Individual Sovereignty, not Self Ownership

As detailed in my previous post “We are information”, I said:

We are increasingly and will eventually entirely *be* information. If we allow ownership of information, we eventually lose ownership of ourselves.

In response, Rafal Smigrodzki objected with the following:

I don’t understand. Shouldn’t it be “If we forbid the ownership of information, and if we are information, then we forbid the ownership of ourselves.”? Without IP we will have, among others, no defense against unauthorized copying of us (i.e. making of slave copies).

This post was my response. (Again, this is all from the exi-chat mailing list):

This is a good, and difficult point that Rafal raises.

Rafal’s position assumes that our human rights derive from property rights (h/t Jeffery Davis). Is that even supportable from a libertarian perspective?

Having a read of this article on self-ownership, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-ownership, I don’t find myself terribly enlightened. There seems to be a conflation of the idea of self-ownership, and of the sovereign individual, which to me appear to be very different things.

I agree that personal sovereignty is desirable. We should have power over ourselves comparable to a sovereign state over its territory (putting aside our feelings about sovereign states for the minute). But, self ownership implies the ability to sell oneself. Does sovereignty require that? Does the rights-based-in-property-rights position require the ability to sell oneself into slavery?

I don’t want people to have to deconstruct my position here, so I need to state a fundamental principle which I hold, that I don’t think libertarians hold, and it is that of asymmetric power relations. Simply, i think we are always in a situation where power is distributed unevenly (in many more or less intertwined pareto distributions, no?) and that, unfettered, those with more power will impose their will on those with less. Our social world is an uneven playing field par excellence. To not take this into account is to build a theory naive to the real world.

I think the libertarian idea that we can begin with property rights and derive everything else from them is elegant, but doesn’t work (from a utilitarian point of view), largely because of its parsimony. It is too simple, and ignores power.

I tend much more toward rule utilitarianism. I think we need to enforce a set of more or less inviolable rules that safeguard some basic rights of individuals, directly; these are human rights which together comprise basic individual sovereignty, and whose purpose is to protect the individual from others with more power who would otherwise oppress that individual (violate their sovereignty). Part of that protection is actually to deny individuals the ability to sell themselves into slavery! More precisely, I would say that there should be no ability to enforce a contract that includes servitude of one party to another. Probably many human rights can be framed in terms of classes of unenforceable contracts.

I flat out deny that in a landscape of strongly asymmetrical power relations, we can simply assume that all contracts are entered into freely. Those with more power will coerce those with less power, in myriad ways, into contracts which run counter to the interests of the less powerful party. This is the very nature of power, it is what it means to have power. Even when more powerful parties don’t exercise their power, it still warps the landscape, it is still apparent to the less powerful party and constrains their actions. For example, anyone in a management position should go ask an underling if they think the manager is doing a good job; do you get an honest answer, or a political answer?

So back to the matter at hand, I hold sovereignty over the self as basic, not derived from property rights. I don’t have to “own” myself to not be enslaveable; rather, it should be impossible for me to enter into a binding contract which causes me to be enslaved, and the state or other equivalent holder of a monopoly on force should intervene on my behalf should I find myself enslaved. Similarly with other breaches of individual sovereignty.

So then what of digital copies of uploads? This will depend very strongly on the legal status of a copy. Is it someone else, or is it me? If it is me, then copies made by another party of me, without all of my preexisting copies’ consent and that new copy’s consent, is a breach of my individual sovereignty and action must be taken if I will it, and there is no prior agreement into which I (or my copies) can enter which will change that fact. On the other hand, if the copy is a new person, then the same considerations apply, but only regarding the sovereignty of the copy; I (the original) have no say in the matter (although sovereignty over reproduction might be covered by basic human rights).

Copyright should not apply to copies of oneself, it makes no sense. Even though you are your pattern, are you the creator of your pattern? Not really. It is created by, what, evolution + the transformations imposed by the technical process of uploading + the cultural environment in which you exist + some input by you, but only in a very indirect way. We are not The Lord who mysteriously created Himself 🙂 . We are not our own creative work in the sense copyright would require.

But we do have an expectation of individual sovereignty. This should obtain for any sentient (feeling) creature, be it animal or machine, created or evolved. Individual sovereignty is sufficient to guard our freedom in a world where we are information, I believe.

We are increasingly and will eventually entirely *be*
>>> information. If
>>> we allow ownership of information, we eventually lose
>>> ownership of
>>> ourselves.
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Individual Sovereignty, not Self Ownership

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