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From Asteroids to Abortion, From Dike-builders to Bicycle Thieves


Issue 20.4 of the Journal of Libertarian Studies brings an especially interdisciplinary range of offerings, including contributions in history, philosophy, economic theory, and film criticism.

  • While Murray Rothbard wore many hats – economist, historian, cultural critic – Marcus Verhaegh focuses on “Rothbard as a Political Philosopher.” He suggests that of the various strands that Rothbard seeks to synthesize in his political philosophy (Thomistic natural law, Lockean liberalism, individualist anarchism, etc.), one of the most important, but most neglected, is an opposition to Rousseau. Verhaegh argues that many of Rothbard’s disagreements with Immanuel Kant and Robert Nozick turn in crucial ways on the anti-Rousseau elements in his thought. Finally, Verhaegh defends Rothbard against Kant and Nozick on some points, and Kant and Nozick against Rothbard on others.

  • In light of the recent disaster of hurricane Katrina, where government-operated levees spectacularly failed, but where the effectiveness of nongovernmental alternatives is widely doubted, Philipp Bagus’s contribution “Wresting Land from the Sea: An Argument Against Public Goods Theory” is especially timely. Against the assumption that dikes and levees are “public goods” that can only be provided by government, Bagus offers both theoretical arguments and empirical evidence (the latter from the medieval and early modern German experience with private dikes) to defend the sufficiency of market mechanisms to hold back the waters.

  • In academic philosophy the best known and most influential article ever written on the subject of abortion is Judith Thomson’s 1971 article “A Defense of Abortion,” often regarded as the classic statement of what has since been known as the “self-defense” or “eviction” justification of abortion. Thomson’s arguments are often criticized, however, for their reliance on weak or strained analogies (including, famously, that between aborting an unwanted fetus and unplugging one’s kidneys from an unconscious violinist). Michael Watkins argues, in “Re-reading Thomson: Thomson’s Unanswered Challenge,” that Thomson’s arguments have been widely misunderstood, and are in fact not arguments by analogy (strained or otherwise) at all, but rather, successful arguments by counterexample against the premises of anti-abortion arguments.

  • The Neo-Realist movement in Italian postwar film is usually regarded as leftwing, even Communist-leaning, in its political sympathies. But in “Communism and the Ironic Value of Property in Italian Neo-Realist Cinema,” John R. Hamilton examines the ways in which such major contributions to the genre as Bicycle Thieves and La Terra Trema inadvertently give voice to the value, for the poor above all, of entrepreneurship and the private ownership of capital.

  • In his book Catastrophe: Risk and Response, Richard Posner presents a number of doomsday scenarios – wayward asteroids, global warming, supercollider accidents, bioterrorism, and rebellious robots (both regular and nano-sized) – each of which, in his view, calls for increased state power to prevent humanity’s extinction. In a review of Posner’s book, J. H. Huebert counters that most of these threats, to the extent that they are genuine, are actually caused or exacerbated by the state, and that in any case governmental solutions are likely to be less efficient and more harmful than voluntary ones.

  • Randall Holcombe’s book From Liberty to Democracy: The Transformation of Americam Government traces the evolution of the United States from its beginnings as a minimalist Jeffersonian republic to the swollen leviathan of modern times, and places the blame on democracy. Employing public-choice analysis, Holcombe argues that democracy, far from being the natural guarantor of individual liberty, tends instead to undermine it. In his review Ludwig van den Hauwe finds Holcombe’s reasoning largely congenial, but regrets Holcombe’s neglect of libertarian and New Left historical revisionism and his unwillingness to carry his reasoning through to the conclusion of anarchism.

  • Finally, Leigh K. Jenco reviews two recent books on China. She finds William Kirby’s anthology Realms of Freedom in Modern China to be a largely valuable, though occasionally ethnocentric, exploration of the growing variety of unexpected avenues for local autonomy and individual choice in contemporary Chinese society. She is less enthusiastic about William de Bary’s defense of Confucian values as a model for global ethics in his Nobility and Civility: Asian Ideals of Leadership and the Common Good, which to Jenco’s mind, despite some virtues, attempts to squeeze Confucian thought into a decidedly western – and anticapitalist – mold. She closes by suggesting the importance of libertarian perspectives to the current “Asian values” debate.

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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.

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