Osama bin Libertarian

Concerning the “fool,” G. K. Chesterton wrote:

For many years I had sought him... I had been told that he was everywhere; but I had almost begun to think that he was nowhere. I had been assured that there were millions of him; but before my late discovery I inclined to think that there were none of him. After my late discovery I am sure that there is one.

I have never been able to discover that "stupid public" of which so many literary men complain. The people one actually meets in trains or at tea parties seem to me quite bright and interesting; certainly quite enough so to call for the full exertion of one's own wits. ... I have sometimes felt tired, like other people; but rather tired with men's talk and variety than with their stolidity or sameness; therefore it was that I sometimes longed to find the refreshment of a single fool.

I have always liked this passage because I felt, like G. K., that fools were harder to find than most people thought. Chesterton did find his fool, and I have found mine. Chesterton's fool was a man who would shoot all the coal miners in order to improve the supply of coal. Mine is a libertarian who would invite our enemies to shoot our citizens in the name of preserving our freedom, a word which means, for this particular libertarian, our freedom from taxes. Now, that is a hard charge to make against any man, and should only be made on strong testimony. And the strongest testimony is the words of the fool himself. Speaking of the national defense, which our philosopher believes should be done not by taxes, but by voluntary, he has a simple plan to encourage “voluntary” donations:

And even if we stipulate, for the sake of argument, that there really are free riders gaining from the investments of others, there are still ways to internalize the externality. We announce to the Soviets, or the Cubans, or the Bosnians, or whoever are the bad guys at a given time, that Joe Blow has not contributed to the defense fund, and that he is therefore fair game. This ought to get them to think twice about trying to free ride on the defense expenditures of others. (Walter Block, “Hayek's Road to Serfdom”; Journal of Libertarian Studies 12:2 (Fall, 1996) 348)

Chesterton did not give his fool a name, but as I have quoted him, I have already given his name: Walter Block. Now, I wish to be very clear that I do not regard all libertarians as fools—far from it. Many, especially the so-called “left” libertarians are quite sound and deserve our full attention, if not always our full allegiance. And I believe a distributist state would more closely approach the libertarian ideal than any other state, since liberty in such a state (both political and economic liberty) would be guaranteed by the widespread dispersion of property (without which liberty is impossible), and people would have less need for the government and more need for each other, less dependence on remote bureaucrats and more dependence on their near neighbors.

Mr. Block's simple idea of using our enemies to murder our friends does have a certain charming simplicity about it. Osama bin Laden would become the chief enforcer of the libertarian ideal of freedom. Let us re-christen (if that is the right word) him Osama bin Libertarian. Alas, it has a few flaws which even (should I say it?) a fool could spot. It seems to me, fool that I am, that Osama & Co. would hardly want to murder citizens who refused to contribute to the nation's defense. Quite the opposite; they would want to reward such people. They would want to lavish gifts upon them. They would want to provide an incentive, and self-interest is, for the libertarians of Mr. Block's stripe, the only real motive for action. And Mr. Block, presumably, would have no objection to that for the right to favor our mortal enemies over our neighbors is, apparently, one of the “freedoms” that Mr. Block admires:

If it cannot be denied that national defense is an external economy for most ordinary people, then it also cannot be disproven that it is an external diseconomy for the pacifist and the person who favors our enemy over this country.

Mr. Block is sharing all this wisdom in the context of an article attacking Friedrich von Hayek for being a Socialist. Now, I don't think that Hayek is beyond critique. Indeed, I have done so myself (Hayek's Super-Highway). The particular point at issue is the externalities, that is, the cost of a transaction that is borne by persons not a party to the transaction. Pollution for example. A company lowers its costs by dumping its toxic wastes into the river. Downstream there are dreadful costs, but for the company there are huge benefits. This is an externality, where the costs are on one side and the benefits on another. Externalities have always been rather an embarrassment to libertarians in general and right-wing libertarians in particular. By definition, such things are external to the market and cannot be handled by market mechanisms. But the right-wing libertarians want to make the market the arbiter of all things.

The market ought to be the arbiter of marketable things, but all things human are not marketable. The common good requires a common defense, and despite the claims of Halliburton, Blackwater, and a thousand other war profiteers, these things cannot be left to the market. Many other common goods fall in the same category. For example the air we breathe is a common good, but has no market, unless one can control it and make it scarce; then it can be sold at a high price, the price of a man's life. And to certain fools, that would be just fine. The common goods require common decisions, and the externalities require some mechanism beyond the market. The right-wing libertarians have no coherent theory of government, and hence have no coherent way to limit government. Governments have never grown as rich and powerful as they do under regimes which claim to be devoted to the disappearance of governments, and this is as true of the laissez-faire regimes as it is of the communist ones. The socialist and the libertarian end up conspiring against the public, and in the case of Mr. Block, are more than willing to bring our enemies in as part and parcel of the conspiracy.

I do not mean by this to ridicule the libertarians. Far from it. I do wish to point out that devotion to an ideology—any ideology—can trump reason and make a man, quite literally, a fool.


Mel Sunday, November 4, 2007 at 1:51:00 PM CST  

Good post, John. As foolish as Mr. Block's idea indeed is, though, there've been quite a few intellectuals over the years who've given us such remarkably stupid statements. In fact, I would include, in reference to your title's inspiration, the many left-wing college students and professors who sided with Al Qaeda after 9/11, as if Islamic fundamentalism and their socialism had anything much in common! But this sort of thing has been going on for a while, which is why Orwell made his famous comment about having to be an intellectual to believe such things (does anyone here know what specific idea prompted his remark?), and why H.G. Wells referred to his Fabian colleague George Bernard Shaw as "all intellect and no brain".

I'm rather less convinced by your statement that laissez-faire regimes are as rich and powerful as their communist counterparts, and that the two are the most powerful known. Putting aside a number of theocratic, monarchist, and Fascist states which make no claim about their eventual demise, but are still seemingly as mighty as any, why do you say that the libertarian state is comparable to its communist counterpart? Sorry, but that really puzzles me.

Kevin Carson, John mentioned "Hayek's Super-Highway" in this article. At last check, my post in response to yours was the last of 19. If you'd like to read it and respond, feel free.


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