May a Libertarian Occupy a Rent-Controlled Apartment?
by Walter Block
by Walter Block
Recently by Walter Block: Repeal Rent Control, and Sow Salt Where Once It Stood
Now that I'm one of the Austro-libertarian elders at age 68 (where has the time gone? I remember distinctly when I was an enfant terrible; that must have been in the 1960s) I get lots of letters from Austro-libertarians from all over the world, many of them readers of LewRockwell.com. Most of them I answer individually, but every once in a while I receive one that, I think, will be of general interest to our entire community.
Here is another in the series of such letters and my responses to them. First, see the letter (which I have very slightly edited to retain the anonymity of the writer; when you read it, you'll see why I did that). Then, second, see my response, afterward.
I. The letter
Dear Professor Block,
I wanted to thank you for holding speeches in New York this February. I attended your talk on Austrian Economics and libertarianism which was held on the Columbia University campus.
I was the person who asked for your signature on the single sheet of paper containing your article on rent control in New York City that appeared in the New York Post. It was a great honor to see you speak and to shake your hand.
I was introduced to the message of freedom during Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign. My life changed since then. I have read Mises' Human Action, am currently reading Rothbard's Man, Economy, and State, and have finished a number of books and articles on Austrian Economics and libertarianism. Now, I have had the honor of meeting you in one of your lectures.
I did have questions I wanted to ask but did not get the chance since we ran out of time and I did not want to keep you from meeting other people after your lecture. I hope you do not mind that I ask them through this medium and that it won't be too much of a bother.
I currently rent an apartment in Manhattan right now which is not rent controlled. Would I be selling out on my free market ideals if I move to a cheaper rent-controlled apartment in the city? I would think that it is similar to being opposed to forced social security contributions, but since one is forced to contribute, one is entitled to get one's benefits eventually. In the case of renting, by having too much price controls in the city, one is forced to look into cheaper housing since all the rest that are not subject to control has inflated prices due to this policy.
Another question on the idea of "selling-out": I am a citizen (of a foreign country) who has a permanent resident status. I will be eligible for naturalization next year. Normally, the naturalization process is simple — one just needs to pass an exam and answer some questions both on a form and during an interview. I found out that one of the questions to be asked is whether one will consider serving the government when called upon. As a libertarian, I know that any service should only be voluntary and no one should be coerced to serve since that is already considered slavery. In the form, one can answer "no" granted you have an explanation. I do not know if by answering "no" and having my lengthy discussion on my answer will jeopardize my naturalization process. With this, would I be selling out on my libertarian ideals if I just answered "yes" just to make the process easier and continue fighting the ideological fight outside of filling up this form?
Lastly, in response to a question during your speech, you mentioned something about "intrinsic ____" and "extrinsic ____." That the reason why not a lot of people are receptive to the message of freedom and individual responsibility is that it is a fairly new concept. I would like to ask for the word that comes after the "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" concepts you mentioned in your talk and if you can point me to any literature regarding the subject as I wish to add it to my extensive reading list.
Again, it was an honor meeting such a heavyweight in the libertarian movement Professor Block. I hope I will have more opportunities to hear you speak. I appreciate everything you are doing for the cause of freedom.
Dear Professor Block,
I just wanted to give you an update on realizations regarding my previous email to you. I have concluded that I do not wish to move to a rent-controlled/stabilized apartment since I am opposed to it. I would like to "do" as I "say." How will I spread the message to other people if I do not "practice what I preach"? Besides, if I could not afford rent that is not price controlled, I can always move in with my parents, rent outside of Manhattan where is cheaper, or get a roommate. Besides, I can still comfortably afford rent prices in some areas of Manhattan that are not under price controls.
I would still appreciate hearing your thoughts about this, only if you have the time though. I know you are very busy.
Again, thank you so much for everything Professor Block!
II. My response
You are a rotten kid. You should have asked me your question when it first arose during that talk of mine. The rest of the audience would very much have appreciated your question, and, hopefully, my answer. Well, maybe it isn't so bad that you are now raising this issue. An even wider audience will now see it, including, I presume, many who were in attendance at my speech at Columbia University.
Let me start off by first congratulating you not only on the succinct way you put the matter, but, even more, for your obvious concerns with ethics, with doing the right thing, with not being a hypocrite, and for your determination to promote liberty. Very few non-libertarians are even concerned with such matters. Most conservatives (and left liberals too) hate the government, except when it is bombing innocents abroad. Most western socialist intellectuals decry income inequality, as they drive their Mercedes, vacation abroad and swill down expensive wines. And then there are the environmental watermelons (red on the inside, green on the outside) who whine about the plight of the planet while jetting from one conference to another, which they should not do, if their own analysis of the problem is correct.
Now for my substantive answer to your query. I oppose fiat currency, and yet have some in my wallet (heck, I never leave home without any; I might want to buy something). I favor the complete privatization of the post office, and, yet, snail-mail letters from time to time. I think that all libraries should be run on a profit and loss basis, not by the government, and yet borrow books from them. I favor the gold standard, but do not limit my purchases and sales to this medium. I oppose public education, and yet was a student at Madison High School, Brooklyn College, and City University of New York; I also taught at the State University of Stony Brook, Baruch College, Rutgers and the University of Central Arkansas, all of them in the so-called public sector. I oppose government roads (heck, my most recent book makes the case for complete privatization) and yet, you'll never guess how I travel around; yes, on statist streets and roads. Am I a hypocrite? Am I acting incompatibly with libertarianism? I don't think so.
As usual, Murray Rothbard best answers the sort of question you raise. See here. Murray warns of two very different dangers. He says: "It seems to me that the most important concern is to avoid the twin, and equally destructive, traps: of ultra-purist sectarianism, where indeed we would not permit ourselves to walk on government-owned streets; and sellout opportunism, in which we could become supervisors of concentration camps while still claiming we were ‘libertarians' in some far off, ideal world." Student, I urge you to carefully peruse this essay. It was first published in 1987, but reads as if Murray wrote this yesterday, it is so fresh and relevant to our present concerns (come to think about it, this applies to pretty much everything he ever wrote). As it happens, I have also written on this issue, you may be interested in my own relatively feeble efforts in this regard. See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
The points I make in defense of libertarians such as you and I who "take advantage" of government programs while opposing them on philosophical grounds is this. First, they steal from us the money necessary to build these institutions, and then they accuse us of acting incompatibly with our principles for treating them as the thieves they are. The state is not the proper owner of schools, roads, currency, libraries, museums, ball fields, parks, etc. In using them, we are thus not violating our non-aggression principles.
Take rent control as an example. The municipality, in its infinite wisdom, declares that an apartment shall rent for far less than what it could earn on the free marketplace. Suppose a libertarian becomes a tenant, and offers to pay the full amount. First problem: there is no way of determining contrary to fact conditionals; we simply do not know what the free market rent would have been. Second problem, an even more serious one: such payments are against the law. Those who engage in such acts open themselves up to severe penalties (far more harsh for the landlord than for the tenant). Any reasonable landlord would refuse such a payment, perhaps out of fear that you are a shill for the rent control commission. But, the property owner is happy to make his apartment available to you at the controlled rent. It is not your fault that he cannot capture the full value of it. I urge you to ignore rent control legislation, and occupy whatever dwelling you would, just as if you were not a libertarian, and thus were not concerned with such issues.
Now consider naturalization. It is illegal for me to counsel you to lie to the authorities about whether or not you support the government, and I do not do so. However, libertarian theory, as least as I understand it (see here, here, here, and here), is compatible, only, with free and open immigration. That is, if you want to live here, they have no right to stop you.
Last point. I don't think I mentioned "intrinsic ____" and "extrinsic ____." At least, I didn't intend to do so (who knows what comes out when you speak extemporaneously). What I meant to discuss was implicit and explicit cooperation. My point was that libertarianism is such a hard sell because we human beings are hard wired for explicit cooperation (benevolence, charity, being nice) but not for implicit cooperation (markets, the free enterprise system, profit and loss). My favorite story in this regard is when, in the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans, someone from out of state was selling water at very high prices compared to when there was no emergency situation, the people on line who more than willing to conduct business with this "gouger," nevertheless called the police to stop him, and applauded the cops when they did so. Where do I get this insight from? It is based upon my reading of the sociobiologists (sometimes called evolutionary psychologists), authors such as R. Axelrod, David Barash, J.H. Barkow, D. M. Buss, Leda Cosmides, M. Daly, Richard Dawkins, R. H. Frank, Kalman Glantz David Jessel, Anne Moir, John Pearce, Steven Pinker, Mark Ridley, B. Skyrms, Maynard J. Smith, D. Symons, R.L. Trivers, John Tooby, E. O. Wilson, M. Wilson, R. Wright.
I hope and trust I have responded on point to your very good questions.
Best of luck in your future career of promoting liberty.
February 27, 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.
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