What’s the Libertarian View on Libel?

On Sun, Feb 23, 2020, 11:38 AM Steve Smith wrote:

Hi, Walter.

I’ve just finished listening to all of Tom Woods’ “Walter Block week” episodes. The one on your libel suit against the New York Times got me to thinking, again, about libertarian theory on libel.

Rothbard’s explanation that libel laws are illegitimate, in that they posit a property right in other people’s thoughts, gave me one of those huge “aha!” moments as a libertarian. It’s an explanation I wholeheartedly accept.

The question I’ve been wrestling with is whether or not what is commonly called libel could in some cases be a species of fraud. (This has no relevancy to your own case, by the way.)

Let’s say that I, the owner of Steve’s Burgers, advertise that my hamburgers are 100% pure beef, when in reality they contain 50% filler. This is clearly fraud. I am making money by selling a product to people that is not what I claim it to be.

But let’s say my hamburgers are indeed 100% beef, and so are the hamburgers of my main competitor in town, Walter’s Burgers. However, I put out advertising (or start a whispering campaign) falsely stating or strongly suggesting that Walter’s hamburgers contain filler — maybe even ground-up worms! Under present law that would be legally actionable as libel or slander at the very least; under libertarian theory presumably it would not be.

My question is, could my action in this latter case still be legitimately prosecutable as a form of fraud?

On the one hand, it seems not, because I am not misrepresenting my own product. On the other hand, I am misrepresenting, negatively, someone else’s product in comparison to mine, and to the same end: getting people to buy my hamburger instead of yours. That at least seems fraudulent to me.

Where am I going off the rails on this, if I am?

Sincerely,

Steve Smith

Chapel Hill, NC

From: Walter Block <wblock@loyno.edu>

Sent: Saturday, February 29, 2020 12:27 PM

To: Steve Smith

Subject: Re: Libel as a form of fraud?

What you’re hypothetically doing is nasty and libelous. This not illegal for libertarianism. Fraud should be illegal but I don’t think you’re guilty of that. This would require that you cheat, steal from, your own customers, and you’re not doing that.

Here are some readings on libel:

Block 1976, ch. 7, 2008; Rothbard, 1998, ch. 16

Block, Walter E. 2008 [1976]. Defending the Undefendable. Auburn, AL: The Mises Institute;

Block, Walter E. 2008. “Sue for libel?” December 29; https://www.lewrockwell.com/block/block124.html

Rothbard, Murray N. 1998 [1982]. The Ethics of Liberty, New York: New York University Press. http://www.mises.org/rothbard/ethics/ethics.asp

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2:35 am on May 14, 2020