Mises Daily Articles
Walter Block Is Still Defending the Undefendable
Walter Block is at his finest when he subjects the most loathsome jobs and nastiest behaviors to a logical and libertarian scrutiny. Block’s Defending the Undefendable has needled and irritated an entire generation of readers and compelled many to re-examine long-held beliefs in favor of the logic of libertarianism. Now comes volume 2, Defending the Undefendable: Freedom in All Realms (with a foreword by Ron Paul) that promises more such irritation for future generations.
The introduction is a short course in libertarianism. Block explains that libertarianism is a political philosophy that shows when the use of coercion is justified or not justified. The book examines 30 cases that are often seen as illegal, immoral, or unethical. Block analyzes each case by subjecting it to a libertarian standard, and ultimately exonerates each from punishment by government.
Please note: the author is only defending these cases by the political standard of libertarianism and whether they should face coercive threat from the state. It does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that this implies approval and commendation. It simply means they should not go to jail for their behavior.
The examination of these hard cases is what helps us sharpen our understanding of libertarianism and our ability to debate and defend the free society. I agree with the author that studying hard cases strengthens libertarianism and improves the likelihood of achieving a free society. Much of my own research has been on such hard cases, such as drug dealers and smugglers. People, particularly college students, find such cases interesting and often convincing.
Speaking of hard cases, one of my colleagues recently visited South Africa. He saw that private security was everywhere. He was told that he and his belongings were safe with private security, but not safe where government police was in charge. My colleague noted that a nation that understands that the market provides a better service for security, the hardest of all cases, is going to be more easily convinced that the market can provide a better garbage collection service.
The book is divided into seven sections. The first, on trade, contains five short chapters: “The Multinational Enterpriser,” “The Smuggler,” “British Petroleum,” “Nuclear Energy,” and “The Corporate Raider.”
British Petroleum is a good hard case because everyone knows about the accident in the Gulf of Mexico, the 200 million gallons of oil that was spilled, and that BP has been vilified by the media pundits and politicians because of it. Block begins by calling the people at BP heroes in part because they do the dangerous work so we can comfortably drive across town at 10 cents a mile.
Block asks if BP knew the dangers of deep water drilling. Of course they did, but government regulations prevent shallow water drilling near the shoreline and provide incentives to drill in deep water far out at sea. Meanwhile government regulators were not doing their job, goofing off, taking bribes, and they failed to upgrade safety standards to account for the new deep water drilling.
As BP was vilified for negligence and as the oil continued to seep into the the gulf, the U.S. government turned down offers of assistance from foreign companies that specialized in such spills and who had more experience than U.S. firms. Ships from foreign countries also offered their assistance, but like after Hurricane Katrina, the volunteers were turned away. Block argues persuasively why such disasters are very unlikely to happen in a libertarian society and that this tragedy was the result of government intervention.
The second section on labor looks at the cases of “The Hatchet Man,” “The Home Worker,” “The Picket-Line Crosser,” “The Daycare Provider,” and “The Automator.” In the case of automation, it does destroy some jobs, and creates new jobs, and this should be celebrated by society, not denigrated or sabotaged. Technological advance is the main source of rising prosperity and job creation. Machines can increase our productivity and free up labor to produce other goods that are in short supply. The chapter does a wonderful job of showing how this process takes place and how we all benefit from automation and robots.
The third section tackles medical issues and includes chapters on “The Smoker,” “The Human-Organ Merchant,” and “The Breast Milk Substitute Purveyor.” In terms of technological progress, human organ transplantation is one of the great medical advances of our time. However, it is also one that is often misunderstood and mismanaged. To make matters worse, the U.S. has a policy that puts the government in charge of obtaining human organs from the recently deceased (i.e., cadaveric human organs). It is also in charge of determining who receives the organs. This authority has been turned over to the administrators of hospitals who conduct human organ transplants and is overseen by a network of these administrators. It is now against the law to interject market forces into or outside this network and the result is a very large shortage of human organs.
This shortage means that a large number of people suffer from the lack of an organ transplant and that ultimately thousands die as a result. Block concludes that we should embrace the human-organ merchant and allow market forces to operate. He and others think that insurance companies and hospitals could develop a market whereby large numbers of people are given small incentives to opt into an organ donor contract, thus creating a much larger supply of cadaveric organs. This would also destroy any black market in human organs. He rightly opposes the idea of an “opt out” government mandate that everyone donate their organs.
The remainder of the book consists of four additional sections with chapters on “Sex, Discriminators,” “Business,” and “The Politically Incorrect.” What Bastiat did for the traditional institutions of society, Walter Block has done for the undefendables of the modern world. Readers will develop a clearer understanding of libertarianism, as well as its limits.