Happy birthday to Walter Block, the brand of libertarian fire: News: The Independent Institute
I’ve heard that you’re not a true libertarian unless you’ve co-authored an article with buzzsaw economist and anarcho-capitalist Walter Block of Loyola University in New Orleans. I checked this off the list with my first journal article published in 2006. It was my first journal article, but it’s just a line on Walter Block’s resume (which was 141 pages in 2009 and which is a comprehensive catalog of virtually everything he had done so far).
Today Walter Block turns 79. Over the course of his long career, Block inspired generations of young academics to pursue a university education in economics: Edward Stringham of AIER, for example, was one of Block’s students at the College of the Holy Cross, and his students Javier Portillo, Emily Skarbek and Daniel D’Amico are among the practicing economists who were his students at Loyola University in New Orleans.
As befits someone who is probably best known for a book called Defend the indefensible, Block is no stranger to controversy. He continued the New York Times for defamation in 2014 and obtained an out-of-court settlement when the Time suggested he was defending human bondage. Anyone who heard Block talk about it in a lecture or debate would have known he was sardonic in his description of slave life, and the Time misrepresented his argument. In addition, he pointed out what distinguished slavery from other ways people can interact: It is involuntary. It happens by force. This is what Orlando Patterson calls “social death”. if this is true, then the slaves were and are guilty of social murder. The fundamental problem with slavery, Block argues, is that slavery is involuntary.
He resisted a few attempts to dismantle it and, amid the latest wave of controversy, he published two articles in the the Wall Street newspaper in the summer of 2020. The first article responds to a petition asking for his dismissal because of his experience of thinking about voluntary slavery. The expression ?? voluntary slavery ?? seems to me a contradiction in terms, but Block asks, in particular, whether or not we should say that it is wrong for a father to sell himself into slavery and cede to his new master ?? the right to beat him or kill him if the master is not satisfied with the work so that his child can benefit from medical treatment that will save his life. My instinct is that Block is wrong and that “voluntary slavery”. is a contradiction in terms and yet we let people do all kinds of things that could be considered degrading.
Adam Smith would probably argue that the new master ?? is failing in his duty of beneficence, and I am inclined to agree. While the scenario described by Block is certainly not EUvolunteer as Michael Munger would describe it, it is not immediately clear that we should oppose the voluntary contract as much as we should oppose it and work to alleviate the circumstances that might make someone so desperate. After all, economists have a long tradition of defending “sweatshops”. in low income countries. Whether or not Block’s proposed scenario differs from sweatshop work in degree or in kind is worth exploring. Partly because I’m in the same intellectual orbit as Block, I’ve come to believe that when my first reaction is revulsion and my best argument is that feels wrong,?? I need to think harder.
Block ?? s August 5, 2020 the Wall Street newspaper The article was titled ?? Hating Humanity Won ?? t Get You Canceled. ?? Bock underlines a curious double standard: the criteria of “cancellation”. differ depending on the policy of the canceled person. Can anyone hope, ?? as did scientist David Graber in a 1989 review by Bill McKibben ?? s The end of nature, ?? for the right virus to come ?? and wipe out much of humanity and suffer virtually no professional consequences. Block does not speak specifically of this example, but many of the leftist icons were or are unrepentant Communists, and yet they are not candidates for annulment.
An irony here is that Block was the person who convinced me of the correctness of reparations for slavery by arguing that today’s descendants of slave owners are indeed guilty of receiving stolen goods. Block argues against blanket reparations from one group to another but argues that descendants of slaves have valid legal action against the descendants of their ancestors ?? the slaves. The calculation of the invoice, it seems, is quite simple: in an article from 1974 underestimated and little cited in the Examining black political economy, economists Julian Simon (of whom my youngest son is named) and Larry Neal propose a calculation of the Black Reparations Bill. Block’s argument and Simon-Neal’s calculations are good starting points for the discussion.
There could be all kinds of issues with the practical implementation of such a regime, and one of the reasons I’m wary of reparations is because I’m worried that a large-scale expropriation and redistribution will transform. land reform in Zimbabwe, for example. , and ultimately leave all of our descendants – including descendants of slaves – in a worse position than they otherwise would have been. There is an additional and overlooked practical difficulty beyond the possible incentive effects of massive redistribution. As Robert Paul Thomas and Richard Nelson Bean argue, all extraordinary profits from the slave trade went to African slaves in the interior, not to European slave traders arriving on the shores. Who then owes what to whom?
Even if we go beyond that, I think it’s pretty clear that movable property slavery was a definite drag on the American economy, let alone all the societies that ever accepted slavery (i.e. that is, just about every company that has ever existed). I’m pretty sure we would all be better off today if slavery had been abolished much sooner than it was. The particular institution ?? He certainly did more harm to slaves and their descendants than to descendants of slaves. As Thomas Sowell says in his 2005 book Black Rednecks and White LiberalsWhether employed as servants or producing crops or other goods, millions of people have suffered exploitation and dehumanization for purposes no greater than the transitory enlargement of slave owners. The expansion ?? was just that: transient, not permanent.
I digress, however, and half expect a 5,000 word review of that Block’s argument to land in my inbox later today – in fact, I thought about calling this piece ? in allusion to his pugnacity (intellectual and not personal). Block invites and thrives even on disagreements and debates; at the end of his article of July 15, 2020 in the the Wall Street newspaper, he invites the students who are demanding his dismissal to come to his office and discuss the matter. Anyone who knows him knows he is 100% sincere. Among his intellectual endeavors, he wrote a stack of articles criticizing Ronald Coase’s social cost problem. At a Mises Institute event in 2009, I mentioned that one day I wanted to write an article titled “Walter Block is Wrong on Coase’s Theorem.” He welcomed the challenge. That summer I also sent him a 2,300 word commentary on an article he sent me in which he criticized some of Peter J. Boettke’s arguments. He took my comments in stride.
He made a career out of trying to separate popular arguments and Defend the indefensible. As you would expect from someone who devoted a 280 page book to the defense of prostitutes, pimps, male chauvinist pigs, drug dealers, ticket dealers, dishonest cops, someone who shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theater, employers of child labor, rebels, miser and advertisers, his positions can be very, very off-putting. It pretty much strips everything down to a simple question: ?? Is it voluntary ??? If the answer is yes, ?? then he argues that we have no right to interfere, no matter how much we might disapprove.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t always discuss in a way that wins the sympathy of his interlocutors or his audience. When I was a graduate student, I participated in a debate in which he defended the free market in health care. By simple economic logic, he won the debate. He didn’t convince the audience, however: an older gentleman sitting to my right leaned over and whispered “What a hole?” to me because Block insisted on adhering to economic logic and the principle of voluntary interaction. He focused on the latter rather than the outcomes that might make people feel good. Like many libertarians and economists, Block focuses little on social outcomes and instead emphasizes social processes. It is not always a popular approach.
Block’s periodic denunciations remind me of a classic Onion article: ?? The university encourages the lively exchange of ideas. ?? In a defense of Block in 2014, economist Steven Landsburg describes him as “precisely irrepressible”. and exaggerates its critics ?? (P) deaf and provocative blindness • blindness coupled with an announcement that one has no interest in seeing things any other way. He then goes on, in a later post, to try and give Walter’s argument the respect it deserves by trying to pull it apart. In other words, he tries to show that Block’s argument is wrong, not just that his argument just isn’t something that should be said in a polite society. On the occasion of his 79th birthday, I hope those who have come to denounce him would show him the same courtesy.