Arguing With a Leftist
by Walter Block
Recently by Walter Block: Austrian Thymologists Who Predicted the HousingBubble
Four Arrows (aka Don Trent Jacobs) and Walter E. Block. 2010. Differing Worldviews in Higher Education: Two Scholars Argue Cooperatively about Justice Education
Walter: I first became aware of Don Four Arrows Jacobs when he emailed me. He invited me to co-author a book with him where we would "cooperatively argue" with each other, on a host of subjects, each of us defending his own view. He claimed his view was "left-wing" and seemed to assume mine was "right-wing. My first thought was that this guy was some sort of weirdo, who didn't do his homework. Didn't he know that I opposed right-wing conservatives as much as I did left-wing liberals? My second thought was to Google him. If he was some sort of nut, I'd have nothing to do with him. If he didn't have a track record sufficient for me to find him on the web, I could pretty much dismiss him with a polite letter.
To say that I was surprised with what I found about Four Arrows on the web would be a vast understatement. He was all over the place, with numerous publications to his credit. He was a professor at a graduate school. An American Indian activist, he was also a world-class athlete (U.S. alternative on the equestrian team). Instead of dismissing him and his offer of co-authorship out of hand, I decided to pursue the matter with him.
But first, I had to settle two issues with him. One, I was not a conservative, I am a libertarian; it took him a while to get this, but he certainly did. And, second, what was with this "cooperatively arguing" business? My mode in debate is to kick, claw and scratch, aiming for the crotch and the neck; no Marquis of Queensbury rules for me. He explained this to me as an attempt to really delve deeply into the others' positions, and to try to see if there could be any common ground. If not, not, but, at least we should try this. Intrigued, I agreed to pursue this matter with him. The result of our collaborative efforts is this book.
The writing process was a fascinating one for me. After agreeing on the subject matter to be covered (this changed a few times as we got to know each other) we evolved upon a modus operandi: we would alternate beginning and ending each chapter. We would send each other statements on the topic of the day, well, of the week, continuing to interpose our views with each other, until neither of us had anything more to say.
I found his work to be uneven. On the one hand, he couldn't spell worth a damn (well, neither can I, but my spell check, I think, works better than his), he had run on sentences galore, and sometimes I found a few sentences that were almost intelligible (evidence of his writing while on the run). On the other hand, even though we don't agree on much in the book (our views are very congruent on foreign policy and U.S. imperialism, and what a great hero Julian Assange is; but these topics do not appear in the book; we confined our writing to subjects on which we diverge), I found his writing to be brilliant and incisive. As you will see when reading it, there were several places where he forced me to reconsider my opinions, and, indeed, to change them. As well, I also, at times, felt that I "had" him; that, surely, seeing my most recent brilliant contribution, he would convert, on the spot, to libertarianism. I was of two minds about that prospect. On the positive side, it would be wonderful to have so eloquent an addition to the stable of libertarian spokesmen as Four Arrows. On the negative, that would pretty much end our book project, as its impetus stems from our disagreements, not our agreements. In the event, neither of us converted to the position of the other; but, I think we both learned from each other, and our respect for each other grew.
I was the detail man; he, the big picture guy. This book represents his vision, not mine. I take the lion's share of credit for the copy editing. Thanks to me, there are far fewer typographical errors than otherwise there would have been. I acknowledge that this book was his idea, and that while it now reflects both our perspectives, the initiative for it was is.
There is precedent for this sort of collaborative effort, across ideological lines. There was cooperation (well, at least for a while) between Congressman Ron Paul and Senator Bernie Sanders regarding the issue of monitoring the Fed; those two constitute strange bedfellows if ever there were any. They are rather parallel to Four Arrows and me. I think very, very highly of Dr. Paul, as does my co-author of Mr. Sanders. Cal Thomas, who takes the conservative view and Bob Beckel, who takes the liberal view, co-author a regular editorial column in USA Today. Then, of course, there are these two books: Radosh, Ronald and Murray N. Rothbard, eds. 1972. A New History of Leviathan. New York: E. P. Dutton, and Polner, Murray and Thomas E. Woods Jr. 2008. We Who Dared to Say No to War: American Antiwar Writing from 1812 to Now. New York, N.Y.: Basic Books. Both are co-edited by a libertarian, Rothbard and Woods, respectively, and a leftist, Radosh and Polner. However, these two books cover areas of foreign policy, war and peace, on which there is broad general agreement between the two sides. In contrast, there are sharp disagreements between me and Four Arrows in our book Differing Worldviews in Higher Education.
I have not yet to this day met Four Arrows personally, face to face, but I feel I know him better than at least some people I see regularly. I expect we fill finally cross paths in the physical as opposed to the electronic dimension, when the two of us go on the lecture tour to promote this book.
Four Arrows: Of course, Walter's memory is sketchy at best so his memory about my writing is not completely accurate. In fact, I often I had to remind him what subject we were discussing before he digressed significantly (this happened most when I had him on the run). Still, I must admit that the book's clean sentences and engaging flow is largely his doing. He did not even let me use the same word twice on a page and if I did so in a paragraph, well, he called me a fascist. Of all the collaborative books and articles I have written with my "left-wing liberal" colleagues, none have gone as smoothly, responsibly or professionally as Differing Worldviews owing to Walter's commitment to clarity and precision as to the commitment we made about "cooperative arguing."
Of course, I still think his thinking on a number of issues to be inconsistent at best, and dangerous at worst. The only ideas of his that I found sensible, at least initially, were the ones on which we agreed. (Maybe we will co-author another book about the remarkable common ground we found in the material we wrote but did not use in this book).
In trying to understand Walter's assertions that shocked my senses, I nonetheless found his arguments often forced me to look deeply at my position, even modifying it upon occasion.
In any case, I think my life is a bit better for having engaged a man who I invited to co-author with me only because I had disagreed with everything he had written, and I think whoever reads this book will come to a similar conclusion.
As our world continues falling out of balance, I think it is important for the political and philosophical polarities to at least come to terms as Walter and I have done. I am loathe to admit it, but I think that the idealism of Walter's free market libertarianism somehow connects to the traditional autonomy of Indigenous non-materialistic worldviews (this is just about the highest compliment I can give his views). I am haunted by the possibility that Walter's anthropocentric atheism and his love for capitalism come close to relating to Indigenous understandings, but if we start traveling and talking more about this with people, maybe we'll all find out.
Hey Walter, now that we are done with the book, I challenge you to a game of handball!
Walter: Well, since I'm old and fat, and Four Arrows is young and fit (notice the attempted psyching out here?), I may not beat him at handball (notice our competitiveness?), but, at least I've got a shot at him in this regard. Whereas, with regard to any contest regarding being on a horse's back, I hereby acknowledge defeat (notice how we each vie with the other to get in the last word?) By the way, this back and forth format is precisely the one we employ in the book.
Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans, and a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is the author of Defending the Undefendable and Labor Economics From A Free Market Perspective. His latest book is The Privatization of Roads and Highways.