Living Libertarian: Brief Biographies

Libertarian Autobiographies: Moving toward Freedom in Today’s World
edited by Jo Ann Cavallo and Walter E. Block
Palgrave Macmillan, 2023; xx + 533 pp.

Jo Ann Cavallo and Walter Block have done those interested in libertarianism a great service, but they have set the reviewer of their book an impossible task. They have gathered together eighty short accounts in which well-known libertarians describe their various paths toward their political and economic beliefs. In the space I have available, I cannot comment on all of these accounts. Instead, I’ll discuss a few topics that come up in them. But I must issue a warning. My selection is influenced by my own interest in philosophy.

Gerard Casey was attracted by the intellectual power of Ludwig von Mises’s a priori reasoning:

Having discovered Mises, I immediately started reading his other books, including, of course, Human Action. The first 140+ pages of this book, which give mental hernias to some people, were to me like being given the golden ticket to intellectual paradise. I found this outline of praxeology so exciting that several times I had to put the book down and take a little walk. Human action is purposeful behavior. The incentive to act is always some uneasiness, some dissatisfaction where an agent believes that purposeful behavior can remove, or alleviate, the dissatisfaction; and so on. . . . Now this may not seem like much of a revelation. As a philosopher, I was familiar with the notion of the a priori, but examples of the a priori came only from the areas of logic and mathematics. The shock of finding the a priori relevant to matters of human practice was psychically electric!

One of the a priori laws of action Mises stresses is that a voluntary exchange benefits both parties to it. Given commonsense ethical judgments, this law yields a powerful argument for a society based on the free market. Thinking about the implications of this law led Casey to the works of Murray Rothbard, to which he was “gravitationally attracted.”

What exactly are “commonsense” ethical judgments? This is a question that the philosopher Mike Huemer has thought deeply about and has found that his answers support libertarianism:

I saw libertarianism as resting on a much more modest foundation. To arrive at libertarianism, you need only accept some perfectly moderate, common-sense ethical intuitions, of a sort that are widely accepted on all sides of the political spectrum, and apply them consistently to the state. That part in italics marks the real difference between libertarians and non-libertarians. Non-libertarians make special exceptions for the state; libertarians apply the same moral constraints to the state as they apply to everyone else. Non-libertarians don’t generally think, for example, that you or I may go around stealing people’s money to give it to the poor. They don’t think that a church may hire armed guards to kidnap people who are consuming unhealthy substances and lock them in cages. But they think the state may do these things. They think, in short, that the state has a special kind of authority that lets it evade the ethical constraints that apply to private individuals and organizations. So I wrote The Problem of Political Authority, seeking to show that there is in fact no satisfactory basis for this belief in the special moral status of the state.

How can the specific requirements of a voluntary society be best developed? One way is through “libertarian casuistry,” a method that Walter Block has pioneered. The philosopher Lukasz Dominiak offers this description of it:

Walter Block essentially single-handedly developed what can be called libertarian casuistry. Almost any case you can imagine, from the privatization of Antarctica, to the ownership of rivers and oceans, to homesteading misery—you can google with Walter Block’s name next to it and you will find a libertarian solution to it. . . . Trying to figure out how each and every possible quandary—even the most minute one—should be adjudicated under libertarianism.

In my many years of reading about arguments for libertarianism, I thought I had heard everything, but the physicist Frank Tipler has come up with something new to me. He argues that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which he favors, supports Austrian business cycle theory:

Reading Hayek on the Austrian Theory of capital convinced me that Many-Worlds was the correct theory of quantum mechanics. The Austrians viewed capital not as a single production stream, but rather as a lattice of alternative worlds in which the same machines are used in all possible ways. This was a purely classical picture of parallel universes.

In 2014, I published a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences where I proved mathematically that quantum mechanics arises as a classical Many-Worlds theory, just as Austrian capital theory had suggested.

And that is not all. Reading Murray Rothbard convinced him that “free market anarchy is the best society.” Moreover, the laws of physics show that this society will inevitably come to be:

In my book with John Barrow, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, I formulated this as the Final Anthropic Principle (FAP): in any universe, intelligent life must come into existence, and, once in existence, would never die out. . . . The real question is, why is it possible for humans, idiots that we obviously are, to develop science and technology? The answer is simple: the laws of physics are set up so that we idiots can figure them out with sufficient accuracy to develop the technology that will allow our descendants to survive to the end of time. Ultimately, it is the Cosmological Singularity that arranged the laws of physics to ensure this. The proof of FAP also shows that in the end, free cooperation between our descendants will be required in the far future in order for them to survive, and the laws of physics require them to survive. In the end, physics and libertarian philosophy are the same.

That is indeed a remarkable claim, but I wonder whether opponents of libertarianism could reply, “Perhaps you are right, but let’s wait for a few hundred million years before establishing a libertarian society.”

There is enormously more of interest in this volume, and I recommend it to all those curious about what leads people to become libertarians. It is quite expensive, but those who cannot afford it should use their ingenuity to secure access to it.

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