Defending the Undefendable

Meet Dr. Walter Block: a man born in New York who started his early career as an academic embracing the egalitarian ideals of liberalism.

This was, of course, until he met Ayn Rand.

People well informed of the libertarian school of thought will be quick to realize that Ayn Rand provided the philosophical backbone for America’s about-face in socioeconomic policy from a gracious welfare state towards one that relies increasingly on free-market fundamentals. Rand’s influence are far-reaching: she counts among her disciples big names such as Alan Greenspan—the former chairman of the Fed, and Ronald Reagan—the man who made neo-conservatism more digestible, and thus more widely supported by the populace (think Reaganomics).

In the mid-1960’s the young and liberal-minded Walter Block engaged in an academic battle against people such as Rand and other notable libertarians of the day. Both sides proclaimed the superiority of their ideals, and the two intellectual camps decided to wage the war of words and ideas upon each other at occasional luncheons, a very benign way to settle a war at that.

Unfortunately for sympathizers of liberalism, Block’s defense of egalitarianism eventually collapsed, and shortly after he was converted to the libertarian faith. Block, now a supporter of laissez-faire capitalist anarchism, is a member of the Austrian School of Economics and the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

It is clear that Block is one of the most vociferous and staunchest supporter of freedom and individual liberty today. In his book “Defending the Undefendable,” he applies the non-agression axiom—the cornerstone of liberatarian philosophy—in some of the most extreme cases.

In the book, Block eloquently and wittily presents his rational and systematic refutational analysis of the common misconceptions harbored against various members of society. In other words, Block illustrates the misguided public opprobrium leveled at a total of 32 types of social pariahs, which include blackmailers, counterfeiters, crooked cops, drug pushers, drug addicts, employers of child labor, and even people who yell “fire” in theatres. In each of these cases, Block presents a well-reasoned argument that depicts these people as heroic members of society.

For instance, one may be quick to proclaim that the blackmailer is a villainous figure. After all, he knows something embarrassing or harmful about an individual and is threatening to reveal it to the public! Thus, isn’t it quite obvious that the blackmailer is evil incarnate?

Block argues no. In fact, he reasons, “the sole difference between a gossip and a blackmailer is that the blackmailer will refrain from speaking—for a price. In a sense, the gossip is much worse than a blackmailer, for the blackmailer has given the blackmailee a chance to silence him. The gossip exposes the secret without warning. Is not the person with a secret better off at the hands of a blackmailer, than a gossip? With the gossip, all is lost; with the blackmailer, one can only gain, or at least be no worse off.” (p. 42-43).

So then, the blackmailer may be the lesser of two evils perhaps, but what of those who employ children as child laborers? Aren’t these people exploiting children? Isn’t this a morally reprehensible practice that must be banished from modern society in all nations?

Against this notion, Block first elucidates the fallacy of the notion of “adulthood,” which is nothing more than “the age of 21 […] an arbitrary cutoff point.” (p. 245). He then reminds readers, “there is first the problem that several, if not many 10 year olds, have a greater grasp of political, social, historical, psychological, and economic factors, presumably the factors that enable one to vote ‘wisely’ than do many people over the age of 21.” (p. 245).

Basically, he’s talking about child geniuses.

So then, if the exact time at which a child becomes an adult is arbitrarily dictated by society, when, exactly, does a child become an adult?

“A child becomes an adult,” Block states, “not when he reaches some arbitrary age limit, but rather when he does something to establish his ownership and control over his own person.”

Thus if a child’s mental capacities are capable of self-ownership, then he is ready to be acknowledged as an adult. And because the child is now an adult, he may enter voluntary labor contracts as he pleases.

In this manner, Block takes reader on a journey on why none of the “disgraceful” occupations in society are morally reprehensible and roots his logic deep in the virtues of libertarianism—namely, the efficiency of market fundamentals, the ridiculous notion of “moral” or “immoral” societal roles when in fact all societal roles are amoral, and of course, the grandest axiom of libertarianism: “it is illegitimate to engage in aggression as nonagressors.” (p. xiii).

This leaves us with one simple, provocative question: what of the link of amoral markets and moral-minded human beings, and how should we construct an academic framework for such an inquiry?


3 Responses to “Defending the Undefendable”

  1. Daryl Bockett says:

    All morality is subjective to a greater or lesser extent; I certainly couldn’t argue with Block that the construction of a the concept “child”, and privileging that class of people, is a subjective practice (although a defense of the practice could probably be made within the framework of anthropology, evolutionary psychology or similar). However, that is not to say that public policy should not be based on moral judgments. The debate seems to come from the different starting points that people use to construct their moral framework.

    For libertarians, it seems that the individual is the basis of morality, along the lines that harming an individual or limiting their choice is the essence of immorality (American Tea Party candidates like Rand Paul seem to exemplify this). On the other hand, mainstream morality tends to take society as the starting point of its morality. As an example, taxes are seen as inflicting necessary ‘harm’ on individuals in order to ensure the smooth functioning and growth of society (through law enforcement, education, garbage collection, healthcare, etc). Society is arguably a theoretical construct (Margaret Thatcher reportedly said “there is no such thing as society”), but modern social science tells us that there are, in effect, systems, and that the structure of these systems can have a great effect on outcomes for the individual constituents of those systems. Thus, it is no worse for ‘progressives’ to reify the system that we call “society” than it is for libertarians to reify the systems known as markets.

    The way that I would resolve the choice between Libertarian and Progressive visions of morality is to say that, if the existence of government is a given (and most libertarians in the media seem to prefer ‘small’ government to anarchy) is that the government, by virtue of being constituted and legitimated by society, must have as its focus the greater good of that society. You as an individual are more than welcome to focus on your own well-being and making your own choices, but it seems illogical to assume that a government should (or could) share that focus. You, as an individual, are responsible for your individual self, but the government, as the expression of the system of individuals that we call society, has a duty first and foremost to society. This is a logical extension of the difference between individuals and governments, and does provide some invaluable and irreplaceable benefits to all the individuals in society.

    Child labor laws are a good example of this. Yes, 16, 18 or 21 are all arbitrary cut-off points, and nobody believes that every 21-year old is necessarily more mature and responsible than every 18-year old. At the individual level, we are free to judge people on their individual merits, but at the level of government, such subjective judgments cannot possibly be the basis of public policy. At the extreme, in the absence of an arbitrary cut-off age a pedophile would simply become a person with great respect for the maturity of children (“Yes, she was only 12, but the way she played with her Barbie dolls hinted at a remarkable level of sophistication, so I asked her on a date and one thing led to another…”). At the macro level, a society in which the greatest possible number of children are educated and given the opportunity to reach their fullest potential is going to prosper more than a society in which much of the creative potential is stuck in chimneys or toiling away in factories. The individual cannot generate this prosperity through their own decisions, nor are they responsible for doing so, but the government can, and is responsible for, pursuing that prosperity for society.

  2. Ryo says:

    Dr. Bockett,

    I agree with your analysis of the basic thrust of liberatarian ideology and its emphasis on liberty – i.e. the absoluteness of individual freedom seems to both hail and promote freedom of choice much more than a communitarian-oriented society can. In this manner, as you’ve mentioned, the notion advanced by liberatarians that upholding an individual’s freedom of choice will increase society’s aggregate happiness in the long run does, indeed, seem tenable.

    With this in mind, education is certainly a crucial factor in helping children “reach their fullest potential,” which is another point you’ve elucidated. However, libertarians seem to have moral qualms about
    increasing the tax burden of the better-off in order to improve educational standards (the U.S. is most likely a prime example). After all, why should the rich feel the need to fork out money when they can send their own children to private boarding schools?

    It seems that a society that leans more towards egalitarianism necessitates an a priori rational grounds for wealth distribution. As Cornell University Professor Benedict Anderson has pointed out, in essence a country is an “imagined community,” and without a feeling of togetherness, or one-ness, then the citizens of said society will most likely object to having to pay taxes to the government (Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick, both authorities on liberatian though, claim that “any taxes on labor is on par with forced labor” – i.e. slavery.)

    Perhaps the ideal solution is a better form of true participatory democracy where people aren’t constitutionally obligated to give tacit consent to a social contract. In this regard, perhaps consentual grounds can be re-assessed every two or three generations (not just in the political sense, which already exists and happens much more frequently, but in a much broader moral and philosophical context).

  3. Daryl Bockett says:

    Either the principle of egalitarianism or an understanding of how capitalism actually works would serve as a justification for some level of income redistribution on their own merits – money is power, and just as gravity leads mass to accumulate, so power leads to uneven distributions of wealth. What kind of equal opportunity can there be in a world where a university education is virtually the minimum requirement for a livable wage, but in which not everyone can afford such an education?
    Moreover, I find it hard to imagine a society functioning smoothly over the long term if significant percentages of the population does not have access to education, healthcare and some kind of income after they retire; increasingly, salaries are falling to the point where a family’s savings will not be enough to raise children and then ensure financial security after retirement. Anyone who claims that the government shouldn’t assist people if this trend is widespread has neither moral nor intellectual credibility.

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