Response to Questions on Libertarianism

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by Walter Block

Recently by Walter Block: Contra Randy Barnett on the LibertarianParty

From time to time I receive challenging questions, objections, having to do with speeches I have given, articles or books I have published, previous columns on I ignore all impolite letters. I briefly answer all polite ones. Some are very challenging, and I try to respond more substantively to them. Here are a few of such recent ones. I publish them here on in the hope that these questions, and my responses to them, will get us that proverbial one millionth of an inch closer to the truth on these complex issues. I use first names in all cases, in order to maintain anonymity. I have very slightly edited these queries and further elaborated on my responses in some cases.

1. Voluntary slavery

From: David Sent: Monday, December 10, 2012 6:48 PM To: Subject: Sydney Seminar

Dear Professor Block,

This note is to thank you for the intellectual stimulation your weekend in Sydney [December 3 and 4, 2012] supplied to the audience at the Australian Mises Seminar, at which you were the keynote speaker. As a member of your audience I shared its appreciation of your contribution. I was the party who queried your assertion that a person could, consistent with libertarian principles, sell oneself into slavery. I said at the time I would think about it and get back to you. Having done so I offer the following:

Self-ownership is an inalienable right. Leaving aside the question of whether one can properly describe one’s control of one’s own body as “ownership”, the fact of its inalienability , [with due deference to Grotius], precludes even the self-owner from alienating it in favour of someone else. Self-ownership is the basis of freedom. Consider the possibilities; if, after selling yourself into slavery, your new owner dies, do you pass as part of his estate? If you are a woman, is any child you might subsequently have also a slave? Self bondage must lead inexorably to the wider existence of slavery, a denial of the natural right to liberty. The fact that self-ownership is inalienable precludes even the owner from such denial.

Appreciatively, David

Dear David:

Thanks for your kind words. You raise important objections to my views on this matter.

You say: "Self-ownership is an inalienable right." I say, if it is inalienable, it is not a (complete) right; full ownership entails the right to sell that which you own. If you can't sell it, you don't really fully own it. You can sell your shoes, your car. Suppose you couldn't. Assume you had to keep them. You couldn't sell them, couldn't give them away. My claim is that your so called ownership rights over them would then be greatly attenuated.

You say: "Self-ownership is the basis of freedom." I agree. But, I maintain that this freedom requires the ability to sell that which you supposedly own.

Yes, if your new owner dies, you pass to his heirs, as part of his estate, just like his cattle, horses, houses, cars. No, children are free. You can only sell yourself, not other people, not your children. Only they (when they are adults) can sell themselves.

You say: "Self bondage must lead inexorably to the wider existence of slavery." By this I assume you mean "Self bondage must lead inexorably to the wider existence of (coercive, not voluntary) slavery." I don't care if it does. It is still justified. I'm not a utilitarian. However, we do have a bit of historical evidence suggesting this is not the case. We did, at least in the US, have a system of indentured servitude. This was a sort of (temporary) "self bondage." It did not lead to (coercive) slavery.

You say "The fact that self-ownership is inalienable precludes even the owner from such denial." I regard this as a self contradiction. You're asserting that a person owns something, himself, and yet cannot sell it. Well, then, I say, he doesn't really then (fully) own whatever it is he cannot sell.

According to Malcolm, Norman. 1958. “Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir” (Oxford U.P., 1958): "On one walk he (Wittgenstein) ‘gave’ to me (Malcolm) each tree that we passed, with the reservation that I was not to cut it down or do anything to it, or prevent the previous owners from doing anything to it: with those reservations it was henceforth u2018mine.'" Precisely. I don't see why ownership of trees should be any different, in this regard, than ownership of people.

See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here for my publications on this subject. I was delighted to have spoken in Australia, mainly because of the quality of the audience. We may disagree on this issue, but your questions/objections are challenging, and are an example I why I greatly enjoyed addressing the group of Austro libertarians in Sydney.

Block, Walter E. 2009. "Privatizing Rivers and Voluntary Slave Contracts" July 27

2. Private roads

From: Hal Sent: Sunday, December 09, 2012 4:58 AM To: Subject: Question about homesteading roads

Dear Mr. Block, I have question for you regarding public roads and the act of homesteading. Here is my scenario [note: in this world, there is no coercive government and (the law) is up to individuals, corporations, to uphold]. An old farmer uses his backhoe to dig a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. This road was built so he could clear an unused piece of land and build his own farm. He never bothers to maintain the road or charge other people to use it because he finds it would be unprofitable and waste of time, or he simply wants to give everyone free access to the road. Over time this road becomes regularly used by different logging companies, gold miners, other farmers, and people who want to live on that land. None of these people bother to maintain the road or try to claim ownership over it. One day a big bad evil oil corporation discovers oil on the land and starts pumping it out of the ground. The road is badly beaten up and its costing the oil company money due to damaged trucks and slower delivery time. They decide to fully repair the road and pave it over. 100% of the road was funded by the company itself. One day they are feeling more evil than usual and decide that they should install armed guards at the entrance charge for the road so they can make more money. They feel argue that they homesteaded the road by repairing and paving it over. And after charging people for the road, the managers decide to quit maintaining it so they make even more money to spend it on prostitutes, luxury cars, 23 bedroom castles, high grade liquor, gold watches, and all of their other vices. The other companies and individuals that were using the road before the oil company are extremely angry and are even considering sending in their own private defense agencies, or confronting the guards themselves, to take back the road and make it so it has unlimited public access again. Now assuming that the road ownership is the only conflict between the oil company and the other companies and individuals:

  • Does the oil company have any legitimate moral or legal claim to the road?
  • Does the farmer have any right to reclaim this road, so he can charge fees for it, even though he originally chose to make it public and not charge?
  • If the other companies and individuals had a moral and legal right to reclaim it, would a crime have been committed if the one of the defense agencies or individuals had to kill the guards to regain access?

If the oil company simply chose to quit claiming ownership of the road and re-allowed public access. And all of the other companies hired competing firms to maintain and protect the same road. How would you determine who gets to do each different job and would they be able to homestead anything in the process such rights to cleaning graffiti or repaving?

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I would be honored if you had the time to answer my questions so I can see into the mind of great libertarian thinker. I’m an anarcho-capitalist who hopes to see a future where individuals, corporations, and collectives find non-coercive solutions to everything. You are one of my personal heroes and I hope to see one of your lectures very soon.

Dear Hal:

In my view, the farmer still owns the road (I assume that the "middle of nowhere" was on his own land). He was there first. The road exists on his own land. He built the road. Then, he in effect gave it away for free to all passersby. Or, rather, while he retains ownership of it by dint of homesteading, mixing his labor with the amenity, he allows others to use it for free. He never abandoned it, based on your example.

I assume that the oil company drills on its own land, contiguous to the farmer's land. (Otherwise, the "evil" oil company is trespassing, and that doesn't seem to be part of your example.)

The oil company has no ownership rights. Their upgrade was a free gift to the farmer, and thus in effect to the general public.

As you may know, I have written a book on this general topic, although, I confess, I never did directly respond to the scenario you put forth in that publication. This book: Block, Walter E. 2009. The Privatization of Roads and Highways: Human and Economic Factors; Auburn, AL: The Mises Institute is available at the Mises bookstore, and for free here.

3. Government auctions

—–Original Message—– From: Eduardo Sent: Monday, December 10, 2012 8:48 AM To: Walter Block Subject: Ethics question

Hello Dr Block.

I’ve sent you some messages in the past about voluntary slavery, and you were very kind in answering them in a very enlightening way. I hope I am not stepping out of bounds in asking another question, but this is important in a personal way, and I deeply respect your work and opinion on this issue.

I live in Brazil, and sometimes the federal gang of government here promotes auctions of assets seized by our version of the IRS. My question is, would it be ethical to participate on these auctions? It seems that to me that the answer should be no, since it is stolen property. But again, it would at least take some property out of the hands of the state.

I ask you kindly if you could you point me to some relevant literature on this point.

Thanks in advance.


Ideas Have Consequences.

Dear Eduardo:

In my view, this depends upon the preponderence of benefits. If the gain to you is great, and to the state, small, then I claim that libertarian theory supports your purchase. If the opposite is true, then, not. My theory is that if you benefit the state, you are acting incompatibly with libertarianism, but that this can be over ridden by greater advantages to you, a libertarian. Non libertarians would be precluded from such auctions, on penalty from the future Nuremberg libertarian trials.

I have written a lot about this general topic, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here, but have never about this precise example, so I thank you for bringing this to my attention.

Best regards,


Walter E. Block, Ph.D. Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics Joseph A. Butt, S.J. College of Business Loyola University New Orleans 6363 St. Charles Avenue, Box 15, Miller Hall 318 New Orleans, LA 70118 tel: (504) 864-7934 fax: (504) 864-7970

"It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a u2018dismal science.' But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance."

~ Murray N. Rothbard

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, The Case for Discrimination, Labor Economics From A Free Market Perspective, Building Blocks for Liberty, Differing Worldviews in Higher Education, and The Privatization of Roads and Highways. His latest book is Ron Paul for President in 2012: Yes to Ron Paul and Liberty.

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