Foreign Correspondent: Belgium

Good news, bad news


Ghent, Belgium. This year's column will be as pessimistic as last year's but with an amendment. Wishing to keep the worst for the end, I shall start with that amendment: a small quasilibertarian group has been established. The name (Beweging Beperking Staatsmacht—B.B.S.—or Movement for the Curtailment of State Power), meeting-room, articles of association and ideas are there (although the latter only vaguely). Now there's only to wait for the members and the funds to flow in. The existence of the movement is the result of the efforts of a spectacles shop chain owner and a publicity agent. The movement, typically, threatened to split up before it really started, because of a disagreement over its scope. The position 1 defended was that it should be a libertarian movement. Period. Meaning that it should attack any governmental invasion of liberty and private property. The majority, however, decided to be "prudent" and stick to economic questions. Although, fortunately, they seem to interpret this in a rather wide sense, controversial issues like sex, drugs, and abortion are "taboo."

An issue I have even more misgivings about is that, if present trends continue, they will address themselves only to economic groups rather than to ideologically interested persons, apparently on the grounds that "there are more shopkeepers than university professors." I'm afraid they will find out that "he who wants too much too quickly will get nothing at all." Since the very existence and success of a journal like REASON illustrates the opposite point of view (mine, that is) I shall not dwell upon this point.

On the positive side, there is the fact that some of the members do have a serious interest in the philosophy of liberty. Although the general tone of the documents and statements is classically Randian, they are interested in the less clear-cut but more refined concepts borrowed from Robert Nozick and David Friedman. If I may use the image: they want to digest the libertarian food instead of just swallowing it. But now on to matters that are more constantly on the public and the media's mind (although we did receive some media coverage already).

In Belgium a man may rape his wife, even if they have been separated for years and are to be divorced. That was the conclusion of a learned court-created commission after studying the case of a man, a kleptomaniac, who, while drunk, had visited his wife (from whom he had been separated for 30 years!) and then had beaten and raped her. Correction! The commission found out that he could not have raped her, since married partners have a right to intercourse with each other, and using that right is not rape.

Doctor Lecompte has been in the news again. I may have mentioned before that he became famous for his claim that he would live a thousand years. This, and maybe his refusal to join in the 1964 doctors' strike, was too much for the Belgian Medical Association which suspended him, at first for three months and then for life, when he ignored it and continued practicing geriatric medicine. Last February his household was harassed by 40 cops (we're a little country but we can think big) who clubbed his pregnant wife, causing her to miscarry their 10th child. Much more could be said about the flamboyant doctor, but here I just wanted to mention his case again for the free-speech elements that are obviously involved. Doctor Lecompte, incidentally, has received the support of Nobel Prizewinner Linus Pauling and of Professor C. Northcote Parkinson, with whom he has co-authored a book, to be published soon.

From free speech to free lecture: a Brussels lawyer has been suspended from practice for four months by the Order of Lawyers for having enclosed a forbidden newspaper in official letters sent to his clients in jail. The Order, of course, is backed by state power, which means the lawyer will have to do as they want unless he wants to "pull a Dr. Lecompte." One of my problems in future months, I guess, will be to point out to my B.B.S. friends that the arbitrary power of these corporatist professional organizations is at least as serious a threat to liberty as paying a few taxes more or less.

Something rather typical for Belgium's economic organization, if I am well informed, is the index system, meaning that industrial wages are automatically linked to a state-established retail price index. Although the employers' present argument that this system is the main cause of inflation is wrong, the economic arguments against the system are obvious. The mechanism, which has been in force since the late fifties, was first accepted by the employers as a stabilizing factor in industrial relations, since it greatly simplified their bargaining with labor. Since the energy crisis, however, they have become increasingly critical. But when on top of the current economic troubles this summer's drought pushed certain food prices skyhigh, they sounded the alarm bell. Up to now that bell is still ringing, for although the government took some peak-price products out of the index (if president Truman had lived in Belgium, he would have said that "If you can't stand the heat, you should break the thermometer") for some time, the system itself remains untouched.