Two challenges to libertarianism

—–Original Message—–
From: Petix, Robert G., Jr.
Sent: Wed 8/27/2014 7:06 PM
To: ‘’
Cc: Petix, Robert G., Jr.
Subject: Two questions

Hello, Prof. Block:

I am an anarcho-capitalist and also a big fan of yours. I have unable to resolve two problems utilizing our world view. Both problems involve animals, interestingly. (I think this is a coincidence, but maybe not.) If you have addressed these questions in the past, forgive me, but I cannot find your articles addressing them.

1. Animal cruelty: I am an attorney. I understand the traditional legal concept that domesticated animals are property. However, I have a very hard time accepting the fact that an owner of, say, a poodle has the unilateral right (as the owner) to inflict cruel and inhumane pain on the dog simply because he is its owner. I do not believe in PETA-style animal rights; I eat meat and certainly believe that ordinary use of animals is fine. But I do not believe that it is acceptable for an owner to engage in rank abuse of the animal.

my response follows

<<< I regard this as the biggest and perhaps the only flaw in libertarianism. I share your sentiments fully. I can't for the life of me figure out a way to make animal torture a crime, compatible with the libertarian non aggression principle. The only thing I can think of is that a super PETA, or, rather, a libertarian PETA would heroically initiate violence against animal torturers, and then heroically subject themselves to just punishment. Hopefully, private courts would go light on them, but that opens up another can of worms. This answer is similar to my work on the libertarian concentration camp guard, and this material I have published: Block, Walter E. 2009. “Libertarian punishment theory: working for, and donating to, the state” Libertarian Papers, Vol. 1;;

2. Migratory birds: I believe I have an example of a negative externality that cannot be resolved by making all property private (land and capital). This is the issue of lead bird shot. Unlike the "climate change" hysteria, there is real evidence that lead pellets in shotgun shells inflict real harm on birds (lead poisoning). Migratory animals are generally not owned (by definition). (I guess they are a general condition of our welfare?) Thus, even if all "ownable" property is privately owned, it is still the case that using lead pellets will harm the migratory bird population. How do we deal with this in our ideal world? Perhaps this is similar to the air pollution argument (regrettably, I have not read Rothbard's article on air pollution), but it's hard to see how this problem can be resolved in the private market.

<< here I think we libertarians have some answers. I can think of two. First, birds, too, can be privately owned. They are sometimes called "fugitive resources" but I think we can delete the first word of this description. How? One way would be by capturing some of them (in nets, in their nests) marking them (in the modern day with computer chips, in days of yore with bands around their feet). I don't think the owner of a flock of birds (boids, as I used to say when I was a kid in Brooklyn) would have to mark in this way 100% of a flock to get to own it all. Private (libertarian) courts could determine the appropriate percentage. Another way to register ownership of birds would be to keep them in gigantic mesh nets, as some private aviaries already do. More work, of course, needs to be done on this, but we can extrapolate from private owners of carrier or messenger pigeons. Of course not all bird species can be trained in this way. Another source of extrapolation comes from ownership of fish, not in fish farms, but "fugitive resources" now running around freely in the ocean where they embody the tragedy of the commons. One way to do this is by owning the oceans, privately. (I'm now working on a book that defends this proposition; can we one day privatize not the air, oxygen, which is still a free superfluous general condition of welfare, as you say, but areas of the sky, as airlines are now beginning to do?) We can shoot computer chips into whales, fish, to establish ownership. We can build electronic fences in the water to corral these guys. No more fish freedom for them.

Second, assume away all these possibilities, and posit that lead pellets poison birds, and this poison percolates into everything, killing innocent people. Why, then, we (private courts, not govt) simply ban shooting lead pellets into birds. This is similarly, I think, to the libertarian analysis of global warming or ozone layer problems. Let us allow, arguendo, that underarm deodorant, Freon in refrigerators, coal, actually does cause cancer, deaths of innocent people. Why, then, based on my reading of the best ever written article on environmentalism

Rothbard, Murray N. 1982. "Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution," Cato Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring; reprinted in Economics and the Environment: A Reconciliation, Walter E. Block , ed., Vancouver: The Fraser Institute, 1990, pp. 233-279;;
(as a lawyer, you are going to LOVE reading this; I envy you: I can never again read this for the first time)

we simply "go Gore" and ban all these things. They are now like shooting rockets into the air, and allowing them to kill innocent people. Of course, the burden of proof rests heavily with these watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside), and they have come nowhere near satisfying any of this.

Robert G. Petix, Jr

Hi, Prof. Block:

Thank you for your thoughtful and stimulating responses. I agree about question 1; it is very difficult to resolve.

I look forward to reading the articles you linked to and will do so this Labor Day Weekend. Then I will approach question 2 again with a fresh perspective.

You are truly one of my heroes. I wrote to you some years ago during the Loyola-Maryland flap, offering my support. I own several of your books, which are fantastic, and I have given some of your books away to misguided friends. What I like most is your unapologetic approach to all questions using the logic of libertarianism as your guide. It takes a lot of guts to do that in today's world. I think it is fair to call it heroic.

Finally, you have my permission to use my name


4:42 pm on August 28, 2014

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