The Polish-Ham Question
From The Libertarian Forum, June/July 1972.
Supposed exponents of free trade, like YAF, conservative clubs, the Birch Society, and other right-wing groups have long been actively opposing the importation of Polish hams. We shall prove that whatever principles such actions could be based upon, they are not the principles of the free-market laissez-faire system, which holds supreme the rights of trade, of property, and of voluntary association.
Opposition to the importation of Polish hams has been defended on the grounds that it is immoral to trade with thieves or receivers of stolen merchandise — a description that eminently fits the Polish government.
It is a description, however, that also eminently fits the US government, with its vast taxing system, its monstrous budget deficit, and its astronomical national debt!
But more destructive of the private-property system even than this are the following:
- It is the US not the Polish government that destroys property more than 10,000 miles from its own shores in the name of defense.
- It is the US not the Polish government that threatens the destruction of the whole world with a nuclear might capable of doing just that 1,000 times over.
- It was the US not the Polish government that was the first and only country to destroy human life (the most important private-property right) on a scale unmatched before or after by dropping a nuclear bomb on a center of civilian population — and to make matters worse, after the Japanese government had offered to surrender.
Thus if there is anyone who should not be traded with, it is this US government.
Such a course, however noble sounding, is not required by any libertarian principle. The consistent libertarian is no more required to refuse to trade with the US government than he would be required to refuse to hand over his money to a gunman who threatened his life for that purpose. ("Trade" here includes such things as using the self-enforced governmental monopolies in roads, post office, courts, TVA; it includes trading with government "client" monopolies in such fields as electricity, gas, and state colleges; it includes trading with those who hold a state license in order to trade, like doctors, lawyers, plumbers, barbers and cab drivers; it includes trading with anyone who deals with state-supported, coercive-restrictive unions; it includes, perhaps most analogously to the gunman, paying taxes.)
Consistent refusal to deal with government thieves would involve one in committing suicide, since governments control all of the earth's surface. This is anathema to libertarianism, which holds life, not death, as the ideal.
A US citizen's trading with the US but not the Polish government cannot be defended on the ground that "It was the US but not the Polish government that seized the US citizen's property; and therefore it is the US citizen's subsequent trading with only the US government that is an attempt to regain his stolen property. Since trade with Poland would not accomplish this, it is therefore illegitimate."
There are two weaknesses with this defense. First, the import of this argument does not so much defend trade with the state as it defends retaking the stolen property from the state. One does not urge trade with the burglar as justified punishment. One can always trade with him.
Second, according to this argument, the US citizen can trade only with governments that have seized his property; he cannot trade with governments (like the Polish government) that have not seized his property. Accordingly, he could not make a trip to Canada, a country that regularly seizes its own citizens' property but does not seize the property of US citizens. A US citizen who lives in Maryland, for instance, could not even make a trip to Nevada, because the state of Nevada, like that of Poland, had not seized any of his property.
The answer to the Polish-ham enigma is this: libertarians must realize that we are all faced with overlord states, some more aggressive and some less. The answer is not to single out communist states for opposition. All are born in aggression and involuntarism.
The way to bring the blessings of laissez-faire to the Polish people is first to secure it for ourselves. The enemies of free enterprise and private-property rights here in America are immeasurably benefitted when those who favor the free market are too busy worrying about the "tiger at the gate" to wonder at the absence of freedom right here.
This appeared on Mises.org.
January 23, 2010
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.