Monday, June 28, 2004

Libertarian Aggression

In the writebacks to my post “The Limits of Economics” (also known as “Economics and Catholic Social Teaching, Part IV”), over in the CRO Blog, Stephan Kinsella has several very long posts that touch on the libertarian principle of non-aggression. While they are somewhat off-topic, they are worth reading, if only because they remind us of certain libertarian assumptions that aren’t always obvious in, say, the daily postings on

To sum up (I hope fairly): Mr. Kinsella argues that “libertarians simply maintain that initiating violence against the person or property of innocent, peaceful neighbors is unjustified.” Such violence, directed against a person, is physical; we are only justified in committing violence against someone else if he is committing violence against us (although most libertarians, I assume, would allow for violence in self-defense even if the other person has not yet landed a blow on you). Violence against property takes physical forms as well as the form of any unreasonable restriction on the disposition (sale or use) of the property. The only reasonable restrictions on the disposition of property are those that prevent its use in “violence against the person or property of innocent, peaceful neighbors.” Thus, if my neighbor is trying to bash my head in with his baseball bat, I am justified in removing said bat from his use.

This calls to mind a situation that I have considered for some time. Imagine a small town of, say, 2,000 people. All of the property owners in the town, in accord with the unanimous dislike of the residents for pornography, voluntarily agree to impose a zoning restriction on using their property to sell pornography. To forestall any philosophical objections, the restriction is revisited every time a piece of property passes to a new owner (by, say, sale or bequest). The vote is conducted by secret ballot, to minimize the possibility of the vote being skewed by the threat of violence; if any property owner votes against the restriction, the restriction is repealed.

So far, so good: I suspect that, with the exception of a few libertarians who believe that any gathering for even vaguely political purposes is illegitimate or that no property owner can impose voluntary restrictions on the use of his own property, the vast majority of libertarians would say that the situation I have described does not violate the principle of non-aggression.

Let’s say, now, that the ownership of a piece of property at one end of the main street of the town, by the highway, passes to someone who does not subscribe to the moral consensus. The restriction is removed, and the property owner opens a business selling pornography, showing pornographic films, renting out hot tubs, and employing women from outside the town to . . . um . . . maintain the hot tubs. What recourse do the other 1,999 people in town have?

The libertarian—correct me if I’m wrong—will say that, philosophically, they have no recourse. He might suggest practical measures—for instance, if the people of the town do not patronize the porn shop, perhaps it will go under. Of course, given its location by the highway, it is quite possible that the business could thrive without receive a single penny of local money. Or, the libertarian might say, someone could buy the property and restore the consensus. The owner, however, may not be willing to sell, no matter what price is offered.

Mr. Kinsella has argued that the principle of non-aggression is a bare minimum, compatible with broader understandings of community. Here, however, in preventing the use of violence (as it is defined by libertarians) against the property (i.e., preventing a zoning restriction on the property), the principle of non-aggression has granted one property owner a sort of tyranny over the entire community. The moral consensus of the community has been subjugated to one man’s desire for profits.

By the way, this is not an idle, abstract intellectual exercise: In all important points, this situation really occurred in my hometown, a small West Michigan village of 2,000, in the early 1980’s.

As always, I welcome your comments, and I especially invite any libertarians to explain (a) any misrepresentations I have made of their position; and (b) why one man should be given the tyrannical power to undermine the moral consensus of my hometown.

/Economic Freedom/Theory versus Reality | print | permanent link | writebacks (176)

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Once More, Into the Abyss . . .

My “’Economic Law’ versus Catholic Social Teaching, Part V” (also known as “On Infallibility, Popes, and Woods”) is now up on Cultural Revolutions Online. Join in the discussion, because you won’t get a chance to do so on Lew Rockwell’s non-writeback-enabled blog!

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Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Visit the CRO Blog . . .

For my latest post, “The Limits of Economics” (which, if it had appeared here, would have been called “’Economic Law’ versus Catholic Social Teaching, Part IV”). For parts I-III, click here. And make sure to read Thomas Storck’s response to Thomas Woods’ earlier article, which set this round in motion.

There is much more to say in addition to what I’ve written over on the CRO Blog; if all of it is not covered in the writebacks, I’ll make some additional comments here. In the meantime, go join the discussion!

/Economic Freedom/Theory versus Reality | print | permanent link | writebacks (1)

Friday, April 02, 2004

Neoconservatism versus Catholic Social Teaching

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus didn’t like my article “Consumption Taxes, Property Rights: Notes Toward the Restoration of Property” in the January 2004 issue of Chronicles. Or, I should say, he didn’t like Paul Likoudis’s summary of my article in the Wanderer, since he apparently didn’t read the original before attacking it in the April 2004 issue of First Things. Had he done so, he might have avoided certain uncharitable words and misrepresentations of my argument. That is not to say, of course, that he would have agreed with me; Father Neuhaus’s economic views, as far as I can tell, are indistinguishable from Novak’s. But it is possible to disagree without descending into sarcasm unbefitting a priest—or, for that matter, any Christian.

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Friday, March 26, 2004

“Economic Law” versus Catholic Social Teaching, Part III

My earlier posts (Part I, Part II) on Tom Woods’ article “The Trouble With Catholic Social Teaching” have generated much discussion, on this site and elsewhere—a healthy sign, it seems to me, that many conservative and traditionalist Catholics are trying to grapple with the Church’s consistent social teaching rather than simply bracketing it and substituting some form of conservative economics.

One writeback that I’ve received on Part II is important enough that I’d like to respond to it here in a post rather than in the writebacks. Al Gunn writes:

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Wednesday, March 24, 2004

“Economic Law” versus Catholic Social Teaching, Part II

A friend e-mailed yesterday to say that he didn’t understand the crux of my disagreement with Tom Woods. As he sees it, Tom is simply concerned with government intervention into the economy, confiscatory taxation, coercive laws and regulations, and the welfare state, all of which (he quite rightly points out, as Chronicles has for over 25 years) have been largely destructive. But these destructive things, my friend goes on to claim, have been central to Catholic social teaching.

This is a common misconception, which even a close reading of Tom Woods’ article can help to dispel.

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Monday, March 22, 2004

“Economic Law” versus Catholic Social Teaching

In “The Trouble With Catholic Social Teaching,” a posting on today, my friend Tom Woods writes that he has completed a full-length book on what he calls the “unresolved tension between Catholic social teaching and economic law.” I look forward to reading it. Tom and I, of course, have very different views on this matter, though we share an aversion to national economic policies that limit economic freedom.

I expect to have much more to say when I receive a review copy of Tom’s book (and I’ll probably offer a few more comments over the next few days on today’s article), but, for today, let me note one thing, namely, Tom’s use of such phrases as “economic law,” “economic science,” “the very nature of economics,” “value-neutral, scientific discipline.” This, it seems to me, goes right to the heart of the matter. Catholic social thought does not regard economics as a hard science, like mathematics; at best, it is a science in the sense that Latin and all European languages other than English can use the term—knowledge as the object of study. Thus, history can be a science without there being a science of history, in the sense of immutable laws that govern history. For Tom’s book to make a serious contribution to any debate over Catholic social teaching, he must quit begging this question.

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Thursday, February 26, 2004

It’s Just a Price/It’s a Just Price

Libertarians discuss the market in the abstract as if every purchase is discretionary and every transaction takes place between equals. In such cases, the Misesian theory of subjective valuation makes a great deal of sense, and the price that the buyer and the seller ultimately negotiate is quite likely not only subjectively but objectively the fairest price.

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Scott P. Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture

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