David R. Henderson  

Open Letter to President Wildes re Professor Block

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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


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COMMENTS (26 to date)
ed writes:

The New York Times blew it here as well.

Saying "slavery wasn't so bad" and "otherwise, slavery wasn’t so bad" mean COMPLETELY different things, as is obvious to anyone with basic reading comprehension. Block was simply misquoted. The Times should post a correction.

As for the Loyola president, it's hard to say to what degree he is dishonest, lazy, and/or stupid, but in any case he obviously blew it. But I'm sure he will have bear no bad consequences, since his views are popular and Block's are unpopular.

In the internet age, nobody should trust anybody who doesn't post links, which in this case is everybody involved (except Block).

ZC writes:

Bravo! Truth to power Dr. Henderson.

Maybe all those years of boxing have started to add up for Dr. Wildes...

Dan Hill writes:

Oh dear, David. You seem to be laboring under the misapprehension that the President of the university is a scholar rather than a politician. You know, someone who actually cares about the truth.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, then, to a much smaller degree of course, made partial slaves of the owners of establishments like Woolworths.

Is partial slavery a meaningful concept?
Dr Block has redefined slavery to mean curtailment of the free association. But is his re-definition acceptable? I would define a slave as a person that could be brought and sold.


The glaring difference between slavery and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is that slavery exists to further the slave-owner's good and not the slave's good. Whereas the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was intended to benefit common good, that is it was intended as being good to all Americans.

Jameson writes:

"Otherwise, slavery wasn't so bad."

Well yeah, other than the beatings, the separation from family, the high chance of death while being packed into a boat like sardines on your way to the New World. Other than that, it's just songs and cotton picking!

Coming from people whom I otherwise respect on matters of economic and political theory, I just find this embarrassing. I also think you're wrong on the Civil Rights Act. Surely there is a difference between the rights a person has over their private dwelling and the rights they have over an establishment generally designed to be open to the public. But as difficult as that is to hash out, I think comments like these are just totally uncalled for: "The Civil Rights Act of 1964, then, to a much smaller degree of course, made partial slaves of the owners of establishments like Woolworths."

Sometimes it's just a matter of respecting the magnitude of the evil of slavery and Jim Crow.

Brent writes:

Jameson,

You have to understand how Dr. Block speaks. Notice the word "gruel"? It is very obvious that he is making a point about freedom by differentiating between the bad working conditions and the heart of the matter, which is that slaves were denied the choices to do what they wished with their selves.

andy writes:

Jameson...

Sometimes it's just a matter of respecting the magnitude of the evil of slavery and Jim Crow.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, then, to a much smaller degree of course, made partial slaves of the owners of establishments like Woolworths."

It seems to me that Mr. Block is actually respecting the magnitude of the evil of slavery. Do you have another "hint" what "to a much smaller degree" is supposed to mean?

Surely there is a difference between the rights a person has over their private dwelling and the rights they have over an establishment generally designed to be open to the public

The funny thing is that if a person makes a restaurant from his private dwelling and says "it's open for the whites", he has obviously designed it to "be open for the whites" and not "open for the public".

Al writes:

Jameson, all of those things are terrible because they are involuntary. Otherwise, some people willfully pay for beatings, and others spend large sums to move away from family.

However, I do agree that this form of libertarianism seems to glorify path dependency. The Woolworth owners may have acquired their assets through whatever means, or benefited from whatever historical paths, and this analysis will reduce the scenario to voluntarism.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Owners do not have absolute rights over their property, even their personal dwelling, What ownership consists in, the bundle of ownership rights, is always defined through the State formally or the community informally.

The community or the State, in order to achieve a common good, may adjust the ownership rights to some degree. That does not make slaves of property owners.

The libertarian thinking, by not acknowledging the political sphere, that is the existence of nations or the common good renders itself impotent to intelligently discuss these questions. It is surprised by positions that cause no surprise to a non-libertarian.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bedarz Iliaici,
Is partial slavery a meaningful concept?
Dr Block has redefined slavery to mean curtailment of the free association. But is his re-definition acceptable? I would define a slave as a person that could be brought and sold.

I think you’re making a good point. Indeed, had I been Dr. Wildes and wanted to argue publicly with Walter, I would have pointed out that I think Walter is exaggerating. I was defending Walter from the attack that his boss actually made.

David R. Henderson writes:

@ZC,
Bravo! Truth to power Dr. Henderson.
Thanks, ZC.
@Dan Hill,
Oh dear, David. You seem to be laboring under the misapprehension that the President of the university is a scholar rather than a politician. You know, someone who actually cares about the truth.
You’re not a big fan of nuance and irony, are you, Dan?

Johnnie F. writes:

The world needs more people like David R. Henderson Research Fellow, Hoover Institution.
Speaking his mind in defense of a fellow human being, Dr. Block, who was attacked by the one person who should always defend or instruct him, Dr. Wildes, David Henderson points out the indefensible unfairness of using your position to berate someone in public. If you are in the position of power of governing an institute of higher learning your main concern should be truth, professionalism and quality of the staff and what the students learn. Not how much more powerful you are.
If you are intent on shaming someone you should always be 100% right and not use your political position to make your point. History and the dictionaries of the world will always make you wrong.
In my opinion, Dr. Wilde used his position to bully Dr. Block. He was Simply wrong.
A private chat would have been better than a public dressing down.
But to have stepped up and defended Dr. Block David Henderson show a courage very few people display in today's world.
Dr. Henderson should have Dr. Wilde's job.

andy writes:

Bedarz Iliaci..
Owners do not have absolute rights over their property, even their personal dwelling, What ownership consists in, the bundle of ownership rights, is always defined through the State formally or the community informally.

So how would you define the property rights so that it would suit the Civil rights legislation?

Steve Horwitz writes:

While I completely agree with you David about the impropriety of a President undercutting a facutly member publicly this way, and not standing up for Walter's academic freedom, I simply do not buy the argument that Walter's comments were so benign.

I completely agree with Jameson. "Otherwise, slavery wasn't so bad..." Did we forget about taking their kids from them? etc. I get what Walter is trying to say - that there's lots of work taken on voluntarily that has nasty conditions - but his wording here was not just injudicious, but downright awful.

I suggest that Walter and others read some slave diaries and see if the actual slaves thought that the involuntariness of their condition was the only/real/major problem. It sure as hell wasn't.

Walter's comments, which are at best inartful, really are embarrassing and while I will defend to the death his right to say them and agree with David's criticisms of the president's silliness, there's just no way I can give Walter any kind of pass here. What he said was wrong and stupid and it is not unfair of his critics to think he was minimizing the evils of slavery. Because, in my view, he was.

Roger Sweeny writes:

Bedarz Iliaci,

Before the Civil War, there were lots of people who defended slavery as "benefiting the common good." They honestly thought it was good for the slaves because, well, Africans had just been savages in Africa and slavery had given them right religion and the opportunity to do something useful. By growing cotton and doing other tasks, they helped keep civilization going.

Nowadays, we would say that those reasons are wrong, wrong, wrong. But lots of people actually believed that crap. People, then and now, are very good at believing that things they like are really just "benefiting the common good." The fact that something was "intended as being good to all Americans" doesn't tell us whether it actually was "good to all Americans."

Aaron Zierman writes:

After actually reading the article (which some have obviously not done), it is very apparent that Block is speaking with his tongue firmly in his cheek. He is essentially saying that the worst part about being a slave is that you're a slave. He goes on to explain what being a slave is (no free choice) and how slavery was allowed to persist (Jim Crow laws).

The out-of-context reading of the "Otherwise, slavery wasn't so bad" quote is terrible.

I'm surprised no one has decided to bring up his comment later in the article: "Take heterosexual men, for example. They are disgusting creatures." See what can be done without proper context and without reading in the author's intended voice? One could argue that someone shouldn't write in a sarcastic manner, but aren't we just messing with political correctness and personal preferences then?

Magus Janus writes:

"The glaring difference between slavery and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is that slavery exists to further the slave-owner's good and not the slave's good. Whereas the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was intended to benefit common good, that is it was intended as being good to all Americans."


Two issues with this:

1- there were MANY arguments made for slavery as good for the slaves... as a civilizing force to bring "barbarians" to first world, Christian standards of living. And failing that to provide for those who were viewed as culturally/biologically inferior.

2- The intent of the Civil Rights act was to benefit the portion of americans viewed as "hurt" by segregation, not to benefit "all" americans and certainly not those who opposed integration vociferously.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Since discussion appears to have drifted a bit o/t, perhaps the following may help:

The condition of slavery exists when freedom to or freedom from for a particular individual is in the control of another.

The institution of commercial slavery exists when that form of control is subject to transfer for commercial purposes.

Other forms of transfers of control arise under conditions of conquest and other forms of enforced subservience arising out of specific contingencies in human conditions.

As to "Civil Rights" they are like all rights contingent upon the existence and performance of an offsetting obligation (or sets of obligations), which may be in the form of constraints of conduct. As with actions and reactions, no "right" exists without a counter-posed set of obligations.

Some obligations that are the counterpoints to particular "rights" arise from commonalities of recognition, acceptance and performance of obligations within the social order.

Rights are distinct from the freedom to or the freedom from.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Steve Horwitz,
I suggest that Walter and others read some slave diaries and see if the actual slaves thought that the involuntariness of their condition was the only/real/major problem. It sure as hell wasn't.
Yes, it was. Had they not been held involuntarily, none of those things could have been done to them.

If you want to argue, Steve, that Walter often says dumb things, you will get no argument from me. If you also want to argue that he should have said these things differently, then, again, you will get no argument from me. Finally, if you want to argue that Walter unnecessarily provokes people and, in doing so, sets the libertarian cause back, again I will not take the other side.

What I found shocking, and this is what I replied to, was how bad an argument Wildes made and the fact that he made it publicly. In my view, making the argument in the university’s student newspaper was even worse than making it in, say, a letter to the New York Times.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Prof. Henderson's last comment was the best. Block's comments were poorly stated and intended to provoke. Wildes comments were much worse.

Dan King writes:

So I read part of Mr. Block's offending article, and I think he's wrong on historical fact. Woolworth's (the people) was not really interested in stopping Blacks from visiting their lunch counter. They were prohibited by Jim Crow laws from serving Blacks. Hence government is the culprit on both sides, violating the civil rights of both Blacks and Woolworth's.

I also agree with the comments above that some restrictions on private property apply. A public business has to be open to the public. Woolworth's never set itself up as a private club, where arguably discrimination should be allowed. Every other part of the Bill of Rights has limitations--so does this one.

Put another way, a Libertarian principle is that we are all consumers in the free market. That means the market has to be free.

I've written about this here (among other places): http://trotskyschildren.blogspot.com/2013/06/thomas-jefferson-political-correctness.html

CHris writes:

@Steve Horwitz

Dr. Horwitz,

I understand your frustration with Walter, but I think you've gone a bit overboard with this one. We both probably know Walter well enough to know that he includes within the lack of free association all of the atrocities that you have in mind. As Dr. Henderson stated, Walter may say things that are meant to provoke and things that are dumb, but this wasn't as bad as you're making it.

Mark Bahner writes:

I hope somebody who runs a business somewhere reads Jonathan Lingenfeiter's letter. Businesses can use people who can think logically, and write with clarity and brevity. Based on his letter, he's a much better thinker and writer than the president of his university.

Mark Bahner writes:

"Whereas the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was intended to benefit common good, that is it was intended as being good to all Americans."

Roads to a lot of unpleasant places are paved with good intentions.

No one could successfully argue that the men who wrote the Constitution intended that the federal government should have the power to tell a business which customers the business could or could not serve. Therefore, that portion of the Civil Rights Act was clearly in violation of the Constitution. Congress violating the law does is not "good to all Americans."

Mark Bahner writes:

"I completely agree with Jameson. "Otherwise, slavery wasn't so bad..." Did we forget about taking their kids from them?"

That violates the kids' (and the parents') freedom of association. The kids want to be with their parents, and the parents want to be with their kids. It *is* entirely a matter of freedom of association.

"What he said was wrong and stupid and it is not unfair of his critics to think he was minimizing the evils of slavery. Because, in my view, he was."

No, he wasn't. I just got to see "12 Years a Slave" this past weekend. The only problem that Solomon Northup suffered was that he was forced to associate with people with whom he did not wish to associate (e.g. Edwin Epps), and prohibited from associating with people with whom he did wish to associate (e.g., his family back in New York).

Mark Bahner writes:
Owners do not have absolute rights over their property, even their personal dwelling, What ownership consists in, the bundle of ownership rights, is always defined through the State formally or the community informally.

The appropriate question is, "Does anything in the Constitution give the federal government the power to compel an owner of a business to serve a customer that the business owner does not wish to serve?"

The answer is clearly "no." I invite anyone to come up with any historical evidence that the men who wrote the Constitution intended that to be a power of the federal government. I'm sure that, to a man, they'd say, "B-gah???!"

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