Threshold Disagreements

In Bruce Bell's discussion of radiation thresholds ("Is Any Radiation Too Much Radiation?" July), his analogies simply do not make sense. Just by stating that "there are plenty of things that are harmful at high doses but required for human survival at low doses" does not necessarily make this applicable to radiation, so supports neither the linear or threshold hypothesis. Further, the analogy between low doses of radiation and food additives is false, since in the case of food any consumer who has doubts about an additive can buy alternate products, which is not the case for radiation which cannot be avoided by someone in its path. Finally, presuming persons to be innocent until proven guilty is fine, but to apply the same rule to substances or radiation, where there is genuine scientific controversy involved, seems to me to be inappropriate.

Paul Bilzi
Aurora, CO

Bruce K. Bell's statement is wrong; the threshold hypothesis for radiation carcinogenesis has no scientific merit at all. This is demonstrated in Chapter 11 of Radiation and Human Health, a book of science by J.W. Gofman (in press). Furthermore, the threshold hypothesis has no legal merit either in a libertarian society.

We certainly agree with Bell's statement that "all persons have the right to do as they want so long as they do not violate the rights of others." Also, we cherish the principle that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. We differ with Bell, however, on the crucial part of his argument. The whole issue is, what are the rights of others which someone might be "guilty" of violating?…

Trespass against property is a crime, and one's own body is surely one's property. Therefore pollution is a crime when pollutants are imposed on someone who objects to them. The person who is trespassed upon does not have to prove injury; he need only prove trespass to enjoin it.

If an individual had to prove physical harm in order to stop trespass, we could not stop people from entering our homes at will, dumping their corn cobs on our lawns, or dumping 10,000 chemicals of unknown toxicity into our air, water, and soil.…If we agree that pollution is trespass, then the issue of "premeditated random murder" by polluters, and the practice of "guinea-piggery" by polluters upon people who do not consent, could both be by-passed, since polluters could be stopped whether or not they were killing people.

We are aware of the extreme implications of both the "must prove harm" and the "don't need to prove harm" positions. The former position declares that there would be no defense against trespass or pollution, no defense against being used as an involuntary guinea pig to determine the toxicity of various pollutants, and no defense against inadvertent genocide by polluters. On the other hand, our "don't need to prove harm" position would create, with its extreme application, the One Molecule Problem, the Sneezing Problem, and the Radio Wave Problem.

These interesting and troubling questions cannot be explored in just a letter to the editor. For now, we will say only:

(A) Almost every treasured libertarian policy runs into comparable troubles when its applications are followed to their extremes. We propose that libertarians accept those troubles as inherent in the continuum between coercing someone and simply affecting his life, between coercion by individuals and coercion by circumstances, between harming someone else with fists and "simply" playing with TNT in the apartment beneath his.

(B) Let us do first things first, which means agreeing what are the right libertarian principles before we tackle how to achieve them without regulation, how to deal with their most extreme applications, and how to assess their economic, scientific, sensual, and other costs.

We are confident that "no need to prove harm" will be chosen by libertarians as the only pollution policy consistent with the right principle, namely "You may do nothing with anyone else's life, liberty, and property without that individual's consent."

Egan O'Connor
John W. Gofman, M.D., Ph.D.
San Francisco, CA

Mr. Bell replies: In reply to Mr. Bilzi, my analogy between food additives and radiation was intended to answer the argument advanced by some that: (1) all carcinogens are carcinogenic at all doses; (2) radiation is carcinogenic at high doses; therefore, (3) radiation is carcinogenic at low doses. But, I argue, there are several toxic and carcinogenic substances that are not so at low doses. Thus, the first premise is false, and so is the conclusion. Of course, radiation is usually "imposed" and food additives "chosen," but this disanalogy is not relevant to whether either is harmful at low doses. Finally, I do not want to say that radiation per se is safe until proven otherwise, but that people are producing radiation without hurting others until proven otherwise. After all, we sue people, not nature (nor products, contrary to the way the legal system is set up now on drugs and food additives).

In reply to Ms. O'Connor and Dr. Gofman, I am saying that people's production of radiation at low doses is safe within our present context of knowledge. If Gofman has, indeed, shown that radiation is harmful at low doses in his forthcoming book, then this would be an expansion of our context of knowledge and would have to be accepted in that context. But his argument does not go against my point, nor is it clear, if he can prove harm, that "the need to prove harm" leaves us with "no defense against inadvertent genocide by polluters."

Gofman also argues that only "trespass" and not harm must be proved, but Black's Law Dictionary states that: "At common law, trespass was a form of action brought to recover damages for any injury to one's person or property or relationship with another" (emphasis added). But Gofman wants to stop "polluters" whether or not they are hurting anyone. Thus, as he himself admits, this would create "with the extreme application, the One Molecule Problem, the Sneezing Problem, and the Radio Wave Problem." Radio waves permeate our world, but do they hurt us? Again, as a physicist, Gofman knows that the molecules of a sneeze can diffuse over the entire world. Should we then be able to sue anyone who sneezes? The legal principle of de minimis non curat lex states that "the law does not concern itself with trifles," which means that unless harm can be shown there is no ground for interfering with someone's going about his business.


I was a little embarrassed by certain remarks attributed to me in the interview in your July issue. I was particularly displeased with the closing of the interview, which included some rather startling language.

These remarks might give readers a wrong impression. First, because of my lazy choice of words. Though I have no moral objection to the use of "foul" language, the fact is that I rarely participate; for whatever reason, it simply is not one of my trademarks.

Second, the printing of these comments without explanation made it sound as though I were angry. That would be incorrect. The proper description would be frustrated. I believe all libertarians not only understand this frustration, but share it with me. Nonetheless I regret that my attempt at light humor and facetiousness was lost in the transition from tape to typesetting.

Robert J. Ringer
Los Angeles, CA

"Only Opinions"

REASON's recent interview with author Robert Ringer (July) revealed a curious inconsistency in Ringer's metaphysics. When questioned about his discussion of natural law in Restoring the American Dream, Ringer was asked to defend his observation that the "initial premise of any philosophy can never rightfully be classified as other than an opinion." Ringer responded by dismissing Objectivist epistemology as unnecessarily proscriptive and mentally confining, claiming that, "to me, everything is an opinion," and that, "I don't see how I can ever prove [individual moral autonomy] as a basic truth."

Elsewhere, Ringer suggested that since everyone is entitled to an opinion, defining what is right and wrong with respect to some objective moral standard is impossible. While we all may agree on the impropriety of violating an individual's rights, he instructs that specifying what these "rights" are and how they may be compromised is self-defeating (the point "where you start getting differences of opinion").

Lacking an epistemology that would give rise to a consistent and rational worldview, Ringer understandably is incensed by those who remain unconvinced of the objective necessity of the libertarian nonaggression axiom after reading his book. After all, someone who insists that natural law is merely a figment of the imagination and that acceptance by the reading public is contingent upon the admission that one's views are "only" opinions, to be accorded equal status with all other opinions, cannot really condemn NFL football fans or Charlie's Angels devotees. These "hopelessly involved" addicts are enjoying their conception of freedom. It is we libertarians who are making all the noise.

Mark David Travis
Denver, CO

Stockholders, Unite!

The main problem with "corporate democracy" these days is not the Naderite analysis ("Naderizing the Giant Corporation," Aug.), but is the fact that the owners are not in control of their companies. The stockholders not only do not exercise effective control over their interests in a profitable company, but also fail in any meaningful sense to have a decisive say in the election of directors. This separation of owner from his rightful property interest is the heart of the real crisis of "corporate governance."

In criticizing the so-called Corporate Democracy Act, Donald Feder skips over this essential flaw with the act. Mr. Feder states: "What shareholder in his right mind wants to control the company in which he's invested?…If that profit isn't forthcoming, they vote with their bucks—by selling the company's stock. What could be more democratic?"

This view promotes low productivity and low profits. It allows corporate management to go on its own merry way irrespective of any effective discipline of the market. What harm does it do to any company's management when one stockholder sells his stock to a ready buyer? It's no skin off the management's nose. It doesn't threaten their jobs, their perquisites, or their power to pursue their pet projects. Without effective mechanisms to enforce the stockholders' interests in the company, i.e., a high rate of return on the invested capital, then the management strays off course and is subject to the forces impinging on it from other sources, such as the governmental bureaucracy and the Naderites.

Our group of stockholders has compiled a Stockholders Bill of Rights to correct this deficiency in corporate governance. It strengthens the stockholder hold over election of directors. We have developed resolutions for votes at annual meetings of stockholders.

Carl Olson
Stockholder Sovereignty Society
Woodland Hills, CA

We Almost Lost New York?

I agree with Adam V. Reed (Aug.) that improper design was largely responsible for the fiasco at Three Mile Island. Also, that these factors are largely the result of government subsidy and regulation. But I most emphatically do not agree that "the most dangerous nuclear plant ever built will not kill as many people in everyday operation as the very safest coal-fired generator nor threaten as many lives as a similarly scaled, similarly situated hydroelectric dam."

Speaking as a lifetime engineer in the energy industries, I believe Three Mile Island could have wiped out most of the population of eastern Pennsylvania, most of New Jersey, and the metropolitan district of New York. I do not agree at all with Petr Beckmann, and I side with John Gofman.

But the most important thing, as I see it, is to remove government 100 percent from all economic and social affairs. Then all of these things would fall into their proper place. Because then all corporations as well as all individuals would be strictly accountable for their acts, and this would insure far, far, better control than government.

John E. Erb
Northville, NY

None of the Above

In your August "Milestones" (Trends), you mentioned NOTA's great showing in the May '80 Democratic primary in Nevada. All very true, but why did you headline it: "If Only He'd Campaign"?

Having known NOTA for years (as well as anybody can know such an independent soul), I think she's a great campaigner. True, she's only on the ballot in Nevada. But it's so hard for independents to get ballot status, you know.

Anyway, thanks for the mention.

Auntie State


After reading Tibor Machan's article "Why 'Economic Man' Is Not Enough" (July) three times, I still have one burning question. Huh?

Timothy G. Hoff
APO San Francisco, CA


I enjoyed Tibor Machan's article "Why 'Economic Man' Is Not Enough." It serves to explain (much better than anything else I have ever read on this) why so many intellectuals, past and present, tend to side with socialism over capitalism, the explanation being (collecting his argument now) that they first accept the false alternative between atomistic individualism and collectivism and then, for want of better, side with collectivism. What I could never understand is how anyone, least of all intellectuals, could honestly believe that the individualism basic to the defense of the free market must invariably be of the narrow Hobbesian sort. It seemed too obvious a strawman.

Florian von Imhoff
Boston, MA

Alcohol Booster

In reading my July issue of REASON I noticed the ad on the back cover about the book by James Davidson entitled The Squeeze. My eye was drawn to the question about the energy crisis or squeeze and whether it is caused by inflation and political policy. I want to comment on the political policy aspect of that question in light of Carter's recent energy "summit" in Europe, where a group of nations agreed to a policy of "synfuel" development. Upon Carter's return home, a $20 billion synfuel bill was signed into effect to develop synthetic fuels from coal, oil shales, tar sands, etc. I did not see any mention of alcohol as a major element in easing our fuel dependence, in spite of the fact that Brazil as a country is committed to going for 100 percent alcohol-fuel usage.

It has been difficult to understand the reluctance of the big oil companies to embrace alcohol as an additive to their petroleum products since up to 30 percent is usable in today's cars. It is a liquid fuel that readily can use the transportation, storage, distribution, and marketing facilities already established. In fact, I understand that production facilities in oil refineries, such as the fractional distillation of alcohol, can be used with minor alterations and without the catalytic cracking equipment. The reason for this reluctance turns out to be more economic and political via tax benefits for the big oil companies.

Almost as if they could see the energy crisis coming, the big oil companies have, without exception, diversified into various other holdings, with alternate energy sources such as coal and uranium predominating. Much of this was done several years before our present energy crisis. Now that synfuel is a political reality, such tax benefits as mineral exploration costs, depletion allowance, and capital asset depreciation on the vast synfuel plants (which can be built with government subsidies and grants) are more readily available. None of these tax write-offs are applicable to alcohol; the oil companies would be uncomfortable with alcohol because of not being able to control the source of their raw material, a renewable resource that any farmer can grow. All citizens should demand equal consideration for alcohol fuel.

Kenneth Taylor
Ridgecrest, CA

The editors reply: Mr. Taylor is about a year out of date regarding the big oil companies and fuel alcohol. Texaco and CPC International have formed a joint venture to produce ethanol; Cities Service and American Maize-Products are doing likewise; and Ashland Oil is talking with Publicker Industries about a similar project (Business Week, June 30, 1980). Gasohol provides a way for oil companies to offer a premium unleaded fuel, demand for which is growing. And the exemption of gasohol from federal and many state taxes makes it economical, as well.