I have heard that you are not a real libertarian unless you have co-authored a paper with the economist and anarcho-capitalist buzzsaw Walter Block of Loyola University New Orleans. I checked that off the list with my first published journal article back in 2006. It was my first journal article, but it’s just one line on Walter Block’s curriculum vita (which ran to 141 pages as of 2009 and which is an exhaustive catalog of essentially everything he had done up to that point).
Today, Walter Block turns 79 years old. Over his long career, Block has inspired generations of young scholars to pursue graduate training in economics: AIER’s Edward Stringham, 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 New Orleans.
As befits someone who is probably best known for a book titled Defending the Undefendable, Block is no stranger to controversy. He sued the New York Times for libel in 2014 and received an out-of-court settlement when the Times suggested he was defending human bondage. Anyone who has heard Block discuss this in a lecture or debate would have known he was being sardonic in his description of slave life, and the Times was badly misrepresenting his argument. Moreover, he was highlighting what distinguished slavery from other ways people can relate to one another: it is involuntary. It happens by force. It is what Orlando Patterson calls “social death;” if this is true, then enslavers were and are guilty of social murder. The fundamental problem with slavery, Block argues, is that slavery is involuntary.
He has weathered a couple of attempts to unperson him, and in the midst of the latest round of controversy he published two articles in the Wall Street Journal in Summer 2020. The first article responds to a petition asking that he be fired because of his thought experiment on “voluntary slavery.” The phrase “voluntary slavery” strikes me as a contradiction in terms, but Block asks, specifically, whether or not we should say it is wrong for a father to sell himself into slavery and cede to his new “master” the right to beat or kill him should the master be unsatisfied with the work so that his child can get a life-saving medical treatment. My instinct is that Block is wrong and that “voluntary slavery” is a contradiction in terms–and yet we let people do all sorts of things that might 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 Block describes is certainly not euvoluntary as Michael Munger would describe it, it’s not immediately clear that we should object to the voluntary contract as much as we should object to and work to alleviate the circumstances that might make someone so desperate. After all, economists have long made a habit of defending “sweatshops” in low-income countries. Whether or not the scenario Block posits differs from sweatshop labor in degree or in kind is worth exploring. In part as a result of being 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 Wall Street Journal article was titled “Hating Humanity Won’t Get You Canceled.” Bock points out a curious double standard: the criteria for “cancellation” differ depending on the cancellee’s politics. Someone can “hope,” as the scientist David Graber did in a 1989 review of Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, “for the right virus to come along” and wipe out a good chunk of humanity and suffer hardly any professional consequences. Block doesn’t talk about this example specifically, but a lot of left-wing icons were or are unrepentant communists, and yet they are not candidates for “cancellation.”
One irony here is that Block was the person who convinced me of the rectitude of reparations for slavery by arguing that today’s descendants of slave owners are effectively guilty of receipt of stolen property. Block argues against blanket reparations from one group to another but argues that the descendants of slaves have a valid legal claim against the descendants of their ancestors’ enslavers. Calculating the bill, it seems, is fairly straightforward: in an underappreciated and little-cited 1974 paper in the Review of Black Political Economy, the economists Julian Simon (for whom my younger son is named) and Larry Neal offer “A Calculation of the Black Reparations Bill.” Block’s argument and the Simon-Neal calculations are good starting points for the discussion.
There might be all sorts of problems with the practical implementation of such a scheme, and one of the reasons I’m wary of reparations is that I worry that a large-scale expropriation and redistribution will turn out like Zimbabwean land reform, for example, and ultimately leave all our descendants–including the descendants of slaves–worse off 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, any extraordinary profits from the slave trade accrued to African enslavers in the interior, not European slave traders arriving on the coasts. Who, then, owes what to whom?
Even if we step beyond this, I think it is pretty clear that chattel slavery was a net drag on the American economy, to say nothing of every society that has ever countenanced slavery (which is to say pretty much every society that has ever existed). I’m pretty sure we would all be better off today had slavery been abolished far earlier than it was. The “peculiar institution” certainly harmed the enslaved and their descendants more than it harmed the descendants of the enslavers. As Thomas Sowell puts it in his 2005 book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, “Whether employed as domestic servants or producing crops or other goods, millions suffered exploitation and dehumanization for no higher purpose than the transient aggrandizement of slaveowners.” The “aggrandizement” was just that: transient, not permanent.
I stray, though, and half expect a 5,000-word critique of this argument from Block to land in my email inbox later today–in fact, I thought about calling this piece “Walter Block: A Birthday Critique” in an allusion to his (intellectual, not personal) pugnaciousness. Block invites and even thrives on disagreement and debate; at the end of his July 15, 2020 article in the Wall Street Journal, he invites the students calling for his firing to come to his office and discuss the issue. Anyone who knows him knows that he is 100% sincere. Among his intellectual ventures, he has written a stack of papers criticizing Ronald Coase’s “The Problem of Social Cost.” At a Mises Institute event in 2009, I mentioned that someday, I want to write a paper titled “Walter Block is Wrong About the Coase Theorem.” He welcomed the challenge. That summer, I also sent him a 2,300-word comment on a paper he sent me in which he was criticizing some arguments by Peter J. Boettke. He took my comments in stride.
He has made a career out of trying to pick apart popular arguments and of Defending the Undefendable. As one might expect from someone who dedicated a 280-page book to the defense of prostitutes, pimps, male chauvinist pigs, drug dealers, ticket scalpers, dishonest cops, someone who shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theater, employers of child labor, litterers, misers, and advertisers, his positions can be very, very off-putting. He strips pretty much 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 does not always argue in a way that wins the sympathy of his interlocutors or his audience. When I was a graduate student, I attended a debate in which he defended free markets in health care. As a matter of straightforward economic logic, he won the debate. He did not, however, win over the audience: an older gentleman sitting to my right leaned over and whispered “What an —hole,” to me because Block insisted on string adherence to economic logic and the principle of voluntary interaction. He focused on these instead of outcomes that might make people feel good. Like many libertarians and economists, Block focuses little on social outcomes and emphasizes instead social processes. It is not always a popular approach.
The periodic denunciations of Block remind me of a classic Onion article: “College Encourages Lively Exchange of Idea.” In a 2014 defense of Block, the economist Steven Landsburg calls him “righteously irrepressible” and excoriates his critics’ “(P)roud and defiant blindness–blindness coupled with an announcement that one has no interest in seeing things in any other way.” He then goes on, in a later post, to try to “give Walter’s argument the respect it deserves by trying to pick it apart.” In other words, he tries to show that Block’s argument is wrong, not merely that his argument just isn’t something that should be said in polite society. On his 79th birthday, my hope is that those who have taken to denouncing him would extend the same courtesy.