Block Heads

walterblockThe righteously irrepressible Walter Block has made it his mission to defend the undefendable, but there are limits. Chattel slavery, for example, will get no defense from Walter, and he recently explained why: The central problem with slavery is that you can’t walk away from it. If it were voluntary, it wouldn’t be so bad. In Walter’s words:

The slaves could not quit. They were forced to ‘associate’ with their masters when they would have vastly preferred not to do so. 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.

A group of Walter’s colleagues at Loyola university (who, for brevity, I will henceforth refer to as “the gang of angry yahoos”) appears to concur:

Traders in human flesh kidnapped men, women and children from the interior of the African continent and marched them in stocks to the coast. Snatched from their families, these individuals awaited an unknown but decidedly terrible future. Often for as long as three months enslaved people sailed west, shackled and mired in the feces, urine, blood and vomit of the other wretched souls on the boat….The violation of human dignity, the radical exploitation of people’s labor, the brutal violence that slaveholders utilized to maintain power, the disenfranchisement of American citizens, the destruction of familial bonds, the pervasive sexual assault and the systematic attempts to dehumanize an entire race all mark slavery as an intellectually, economically, politically and socially condemnable institution no matter how, where, or when it is practiced.

So everybody’s on the same side, here, right? Surely nobody believes the slaves were voluntarily snatched from their families, shackled and mired in waste, sexually assaulted and all the rest. All the bad stuff was involuntary and — this being the whole point — was possible only because it was involuntary. That’s a concept with broad applicability. One could, for example, say the same about Auschwitz. Nobody would have much minded the torture and the gas chambers if there had been an opt-out provision. And this is a useful observation, if one is attempting to argue that involuntary associations are the root of much evil.

Nevertheless — that is, even though they agree with him — the yahoos go on to denounce Walter’s words as “untrue and offensive” — and to call for his condemnation and censure — because — well, as far as I can tell, because a certain kind of person just loves getting high on the euphoria of outrage, though God knows there are enough real outrages in the world that it’s hard to see why people feel like they’ve got to manufacture them.

Enter Father Kevin Wildes, the president of Loyola University —- you know, the guy who’s supposed to have his faculty’s back — to publish this astonishing response:

Dr. Block made two claims, one empirical and one conceptual, that are simply wrong. First, he made the claim that chattel slavery “was not so bad.” “Bad” is a comparative measure that, like every comparison, is understood in a contrast set. My initial question was where is the evidence? Dr. Block makes an assertion but gives no evidence for his assertion.

His second claim is an example of a fundamental logical mistake. In peaking of discriminatory lunch counters, Dr. Block makes the mistake of assuming that because of the Civil Rights legislation people would be compelled to associate with others against their will. The Civil Rights legislation did no such thing.

What the Civil Rights legislation did was prevent places like Woolworth’s from excluding people because of their race. No one was forced to sit at the lunch counter. The law simply made clear that people could not be excluded from the lunch counter because of their race.

If these remarks were made in a paper for my class, I would return the paper with a failing grade. This is hardly critical thinking. Rather it is a position filled with assertions, without argument or evidence, to gain attention.

My lord. Where to begin? Let’s skip right by the irony of a Catholic priest admonishing us to reject claims made with inadequate evidence, and get right to the meat of this:

1) Father Wildes opposes “slavery enforced against someone’s free will”. Professor Block says: “The real problem with slavery was that it was compulsory”. If Father Wildes really wanted to reinforce his own point, I wonder why he failed to quote Professor Block with approval.

2) Professor Block says that, except for its compulsory nature, chattel slavery was “not so bad”. Father Wildes calls this “an empirical claim”. Well, that’s one reading. Another reading is that it’s a principled claim, namely an instance of the principle that nothing is so bad as long as you can walk away from it. In fact, given the context, this would seem to be the obvious reading. Why did Father Wildes choose the reading that is both less likely and less charitable?

3) For the sake of argument, though, let’s suppose that Professor Block’s claim was meant to be empirical — i.e. a claim that the material conditions of chattel slavery were, by the standards of the time, not so bad. That is indeed an empirical claim. Father Wildes says this claim is “simply wrong”. That’s also an empirical claim. Father Wildes considers it reprehensible that Professor Block would make an empirical claim without citing evidence. In the course of doing so, Father Wildes makes an equally strong empirical claim, without citing evidence. You don’t need years of Jesuit training to see the problem here.

(Side note: Surely there were in fact slaves who were treated well — except of course for the involuntary part — and slaves who were treated abominably. If you’re interested in what sorts of treatment were most common in various times and locations, the place to start is Time on the Cross and the critical literature that it spawned. It has occurred to me to wonder whether Father Wildes, for all his professed certainty about this empirical question, has bothered to peruse that literature.)

4) I am dismayed by Father Wildes’s blindness to the clear analogy between being forced to work someone else’s land and being forced to serve someone else’s lunch. (Are these exactly the same thing? Of course not. That’s why the word “analogy” was invented.) But of course we all have our blind spots. On the other hand, a lot of us went into academia precisely because we like having our eyes opened. We are in fact particularly delighted when our eyes are opened by our students. Blindness is easy to forgive. Proud and defiant blindness — blindness coupled with an announcement that one has no interest in seeing things in any other way — is quite another thing. And malicious blindness — the sort of blindness that would punish a student with a failing grade for daring to point to an obvious truth that Father Wildes happens to have overlooked — is a most distressing thing indeed. One wonders why a man with such deep-seated hostility to careful thought, and particularly to careful thought on the part of his students, chose an academic career in the first place.

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57 Responses to “Block Heads”


  1. 1 1 David R. Henderson

    There’s so much to like in this post. The following is not the best part, content-wise, but it did cause me literally (and yes, I mean literally) to LOL:
    Let’s skip right by the irony of a Catholic priest admonishing us to reject claims made with inadequate evidence,

  2. 2 2 Steve S

    “What the Civil Rights legislation did was prevent places like Woolworth’s from excluding people because of their race.”

    Or, put differently, what the Civil Rights legislation did was compel employees at places like Woolworth’s to associate with people they didn’t like (because of their race) against their will. What did Father Wildes say just above that sentence?

    “Dr. Block…assum[es] that because of the Civil Rights legislation people would be compelled to associate with others against their will.”

    Oh…right.

    How intellectually feeble do you have to be to be unable to admit that if somebody ASKED to be enslaved, and could leave freely at any time, that that would be OK?

  3. 3 3 Ted Levy

    I have to agree with David Henderson about the brilliance of the line he quoted. But what caught my eye on the initial read was the irony of “a certain kind of person just loves getting high on the euphoria of outrage.” Do we know any examples of people who enjoy the euphoria of outraging? Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

  4. 4 4 Advo

    Block basically states that slavery wouldn’t be so bad except for the fact that it’s slavery. No sh1t, really?

  5. 5 5 Michael D

    “One wonders why a man with such deep-seated hostility to careful thought, and particularly to careful thought on the part of his students, chose an academic career in the first place.”

    He chose the career so that he could pass on his deep-seated hostility to careful thought to his students. I thought this was obvious.

  6. 6 6 Dave

    “a certain kind of person just loves getting high on the euphoria of outrage”

    Professor Landsburg – I find it reprehensible that you would make an empirical claim like this without providing any evidence.

  7. 7 7 Doug

    Chattel slavery indefensible? All those purchased African slaves were prisoners of war or members of losing tribes from intra-African conflicts. Had slavery not existed I guarantee you they wouldn’t have just been free to go their merry way. Assuredly almost all would have been simply slaughtered by their otherwise captors.

    To that extent European demand for African slaves raised the demand and hence price for slaves. That certainly led to captives on the margin being enslaved rather than murdered, and that very much is at least a tenable defense of European involvement in the slave trade.

  8. 8 8 Steve Landsburg

    Douglas:

    All those purchased African slaves were prisoners of war or members of losing tribes from intra-African conflicts. … To that extent European demand for African slaves raised the demand and hence price for slaves. That certainly led to captives on the margin being enslaved rather than murdered,

    But surely some of those conflicts took place precisely because somebody saw an opportunity to sell slaves to Europeans, and that certainly led to people on the margin being taken captive in the first place.

  9. 9 9 Neil

    Steve S said:

    “…what the Civil Rights legislation did was compel employees at places like Woolworth’s to associate with people they didn’t like (because of their race) against their will.”

    The employees were compelled only to the extent that they wanted to keep their jobs. They were completely free to quit, unlike a slave. I am “compelled”, by my desire to receive a paycheck, to do any number of things in my job.

  10. 10 10 GregS

    For any Futurama fans, this post reminded me of the following exchange:

    Fry: You know what the worst thing about being a slave is? They make you work all day but they don’t pay you or let you go.
    Leela: That’s the only thing about being a slave.

    I’ll have to read Time on the Cross now. It somehow fell off my “to read” list. I’d add “A Renegade History of the United States” for anyone who is interested in the question of how bad American slavery was. It’s disturbing to read letters from former slaves who are nostalgic about slavery, but I think a serious discussion of slavery needs to include this kind of information.

  11. 11 11 Steve Landsburg

    Neil:

    The employees were compelled only to the extent that they wanted to keep their jobs.

    One could equally well say that the slaves were compelled only to the extent that they wanted to avoid being whipped. (I hope it goes without saying that there is an enormous difference in severity here, but the logical point stands.)

  12. 12 12 Rob Rawlings

    On the slavery issue I think Blocks main crime was just being flippant on a subject where no flippancy is allowed.

    On the Woolworth’s issue though its interesting that Wildes asserts “What the Civil Rights legislation did was prevent places like Woolworth’s from excluding people because of their race.” as if that is something Block has somehow overlooked rather than being the very thing that Block was against. Perhaps this position would be just too shocking for Wildes to contemplate. In any case he appears to have missed the chance to attack Block on a point where genuine arguments rather than high-handed moralism could have been applied.

  13. 13 13 Rob Rawlings

    “the logical point stands”

    I don’t think so – the employee quits his job and he no longer has to associate with those he doesn’t like. The slave gets whipped and he’s still a slave and has to continue to associate with his master against his will.

    In any case “what the Civil Rights legislation did was compel employees at places like Woolworth’s to associate with people they didn’t like ” is not really true and is not Block’s point. His point is that owners of businesses were forced to allow people on their premises that they may have otherwise chosen not to associate with.

  14. 14 14 Steve Landsburg

    Rob Rawlings:

    I don’t think so – the employee quits his job and he no longer has to associate with those he doesn’t like. The slave gets whipped and he’s still a slave and has to continue to associate with his master against his will.

    Point taken.

  15. 15 15 Brian

    “Let’s skip right by the irony of a Catholic priest admonishing us to reject claims made with inadequate evidence”

    Steve,

    I’m not sure what irony you see here. If you are claiming that Catholic beliefs are accepted without evidence, you are very much mistaken. Perhaps you can elaborate on what you mean?

    You also say

    “Another reading is that it’s a principled claim, namely an instance of the principle that nothing is so bad as long as you can walk away from it.”

    Yes, this is Block’s claim, but it is one that many, including Fr. Wildes would reject. Their counterclaim would be that some things are so destructive of human dignity, even if done willingly, that they are wrong. The conditions of slavery, apart from coercion, would be counted among such things. You are free to disagree, of course, but don’t claim that Fr. Wildes is being uncharitable about it.

  16. 16 16 Steve Landsburg

    Brian:

    If you are claiming that Catholic beliefs are accepted without evidence, you are very much mistaken.

    What’s the evidence for Purgatory?

    Yes, this is Block’s claim, but it is one that many, including Fr. Wildes would reject.

    Ah. Then you and I agree that Father Wildes misread Block. Because Wildes reads Block as making an empirical claim, and the claim you quote is not empirical.

    So the only remaining question is whether Father Wildes’s misreading was uncharitable. I would say that a reading is uncharitable if it increases the burden of proof placed on the author. Because Father Wildes’s reading allows him to demand empirical evidence — a demand that would clearly be out of place if the intended claim is,as you and I believe, non-empirical — it follows that his reading counts as uncharitable.

  17. 17 17 Harold

    A couple of things. I understand this was an interview, rather than an article he wrote. When speaking there is no opportunity to back up and re-phrase what you have said. This means we should be a bit more tolerant of something not expressed in the most tactful way.

    He has mixed up his empirical and principled claim. The gruel is described as “nice” which is empirical. He is claiming that the conditions slaves actually experienced was not too unpleasant on a day to day basis. If he wanted to say that without compulsion then mistreatment would not have occurred because people would have walked away, then perhaps that is what he should have said. Instead he says life was OK day to day, and it was only that you couldn’t walk away that it was bad.

    The tone is flippant. “You could pick cotton, sing songs, be fed nice gruel, etc” describes a pleasant existence which must have been at odds with many slaves’ experience. This at the very least plays down the actual suffering experienced by slaves. The fact is that slaves did suffer day to day abuses. It was not the case that the only problem was the compulsory nature of the relationship. Being whipped, abused, mis-treated and killed are problems. It may be true that the compulsory nature is the cause of many of these other problems, but that does not make the others disappear.

  18. 18 18 Jerry

    “A group of Walter’s colleagues at Loyola university (who, for brevity, I will henceforth refer to as ‘the gang of angry yahoos’)”

    Given the fact that their actions can be so easily controlled by Block, I would refer to them as “slaves.”

  19. 19 19 RPLong

    The tone is flippant. “You could pick cotton, sing songs, be fed nice gruel, etc” describes a pleasant existence which must have been at odds with many slaves’ experience.

    The tone isn’t flippant, it’s sarcastic. The dead giveaway is “be fed nice gruel.” There is no such thing as “nice gruel.” It’s like saying “basking in the glow of thermonuclear radiation.” It’s deliberate hyperbole specifically designed to highlight the fact that there is nothing good about slavery.

    Shouldn’t this be obvious?

  20. 20 20 Steve Landsburg

    RPLong:

    The dead giveaway is “be fed nice gruel.”

    I would have thought the dead giveaway was “pick cotton”, which, as far as I am aware, nobody has ever considered to be fun. But I have been to a Chinese restaurant with “gruel” on the menu, and I bet if you asked them, they’d tell you that their gruel is nice.

  21. 21 21 Al V.

    To Steve’s point, wasn’t indentured servitude a form of voluntary slavery? People took on debt, and then contracted with another party to pay off that debt in return for labor. The main distinction was that there was no legal way to void the contract. There were reports that in some cases indentured servants were treated more harshly than slaves, because slaves were property, while indentured servants were only enslaaved for the contractual period.

  22. 22 22 Daniel

    “Nobody would have much minded the torture and the gas chambers if there had been an opt-out provision. And this is a useful observation, if one is attempting to argue that involuntary associations are the root of much evil.”

    I guess it depends on when the opt-out provision was allowed. If it was from the beginning than this reasoning makes sense (assuming information symmetry, the people choosing this punishment knew what they were getting themselves into), however if the opt-out provision is implemented after captivity has already occurred you’d have to worry about Stockholm syndrome corrupting the choosers judgement.

  23. 23 23 Al V.

    Another example of a form of voluntary slavery was the textile mill villages of the American South from the end of the Civil War until the 1960s. While mill workers were generally not beaten or physically mistreated, they were frequently legally tied to the mills via debt.

    Mill workers lived in rental homes provided by the mills, and were often paid in company scrip that could only be used to pay rent and purchase food from the mill store. Furthermore, mill workers were intentionally paid less than a subsistance wage, despite the mills providing all subsistance, and thus quickly went into debt to the mills, forcing the workers to work in the mills until they died or were unable to work due to injuries received in the mills.

    In some cases, the mill owners of the new south were the children of plantation owners who lost their slaves with Empancipation.

    My point here is that while slavery was not voluntary, and obviously was in most cases a much more violent and brutal experience than being a mill worker, the distinction was really one of degree. Mill workers made a choice to work in the mills, but they only got to make that choice one time.

  24. 24 24 Alex

    The problem is the use of the phrase “slavery wasn’t so bad.” It wipes too many readers’ minds of rhetorical context. Particularly the unusual device used here, where “slavery” is used to mean the opposite of slavery.

    I think the sensitivity derives from the pain of knowing that so many people do believe that slavery wasn’t so bad. It’s a bit like recoiling from the n-word even amidst a condemnation of its use.

    The reaction isn’t reasonable, but it’s understandable.

  25. 25 25 Harold

    “It’s deliberate hyperbole specifically designed to highlight the fact that there is nothing good about slavery.” Quite possibly. The use of sarcasm in an extended way can have a lot of nuance. Maybe it means its bad, but not as bad as often made out. But when it is followed by “The only real problem was that this relationship was compulsory” are we supposed to consider this also to be sarcastic?

    I think he has phrased it badly. If we re-phrase it without the sarcasm, you contend he really meant: slavery was awful; you were ill treated, under-fed, over-worked and had little choice of how to spend your time, but that wasn’t a problem because “the only real problem” was that it was compulsory.

    Consider two plantations, one where the slaves are treated well, and the other where they are treated badly. If you offered the slaves on the second better treatment they would take it. They have more problems than those on the first, and it would not be correct to say that these were not “real problems”.

    If he had said something like the “fundamental problem” rather than the “only real problem” he could have avoided apparently minimising the problems faced by slaves.

  26. 26 26 Ken B

    Father Wildes may be more consistent than Steve gives him credit for, since in general, and not just in the case of slavery, he doesn’t care about consent and compulsion. One woamn alone seeking RU 486, two consenting men who have sex, three consenting conversants who blaspheme, four consenting customers who use condoms — he condemns them all alike. (I believe he is more lax on five consenting diners who eat beef on Friday than were his predecessors. Never call him unenlightened.)

    Father Wildes may also not agree with Block as strongly as Steve suggests, as to him the point of agreement — consent is nice — is only on a subsidiary point. I can agree with the good Father about the proper wine to serve with red meat but still consider Walter Block’s head served on a platter with fava beans and a little chianti to be an unpleasant repast; Wildes clearly differs.

  27. 27 27 Steve Landsburg

    Harold:

    I think he has phrased it badly.

    It was, as I understand it, an off-the-cuff response to a question from a reporter. How high a literary standard do we want to set for such things? (Note that it’s one thing to say he could have phrased it better; quite another to say he should be censured and condemned for his phrasing.)

  28. 28 28 Harold

    “It was, as I understand it, an off-the-cuff response to a question from a reporter. ”

    Indeed. In #17 I say “I understand this was an interview, rather than an article he wrote. When speaking there is no opportunity to back up and re-phrase what you have said. This means we should be a bit more tolerant of something not expressed in the most tactful way.”

  29. 29 29 Steve Landsburg

    Harold: Indeed, I’d seen your #17 and then somehow forgot that you’d already said this.

  30. 30 30 nobody.really

    Oy. Three random thoughts:

    1. Look, Block said stuff that everyone should anticipate would push people’s buttons. Even if he said it inadvertently in the context of an interview, no one should feign surprise that his statements pushed people’s buttons.

    And in particular, what’s the point of saying that slavery would be ok but for compulsion — the central reality of slavery? It’s easy to suspect that Block was speaking for the purpose of provoking people, because it’s hard to devise some other reason for making such a goofy statement. Look, I don’t like it when you step on my toes, yet I’ll understand if you’re compelled by some important agenda. But if you stomp on me just for the hell of it, I’m gonna get pissed.

    Some here will recall Landsburg’s remarks about Sandra Fluke, and later about unconscious people being raped. Predictably, people went apeshit. (I humbly opine that the Fluke apeshit was wholly justified, whereas the unconscious apeshit was not, but that’s beside the point.) In the context of the Fluke brouhaha, the president of the University of Rochester felt obliged to speak up and distance the university from Landsburg’s remarks — although he also emphasized the importance of intellectual independence.

    I’m curious: Did Landsburg anticipate the reaction he would provoke? Did he intend to provoke this reaction? Or was it kind of inadvertent, or beside the point? After all, if Landsburg wanted to make a habit of trolling for readers, we’d know it by now, so I surmise he wasn’t striving for special notoriety. But I’d still be surprised if he didn’t realize that he was going to get that notoriety.

  31. 31 31 nobody.really

    2. I’d hope academics would resist the temptation to give into their visceral reactions – at least, when given several hours or days to consider their responses.

    Alas, academics are people, too. Even the president of the University of Rochester, in issuing a statement distanced the university from Landsburg’s remarks about Fluke, could not resist using the forum to emphasize how he embraces a more populist (and arguably simple-minded) perspective that Landsburg does.

  32. 32 32 nobody.really

    3. And this brings me back to another familiar line of thought: Are economists especially prone to thrive on this kind of press-people’s-buttons-while-maintaining-cool-detachment conflict? Academic economists of my acquaintance seem to get a real Socratic thrill from forcing people to confront incongruities in conventional ways of thinking. But they also seem to relish the flip side — the role of intellectual martyr, pilloried for speaking truths that the public is too shallow to acknowledge. Perhaps this is characteristic of non-economists, too, but that has not been my experience.

    I’ve offered that opinion before. But I recently read something that inspires me to embellish on it.

    Atheists are weird. That is, only a minority of people self-identify as atheists. And I recently read a study identifying three characteristics of atheists:

    A) They tend to live in relative security. People living in the midst of war, famine, plague, natural disaster, etc., are more likely to embrace a faith. Other people, a/k/a Europeans, are not. And that seems plausible: it’s easy to imagine that faith has some consoling property that people embrace when facing adversity.

    B) Atheists seem more prone to analytical, rather than intuitive, reasoning. Ok, seems plausible on its face: Analytical reasoning is synonymous with skepticism.

    C) Atheists are less prone to “mentalizing” – that is, engaging in highly empathic patterns of thought characteristic of people who engaged in thorough attachments to caregivers in childhood. Recall George W. Bush saying that he had stared into Putin’s eyes and taken the measure of his soul? Arguably Bush was mentalizing — imagining that he could so thoroughly identify with Putin that he could feel confident about predicting Putin’s motives and actions. People who mentalize may exhibit greater compassion for others, but may overstate their understanding of others.

    So, does mentalizing help a person become an atheist? Perhaps people who think they can project themselves into the minds of others also thing they can project themselves into the mind of God.

    But perhaps the causation runs the other direction. That is, perhaps only people who can maintain a sufficient intellection distance from others are comfortable publicly opposing theism, because people with greater empathy are unwilling to challenge a belief that they know provides comfort to suffering people. In short, if you know that lots of people derive comfort from theism, and it’s very easy to simply avoid taking any public position on religious questions, only extraordinary people will take the extra step to publicly declare their opposition to theism.

    Similarly, perhaps analytical, skeptical people are peculiarly designed to be less sensitive to other people’s feelings, and thus freed to say things that will provoke outrage, even for very little purpose. And perhaps this behavior comes across as quite inexplicable and vexing to the rest of the population.

  33. 33 33 nobody.really

    4. Oh, one last thing: Yes, civil rights laws involve promoting equality at the expense of freedom – specifically, freedom of association.

    So why is Block getting kicked for saying this? I suspect Block, having pushed people’s buttons and triggering their fight-or-flight response, is getting hit a second time: “Civil rights = Good, so if you say something bad about civil rights, you’re an apologist for racists.”

    I’d like to think that the idea that there are trade-offs between freedom and equality is sufficiently familiar that it couldn’t provoke anyone anymore. Then again, I may have learned this freedom/equality trade-off from reading Landsburg. So perhaps it’s unfair to expect that the general population would have caught up with this insight. Landsburg’s writings can make certain ideas seem obvious in retrospect – but that doesn’t mean that those ideas will be obvious to people who have not been exposed to his writings.

  34. 34 34 Steve Landsburg

    nobody.really:

    And in particular, what’s the point of saying that slavery would be ok but for compulsion

    The point is entirely obvious, I suspect to everyone. (In fact, an early draft of this post included a parenthetical “duh!” in the first paragraph.) But as I said in the post, I think it can be useful to *call attention* to this obvious point in service of the larger point that compulsion is frequently the root of much evil.

    Just as, for example, if I were trying to convince you that green things are often considered pretty, I might point out that lawns are green and often considered pretty. Yes, you already know that lawns are green, but that bit of common knowledge might not be in the forefront of your consciousness at the moment. So I remind you of it.

  35. 35 35 Neil

    It seems to me there are several aspects of slavery that must be considered in judging its “badness”: bondage, lack of compensation and lack of recourse for bad treatment. Indentured servants were in temporary bondage (their indentures could be bought out), but they were compensated for submitting to bondage (usually in passage to the New World). They may or may not have had recourse for bad treatment. Famously, indentured servants in Mass. won a court case enjoining their masters from feeding them lobster more than three times a week. {In some documented cases indentured servants were treated worse than slaves because masters had no incentives to preserve their health.}

    Slaves, then, were subject to lifetime bondage without compensation, could be bought and sold by others without the option of buying themselves out of bondage, and had little or no recourse if they were maltreated. Any and all of these were what made slavery bad.

  36. 36 36 Neil

    PS This is in commentary to Block’s claim that it was the fact that slaves could not leave their masters which made it bad. Indentured servants could not walk away either but we don’t think of it as bad as slavery.

  37. 37 37 Ken B

    Neil 36
    That’s not Block’s claim. “The only real problem was that this relationship was compulsory.” That is very different from “could not walk away.” For one thing indentured servants volunteered. The point with slaves was that they didn’t. The difference is between those who signed onto the Royal navy and those who were pressed. Neither could leave at will, but only the latter were slaves. If you can’t see the distinction between living with the consequences of decisions you made, and might regret, and pure compulsion …

    (Those indentured as children were in fact slaves.)

  38. 38 38 Neil

    KenB,

    In the very first paragraph quoted by Steve, Block says “The slaves could not quit. They were forced to ‘associate’ with their masters when they would have vastly preferred not to do so.” He seems to define compulsory as the inability to walk away, but to my mind compulsory is different from that. My boss can compel me, as a condition of my employment, to do a certain task, but I am not a slave because I can walk away from the relationship. A teacher can compel her students to write a test in order to get a grade, but the student can choose to fail. Compulsion is conditional. I would describe slavery as unconditional compulsion. But even there, the government unconditionally compels me to pay taxes, but most people do not consider this slavery, except some libertarians. The founders did not, as long as taxation was accompanied by representation.

  39. 39 39 iceman

    32 – “Academic economists…seem to get a real Socratic thrill from forcing people to confront incongruities in conventional ways of thinking…perhaps this is characteristic of non-economists, too, but that has not been my experience.”

    This I like. While pushing people’s buttons may be a perk sometimes, I prefer to think of it as the ‘unavoidable outcome of an unwavering commitment to intellectual integrity’ (booyaa!). I would agree there’s something unique about a discipline that, when at its best, seeks to bring logic and *scientific* method to often thorny *social* issues. I still fondly remember how refreshingly eye-opening it was to first encounter a line of reasoning that openly acknowledged “we don’t distinguish between sources of utility.”

    Which doesn’t mean people never say stupid or insensitive things…but rejoinders that deal more in political correctness than substance (a seeming hallmark of university administration these days) usually seem lame.

  40. 40 40 iceman

    38 – “the government unconditionally compels me to pay taxes, but most people do not consider this slavery, except some libertarians. The founders did not, as long as taxation was accompanied by representation”

    Just checking – this is a matter of degree though right? E.g. surely as “representation” the founders did not have in mind 51% voting to take everything from 49%. (Arguably they did not envision taxing the public on anything near the present scale.) Even though under that scenario “most people” would not feel enslaved.

  41. 41 41 Brian

    Steve (#16),

    Purgatory is a good one. My response to it is that we have consider more carefully what we mean by evidence. An example will suffice. For over 40 years, physicists generally accepted the existence of the Higgs boson without the benefit of direct evidence. Why? Because it fit logically into a framework whose other pieces were well supported by the evidence.

    Similarly with purgatory. Purgatory is considered a logical consequence of heaven and the afterlife since not all souls could be expected to be ready for heaven at the moment of death. And what is the evidence for heaven? Well, at the very least there are many documented examples of near-death experiences, in which heaven-like things are encountered. In addition, there are many examples of people seeing and interacting with saints in heaven. You may or may not personally find this evidence convincing, but it is evidence (not proof) nonetheless. Experiences of these sorts are exactly what would be predicted from a “theory of heaven,” and to argue against the conclusion that heaven exists would require you to offer a no-heaven theory that does a better job of explaining the observations.

    You also say “Ah. Then you and I agree that Father Wildes misread Block. Because Wildes reads Block as making an empirical claim, and the claim you quote is not empirical.”

    Well, sort of. I agree that Block is probably not intending to make an empirical claim, but then he supports his claim with empirical-sounding things, such as mentioning typical slave activities (picking cotton, singing songs, etc.). I think this is what Wildes is reacting to when he asks where the evidence is. In a sense, Block is giving evidence, but it’s slanted by not mentioning the bad stuff everyone knows about. Wildes is really asking where’s the evidence that all the bad stuff everyone knows about was not really so bad. Wildes doesn’t have to give evidence because everyone already knows that terrible things happen to slaves. Block is the one making an extraordinary claim and the burden is on Block to provide the extraordinary evidence. At least that’s how I interpret Wildes position.

  42. 42 42 Steve Landsburg

    Brian: Thanks for this thoughtful answer (both parts).

  43. 43 43 Rich

    Dear Brian and Steve,

    I enjoyed your exchange. It adds to my admiration of Steve, who I assume is an atheist.

    When the Psalmist says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” he makes an empirical claim. Clearly, he’s got on “identification” problem. Though, seeing Milky Way on a dark night, I lean toward advising the editor to consider a revise and resubmit.

  44. 44 44 Lee

    A thoughtful and well-reasoned column. The offense to which Fr. Wildes, in support of the “gang of yahoos,” was responding had to do with the manners appropriate to the times. We now live in an era in which one may be censured for expressing views hurtful to the sentiments of particular constituencies.

    Fr. Wildes’ letter has been parsed for its inaccuracies and its silliness but his job, as president, is to endorse the prevailing views of his constituents including his board of trustees and the university’s major financial donors. To expect him to do otherwise strikes me as unrealistic.

  45. 45 45 Dave

    This was an excellent and civil exchange of ideas. World class thinking and exposition. I camne to the conclusion that Dr. Block was slightly guilty of enjoying his role as button pusher and martyr but otherwise he did not deserve the verbal whipping that certain pushees decided to administer.

  46. 46 46 Ken B

    @32: You forgot one. Smarter. Studies show this consistently.

  47. 47 47 P.M.Lawrence

    For the sake of argument, though, let’s suppose that Professor Block’s claim was meant to be empirical — i.e. a claim that the material conditions of chattel slavery were, by the standards of the time, not so bad. That is indeed an empirical claim. Father Wildes says this claim is “simply wrong”. That’s also an empirical claim. Father Wildes considers it reprehensible that Professor Block would make an empirical claim without citing evidence. In the course of doing so, Father Wildes makes an equally strong empirical claim, without citing evidence. You don’t need years of Jesuit training to see the problem here.

    Actually, there is empirical evidence that Father Wildes’s claim is wrong. I recall seeing some comments about this in Henry George’s work, selected to help him grind his own axe, of course, but reputable enough for all that. One was that emancipated slaves told him that their physical conditions were worse as sharecroppers than they had been as slaves, and another was the reception that touring abolitionists got when they described the plight of slaves in order to drum up support: nearly everywhere they got sympathy for the slaves’ conditions, but in Scotland they got puzzled looks; it turned out that ordinary Scottish working class conditions were even worse (aside: my own paternal grandfather was born into those conditions not much later, when things would have been much the same).

    And, of course, in the tradition that continued from the late Roman Empire into the Muslim world until very recently, slavery was rarely plantation slavery but more usually to provide specialists – concubines, harem guards, soldiers, artisans and so on – and those were comparatively pampered. Indeed, part of the (slave) Janissary uniform was a miniature soup ladle or spoon in their headgear, to symbolise that they would never be at risk of starvation, unlike the common or garden oppressed peasantry.

    Perhaps some reader can track down more specific references.

  48. 48 48 Brian

    “You forgot one. Smarter. Studies show this consistently.”

    Ken B,

    Let’s grant this as a fact. What is the relevance of this fact? What conclusions do you draw from it?

  49. 49 49 Bob Murphy

    Funny, David R. Henderson (first comment), that was the one sentence from Steve’s post that I thought was rather unnecessary.

  50. 50 50 Mike

    “Let’s skip right by the irony of a Catholic priest admonishing us to reject claims made with inadequate evidence”

    What the hell is that supposed to mean, and what is it doing here? I’m sick of reading self-indulgent bigoted comments like this, and so I didn’t read the rest of what you said. Everybody needs to be a jackass nowadays and accost the reader by spewing their prejudices at every moment regardless of how utterly irrelevant and out of context they are.

    Why do people think this kind of behavior is acceptable?

  51. 51 51 Jim Henshaw

    I’ve had some extended email conversations with Walter Block on this topic, where he defended the notion that it was OK to sell oneself into slavery, a one-time choice that you could then not walk away from. I pressed him quite a bit on the details of this issue, making sure I didn’t misunderstand him.

    So, I think the outrage at Walter Block’s comments aren’t entirely misplaced, though a more cerebral and calm takedown of his central point, minus the high and mighty tone, would better expose the fallacy at the heart of Block’s reasoning.

    “Slavery” where you can void the contract at any time, walk away at any time, albeit with financial penalties for breaking the contract, isn’t really slavery, and should be intellectually defendable.

    Slavery when one makes a binding, legally enforceable contract that one can not then ever walk away from for the rest of one’s life, even when it becomes apparent that that decision was a horrendous mistake — is still slavery, and Walter Block actually defends this horrific practice. This is where the line of intellect attack upon his ideas ought to take place.

  52. 52 52 Jason Calley

    For some interesting (and disturbing) insight into slavery, one should read “Bullwhip Days” edited by James Mellon. During the Great Depression one project undertaken was collecting oral histories from the last remaining former slaves. Some of the interviews tell of beatings and whippings, but not all the stories fall into that category. A large fraction of the interviews have the former slaves saying variations of “When I die and go to heaven, the first thing I am going to do is find my old Master and shake his hand! He was always good to me and I miss him terribly…”

    Please, please, please — do not think that I am saying that slavery is in any fashion acceptable. What I am saying is far more disturbing, that a sizable fraction of people who had been slaves still did not see it as the evil it was.

  53. 53 53 Eric

    Block was making the point that is so seldom overlooked – namely that the evil in slavery is the same evil so many applaud in other areas, especially government policy. To Block (and most libertarians) such things as requiring licenses to braid hair, jury duty, military drafts, etc. are evil because they too are not voluntary.

    It may have been an over the top way of selling his point about force, but sometimes you have to do that when people fail to understand the principle behind the non-aggression axiom of libertarian ethics.

  54. 54 54 Jamesb_bkk

    Here is an article by Bill Bonner which describes slaves taken by Barbary Pirates from Baltimore, Ireland. http://www.dailyreckoning.com.au/when-the-feds-tell-you-bend-over/2013/11/15/

  55. 55 55 Scott Bennett

    Bob Murphy (in 49) wrote:

    “Funny, David R. Henderson (first comment), that was the one sentence from Steve’s post that I thought was rather unnecessary.”

    Perhaps it was unnecessary, but in that case many others were
    even less necessary to get his points across. Pointing out hypocrisy
    is, IMO, generally a good thing. Sauce for the goose and all that.

  56. 56 56 Scott Bennett

    Jim Henshaw (in 51) wrote:

    “Slavery when one makes a binding, legally enforceable contract that one can not then ever walk away from for the rest of one’s life, even when it becomes apparent that that decision was a horrendous mistake — is still slavery, and Walter Block actually defends this horrific practice. This is where the line of intellect attack upon his ideas ought to take place.”

    A couple of things drew my attention in the above. One is a quibble
    over the wording “defends this horrific practice.” Please pardon my ignorance, but where is such voluntary but irreversible entrance into slavery actually a practice? If nowhere, then there is no practice to defend.

    The second matter is, assuming Henshaw has accurately represented what Block communicated to him, that Block may have been illustrating a consequence of the principle of self-ownership. If one is prohibited from selling oneself, then it becomes difficult to argue that one owns oneself in the first place, which I think would leave only two alternatives, namely, that one is instead owned by someone else and that one is unowned and therefore available for anyone to invest the time and resources to control and to make “improvements” to the unowned individual and thereby establish ownership in the same manner as homesteading. (Sorry about the run-on sentence.:-) It seems to me that the mere existence of an option available to the self-owned person, however awful and/or unlikely to be exercised it be in actuality, is far more appealing than being either initially (i.e., from birth) owned or forcibly (by violation (e.g., kidnapping) or by “homesteading”) owned by someone else.

    As an aside, I have a question about the terminology preferred in this discussion. Should a cash-on-the-barrelhead sale be or require a contract? Or is it just a trade transaction? I ask in order to avoid needless arguing over misunderstandings of preferred definitions of terms in future postings here.

  57. 57 57 David

    If “voluntary slavery” meant that one could walk away at any time, possibly with some financial consequences if a contract were broken, I would be OK with that.

    Block’s belief that you can permanently, irrevocably sell yourself into slavery is one that I disagree with, but I understand his reasoning.

    At any rate, Block’s point was technically correct, but stated in a flippant manner.

  1. 1 “Fundamental Logical Mistake” | Economic Thought
  2. 2 “The Gang of Angry Yahoos” | The Penn Ave Post
  3. 3 The Gang of Angry Yahoos | Michigan Standard
  4. 4 NewsSprocket | Walter Block VS The World
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