Efficiency or Property Rights: Thomas Woods’ comments on the Chicago School of Economics

This was originally posted at City of God.

Thomas Woods, in his book The Church and the Market, spends a little time in the first chapter distinguishing the Austrian and Chicago schools of economics. One major difference between the schools is on the issue of central banking and monetary policy. We’ve had occasion to discuss this on the blog in the past, and I’m not particularly interested in raising it again here. However, Woods brought to my attention another difference which is of much greater concern to me, and this is over a moral issue. The difference is this:

The classic case in Chicago law and economics, famously described by Ronald Coase, is the example of the train that emits sparks that set fire to a farmer’s crops. (The example occurs prior to the introduction of diesel engines.) Either the farmer or the train will have to bear the cost of this damage. On the basis of strict liability, of course, the farmer has the right to the property in question and therefore the right to enjoy its fruits unmolested. The train should compensate him for his loss or install some kind of spark retarding device. But Chicago decides this case in such a way that overall wealth is maximized. (25)

Thus economic efficiency becomes an ethical value that is weighed against the property rights of people. The Austrians vehemently disagree with this point. They argue

that the rights of property should not be compromised in order to satisfy any wealth maximization calculus, and that as a rule strict liability should be observed. (They offer these critiques in their capacities as moral philosophers rather than qua economists, a point to which we shall return in our discussion of economics as a value-free science.) Walter Block has described it as “evil and vicious to violate our most cherished and precious property rights in an ill-conceived attempt to maximize the monetary value of production.” (26)

Woods provides one quote from a defender of Coase to make clear that the Chicago school explicitly teaches what he says they teach:

In defense of Coase, Chicago economic Harold Demsetz argues that “[e]fficiency seems to be not merely one of the many criteria underlying our notions of ethically correct definitions of private property rights, but an extremely important one. It is difficult even to describe unambiguously any other criterion for determining what is ethical.” Here is efficiency analysis with a vengeance. (26)

Now, I’m not sure any other way to describe this theory besides the words Block used: evil. Quite clearly, this is a form of coarse utlilitarianism, and one which will undoubtedly help the well-connected over against those who have little wealth. And I think this point is something where those on the left and those who support a view of property rights as natural rights (be they conservative or libertarian) can find agreement.


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