One of the ways I will occasionally depart from straight economics on this blog is to defend fellow academics from unfair attacks by bullies. When the president of your university attacks you unfairly and in public, he is being a bully. If you want to know the background, see Walter Block’s original comment on slavery and then read his boss’s attack on him in the pages of the student newspaper.

And if you want to see a letter by a gutsy Loyola University student, Jonathan Lingenfeiter, read this.

Then read my letter, below.

Dear Dr. Wildes,

I am writing to respond to your criticism of Professor Walter Block.

You write, “In the Jan. 25 article “Rand Paul’s Mixed Inheritance”, Dr. Block made two claims, one empirical and one conceptual, that are simply wrong.”

This statement betrays a simple misunderstanding. Dr. Block made no claims in the January 25 article because Dr. Block did not write it. Sam Tanenhaus and Jim Rutenberg did. This might sound picky because they do quote Dr. Block. But it is not picky. The reason is that you actually go on in the rest of your letter to criticize him because “Dr. Block makes an assertion but gives no evidence for his assertion.” For that criticism to be justified, it would have to be the case that Dr. Block wrote the article. As you well know, he did not. So even had he wanted to give evidence, that evidence would not necessarily have made it into the article. I don’t know if you have ever been interviewed by a newspaper reporter or opinion writer. I’m guessing, given your position, that you have. Have you ever seen every comment you made to a newspaper writer quoted verbatim? I suspect not.

So the only way for you to know whether Dr. Block has given evidence for his claims is for you to ask or at least take the time to read his work.

Since you think it important to examine people’s claims, let’s take a few minutes to examine yours. First, you state, “he made the claim that chattel slavery ‘was not so bad.'” Actually, he didn’t. Here’s the whole paragraph from which you plucked the words “was not so bad.”

Free association is a very important aspect of liberty. It is crucial. Indeed, its lack was the major problem with slavery. 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. It violated the law of free association, and that of the slaves’ private property rights in their own persons. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, then, to a much smaller degree of course, made partial slaves of the owners of establishments like Woolworths.

Do you see the difference? Virtually everything bad about slavery arose because it was, well, slavery. But what is the defining characteristic of slavery? It is that the slave is being held involuntarily. That was the point Professor Block was making. I know you are a fellow academic and I notice that you have published some serious work yourself. We academics live for the life of the mind and the life of the mind is, in many cases, about making distinctions and not quoting out of context. Do you see, Dr. Wildes, how you broke those rules?

You write:

Furthermore, it is also conceptually contradictory to his position as a libertarian that people could be treated as property against their will. So, by even hinting to endorse slavery enforced against someone’s free will, Dr. Block seems to contradict his basic libertarian principles.

Could you please explain where he was “hinting” to endorse slavery? In the passage from Professor Block that I quoted above, which, recall, is the one you are criticizing, Dr. Block actually makes clear his opposition to both the lack of free association and the fact that slaves were treated as someone else’s property. That’s what he meant when he wrote that slavery violated “the slaves’ private property rights in their own persons.” I must ask: when you read that statement, which I’m sure you did, given that you’re a responsible academic one of whose jobs is to support your faculty, what do you think he meant by that statement? Do you think that when he said slavery violates the slaves’ property rights that he actually meant the opposite? Is this what you meant by “hinting?” So, for example, if you said that you support Dr. Block’s academic freedom, should I take this as a “hint” that you oppose Dr. Block’s academic freedom? Forgive me, father, but that’s not what most people mean by the concept of hinting.

You also write:

His second claim is an example of a fundamental logical mistake. In peaking [sic] 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.

You go on to explain, “What the Civil Rights legislation did was prevent places like Woolworth’s from excluding people because of their race.”

Exactly. And that is why it is your statement that is incorrect. When Dr. Block made his claim that the Civil Rights Act compels people to associate with others, he was making the assumption that the people who own the lunch counters are, well, people. I think you are making the very common mistake of seeing a Woolworth’s or other retail establishments as just buildings. But they are not. The buildings are owned by people and it is those people whose freedom of association was denied.

In your criticism of Dr. Block, you end by bemoaning its lack of critical thinking. I did not see that lack and I notice that you have actually not given evidence–and I know you are a strong advocate of giving evidence–for his lack of critical thinking. Rather, you took the easy way out by quoting four words out of context. On top of that you showed a misunderstanding about freedom of association. And you claimed in one of his statements a hint that he meant the exact opposite of what he said.

Might I suggest, Dr. Wildes, that you yourself actually engage in critical thinking? And might I also suggest that you apologize to your Loyola faculty member, Dr. Block, for your undercutting of him publicly? I have known Walter Block for forty years. He is a very forgiving man. I would bet that he would forgive you.

Yours truly,

David R. Henderson
Research Fellow, Hoover Institution