Some Support for Walter Block

Now that the President of Walter’s university is making public comments about Walter’s comments, I feel as if he is being ganged up against, and so I want to say that I don’t think the NY Times reporters or this president (Reverend Kevin Wildes) understood what Walter said. They didn’t grasp his meaning. They didn’t connect one sentence to the next in order to grasp the context. Walter has explained this himself, but I still want to add my two cents because Walter is a fellow scholar with a lot of courage, a champion of rational thought and argument, a real champion of libertarianism, and a bold thinker. He’s never shown the least hint of any prejudice or bias in any of his work that I’ve read, which is a fair amount. In fact he’s a defender of all sorts of groups and people that ordinary society discriminates against!

So, what did Walter say? Here’s the quote

“Free association is a very important aspect of liberty. It is crucial. Indeed, its lack was the major problem with slavery. The slaves could not quit. They were forced to ‘associate’ with their masters when they would have vastly preferred not to do so. Otherwise, slavery wasn’t so bad. You could pick cotton, sing songs, be fed nice gruel, etc. The only real problem was that this relationship was compulsory. It violated the law of free association, and that of the slaves’ private property rights in their own persons. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, then, to a much smaller degree of course, made partial slaves of the owners of establishments like Woolworths.”

Here’s my understanding of these words. Walter’s pointing out the importance of the freedom of association. That’s how the passage begins and how it ends. He argues that chattel slavery violated this right, and that was its central violation of liberty. He argues also that chattel slavery violated the slaves’ property rights in their own persons.

Since Walter believes in and constantly propounds libertarianism, he’s a strong supporter of both the freedom of association and of each person’s ownership of his own person. He therefore could not be a stronger critic of chattel slavery.

The failure of both the NY Times reporters and Wildes to acknowledge these facts about Walter’s libertarian critique of coercion and chattel slavery strongly suggests to me that they haven’t done their homework. If they had, they couldn’t criticize Walter for a belief he doesn’t hold.

Perhaps the phrase “slavery wasn’t so bad” was such a red flag to their emotions and ideas of political correctness that they couldn’t process the word “otherwise” and couldn’t assimilate the rest of the passage. Either way, their conclusions are based not just on shoddy scholarship but on no scholarship at all. The least wee bit of unbiased investigation would have shown where Walter stands.

I am being charitable to the reporters because I’m looking at this from a scholarly point of view. This doesn’t exclude other points of view. For example, Lew Rockwell has pointed out, accurately I think, that articles like the Times article that smears Walter and the Mises Institute are designed to “to demonize and destroy a school of thought that the regime considers threatening.”

Walter did not make the BALD claim that chattel slavery wasn’t so bad, as Wildes says. And he didn’t BALDLY or SIMPLY describe chattel slavery as not so bad, as the NY Times reporters wrote. Walter’s first 5 sentences described the tragic and evil condition of the slaves from the viewpoint of the basic abrogation of rights that they endured. They did not have their liberty to associate freely. They could not quit. They were forced to be where they were and do what they were made to do.

The key word that follows is this: OTHERWISE. “Otherwise, slavery wasn’t so bad.” That is to say, if the slaves had had freedom of association, then they wouldn’t have been slaves. Being made to work as slaves, being held against their wills, being beaten, being bought and sold, and having their families broken up were the consequences and manifestations of having their basic rights of association and self-ownership violated. Had these violations not occurred (otherwise), they could have sung songs, picked cotton, eaten gruel, much as did many free men of the period in this country and elsewhere who were poor. Otherwise, if people have freedom of association and self-ownership but are still poor peasants who sing songs, pick cotton and eat gruel, their lives are not so bad, i.e., not so bad as other free but poor men of the time and not so bad as if they were unfree and had lost control over most of their lives, their family lives, and much else.

Walter then went back to his point, which was that the real problem was not doing some things that many poor men did but being MADE to do them for their owners and against their wills because they had no freedom of association.

What about Woolworth and the 1964 legislation? We’re talking about this. Reverend Wildes makes this claim:

“Dr. Block makes the mistake of assuming that because of the Civil Rights legislation people would be compelled to associate with others against their will. The Civil Rights legislation did no such thing. What the Civil Rights legislation did was prevent places like Woolworth’s from excluding people because of their race.”

Wildes is wrong. Walter made no mistake, but Wildes has. To prevent A from excluding Q is to compel A to allow entry of Q onto A’s property and to compel A to serve Q. In this way, A is forced to associate with Q.

I hope it’s now clear why Walter, taking the libertarian view, is sensitive to forcing Woolworth or any business establishment to serve everyone. Freedom of association is far more important as a basic principle than approving government coercion to achieve a goal. Approving coercion for any social goal opens a Pandora’s Box. Indeed, Government coercion was historically an extremely important basis for chattel slavery, Jim Crow and then segregation. Getting rid of government coercion is therefore a high priority goal of the libertarian political philosophy.


3:47 pm on February 11, 2014