Walter Block: Once Again Defending the Undefendable — Part I

In one sense, Walter Block is very much in the tradition of right-libertarian and anarcho-capitalist polemics, insofar as he hides power relationships and coercive institutions behind a facade of “free exchange” and “voluntary contract.” In another, however, he is much worse. Anarcho-capitalists, traditionally, have focused on convincing the average person that a stateless regime centered on private property and free contract would be better than the present in most regards, and at least not all that bad in the rest. Block, in contrast, has seemingly built an entire career on gleefully confirming normal, decent people’s darkest imaginings of such a society.

For example, way back in 1969, when even Murray “Unleash the Police to Clear the Streets of Bums” Rothbard was making overtures to the New Left, Block was busy defending “voluntary slavery.”

Consider the case of Mr A who can save his wife’s life only by paying $1 million for an operation. He does not have the money, tho. The only way he can get it is by selling himself into slavery to Mr B who is willing to pay $1 million for Mr A’s enslavement. Mr A, valuing his wife’s life more than his own freedom, agrees. He recieves [sic] the money, turns it over to the doctor, and voluntarily signs himself into slavery. Mr A, however, soon tires of the drudgery of slavery, and runs away.

Should the enforcement agency try, to catch Mr A and return him to Mr B? I give an unequivocal “Yes” ‘in answer. For A, is running away with (stealing) a valuable piece of B’s property — A, himself. The enforcement agency should stop this theft and return B’s property to him just as they would return any other piece of property stolen from B.

In response to Rothbard’s critique of “voluntary slavery” — that it is impossible because Mr A cannot permanently alienate his will by contract, and cannot be compelled to willingly comply if he later decides slavery is not to his liking — Block concedes that individuals cannot alienate their will or be compelled to voluntarily execute a contract made in the past. But perhaps “concedes” is the wrong word, with its implication of reluctance — as opposed to the glee he displays here:

But Prof. Rothbard has purchased correctness only at the cost of irrelevency [sic]. For no slave owner like B expects the enforcement agency to do the impossible. No advocate of the enforcement of voluntary slave contracts expects the enforcement agency to force A to willingly work as a slave. All that is expected is that the enforcement agency drag the unwilling slave, kicking and screaming if need be, back to the waiting arms of the rightful slave owner, B; this much is certainly within the realm of possibility….

The next question is,. Should it be done? The answer is “Yes”….

Well, a slave’s body is alienable, because it is physically possible to drag him into captivity and slavery . It is only impossible to drag a willing slave into slavery, so only a slave’s will is inalienable.

Block’s original defense of “voluntary slavery” was written fifty-five years ago. But — perhaps coming to fear that his graphic description of the violent recourse available to the wronged slave-owner lacked sufficient prurient appeal, or that he had been insufficiently clear on the right of slave-owners to mutilate or kill their slaves under the terms of the “voluntary slavery” contract— Block revisited the issue within the past decade.

In a 2015 article in Journal of Economic and Social Thought, he doubled down on the awfulness in almost every conceivable way. Throughout the entire article, the argumentation follows a common pattern: “What’s everyone so hysterical about? We all agree that 19th century slavery was bad. All I’m saying is…” — whereupon he follows up with something so gob-smackingly horrific that readers are paralyzed with open-mouthed shock.

Not satisfied with merely defending the permissibility of “voluntary slavery” under ancap law, he stresses that the “incidents” of slavery in themselves were not so bad at all — only the fact that it was involuntary. Aside from their lack of choice in their status, Block seems almost astonished that African-American slaves were not content with such a cushy lot. 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.

As if this weren’t enough, he adds immediately thereafter: “The Civil Rights Act of 1964, then, to a much smaller degree of course, made partial slaves of the owners of establishments like Woolworths.” From there on out he proceeds to enumerate a whole host of things which, to his mind, are also slavery: not only forced integration of public establishment but rent control, unions, and affirmative action.

Yeah, Walter, I guess people get upset about anything these days.
Block also went into more graphic detail, in an article written only last year, about the full range of unaccountable violence available to the slave-master:

My learned friend’s [Stephan Kinsella’s] thesis is that the voluntary slavery contract is illicit since the will of the slave cannot be alienated. To be sure, that is correct. But the sale has nothing to do with the will. I stipulate it cannot be alienated. What is being sold, in sharp contrast, is not the will; rather, it is the right to object to being beaten, or killed, by the slave master. Note, I say “killed” but not murdered since under the aegis of voluntary slavery, the master has the right to end the life of the slave if he wishes to do so, at his own discretion.

Presumably Block’s only objection to Dune’s Baron Harkonnen — bedding, and then mutilating and murdering, a different slave every night — is that the victim didn’t enter into the relationship by voluntary contract.

A lesser ancap than Block, even one who defended “voluntary slavery” in principle, would seek to reassure readers that things would not be as bad as feared, that despite its technical legality it would actually seldom come to such a pass, that there would be guard rails against the worst abuses, and that in some way the very mechanisms of an anarcho-capitalist society that tolerated slavery would makes its actual practice highly unlikely. Block instead goes out of his way to systematically tweak all the parameters, so as to guarantee the absolute worst possible outcome. He aims, like a pin-studded Cenobite emerging from the puzzle box, to inform the horrified reader: “You think you know how bad anarcho-capitalism would be? We have such sights to show you.”

This approach appears to be common among Hoppeans. Hans Hermann Hoppe and his reactionary disciples have obsessively sought some configuration of property rules which, through universal private appropriation of land, would facilitate the construction of their ideal neo-feudal order from the building blocks of private property and free contract. In such a society, with every square foot of a territory owned by some white Christian theocrat, the landed proprietors acting in concert would be able to “physically remove” anyone whose ideology, ethnicity, or sexual practices they found abhorrent — all without violating the sacred “non-aggression principle.”

Block and the Hoppeans remind me of the alt-right dregs of humanity who, in search of some set of extenuating circumstances which would justify their committing rape or using the n-word, conduct endless thought experiments in which such actions are the only way to stave off extermination of the biosphere by cobalt bombs or implosion of the universe from vacuum decay.

It strikes me that there must be some — perhaps unconscious — bad faith at work for Block. On the one hand, he goes out of his way to manufacture the most arbitrary, extreme, and coercive background conditions imaginable, so as to drive his Mr A into a situation where “voluntary slavery” is the only available option. On the other, Block at the same time pretends to be unaware of the very concept of background violence or structural power differentials.

In the case not only of “voluntary slavery,” but of any number of other abhorrent practices Block has defended, he justifies them as entirely voluntary arrangements in which power considerations come into play not at all. In subsequent installments of this commentary, I will survey other examples of Block’s tendency to frame as completely “voluntary” relationships and transactions which in fact take place against a large background of structural violence and compulsion, and consider the actual coercive nature of the capitalist system he defends.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory