Walter Block has for decades been one of the most effective and indefatigable defenders of libertarianism. Block believes that libertarianism has three components: foreign policy, economic policy, and policies on personal liberties. He devotes a separate part of the book to each of these components.
Toward a Libertarian Society by Walter Block is the Libertarian Book Club's selection for the month of June. Below is a curated selection of our thoughts and notable quotes from the book.
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We are a monthly book club for anyone who wants to learn more about Libertarianism. We will discuss each book's chapter/section in separate posts, so everyone will be able to read along at their own pace. We typically also focus on books which are available for free so that everyone can participate.
Chapters 1 - 6
Foreign policy is a topic where libertarians and non-libertarians disagree and where libertarians sometimes disagree with other libertarians when it comes to practical application of the principle.
"In order for defensive violence to be justi ed, the person against whom we are acting must have at least threatened us; even more clearly, he must be in the early stages of launching an attack upon us."
I think Korea is an interesting current case (and the reason I voted for Michael Malice's book to be reviewed next in the club.)
Kim Jong-Un has certainly threatened the US many times. I think most experts would say that threat is not credible, but others might dispute that. Do his missile tests amount to "early stages of launching an attack" on us? My answer is no, but I have heard others say yes.
Also, where do allies fit in. We have a defensive treaty with South Korea ( and are still technically in a state of war with North Korea [or at least an undeclared UN police action]. If Kim Jong-un launches an attack on Seoul, are we justified in launching an attack on North Korea? I think treaty obligations should be honored, but that is also why I think our government should extricate itself from as many as possible as quickly as possible. Just because North Korea's leader does something stupid and/or evil, that does mean I have a gripe with the people who live in North Korea - they would bear the brunt of our attack and they would have done absolutely nothing to aggress against me.
Can good libertarians (and good people) disagree on these questions or is there only one right answer
The book is a compilation of previously written essays. I was surprised to see Walter Block say he never votes and I am not sure he still has that same policy he did in 2004 since he was behind Libertarians for Trump.
When he asked in chapter 6 how far secession should go, I thought of this quote by Rothbard.
Chapters 7 - 12
Chapter 7 is a good argument against social contract theory: The ability to predict a likely outcome does not equate with agreeing to it. His analogy of the robber reminded me of.
I liked liked the chapter on the APEE. I guess his conclusion is that it ok for libertarians to accept money from government. I think I have heard him say that in interviews.
I liked the chapter on Katrina. I always wondered why it seems people keep rebuilding in places that have a history of weather disasters. He makes a good point that there is no disincentive for people to do so when they know FEMA (i.e. tax payers) will just bail them out. I think his point that government actually causes bad weather might be a tougher sell though.
His chapter on the Fed and the penny reminded me of this graphic.
I think that his conclusion that with a truly free market economy someone would create an invention to control the weather by now may be a little far fetched, but it certainly illustrates the principle.
Chapters 19 - 23
“When unions artificially boost wages above this stipulated $7 “productivity, they look good in the short run. But in the long run they create business failures and rust belts. “If organized labor is really the only institution that stands between the workingman and abject poverty, how is it that real wages have been increasing, while the rate of unionization has been declining over the last half century?"
Clearly he sees unions as wrong-headed institutions but I was wondering if he would acknowledge their right to exist under free association. Next chapter he seems to answer in the negative using the argument that all unions embody an implicit threat to violate the NAP. I really did not realize that violence is the modus operandi of every union. He responds to this in ch 21
“Several objected on the grounds that they were not aware of any violence in their own unions. But, many employees of the IRS are probably not aware that what they are doing amounts to the threat of the initiation of violence”
In ch 21 he writes:
“Many insisted that theoretically, unions are compatible with the free society. I agree, I agree. Nothing I said before should be taken to be inconsistent with this view. All such a union would have to do is to eschew both white- and blue-collar crime. I only argue that it has never happened in fact, not that it would be impossible for it to occur.”
Finally, I think this is an important, often overlooked point:
“But jobs in and of themselves do not guarantee well-being" followed by a convenient list of the many ways governments cause joblessness
Chapters 24 - 28
I generally agree with him on these points.
“at the very least let us rescind all laws which require equal representation, or “balance.” (Regarding men and women in employment).
“For one thing, why is it that there are so many mothers who have abandoned their children, many at very tender ages? . . . The avaricious nature of the modern state, which has raised taxes to such unconscionable levels that both parents are often forced to work.”
“I am already on record (see chapter 45) in taking the position that term limits are highly problematic. I did so on ground blazed by Professor Hans Hoppe. His argument is based on time preference: other things equal, the longer a politician is in office, the more of a long-run viewpoint he can afford to take.
Chapters 29 - 30
I have heard the argument he makes in favor of drug prohibition before. It is basically the agorist position I have heard articulated by Willie Nelson among others.
Chapters 31 - 35
Chapter 31 Celebrities Engaged in Legalized Theft
This chapter reminded me of 'Defending the Undefendable' (of which Walter Block wrote the foreword) by taking a stance that, on the outset, seems heartless and cruel. As he takes you down the logical argument, you find yourself residing exactly where the author wants you: Supporting the voluntaryist position on charity. I see examples littering my FaceBook feed to this day- "I don't mind the $23 of tax money taken from me to support PBS." "I support the The virtue-signaling is always loudly pronounced. Threats to defund Planned Parenthood pave the way for record donations. Voluntary donations. Voluntary Donations that prove that tax laws aren't required for these 'great noble causes' to be supported.
Block comments on celebrities who are lobbying for laws to be passed forcing taxpayers to bear the burden of charitable research... "Are (Muhamed) Ali, (Michael J.) Fox, and (Christopher) Reeves asking for voluntary contributions from willing charitable donors? Not a bit of it. Very much to the contrary, these funds will be demanded from taxpayers at the point of a gun. Yes, the purposes to which they will be put will be good ones. Who, after all, can oppose medical research, and support for the afflicted? But the road to hell is paved with good intentions; the devil is in the details. It does not suffice that the aims are good ones; the means must also be proper as well, and here they are not."
"So I beseech these actors, athletes, and other heroes of the culture: do not allow your names to be used in this nefarious manner. Return to your voluntary roots. Go back to the behavior which first made you famous: capitalist acts between consenting adults. Certainly, raise money to fight these debilitations! But do so in a civilized manner, not one befitting a thug. If you cease and desist from these evil acts, I personally promise to contribute to your charitable goals. Yes, there may at the end of the day be less money forthcoming for these noble purposes, but every penny of it will be legitimate."
Chapter 32: Don't Donate to The Red Cross
I'm a bit suspicious of the science behind weather manipulation. I understand the concepts behind cloud-seeding and breaking up hail with sonic waves. Do I think it's a private industry which could be viable? I'm not there yet. So to hear that the government might get involved in it again, It reinforces my vehement opposition of tax money being used for what I refer to as 'soft science'. Yes, I also think Global Warming is an unproven science as well, thus, I don't want my tax dollars wasted on it either. I believe he labels it appropriately as 'Weather Socialism'.
"Is there any doubt that if the government can keep its mitts off this industry, in the years to come it will make great strides in protecting us from inclement weather? But that means no excessive taxation, no unnecessary and stultifying regulation, no nationalization, and no subsidization of government bureaus in competition with these folks."
He sums up his anti-Red Cross sentiments well: "Minor point: they are over bureaucratized. They turned down offers from numerous people anxious to offer help to the victims of Katrina. Then, as I mentioned before, they are so politically correct they did not sufficiently scrutinize the blood donations made by homosexuals, due to considerations of political correctness. As a result, innocent people contracted AIDS. Then, too, they are in far too close association with government for my tastes."
It's reminiscent of a couple charts I remember going viral this past year-
Walter Block's long-run argument that people should donate to the Mises Institute is too vague and is definitely self-serving. Sure, a future where we have more knowledgeable Austrian Economics-educated citizens would be better, but it would have no effect on future weather reports, it's only because free-enterprise necessarily helps the plight of the poor.
"The last best hope for society and a civilized order is the freedom philosophy. The promotion of Austro-libertarianism is the dark horse candidate to protect future generations from horrors such as Katrina. This can and will be done two ways. One, directly, by allowing a private enterprise industry devoted to cloud seeding and other such techniques to stop future storms dead in their tracks. Two, indirectly, by making us ever so much more wealthy, so that we will one day have the wherewithal to support such new technology, and better care for those few who still fall victim."
His section on 'Social Justice; A Scary Concept' is quite eerie as it was written in early 2004, could have just as easily been written today. Just further supports the notion that my children will probably not be going to a public university as it's only gotten worse.
Chapter 35 Dr. Government; The Bureaucrat With the Stethoscope
Again, written in 2001, it's a shame that these economic principles haven't risen to the top in our public consciousness and discussion over healthcare. Now, here we are in 2017 with proof of what ObamaCare (read: regulatory burden) is capable of doing to an industry and the public conversation still remains today "How much should we cut from Medicaid, millions will die!" and "Well, we can't just repeal, let's try and fix this...". No conversation is given to the reduction in regulation which currently creates obstacles for those wanting to become doctors and disincentivizes those wanting to get into that labor market.
Our much-vaunted (in coercive socialistic circles, that is) health care system is predicated on a violation of economic principles. It is built on a foundation of quicksand.
" Some people think there is something special about medical care. There is not. Yes, if we do not avail ourselves of it, we will be in dire straits. But no less can be said for food, clothing, shelter, energy, transportation - you name it. And economic law, just as in the case of chemistry or physics, is no respecter of how important an industry is to human well-being; it works just the same in medical services as for paper clips or rubber bands. Impose artificially lower prices in a market - let alone virtually zero prices as in medicine - and you guarantee a shortage."
When addressing the common argument that we still hear echoed to this day, "But the poor will be left behind if we privatize health care!" Walter Block responds, " Nonsense. The poverty-stricken are treated far better in capitalist countries than anywhere else, and medical service is again no exception. Yes, of course, the impecunious have to wait for the well-off to purchase MRIs (many small states in America have more of them than all of Canada does), but when they do, low-income people too can avail themselves of high-tech diagnostics. This is precisely why the poor have color televisions, computers, cars, and more. Had these too, been socialized, they would still be toys reserved for the rich.
Timely quote on single- payer healthcare:
“Most complaints have focused on the unfairness of a system that allows the privileged to receive medical care within a few days of an injury, while forcing others to wait weeks and even months, if not years. But this is exactly backward. The problem is not that some few people are treated quickly, as they should be. It’s that we aren’t all dealt with like members of an advanced civilization, where quick service is always the order of the day. We all should be treated like paying customers — and if we were, we would be . . . “Some people think there is something special about medical care. There is not. Yes, if we do not avail ourselves of it, we will be in dire straits. But no less can be said for food, clothing, shelter, energy . . . “transportation — you name it.”
Chapters 36 - 44
Chapter 36 is a useful discussion of various lifeboat scenarios people use to criticize the Non Aggression Principle on how to respond.
Ch 40 on immigration he writes:
“Free trade”? Yes, a thousand times yes. But “free immigration” is a highly contentious issue amongst libertarians. The prestigious Journal of Libertarian Studies devoted an entire issue to this subject, featuring entries from all sides of this debate. Perhaps the strongest case against open borders can be found in Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy: The God that Failed: The Economics and Politics of Monarch, Democracy and Natural Order; Peter Brimelow, Alien Nation: Common Senseabout America’s Immigration Disaste”
I don't think Brimelow self-identifies as a libertarian, and I think Hoppe is often misunderstood. I would like our group to read Democracy maybe in August?
I agree with Block on secession. I thought this was a good discussion along those lines from The Tom Woods Show.
Block makes a good point on p. 521 "that if the South was unjustified in seceding from the North in 1861, given that the South was a slave-holding community at this time, then the same holds for the 13 colonies breaking away from England in 1776, since the latter also engaged in forced “labor of human beings”
On chapter 43 and 44 on the death penalty here is a contra-Block view with which I agree:
"I'm not saying that there aren't crimes worthy of death. In fact, I heartily support the killing of violent criminals in defense of self or others at the scene of the crime. But once a criminal has been apprehended, disarmed and caged, killing him or her isn't self-defense any more."
Chapters 45 and 46
I think Block's argument against term limits was really brilliant. I had never thought about how smaller terms can psychologically lead to less invested interest. I'm not an an-cap myself, but his conclusion about a stateless society not having this burden is an interesting point.
I agree with Block and Hoppe on term limits, but it is not an issue that I care too much about. I figure that if some politician is offering more liberty but supports term limits, I would be willing to accept term limits to get less taxes, less war etc.
In chapter 46 Block writes:
“Saddam was indeed a bad man, and if the U.S. invasion of Iraq could be confined to the one element, with no “collateral damage” and no precedents setup by it, such an act would be undoubtedly libertarian. (Again, we are ignoring, arguendo, the fact that the U.S. army is financed in a manner incompatible with libertarianism.)”
But surely not if by regime change something much worse replaces him.
As per Spooner, Block understands that the Constitution is a document of no authority, but he asks:
“is it useful, from the libertarian point of view, to try to hold them to this document (the Constitution), that is, to try to keep them within the limits even the state admits it is bound by?
We believe it is imminently sensible and libertarian to tell such a government — “Hey, waitasec — you yourself said you are only permitted to do A, B, and C, and that you cannot do X, Y, and Z — and here you are doing X, so you had better start playing by your own rules . . . So if we as libertarians advocate that the federal government engage in an unconstitutional action to force New York City to drop its rent controls because that result is a libertarian one, the immediate and accompanying cost is that we are advocating the principle that the feds can disregard the Constitution. That means we are advocating getting rid of one of the few institutional features that as a practical matter does put some limits on the central state.”
In his analogy of unchaining a beast, toppling Saddam does so, as does other regime change.
Here is a recent podcast that goes directly to the question Block raises in ch 46.
I did not love this book. Walter seems like a nice man and he is probably a fine economist, but I do not care for his writing style. There are some good arguments and chapters there I can use in the future, but his writing style is a little too cutesy for me. And some of his arguments I find wrong/headed.
I discussed before Block's interpretation of Hoppe. I would like for us to read "Democracy the God That Failed" in the future.
Agree or disagree with Hoppe, but I think his writing is more substantial.
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