Do we own ourselves? I'm thinking about the concept because it facilitates a certain model of the parent-child relationship. On that model, parents hold their children in trust, readying them for the self-ownership they'll attain upon majority. That's an attractive view in some ways, but ... self-ownership? What?
The idea that persons are self-owners is a cornerstone of libertarian philosophy. Some say it's actually not so foreign really, but actually a natural outgrowth of Kantian ideas about autonomy and self-determination. But that doesn't seem quite right. Libertarians think we start out as self-owners but could transfer ownership to someone else. I could sell myself, just like I could sell my computer. After the sale, I'd have a new owner--not myself. The Kant-inspired idea would be that I'm necessarily a self-owner. I can't stop owning myself, even if I want to.
This sort of limit on transfers wouldn't be so strange. There are limits on what we can do with other owned entities. We can own a dog but not torture him. We can own an antiquity, but be prevented from selling it to a foreign museum. So ... why not say we own ourselves, but can't sell ourselves to anyone else? The idea of self-ownership would still have plenty of bite--it would place limits on what others can do to us. Just as the government can't step in and use my computer for data crunching, it can't step in and use me to labor for the good of others -- so Libertarians would get some of what they want out of self-ownership, even if it were thought of as necessary self-ownership.
And yet, and yet .... the whole idea seems wrong. Things owned have monetary value, right? If I own myself, that adds to my estate (I take it). If everyone owns themselves, the GDP of the US has to reflect all the people here, not just the goods and services. And then you have to wonder about the valuation. Does little North West, brand new daughter of Kim and Kanye, have more value than an ordinary kid? And how is value calculated? Do the parts of persons (kidneys, pints of blood) have values too, on grounds that we own our parts as well as our whole selves?
More absurdities: I thought the horror of slavery was (partly) the treatment of humans as being up for ownership. Buying and selling slaves offends against the idea that we can't be owned .... I thought. But no, says the libertarian, we can be owned. The problem with slavery is not that people were treated as up for ownership, but that slaves weren't recognized as their own owners. You could strengthen that to "slaves weren't recognized as necessary self-owners" and be opposed to slavery in every instance. But would you really have captured what's so terrible about slavery? What's repugant (among many things) is the whole idea of a person being the sort of thing that has an owner.
Libertarians, I think, see dignity in self-ownership. For them, "self-ownership" has the same flavor as "autonomy", "self-determination", "self-management", "sovereignty", and "inviolability". But all those are concepts from the political sphere--the basic idea being that a person is self-governing. Self-ownership is a concept from the marketplace. Governing myself and owning myself are two different concepts. I'll go for self-governance, but the idea that I have any owner seems like (as one used to say) a category mistake.