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Adam Smith, Airwaves, and Argumentation

Tags History of the Austrian School of EconomicsOther Schools of ThoughtPhilosophy and Methodology

08/02/2006Roderick T. Long

Issue 20.2 of the Journal of Libertarian Studies is even more filled than usual with revisionism and controversy! Take a look:

  • In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith maintained that “the sovereign has only three duties to attend to.” The first two are national defense and the administration of domestic justice; then, famously, comes the third duty: “the duty of erecting and maintaining certain publick works and certain publick institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain.” Opponents of free markets often seize on this passage with glee, pointing out that even Adam Smith recognized a necessary role for the state in the provision of public goods.

    Of course, even if this is true of Smith, invoking it against libertarianism would be a mere appeal to authority, not an argument. But is it true of Smith? In “Is The Wealth of Nations’ Third Duty of the Sovereign Compatible With Laissez Faire?,” Valentin Petkantchin argues that the “third duty” passage has traditionally been misunderstood, and that Smith’s “publick works” are not governmental entities, but merely governmentally chartered joint-stock companies – “public” in the sense of a “public corporation,” but privately funded and administered, and so not the concession to interventionism that they have usually been taken to be.
  • It is widely assumed that the use of the electromagnetic spectrum for radio and television transmissions would be a scene of chaotic conflict were it not for government regulation; and the history of broadcasting before the Federal Radio Act of 1927 is often cited in support of this thesis. B. K. Marcus disagrees. In “Radio Free Rothbard,” Marcus employs Rothbardian property theory to defend privatization of the airwaves, and invokes Rothbard’s concept of the “relevant technological unit” to show how private broadcasting rights should be structured. Marcus also employs Rothbardian historical methodology to show how the pre-1927 chaos was the (probably deliberate) product, not of free markets, but of a governmental refusal to recognize property rights in the airwaves.
  • Hans-Hermann Hoppe has famously argued that any attempt to argue against the libertarian ethic of self-ownership and non-aggression is self-refuting, since the very act of engaging in an argumentative exchange presupposes the legitimacy of each participant’s exercising exclusive control over the scarce resources involved in arguing: his own mind and body. In “Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethic: A Critique, Robert P. Murphy and Gene Callahan maintain that Hoppe’s argument a) establishes only the legitimacy of use, not the legitimacy of ownership; b) establishes the legitimacy of such use only over parts of one’s body, at the moment of argument, not of one’s entire body throughout life; and c) fails to determine the boundaries of the class of entities to which the argument applies.
  • Thomas E. Woods, Jr.’s best-selling Politically Incorrect Guide to American History has generated a firestorm of criticism from both left and right. In a Review Essay, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel dismisses most of the book’s critics as unfair, but offers a different criticism of his own: that Woods’ book vacillates between a libertarian approach to history that assails statist intervention, and a conservative approach to history that downplays the seriousness of such aggression when in the support of conservative values.
  • Woods gets a more positive reception from Samuel Bostaph, in his Review of two more books by Woods: The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era, which explores the conflict between Catholics and Progressives in the early 20th century over such issues as objectivity, labor reform, and the purpose of education, and laments the contrast Woods sees between the confident radicalism of Progressive-era Catholic intellectuals and the accommodationist character of their contemporary successors; and The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy, which draws on both the Scholastic (cf. Woods’s Review of Chafuen in JLS 19.4) and Austrian traditions to defend the compatibility of free-market economics with Catholic moral teaching – a thesis that runs against the grain of much traditional Catholic thought.
  • Finally, in a Review of Tibor R. Machan’s Ayn Rand, Robert Bass endorses the book’s aspiration – to fill the need for a sympathetic yet not uncritical, academically oriented, introductory exposition of Rand’s ideas – but charges that the approach Machan takes in his book is one that would fail to convince most academic readers of Rand’s importance.

Contact Roderick T. Long

Roderick T. Long is a senior fellow of the Mises Institute and a professor of philosophy at Auburn University. He runs the Molinari Institute and Molinari Society. His website is Praxeology.net.