B-Losses Are (Libertarian-)Benign

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Michael Rozeff
has identified two kinds of losses attributable to life in less
than free societies: those due to physical violence, which he terms
p-losses, and those due to beliefs that work against people's best
interests, or b-losses ("Silver
and Golden Rule Societies
," May 8, 2006). While recognizing
that libertarian theory tends to ignore b-losses, due to their subjective
and nebulous nature, Prof. Rozeff nonetheless views them as an appropriate
subject for libertarian analysis. B-losses seem to undermine human
freedom and happiness.

The notion
of b-losses brought to mind a lunch-hour conversation I had with
two business associates, and longtime friends of mine, at a downtown
Detroit restaurant many years ago. Jack was a lapsed Catholic. Arnie
was a non-observant Jew. Pope John Paul II had recently reaffirmed
the Catholic Church's traditional ban on artificial insemination.
Jack found the Pope's ruling arbitrary, verging on cruel: "A
couple is trying to have kids. They go through years and years of
heartbreak. They're willing to bear the expense, to say nothing
of the humiliation, of going the turkey baster route. These are
people who really want to have kids! I think the Pope should just
let them do it!" For his part, Arnie could not fathom why any
intelligent human being would lend his or her ear to an old man's
pronouncements on such a singularly personal and delicate subject.
Jack and Arnie felt genuine sympathy for those scrupulous souls
who respected papal authority and would incur the accompanying b-loss
of childlessness.

A confirmed
libertarian, I reminded my friends that only those who accepted
the Pope's reasoning or recognized the authority of his office would
defer to his teachings. No Swiss Guard was pointing a gun at anybody's
head. No fines or prison sentences or dynamic entries of nulliparous
couples' homes were in the offing. There would be no campaign of
humanitarian bombing to uplift and Christianize the recalcitrant.
The Pope would have to rely on his powers of moral suasion and the
presumed authority of his office alone. If only our enlightened
democracy dealt with its criminal element — you know, the price
gougers, tax evaders, gun owners, pot smokers, prostitutes, deserters,
19-year-old beer drinkers and two-bit foreign dictators — that way!

"People
in a free society join and form clubs," I told them. "The
Catholic Church is a club. It may be more than just a club, depending
on your belief system, but it's at least that much. It has conditions
for membership. Nobody forces you to be a member of the club. Nobody
forces you to be a member of the club in good standing. Well, your
parents can force you, but that's only so long as you're living
under their roof. Certainly, parents have that right, don't they?
To raise their children in the religion of their choice? Anyway,
when you're old enough to live on your own, you have the choice
to belong or not belong to the club, to accept or reject your religious
upbringing."

As far as I
could tell, I was belaboring the obvious. This is kindergarten stuff,
really. My friends were highly intelligent, unimpeachably ethical
and open-minded individuals. They still are. Still, my argument
didn't fly as well as I'd hoped. It rarely does.

The argument
bears repeating. The marketplace of ideas includes a wide range
of philosophical, religious, moral, social, cultural, political
and economic issues. These have to do with war, taxes, "price-fixing,"
abortion, divorce, recreational drug use, gay marriage, euthanasia,
seventh-day Sabbath observance, gambling, pre-marital dancing and
artificial insemination, among others. The pope has as much right
as anyone to inject his views into the marketplace. From a libertarian
perspective, it makes no difference what kind of extraordinary claims
the pope makes for the authority of his office. It makes no difference
that some "consumers" of the marketplace of ideas believe
that Christ is the Son of God, that He instituted the office of
the papacy, or that those who reject the authority of that office
are flirting with the fires of hell. Indeed, those very issues —
belief in Christ, the office of the papacy and the existence of
hell — themselves make up part of the marketplace of ideas.

Religious belief
exists apart from the state. In the case of Christianity, religious
belief took root and spread in the face of active and violent opposition
by the state. There's no reason to believe that people living in
a religiously-neutral stateless society would be any less prone
to religious belief than people living in an anti-religious statist
society. In a hypothetical anarchic state-of-nature society, people
would continue to espouse "good" and "bad" beliefs,
religious or otherwise. People would debate the merits of those
beliefs. Faithful Catholics would continue to refrain from practicing
artificial insemination and contraception and remarrying after divorce.
Jehovah's Witnesses would continue to reject blood transfusions.
Orthodox Jews would still abstain from ham sandwiches.

Since people
disagree about good and bad beliefs, they will disagree about what
it takes to incur a belief-loss. Catholics may well argue that those
who reject the Catholic moral code incur b-losses, either in this
world (e.g., undisciplined individuals, broken families, less tightly
knit communities) or in the world to come (Judgment and damnation).
The JWs and Orthodox Jews will probably do the same. Secularists
are free to try to disabuse religionists of their beliefs, just
as religionists are free to try to disabuse secularists of theirs.
But they're free to do that in most statist societies today. They're
certainly free to do that in our own.

Libertarians
have their hands full simply convincing their fellow citizens that
the vaunted democratic state is a criminal enterprise writ large.
They should stick to addressing, and redressing, the p-losses associated
with that enterprise. Merely raising the issue of b-losses is to
risk associating libertarianism with that weird panoply of attitudes
and behaviors the great Murray Rothbard tagged and excoriated as
"modal libertarianism." Yes, people who hew to religious
or culturally conservative mores incur b-losses — in the eyes of
their liberal secularist counterparts. Yes, conservative religionists
might in fact be happier if they smoked pot or cheated on their
wives (or if they availed themselves of artificial insemination,
accepted blood transfusions or partook of the occasional ham sandwich).
Maybe these people have all been brainwashed.

On the other
hand, maybe the liberal secularists have been brainwashed. Maybe
they're the ones incurring b-losses. Maybe they'd be happier leading
sober, faithful lives yoked to a benighted and medieval religion.
Who's to say? For the libertarian, what does it matter?

July
15, 2006

Tony
Pivetta [send him mail] lives
in Royal Oak, Michigan, where he pines for a bygone era in which
baseball actively strove to maintain its continuity with its past.
He draws dark parallels between the rise of publicly financed stadiums
and the demise of both the Grand Old Game and the cause of American
liberty.

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