Friday, July 14, 2006


Michael Rozeff has identified two kinds of losses attributable to life in less than free societies: those due to physical violence, which he terms p-losses, and those due to beliefs that work against people’s best interests, or b-losses (“Silver and Golden Rule Societies,” May 8, 2006, While recognizing that libertarian theory tends to ignore b-losses, due to their subjective and nebulous nature, Prof. Rozeff nonetheless views them as an appropriate subject for libertarian analysis. B-losses seem to undermine human freedom and happiness.

The notion of b-losses brought to mind a lunch hour conversation I had with two business associates, and longtime friends of mine, at a downtown Detroit restaurant many years ago. Jack was a lapsed Catholic. Arnie was a non-observant Jew. Pope John Paul II had recently reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s traditional ban on artificial insemination. Jack found the Pope’s ruling arbitrary, verging on cruel: “A couple is trying to have kids. They go through years and years of heartbreak. They’re willing to bear the expense, to say nothing of the humiliation, of going the turkey baster route. These are people who really want to have kids! I think the Pope should just let them do it!” For his part, Arnie could not fathom why any intelligent human being would lend his or her ear to an old man’s pronouncements on such a singularly personal and delicate subject. Jack and Arnie felt genuine sympathy for those scrupulous souls who respected papal authority and would incur the accompanying b-loss of childlessness.

A confirmed libertarian, I reminded my friends that only those who accepted the Pope’s reasoning or recognized the authority of his office would defer to his teachings. No Swiss Guard was pointing a gun at anybody’s head. No fines or prison sentences or dynamic entries of nulliparous couples’ homes were in the offing. There would be no campaign of humanitarian bombing to uplift and Christianize the recalcitrant. The Pope would have to rely on his powers of moral suasion and the presumed authority of his office alone. If only our enlightened democracy dealt with its criminal element—you know, the price gougers, tax evaders, gun owners, pot smokers, prostitutes, deserters, 19 year-old beer drinkers and two-bit foreign dictators—that way!

“People in a free society join and form clubs,” I told them. “The Catholic Church is a club. It may be more than just a club, depending on your belief system, but it’s at least that much. It has conditions for membership. Nobody forces you to be a member of the club. Nobody forces you to be a member of the club in good standing. Well, your parents can force you, but that’s only so long as you’re living under their roof. Certainly, parents have that right, don’t they? To raise their children in the religion of their choice? Anyway, when you’re old enough to live on your own, you have the choice to belong or not belong to the club, to accept or reject your religious upbringing.”

As far as I could tell, I was belaboring the obvious. This is kindergarten stuff, really. My friends were highly intelligent, unimpeachably ethical and open-minded individuals. They still are. Still, my argument didn’t fly as well as I’d hoped. It rarely does.

The argument bears repeating . The marketplace of ideas includes a wide range of philosophical, religious, moral, social, cultural, political and economic issues. These have to do with war, taxes, “price-fixing,” abortion, divorce, recreational drug use, gay marriage, euthanasia, seventh-day Sabbath observance, gambling, pre-marital dancing and artificial insemination, among others. The pope has as much right as anyone to inject his views into the marketplace. From a libertarian perspective, it makes no difference what kind of extraordinary claims the pope makes for the authority of his office. It makes no difference that some “consumers” of the marketplace of ideas believe that Christ is the Son of God, that He instituted the office of the papacy, or that those who reject the authority of that office are flirting with the fires of hell. Indeed, those very issues—belief in Christ, the office of the papacy and the existence of hell—themselves make up part of the marketplace of ideas.

Religious belief exists apart from the state. In the case of Christianity, religious belief took root and spread in the face of active and violent opposition by the state. There’s no reason to believe that people living in a religiously-neutral stateless society would be any less prone to religious belief than people living in an anti-religious statist society. In a hypothetical anarchic state-of-nature society, people would continue to espouse “good” and “bad” beliefs, religious or otherwise. People would debate the merits of those beliefs. Faithful Catholics would continue to refrain from practicing artificial insemination and contraception and remarrying after divorce. Jehovah’s Witnesses would continue to reject blood transfusions. Orthodox Jews would still abstain from ham sandwiches.

Since people disagree about good and bad beliefs, they will disagree about what it takes to incur a belief-loss. Catholics may well argue that those who reject the Catholic moral code incur b-losses, either in this world (e.g., undisciplined individuals, broken families, less tightly knit communities) or in the world to come (Judgment and damnation). The JWs and Orthodox Jews will probably do the same. Secularists are free to try to disabuse religionists of their beliefs, just as religionists are free to try to disabuse secularists of theirs. But they’re free to do that in most statist societies today. They’re certainly free to do that in our own.

Libertarians have their hands full simply convincing their fellow citizens that the vaunted democratic state is a criminal enterprise writ large. They should stick to addressing, and redressing, the p-losses associated with that enterprise. Merely raising the issue of b-losses is to risk associating libertarianism with that weird panoply of attitudes and behaviors the great Murray Rothbard tagged and excoriated as “modal libertarianism.” Yes, people who hew to religious or culturally conservative mores incur b-losses—in the eyes of their liberal secularist counterparts. Yes, conservative religionists might in fact be happier if they smoked pot or cheated on their wives (of if they availed themselves of artificial insemination, accepted blood transfusions or partook of the occasional ham sandwich). Maybe these people have all been brainwashed.

On the other hand, maybe the liberal secularists have been brainwashed. Maybe they’re the ones incurring b-losses. Maybe they’d be happier leading sober, faithful lives yoked to a benighted and medieval religion. Who’s to say? For the libertarian, what does it matter?


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