Walter Block makes two claims about labor unions. First, that it is “impossible” to find cases where any significant action of a union did not “engage in violence or threat of violence.” Second, which is an even stronger statement, that we can’t even imagine a union that does not initiate violence. Presumably, then, using unjust violence or threat thereof is part of the very essence of labor unionism. It would never make sense for workers to unionize unless they were from the beginning planning to commit crimes against person or property. (53-64) Walter comments later that though it’s not after all impossible for a worker’s association to “eschew both white-color and blue-color crime,” something so innocent should not really be called a “union.” (58)

Of some interest is Walter’s question, “May a libertarian join a union?”

Now libertarianism is not a personal morality or a way to become a better person. It does not ask, “Is it morally permissible for me as a libertarian to join a union?” It is a political ideology that asks on the contrary, “Should I punish other people, precisely non-libertarians, when they join a union?” or “Should I insist, in making my voice heard, that unions not be given coercive powers to use violence against innocents or threaten to do so?”

A libertarian then can be an awful “hypocrite,” enjoying above-market wages as a member of the union and aggressing against scabs but still think that politically, the unions ought not to have this power, thereby remaining a libertarian. He may enjoy his unionist privilege but not approve it. He may even, while benefiting from labor unionist legislation personally, vote for a politician who promises to abolish this legislation.

I once asked Stephan Kinsella how he can be an intellectual property lawyer while condemning IP. His reply was to the effect that how does his tiny little personal life impinge upon great issues like whether we as a society do or do not countenance IP?

Imagine a society in which there is no law and which resembles a never-ending barroom brawl. People are killing and looting each other. (Assume there’s stuff to loot.) A certain Smith thinks: “If I fail to join the society-wide brouhaha, I’ll end up a complete loser. Others will just crap on me. I’ve got to go and do some pillaging and plundering myself.” However, Smith continues, “Though I am cursed with being part of a brutal, cruel, and dark populace around me, and am forced to join the war of all against all, I long for a world of peace, secure property rights, and freedom. In such a world, I would be a model citizen.” Smith is both an immoral aggressor personally and yet a libertarian politically.

Similarly, I don’t care whether Walter uses government roads or teaches in a state university. I am more concerned with the question of whether roads and universities can be privatized with profit for society as a whole. I don’t care if Smith lives in a rent-controlled apartment; I do not condemn him or call him a sinner or seek to reform his character. As a libertarian, I’d recommend that rent control be abolished, and that’s it. That’s the extent of the pull or scope of this ideology.

(It is true that the grounds for this recommendation can be either economic or moral. I’m sure Walter understands both perfectly. The moral case is that it is wrong to infringe upon the landlord’s property right. But even while making my case this way, I totally ignore the question of whether it is “moral” to benefit from rent controls as a tenant. It’s the state that violates the right not the tenant. So, “morality” is equivocal here.)

As a result, Walter is entirely right that a tenant in a rent-controlled apartment who joins a group called Tenants Against Rent Control indeed is permitted to call himself libertarian.

Now Mises writes:

The nineteenth-century success of free trade ideas was effected by the theories of classical economics. The prestige of these ideas was so great that those whose selfish class interests they hurt could not hinder their endorsements by public opinion and their realization by legislative measures.

At the most, then, a libertarian personally enjoying a state privilege is expected not to resist and even to support, despite any selfish interest, any campaign to abolish this privilege. For example, a farmer should then strive to get price supports abolished despite perhaps suffering personally if they are abolished.

Again, the political problem is not that numerous old people receive Social Security benefits. Are they thieves? Maybe, let God judge them; I won’t. The problem is that they will raise hell against anyone who suggests getting rid of Social Security. However, regarding such miscreants, Mises argues: “If modern civilization were unable to defend itself against the attacks of hirelings, then it could not, in any case, remain in existence much longer.”

So then: down with unions!


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