Juan Fernando Carpio provides a good summary of the argument of Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s argumentation ethics (see page 339 and following), but for one crucial feature: Hoppe’s focus on scarcity of the human body. I can only speak for myself in this: I never really understood Hoppe’s argument until I began to think about the profound implications of the fact of scarcity and its application to Hoppe’s argument. Here is what Hoppe writes:
Argumentation does not consist of free-floating propositions but is a form of action requiring the employment of scarce means; and that the means which a person demonstrates as preferring by engaging in propositional exchanges are those of private property. For one thing, no one could possibly propose anything, and no one could become convinced of any proposition by argumentative means, if a person’s right to make exclusive use of his physical body were not already presupposed. It is this recognition of each other’s mutually exclusive control over one’s own body which explains the distinctive character of propositional exchanges that, while one may disagree about what has been said, it is still possible to agree at least on the fact that there is disagreement. It is also obvious that such a property right to one’s own body must be said to be justified a priori, for anyone who tried to justify any norm whatsoever would already have to presuppose the exclusive right of control over his body as a valid norm simply in order to say, “I propose such and such.” Anyone disputing such a right would become caught up in a practical contradiction since arguing so would already imply acceptance of the very norm which he was disputing.
Now, this is indeed a devastating argument. The human body is part of the realm of scarce goods. What does that mean? It means that it cannot be somehow socially owned. In fact, it is absurd to speak of any ownership of a scarce resource by the whole of society. A scarce resource like the human body (or any finite resource) is different from a non-scarce resource like an idea, a song, or an image that can be copied and copied, so that no one person’s control over the idea, song, or image takes away anything from another person’s ability to own and thereby control it. An idea, song, or image can be replicated without limit and without displacing or degrading the original.
A scarce resource, in dramatic contrast, is not duplicated, replicated, or copied in the act of using it. It must always and everywhere be rationed. If I eat this bagel, you cannot eat this bagel. I can make another bagel but if I eat yours, your cannot also eat it. So it is: if I use my body, you cannot simultaneously use my body. That is the essential feature of a scarce good. If you own your body, you control it exclusively, I cannot simultaneously own and control it. That you presuppose ownership of your body is implied in the act of verbalizing an argument in favor of your position.
This is why it is fundamentally preposterous verbally to advocate something like socialism of scarce resources. It is a performative contradiction because your very actions demonstrate that you embrace reality: scarce resources must be owned exclusively. A core of Hoppe’s point, derived from but dramatically extending a point made by his teacher Jurgen Habermas, is that the very act of arguing anything demonstrates a fact that there can only be private ownership of scarce resources, that your body and your vocal chords and everything else about you is wholly privatized. And as Hoppe writes in his 1988 book A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism (chapter 2), the ownership of the body is the prototype of all private property. That is why the attempt to socialize scarce things ultimately ends in state ownership, which is only to say that a criminal gang, one that claims through some far-flung ideology to represent every person in society, ends up managing the control of the supposedly socialized thing.
Mises himself makes the point that this is a major feature of the socialist error:
He who contests the existence of economics virtually denies that man’s well-being is disturbed by any scarcity of external factors. Everybody, he implies, could enjoy the perfect satisfaction of all his wishes, provided a reform succeeds in overcoming certain obstacles brought about by inappropriate man-made institutions. Nature is open-handed, it lavishly loads mankind with presents. Conditions could be paradisiac for an indefinite number of people. Scarcity is an artificial product of established practices. The abolition of such practices would result in abundance. (Human Action, pp. 235-36)
In sum, we need to recognize the massively important expansion of Habermas that Hoppe accomplished: he applied the Misesian/Rothbardian view of property and scarcity to a socialist-inspired position in favor of civil liberty to generate a result in favor of anarcho-capitalism.
I wonder why Hoppe’s unique contribution here has not been entirely recognized? It could be that readers have not fully appreciated his emphasis on the peculiar nature of scarce things as compared with non-scarce things. After all, once a scarce person uses scarce resources to make an argument, the points her or she is making then enter into the commons: anyone can make the same argumentative points without somehow taking the arguments away from the scarce person who made them. So the act of argumentation itself amounts to the exclusive control of a scarce resource to produce ideas that become non-scarce upon their creation. Perhaps it is a mixing up of these categories that leads to confusion.
The next task for me is to read Murphy’s and Callahan’s response to Hoppe and see if it has merit – though I note from their summary of Hoppe’s position that they completely leave out the centrality of Hoppe’s point about scarcity. See also A Reply to the Current Critiques Formulated Against Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics by Marian Eabras, as well as Kinsella, New Rationalist Directions in Libertarian Rights Theory (JLS, Fall 1996), Kinsella, Defending Argumentation Ethics: Reply to Murphy & Callahan, Anti-state.com (Sept. 19, 2002); Van Dun, “Argumentation Ethics and The Philosophy of Freedom”, Libertarian Papers (2009); Kinsella, Revisiting Argumentation Ethics, Mises Blog 2009 (see also this comment re universalizabilty); Kinsella, Hülsmann on Argumentation Ethics, Mises Blog 2009