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6. Antimarket Ethics: A Praxeological Critique > Appendix: Professor Oliver on Socioeconomic Goals

B. The Attack on Freedom of Contract

After disposing to his own satisfaction of the basic natural-rights postulates, Oliver goes on to attack a specific class of these rights: freedom of contract.33 Oliver delineates three possible freedom-of-contract clauses: (1) “A man has a right to freedom of contract”; (2) “A man has a right to freedom of contract unless the terms of the contract harm someone”; and (3) “A man has a right to freedom of contract unless the terms of the contract infringe upon someone's rights.” The second clause can be disposed of immediately; once again, the vague notion of “harm” can provide an excuse for unlimited State intervention, as Oliver quickly notes. No libertarian would adopt such a phrasing. The first formulation is, of course, the most uncompromising and leaves no room whatever for State intervention. Here Oliver again scoffs and says that “very few persons would push the freedom-of-contract doctrine so far.” Perhaps, but since when is truth established by majority vote? In fact, the third clause, with its Spencerian proviso, is again unnecessary. Suppose, for example, that A and B freely contract to shoot C. The third version may say that this is an illegal contract. But, actually, it should not be! For the contract itself does not and cannot violate C's rights. It is only a possible subsequent action against C that will violate his rights. But, in that case, it is that action which must be declared illegal and punished, not the preceding contract. The first clause, which provides for absolute freedom of contract, is the clearest and evidently the preferable formulation.34

Oliver sees the principle of freedom of contract, because of the necessity that there be mutual agreement between two people, open to even stronger objection than the basic natural-rights postulate. For how, asks Oliver, can we distinguish between a free and voluntary contract, on the one hand, and “fraud” and “coercion”—which void contracts—on the other?

First, how can fraud be clearly defined? Oliver's critique here is in two parts:

(1) He says that “common law holds that certain types of omissions as well as certain types of false statements and misleading sections void contracts. Where is this rule of omission to stop?” Oliver sees, quite correctly, that if no omission at all were allowed, the degree of statism would be enormous. Yet this problem is solved very simply: change the common law so as to eliminate all rules of omission whatever! It is curious that Oliver is so reluctant even to consider changes in ancient legal customs where these changes seem called for by principle, or to realize that libertarians would advocate such changes. Since libertarians advocate sweeping changes elsewhere in the political structure, there is no reason why they should balk at changing a few clauses of the common law.

(2) He states that even rules against false statements seem statist to some people and could be pushed beyond their present limits, and he cites SEC regulations as an example. Yet the whole problem is that a libertarian system could countenance no administrative boards or regulations whatever. No advance regulations could be handed down. On the purely free market, anyone damaged by false statements would take his opponent to court and win redress there. But any false statements, any fraud, would then be punished by the court severely, in the same manner as theft.

Secondly, Oliver wants to know how “coercion” can be defined. Here, the reader is referred to the section on “Other Forms of Coercion” above. Oliver is confused in contradictorily jumbling the definitions of coercion as physical violence and as refusal to exchange. As we have seen, coercion can rationally be defined only as one or the other; not as both, for then the definition is self-contradictory. Further, he confuses physical interpersonal violence with the scarcity imposed by the facts of nature—lumping them both together as “coercion.” He concludes in the hopelessly muddled assertion that the freedom-of-contract theory assumes a meaningless “equality of coercion” among contracting parties. In fact, libertarians assert that there is no coercion at all in the free market. The equality-of-coercion absurdity permits Oliver to state that true freedom of contract at least requires State-enforced “pure competition.”

The freedom-of-contract argument, therefore, implies laissez faire and is also strictly derivable from the postulate of freedom. Contrary to Oliver, no other ethical postulates are necessary to imply laissez faire from this argument. The coercion problem is completely solved when “violence” is substituted for the rather misleading term “coercion.” Then, any contract is free and therefore valid when there has been an absence of violence or threat of violence by either party.

Oliver makes a few other attacks on “legal liberty”; e.g., he raises the old slogan that “legal liberty does not correspond to ‘actual’ liberty (or effective opportunity)”—once again falling into the age-old confusion of freedom with power or abundance. In one of his most provocative statements, he asserts that “all men could enjoy complete legal liberty only under a system of anarchy” (p. 21). It is rare for someone to identify a system under law as being “anarchy.” If this be anarchism, then many libertarians will embrace the term!

  • 33. Oliver, Critique of Socioeconomic Goals, pp. 12–19.
  • 34. In objection to this clause, Oliver states that “Anglo-American law traditionally has voided certain types of contract because of the belief that they are against the public interest.” Ibid., p. 13. It is precisely for this reason that libertarians suggestchanging traditional Anglo-American law to conform to their precepts. Furthermore, “public interest” is a meaningless term (an example of the fallacy of conceptual realism) and is therefore discarded by libertarians.