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Walter Block on Milton Friedman

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Clayton Posted: Tue, Oct 16 2012 11:58 AM

Here's the Mises daily.

I'm not going to get into an in-depth critique but I want to just say that, overall, I am on Friedman's side contra Block in respect to most of the topics covered by this article. While I wouldn't go so far as to advocate a NIT, I think that NIT is a very useful tool in putting socialists to the question: Are you really concerned for people's welfare or are you more concerned with ordering people around and imposing your values on others? If the socialist's primary concern really is human welfare, then he can have no possible counterargument to NIT... the market is already known to be more efficient in the production of the material goods necessary for meeting human needs.

Block's writing style generally gets on my nerves but this piece is particularly bad.

But let us not tread too fast, lest we be accused of hubris. Friedman (1991, 17) tosses the following example across the bows of libertarians. Suppose A is on a bridge, and sees B poised to jump off it to his death. What does A do? If A has even a shred of humanity in him, he immediately seizes B, and saves his life — against B's will. According to this supposed libertarian,

"What this demonstrates, fundamentally, is that no simple principle is really adequate. We do not have all the answers, and there is no simple formula that will give us all the answers. That's why humility, tolerance, is so basic, so fundamental."

But the libertarian nonaggression axiom is more than sufficient to answer this challenge. If A wants to be a hero, and enslave B against his will, and, clearly, "for B's own good," then A should be willing to pay the price for this set out by the libertarian philosophy. One part of the price for A is saving B at the possible risk to his own life. But another part of this, a crucial one, is that A should also be willing to pay the legal consequences of his initiatory violence. Friedman to the contrary notwithstanding, A was guilty of physically imposing his will on B. False imprisonment is, ordinarily, a very serious crime. In our present Good Samaritan case it is still a crime, but, presumably, any libertarian court worthy of the name would take the lack of mens rea into account, assuming the unlikely scenario that B wishes to press charges.

Block has not faced the strongest counter-example to the NAP which is, I think, children in a parent's care. Human children, as a matter of parental care, have always been subject to all sorts of coercive behavior. We can see in nature that this* is, in fact, a natural state of affairs. The mother dog nips her puppies' ears to correct them, the mother cat drags her kittens by the scruff of their neck, the cow thumps her calf on the neck with her hind leg if he bites her udder, and so on. This sort of mild physical violence used in a corrective/instructive capacity is doubtless part of human nature, as well.

NAP theory simply cannot comprehend this fact without engaging in special pleading; appealing - ad hoc - to exceptional principles. Which is precisely Friedman's point. The NAP simply cannot be used without qualification.

Even worse, Block himself appeals to a blatantly anti-libertarian legal principle in his confused attempt to rescue NAP-fundamentalism from Friedman's fairly obvious point: mens rea. Now, unless Block is aware of the existence of functioning, mind-reading crystal balls, how does he propose to determine the content's of another person's brain at a past moment in time? How are libertarian courts to determine whether someone had a "guilty mind" or not? Block would have us believe that merely noting that human nature (physical coercion of children or other incompetents, possibly including the clinically depressed) is not exhaustively described by NAP is anti-libertarian to the core. Yet, on the other hand, positing that libertarian courts would use mens rea is perfectly libertarian. This article is like the verbal equivalent of a House of Mirrors.

Clayton -

*The use of some coercion... of course, not just any kind of coercion that has ever been used
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I only read the first half of the Block article, but I really didn't see that any of his issues raised with Friedman were of any real substance. I agree with Friedman's assessment of humility and tolerance being important tenets of any philosophy, and it just seems like Block's critique is forced and querulous. I don't think Friedman was trying to unseat the NAP, but just acknowledging that "There is no simple formula that will give us all the answers". This doesn't mean that we cannot still abide by our principles, it just means that we should concede that we are not omniscient of what effect our actions have on others.


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Walter has a point in that ultimately coercing people against their will qua a 'good samaritan' is a possible action, but brings consequences, due to the fact that it is morally permissable to resist the coercion, and to see it as a tort.  It was probably enough just to say that, and to have Walter repeat the mantra that NAP is not a philosophy of perscribing what people should do in situations (so it suffers nothing for having no 'humulity', 'tolerance' content etc) , its merely a mode for classifying acts into those that it would be morally permissable to aggressivly oppose and those not. Bring your humility and tolerance into your life if you want to, and others are free to as well, but they are beside the point of political theory.

Where there is no property there is no justice; a proposition as certain as any demonstration in Euclid

Fools! not to see that what they madly desire would be a calamity to them as no hands but their own could bring

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