G. A. Cohen has argued that the preservation in more than name only of a libertarian right of self-ownership will come into conflict with the realization of any strongly egalitarian principle of distributive justice, and vice versa. One can have either self-ownership or equality only at the cost of the virtual abandonment of the other. 1 On this point, he and Robert Nozick are in agreement. 2 Nozick's modus ponens is Cohen's modus tollens, since Cohen draws the conclusion that self-ownership should give way to make room for equality, whereas Nozick draws the opposite conclusion that equality should yield to self-ownership.
In this chapter I argue that the conflict between libertarian self-ownership and equality is largely an illusion. As a matter of contingent fact, a nearly complete reconciliation of the two can be achieved through a properly egalitarian understanding of the Lockean principle of justice in acquisition. To put my thesis more precisely: across a fairly wide range of individuals who differ in their capacity (productive or otherwise) to derive welfare from resources, it will be possible in principle to distribute initially unowned worldly resources so as to achieve equality of opportunity for welfare in a manner which is compatible with each person's possession of an uninfringed libertarian right of self-ownership that is robust rather than merely formal.
My first task, to which I turn in Section I below, is to provide an explanation of what libertarian self-ownership is.