Walter Block

walter blockIt was 1963, and college student Walter Block was, by his own admission, “a dumb pinko.” Ayn Rand came to visit Brooklyn College, and Block decided to attend her lecture — just so he could boo and hiss! After her speech, he decided that he had not booed or hissed enough, so he decided to attend the free luncheon being held in her honor. Of course, Block, not being a member of the Objectivist Study Group, was seated a long way from the guest of honor. So, being young and aggressive, he decided to march right up to the head table, stick his head between Rand and Nathaniel Branden, and tell them that there was a socialist who wanted to debate them. Branden accepted the challenge, but insisted on two ground rules. First, both sides had to agree that the debate would continue-for weeks if necessary-until one side or the other was convinced. Second, Block had to read two books: Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Henry Hazlitt’s classic Economics in One Lesson. Within a few sessions, Block accepted Branden’s argument, and became a limited-government libertarian. When he met Murray Rothbard in 1966 as a graduate student, Block’s views on economics (Austrianism) and politics (free-market anarchism) became fully developed.

Block went on to earn a Ph.D. in economics at Columbia University in 1972. His dissertation was “The Economics of Rent Control,” written under future Nobel laureate Gary Becker. Since then, Block has taught at several colleges and universities, including the College of the Holy Cross and Rutgers University, and is currently Economics Department Chair at the University of Central Arkansas. He has also worked at private think tanks, including several years as the senior economist and director of The Centre for the Study of Economics and Religion at The Fraser Institute in Vancouver.

Block’s vita runs to 20 pages, and includes articles on such subjects as labor markets, the relationship between religion and economics, housing, employment, discrimination, taxation, zoning, immigration and many others. He is recognized as an authority on the issue of free-market roads, having written more than a dozen articles on the subject. He has also served as an editor on many journals, including the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, The Review of Austrian Economics, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Cultural Dynamics and The Journal of Labor Economics.

No discussion of Block’s work is complete without at least mentioning his most famous publication: Defending The Undefendable. Of course, any book that is subtitled “The Pimp, Prostitute, Scab, Slumlord, Libeler, Moneylender and Other Scapegoats in the Rogue’s Gallery of American Society,” is going to offend many people. Yet, as Murray Rothbard states in the book’s Foreword, “By taking the most extreme examples and showing how the [free-market] principles work even in these cases, the book does far more to demonstrate the workability and morality of the free market than a dozen sober tomes on more respectable industries and activities.” Of course, as Block points out, his defense of these activities is limited to the claim that these sorts of individuals do not necessarily initiate physical violence against others; he makes no claim that engaging in such activities is in any sense moral.

Quotable

“Libertarianism does not imply pacifism; it does not forbid the use of violence in defense or even in retaliation against violence. Libertarian philosophy condemns only the initiation of violence — the use of violence against a non-violent person or his property.” — from the Introduction to Defending the Undefendable.