A Not So Funny Thing Happened to Me in Tampa

by Walter Block

Recently by Walter Block: Ralph Raico Is Mr. Classical Liberal

I had an interesting experience in Tampa in late August, 2012. For the first time in my long life as a public speaker, I was subjected to vigorous booing and hissing – at a libertarian gathering. This often happens to me with expectedly hostile audiences, but never on the part of an explicitly libertarian one. And not only was I booed. A minority of the audience – I estimate it at 5 -10% although I could be far wrong on this – actually attempted to silence me by shouting me down.

What is the background of this unsettling experience? I spoke to three different audiences in Tampa right before the GOP presidential nominating convention took place. The first and the third were fine, in the sense that this booing and hissing did not occur, but the second was a bit of a horror story.

First, on Saturday August 24, 2012, I spoke at the Ron Paul Festival. There was a large audience there, perhaps 3,000 people. I lectured on abortion, pro life, pro choice, and my own view, evictionism (on which I have a long paper trail). I said that I was personally pro life; that I regarded the fertilized egg as the beginning of human life; and that I was appalled and horrified by the fact that so many members of our species were currently being murdered. However, I proposed not the pro life position, and certainly not the pro choice perspective, but rather a third alternative, philosophically very different from either of those two: evictionism. I did so, one, because I think it is the only position logically consistent with libertarianism, and two, on pragmatic grounds: it would immediately save the lives of (very small) human beings, and more and more of them as time went on and medical technology improved.

What is evictionism? It is the theory that a pregnant woman has the right to evict from her body the unwanted fetus, but not to murder it. In contrast, the pro life position claim she may not do either, and the pro choice perspective allows her to do both. In the first six months of gestation, this does not matter much for the fate of the infant; if evicted; i.e., taken out of the womb, he will die even if he is not put to death. But it is very important in the last trimester; were eviction, only, the law of the land it would mean life for these young human beings while abortion (eviction plus killing) spells death. And, as medical technology improves, more and more such lives will be saved. For example, perhaps in 10 years from now, doctors will be able to preserve the lives of all fetuses removed from the womb in the last four months of pregnancy, and then, maybe, by 2030, they will be able to save all those in the last five months of gestation. Eventually, if evictionism is adopted, all lives can be saved. Whereas, if we pro lifers (I consider evictionism to be pro life in the most profound sense) stick to the losing strategy of pro life, even when medical technology improves to that degree, perhaps in 100 years, we will still be stuck with the mass murder of infant children.

This is neither the time nor the place to deal with the entire argument, including refutations to objections to this theory. As I say, I have a long paper trail on this subject, which can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. For some thoughtful critiques of my view, see here, here, here and here. My rejoinders to these critics appear here, here, here, here, here, and here. In this present essay, I give only the barest background, so as to better relate my experiences in Tampa.

I was politely applauded by the attendees at the Paul Festival. Many came over to me afterward to congratulate me on my talk, asked to have their picture taken with me, wanted to have me sign their copies of my books, etc. This was par for the course at a libertarian gathering. But, ominously, although I didn't appreciate this at the time, numerous people also remarked on my "courage" in giving this lecture. "Courage" I asked myself? What could this possibly mean? This was far from the first time I had given this presentation, and the reaction at all libertarian events was always the same: support, applause, some disagreement, polite criticism, etc.

I gave the same talk at the official Ron Paul rally, "We are the future" the next day, Sunday, August 26. This was to a much larger audience, approximately 11,000 people. My speech might not have been identical to the one I gave the day before, since I don't read my presentations, but rather speak extemporaneously from notes. But I used the same notes this time as well, so the talk couldn't have been too different from the one before. And here, much to my amazement, there were those, presumably libertarians (who else would attend a rally for Ron Paul?) who attempted to drown me out with booing, screaming, cat-calls, etc. These people may have comprised only 5-10% of the attendees, but they were very vocal.

Let me now say a few words to these people.

I am not sure that my theory of evictionism is correct. There may well be flaws in it. But if different libertarian viewpoints are prevented from even being heard or discussed at a libertarian convention, your seeming goal, our precious philosophy will never progress. It will forever remain exactly as it is, today. But are we that certain that what we now have is perfect? Can we be so sure that there is no room whatsoever for any progress and refinement, at all? In my own view, nothing, nothing at all that humans have ever created is perfect. There is room for improvement in everything we do, or attempt to do. Although I am a stalwart libertarian and have been for many years (since 1963, as it happens, almost 50 years ago), I am utterly convinced that we need to do better, not only in spreading the word, but in improving it too. No, the freedom philosophy is far too important and precious to be preserved, exactly as it is now, forevermore. If we are to truly bring justice to the world, we must be open to allowing our views to be improved. How else can this be done but to allow other libertarian voices to be heard? And, with regard to the issue of abortion, not only is the general populace greatly divided on this issue, but so is our libertarian community. For example, no less of a libertarian than Ron Paul is pro life, while Murray Rothbard ("Mr. Libertarian") was pro choice. This, too, is the position of Gary Johnson, presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party. If we cannot so much as in a civil manner discuss this controversy, how can we ever possibly reconcile our community? How can we achieve greater understanding of it? You people acted disgracefully on that one occasion. But you are not a disgrace, period. Rather, as supporters of Ron Paul, as avid supporters of his, you are potentially among those who are our last best hope for a civilized order. So, please rethink your outrageous behavior, and resolve to help those of us who sincerely want to promote liberty, even if we are upon occasion mistaken, as is possible in this case. But the way to demonstrate this is not by attempting to silence fellow libertarians. Rather, it is to refute their arguments.

The way, the only way, to ensure that we have a living, breathing, progressing philosophical perspective is not to attempt to prohibit, by yelling and screaming, any attempt to derive a different libertarian position on this vexing issue. Rather, it is to allow all viewpoints to be heard, discussed, argued over, in a civil manner. What you people did was barbarous. It was an embarrassment to our libertarian community. The notion that an idea based on the libertarian premises of non aggression and private property rights is beyond discussion is abhorrent to our philosophy. If even we are not open to different ideas, what hope is there for humanity? The only way to get that proverbial one millionth of an inch closer to the Truth is through a vigorous competition of ideas. Only in that way can we possibly succeed in turning the world in our direction of individual liberty, justice, and peace. Although I am not a big fan of John Stuart Mill, I highly recommend you people read his On Liberty. And then read it again, if you are ever once more tempted to repeat your disgraceful outbursts.

The third talk I gave took place on Monday, August 27. It was an address to the Minnesota delegation to the GOP convention. (This was one of the very few delegations to the Republican presidential convention that was not unfairly stripped of its libertarian members.) You'll never guess who introduced me, along with enthusiastic encomiums to one Ludwig von Mises. Yes, u2018twas Michele Bachman. This was a weird experience for me.

I spoke there about Ron Paul running in 2016, when he will be a young man of 80. I claimed that our mottos, sayings, cheers, have a real important meaning behind them. For example, "Bring the troops home," "End the Fed," "Legalize liberty," "Down with the IRS" and a few more. They may be bumper stickers, but they convey a wealth of important information. I even introduced a new one: "Ron Paul, 16." I spent a lot of time on the negative aspects of the minimum wage law, unions, coercive egalitarianism and the welfare state, since I was asked to speak on economic issues. This largely libertarian audience was attentive, polite, supportive – back to normalcy after my "Twilight Zone" experience of the previous day. The first two days I was given only 15 minutes for my talks. Here, I spoke for over an hour, with about a half an hour for dialogue, questions, etc.

During the discussion period after my formal comments although there were some queries about the topics I had addressed, most of them concerned, you'll never guess, yes, evictionism. I offered a short summary of my position. This was followed by some half dozen objections to my thesis, some of them highly critical, but all of them considerate and polite; there was not the slightest attempt to censor my views.

In the aftermath of these three presentations of mine came two more highly critical comments on my lecture at the official Ron Paul gathering on Sunday. One came from a highly ranked spokeswoman in the Ron Paul camp. I will not mention her name, so as to save her from embarrassment. She accused me of, in effect, contract violation. She said that I was told, and agreed to, speak about monetary policy, the gold standard, etc. How dare I betray their trust by talking about something entirely different, a topic, moreover, that infuriated a lot of Ron Paul supporters? She claimed that another highly placed member of the Ron Paul community had made this obligation of mine very clear to me (these are paraphrases of what she said to me, based on my recollection of this very disturbing conversation). The worst thing she said to me was that Ron Paul was upset with me.

My reply to her was that neither was I told nor did I agree to any such thing. That had I been asked to speak about monetary issues, or any other topic within my competence, I would have enthusiastically agreed to do so, and would have stuck to my promise. I take pride in living up to my agreements. In the last 50 years, I must have given thousands of public speeches. There must be therefore thousands of hosts who will attest that I never, ever, not even once, agreed to speak on a given topic and then without permission lectured on something else entirely. I certainly would have complied with any promise as to topic with the Ron Paul people, or with anyone else. But the only discussion I had with anyone as to the subject of my presentation was with Ron Paul himself. And the only thing he asked me to do in our two telephone conversations was to "stick to ideas," "do something substantive" (again, this is a paraphrase of our conversation, to the best of my recollection). Ron told me that he wanted me not to speak about present day politics and political realities, which were ephemeral, but to emphasize ideas, since they would have a shelf life way into the future. Neither Dr. Paul, nor anyone else, had so much as mentioned "monetary policy" or any other specific topic. I tried to convey all this to that woman, but she walked off in a huff, very angry with me.

I am happy that I was somewhat of a gadfly at these three events. I think that libertarians need to apply our theory to difficult issues. Indeed, I have spent practically my entire professional life doing exactly that. But I am horrified, mortified, embarrassed, humiliated, at the possibility that I might have brought even the slighted disquiet to Ron Paul. I revere this man. I love him. He is one of my mentors. He is one of my guides. With the passing of Murray N. Rothbard, there is no one in the libertarian movement I look up to more than him. I would never in a million years purposefully do anything that would disappoint him. I honestly thought, I fervently believed, that Dr. Paul would be proud of me for attempting to apply libertarian property rights theory to this morally and intellectually challenging issue of abortion.

Let me conclude by responding to one last criticism of my behavior in Tampa.

In this view, it is entirely acceptable to articulate my theory on such a subject, but not at a gathering the purpose of which was to honor Ron Paul. I look upon an invitation to speak at such an event as a great honor. To me, it would be equivalent to being asked to contribute to a Festschrift to honor a great man. What would I want to publish in a Festschrift to celebrate the career of Ron Paul? Obviously, it would have to address an issue of common interest. Unless I was told otherwise, if I had my u2018druthers I would choose something that I consider the very best of my output. I am sometimes asked what I consider the most significant of my contributions. I would list my book Defending the Undefendable, my work on blackmail, my publications (virtually all of them co authored with Bill Barnett) on Austrian economics, and my efforts to promote the privatization of highways. But above them all I am very proud of my work on evictionism. I have been writing about this subject since 1977, all to no avail. Virtually, no one has heard about this. I think that in some small way these efforts of mine can contribute to the saving of the lives of helpless infants. That is what I would offer for a Festschrift, and that is what I chose to address in Tampa to honor Ron Paul, since I thought this choice was entirely up to me.

Well, I learned one lesson from my experiences in Tampa. Be clear, be very clear, be very, very, very clear with my hosts in all future public lectures, as to the topic(s) to be addressed.