In this chapter Duncan propounds a tedious, meandering, and economically naive interventionist fantasy. There is no rhyme or reason to it; for example, he writes that “lesser constraints, such as reasonable taxes, red lights at intersections, anti-pollution laws, and so on, will leave citizens largely free to choose the shape of lives.” (90) By “reasonable” our author means what he, Duncan, personally finds reasonable according to his own peculiar fancies. Yet though his notions are many, rational defenses of them are scarce. I will therefore focus on some of his clearer arguments.
Duncan calls his system “democratic liberalism.” He exalts democracy, saying that it blurs the distinction between the rulers and the ruled. Democracy “recognizes in a significant way [the citizens’] equal status as beings capable of responsible choice.” (90) But democracy is neither necessary nor sufficient for liberty. There can be sharp conflicts between the two. After all, democracy is not each individual ruling himself; it’s the majority ruling the individuals, including those who are in the minority. What happens when a democratically elected government takes away individual liberties? What’s to guarantee that the voters in a democracy will prefer a free society? In addition, in my personal life, I internalize the costs of my mistakes; in a democracy, a single vote never matters in an election. This dramatically weakens the incentive to each citizen to vote correctly. Finally, democracy is entirely useless at limiting large states.
Duncan lists the right “against discrimination (as a job-seeker, employee, or consumer)” as one of his “basic economic rights.” The problem here is twofold. First, why is it that only the employer is burdened with punishments for choosing his employees as he sees fit? If worker Smith does not want to work for an Asian boss, he is perfectly free to reject a job offer from him for any reason or indeed none at all. But manager Jones who dislikes Asians cannot legally refuse to hire Smith. Similarly, why is Smith allowed to discriminate between the buyers of his labor, while Jones is not allowed to discriminate between the buyers of his wedding cakes? Why the asymmetry, given that, as I mention in a post below, every economic actor makes the same general moves of exchanging goods and services for money? Duncan must be guided by some version of the (false) Marxian exploitation theory. Second, this alleged right conflicts with Duncan’s own “personal right” prohibiting “interfering with a person’s choices regarding friends, sexual relations, and children.” (92) What is the reason both for forbidding the state from telling me who I should befriend and for giving it the authority to micromanage who I should hire?
Duncan makes several exceptions to freedom of speech. “Incitement to riot,” libel, slander, censorship of TV sex and violence, and others can be banned. (94) Regarding the first of these, Rothbard disposed of it in Ch. 12, “Self-Defense” of Ethics of Liberty:
Should it be illegal, we may next inquire, to “incite to riot”? Suppose that Green exhorts a crowd: “Go! Burn! Loot! Kill!” and the mob proceeds to do just that, with Green having nothing further to do with these criminal activities.
Since every man is free to adopt or not adopt any course of action he wishes, we cannot say that in some way Green determined the members of the mob to their criminal activities; we cannot make him, because of his exhortation, at all responsible for their crimes.
“Inciting to riot,” therefore, is a pure exercise of a man’s right to speak without being thereby implicated in crime. (81)
Libel and slander are dissected competently in Ch. 16, “Knowledge, True and False”:
Smith has a property right to the ideas or opinions in his own head; he also has a property right to print anything he wants and disseminate it. He has a property right to say that Jones is a “thief” even if he knows it to be false, and to print and sell that statement. The counter-view, and the current basis for holding libel and slander (especially of false statements) to be illegal is that every man has a “property right” in his own reputation, that Smith’s falsehoods damage that reputation, and that therefore Smith’s libels are invasions of Jones’s property right in his reputation and should be illegal.
Yet, again, on closer analysis this is a fallacious view. For everyone, as we have stated, owns his own body; he has a property right in his own head and person. But since every man owns his own mind, he cannot therefore own the minds of anyone else. And yet Jones’s “reputation” is neither a physical entity nor is it something contained within or on his own person. Jones’s “reputation” is purely a function of the subjective attitudes and beliefs about him contained in the minds of other people. But since these are beliefs in the minds of others, Jones can in no way legitimately own or control them. Jones can have no property right in the beliefs and minds of other people. (126)
Regarding the alleged right to privacy, Rothbard argues:
But is there really such a right to privacy? How can there be? How can there be a right to prevent Smith by force from disseminating knowledge which he possesses?
Surely there can be no such right. Smith owns his own body and therefore has the property right to own the knowledge he has inside his head, including his knowledge about Jones. And therefore he has the corollary right to print and disseminate that knowledge.
In short, as in the case of the “human right” to free speech, there is no such thing as a right to privacy except the right to protect one’s property from invasion. The only right “to privacy” is the right to protect one’s property from being invaded by someone else. (121-2)
Why won’t Duncan read the requisite introductions to libertarian thought? If he had bothered to engage Rothbard’s arguments, this might have been a far more interesting book.
Following Rawls, our author distinguishes between “formal equality of opportunity” defined as the demand “that jobs be granted to people on the basis of their qualifications, regardless of how they came by these qualifications,” and “fair equality of opportunity” which “requires that job seekers have equal opportunity to obtain qualifications in the first place.” (101-2)
Regarding the former, we’ve already dealt with freedom of association-destroying “anti-discrimination” laws.
Regarding the latter, in my book I write that economist Paul Davidson
has a faulty view of competition. His reasoning is that competition, if it is to be legitimate, must be somehow fair. Everyone must start out in the same conditions.
Davidson does not grasp that the purpose of market competition is to improve consumer welfare, and this purpose is served even if entrepreneurs have varying amounts of starting capital, and even if the prices of the nearby factors of production differ for them.
Second, real-world competition is marked by the rivals’ attempts not only to win under “fair” conditions but precisely to position themselves better relative to others even at the onset of any productive endeavor. That, too, serves consumers.
Moreover, American entrepreneurs have no duty to pay high wages to American workers. Escaping overseas into China and collecting the benefits of cheap labor are not a violation of any plausible moral law. The notion of fairness of catallactic competition is nonsensical. (SAtK, II, 26)
Duncan agrees that because of numerous accidents in a person’s life, including the quality of the family he is born into, “economic opportunity… will never be equal.” (103) But why strive for it at all? I share the sentiment that we as a society want to squeeze the most productivity out of each individual in order for all of us to grow in wealth at the fastest possible speed. The question, however, is not of ends but of means. How can each person best realize his potential and in so doing enrich the rest of us? For example, we know full well that government schooling reliably destroys both the minds and morals of the kids. Based on this result, fully privatized and unsubsidized education is recommended.
Duncan fares better at describing the argument that market producers “deserve” what they earn:
The better one is able to produce goods that consumers desire, the more money one will typically earn; the producing of goods that consumers desire is a type of social contribution; hence, one’s financial rewards in the free market match one’s social contributions. …
An individual’s contribution to the firm should be measured by whatever price his skills can command on an open labor market. (106-7)
His own objections to these points are lacking. For example, after presenting some irrelevant statistics, such as that the ratio of the average wages of top 100 CEOs and all workers has undergone “a tremendous increase in less than a generation,” Duncan concludes: “America’s increased prosperity in the last thirty years has not been shared with average workers.” (109-10) But insofar as his complaint is justified, it is merely an inevitable consequence of his own anti-market interventionist policies.
Duncan predictably blames what remains of the free market in our economy for the faults of government interventions into the free market. So typical is this behavior among statists that we must agree with Mises that interventionism is intellectually an internally inconsistent and futile system: it tends to slouch toward full-blown socialism.
I don’t, as a matter of fact, think that basing a defense of the free market on “desert” is fruitful. Desert works for contracts — if you’ve done your part of the bargain, you deserve it that the other party does his, too; for torts — when wrongfully injured, say, you deserve restitution; and for crimes — if you’ve committed a crime, you deserve punishment. But to say that I deserve my life or fortune or income in general, as if God owed me something or life could not turn from pleasant to awful on a dime, seems unhelpful.
At the same time, as Machan pointed out in Part 3 of this book, one has a right to his kidneys or his wages despite perhaps not deserving them in some general sense. The argument making use of the idea that people do not “deserve” their incomes is like replying to the exhortation “But he’s innocent!” with “Who’s innocent?! I’m sure he’s a sinner in something!” Fine, I admit that many of our blessings are not 100% the work of our own hands. Does that mean it’s suddenly Ok to plunder and pillage one’s fellow man?