This is interview #27 in JohnsonForAmerica.com’s “Important Voices” series, where we talk with key figures, such as elected officials, candidates, authors, commentators, and policy experts, about the issues of the day. A new interview is released every Monday and every Thursday, so check back often!
Our guest for today’s Important Voices interview is Walter Block. Walter earned his PhD in Economics at Columbia University. He is an author, editor, and co-editor of many books, including Defending the Undefendable. Dr. Block has written more than 500 articles for various non-refereed journals, magazines and newspapers, and is a contributor to several economic journals. He is currently a professor and chair of economics, college of business administration, at Loyola University.
Josiah Schmidt: How did you come to hold such a liberty-oriented philosophy?
Walter Block: Born in 1941 in Brooklyn, I was brought up amongst Jewish liberals (almost a redundancy) and naturally fell into this mode of thinking. Everyone around me could hardly be wrong, especially to a teenager who had never read, nor even heard about, any alternative philosophy. I went to grade school, high school and then college, always pretty secure in these beliefs. In 1963, when I was a senior at Brooklyn College, Ayn Rand came there to give a lecture. I attended, along with about 3,000 of my fellow mainly leftish students, in order to boo and hiss her, since she was evil incarnate. Afterward, the president of the group that had invited her to campus announced there was to be a luncheon in her honor, and anyone was welcome to take part, whether or not they agreed with her ideas. Not having had enough booing and hissing at Ayn in her formal lecture, I decided to avail myself of this opportunity to further express my displeasure with her and her views. When I arrived at the luncheon, I found that the group was sitting in “pecking order”: Ayn Rand at the head of the table, Nathaniel Branden and Leonard Peikoff, first along the two sides of the table, and the lesser lights ranged alongside. I was of course relegated to the foot of this august assembly, whereupon I turned to my neighbor, a neophyte as it turned out, and tried to argue the socialist side of a debate against capitalism. He replied that he really wasn’t very knowledgeable about this issue, but that the people located at the other end of the table certainly were. At this point I betook myself there, stuck my head between Ayn’s and Nathan’s, and announced that there was a socialist here who wanted to debate someone on economic issues pertaining to capitalism. (I was a bit of a chutzpanick in those days). They politely asked, Who was this socialist, and I replied that it was me. Nathan very graciously offered to come to the other end of the table with me for this purpose, but he imposed two preconditions: first, I would be honor bound not to allow this conversation to lapse with this one meeting, but would continue with it until we had achieved a resolution: either he would convince me of the error of my ways, or I would convince him of his. Second, I would read two books he would later recommend to me (Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt). I agreed, and we spoke for an hour or so upon that occasion, followed up four or five times more for a similar duration at his apartment, where some of the other Randians took part, including Ayn, Leonard Piekoff, Barbara Branden and Alan Greenspan. At the end of this process I was converted to libertarianism. I devoured both books and became a strong adherent of what I now know as the limited government libertarian position or minarchism. I began attending Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI) courses first at various hotels, and then in the basement of the Empire State Building.
I was a philosophy major, but when I graduated, I couldn’t decide whether a master’s degree in economics or philosophy would better enable me to learn more about, and eventually be able to professionally contribute to, my new love and passion. Not knowing which was better, I pursued both: a masters degree in philosophy at Brooklyn College, and a masters in economics at City College of New York. I would take 5 courses each semester, sometimes 3/2 favoring the one, sometimes the other. Finally, just when I was on the verge of almost completing both courses of study, I decided upon economics, and applied to and was accepted by the PhD program at Columbia University. (As a philosophy major undergraduate, I had had only two economics courses; my part time graduate study in economics, I think, was the equivalent of an undergraduate major in the dismal science). During this time I continued to attend NBI courses, but was quickly becoming disaffected. The economics and political philosophy (laissez faire capitalism) was good, but there was all too much insisting upon the fact that “A was A” and that Brahms was better than Mozart. I wasn’t much interested in objectivist metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics or culture. Then, too, I had noticed a certain robotic adherence to the hierarchy. Hardly anyone would vouchsafe an opinion in an uncharted area without first checking up the line in the pecking order. The term “randroid” became a reality for me. I continued to attend NBI, since they were still the only people in town known to me to favor free enterprise, but less frequently and with less enthusiasm. My first year as a graduate student at Columbia University was a disaster. They kept us so busy with work that it wasn’t until late in the spring that I realized that I hated economics and was bored by it. What was taught there under that rubric had very little connection to the content of Economics in One Lesson. Most of it consisted of statistics, mathematical economics, econometrics and matrix algebra. I stuck it out since I had a student deferment from the Vietnam war, and neoclassical economics, as boring and stultifying as it was, seemed far better than that alternative. One bright spot in my first year was Professor Gary Becker. His insistence on applying economics to all sorts of weird things it had not been applied to before (family, marriage, crime, discrimination, etc.) seemed like a breath of fresh air. However, while he had a reputation as a free enterpriser, I was disappointed at the level of his moderation. I remember once arguing with him that the minimum wage should be abolished. His view, in contrast, was that it should be frozen in place, and then inflation would dissipate the real value of it. When I replied that inflation, too, was immoral, and that as long as the minimum wage in real terms was greater than zero it would create forced unemployment for all those with marginal revenue product below that level, and that was illicit, he looked at me, appalled, at the extremist I was already becoming. In my second year of graduate school Larry Moss entered Columbia University as a first year graduate student. He immediately saw an affinity between what he and I were saying in class. He offered to introduce me to one Murray Rothbard, but I declined. For one thing, I was far too busy. They were still piling work on us to an incredible degree. For another, Larry made Murray sound like some sort of weirdo, at least to my ears as they were then. Imagine: government not needed at all! Why … that would be anarchy. Preposterous.
Josiah Schmidt: What is one of your greatest memories of the legendary Murray Rothbard?
Walter Block: My greatest memory of Murray is laughing. Laughing so hard that my stomach hurt. It was not for nothing that even Bill Buckley, no friend of Murray’s, characterized Murray in this way. Laughing, laughing, laughing all the time. I never had so much fun as when I was in Murray’s company.
Josiah Schmidt: You are well-known for your book, Defending the Undefendable, in which you explain and justify many looked-down-upon or “black market” professions from the perspective of the free market. But one market participant you did not cover was the insurance provider who denies coverage. Can even he be defended?
Walter Block: Yes, they can be. Insurance only applies to examples where we know a lot about the behavior of large groups, but little about individuals. For example, mortality tables. But, we don’t know who will win the next Super Bowl. That is a non insurable event, because it is a unique event. And what about insuring people with a prior history of illness? Insurance companies would insure such people, but will have to charge them high premiums, if they are not to go bankrupt. But the high premiums will lead to resentment, which will lead to government regulation. So, insurance companies will steer clear of such customers, in the present atmosphere. However, in the truly free society, insurance companies, fearing no such backlash, would likely ensure very sick people. Heck, they would even give fire insurance to a house that is already on fire, provided, only, that the premiums could be high enough.
Josiah Schmidt: Thanks very much for taking the time to answer these questions.