Power & Market

Butler Shaffer, RIP

Yesterday afternoon, Butler Shaffer, one of the great pioneers of the libertarian movement, passed away, two weeks before his eighty-fifth birthday. In a column written in December 2014, he tells us, “My interest in what is now called ‘libertarian’ thinking was kindled in college in the late 1950s. There was no coherent philosophy by that name in those years, but I found myself attracted to such thinkers as John Locke, John Stuart Mill, the Stoics, and very much annoyed by the likes of Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx, and my undergrad study of ‘economics’ taught by a prominent Keynesian. While in law school, I began my study of genuine economics with Prof. Aaron Director, and began my focused and energized inquiry into the kinds of ideas later to be described as ‘libertarianism.’”

Butler’s brand of libertarianism was exceptionally pure and consistent. As he explains in his superb monograph A Libertarian Critque of Intellectual Property (free here), he believed that rights stem from “the informal processes by which men and women accord to each other a respect for the inviolability of their lives — along with claims to external resources (e.g., land, food, water, etc.) necessary to sustain their lives.” (p. 18) The “informal processes” that Shaffer mentions proceed without coercion. In particular, law and rights do not depend on the dictates of the state, an organization that claims a monopoly over the legitimate use of force in a territory.

In adopting this stance, Shaffer puts himself at odds with much that passes in our day for wisdom among professors of law. “In a world grounded in institutional structuring, it is often difficult to find people willing to consider the possibility that property interests could derive from any source other than an acknowledged legal authority. There is an apparent acceptance of Jeremy Bentham’s dictum that ‘property is entirely the creature of law.’” (pp. 18–19) Butler explained his approach in great detail in his Boundaries of Order, a major contribution to libertarian political philosophy.

Butler taught at Southwestern Law School from 1977 to 2014 and influenced generations of students. He was a master of the Socratic method. He would sometimes read to his class a list of “progressive”-sounding measures that would usually command approval. He would then tell the students, “You just voted for Hitler!” His list had been taken from the Nazi Party platform. Butler always looked at things from an original angle, and in my many conversations with him, his ability to subject his own ideas to constant criticism and rethinking impressed me.

Butler continued to share his wisdom with us nearly to the end of his life, and his mordant criticism of the state brings to mind H. L. Mencken, a writer he greatly admired. In a column on LewRockwell.com published last August 13, he said,

Those who seek to control our lives must first gain control of our minds. If one of your neighbors went through the neighborhood with a gun, informing you that he was the sovereign authority therein, and that you were required to obey his orders, how would you respond? When, as a child, I visited my aunt and uncle on their farm, there was a retarded man in the neighborhood who informed us that he was the local sheriff and we had to do as he directed. Since he was completely harmless and pleasant, the neighbors tended to humor him and treat him with respect. But when you listen to the gaggle of Democratic Party presidential candidates with essentially the same baseless claim to run your life with policies that would be far more disruptive of your interests, you become aware that you are not hearing the voices of good-natured chuckleheads; but of men and women who fully intend to make their delusions enforceable through the coercive powers of the state.

Butler was my dear friend for many years, and now that he is gone what comes most to my mind is his sense of humor. He loved words and was a master of puns. Few things in my life brought me as much joy as a conversation with Butler, and now that is gone forever.

Butler is survived by his wonderful wife, Jane, to whom he was married for 63 years, their three daughters, and a number of grandchildren.

As I get older and people close to me pass away, the melancholy words of Ovid come to mind: Omnia perdidimus: tantummodo vita relicta est / praebat ut sensum materiamque mali — I have lost all; life alone remains / to give me the consciousness and the substance of sorrow.


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