This month's columnist is Guy de Maertelaere from Ghent, Belgium. He reports on a number of developments of interest in Europe.
Carrying first class mail in the United States is the Post Office's monopoly, but for other classes of mail, competition is allowed. In Belgium we don't even have that much economic freedom, as Jean Aerts has found out.
In November 1969, when mail distribution difficulties were higher than ever before in the rather undeveloped north-eastern part of Belgium, Jean Aerts started his private post service, called Distriflash. He issued his own stamps, undercut the official postal rate by a good margin, and made a profit. When he was six months in business the official Post Office complained, and he had to stop, after having printed 1,200,000 stamps.
Last April the case came to court, where his helpers were acquitted and Aerts himself got "only" 8 days in jail (plus symbolical damages to be paid to the monopoly p.o.), because he had acted in good faith. Indeed, as he told the court, he simply didn't know that what he did was illegal.
I guess even in the United States some people must have heard about our famous Mr. Vranckx, Minister of Justice. He is violently anti-American concerning Vietnam and is a member of the Socialist Party, but otherwise you couldn't tell the difference between him and Vice-President Agnew. He is fighting an inexorable war on sex, drugs, "immorality," and pornography. Regularly erotic books and magazines get seized by his police. In a recent talk he outlined some of his ideas as follows:
The courts must be attentive to the evolution of manners and morals but must also fight them if they go the wrong way…Criticism of governmental "conservatism" is often rooted in straightforward disrespect for civilised values [sound familiar?].
Even in a democratic country this cannot be tolerated…Just like when the anti-alcohol law was in force, protest against judicial antidrug actions comes from people profiting by the drugs trade."
Mr. Vranckx has long opposed (until now with success) any legal distinction between soft and hard drugs.
Minister Vranckx is a member of the Belgian Socialist Party, which is not especially puritanical but is more concerned with bread and butter issues and gives him free course in his morality crusade. His most ardent supporters, however, are to be found in the other member party of the Belgian government coalition, the Christian People's Party. The opposition, represented by the liberal Party for Freedom and Progress, has raised some protest against the reactionary governmental policy (whether just for the sake of opposition or really because it is concerned about freedom is difficult to say—in Belgium the tradition is for the opposition to condemn whatever the government does and vice-versa, and then to do exactly the same when it has the power itself). The Party for Freedom and Progress, incidentally, has made an interesting proposal to break the radio and television monopoly in favor of private transmitters. The proposal will be rejected by the government, of course.
When, a few months ago, a member of Mr. Vranckx' Socialist Party, Senator Calewaert, entered a bill to legalize abortion almost completely, the Party for Freedom and Progress typically decided not to vote for it but to push instead for "adjustments."
Incidentally, both Minister Vranckx and Senator Calewaert were professors of mine when I studied political science at the university. They are both interesting and erudite men, excellent teachers.
Plans are under way to establish a pirate radio station in Belgium, to be called radio Marina.
A recent poll has showed that 37% of those questioned favored the legalization of abortion. 25% wanted to remove legal restrictions on the distribution of pornography. In both cases the remaining votes were about equally divided between "no" and "no opinion." The poll was meant to be representative of the whole Belgian population.
News from Holland: the new governmental coalition is there. The most interesting political aspect of what happened there in the last months may be the rise of the Democratic Socialist Party, which is part of the coalition. This Democratic Socialist Party, which split off from the socialist Labour Party because it considered the latter to be under excessive New Left influence, may well turn out to be, in economic matters, the most libertarian Dutch party. Under its influence, the government has had to retreat from the wild spending schemes the religious parties had planned to force upon it.
In theoretical papers I have seen from them, the Democratic Socialists argue, in an economically sound way, against exaggerated government subsidies for socially desirable services. Government grants to swimming pools, runs one of their examples, resulting in lower entry prices than the costs would justify, also result in overconsumption from otherwise not really interested persons, which can increase taxes to be used, e.g., for sanitary works. In a somewhat Friedmanesque way, D.S. proposes to replace that kind of government subsidies by direct grants to the poor, to be used as they see fit. This isn't, of course, really libertarian either, but certainly a change for the better.
Fascist economics made a big leap forward in Belgium with a new law giving authority to the Minister of Economic Affairs to fix prices not only for an entire industrial sector, as was already the case, but also for any single concern. When a concern announces a price increase, the minister may now forbid or limit the increase for a six month period. If the concern nevertheless sets its prices higher, it may be temporarily closed down. It can appeal the decision in court.
The Minister of Economic Affairs has promised (!) he will use his new powers only in times of economic crisis and after consulting the professional sector concerned. Needless to say, the reason given for this new law is protection of the consumers.
Our rather famous crystal producing plant at Val-Saint-Lambert has been nationalized, in a case that reminds somewhat of the Lockheed and Rolls Royce affairs: an internationally famous business in financial trouble on the one hand, political pressure to save it for reasons of national pride on the other. Mixed in the nationalizing affair seems to have been our largest bank, of course a self-proclaimed champion of free enterprise.
Across our eastern frontier, in West Germany, the abortion problem is very much debated too. Militant women's movements have mounted a strong attack against paragraph 218 of the German penal code which makes abortion punishable with five years in prison. The slogan here, as in Holland and Belgium is: "Every woman master in her own belly," The spark has been put to the tinder by some well-known German actresses who have publicly disclosed that they have committed abortion. A poll has showed that 46% of the Germans want abortion to be legalized, 39% are against. It is remarkable that more men than women want Paragraph 218 repealed. This somewhat contradicts the statement by some young female rebels who said that the paragraph is a "product of male legislators who don't understand anything of women."
2,345 women have, up to now, accused themselves of having committed abortion. Emotionally sympathetic but biologically puzzling is the fact that 973 men did the same. The surge of lawsuits that the women wanted to provoke, however, didn't come. Public attorneys didn't seem to be very enthusiastic. Large collections have also been held to permit female workers to have an abortion in England.
Characteristically support for the repeal of Paragraph 218 comes largely from socialist SPD and liberal FPD circles. Opposed is the conservative christian CDU. In an episcopal pamphlet the possible repeal of Paragraph 218 was called the first step towards totalitarian chaos and "a new Ubermensch." In Bayern, Joseph Strauss' stronghold, police confiscated papers of the proponents of legalized abortion.
It seems that SPD-Minister of Justice, Gerhard Jahn, does not favor completely legalized abortion. In his opinion it should remain the exception, rather than the rule. He wants to codify those exceptions according to their nature: medical indication (danger to the life of the mother), ethical indication (physical or psychological deformation of the child), and possibly also some social indications. He also wants to improve sexual education and make contraceptives more available.
Book News: Ira Levin's THE PERFECT DAY has been translated into Dutch. The publishers told me they also plan to bring a translation of Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND out on the market. They had declined, however, to translate THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS.
Perhaps it will surprise American libertarians that Ayn Rand's THE FOUNTAINHEAD was translated into French many years ago and into Dutch just about two years ago. Nevertheless, as far as I can judge, it has failed to have any impact so far (the Dutch edition was an expensive hardbound one).
Sure to have an impact, on the other hand, is a new book on drugs from the most influential publishing house in Holland and the Dutch speaking part of Belgium. It argues for complete, although gradual, legalization of all drugs.
Pollution problems are more acute than ever here. Whenever the establishment of a heavily polluting factory is planned, ad hoc committees arise, protest meetings are held, and petitions are presented to the competent authorities who, while often paying lip service to the principle of "protection of the environment," always conclude that this factory fortunately will not pollute anything important.
In the meantime, five big cities in Belgium have adopted severe limits on the polluting materials exhaust-gases of house heating may contain and so, indirectly, on what may be burned. Since this is a news column I will not extensively elaborate upon my personal opinion concerning these matters. Just let me note that I am not very happy with those libertarians who, as their only comment upon the pollution problem, always repeat that the problem will no longer exist as soon as property rights are fully enforced.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Foreign Correspondent: Belgium".