Libertarians, free-marketers, and even some leftists recognize the follies of rent control. By forbidding renters from charging the rent they normally would, by placing restrictions on the rental market, the government typically discourages entry into the market, ushers in shortages, and makes life generally tougher for landlords and tenants alike. As Walter Block pointed out, "Economists are virtually unanimous in the conclusion that rent controls are destructive…. The agreement cuts across the usual political spectrum, ranging all the way from Nobel Prize winners Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek on the u2018right’ to their fellow Nobel Laureate Gunnar Myrdal, an important architect of the Swedish Labor Party’s welfare state, on the u2018left.’ Myrdal stated, u2018Rent control has in certain Western countries constituted, maybe, the worst example of poor planning by governments lacking courage and vision.’"
Unfortunately, many libertarians, free-marketers, and even some leftists fail to recognize the follies of state-sanctioned torture. Although I have yet to meet a libertarian who defended rent control, I’ve encountered quite a few self-described libertarians who seem unresolved, equivocal, or even favorable toward torture.
Now, as a libertarian, I think that all rights-violations are bad. I believe that splitting liberty into different categories, such as "economic" and "personal," is a deeply flawed approach. All liberty must be taken seriously, and all government intrusions into the lives of and exchanges between peaceful individuals must be rejected and opposed as a matter of principle.
That said, some rights-violations are worse than others. Stealing a dollar from someone isn’t as bad as stealing a thousand dollars, or beating that person to death. Annihilating a city with carpet bombs is worse than taxing that city’s citizens. Prohibiting outright certain inanimate objects, such as marijuana or sub-machineguns, is more egregious than taxing the items by a small amount.
Along these lines, I submit that, overall, and despite the ambivalence some libertarians might have toward the issue, torture is actually worse than rent control.
Certainly, it is difficult to measure the economic damage caused by rent control. It is simply impossible to quantify the degree to which such regulation violates individual rights. Similar problems arise when we try to gauge the harm of torture.
However, I contend that allowing the federal government to round up individuals without trial or due process, and subject those people to extreme heat and cold, deprivation of food and water, savage beatings, psychological humiliation, physically stressful contortions, and other such tortuous treatment is a greater threat to liberty and human decency than allowing the state to dictate the terms of rental agreements.
There is definitely some room for argument here. The most mild, modest torture, applied to one man who happens to be most definitely guilty of mass murder and terrorism, is probably less objectionable than a statewide restriction on rental agreements that would effectively prevent anyone from renting an apartment at all, with all recalcitrant black-market renters punished with the death penalty.
In the real world, though, torture, as it is currently being conducted in the U.S. dungeons in Guantanamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, is worse than rent control as it is being implemented in most American cities saddled with the policy.
One good way of contemplating the matter is to think: which would I rather suffer under — typical rent control, or the type of torture that typifies Guantanamo Bay? Surely, one’s preference cannot be said to be the same as everyone’s. All people have different preferences, different utility functions that guide their decisions in the marketplace and in life generally. Someone out there might truly prefer being tortured at Abu Ghraib to having to deal with the paperwork and clumsy rental market than come with rent control.
However, if I had to guess, I would say that most people — in fact, almost all people — would rather live in Berkeley or Manhattan, and deal with the rent control, than live in the Guantanamo prison.
If I understand the supposed purpose of torture correctly, even in its most dispassionate, dry manifestation, it is to exact information from individuals by subjecting them to extreme discomfort and pain. If torture were indeed not as offensive as rent control, you would think that Alberto Gonzales would have recommended that detainees in the War on Terrorism be threatened with having to find an apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area, nearby a college campus, around the time classes begin, rather than be subjugated to the kinds of barbarity that he considers all too advanced for the "quaint" and "obsolete" Geneva Conventions.
Some libertarians would undoubtedly say that my argument has a major hole in it: that in the case of rent control, innocent American citizens are being unjustly and artificially excluded from the free market; in the case of torture, evil non-citizen foreign terrorists are being interrogated a bit forcibly so as to prevent future 9/11s.
Well, we do not know if this is the case, do we? Not all prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have been demonstrated as guilty — much less beyond a reasonable doubt. At least some of them were rounded up by their countrymen in Afghanistan in return for a cash reward. After the Supreme Court ruled on the detainees question, the U.S. felt compelled to let many of these prisoners go — implying, at least, that there was no strong evidence against them in the first place. The notion of torturing a single innocent person is a little more troubling to me than rent control.
The argument about how non-citizens do not deserve rights is ungrounded. Constitutionally, any prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment and guarantees of due process apply as restrictions on the federal government itself and all its activity toward people, rather than as grants of freedom to the people, whether citizen or non-citizen. If the Founders who wrote the Bill of Rights thought that non-citizens shouldn’t have certain protections against the state, or that certain rights shouldn’t apply at wartime, you would think they would have used more precise language and spelled out the exceptions, as they did in the case of the Third Amendment’s wartime clause. Furthermore, we know that a chief complaint of the American colonists was the way the British government hypocritically treated its colonial subjects differently from how it treated its own citizens. The Americans considered it criminal that the nation out of which came the Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution, and the protections of Common Law, did not apply the legal safeguards of its liberal tradition, enjoyed by its citizens, to its colonial subjects — especially at wartime.
Beyond the constitutional and legal considerations, the question of whether U.S. torture chambers violate the universal principles of natural rights does not concern itself with where the victims of torture were born and raised. "We stopped asking for human rights; we wanted animal rights," said one released Guantanamo prisoner. If even a small portion of his story’s true — and it does seem consistent with what even some federal agents have claimed to witness — I would bet that what he went through was worse than rent control. And we must remember that, as soon as the government was confronted with the possibility of judicial review, it let this man go, apparently out of lack of sufficient evidence to detain him any longer.
Practically speaking, there is very little evidence that torture works — any better than, say, rent control. Like most government programs, torture does not seem to bring about many solutions. So far, the U.S. government has not shown clearly how any of its torture programs — or, for that matter, nearly any of its War on Terror policies at all — have made the American people any safer.
Given these arguments, I conclude that libertarians should be at least as upset about U.S government torture policies as they are about rent control. Granting the government the power to decide rental prices is a horrible mistake, which leads to considerable distortions in the market and violations of the natural rights of individuals to trade freely in the marketplace. Giving the government the power to lock people indefinitely in a cage at some satellite military base in Cuba (which the U.S. government obtained as part of its peace treaty after its imperial and murderous Spanish-American war); deprive the prisoners of access to an attorney, loved ones or the press; beat them, ridicule them, humiliate them, force them to violate their religious convictions; feed them almost nothing, stuff them into tiny metal boxes and barbed-wire cages; expose them to snakes, scorpions and rats; assault them with ear-shattering music, threaten them with snarling dogs, spray them with freezing water and torture them, all with the ostensible purpose of obtaining information that most if not all of them probably never had, is even worse.
Libertarians should not be on the fence about issues like torture. Once the state can do what it’s doing now at Guantanamo, there are few limits to speak of on what it can otherwise do with impunity.
Fortunately for the rental market, rent control has become increasingly discredited, and the regulations on rent have been considerably liberalized in many cities. This is largely, no doubt, thanks to the strong economic arguments against the policy made by libertarians and eventually embraced by people from everywhere on the political spectrum. Let us hope that libertarians vociferously denounce the type of torture we have so far seen in the War on Terrorism, toward the goal that this draconian practice withers away. If the torture continues what we will witness withering away will be our liberties across the board.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research assistant at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.