage, Cohen argues for a joint-ownership view of the world’s resources. In particular, he claims that self-ownership is rendered merely formal in a jointly-owned world and in a capitalist world. To rebut this challenge I show that even if Cohen is right about this, libertarian self-ownership is only formal in Cohen’s peculiar case where only two people exist and one owns everything. In contrast, self-ownership in a jointly-owned world is formal in all cases. Lastly, at the third stage, Cohen argues against Nozick’s interpretation of the Lockean proviso, claiming that it is impossible to satisfy. Granting Cohen’s argument here, I go on to defend Jan Narveson’s no-proviso view of acquisition from Cohen’s thus far unanswered criticism. I show that significantly, in his critique, Cohen equivocates between positive and negative rights. Taken jointly, my responses at these three stages ground the anti-egalitarian conclusion that, in Cohen’s words, ‘[e]xtensive inequality of condition is unavoidable, or avoidable only on pain of violating people’s rights to themselves and to things.’ The sequence, then, is from self-ownership, to world-ownership, via initial acquisition.