Can Libertarianism Defend the Defenseless?

by Christian Ohnimus                                                                         Wednesday, April 2

Defending the Undefendable by Walter Block is one of the most enlightening books one may read on “classical liberalism,” one of the most prominent strains of libertarianism. From litterers to dishonest cops, blackmailers to male chauvinist pigs, Defending the Undefendable seeks to prove how these “morally oppressed” people are free-market “heroes”. (Read it free here) What makes it such a valuable read on Libertarianism? For starters, it has the full authority of the classical liberals behind it. It is published by The Mises Institute, perhaps the most dominant libertarian think-tank organization, and written by a senior fellow of that institute. Murray Rothbard, the founder and leading theoretician of anarcho-capitalism and a central figure in the twentieth-century American libertarian movement, stated that, “by testing and proving the extreme cases, [Block] all the more illustrates and vindicates the [free market] theory.” Nobel Laureate in Economics, F. A. Hayek praised the book. His greatest criticism was that “some may find it too strong a medicine, but it will still do them good even if they hate it.” According to the biggest names in libertarianism this book is a “classic.”

However, what really makes Block’s Defending the Undefendable a valuable resource is that it makes little compromise in applying the principles of laissez-faire, usually following the ideology of the free market all the way to its logical end. Block demonstrates exactly how free market principles would seek to resolve some of our world’s most sordid issues, unconstrained from even the thinnest facade of political correctness or ideological compromise. In doing so, Block unwittingly makes the shortcomings of a pure laissez-faire system glaringly obvious and critiquing its weaknesses becomes a transparent and relatively straightforward process.

As someone who sympathizes with a more grassroots understanding of Libertarianism of small, decentralized government I see some good in Block’s treatise as well as much of the bad to which he is reacting. I agree that there may be a time and a place for some of the “reviled” occupations Block defends like importers, middlemen or employers of children. My problem is not so much with the people Block seeks to defend but with his utilitarian, individualist ideology typical of much of modern American politics. The biggest difference between a fringe extremist like Block and well-to-do elites like Obama or Romney is that the former is an ideological absolutist who has no problem with alienating himself from most Americans.

But enough with the introduction, lets look at just a couple of examples of how Block’s free market is unfit for society. Block’s central premise, and one of the basic building blocks of libertarianism, is that “it is illegitimate to engage in aggression against non-aggressors.” It should be noted that “aggression” refers only to violence and that, as a materialist, Block usually only recognizes physical acts of violence. Block cites rape, murder, robbery (and, by extension, fraud) and kidnapping as examples but defends slander, libel, and yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. If you incite a panicked stampede that kills three small children with your words there is nothing “violent” about your actions. You did not physically force people to trample those children in a terrorized flight. Therefore, you are a nonaggressor and no coercive action can be taken against you without violating Block’s moral absolute. In fact, Block argues, for yelling “fire” in a movie theater one should be lauded as a “hero” for exercising his right to free speech in the face of unjust public opposition. In fact, by allowing such catastrophes society as a whole “benefits” as the person who yells “fire” is “protecting” everyone else’s freedom of speech.

But that’s just a hypothetical. What happens when Block’s logic is applied to free speech in the real world? A nurse in Minnesota urged people to kill themselves and let him watch via webcam. After the nurse made suicide pacts with two people, the first Mr. Drybrough, 32 years old, hanged himself in his bedroom and the second, Ms. Kajouji, 19 years old, jumped off a bridge to her death. He was convicted under a law that made it illegal to “advise, encourage, or assist” in a suicide. However, his conviction was reversed by the Minnesota Supreme Court who ruled that merely advising or encouraging a suicide is protected under freedom of speech. Walter Block would be proud. The nurse didn’t force anyone to harm themselves. He is a non-aggressor and as such has no social responsibility for his actions. We may privately judge the morality of what he did but such moral judgement have no place in the public ethic. The non-aggression principle is the only moral absolute, according to Block and the classical liberals and, as such, it is the contemptible nurse and not the desperately suicidal to whose defense society must run.

Block states that “to override the right to free speech, for any reason, is a dangerous precedent, and never necessary.” However, Block seems to contradict himself when he opposes fraud, which means making false claims that are made to gain material advantage. Apparently there is a reason to limit speech even according to some of anarcho-capitalism’s greatest champions, at least when its property and not human beings at stake. While subjecting undefendables like the nurse from Minnesota to legal consequences may pose a “dangerous precedent” in Block’s eyes, I am more concerned by the precedent we set by abandoning the defenseless for ideological absolutes. Should society turn a blind eye when people are trampled after someone yells “fire” just for the fun of it? Or when the mentally ill harm themselves under the goading of a sadistic nurse?

Another example, Block addresses the problem of parental obligation. To state that children have rights demanding the action of another person is wholly contradictory to classical liberalism. Block asserts, “as a general principle, the parent has no positive obligations whatsoever in regard to the child” because no mutually voluntary contract exists between the parent and the child dictating such an obligation. He continues, “the parent has no more of an obligation to feed, clothe, and shelter his own child than he has . . . to serve other adults who are completely unrelated to him.” Block assures us that the parent may not kill the child either; I’m glad we agree on that at least. He even makes the leap to oppose purposeful neglect of the child until it dies as this is “equivalent to murder” – but this seems to contradict his whole logical progression up to this point. How do you state that parents have zero obligation to their child but that they cannot let the child starve? How is this murder but yelling “fire” is not, even if it results in death by trampling? Block doesn’t know, but he doesn’t seem very interested in pursuing the issue further, chalking up the moral ambiguity to the fact that, apparently, “the child falls into a realm between that of another adult and that of an animal.” This from a celebrated senior fellow of one of the most prominent libertarian institutes in the world.

Elsewhere, Block and the Mises Institute elaborate on their solution to the child problem, asserting that people should be allowed to freely buy and sell guardianship rights. Why would anyone neglect an unwanted and expensive child when one may simply sell it for financial gain to someone who does want the child? They haven’t stated that one may buy or sell a child, since children exist in an ambiguous realm higher than animals but below adults and therefore cannot be treated totally as property to be owned. However, there seems no significant practical distinction between buying someone’s claim to a child and buying the child himself. To adopt such a “solution” would have the horrific effect of creating a child market in which children may be bought and sold as a commodity. In such a world, society’s preoccupation would no longer be with the child for his own sake but as a means to profit and use.

Again, Block forgets the defenseless. Parents can usually fend for themselves but with no one to vouch for them what’s supposed to happen to children, the unborn, and the elderly? Should their fates simply be the results of human caprice or should society assert their natural rights to be looked after, to respect their inherent value and dignity distinct from any usefulness or monetary value?

Defending the Undefendable is relevant and we should take heed because its ideology will not just disappear if ignored: it already possesses a dominant presence in the world today. Pope Francis, in his recent exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, offers this timely assessment: “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.”

Walter Block and the classical liberal movement are eager to defend the undefendables of society in order to prove their social theory but are they capable of defending the defenseless?

Christian Ohnimus is a husband and registered nurse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Nursing from Franciscan University. He hopes to raise a holy family with the help of his better and more beautiful other half.



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