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Self-Ownership, World Ownership, and Equality: Part II

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2009

G. A. Cohen
Philosophy and Politics, Oxford University


1. The present paper is a continuation of my “Self-Ownership, World Ownership, and Equality,” which began with a description of the political philosophy of Robert Nozick. I contended in that essay that the foundational claim of Nozick's philosophy is the thesis of self-ownership, which says that each person is the morally rightful owner of his own person and powers, and, consequently, that each is free (morally speaking) to use those powers as he wishes, provided that he does not deploy them aggressively against others. To be sure, he may not harm others, and he may, if necessary, be forced not to harm them, but he should never be forced to help them, as people are in fact forced to help others, according to Nozick, by redistributive taxation. (Nozick recognizes that an unhelping person may qualify as unpleasant or even, under certain conditions, as immoral. The self-ownership thesis says that people should be free to live their lives as they choose, but it does not say that how they choose to live them is beyond criticism.)

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 1986

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* For improving comments on a previous version of this paper, I thank Ronald Dworkin, David Gordon, Alice Knight, Derek Parfit, John Roemer, Hilel Steiner, Steven Walt, and Erik Wright.

1 That earlier paper appears in a volume of lectures delivered at the Leonard Symposium held at the University of Nevada at Reno in October, 1983, to be published by Cornell University Press, and edited by Frank Lucash. I shall henceforth refer to this article as “Self-Ownership:I.” Most of “Self-Ownership: I” also appears in New Left Review, No. 150, March/April, 1985, underthe title “Nozick on Appropriation.”

2 In so designating what is foundational and what is derivative in Nozick, I am denying that he thinks that freedom comes first and that, in order to be free, people should be self-owning. For he gives us no independent purchase on freedom which would enable us to tie freedom and self-ownership that way around. His real view is that the scope and nature of the freedom we should enjoy is a function of our self-ownership. That is why he does not regard the apparent unfreedom of the proletarian – see section 6 below – as a counterexample to his view that freedom prevails in capitalist society. For the proletarian forced daily to sell his labor power is nevertheless a self-owner, indeed must be one in order to sell it, and is, therefore, nevertheless free, in the relevant sense.

3 See Part I of “Self-Ownership: I.”

4 I am supposing that it is not open to Able to wait until Infirm dies in order to become the sole owner of everything: assume that he would himself die no later than Infirm does in the absence of production.

5 See Schelling, Thomas, Strategy of Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960).Google Scholar

6 This is John Locke's example; see his Second Treatise of Government, paragraph 33, and “Self-Ownership: I,” for a discussion of it.

7 On the importance of space as a resource, see my Karl Marx's Theory of History, Oxford and Princeton, 1978, pp. 50–52. For strong claims about the relationship between freedom and rights over space, see Steiner, Hillel, “Individual Liberty”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1974–5, pp. 44ff.Google Scholar

8 If, that is, the joint world ownership is itself substantive rather than merely official. For consider a regime in which a person P owns both himself and everyone else, with all other resources being in joint ownership. Then either that joint ownership remains real (because P's ownership of everyone is truly consistent with their exercise of rights over things), in which case the statement in the text applies; or the joint world ownership is itself unreal. I provisionally conclude, pending further possible counterexamples, that joint world ownership either fully determines the outcome, rendering other provisions merely official, or is itself merely official.

9 See Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974) pp. 28–35 (on side constraints) and pp. 42–45, 48–51 (on leading one's own life).

10 After Nozick, op. cit., pp. 262–4, for a critique of which see my “Robert Nozick and Wilt Chamberlain,” Arthur, J. and Shaw, W., eds., Justice and EconomicDistribution (Englewood Cliffs, 1978), pp. 257–60;Google Scholar “Freedom, Justice, and Capitalism,” New Left Review, No. 126 (March-April 1981), pp. 8–11; “Illusions About Private Property and Freedom”, John, Mepham and David, Ruben, eds., Issues in Marxist Philosophy, (Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1981) pp. 226239.Google Scholar

11 Z is abject because he owns no private property, and he will therefore contract, on adverse terms, with someone who does own some, if he can find a propertied person willing to contract with him. His predicament might be thought dire, but Nozick does not think that he has a just grievance. For a propertyless person has a grievance, in Nozick's view, only if his propertylessness renders him worse off than he would havebeen had the world remained in Lockean common ownership, without private property, and Nozick believes that proletarians are unlikely to be, in that way, worse off. He would say, of those propertyless persons who do manage tosell their labor power, that they will get at least as much and probably more in exchange for it than they could have hoped to get by applying it ina Lockean state of nature; and, of those propertyless persons whose labor power is not worth buying, that, although they might therefore, in Nozick's non-welfare state, die, they would have died in the state of nature any way.

See Part II of “Self-Ownership: I” for an extended critique of Nozick's way of testing whether propertyless persons have a just grievance.

12 Some would question this contrast between the capitalist and the worker. I defend it in section XIII of “The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom,” Philosophy andPublic Affairs, vol. 12 (Winter 1983), pp. 20–23.

13 I so name it because it is Hillel Steiner's solution to the problem of justice in distribution when the issue of successive generations, which I do not address here, is set aside. See Steiner, Hillel, “The Natural Right to the Means of Production,Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 27 (1977), pp. 4849.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

14 I do not know whether Dworkin thinks that the equalizing compensation ought, if possible, to be total. These pages of “Equality of Resources,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 10, no. 4 (Fall 1981) suggest more than one anwer tothat question: pp. 299, 301, 327, 337.

15 I suppose, once again (see footnote 4), that Able may not wait until Infirm dies in order to pick up his share. Suppose that Infirm forestalls that by designating his land as his burial plot.

16 There is less tendency to such an upshot when the greater talent of more productive people cannot be developed, and/or exercised to differentially productive effect, except as a result of a division of labor in which less productive people are essential participants. But socialists and left-wing liberals are inclined to exaggerate the extent to which that is likely to be so.

For a set of statements urging some such dependence of the more on the less productive, see Galston, William, Justice and the Human Good (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 207, 211–12;Google Scholar and two authors he quotes: Miller, David, Social Justice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), pp. 105–06Google Scholar; and Hobhouse, Leonard, The Elements of Social Justice (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1922), pp.140–41.Google Scholar Part of the claim is nicely put by Latour, Bishop in Cather's, WillaDeath Comes for the Archibishop (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927).Google Scholar He says to his friend, the excellent cook, Father Joseph Vaillant: “I am not deprecating your individual talent, Joseph … but, when one thinks of it, a soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly one thousand years of history in this soup” (p.39). For a persuasive attempt to block inferences which socialists might wish to draw from Bishop Latour's observation, see Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 95.Google Scholar

17 For an implicit claim to that effect, see the axiomatization of self-ownership with external resource equality offered by John Roemer in section 3 of his unpublished “Public Ownership and the Private Property Externalty,” November 1984.

18 See Dworkin, op. cit., pp. 309–10.

19 “Equality of Resources” was preceded by “Equality of Welfare,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 10, no. 3 (Summer 1981).

20 By means, for example, of the initial auction described by Dworkin at pp. 286–90 of “Equality of Resources”

21 See footnote 17 above. Two of Roemer's axioms are that (1) Nobody's welfare declines if all retain the same skill as before and the amount of land increases and (2) If A has at least as much skill as B, then he has at least as much welfare as B. Such axioms are, intuitively, pretty evident, on a welfarist interpretation of self-ownership and worldly resource equality.

22 All quotations in the foregoing two paragraphs are from “Equality of Resources,” p. 309.

23 For an extended discussion of Locke on labor's value-creating power, see my Marx and Locke on Land and Labour, forthcoming.

24 See ibid.

25 See ibid.

26 See Olivecrona, Karl, “Locke's theory of Appropriation,” Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 24 (July 1974), pp. 231233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

27 Dworkin, “Equality of Resources,” p.309.

28 ibid., p. 310.