Tell Them 'You Own Yourself'


When discussing market anarchist theory with others, especially statists and non-libertarians, I continually arrive at the same dilemma. I can successfully explain how the state undermines individual liberty. I can explain, in a reasonable fashion, how protection agencies (or DRO's) are viable alternatives to state-run police and judicial services. But I still come up short when attempting to describe how full freedom of association would operate. A typical conversation would unfold as thus:

"OK Chris, so how would freedom of association work in a free society?"

"Well, everyone would possess the right to choose whom to associate with, on any basis. This includes business owners, private citizens and anyone really."

"I see. You mention business owners. So how would they be free to choose whom to associate with?"

"They would simply be free to deny service to any person or group they didn't want to associate with."

"What? So a store owner could refuse to serve blacks, or women, or gays?"

"Pretty much, yes."

"That's awful and morally reprehensible!!!! How can you let people be so bigoted?!?!"

"OK, it may seem bigoted. But in a free society, people shouldn't be penalised for what they think or what opinions they hold. They should only be penalised for violating rights to others' person or property."

"Well I still think that's pretty sick! We've worked hard to reduce discrimination against minorities, and you lot would simply take us back to a dark era and damage society!!"

As you might imagine, such discussions get very frustrating over time. Of course, market anarchism (and libertarianism in general) is not a racist ideology. It does not advocate racial superiority or hatred against any race. Nevertheless, the uninitiated may perceive this to be the case, since we (to a limited degree) are permitting people to act on their bigotry.

Still, one point has arisen in my mind. Why exactly do market anarchists believe in free association? It's because it is an extension of the right to self-ownership. If we own ourselves, then clearly we must be free to determine who we spend our time with, or befriend, or do business with.

All market anarchist reasoning can be traced to the concept of self-ownership. So how does it relate to freedom of association? Well, many people have friends. Did someone force you to initially associate with your friends? Probably not. You chose your friends by yourself, because you like them for who they are. Most people have lovers or romantic partners. Did someone force you to initially associate or fall in love with your lover? Again, in all likelihood, no. You chose your lover because you love them and they give you something that nobody else can give. Since we own ourselves, we naturally possess control over our minds, our choices and our lives. It means we are free to choose who we consider a friend or who we fall in love with.

We would all recognise that making choices is essentially the basis of living. Without making choices, we could barely function in life. The process of making choices is also a primary aspect of the notion of self-ownership. If we own ourselves, and possess sovereignty over our minds, then we should be free to exercise our volition as we see fit. Imagine a slave in the American Antebellum period. He literally was the property of another, and hence his self-ownership was severely curtailed. He wasn't free to make decisions for himself, nor whom to associate with. He was bound to perform any duty that his master demanded of him. Such a person could not exercise true dominion over his life and ultimately himself. Without the means to own ourselves and to make choices for ourselves, we are effectively slaves.

Does the nature of making choices mean we can choose to act on bigotry? By all means, yes. If we own ourselves and our minds, then we should be free to choose our own values. And who really is to say what values one can or cannot hold? Since our natures as human beings are unique, then the values that follow from our individual dispositions will be unique too. It doesn't matter if one is a Marxist, a vegan, or a Buddhist. Such beliefs arise from our idiosyncratic reasoning, since we all think differently.

So if someone asks you to clarify, or justify, the purpose of freedom of association, tell them that such a notion arises from self-ownership. Tell them that the means to simply choose naturally extends to whom we associate with, since the ideal of self-ownership is the very foundation of liberty.

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Columns on STR: 26

Christopher Awuku lives in the UK and works in the voluntary/community sector.  He runs a market anarchist blog at