Defending the Undefendable, by Walter Block, New York: Fleet Press, 1976, 256 pp., $9.95.
Defending the Undefendable has sparked quite a bit of controversy within the libertarian movement—possibly even as much as the great minarchist-anarchist debate. The book has been warmly endorsed by Murray Rothbard, Harry Browne, Thomas Szasz, and even F.A. Hayek, yet strongly attacked in Libertarian Review and Laissez Faire Review. Though wide support exists for both positions, my previous negative evaluation in Laissez Faire Review elicited more favorable comments and mail than anything LFR has ever published. How can a book be so thoroughly detested by many and yet endorsed by such prestigious libertarians?
The polarization of opinions on Block's book should not be surprising. It is a reflection of the book's schizophrenic nature—a bizarre combination of both excellent and horrible elements. On a deeper level, the polarization is symptomatic of a fundamental division within the libertarian approach to social issues—what might be called the "economistic" and the "humanistic" approaches. Economism, whether libertarian or Marxist, insists on explaining all human action almost exclusively in terms of economics. Humanism takes a broader view and heavily weighs psychological and social factors in its analysis and recommendations for social change.
Apparently the endorsers chose to consider only the Dr. Jekyll side of Defending the Undefendable and either ignored or failed to take seriously Mr. Hyde. It is true that the political and economic analyses are generally libertarian. Block defends the right of deviant but nonaggressive individuals to engage in voluntary activities with no political restriction. The "undefendables" include, for example, pimps, prostitutes, slumlords, moneylenders, and scabs. Block's showing that these people are merely engaging in market exchange is valid and important. When we see that his "heroes" also include counterfeiters, blackmailers, and male chauvinist pigs, however, we begin to suspect that something peculiar is going on.
If Block had been content to stop with just a simple, straightforward presentation of the nonaggression principle and Austrian economic analysis, the book could have served a useful and much-needed function. The rights of "deviants" and "socially undesirable" people must be preserved and protected in a truly free society. But Block proceeds to destroy the potential value of his analysis by taking on a deliberately shocking tone that he apparently considers witty but comes across to many libertarians and nonlibertarians alike as smart-alecky and offensive.
The most obvious example of Block's sensationalistic style (as well as his lack of rigor) is his insistence on calling the subjects of his book "heroes." His definition, however, simply does not correspond with dictionary or common usage. He cites three criteria: the action must not violate the rights of others, it must provide a great benefit, and it must be performed at great risk. But the concept of hero, correctly understood, clearly implies the attainment of great values. To call someone a hero simply because he or she defies social convention is a blatantly unacceptable use of the word and sure to elicit justifiably hostile reactions.
Curiously enough, Block's use of the word is often inconsistent with his own definition. To suggest that the miser, inheritor of wealth, and the litterer, for example, undergo great risk is just plain silly. Of course, if the litterer is a member of the Sierra Club he would risk the approbation of his peers, but otherwise he is unlikely even to be reprimanded.
Because Block does bring in noneconomic factors, one wishes he didn't undercut the soundness of his political and economic analyses by supporting them with social and psychological assumptions that show a mind-boggling lack of understanding of human behavior in the real world. At best these assumptions are frivolous (the litterer risks great approbation) but often take on a much more callous and appalling tone (charity interferes with the survival of the species).
Block's analysis of pimps and prostitutes is a good illustration of how out of touch with social reality he is. He blithely asserts that "the prostitute obviously prefers her work, otherwise she would not continue it." Also, she "does not look upon the sale of sex as demeaning." There may be some "happy hookers," but the serious sociological and psychological literature shows that women are far more likely to become prostitutes out of financial and psychological desperation, rather than on the basis of rational career planning. As for pimps, Block's implication that the use of coercion among pimps is no more serious a problem than the occasional bank embezzler strikes me as truly bizarre, considering that Block lived in New York City for many years.
Another example of his unsupportable armchair analysis of social interaction is in his chapter on the "male chauvinist pig." Block argues that "secretary-pinching" is implicitly accepted in a package deal with the job. But to claim that every case of sexual aggression against women office workers is always implicitly accepted ahead of time is sheer fantasy! Perhaps he thinks that most people define "secretary" as one who types and who submits to pinches. There are no doubt some offices where such activities are known ahead of time, but in all my office experiences, I have known no women (and few men) who are aware of a general implicit contract, much less agree with it. And there can't be a contract, implicit or otherwise, if one of the parties has no knowledge of the contract.
Block also argues that because the male chauvinist pig resists coercive egalitarianism, he should be considered a hero. Can Block be serious? If so, why is there no chapter on the racist as hero?
The most muddled and appalling chapter is the one on charity. In the second part of the chapter, Block offers a valid argument against public—forced—charity. But he isn't satisfied with this; he has to muddy the waters by launching an attack in the first part of the chapter implying that all charity is bad. Since he never defines charity, it may not be clear to all that what he is primarily attacking is "welfare." (He seems to change implicit definitions in mid-chapter.) But this sets up a straw man; charity includes private voluntary organizations like the United Fund and Red Cross. He may not intend to condemn private charity (it is unclear), but his failure to exempt them explicitly will certainly be interpreted by many as condemnation. Libertarians have been struggling to convince nonlibertarians that in a free society private charity would adequately replace public charity; we don't need a Walter Block coming along and saying charity is evil!
Worse yet are Block's grounds for attacking charity. He argues that "one of the great evils of charity" is that "it interferes with the survival of the species." (This is a repellent, inhumane, and oddly collectivist statement from a libertarian, one supposedly concerned with the good of individuals.) Anyway, charity does not interfere with the survival of the species; evolution works through the population group, not the individual. (So unless Block expects large sections of the populace eliminated, the "harmful traits" would survive.) Further, the "negative" traits that Block cites as examples—"allergy to smoke, excessive argumentativeness"—have no apparent connection with ability to survive, much less charity!
Even some of Block's economic arguments fall apart. He calls the counterfeiter a hero, claiming that, after all, paper money is already counterfeit. But the passing of counterfeit money is a fraud since people believe it to be genuine government issue (regardless of its actual economic worth). The real crime of the counterfeiter is not that he copies worthless government notes but that he passes on his own worthless notes to innocent victims. The counterfeiter is an aggressor, and Block's sophistry will not make it otherwise.
Left libertarians have often accused individualist libertarians of being interested only in "property, not people." It is writers like Block who give libertarianism this false image. This book is indeed symptomatic of the economistic approach that is all too prevalent among libertarians.
Block and the advocates of economism pride themselves on their rationality and logic, often dismissing noneconomic and nonpolitical concerns as irrelevant. "Humanism" smacks too much of "left deviationism." In fact, however, mechanistic reduction of complex human behavior to mere response to economic stimuli can be faulted on sophisticated logical and empirical grounds—just has been successfully done with economism's psychological analog, behaviorism.
Analyses like Block's not only ignore or distort noneconomic social and psychological considerations, and thus give a false picture of human behavior; they also misrepresent the views of a significant portion of the movement. Many libertarians believe that humane concerns and uncompromising libertarian principles are not mutually exclusive and cannot be artificially separated. Further, Block's mechanistic interpretation fails to do justice to the inherent nobility and dignity of libertarian ideals.
The insensitivity and frivolousness of Block's attitudes and assumptions serve to confuse and distract from the validity of his other points. These offensive attitudes will surely reinforce the worst stereotypes of advocates of capitalism. To fail to take this reaction into account is a serious and puzzling mistake on the part of the endorsers.
In balancing the good—valid economic and political analysis—and the bad—faulty logic, a mechanistic and insensitive view of human behavior, superficiality, shoddiness, and amorality—I have to conclude that the book will do more harm than good. It is a positive menace to the libertarian movement and dramatically demonstrates Rand's statement that the worst enemies of capitalism are its defenders.
Sharon Presley is co-proprietor of Laissez-Faire Books in New York and editor of its Laissez Faire Review and Catalog. A libertarian activist since 1964, she is National Coordinator of the Association of Libertarian Feminists.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Defending the Undefendable".