Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They've shaped the norms of future generations.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?

Anderson: We'll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.

Anderson: I'm Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I'm Micah Saul. And you're listening to The Conversation.

Aengus Anderson: Well it's been a long time since we've done one of these.

Micah Saul: It really has.

Anderson: Especially one with all three of us.

Neil Prendergast: Yeah, I miss you guys.

Anderson: And the reason we haven't posted for a while— Well there are several reasons. I was actually in San Francisco recording a bunch more interviews. Because we're getting close to the end of the stuff I recorded in 2012.

Saul: Yeah. And sounds like there were some really awesome new ones coming. So the project lives.

Anderson: It does. It does indeed. And we're trying to get— We're trying to get some stuff with grant funding underway. We're seeking a fiscal sponsor. So the gears are slowly turning on that. If stuff like that bears fruit, The Conversation could be a much longer-lived project. But either way after this most recent short trip, we've got ten new interviews with all sorts of people, from George Lakoff to Kim Stanley Robinson to Rebecca Solnit. It was really an amazing series of interviews in San Francisco. So we'll be getting to those in the future. But today, we've got Walter Block.

Saul: Ah, yes. Walter Block. So, we've heard a lot of libertarian voices in this project. From the very beginning with Max More, through David Miller, Robert Zubrin. Oh and Tim Cannon, then more recently Oliver Porter. But one thing we really wanted to do from the start was really really explore that idea, since it is such a growing ideology in American politics. And we wanted to sort of see what one logical extension of those ideas looks like. So we found Walter Block.

Prendergast: And we found Walter Block at the Economics department at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he actually chairs the department. He's also the author of a large, large number of books and articles. Books such as Defending the Undefendable, Lexicon of Economic Thought, and a lot of other stuff.

Anderson: He's also an iconoclast, which is one of the reasons we wanted him. He certainly is no stranger to controversy and he seems to even gravitate towards it. He's certainly gone to bat on behalf of some unpopular issues: voluntary slave contracts, pimps, blackmailers. And he has a really elaborate and interesting architecture of logic to sort of advance his claims. So, with that let's jump into the conversation. But first, welcome back to The Conversation.

Walter Block: Crisis of the present is that we’re not lib­er­tar­i­ans. If we were lib­er­tar­i­ans we wouldn’t have a cri­sis.

Anderson: What is wrong that being lib­er­tar­i­ans would solve?

Block: Well, lib­er­tar­i­an­ism is the idea that you should keep your mitts to your­self and not grab oth­er peo­ple or their prop­er­ty with­out their per­mis­sion. We’ve got a lot of grab­bing of oth­er peo­ple and their prop­er­ty. Killing peo­ple, mur­der­ing, drug laws, all sorts of vio­la­tions of the non-aggression prin­ci­ple. I’m an anar­chist, so gov­ern­ment is per se a vio­la­tion, and a free soci­ety would be one with­out gov­ern­ments, with­out crim­i­nal gangs, although I’m now repeat­ing myself because I see the gov­ern­ment as a crim­i­nal gang. And I mean, Obama is bomb­ing the smithereens out of all sorts of inno­cent peo­ple all over the world. We’ve got min­i­mum wage laws which cre­ate unem­ploy­ment for young peo­ple. Drug laws put a lot of peo­ple in jail and peo­ple are shoot­ing each oth­er over that. So, when you say what’s the cri­sis, the cri­sis is lack of lib­er­tar­i­an­ism. And lib­er­tar­i­an­ism is pri­vate prop­er­ty rights, free­dom, free mar­kets. And if we had those things we’d be much bet­ter off and much hap­pi­er and few­er peo­ple would be killed.

Anderson: And my back­ground is as a his­to­ri­an, and I think of most of time has been a long way from any of those ideas. You know, we’ve often had pret­ty tyran­ni­cal soci­eties where most peo­ple haven’t been remote­ly free. Do you think when we talk about lib­er­tar­i­an­ism, are we up against human nature itself?

Block: Yeah, I do. I think we’re up against human nature. I think a big rea­son why we’re in the plight that we’re in is because we’re hard­wired by biol­o­gy to act bar­bar­i­cal­ly. Sociobiology, of which I’m a fan but I haven’t con­tributed any­thing to that, is the the­o­ry that we are the way we are now because of what it took to sur­vive in a mil­lion years ago. So for exam­ple, everybody’s afraid of snakes, nobody’s afraid of bath­tubs. And yet bath­tubs kill more peo­ple than snakes nowa­days. But a mil­lion years ago bath­tubs didn’t kill any­one because we didn’t have them and snakes did.

So we’re hard­wired to be afraid of snakes even though it’s no longer rel­e­vant to our sur­vival. We’re hard­wired to appre­ci­ate benev­o­lence. Like if I keeled over right now and had a heart attack, I’m sure you would call some­body, call an ambu­lance. We’re strangers, you don’t know me, but just the human feel­ing and vice ver­sa. I would help you if some­thing hap­pened. A mil­lion years ago, if our tribes were such that if you’re sick this week I help you and next week I’m sick, you help me, our tribe will sur­vive bet­ter than if we don’t help each oth­er.

But we’re not very hard­wired to appre­ci­ate mar­kets and free enter­prise. And the most recent exam­ple of that is Sandy in New York City and all around New Jersey and Connecticut. Sandy led to price goug­ing. And econ­o­mists know that that price goug­ing has got two salu­tary effects. On the one hand, the only moti­va­tion peo­ple from Montana have to bring stuff to help the New Yorkers and New Jerseyans is… Well, there are poten­tial­ly two moti­va­tions. One is benev­o­lence and the oth­er is prof­it.

Now, everyone’s into the benev­o­lence, but if peo­ple are in dire straits we want to mobi­lize all human capac­i­ties, not just benev­o­lence but also profit-making. So if we allow prices to rise, then we’ll get more incen­tives for peo­ple to bring stuff to help the New Yorkers and New Jerseyans. But we’re not hard­wired to appre­ci­ate that. Because this is indi­rect coop­er­a­tion through mar­kets.

The sec­ond way that price goug­ing will help peo­ple is the first hun­dred peo­ple at the Walmart or at the gas sta­tion, at the old prices they’re going to grab up as much as they can because they might have a dan­ger or they’re going to fill up their tanks. Whereas if gaso­line say instead of three dol­lars was thir­ty dol­lars a gal­lon, they’d leave gaso­line for oth­er peo­ple. And then the prices would come down as the new sup­plies came in. In oth­er words this is the market’s cry for help. But we’re hard­wired not to appre­ci­ate that.

Anderson: Going back to the snake and the bath­tub anal­o­gy. It implies that almost like there’s been a huge change in how we live that neces­si­tates a new way of doing things, right?

Block: That’s right. When we were in a tribe of twenty-five peo­ple, you didn’t real­ly need mar­kets much. Our trad­ing maybe goes back 100,000 years, but we go all the way back to our exis­tence as mam­mals in terms of benev­o­lence. The moth­er deer takes care of the baby deer. We are much more heav­i­ly hard­wired against this stuff and that’s why it’s such a hard, uphill fight for Ron Paul.

Anderson: What was sort of the tip, or the shift to a soci­ety where work­ing on benev­o­lence becomes so inef­fi­cient that you real­ly need to invent the idea of the free mar­ket to address things?

Block: Well, benev­o­lence isn’t inef­fi­cient and I’m a big fan of benev­o­lence. It’s just that it’s not enough. It’s okay for a group of twenty-five or fifty peo­ple where every­one knows every­one. But when you have 300 mil­lion in the US or 7 bil­lion in the world, if we were self-sufficient and we had to pro­duce every­thing for our­selves we’d all die, or 99% of us would die. So we have to coop­er­ate with each oth­er. But the only way to coop­er­ate with each oth­er in such large num­bers is through mar­kets.

Anderson: That makes me draw con­nec­tion in my mind to a con­ver­sa­tion I had with John Zerzan. Are you famil­iar with him?

Block: No.

Anderson: He’s a green anar­chist and a neo­prim­i­tivist. And he’s one of the ear­ly peo­ple I spoke to on this project. It’s inter­est­ing because there are points of res­o­nance and some real points of con­trast to our con­ver­sa­tion in the con­ver­sa­tion I had with him. I think he would say, I agree with many of those things, so we should go back.” [Block laughs] And that’s some­thing that as we talk about what’s good, which is kind of what these con­ver­sa­tions are all ulti­mate­ly about, if you’re liv­ing in a band of twenty-five or fifty, I think he would prob­a­bly argue that the qual­i­ty of life you have is about your rela­tion­ships with oth­er peo­ple. Your appre­ci­a­tion of a space, he would say why not toss the tech? Like what do you real­ly lose in terms of the human con­nec­tions?

Block: Well, we already have that. I mean, most peo­ple have say five, or three to five good friends and ten acquain­tances, and when you think of spous­es and chil­dren you’ve got fifty peo­ple. So we already have that. There’s no rea­son to go back, that’s I think crazy. If we went back, we couldn’t have much spe­cial­iza­tion and divi­sion of labor. You couldn’t have a brain sur­geon. You couldn’t have a Mozart. So I think that that’s just a recipe for total and unmit­i­gat­ed dis­as­ter. I’d rather have what we now have than going back to cave-like exis­tences where no TV and no com­put­ers and stuff. I mean, no med­i­cine, no antibi­otics.

Anderson: So if I was to go to bat for him here, or to para­phrase some­thing that he would have said, he would say by hav­ing all the spe­cial­iza­tion and the tech­no­log­i­cal infra­struc­ture, it allows peo­ple to aggre­gate con­trol into few­er and few­er indi­vid­u­als. In a way, I’m won­der­ing if he isn’t think­ing that tech­nol­o­gy sort of plays against free mar­kets.

Block: Well, I’m not a big fan of this guy. I think he’s crazy, not to put too fine a point on it. Just because we have com­put­ers and TV and games and NFL foot­ball and stuff like that we can still have per­son­al rela­tion­ships.

Anderson: But is there sort of a social bias to tech­nol­o­gy that caus­es us to strat­i­fy?

Block: What do you mean by strat­i­fy?

Anderson: I guess I’m think­ing of um…

Block: Hierarchy?

Anderson: Hierarchy, yeah.

Block: Hierarchy is part of the human con­di­tion. If I play chess one of us is going to win, one of us going to lose. You know, if you can’t stand los­ing don’t play chess, or don’t do com­pet­i­tive sports or what­ev­er. Nothing wrong with hier­ar­chy, and there’s a dif­fer­ence between vol­un­tary hier­ar­chy and com­pul­so­ry hier­ar­chy.

Anderson: Ah, let’s get into that a lit­tle more.

Block: Well I only oppose the com­pul­so­ry hier­ar­chy, which is mur­der, rape, and theft. I mean, if I come up to you with a gun and I said, Give me your wal­let or I’ll shoot you,” now that’s hier­ar­chy, too. And it’s got noth­ing to do with tech­nol­o­gy because I need not have a gun. I could have had a spear, I could have been just big­ger or fat­ter than you or some­thing.

To me it’s sort of a tie, you know. Sometimes tech­nol­o­gy helps the good guys, some­times it helps the bad guys. I don’t know. I’m a big fan of John Lott with guns. I think guns are a lib­er­at­ing thing. The best thing for a young girl is a pis­tol. And if we had an Olympic shoot­ing team of girls you know, now a rapist wouldn’t come around here because he wouldn’t know who’s got one in their pock­et­book. So guns would be a tech­nol­o­gy and you know, some­times it helps, some­times it hurts.

Anderson: That makes me think of a conversation—and this is kind of a lat­er­al jump. I talked to an eth­i­cal philoso­pher, a guy named Lawrence Torcello. And he’s real­ly inter­est­ed in the phi­los­o­phy of John Rawls and the idea of the moral and the nat­ur­al lot­tery. So when we’re talk­ing about hier­ar­chy here, in a way my mind is think­ing well, that’s apply­ing to peo­ple who are equal but I know that we aren’t all born the same. In the case of some­thing like oppos­ing forced hier­ar­chy, do we also need to con­sid­er nat­ur­al dif­fer­ences in peo­ple?

Block: Well, we can con­sid­er all we want but I think Rawls is immoral and I think Nozick’s book real­ly ripped him to shreds. He used the Wilt Chamberlain exam­ple. So what we do is we go Rawlsian. Everyone’s equal. And now we get Wilt Chamberlain who…well, I sup­pose what we could do is cut his legs off a lit­tle because he’s too tall and that’s unfair. But unless we’re all exact­ly equal there’ll be some dif­fer­ences. And if there are some dif­fer­ences, the Wilt Chamberlain exam­ple, he wants to dunk a bas­ket­ball and we all want to watch him. And he charges us twen­ty bucks to watch him, and there are ten thou­sand of us. So at the end of the day we all have twen­ty dol­lars less, he has $2 mil­lion, and now it’s unequal. But it came about through a vol­un­tary process. So if you’re a strict Rawlsian, what you have to is to say well you can’t have any trades.

Anderson: That seems like a fair­ly extreme exam­ple, but could there be more mod­er­at­ed… You know, the notion that if all peo­ple are not equal bio­log­i­cal­ly… You know, vol­un­tary agree­ments get trick­i­er when peo­ple aren’t of sound mind and they’re just born that way, right? Do they…

Block: Well, I think if they’re not of sound mind, they’re men­tal­ly hand­i­capped, but that—you know, what is it, half a per­cent or a quar­ter of a per­cent or a tenth of a per­cent? I mean, that’s a per­son­al tragedy but I don’t know what we can do about it except get rid of the gov­ern­ment so we can maybe come up with a cure for that sort of a thing. I don’t think we have to have con­sen­sus on any­thing except the non-aggression prin­ci­ple, name­ly we should have con­sen­sus that you keep your bloody mitts to your­self and don’t grab oth­er peo­ple with­out their per­mis­sion or take their prop­er­ty.

Anderson: How do we achieve con­sen­sus on that? Because that seems like an ara­tional assump­tion.

Block: Well, I don’t think we’re going to achieve con­sen­sus on that, because of this hard­wiring. But if we could, then that would be the key for peace and pros­per­i­ty.

Anderson: If we’re not lib­er­tar­i­an” is the cri­sis of the present, what does the sta­tus quo lead us to? Assuming noth­ing changes.

Block: Well, the sta­tus quo leads us to pos­si­bly killing every­body on the plan­et. I mean…

Anderson: How so?

Block: Well, I favored Obama over Romney, because I thought Romney is more like­ly to nuke some­one than Obama. I mean, Obama had four years and hasn’t nuked any­one yet. But Obama isn’t any great shakes. I mean, what the hell are we doing in Afghanistan? What are we doing in Iraq? The US has sol­diers every­where. You walk through the air­port and you see a sol­dier in uni­form and peo­ple start applaud­ing him. To me that’s grotesque. Because this guy is an impe­ri­al­ist, war­mon­ger­ing sol­dier. If he stayed in the US and pro­tect­ed us against exter­nal ene­mies then fine. But he’s over in Germany. He’s over in Korea. He’s in 160 dif­fer­ent coun­tries. So any time two gangs or thugs fight with each oth­er, we’re in the mid­dle of it.

Well, one way we could end is blow­ing each oth­er up. Another way is with the Fed hav­ing QE1 and QE2 and QE…forever, cre­at­ing massive…what do you call it, depres­sions, reces­sions. So we can go to Hell in a hand­bas­ket in lots of dif­fer­ent ways. So if we eschew lib­er­tar­i­an­ism, we have greater risk of all these post-apocalypse sce­nar­ios.

Anderson: Okay. Do you think tech­nol­o­gy has raised the stakes of this? You know, I was talk­ing to a guy named Chris Carter the oth­er day and we were talk­ing a lot about the com­plex­i­ty of soci­ety. And he was talk­ing about the metaphor of the house of cards which we build taller and taller with these inter­con­nect­ed tech­ni­cal sys­tems. His con­cern being that well, mis­man­ag­ing in one of those areas now con­nects to every­thing else in a real­ly big way, whether that’s in eco­nom­ics or in terms of our envi­ron­men­tal impact. And so, has tech­nol­o­gy raised the stakes, if not nec­es­sar­i­ly weight­ed the scales?

Block: Well, I like that house of cards anal­o­gy and I agree with it. We’re much more inter­con­nect­ed now. We have much more spe­cial­iza­tion and divi­sion of labor. This is cer­tain­ly true in the case of bank­ing. Under the gold stan­dard, if one bank went broke, eh, no big deal. But I don’t think it’s tech­nol­o­gy so much as I think it’s gov­ern­ment inter­fer­ences with the free enter­prise sys­tem which makes us more vul­ner­a­ble in this way.

Anderson: Yeah, I think tech­nol­o­gy— I was ask­ing about that. In terms of how tech­nol­o­gy can enable new types of behav­ior that allowed dif­fer­ent types of gov­ern­men­tal con­trol or lack of gov­ern­men­tal con­trol.

Block: Well, we’re back on this ques­tion of is tech­nol­o­gy a force for good or bad, and I think tech­nol­o­gy is a force for wealth, and it’s a force for reduc­ing pover­ty, but I don’t see that it helps or hurts much the civ­i­liz­ing ver­sus bar­barous ten­den­cies of the human being.

Anderson: I guess I was think­ing of it more in terms of enabling cen­tral­iza­tion.

Block: Well… But again, cen­tral­iza­tion is nei­ther good nor bad. It depends upon whether it’s vol­un­tary cen­tral­iza­tion. If it’s coer­cive cen­tral­iza­tion it’s bad, if it’s vol­un­tary cen­tral­iza­tion it’s great. I mean, The Beatles or you know, some rap star is very cen­tral­ized in the sense that you know, before we had this tech­nol­o­gy you per­formed in a night­club and how many peo­ple are in a night­club? Two hun­dred? Three hun­dred? Now you can go to a big sta­di­um of ten, twen­ty thou­sand but mil­lions of peo­ple can hear you. So that’s vol­un­tary cen­tral­iza­tion and that’s fine.

Anderson: I guess I was won­der­ing about the con­nec­tion between cen­tral­iza­tion and sort of going back to the house of cards anal­o­gy. So if The Beatles don’t show up at the con­cert, who cares? It’s not like the voluntarily-centralized food sys­tem doesn’t work. And in both cas­es let’s say there’s some exter­nal­i­ty like a weath­er event or some­thing that caus­es a cri­sis in the cen­tral­ized sys­tem.

Block: Well, are you say­ing that food is more impor­tant than enter­tain­ment?

Anderson: [long pause] Yeah.

Block: Well, in a sense you’re com­mit­ting the diamonds-water fal­la­cy.

Anderson: But you do die with­out food, right?

Block: …yeah, but we usu­al­ly look at these things not in all food ver­sus all enter­tain­ment but in the mar­gin­al amount. This is the mar­gin­al rev­o­lu­tion in eco­nom­ics. So if you look at it from a small amount, then one lit­tle bit of enter­tain­ment might be much more impor­tant than a can­taloupe. But if you look at it all food ver­sus all enter­tain­ment then obvi­ous­ly we pick food. But we nev­er are in a posi­tion to choose between all food and all enter­tain­ment.

Anderson: And that’s where I was won­der­ing like, if we look system-wide, does tech­nol­o­gy enable us to have the com­par­i­son between say, all food? You know, because it is a house of cards?

Block: We can com­pare it men­tal­ly, but I think it’s sort of a fal­la­cious way of look­ing at it, you know, which is more impor­tant, food or enter­tain­ment.

Anderson: What I’m get­ting at is, does tech­nol­o­gy make it eas­i­er for us to cre­ate, vol­un­tar­i­ly, some kind of sys­tem that is vul­ner­a­ble to an exter­nal­i­ty like a virus or a nat­ur­al dis­as­ter?

Block: Well in terms of famines, in Africa when there’s a famine, peo­ple die. In the US, if the wheat crop is bad, no big deal. We have a free trade area in the US. If the whole crop fails, or if oranges fail in California, we get them from Florida. So the rea­son we have famines is not so much because of tech­nol­o­gy, it’s because of lack of free trade.

Anderson: Maybe I was won­der­ing like, if you have say this mas­sive inter­con­nect­ed free trade sys­tem, and so you have the wheat famine in Kansas, could it go every­where else to all the places you’re trad­ing with and then you lose wheat every­where so wheat’s no longer a com­mod­i­ty mar­ket?

Block: Oh I see what you’re say­ing. In oth­er words [crosstalk] if there was a bug—

Anderson: Because that would be— Right, so say—

Block: If there was a bug and it got all wheat—

Anderson: Right. So if you didn’t have tech­nol­o­gy, you might not be able to trade like that.

Block: Well, this thing about a bug… I sup­pose that’s more house of card-ish, that if it was a wheat bug and it got all wheat in the world, well we still have corn and bar­ley and stuff. If we had many lab­o­ra­to­ries try­ing to over­come this wheat bug, we’d have a bet­ter chance at it than if the gov­ern­ment is again tak­ing half the GDP away and spend­ing it on war­fare and wel­fare.

Anderson: So we’ve talked a lot about sort of cri­sis stuff, and I’m glad we’ve— It feels like we’ve got that well fleshed out. Let’s look at the good sce­nario. Let’s just say that everyone’s on the same page. What does that look like? I mean, that’s—that’s almost incon­ceiv­able so I’d like a pic­ture.

Block: No, it looks just like today only you don’t have to wor­ry about being mugged, you don’t have to wor­ry about being raped, you don’t have to wor­ry about being unem­ployed, you don’t have to wor­ry about pover­ty. We’ll cure more dis­eases. We might get to the moon or Mars quick­er than if the gov­ern­ment does it. Life would go on just the way it is. We’d have learn­ing. We’d have uni­ver­si­ties. Maybe few­er uni­ver­si­ties because the gov­ern­ment sub­si­dizes it, and few­er libraries because the gov­ern­ment sub­si­dizes it. But we’d be bet­ter off in many of these ways and the mar­ket gets peo­ple what they want more than the gov­ern­ment does, so we’d all be more hap­py and ful­filled at least in terms of goods and ser­vices.

Anderson: Is that a utopia?

Block: Well, utopia has a bad press. I mean, a lot of the utopi­ans were try­ing to change human nature. I’m not try­ing to change human nature, I’m tak­ing peo­ple as I seem them and—

Anderson: Though we were talk­ing about how bio­log­i­cal­ly this was a dif­fi­cult thing for us to accept, right?

Block: Well, you said everyone’s on the same page now. That is very his­tor­i­cal­ly unprece­dent­ed. That is very utopi­an, to think that Ron Paul or Ayn Rand or me and my col­leagues at the Mises Institute… I think it’s utopi­an to think that we would have such a great suc­cess. But if we had such a great success—which is the way I under­stood your question—then the rest I don’t think is utopi­an. I think the rest would just fol­low.

Anderson: And that’s some­thing— You know, I’ve talked to a lot of peo­ple in the project about what are we?” I’ve talked to a cou­ple dif­fer­ent lib­er­tar­i­ans, a lot of peo­ple haven’t been. Most peo­ple haven’t been. Most peo­ple have been inter­est­ed in lots of dif­fer­ent ways of struc­tur­ing, whether it’s economies or social groups or you name it. And I think they would dis­pute the whole premise of our entire con­ver­sa­tion that we’ve had here. And, in a world where they exist, and you exist, is there any kind of con­ver­sa­tion that can hap­pen between all of these groups?

Block: Well, yeah. They can adopt lib­er­tar­i­an­ism. And the rea­son for that is that lib­er­tar­i­an­ism is a big tent. We can accom­mo­date them, but they can’t accom­mo­date us. For exam­ple sup­pose you want to have social­ized med­i­cine. In a lib­er­tar­i­an soci­ety you could. But it would be just lim­it­ed to the peo­ple that agree to it. You couldn’t force non-medical social­ists into it.

On the oth­er hand, if you had a social­ist soci­ety then there’d be no room for lib­er­tar­i­an­ism. So we can accom­mo­date them. They can’t accom­mo­date us. So if they have any sense of fair­ness or jus­tice, they’ll all become lib­er­tar­i­ans. And then what they’ll do is hive off into their own lit­tle soci­eties, and they can do any scheme they want.

Anderson: But doesn’t that mean that they have to accept the lib­er­tar­i­an—

Block: Yes!

Anderson: —doc­trine as high­er than their own?

Block: Absolutely. Libertarianism über alles.

Anderson: Is that a type of fun­da­men­tal­ism?

Block: Well, I sup­pose, yeah. But it’s good fun­da­men­tal­ism. Because all it means is that every­one can get to choose what­ev­er he wants. Whereas no oth­er phi­los­o­phy offers that. Yes, our tent should be big­ger than yours. But our tent will give you full free­dom as long as you don’t coerce oth­er peo­ple into what you want, just with the peo­ple that agree with you. Whereas none of them can say that.

Anderson: I’ve talked to a lot of envi­ron­men­tal thinkers in this project. And they’ve talked about resource lim­its. Does that change the equa­tion?

Block: Well…

Anderson: To where you need to think about like, say here’s an envi­ron­men­tal issue. Is that the com­mons? Is that some­thing you have to address in a dif­fer­ent way?

Block: Well you know, this semes­ter I’m teach­ing a course on eco­nom­ics and the envi­ron­ment. And I can say this run­ning out of resources and over­pop­u­la­tion is just eco­nom­ic illit­er­a­cy.

Suppose we start run­ning out of cop­per. What hap­pens to the price of cop­per? The price of cop­per ris­es. When the price of cop­per ris­es, do peo­ple use more or less of cop­per? Less. When the price of cop­per ris­es do peo­ple search more or less inten­sive­ly to find more cop­per? More. So we nev­er run out of resources. Because if we were real­ly run­ning out of some resource, the price would go real­ly high and then hard­ly any­one would use it.

Anderson: But we can’t get away from the fact that there are an ever-increasing num­ber of us, right, on a finite chunk of stuff in space?

Block: No, no. There’s only a stink­ing, lousy 7 bil­lion. I mean, you get up in an air­plane above the United States, and west of the Mississippi there’s nobody there. Okay, Denver you see lit­tle pin­prick of light. East of the Mississippi, you see a lit­tle pin­prick over. There’s Atlanta and there’s Philadelphia, but the whole place is emp­ty.

I was once in a debate with a guy who said we had too many peo­ple. And I said there’s a guy over there who’s going to say we have too many peo­ple. If he was seri­ous about his crap­py argu­ment he would have reduced the size of the pop­u­la­tion by one but he didn’t. So he doesn’t even take his the­o­ry seri­ous­ly, because it implies you should kill your­self.

Anderson: Well, because it gets into— I think it gets into a qual­i­ty of life thing, doesn’t it? Like the notion that say, some peo­ple want a qual­i­ty of life that has access to spaces with­out oth­er peo­ple.

Block: [pause] BS. Pardon my French. I mean, most peo­ple are mov­ing toward the cities. They don’t want to be out in the sticks or what­ev­er it is, the boon­docks. What’s the expres­sion? Once you—

Anderson: Is that a mar­ket neces­si­ty?

Block: No no, it’s just most people’s taste. We even have an expres­sion, once you’ve seen Paris you don’t want to be on the farm any­more. Thomas Sowell has this thing, he says sup­pose we put peo­ple togeth­er in fam­i­ly units of 2,500 feet, two floors, front yard, back yard. That’s it. You want to guess as to how large the land would have to be to hold all 7 bil­lion peo­ple? Texas. Seven bil­lion peo­ple. All in Texas. To give you one indi­ca­tion of how few peo­ple we have.

Now look, we’ve got Mars, we’ve got the moon. We’ve got the oceans. Do you know that the ocean is three quar­ters of the Earth’s sur­face and it accounts for one or two per­cent of the GDP of the Earth? Why? Because it’s not owned. But if we had pri­vate prop­er­ty in the oceans, a lot of peo­ple could live on the oceans. The oceans would be very much more pro­duc­tive than 1% of world GDP.

So these envi­ron­men­tal­ists, these green peo­ple I think are woe­ful­ly eco­nom­i­cal­ly igno­rant. And they are fascis­tic. They want to con­trol oth­er people’s lives, and I’m not real­ly a fan of left wing envi­ron­men­tal­ists. I’m a free mar­ket envi­ron­men­tal­ist, where we say that the way to save the ele­phant and the rhi­noc­er­os is to have pri­vate prop­er­ty rights in them. And will you be able to shoot one, yeah. But you’re going to have to pay a lot of mon­ey to shoot a preg­nant ele­phant. Whereas shoot­ing a male ele­phant would be less.

Anderson: Should they have rights as just liv­ing things? I spoke to a guy named Gary Lawrence Francione. He’s a law pro­fes­sor at Rutgers. And he’s real­ly inter­est­ed in the idea of ani­mals hav­ing legal rights, [crosstalk] so to say, to not be killed.

Block: God. God. God help me. Look, if he was seri­ous he would com­mit sui­cide because he’s killing a lot of ani­mals right now. Every time he takes a step he steps on a hun­dred thou­sand ants or lit­tle tee­ny wee­ny things. He should kill him­self if he believes in that crap. Certainly he should be a veg­e­tar­i­an. But even veg­e­ta—

Anderson: He’s a veg­an, I think, for many years.

Block: Okay, but even veg­eta­bles should have rights. You pull them out and they put EEGs in the turnip, and you pull them out it’s like a shriek. This bas­tard is eat­ing veg­eta­bles? He’s a hyp­ocrite. He’s vio­lat­ing his own crap­py prin­ci­ples by artic­u­lat­ing the prin­ci­ples. He’s com­mit­ting what Hans Hoppe calls per­for­ma­tive con­tra­dic­tion, just like the over­pop­u­la­tion­ist.

Anderson: So if ani­mals have no right to not be killed, if they’re prop­er­ty, should peo­ple also be like that?

Block: Should peo­ple— No, peo­ple are dif­fer­ent.

Anderson: Why are peo­ple dif­fer­ent?

Block: Because we can artic­u­late— What Murray Rothbard says is that when the dol­phin or the chim­panzee, who are the smartest of ani­mals, when they can come up to us and say, Hey. We mean you humans no harm. We acknowl­edge your rights. Please respect our rights.” When they can do that, then we will be honor-bound, or moral-bound, to respect their rights. But until and unless they can peti­tion us for their rights, they are not rights-bearing crea­tures.

Anderson: Why the role of lan­guage there?

Block: Well it doesn’t have to be lan­guage. Sign lan­guage is okay. And the dol­phins, they now try to trans­late dol­phin sounds and they’re try­ing to teach chim­panzees words. It doesn’t have to be in English. We do have for deaf peo­ple you know, the hand sig­nals. They could do that with their flip­pers, or chim­panzees have arms; they could do that. They don’t.

Anderson: Ultimately there’s a sense of we’re at the top of the food chain and we have a social sys­tem and so if they don’t fit in with that?

Block: Look, if ani­mals had rights then when the lion attacks the zebra, the lion is guilty of mur­der. Now, that’s grotesque—that’s sil­ly. And yet that’s a log­i­cal impli­ca­tion of this crap­py the­o­ry.

Anderson: Is one of the things that makes us dif­fer­ent also that we’re an eth­i­cal crea­ture?

Block: Look, if we have to respect the sheep’s rights, doesn’t the lion?

Anderson: But should we be held to a dif­fer­ent stan­dard, because we are eth­i­cal? You know, for the same rea­son that we wouldn’t do that to some­one who is part of the species.

Block: Well… I mean, either you’re a rights-bearing crea­ture or you’re not. And we’re rights-bearing creatures—again, I’m a human­ist. I’m pro-human.

Anderson: And so maybe instead of all the ani­mal stuff we should be ask­ing why are we a rights-bearing crea­ture?

Block: Because it’s wrong to kill. Thou shalt not kill.” See what a great reli­gious per­son I am?

We’re rights-bearing crea­tures because it’s a vio­la­tion of the lib­er­tar­i­an non-aggression prin­ci­ple.

Anderson: So that’s kind of the low­est lev­el of good in our con­ver­sa­tion.

Block: That’s my idée fixe, the non-aggression prin­ci­ple of lib­er­tar­i­an­ism, yeah. I start from there. And there are var­i­ous the­o­ries as to how you deduce that. The util­i­tar­i­an, there’s reli­gious, God said so.” There’s a nat­ur­al rights…Hans Hoppe has this view that you com­mit a log­i­cal con­tra­dic­tion by try­ing to deny it because you’re using pri­vate prop­er­ty in your own body to deny it. I think his is the best of all deriva­tions of the non-aggression prin­ci­ple. But I’m more inter­est­ed in deduc­ing from the non-aggression prin­ci­ple than I am in deriv­ing it.

Anderson: Do you think there’s any chance you’re wrong?

Block: Yeah, I could be wrong. I mean, the human con­di­tion, I might mis­un­der­stand stuff. Of course I could be wrong. But, I’d like to hear why. Then maybe I’ll change my mind. Look, I wasn’t always a lib­er­tar­i­an. I can change again if I’m giv­en some rea­son that says well you know, the non-aggression prin­ci­ple isn’t real­ly that good because we real­ly have to kill the Jews or kill the blacks or kill gays or who­ev­er and here’s why. And if it made some sense to me who knows, I could become a Nazi or a com­mie or some­thing. But it hasn’t made any sense to me for a long time and I very much doubt that it will. But it could.

Anderson: There’s one thing I’d like to ask before we wrap up. Do you think this is a moment where our cur­rent sys­tems, where our cur­rent ideas of nor­mal­i­ty, need to be ques­tioned or dis­cussed?

Block: Well I think that’s always true. Certainly now, but fifty years ago, a hun­dred years ago, three thou­sand years ago we should have been dis­cussing ideas, and one of the ideas should’ve been lib­er­tar­i­an­ism and every­one should have adhered to it.

Anderson: Do you think we can get there through rea­soned con­ver­sa­tion?

Block: No. It’s very utopi­an to think we could suc­ceed. Because many lib­er­tar­i­ans have been try­ing for many decades, and not just in my life­time. Murray Rothbard, the great­est lib­er­tar­i­an of them all as far as I’m con­cerned, has been try­ing his whole life. Ludwig von Mises. Look at where we are. We still have gov­ern­ment roads. We still have the hur­ri­canes. We still have can­cer. We still have unem­ploy­ment and war­mon­ger­ing and drug wars.

Anderson: So if con­ver­sa­tion has been dif­fi­cult in sort of spread­ing those ideas, how do you make the case? Do you have any opti­mism?

Block: Well, I don’t real­ly have much opti­mism. I mean… Look, we we could pick up the rifle and start assas­si­nat­ing politi­cians, but that’s crazy. Because unless the hearts and minds (to use a cliché) have been changed, you’ll just get anoth­er politician—Biden, who will be rough­ly the same. And there’ll be a hunt for the assas­sin, so I cer­tain­ly wouldn’t advo­cate that.

I think the only option we have is con­ver­sa­tion, or books, arti­cles. I’m not real­ly much of an opti­mist because of the sociobiology—although maybe in a mil­lion years…if we don’t blow our­selves up by then, or have the superbug…maybe we’ll become more lib­er­tar­i­an then.

But, I’m still very enthusias­tic. I love it. I can’t think of any­thing else I could do that that would be as much fun and as pro­duc­tive. But I’m not real­ly an opti­mist in the sense that I think we can suc­ceed because of this bio­log­i­cal hard­wiring for social­ism.

Anderson: So before we go into Block’s con­ver­sa­tion itself, I think a lot of lis­ten­ers who’ve been fol­low­ing this project for a while may be won­der­ing, Aengus, we’ve heard all of these oth­er thinkers express all of these con­tra­dic­to­ry views. Why didn’t you stop him and ask about them?” And obvi­ous­ly I did stop and ask about a lot. But some­thing we need to keep in mind is that we in The Conversation are always going for sort of a nar­ra­tive arc in these things. And we have to keep that flow going. And so some­thing that we try to do is always to illu­mi­nate ideas, and bring in as many oth­er ideas as we can, but we don’t want the inter­view to turn into a back and forth on some­thing that’s too small or too minute. We need to get that kind of sur­vey of the person’s thought.

Saul: Having said all that, let’s jump in, then. He sort of leaves us on a sim­i­lar note to things we’ve heard in the past. He’s enthu­si­as­tic but not opti­mistic. There’s that whole Don Quixote tilt­ing at wind­mills thing again. But this one has to do with his lack of opti­mism, has to do with human nature, it seems, right?

Prendergast: Yeah, and I think that’s actu­al­ly a nice way to start map­ping his thoughts on to the rest of the con­ver­sa­tion, to think a lit­tle bit about, well who does he think we are as peo­ple, and maybe that’s a way to sort of inte­grate with assump­tions oth­er speak­ers have had.

Anderson: And you know, it’s inter­est­ing because we’ve talked a lot about human nature. And it seems like some peo­ple in the series, peo­ple have been more on the lib­er­tar­i­an end of the spec­trum, have advanced visions of human nature that claim we’re pret­ty indi­vid­u­al­is­tic and we’re pret­ty ratio­nal­is­tic. And for those thinkers it’s always kind of a ques­tion of well why haven’t we cre­at­ed social sys­tems that embrace that, that encour­age that?

But I think what sur­prised me about Block— Well, I think more than sur­prised me, it kin­da made my jaw hit the floor, is that he doesn’t think that. He thinks that we are a very com­mu­nal ani­mal that isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly that ratio­nal, that doesn’t appre­ci­ate the func­tions of the mar­ket, that isn’t that indi­vid­u­al­is­tic. Which is inter­est­ing, because it seems like his read on human nature is very sim­i­lar to a lot of thinkers we’ve spo­ken to who come to very dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions.

Which I think gets us to one of the— I mean, maybe the most puz­zling part of this inter­view. Because essen­tial­ly he’s express­ing an entire eco­nom­ic ide­ol­o­gy that he admits doesn’t fit what we are biolog­i­cal­ly, or psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly.

Prendergast: That’s I think prob­a­bly the stum­bling block for not just you, Aengus, but prob­a­bly a lot of peo­ple. I mean, I know it was for me because there’s the issue of well, if it’s not part of our human nature to behave this way, then where do we go for the evi­dence that it actu­al­ly is the best way to go? And that seemed to be dif­fi­cult to find.

Saul: Yeah, that’s actu­al­ly an inter­est­ing thought. So, that gets us to the val­ues ques­tion, right? What is the val­ue that under­lines this whole thing? And for him it’s the lib­er­tar­i­an non-aggression prin­ci­ple. But the ques­tion I have there is, can that actu­al­ly be that fun­da­men­tal ara­tional? I mean he him­self says that there are plen­ty of deriva­tions for that. And if we’re going to talk about a fun­da­men­tal base­line idea, if we’re going to talk about the axioms of morals, isn’t one of the def­i­n­i­tions of an axiom that it can’t be derived?

Anderson: Right. So if we’re look­ing at one of our ara­tional assump­tions again, why should we accept the non-aggression prin­ci­ple rather than…you could just say that all bets are off and things should be total­ly anar­chic. Walter talks a lot about the lib­er­tar­i­an big tent encom­pass­ing all these ide­olo­gies. You can have a social­ist com­mu­ni­ty with­in it. You can have a theo­crat­ic com­mu­ni­ty with­in it. But none of those oth­er sys­tems can con­tain lib­er­tar­i­an­ism.

And I found myself won­der­ing then, is there a big­ger tents? And if you throw out the non-aggression prin­ci­ple, do you have the big­ger tent, where in a world of total anar­chy, groups can come togeth­er and form lib­er­tar­i­an com­mu­ni­ties, but oth­er groups can express them­selves through vio­lence. And I find that if we don’t accept the non-aggression prin­ci­ple, because it is just an ara­tional assump­tion, it’s dif­fi­cult to derive, do you end up with just sort of…history, right? Because we start­ed with anar­chy, and states formed, and they formed through force and there are a whole vari­ety of them. Some of them embraced things clos­er to the non-aggression prin­ci­ple and oth­ers didn’t. And it seems like, just giv­en the way his­to­ry has played out it’s hard to imag­ine a sit­u­a­tion where the non-aggression prin­ci­ple was ever embraced, you know. The big­ger tent is just real­i­ty. And it’s bloody, and force­ful

Prendergast: I think that kin­da what’s going on here is he’s describ­ing a nor­ma­tive world. A world as it should be, and not the world as it is. And I think we very much want to find an agreed-upon real­i­ty with him as a way to sort of at least inter­sect our thoughts with his.

Anderson: Well, that seems like the biggest chal­lenge, and prob­a­bly the one that’s clos­est to the heart of this project in terms of where can con­ver­sa­tion hap­pen here? You know, if we think of the ideas that Block is putting for­ward and the ideas that we’ve heard from peo­ple like David Korten or Chuck Collins, how do you have con­ver­sa­tion there, you know?

I mean, it seems like with folks like Gary Francione there’s no con­ver­sa­tion there. Like, both of those guys have dif­fer­ent ara­tional assump­tions about say, the val­ue of life. But in some of the oth­er cas­es, can there be con­ver­sa­tion?

Saul: The per­fect part­ner here is actu­al­ly some­one you brought up in the con­ver­sa­tion, and it’s Lawrence Torcello. Because he also offered us a big tent under which every­thing else can coex­ist, right?

Anderson: And he shares the same irra­tional assump­tion.

Saul: Mm hm. And so I think the ques­tion of you know, how do peo­ple like this talk to each oth­er, I think that’s an inter­est­ing exper­i­ment to maybe run through. Like how do Lawrence Torcello and Walter Block com­mu­ni­cate to each oth­er?

Anderson: Right. Because while they may share an ara­tional assump­tion, I think there are prob­a­bly a lot more buried val­ues that both of them have that we could exhume and they would look very dif­fer­ent. For instance, the way that lib­er­ty is define.

Saul: The nature of human­i­ty. I think you know, that ques­tion of what sort of crea­ture are we is very dif­fer­ent between the two.

Prendergast: Yeah, all I can think of is that they both agree on the val­ue of edu­ca­tion. Block of course being a pro­fes­sor and Torcello speak­ing about that. But the con­tent of that is I think very very dif­fer­ent.

Anderson: And it seems like they might even define aggres­sion very dif­fer­ent­ly. You know, Block has a very phys­i­cal def­i­n­i­tion—

Prendergast: Yes.

Anderson: —of aggres­sion. And I think Torcello would give us one that had the phys­i­cal com­po­nent but also looked at a lot of things that are more social forms of aggres­sion. In that you can set up social sys­tems that deny peo­ple cer­tain choic­es. It’s not an aggressively-done thing but it’s essen­tial­ly done through monop­o­liz­ing resources. By you know, I mean, you can rig the game in a lot of ways that aren’t direct­ly aggres­sive. And I think Torcello would cat­e­go­rize that as still a type of aggres­sion, and some­thing that giv­en his inter­est in Rawls he would want to com­pen­sate for.

Saul: In some ways I think Walter Block also views those things as aggres­sion. I mean, he does have a very broad def­i­n­i­tion of tres­pass, for exam­ple, or theft. But, the main dif­fer­ence, in my mind, between them is how you deal with that. And I think Torcello gives us a great argu­ment of how you can build social struc­tures that do not say, tres­pass on the prop­er­ty of an indi­vid­ual. Where Block just… Block seems to view most social struc­tures, espe­cial­ly gov­ern­ment, as fun­da­men­tal­ly doing that and there’s just noth­ing to be done about it so just get rid of it all.

Anderson: Right. And they also seem to have very dif­fer­ent ways of look­ing at peo­ple, right. So if we go back to some of our human nature stuff. Block sees most of the pop­u­la­tion as being equal in their intel­lec­tu­al fac­ul­ties. And when I asked him about peo­ple who were cog­ni­tive­ly dis­abled, he said that’s real­ly unfor­tu­nate and maybe in a freer mar­ket soci­ety peo­ple would have the research and the tech­nol­o­gy to basi­cal­ly get rid of cog­ni­tive impair­ment. Which isn’t a real answer.

And I think Torcello takes that a lot more seri­ous­ly look­ing at you know, there are huge shades of strength and weak­ness and intel­lect, and that there are a lot of peo­ple who are not going to com­pete equal­ly. And that that doesn’t mean nec­es­sar­i­ly cre­at­ing an arti­fi­cial­ly lev­el play­ing field. But he does give the sense that there needs to be a floor.

Prendergast: I think Torcello and Block also have sort of a dif­fer­ent frame around what they view human expe­ri­ence as. I mean, Block again and again returned to exam­ples of indi­vid­u­als doing things, and those were always things that you would do to earn mon­ey or wealth. You know, the bas­ket­ball play­er exam­ple. But Torcello doesn’t real­ly, I think, see the world as a com­pe­ti­tion where peo­ple are try­ing to increase their own wealth. I think there’s more to the human expe­ri­ence in his view.

I’m also think­ing of dis­cus­sions about hap­pi­ness, which sug­gest that there’s actu­al­ly a lim­it to the mate­r­i­al wealth that you would real­ly need to want to have to be hap­py.

Anderson: Which is inter­est­ing because if we go back to Laura Musikanski talk­ing about all of those para­me­ters that The Happiness Initiative looks at. And the oth­er peo­ple in this project you’ve talked about hap­pi­ness, they talk about mate­r­i­al wealth and they do talk a lot about free­dom, but they also talk about things that might be dif­fi­cult to achieve in a pri­va­tized soci­ety.

And it’s hard to know where a true lib­er­tar­i­an soci­ety would go, because it’s such an unre­al­is­tic sort of thing. But in terms of… Musikanski talks about a con­nec­tion with the envi­ron­ment. People like to have open, nat­ur­al spaces. And that’s a real­ly inter­est­ing con­trast to Block’s com­ments about pop­u­la­tion. So for Musikanski, we’re hap­pi­er if we have these spaces. That’s an inte­gral part of what it means to be bio­log­i­cal­ly human.

And I don’t think that fits into Block’s eco­nom­ic frame­work. And I’m sure he would say that peo­ple in a mar­ket would be able to buy and cre­ate those spaces togeth­er. But I don’t know if that would be guar­an­teed that they would be open access or things like that. And so the ques­tion is, I sup­pose that Musikanski would ask is, is that sort of access to open space, should that be a right?

Prendergast: I’m assum­ing that Block would sug­gest that there’s noth­ing that’s out­side the eco­nom­ic frame­work.

Saul: Exactly. I think Walter Block views eco­nom­ics as being the fun­da­men­tal arbiter. There is noth­ing out­side of eco­nom­ics. Everything is prop­er­ty. He doesn’t believe in a com­mons.

Anderson: Right, and when you get down to ideas like that I mean, it real­ly begs the ques­tion of, would there even be a con­ver­sa­tion between Walter and one of the peo­ple in the series we’ve spo­ken to who real­ly holds the idea of the com­mons to be sort of a truth. Or are those two dif­fer­ent ara­tional assump­tions about the world that can nev­er be bridged?

Prendergast: Yeah, I have such the strong desire that every­body can talk to each oth­er. And you know, I think just some­times it’s kind of not pos­si­ble.

Anderson: That was Walter Block, record­ed December 5th, 20112 at Loyola University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Saul: And you are of course lis­ten­ing to The Conversation. Find us on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com.

Prendergast: You can fol­low us on Twitter at @aengusanderson.

Saul: I’m Micah Saul.

Prendergast: I’m Neil Prendergast.

Anderson: And I’m Aengus Anderson. Thanks for lis­ten­ing.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.