by Walter Block
Recently by Walter Block: The Curious Case of the Non-Libertarian, George Jonas
This "debate" of mine with George Jonas all started with a column of his in Canada's National Post of January 19, 2013 entitled "Don't call me a libertarian." But, this editorialist didn't mention in it any reason at all why he rejected this philosophy of free enterprise. So on January 20, 2013 I wrote a blog on LewRockwell.com, called "More than passing curious: George Jonas and libertarianism" in which I called upon him to tell enquiring minds just why he wished to disassociate himself from this view of political economy. Next up in the batter's box was Mr. Jonas again, who wrote on January 28, 2013, “George Jonas on libertarianism: Drawing out the true believers.” Again, slipperyness must be his middle name, this author declined to mention any specific flaws he saw in the freedom philosophy (despite the fact that, in my own view, his past columns, when relevant, virtually always supported free markets and private property rights, basic elements of libertarianism.) I replied to that second piece of his on February 8, 2013 with my "If You’re Going To Attack Libertarianism, try having a clue; The Curious Case of the Non-Libertarian, George Jonas."
His initial response to this was "George Jonas: An old-school liberal lost in the present," which appeared in the National Post of February 13, 2013. I did not reply to this, for two reasons. First, again, for a change, he said nothing substantive (I tells you, if I had a regular column in the prestigious National Post I would not waste it with hand waving like that; heck, I am fortunate enough to be a regular contributor to the far less prestigious LewRockwell.com, and I assure you, gentle reader, that I try my utmost to fill its pages with matters of substance). And second he did end on this note: "I've run out of space, but in my next column I will list the reasons I think libertarianism is too much of a good thing." So, I figured, I'd wait until Mr. Jonas fulfilled this promise of his to reply further. He did indeed make good on this with his column of February 16, 2013, entitled "George Jonas on libertarianism: The state has its place." Well, at least he did write a follow up column to the one that appeared on February 13, 2013. I place quote marks around the word "debate" in the title of this present essay because, in spite of his promise, although he did do a bit better than his previous writings on this subject, he still didn't really list any serious objections to libertarianism, nor any reasons for them.
I am now about to reply to this last contribution of Jonas' to our "debate." But before I do, let me mention the libertarian classifications as I see them, in an attempt to clear out the underbrush, clarify matters, should this journalist wish to, finally, get his views, if he really has any, out on the table.
The way I see matters, libertarianism is based upon the Non Aggression Principle (NAP). This states, simply, that it is illicit for anyone, at any time, ever, to initiate (or even threaten) violence or invasion, against anyone else or his legitimately held property. (The latter is based for virgin territory on homesteading, and for everything else on licit title transfers, voluntary ones such as barter, purchase, rental, hiring, gifts, gambling, etc.) So who are the ballplayers in this field?
First come the libertarian anarchists, or anarcho-capitalists, as they are the only ones to adhere to a philosophy strictly respecting the NAP. The name in my mind most associated with this perspective is Murray N. Rothbard. He was the most rigorous exponent of this view, in addition to being my friend and mentor. I certainly count myself in this category. In this view, all "legitimate" (see below) government functions, without exception, should be privatized. Since there is no unanimous support for the state (its taxes are not equivalent to club dues), it is an illicit organization. Its leaders are no better than gangsters. But with far better public relations.
Next comes limited government libertarianism, or support for very minimal government, or minarchism. I list this next since they are second in their respect for, and adherence to, the NAP. The most famous people associated with this view are Ayn Rand, Ron Paul, Ludwig von Mises and Robert Nozick. Most if not all of them pay lip service to the NAP, but none of them carry through on this fully, and without exceptions, in my view. Here, the typical position is that government should have one and only one function: to protect the persons and legitimately held property against all incursions (note the similarity to the previous perspective). To this single end, there are only three legitimate institutions that the state may inaugurate: police to keep local bad guys off of us, armies to ensure that foreigners do not invade us (not to be the policemen-imperialists of the world), and courts to distinguish the criminals from the victims, to force the former to compensate the latter, and to ensure that valid (NAP compatible) contracts are enforced.
Third in this hierarchy are what I call the classical liberals (does Jonas count himself in this category?). To the police, courts and armies adherents of this view would add a few more functions: taking care of so-called public goods such as contagious diseases, asteroid strikes, maybe highways (eminent domain laws, "expropriation" in Canada, would be justified to deal with the hold out problem) and a few others. Many in this group at least in the U.S. are constitutionalists, and would thus support government Post Offices, mints, etc. The people in my mind most associated with this view are Richard Epstein and Thomas Sowell. The latter's economic and social views clearly place him as a classical liberal. But he is such a war-monger that I cannot count him as a libertarian, and since I am including classical liberals under this rubric, I must exclude him from that category.
Fourth is what I characterize as weak market supporters (does Jonas count himself in this category?). The names in my mind most representative of this perspective are Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek (the Canadian version of this would be the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, my employer from 1979-1991). When they are good (in their adherence to the NAP) these two Economics Nobel Prize winners are very, very good. Some of the best defenses of the free market system come from the pens of Hayek and Friedman. When they are bad, they are horrid; they support numerous additions to the state functions over and above those accepted by the classical liberals. I characterize the first three of these groups as libertarians, but not the fourth. These scholars accept so many additional functions for government that at their worst they merge into, ugh, centrists.
With this introduction, I am now ready to try to pigeon-hole Jonas, to react to his most recent contribution to this "debate" of ours. (Why do I pick on him, when there are so many others? He started this, by criticizing libertarianism. And hey, the others are on my list too; they will just have to wait their turn).
After a brief recapitulation of our "debate," Jonas starts off with this claim: "… I prefer my own backwater. It's even farther out of the mainstream than Professor Block's, but the fauna skating along the brackish surface seems more congenial." I haven't a clue as to what the latter phrase means, nor does he inform us (if any of my students wrote like this, they would feel my editorial wrath). As to the former, I peg Jonas as a classical liberal, or a weak market supporter. How either of those qualifies as "farther out of the mainstream" than my anarcho-capitalist Rothbardian viewpoint is completely beyond me.
He next states: "Both libertarians and old-fashioned u2018classical' liberals cast a cold eye at the state, except the liberal's glance doesn't result in outright rejection. The libertarian's might." This is true for the free market capitalist, but not for the minarchist, also a libertarian in good standing, in my view.
Jonas then invokes my previous statement that "economic freedom and private property rights (are) basic tenets of libertarianism." He criticizes it on the ground that "economic freedom and private property rights seem to be basic tenets even of Chinese Communism by now." I do not deny that China has made great strides since the days of Mao in the direction of civilization. Stupendous ones. And, yes, in some ways, the amount of "economic freedom and private property rights" in the Middle Kingdom rivals that enjoyed in North America and Western Europe. Thus to call their system "Chinese Communism," just because they do so, is to engage in flagrant mislabeling. However, China is surely not a free enterprise society yet. To pick out just one flaw among many, their horrendous levels of pollution bespeak lawless allowance of trespassing smoke particles, surely a violation of "private property rights." See on that the best essay ever written on environmentalism, right here.
According to Jonas, "The usual ruse is to play lip service to something and not practice it. Capitalism has reversed this trend in our times: Everybody knocks private enterprise, then goes ahead and does it. Why? It bloody works. Enterprise grows prosperity like Marx grew his beard. Canada, where private property rights enjoy no constitutional protection, has its own way of playing the same game."
I think he speaks too quickly here. Am I to believe that Jonas seriously believes that "capitalism" is alive and well in Canada? Perhaps this claim is not too far off the mark when compared to other countries. But this country to the north of us has compulsory marketing boards, zoning, minimum wage laws, drug prohibitions, a central bank, fiat currency, coercive unions, anti-trust legislation, tariffs, unemployment insurance, socialized medicine, helmet laws even for bicyclists and skaters, taxes (far over and above the 10% of GDP that would be acceptable for most classical liberals, to say nothing of even minarchists). It is a welfare warfare state. It has "human rights" tribunals prohibiting discrimination on a whole host of bases (in some ways, they are even more politically correct and nanny statist than Americans). What in bloody blue blazes is the Canadian army doing in Afghanistan? Did that nation's army invade it?
But when are we going to get to reasons why Jonas rejects libertarianism? I was too impatient. Here is one: "In my last column (February 13, 2013, mentioned above by the present author) I indulged myself in the quip that libertarianism is too much of a good thing. How can that be? Perhaps in a linear world there would be no such creature, but in a circular, or more accurately, spiral world like ours, too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing again, albeit one level closer to Nirvana. Can this happen to liberty? I guess so; it can happen to anything. Unbridled liberty can become chaotic. Chaos doesn't enhance freedom. On the contrary, it ties freedom into knots."
This is highly problematic. What on earth are "circular" and "spiral worlds?" I googled the latter, and got this; nothing that I recognize as helpful at all or even germane. Similarly for "circular worlds." I googled that, too, and the results were even less helpful, if that is possible. Here I am, trying to have a serious debate with this man, and he is giving me "circular" and "spiral worlds?" Maybe that is a special Canadian code, unknown to outsiders? And what's with this "Unbridled liberty?" On the one hand, this is all to the good. Our freedom to do exactly what we want provided only that we respect the NAP should be unbridled, or unlimited. That is what freedom is all about. The denial of this is to that extent slavery. On the other hand, this sounds all too much like a violation of the NAP (unbridled license to rape, burn, loot, pillage?), which for sure no libertarian would favor. And where, pray tell, does "chaos" come into all this. Again, if my students wrote like this, giving no specifics, they would get my red pen all over their work. It seems that the National Post has far lower standards.
But wait, perhaps I spoke too quickly. Mr. Jonas now supplies us with a specific example. Perhaps this is what he meant by "chaos." He avers:
"Poorly designed and unregulated intersections in Asia kill bicyclists and pedestrians by the hundreds but, as if that weren't bad enough, they also bring traffic to a standstill. Anyone can witness the consequences of vehicular anarchy on YouTube. It's scary and enlightening. Up-to-date libertarians don't conduct mindless campaigns against traffic lights. It's possible to be addicted to liberty without being masochistic. Today's libertarians seek to enhance their program along with their electability. The best offer ingenious substitutes for the command economy's current model of government-dominated commerce and transportation. Such books as Dr. Block's own The Privatization of Roads and Highways argue persuasively that communities can maintain standards of safety and good order by voluntary, non-coercive and non-governmental approaches in services and infrastructure replacing the insolent, petty and all too often corrupt machinery of the state."
I thank our author for mentioning my book. But I really do not understand what he is getting at here. He seems to be saying at the outset that unbridled ("chaotic?") capitalism in Asia kills people. But then, if I follow him, and I am not at all sure that I do, he follows this up by positively citing my book which blames the government for all these road deaths which plague modern society. So how can free enterprise both be the cause (chaos?) of these deaths, and also the cure (privatized roads and highways) for them?
Jonas states: "Although many agree with the libertarian view that u2018Leviathan' — the state — is evil, the feeling is widespread that it's a necessary evil." Yes, for sure, it is widespread. Most people have been taken in by the siren song of the state. But is it true? Is government really necessary? Our editorialist again leaves us guessing his view. For classical liberal libertarians, as I have defined them, the government is indeed a necessary evil. The same is true for limited government libertarians. As far as anarcho-capitalists are concerned, the government is indeed evil, but not at all necessary.
Jonas states: "Convincing evidence of successful privatization of functions that have been hitherto viewed as exclusively governmental would go a long way toward demonstrating that Leviathan isn't just evil but unnecessary." True. That is exactly what I tried to do with my book on streets and highways. But how does this relate to this author telling us why he rejects libertarianism? It does not do so in the slightest.
Here is more of his stream of consciousness style: "I've more tolerance for what I call janitorial government than my libertarian friends, but agree that most of their functions could safely be privatized. Would the savings be worth it? I don't know. It's a different question."
"Janitorial government?" What's that? Garbage dumps? Refuse removal? Washing floors? Urinals? Picking up litter? Why can't he be specific? Does he think he loses points for clarity? And, if he believes that these functions, whatever they are, "could safely be privatized" that puts him in the camp of the free market anarchists. Does he really want to go there? Who knows?
But wait. Again I speak too soon. Here, at last, is a specific criticism of libertarianism: "Like all movements on the fringes, libertarianism can seem shrill, smug, doctrinaire and millennial at times, with rhetoric and behaviour resembling a cult's more than a political party's. Dr. Block, for instance, described his credo of libertarianism, speaking at least half-seriously, as "the last best hope for … the very survival of mankind."
I am not at all "half serious." I am deadly serious about this. At a time when China and Japan might possibly go to war with each other over a few islands and the oil there; at a time when the U.S. and its allies (Canada, for shame, included) are bombing innocents in of all out of the way places Afghanistan; at a time when Nobel Peace Prize winner Obama is utilizing drones here, there and everywhere; at a time when many different countries have nuclear weapons; at a time when in the last century governments, Jonas's "necessary evil" state, murdered some 170 million people; at a time when Israel and its Arab enemies are at each other's throats; at a time when people are killing each other in Africa; does it really sound "shrill, smug, doctrinaire and millennial" to say that if everyone adhered to the NAP mankind would be much more likely to survive than if it does not? It might sound this way to Jonas' ears, but not at all to mine.
I take note that Jonas calls libertarianism (I should say, at least my version of it) a "cult." In my understanding of this phrase, a cult requires a cult leader, and slavish devotion to him. I do indeed agree with Jonas that Randianism, Objectivism, is indeed a cult, because these characteristics do fit that movement, and that they are often considered libertarian, with good reason. Why do I believe this? Because there is evidence for this claim. What evidence is there for libertarianism fitting this bill? Jonas, for his part, offers none whatsoever. This is thus mere name-calling on his part. The last refuge of the intellectual coward is to descend into name calling on the basis of no evidence at all. Well, I've got some for you, Jonas: you are a dodo, a poo-poo head, a silly-willy. There. Take that. Isn't this an elevated "debate?"
And what is so great about a "political party?" Apart from the Libertarian Party of Canada, the Libertarian Party of the U.S., and Ron Paul's part of the Republican Party, none of them are in any way, shape or form libertarian. That means they all advocate to a greater or lesser degree coercion against innocent people and statism. I see no reason for changing my "rhetoric and behaviour" to fit that of any of the statist political parties. Jonas offers none, as is his wont. As to my "behaviour," I cannot believe he is accusing me of any NAP violation, such as murder, rape, theft. Although with him, one can never be sure.
At long last, Jonas concludes: "When I remarked that I wouldn't feel comfortable discussing policy issues — drugs, abortion, central banking — with people who thought they embodied the last best hope for mankind's survival, because they might feel justified, indeed duty-bound, to coerce me until I adjusted my view to fit theirs, Dr. Block expressed relief that I misunderstood libertarianism to u2018this gargantuan degree.' u2018Perhaps there is hope for enlisting [Jonas] in the one true faith (no, I don't speak tongue in cheek, here),' Dr. Block wrote, u2018when once he learns what libertarianism really is all about…. The essence of this freedom philosophy is the non aggression principle (NAP). This means it is impermissible to ever u2018coerce' anyone, for any reason. The NAP further maintains that no one should ever compel, force, coerce anyone into doing or not doing anything either, except of course to respect this very rule of non aggression.' Except to respect the holy NAP. In other words, to disagree. Thanks, Dr. Block. I rest my case."
I take note of the fact that in four tries, Jonas has not yet given a list of the errors of libertarianism, as he sees them. He has forthrightly and adamantly refused to discuss such issues as "drugs, abortion, central banking." Lookit, "respecting the NAP" does not at all mean "agreeing." It only implies that you keep your mitts to yourself; off of other people and their property, unless you have their permission. Jonas has not yet threatened to punch me in the nose, or to in any other way disrespect my bodily integrity. So, as far as I am concerned, he is a respecter of the NAP in good standing. Now, he may as a matter of ideology reject the NAP as a central premise in political philosophy. That means he favors the threat or the actual use of violence against innocent people. Ok, fine; he is not an anarcho capitalist, who rigidly eschews such barbaric behavior. There is still plenty of room for him in the libertarian universe, possibly as a minarchist, or a classical liberal.
He calls himself by the latter label. Fine, again. In his view then, if it is to be congruent with my categorizations, he is neither a minarchist nor a free market anarchist. Again fine. But, if he is to carry this "debate" any further, then it is incumbent upon him to give reasons why he rejects libertarianism (apart from my "shrill, smug, doctrinaire and millennial" rhetoric and my "cultism.") If he is to carry this "debate" any further, he must say why he disagrees with libertarians on "drugs, abortion, central banking." He has to be specific, something it would appear is very difficult for him. He does not owe this to me; rather, he owes it to his readers. He started off this entire train of events on January 19, 2013 by writing under the heading of "Don't call me a libertarian." The only substantive reason he has ever given for not explaining why is my shrillness, smugness, etc., and cultism. (Yes, he said it would be "chaotic" but then contradicted himself on that claim). That will hardly suffice. Mr. Jonas, please don't "rest (your) case" without explaining yourself at least once.
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 Yes to Ron Paul and Liberty.