Libertarian Basics

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Libertarian Basics

by Walter Block by Walter Block Recently by Walter Block: The Second Front in My War Against the Armies of Multi-Culturalism and Social ‘Justice’ on Campus at Loyola University New Orleans

Just like the basics in basketball or football (keep your eye on the ball, don’t be caught back on your heels), cognizance of the basics of libertarianism is very important for our movement. I recently attended a lecture at a libertarian supper club. The speaker was a good one, and on his topic, a critique of our friends the watermelon (green on the outside, red on the inside) environmentalists, he was very good. Yet, he made several statements incompatible with libertarianism, which constitute basic errors. The present essay is an attempt to use these errors as a springboard to promote basic libertarianism.

I. Transcendental

This speaker, Professor Jeff Foss of the University of Victoria, criticized Nazism, Communism, and environmentalism as "transcendent" philosophies. By which I assume he meant that they apply across the board, to many, many aspects of life. He pointed to the numerous deaths that have arisen as a result of these transcendent perspectives. But, libertarianism is also a transcendent philosophy. Libertarianism may be defined as adherence to the non-aggression principle, coupled with private property rights based on homesteading and legitimate — voluntary — title transfer. It, too, applies to many, many aspects of life. So, yes, let us of course condemn Nazism, Communism and Environmentalism; but not because they are transcendent. Rather, because they are not libertarian.

II. No problems?

If I had to summarize Foss’s talk very briefly, it would be that there are no environmental problems. Or, if there are, they have either been solved, or are quickly en route to being solved. In this, his views are very akin to those of Bjrn Lomborg, who is decidedly not a libertarian. Yes, the left wing of the environmental movement has gone off the rails, and richly deserved the condemnation meted out to it by this speaker. But, while his critique is compatible with libertarianism, it should not be confused with our philosophy. And, this thesis is not really fully true. There are still environmental problems out there. For example, over-fishing, due to lack of property rights in the oceans. Species endangerment of rhinos and elephants in Africa, because of prohibition of markets in ivory, etc., and prohibition of private ownership of these animals. Excessive forest fires, which can be laid at the door of government ownership of forests. In the western US and Canada, government owns a gigantic proportion of the land; this creates all sorts of problems, such as allowing wolves to roam free near ranches.

III. Free market environmentalism

Professor Foss ignored what might be called libertarian environmentalism, or, free market environmentalism, viewpoints expressed above in the previous paragraph. For some reading on this, go here. But, these people are Chicagoites, moderate libertarians. Here is the best single article on free market environmentalism I have ever read; it is by Rothbard. Here is one of my own many efforts on this topic, which is pretty good, if I say so myself. Based on a quick perusal of the index of this speaker’s book, he seems unaware of this entire libertarian free market environmental movement.

IV. Legal positivism

Prof. Foss announced himself as a supporter of the doctrine of legal positivism. As far as I am concerned, this is the view that the government can make no error, create no wrong. It is, in this view, logically impossible, or meaningless to ask, "The state passed law X, but is it just?" The government is the highest legal authority, and its decisions are beyond question. This is hardly compatible with libertarianism. I suggest if you wish to pursue this further, google this phrase. But this doctrine could justify Nazi atrocities: they were only following orders, they were acting in a manner compatible with German law at the time.

V. Positive rights

Libertarians favor negative rights: the right not to be murdered, raped, stolen from. In our view, positive rights (the right to food, clothing, shelter) are a philosophical confusion. Access to food, clothing, shelter, etc, are not rights at all; they are, instead, aspects of wealth. This matter can also be put in terms of freedom. Libertarians favor freedom from being molested, having one’s property stolen, trespassed upon. In sharp contrast is FDR’s "freedom" from want (the third of his famous four freedoms), see here: freedom from hunger, homelessness, things like this.

Prof. Foss, unhappily, buys into this hook, line and sinker. He said that the industrial revolution gave us freedom from having to work all day long (my paraphrase). Not so, not so. The industrial revolution directly vastly increased wealth, not freedom.

Consider this example. Farmers A and B both own 100 cows. Rustlers come and steal all of farmer A’s cattle; at the same time, lightening destroys all of B’s herd. Both have lost wealth of 100 cows. Farmer A suffered a rights violation, or a reduction in freedom. No such thing occurred to Farmer B. B’s rights, or freedom, were not reduced in the slightest. Freedom and wealth are both good things, but to confuse them is a basic error.

For a very clear exposition of this fallacy, see chapter 27 of Rothbard, Murray N. 1998 [1982] The Ethics of Liberty, New York: New York University Press. It is available for free (no money cost, that is) right here. Isaiah Berlin makes the same error as Jeff Foss, and Rothbard exposes this fallacy.

If there is one thing that everyone (well, almost everyone) agrees to regarding freedom and rights, it is that all people, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, should have equal rights and freedoms. This presents no problem whatever for the libertarian concept of negative rights, liberties, freedoms. We all have an equal right not to be murdered, raped, etc. But, if positive rights or freedoms are legitimate, then we all have an equal right to food, clothing, shelter, all of life’s goodies. Notice the garden path down which Foss, Berlin and FDR are attempting to lead us: to egalitarianism not merely of rights to be left alone in peace, but something far more insidious: equal shares of wealth. Well, how are we to equalize positive freedoms, or wealth? Surely, it must be by taking from the rich, and giving their property to the poor. And, this simply cannot be done without initiating violence against the wealthy, a violation of the libertarian non-aggression axiom if ever there was one. (I assume arguendo that those at the top of the income distribution earned their possessions honestly, that is, in keeping with the tenets of the libertarian philosophy If not, rectification would be in order.)

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.

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