Number 6, March 1996

The Ego and Her Own

By Wendy McElroy

Exclusive to The Libertarian Enterprise

         Why is it wrong to initiate force? Why should anyone respect rights?
         The advantages of violating rights are obvious. I can steal money rather than work hard to obtain it; I can eliminate people I find disagreeable and whom I never wish to encounter again. The disadvantages of respecting rights are equally obvious. As an anarchist, I cannot in good conscience sue someone through the court system or accept a tax supported job.
         The fact that I am an egoist -- that is, I put my own self-interest above all other moral considerations -- makes the question more tangled. After all, in living my libertarian principles, it looks as though I am sacrificing my self-interest.
         Natural rights versus egoism is one of the classic debates of American libertarianism. In 19th century, the debate was occasioned by the translation of Max Stirner's The Ego and His Own from German into English. This book caused the most significant ideological schism that the fledging movement would experienced. Such prominent libertarians as Benjamin Tucker and James L. Walker were so impressed by egoist arguments that they abandoned the concept of rights altogether. In the late 1800's, Tucker's pivotal periodical Liberty asked the same question with which I began: Why is it wrong to initiate force?
         The answer can be found in examining why people live in society rather than on a desert island? After all, a desert island offers the definite advantage of absolutely unbridled individual freedom. In society, there is always the threat of violence. Why then do we associate with people, when it entails such risk?
         It answer is clear: because association also offers tremendous benefits, including friendship, expanded knowledge and romantic love. Yet most of us can imagine a society from which we would flee into solitude -- for example, one in which we were slaves. The extent to which a society relies on force is the extent to which that society becomes a disadvantage. At some point, a desert island becomes attractive.
         The deciding factor on whether to withdraw is usually whether the society takes more than it gives. This devolves to the question, 'how great a risk of violence does society pose?' Or, more basically, 'what is the nature of violence and why does it arise between people?' Force arises from conflicts of desire or interest between human beings.
         Some people claim there is an inevitable conflict between men -- a Hobbesian war of all against all. If you and I desire the same job or commodity, this is taken as evidence of our conflicting interests. From this point, it can become a philosophical slippery-slide all the way down to concluding it is in my self interest to kill you.
         But the fact that our desires clash does not mean that our interests conflict in any real manner. For example, the fact that human beings basically desire the same things -- food, shelter, clothing, etc. -- does not create disharmony. Ironically, because other people want the same things I do those things become easier for me to acquire. For example, because everyone wants clothing, mass quantities of it are produced and I have access to far more clothing of a better quality and at a cheaper price than if clothing were a unique desire of mine. Two women at a store's sale might argue over a sweater, but the fact that so many people want such sweaters is precisely why they are available to be argued over. This is an example of desires conflicting at the same moment that interests coincide.
         Nevertheless, fundamental conflicts -- ones that are not merely a clash of desires -- will inevitably arise in society. For example, both the thief and I want my wallet. The rapist and I both want the use my body. Here the question is 'What's the best principle by which to resolve such conflicts?' The best principle of resolution is individual rights -- property rights -- because it preserves both the advantages of a desert island and those of society.
         Benjamin Tucker suggested property rights as a principle of resolution in a debate on property, which occurred in Liberty. Tucker took an interesting approach. He viewed concepts as problem solving devices. Which is to say, he believed the only reason human beings come up with ideas is to answer questions or dilemmas that confront them.
         Tucker wondered why the concept of property rights had originated. What question was it answering? What was it in the nature of reality and the nature of man that gave rise to such a concept in the first place?
         He concluded that property rights solved the dilemma of scarcity. In other words, if a physical object -- such as a chair -- could be used by an infinite number of people at the same time and in the same respect, there would be no conflict over using the chair. There would be no need for the concept of property rights.
         But a chair is a scarce good. If there are two claims to the chair, there needs to be a principle of resolution. One principle is 'whoever is strongest should prevail.' Perhaps you are the strongest person on earth, or in your society, and you can claim any chair you wish. If so, you are able to have the advantages of the island and of society without respecting rights. The problem is that this solution works for only one person.
         For everyone else, the only reasonable principle of resolution is property rights. It is what offers the best chance of preserving the advantages of both a desert island and society -- the advantage of both individual freedom and social harmony.
         In this manner, property rights can be rooted in pure egoism.

"A contributing editor to Liberty magazine, Wendy McElroy has published widely in feminism beginning in 1983 with Freedom, Feminism and the State (CATO) and most recently in 1995 with XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography (St. Martin's Press). Her articles have appeared in such diverse publications as National Review and Penthouse. Her 'day' job is writing and editing documentaries, some of which have been recorded by Walter Cronkite, George C. Scott and Harry Reasoner."

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