Opinion

Yes, Sell Rivers! And Make Legal Some Slave Contracts

Libertarian scholar Walter Block fires back at Rafe Mair.

By Walter Block, 24 Jul 2009, TheTyee.ca

Walter Block

Block in his Loyala classroom. Photo by Harold Baquet.

In a recent Tyee column Rafe Mair takes issue with Michael Walker of the Fraser Institute, and with me. I did spend some 13 years (1979-1991) as a senior fellow of Fraser Institute. And, yes, I tangled with Rafe Mair, the politician and journalist, during that time.

On what issues does Mair now criticize me? There are two.

First, the privatization of rivers.

Mair characterizes "this (as) the lunacy I can find only one explanation for: far-right-wing ideology."

Continues Mair:

Back in the early 1990s, the Fraser Institute published an article arguing that rivers and streams ought to all be placed in private hands because, as Dr. Walker (the then executive director) later put it, the private owners would take good care of them because they owned them. On my show at Radio Station X, he repeated this theory that private ownership would ensure the best available use of the river or stream.

I said, 'But Mike, history shows us that the best available use of a river is as a sewer for industry and/or agriculture.'

'No, no,' he replied. 'It would be in the owner's interest to see that the river was kept pristine so that all the fish and other living creatures could survive and prosper.'

To one who has fished rivers and streams all over the world, this literally took my breath away.

'What,' I asked, 'if I owned Rafe Mair's Fishing Camp downstream from the huge Ajax Pulp Mill that dumped large quantities of black liquor into the river killing all the fish?'

Dr. Walker gave me that triumphant look of the righteous and smiled benignly at my stupidity and said, 'No problem, Rafe. You could sue them.'

Evidently it does not occur to the 'far right' that a lawsuit against a huge corporation is not very appealing to a small business owner. (I should add that I remember this interview particularly well because after the show Dr. Walker called me at my home to continue his fruitless efforts to convert me.)

The research took me to Dr. Walter Block who, I believe, wrote the article on privatizing rivers for the Fraser Institute. In any event, Block was a senior fellow of the Fraser Institute at the time.

About all this, a few comments.

1. I share Mr. Mair's recollection. I am pretty sure that it was I who wrote about privatizing rivers.

2. Private ownership of rivers (or lakes, oceans, streams, highways, streets, roadways) is not at all favored by the "far right" if by that is meant conservatives. No, it is only libertarians who are willing to take the logic of private property that far, and in such directions.

3. Mike Walker is incorrect in thinking that under private enterprise, no bodies of water would be used as dumpsites. Rafe Mair is equally in error in maintaining that under a regime of economic freedom, all bodies of water would be used for storing garbage. With regard to land, some of it is used for such purposes; most of it is not. There does not seem to be any good reason to suppose that private water would not be used much the same way; just as in the case of land, water would likely serve a myriad of purposes. In any case, with free markets, all land, and water too, would tend to be used in the manner that maximized profits; that is, produced the most value for all members of society. If it were not, if land or water was not utilized to obtain the most value, this failure would set up profit opportunities for other entrepreneurs. They would tend to purchase the facilities in question, and shift them to a use that would create even more wealth. Does this system work perfectly? Are we always and ever in equilibrium? Of course, not. But, there is a continual grinding market force that works in this direction. It is not for nothing that we seldom have crises in industries (rubber bands, tooth picks) that are relatively free.

4. Mr. Mair exhibits an astonishing degree of economic illiteracy. He is attacking one of the most fundamental principles in all of economics: that if you own it, you tend to take care of it better than if you just rent it, or if no one owns it. People are concerned about an oil change for their own automobile, but when is the last time anyone worried about this in a rental car? The cow never came within a million miles of extinction, the buffalo did. Why? It cannot be because the two species are that different. It must be due to the fact that the former was owned privately, and, at least for many decades, the latter was not. No farmer goes into his lower 40 and shoots all his cows; if he does, he bears a great cost: he doesn't have these bovines tomorrow. Things are different when the buffalo ran free. Then, the economically rational thing to do was to shoot them all. If you didn't, you didn't have them tomorrow anyway. It was virtually costless to shoot a buffalo; thus more of them were killed, and indiscriminately so. It is the same for elephants, rhinos, whales, fish. There is over-fishing in the un-owned ocean; fish farms do not at all face that problem. Why should it be any different for rivers or lakes? We are talking basic economic principles here; they apply to all and any resources. If Mair opposes private water, why not land, too? Don't get me started on Soviet collectivized farming.

5. As for suing the gigantic "Ajax company" for polluting, Mair's objection is just plain silly. First of all, maybe it would be a small corporation that would be the polluter, and a large one doing the suing. Secondly, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Large corporations have deep pockets, and are thus prime targets, even apart from socialists like Mair spreading hatred for them. No one ever sues Wal-Mart out of fear that they are too large? Give us a break. One might as well oppose laws against murder or rape on the ground that rich people might beat these raps more easily than the poor.

As a resident of New Orleans, I take private ownership of rivers very seriously. Katrina was not responsible for the flooding of the Crescent City, and for some 1,500 needless deaths. This was entirely the fault of the Army Corps of Engineers, with a strong assist from FEMA laws and anti-gouging laws. The former, in effect "owns" the Mississippi River, and the latter did its level best to ensure that private enterprise could not come to the rescue of New Orleanians. I don't mind it that much (I'm lying here) that 1,500 people perished; after all, there are some deaths in the private sector. What really sticks in my craw is that the same people are still in charge of this particular lemonade stand. If there were a private corporation that owned the Mississippi, you can bet your bottom dollar that this tragedy would not have occurred in the first place. And, if it somehow did, that those owners would be consigned to the dust bin of history, and this river would now be under new management. That is one of the reasons private enterprise is much more responsive than is government: bankruptcy.

Voluntary slavery

Let us now hear from Mr. Mair on this second subject:

I remember interviewing him (Block) and finding that he -- sit down and get a stiff drink for this one -- along with the late libertarian icon Dr. Robert Nozick, was one of the leading defenders of slave contracts, arguing that it 'is a bona fide contract,' which, if 'abrogated, theft occurs'!

Hearing that, I could only think, 'The Dred Scott case lives!' That case in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857 held that slaves, even in "free states," remained the property of the 'owner and could never have citizenship.'

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