New Book



$21.95 hardcover · 224 pages
9978-1594037641-January 2015


The theme of The Great Divide is that the populations of the democratic world, from Boston to Berlin, Vancouver to Venice, are becoming increasingly divided from within, due to a growing ideological incompatibility between modern liberalism and conservatism. This is partly due to a complex mutation in the concept of liberal democracy itself, and the resulting divide is now so wide that those holding to either philosophy on a whole range of topics: on democracy, on reason, on abortion, on human nature, on homosexuality and gay marriage, on freedom, on the role of courts … and much more, can barely speak with each other without outrage (the favorite emotional response from all sides). Clearly, civil conversation at the surface has been failing -- and that could mean democracy is failing.

This book is an effort to deepen the conversation. It is written for the non-specialist, and aims to reveal the less obvious underlying ideological forces and misconceptions that cause the conflict and outrage at the surface -- not with any expectation the clash of values will evaporate, but rather that a deeper understanding will generate a more intelligent and civil conversation.

As an aid to understanding, the book contains a handful of Tables directly comparing modern liberal and conservative views across a range of fundamental moral and political “issues” so that curious readers can answer the book’s main question: “Where Do You Stand?” An interesting result in testing this exercise has been the number of people who find they “think” one way, but “live” another.    


Good Reading
Essays (37)
« The $50 Dollar Lesson | Main | You Have to be Free to Deny Free Will »

On Defending the Undefendable

A recent book by the libertarian economist Walter Block called Defending the Undefendable (which I have just started), in which he passionately defends the work of society's outliers -- such as drug dealers and prostitutes -- as "heroic", has sparked some thoughts about libertarianism.

Years ago, when he worked at the Fraser Institute, I read quite a bit of Walter Block's excellent libertarian material. It is always a bracing corrective to socialistic economic thinking, in particular.
In fact, I got my start in political thinking after immersing myself in various libertarian materials. I still defend this philosophy for a lot of economic matters (though a lot of libertarian ideas, such as that nations would be better to have only private police forces and armies, etc., still seem pretty wacko).
But increasingly, I now think of libertarianism as "the simple faith" and a casebook example of what has happened to philosophy in the Western world since the so-called "Age of Reason" -- from the 17th century 'til today.
What has happened? Well, to put it plainly, all branches of philosophy (political, economic, moral, etc.) have abandoned the really complex approaches to solving human problems and moral dilemmas and have tended to settle on "rule-based" forms of thought.
In moral philosophy, this has been a disaster for the Western world, for reasons I try to explain in most of my own work. 
To clarify: in ancient times, serious thinkers appealed to, and attempted to balance a whole range of oft-conflicting human truths and experiences before making their judgements. They deeply pondered actual daily experience and human habits; they reflected on the universality of human nature; they called upon the formative and grounding myths of their culture, on their deepest theological beliefs, on historical precedent, on the force of custom, tradition and the common moral understandings of their particular communities, and so on.
But since the Age of Reason -- especially since the influence of Descartes and his followers in philosophy and science -- much of this has been pushed aside in a narrow search for a "rule" of behaviour or of thought that moderns seek to rely on in all cases to guide their actions. What are some examples?
Thomas Hobbes made a rule of force: Leviathan (the monarch or dictator) would be the source of all law (dismissing the complexities of common law, natural law, and so on) - and this led to the later philosophy of the Superman in Nietzsche and thence to the Nazi and Fascist ideologies.

Jeremy Bentham, a "Utilitarian" thinker, was so incapable of forming deeply complex judgements that he invented a sort of  mathematical rule of "the greatest good of the greatest number". He actually wrote out complex math formulas to defend his moral ideas as "a felicific calculus" (a happiness formula) as if the math of the head-count would always point us to the best moral conclusion. 

But perhaps the most damaging of these rule-oriented philosophers was John Stuart Mill. He was an intellectual prodigy, and also a prodigy of simple-mindedness in moral matters. His rule for moral behaviour of human beings was the rule of the harm principle.This was and is still the idea that you can do whatever you want as long as you do not harm someone else. In fact, he consorted with Mrs. Harriet Taylor -- a sick man's wife -- for many years before the poor fellow died, and he married her. To salve his conscience he justified this (in his Autobiography) on the grounds that because the husband was not aware of very much, no harm was done. I think his public moral philosophy grew out of this need to justify his personal behaviour -- a pretty slippery basis for a moral philosophy.
In my view, Mill's is the most deforming of all possible moral rules, and it is steadily undermining the Western world by blinding us to the reality of the indirect harm we all may do at any time to the moral fabric of .. our own selves, to our families, our communities, and our nations. Just one example will do: I doubt anyone would ever say that a soldier sent to defend us who runs from the enemy, though without having directly harmed anyone, has thereby abided by the harm principle, and so is morally unimpeachable. Rather, I would say he has endangered and shamed the whole country.    
Block is a Millian libertarian thinker, and while strong as an economic libertarian, he displays all the weaknesses of that form of thinking when it comes to morality. Here is an example from his book:
"...heroically proceeding to confer their economic services
in the teeth of universal scorn and outlawry. They are heroes
indeed, made so by their unjust treatment at the hands of soci-
ety and of the state apparatus."
Just a brief comment on that quote, which is the basis for his entire book: Does anyone really believe that we can define a prostitute or a drug dealer -- someone who makes money from actions that society and the law have always declared to be sleazy and immoral -- as "a hero"? What could it possibly mean simply to declare that all those deemed by millenia of thinking human beings to be engaging in reprehensible behaviours, are in fact "heroes"? Does simply saying you think they are heroes, make them so? And further -- why does "conferring an economic value" make anyone a hero, anyway? There are clearly beneficial as well as malevolent economic actions, any of which may be a "value" (more cash in hand) to someone. But I doubt anyone would say that selling young girls on the sex-slave market, say (my example, not Block's), which some people certainly see as "a value", should be accepted as a good thing just because some people benefit economically from it.
Here's another example of the moral corruption to which libertarianism is prone.

Most, but not all libertarians (Ron Paul was an exception) defend things like abortion on demand in the name of liberty and choice, supported by their belief that an abortion does not harm anyone (and because a woman, they declare, ought to have "sovereignty" over her own body). I disagree.

As a matter of liberty, abortion can only be defended by turning unborn children (whose sovereignty over their own bodies ought to be defended as much as their mothers') into a philosophical and legal womb-slave, or non-person, before killing them. For only then -- once the unborn child has been legally converted into an object -- can one say there is no harm done. I think libertarians would be more honest if they simply said, "We are stronger and more free than unborn children. So we support killing them for any reason."
At any rate, there are many ways that philosophy and the search for truth become what David Hume called "false philosophy" -- philosophy that reduces complex matters to an overly-simple rule of conduct, and then sets out with an air of superiority to judge as ignorant all those who do not agree with the simple rule.

In these ways, a too-narrow philosophical position, or rule -- there are many attempted today -- is made to serve the beliefs of the thinker.

But that is not philosophy. It is propaganda in support of personal Will. 


Reader Comments (1)

Dear Mr. Gairdner,

A few errors and misconceptions appear present in your quick review of Walter Block's book. I hope you are in good spirits, sir. I have read a couple of your books, including "The Book of Absolutes."

"Defending the Undefendable" by Walter Block was originally published in 1976, which makes it far from a recent book. It even includes a statement by F.A. Hayek of high praise. Block's recent book is "Ron Paul for President in 2012: Yes to Ron Paul and Liberty." Although, it's been reported that he has been writing an entirely new follow-up to his "Defending the Undefendable" containing new "heroes."

Of course it's correct, sir, that many of the men Professor Block mentions have historically not been considered "heroes," but from his perspective there is a sense in which they can be considered as such. Just because they have "always [been] declared to be sleazy and immoral," doesn't entirely settle the issue at hand. The collective opinion, so to speak, of the past doesn't thereby automatically infer the truth of something. More importantly, this line of criticism potentially further confuses what Block is exactly doing in his book. Professor Block's definition of "hero" is confined to a very narrow definition. He doesn't argue that everyone he looks at should be taken as a hero in a broader sense of being a virtuous, good person, or anything of that nature.

It's moreover incorrect to suggest that Block believes by simply saying that someone is a hero makes him so in fact. Given that Block actually defines what a hero is, your question is not appropriate since he doesn't simply say that they are heroes just by his thinking or saying them to be so. Even if Block is really wrong to define them the way he does, it's therefore not because he defines them based on his own subjective authority. There are objective reasons, in his view, to define a "hero" the way he does.

In addition, "conferring an economic value" is the not at all the criteria in which Block uses. Insofar as he does write about bringing economic value, he does so when a "hero" provides mutually beneficial services to those who are voluntarily part of the exchange or relationship. Therefore, "malevolent economic actions" are not counted since they are not mutually beneficial and instead only beneficial to one party at the expense (or loss) of another. It's hence inaccurate to cast his analysis in terms of seeing what is "good" simply as what one person thinks benefits him. Your comment would only be justified if that were the case. And if it were, that might be a justification for the government to take away a man's private land for its own economic benefit. That's not something Block would support. The sex-slave market does not meet the standards of Block. Those standards might still be wrong, but it's not based on your sex-slave market example.

Rather than economic value per se being the judge, it's if or if not a person is using violence against another person who himself is non-violent. The "hero," according to Block, is the person who is violently prohibited to do something that in and of itself is not violent. In his 1994 essay "Libertarianism and Libertinism,"* there is a concession that he might have gone too far in openly calling everyone in his book a "hero." His intentions hasn't been to say that the prostitute, drug user, etc. are moral or all-around praise worthy. So in a broader and more traditional sense, Block would probably agree that those people are not "heroes." Libertarianism is not a complete moral theory. It does not claim to be. This thereby leaves open the value of other moral theories. The only thing that libertarianism is about is when and when not force is justified. That's the frame of reference in which Block uses.

While I think you're right to believe libertarianism is too limited as a philosophy, it's not necessarily a flaw. It's only that you cannot only rely on libertarianism as a full philosophy. It doesn't answer all the questions of morality, anymore than it covers quantum physics. Is libertarianism simplistic? I don't believe so. It's more simplistic in my mind to believe that a monolithic State can regulate society. A free society leaves room for multifaceted development, even in the development of private law. So it's not as if libertarianism prevents men from making arrangements (e.g., covenants, rules on privatized "public property," etc.) that deal with other moral issues. It allows for more room than you might think. I've always been "culturally conservative," and I've never seen an incompatibility. (Though going into detail here will take me too off topic. By the way, I do agree that abortion is wrong. There are strong libertarian arguments that support our view.**)

Finally, I also think you are in error by placing Block next to John Stuart Mill. There have been several critiques of Mill that show him not be a libertarian.*** For one thing, he didn't have a clear distinction between civil society and statism.


*Article available here:
**E.g., here's a review/commentary post on Ron Paul's "Liberty Defined":
***For instance, this lecture by Professor Ralph Raico is highly critical:
August 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.