Some Students Want Me Fired for a Thought Experiment

Civilization’s progress depends on the freedom to express eccentric and provocative ideas.

A large group of students want me fired from my faculty position. The main charge they make against me is that I believe slavery is wrong for the wrong reasons—“because it goes against Libertarianism, not because it is morally wrong.”

In truth, I repudiate slavery on both grounds. I even favor reparations, but not from all whites to all blacks. Many whites came to the U.S. long after 1865 and owe nothing to anyone. Many blacks, too, are, or are descended from, recent arrivals, and are thus entitled to no compensation. Slavery should have been declared a crime, ex post facto. The guilty should have been imprisoned and their property given to their victims, the new ex-slaves. “Forty acres and a mule” is a rough approximation of the compensation that was due. Nowadays if a great-grandchild of slaves can demonstrate this connection, he should be able to obtain acreage from the great-grandchildren of slave holders who improperly held onto their plantations.

It’s true I have argued “there is nothing inherently wrong with slavery”—an eccentric and provocative view. To understand it, consider a thought experiment: Suppose my son has a dread disease. Its cure costs $10 million, which I don’t have. You do, so we make a deal: You give me the funds. I come to your farm to harvest crops or to your home to give you economics lessons. If you don’t like the way I perform these duties, you may physically assault or kill me.

Is this a legitimate contract in the free society? I say yes. We both benefit from it, at least in theory, as in all voluntary transactions. Hence there is nothing inherently wrong with slavery; it is illicit if it is imposed by one person over another, but not if both parties agree. (I have similarly argued in these pages that socialism is unobjectionable if it is voluntary.)

The petition authors are not the first to misrepresent my views. In 2014 a reporter from the New York Times interviewed me. I tried to explain the gigantic chasm between voluntary and coercive slavery and patiently expounded that the latter should certainly not be legal. The paper published a story that implied I, a staunch libertarian, favored actual slavery as practiced in the U.S. until 1865. I sued for libel. The lower court threw out my case, but the appellate court ruled in my favor. I settled with the newspaper on mutually agreeable terms, and it ran a correction more than six months after the story’s publication.

Hardly anyone, even among libertarian intellectuals, agrees with my case for permitting voluntary slavery. I can well understand why it would repel people, including the students who signed the petition. But the defense of academic freedom, and specifically of the freedom to think about and express eccentric and provocative ideas, is crucially important for progress in philosophy and science. If scholars are forbidden to probe the implications of basic principles wherever it leads them, so much the worse for the future prospects of civilization.

John Stuart Mill put it best in “On Liberty”: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. . . . Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. . . . He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them.”

Even my harshest critics will readily acknowledge that I defend the principles of private property rights, liberty and laissez-faire capitalism in earnest and to my utmost ability.

Although the students who signed the petition—none of whom, I believe, have ever taken one of my classes—want me fired, I bear them no ill will. They are young people, just starting out. My door is always open. I invite any and all of the signatories of the petition, some 650 of them so far, to engage in a dialogue with me about these issues. More than 4,500 people have signed a counterpetition saying I deserve a raise. I am very grateful to them.

First published in the Wall Street Journal.

Reprinted with the author’s permission.