Privatizing Rivers and Voluntary Slave Contracts
by Walter Block by Walter Block Recently by Walter Block: What Shall We Call the Present EconomicCrisis: AContest
Were Rafe Mair a bit younger, he would be the enfant terrible of British Columbia political, economic and business journalism, print and electronic. A ferocious interviewer and debater, this former politician now holds forth on matters economic and political from the southwest corner of Canada, but pontificates about that entire country, and indeed, the whole world, too.
Full disclosure. I spent some 13 years (1979—1991) as a Senior Fellow of the Vancouver, BC—based Fraser Institute. And, yes, I tangled with Rafe Mair during that time.
In a recent missive of his in the Tyee, a Canadian online magazine, Mair takes issue with Mike Walker of the Fraser Institute, and with, among others, none other than yours truly. Perhaps Mair thinks I still work at that conservative think tank. Not so, not so.
On what issues does Mair criticize me? There are two.
First, the privatization of rivers.
Mair characterizes "this (as) the lunacy I can find only one explanation for: far-right-wing ideology."
"Back in the early 1990s, the Fraser Institute published an article arguing that rivers and streams ought to all be placed in private hands because, as Dr. Walker (the then executive director) later put it, the private owners would take good care of them because they owned them. On my show at Radio Station X, he repeated this theory that private ownership would ensure the best available use of the river or stream.
"I said, u2018But Mike, history shows us that the best available use of a river is as a sewer for industry and/or agriculture.’
“‘No, no,’ he replied. u2018It would be in the owner’s interest to see that the river was kept pristine so that all the fish and other living creatures could survive and prosper.’
"To one who has fished rivers and streams all over the world, this literally took my breath away.
“‘What,’ I asked, u2018if I owned Rafe Mair’s Fishing Camp downstream from the huge Ajax Pulp Mill that dumped large quantities of black liquor into the river killing all the fish?’
"Dr. Walker gave me that triumphant look of the righteous and smiled benignly at my stupidity and said, u2018No problem, Rafe. You could sue them.’
"Evidently it does not occur to the u2018far right’ that a lawsuit against a huge corporation is not very appealing to a small business owner. (I should add that I remember this interview particularly well because after the show Dr. Walker called me at my home to continue his fruitless efforts to convert me.)
"The research took me to Dr. Walter Block who, I believe, wrote the article on privatizing rivers for the Fraser Institute. In any event, Block was a senior fellow of the Fraser Institute at the time."
About all this, a few comments.
1. I share Mr. Mair’s recollection. I am pretty sure that it was I, not Mike Walker, who wrote about privatizing rivers. And, he is not the only one who has witnessed those "benign smiles" accompanied by "righteous triumph."
2. Private ownership of rivers (or lakes, oceans, streams, highways, streets, roadways) is not at all favored by the "far right" if by that is meant conservatives. No, it is only libertarians who are willing to take the logic of private property that far, and in such directions.
3. Mike Walker is likely incorrect in thinking that under private enterprise, no bodies of water would be used as dumpsites. Rafe Mair is equally in error in maintaining that under a regime of economic freedom, all bodies of water would be used for storing garbage. With regard to land, some of it is used for such purposes; most of it is not. There does not seem to be any good reason to suppose that private water would not be used much the same way; just as in the case of land, water would likely serve a myriad of purposes. In any case, with free markets, all land, and water too, would tend to be used in the manner that maximized profits; that is, produced the most value for all members of society. If it were not, if land or water was not utilized to obtain the most value, this failure would set up profit opportunities for other entrepreneurs. They would tend to purchase the facilities in question, and shift them to a use that would create even more wealth. Does this system work perfectly? Are we always and ever in equilibrium? Of course, not. But, there is a continual grinding market force that works in this direction. It is not for nothing that we seldom have crises in industries (rubber bands, tooth picks) that are relatively free.
4. Mr. Mair exhibits an astonishing degree of economic illiteracy. He is attacking one of the most fundamental principles in all of economics: that if you own it, you tend to take care of it better than if you just rent it, or if no one owns it. People are concerned about an oil change for their own automobile, but, when is the last time anyone worried about this in a rental car? The cow never came within a million miles of extinction, the buffalo did. Why? It cannot be because the two species are that different. It must be due to the fact that the former was owned privately, and, at least for many decades, the latter was not. No farmer goes into his lower forty and shoots all his cows; if he does, he bears a great cost: he doesn’t have these bovines tomorrow. Things are different when the buffalo ran free. Then, the economically rational thing to do was to shoot them all. If you didn’t, you didn’t have them tomorrow anyway. It was virtually costless to shoot a buffalo; thus more of them were killed, and indiscriminately so. It is the same for elephants, rhinos, whales, fish. There is over-fishing in the unowned ocean; fish farms do not at all face that problem. Why should it be any different for rivers or lakes? We are talking basic economic principles here; they apply to all and any resources. If Mair opposes private water, why not land, too? Don’t get me started on Soviet collectivized farming.
5. As for suing the gigantic "Ajax company" for polluting, Mair’s objection is just plain silly. First of all, maybe it would be a small corporation that would be the polluter, and a large one doing the suing. Secondly, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Large corporations have deep pockets, and are thus prime targets, even apart from socialists like Mair spreading hatred for them. No one ever sues Wal-Mart out of fear that they are too large? Give us a break. One might as well oppose laws against murder or rape on the ground that rich people might beat these raps more easily than the poor.
As a resident of New Orleans, I take private ownership of rivers very seriously. Katrina was not responsible for the flooding of the Crescent City, and for some 1,500 needless deaths. This was entirely the fault of the Army Corps of engineers, with a strong assist from FEMA and anti-gouging laws. The former, in effect "owns" the Mississippi River, and the latter did its level best to ensure that private enterprise could not come to the rescue of New Orleanians. I don’t mind it that much (I’m lying here) that 1,500 people perished; after all, there are some deaths in the private sector. What really sticks in my craw is that the same people are still in charge of this particular lemonade stand. If there were a private corporation that owned the Mississippi, you can bet your bottom dollar that this tragedy would not have occurred in the first place. And, if it somehow did, that those owners would be consigned to the dust bin of history, and this river would now be under new management. That is one of the reasons private enterprise is much more responsive than is government: bankruptcy.
Let us now hear from Mr. Mair on this second subject:
"I remember interviewing him (Block) and finding that he — sit down and get a stiff drink for this one — along with the late libertarian icon Dr. Robert Nozick, was one of the leading defenders of slave contracts, arguing that it u2018is a bona fide contract,’ which, if u2018abrogated, theft occurs’!
"Hearing that, I could only think, u2018The Dred Scott case lives!’ That case in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857 held that slaves, even in u2018free states,’ remained the property of the u2018owner and could never have citizenship.’
"Now Block and Nozick were arguing that in their libertarian utopia, a person would be able to sell oneself into slavery.
"I would have thought that the words u2018voluntary’ and u2018slavery’ were antonyms but not, apparently, to u2018libertarians.’ Dr. Block believed that the logical extension of the complete liberty to do as one pleases includes signing oneself into a slavery contract…. I tell the story to demonstrate that the Fraser Institute is so ideologically right wing that at least one of its senior fellows would prefer a world where slavery was perfectly legal."
C,mon. Libertarians "believe … that the logical extension of … complete liberty (is) to do as one pleases." Nonsense. Au contraire. Libertarians do not at all maintain that everyone should be free to do as he pleases. We favor laws against murder, theft, rape, fraud. A major difference between us and other folk is that we are serious about such laws, and, even, have the temerity to apply to them to members of the state apparatus.
Why the scare quotes around the word "libertarian"? Libertarians favor liberty. Is that such a scary, or unlikely, goal? Are Canadians opposed to liberty? Is Mair against this idea?
Now, as it happens, the case for legalizing voluntary slave contracts is held by a minority of libertarians. Indeed, until recently, only Nozick and I held this position, and, according to my friend and colleague David Gordon, Nozick had renounced this viewpoint before his death. (Some of my scholarly publications on this subject can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here; for more, go to my web.)
But then, just recently, this appeared: “Take the case of slavery. Why should people not be allowed to sign private contracts binding them to slavery? In fact economists have consistently argued against slavery — during the 19th century David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill engaged in a heated public debate with literary luminaries such as Charles Dickens, with the economists opposing slavery, and the literary giants arguing in favor.” ~ Against Intellectual Monopoly, p. 254. (I owe this quote to my friend Michael Edelstein).
But the seeker after truth never unduly concerns himself with how many people take one or another view on any given question. Validity cannot be voted upon, democratically. So, then, let us consider the actual case in behalf of this "curious institution."
Here’s the situation. My child is gravely ill. Only an operation can save his life. But, this medical care costs $100 million, and I am a poor man (we assume away the possibility of government health care that will swoop in and ruin our example). Seemingly, my only option is to witness the passing away of my beloved child. But wait! Rafe Mair, richer than Bill Gates, has for a long time wanted me to be his slave. He’d like more than anything else to boss me around, and then whip me every time I displeased him. He values this opportunity way more than the medical costs necessary to save my child’s life. So, we strike a deal. Rafe gives me the $100 million, which I immediately turn over to the hospital. Then, I go to Mair’s plantation, and become his slave.
Why is this so objectionable? Rafe and I both gain from this deal. I value my child’s life more than my own freedom; way more. Mair values my servitude more than the costs of buying me into servitude; again, way more, let us suppose. If voluntary slavery is legal, we can consummate this financial arrangement, to our mutual gain. If not, not, to the great loss of both of us. Slave-master Rafe would never shell out the cold cash if, after he paid, I could haul him into court on assault and battery charges when he whipped me. Then, without this financial arrangement, I would have to witness the death of my child, probably the most devastating thing that can ever happen to a parent.
In opposing voluntary slavery, Mair thus exposes himself as a cruel, heartless beast. A baby killer, even. Hey, he bruits it about that I favor the ordinary type of slavery, the kind that was prevalent around the world in the first part of the 19th century, and, even now, in some far corners of the world, still, horrifically, exists. If he can characterize me as a supporter of that kind of slavery, I can call him an advocate of child murder.
It should by now be clear that there is a gigantic, stupendous difference between these two types of slavery, voluntary slavery and coercive slavery. The one has absolutely nothing to do with the other, except for sharing one word, "slavery." Ordinary traditional slavery amounts to kidnapping, theft of labor, unlawful imprisonment, etc. The voluntary variety of slavery involves none of that. I, as a father, walked into this type of slavery with my eyes open; completely open. There was no force or fraud involved in the consummation of this arrangement. This divergence should be apparent to a person of even the meanest of intelligence. Unfortunately, Mair does not qualify. No, I take that back. I am sure that were he but to become aware of this distinction, he would acknowledge it. He would change his mind. He would no longer confuse voluntary and coercive slavery. (I even offered to bet him a lunch on that matter, allowing that he would be the sole judge as to who won the bet; he has not taken me up on this challenge.) Instead, I now more seriously accuse him of intellectual laziness. He wrote before he ascertained the facts. He attributed to me an opinion that I do not hold, never held. "Dred Scott," indeed. He did not have the decency to check with me as to what my views actually were, before attacking me for those he falsely attributed to me. As a journalist, he is a bit of a disgrace.
I cannot conclude this essay without noting that there are many libertarian theoreticians who disagree with me on this issue of voluntary slavery. But none of them confuse voluntary and coercive slavery, and accuse those few of us who support the former with favoring the latter. Instead, their objections focus on philosophical issues of free will, responsibility, and matters of that sort.
So, yes, some libertarians favor voluntary slavery, and most support the privatization of rivers. Make the most of that, socialists!
Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans, and a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is the author of Defending the Undefendable and Labor Economics From A Free Market Perspective. His latest book is The Privatization of Roads and Highways.