to Questions on Libertarianism
by Walter Block: Contra
Randy Barnett on the Libertarian†Party
to time I receive challenging questions, objections, having to
do with speeches I have given, articles or books I have published,
previous columns on LewRockwell.com. I ignore all impolite letters.
I briefly answer all polite ones. Some are very challenging, and
I try to respond more substantively to them. Here are a few of
such recent ones. I publish them here on LewRockwell.com in the
hope that these questions, and my responses to them, will get
us that proverbial one millionth of an inch closer to the truth
on these complex issues. I use first names in all cases, in order
to maintain anonymity. I have very slightly edited these queries
and further elaborated on my responses in some cases.
Sent: Monday, December 10, 2012 6:48 PM
To: [email protected]
Subject: Sydney Seminar
is to thank you for the intellectual stimulation your weekend
in Sydney [December 3 and 4, 2012] supplied to the audience at
the Australian Mises Seminar, at which you were the keynote speaker.
As a member of your audience I shared its appreciation of your
contribution. I was the party who queried your assertion that
a person could, consistent with libertarian principles, sell oneself
into slavery. I said at the time I would think about it and get
back to you. Having done so I offer the following:
is an inalienable right. Leaving aside the question of whether
one can properly describe one's control of one's own body as "ownership",
the fact of its inalienability , [with due deference to Grotius],
precludes even the self-owner from alienating it in favour of
someone else. Self-ownership is the basis of freedom. Consider
the possibilities; if, after selling yourself into slavery, your
new owner dies, do you pass as part of his estate? If you are
a woman, is any child you might subsequently have also a slave?
Self bondage must lead inexorably to the wider existence of slavery,
a denial of the natural right to liberty. The fact that self-ownership
is inalienable precludes even the owner from such denial.
your kind words. You raise important objections to my views on
"Self-ownership is an inalienable right." I say, if
it is inalienable, it is not a (complete) right; full ownership
entails the right to sell that which you own. If you canít sell
it, you donít really fully own it. You can sell your shoes, your
car. Suppose you couldnít. Assume you had to keep them. You couldnít
sell them, couldnít give them away. My claim is that your so called
ownership rights over them would then be greatly attenuated.
"Self-ownership is the basis of freedom." I agree. But,
I maintain that this freedom requires the ability to sell that
which you supposedly own.
Yes, if your
new owner dies, you pass to his heirs, as part of his estate,
just like his cattle, horses, houses, cars. No, children are free.
You can only sell yourself, not other people, not your children.
Only they (when they are adults) can sell themselves.
"Self bondage must lead inexorably to the wider existence
of slavery." By this I assume you mean "Self bondage
must lead inexorably to the wider existence of (coercive, not
voluntary) slavery." I donít care if it does. It is still
justified. Iím not a utilitarian. However, we do have a bit of
historical evidence suggesting this is not the case. We did, at
least in the US, have a system of indentured servitude. This was
a sort of (temporary) "self bondage." It did not lead
to (coercive) slavery.
You say "The
fact that self-ownership is inalienable precludes even the owner
from such denial." I regard this as a self contradiction.
Youíre asserting that a person owns something, himself, and yet
cannot sell it. Well, then, I say, he doesnít really then (fully)
own whatever it is he cannot sell.
to Malcolm, Norman. 1958. "Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir" (Oxford
U.P., 1958): "On one walk he (Wittgenstein) 'gave' to me
(Malcolm) each tree that we passed, with the reservation that
I was not to cut it down or do anything to it, or prevent the
previous owners from doing anything to it: with those reservations
it was henceforth Ďmine.í" Precisely. I donít see why ownership
of trees should be any different, in this regard, than ownership
for my publications on this subject. I was delighted to have spoken
in Australia, mainly because of the quality of the audience. We
may disagree on this issue, but your questions/objections are
challenging, and are an example I why I greatly enjoyed addressing
the group of Austro libertarians in Sydney.
E. 2009. "Privatizing
Rivers and Voluntary Slave Contracts" July 27
Sent: Sunday, December 09, 2012 4:58 AM
To: [email protected]
Subject: Question about homesteading roads
I have question for you regarding public roads and the act of
Here is my scenario [note: in this world, there is no coercive
government and (the law) is up to individuals, corporations, to
uphold]. An old farmer uses his backhoe to dig a dirt road in
the middle of nowhere. This road was built so he could clear an
unused piece of land and build his own farm. He never bothers
to maintain the road or charge other people to use it because
he finds it would be unprofitable and waste of time, or he simply
wants to give everyone free access to the road.
Over time this road becomes regularly used by different logging
companies, gold miners, other farmers, and people who want to
live on that land. None of these people bother to maintain the
road or try to claim ownership over it. One day a big bad evil
oil corporation discovers oil on the land and starts pumping it
out of the ground. The road is badly beaten up and its costing
the oil company money due to damaged trucks and slower delivery
time. They decide to fully repair the road and pave it over. 100%
of the road was funded by the company itself. One day they are
feeling more evil than usual and decide that they should install
armed guards at the entrance charge for the road so they can make
more money. They feel argue that they homesteaded the road by
repairing and paving it over. And after charging people for the
road, the managers decide to quit maintaining it so they make
even more money to spend it on prostitutes, luxury cars, 23 bedroom
castles, high grade liquor, gold watches, and all of their other
vices. The other companies and individuals that were using the
road before the oil company are extremely angry and are even considering
sending in their own private defense agencies, or confronting
the guards themselves, to take back the road and make it so it
has unlimited public access again.
Now assuming that the road ownership is the only conflict between
the oil company and the other companies and individuals:
the oil company have any legitimate moral or legal claim to
the farmer have any right to reclaim this road, so he can charge
fees for it, even though he originally chose to make it public
and not charge?
the other companies and individuals had a moral and legal right
to reclaim it, would a crime have been committed if the one
of the defense agencies or individuals had to kill the guards
to regain access?
If the oil
company simply chose to quit claiming ownership of the road and
re-allowed public access. And all of the other companies hired
competing firms to maintain and protect the same road. How would
you determine who gets to do each different job and would they
be able to homestead anything in the process such rights to cleaning
graffiti or repaving?
for taking the time to read this. I would be honored if you had
the time to answer my questions so I can see into the mind of
great libertarian thinker. I'm an anarcho-capitalist who hopes
to see a future where individuals, corporations, and collectives
find non-coercive solutions to everything. You are one of my personal
heroes and I hope to see one of your lectures very soon.
In my view,
the farmer still owns the road (I assume that the "middle
of nowhere" was on his own land). He was there first. The
road exists on his own land. He built the road. Then, he in effect
gave it away for free to all passersby. Or, rather, while he retains
ownership of it by dint of homesteading, mixing his labor with
the amenity, he allows others to use it for free. He never abandoned
it, based on your example.
that the oil company drills on its own land, contiguous to the
farmerís land. (Otherwise, the "evil" oil company is
trespassing, and that doesnít seem to be part of your example.)
The oil company
has no ownership rights. Their upgrade was a free gift to the
farmer, and thus in effect to the general public.
As you may
know, I have written a book on this general topic, although, I
confess, I never did directly respond to the scenario you put
forth in that publication. This book: Block, Walter E. 2009.
Privatization of Roads and Highways: Human and Economic Factors;
Auburn, AL: The Mises Institute is available at the Mises bookstore,
and for free here.
Sent: Monday, December 10, 2012 8:48 AM
To: Walter Block
Subject: Ethics question
you some messages in the past about voluntary slavery, and you
were very kind in answering them in a very enlightening way. I
hope I am not stepping out of bounds in asking another question,
but this is important in a personal way, and I deeply respect
your work and opinion on this issue.
I live in
Brazil, and sometimes the federal gang of government here promotes
auctions of assets seized by our version of the IRS. My question
is, would it be ethical to participate on these auctions? It seems
that to me that the answer should be no, since it is stolen property.
But again, it would at least take some property out of the hands
of the state.
I ask you
kindly if you could you point me to some relevant literature on
In my view,
this depends upon the preponderence of benefits. If the gain to
you is great, and to the state, small, then I claim that libertarian
theory supports your purchase. If the opposite is true, then,
not. My theory is that if you benefit the state, you are acting
incompatibly with libertarianism, but that this can be over ridden
by greater advantages to you, a libertarian. Non libertarians
would be precluded from such auctions, on penalty from the future
Nuremberg libertarian trials.
I have written
a lot about this general topic, see here,
but have never about this precise example, so I thank you for
bringing this to my attention.
E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics
A. Butt, S.J. College of Business
University New Orleans
St. Charles Avenue, Box 15, Miller Hall 318
Orleans, LA 70118
is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all,
a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to
be a Ďdismal science.í But it is totally irresponsible to have
a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining
in this state of ignorance."
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, The
Case for Discrimination, Labor
Economics From A Free Market Perspective, Building
Blocks for Liberty, Differing
Worldviews in Higher Education, and The
Privatization of Roads and Highways. His latest book is Ron
Paul for President in 2012: Yes to Ron Paul and Liberty.
© 2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint
in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.
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