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