Saturday, September 19th, 2009...10:49 pm

Walter Block’s Defending the Undefendable: Introduction

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I first heard of the book Defending the Undefendable by Dr. Walter Block in late 2007.  The book certainly piqued my curiosity, and I have wanted to read it for a while.  It turns out that this book is available online from the Mises Institute.  I imagine that my interaction with the book will be slower than my handful of readers might like, but I think an interaction with the work will prove profitable.

In DtU, Walter Block attempts to show that all non-coercive elements of a market economy have an economic value and benefit society.  He looks at the most extreme cases: the pimp, the drug addict, the blackmailer, the denier of academic freedom, the person who yells “fire” in a crowded theater, the (non-government) counterfeiter, the slumlord, and the stripminer among others.  These extreme cases can be used to make an a fortiori argument for the free market.  If even these “economic scapegoats” are beneficial to a free market economy, then less controversial professions would also be beneficial.  As Dr. Block states in the introduction, “This book is a defense of the marketplace. It singles out for special praise those participants in the free enterprise system who are the most reviled by its critics. It does so because if the price system can be shown to be mutually beneficial and productive in these extreme examples, then the case for markets in general is strengthened even the more [Block: xv].”

I read the foreword by Murray Rothbard, the commentary by F.A. Hayek, and Block’s own introduction to the book.  I can already see that this will be a thought-provoking and entertaining read, but I can also anticipate where I’m likely to disagree with Professor Block.

First, Block contends that the free enterprise system must be seen as amoral–neither moral nor immoral.  As a Van Tillian Calvinist, I cannot let this slide.  Block argues that the free market is an amoral tool just like a gun or a typewriter.  Even those instruments are only neutral until a man lays hold of them and uses them (either in obedience to God toward the end of glorification or in disobedience toward the end of degradation).  In the nature of the case, every action executed within a market has human involvement and consequent ethical ramifications.  If every particular action within an economic system is either moral or immoral, how can the system as a whole (which is the set of all these particulars) suddenly become amoral?  If Block wants to look at these things hypothetically, then my critique would be that his approach ends up becoming Utopian rather than grounded in reality.  Ironically, this critique of Utopianism can also be levied against Marx’s “scientific socialism” which is on the opposite extreme ideologically.

You will not have a free enterprise system if every action or person is immoral. What is going to stop immoral people from using coercion?  Isn’t the non-coercion principle arbitrary?  Why shouldn’t you use coercion [if there’s no God who will judge all men at the last day]?  The fact of the matter is that you will only have anything resembling a free enterprise system if you have a foundation built upon the Triune God who revealed himself in the scriptures.  If we do not let the Word of God depart from our mouths and we are careful to obey it, then we will have the prosperity and success of what is essentially the free market economy which I anticipate Block will ably defend.  If we build our foundation upon a would-be autonomous system like libertarianism, then we’ll get something that essentially resembles what we see around us today.  The only reason why Block can make any of his arguments is because he is borrowing capital from the Christian worldview.

That being said, I think that mature Christians will benefit greatly from reading this book.  In many cases the things that Block defends here are sins (no associated penal sanction with the commandment) in the Bible rather than crimes (which have an associated penal sanction).  When we attempt to make things like prostitution and drugs illegal (in our own attempts to be autonomous), we almost always do more harm than good.  Many of these issues truly are problems, but the only true solution to them is the preaching of the Word, the diaconal ministry, and the faithful administration of the sacraments to convert souls.

In some cases (the inheritor, the advertiser, the denier of academic freedom, the scab, the employer of child labor, and especially the rate buster) there may be no sin at all, and I imagine I’ll agree with just about everything Block says.

If you are not well-grounded in a Scriptural Christian worldview, get well grounded in that worldview before reading this book.  Walter Block is a very intelligent man and a very persuasive debater.  If you aren’t steeped in Scripture, this book may have the same subtle influence (“hath God really said…”) as the serpent in the garden.  Autonomous libertarianism, like any philosophy that is explicitly anti-Christian, can only end in weeping and gnashing of teeth if applied consistently in the real world.  I would argue that autonomous libertarianism and consistent Christianity look very similar in a lot of the external particulars, but only Christianity can provide an intelligible foundation for them.  In most cases, libertarians want all the benefits they can get from living in a Christian society without actually bending the knee and confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord.

At least that’s my impression from reading the introduction.  I’ll issue any retractions as I am convinced I need to make them.

Chapter reviews:

Chapter 1: The Prostitute

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