Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Walter Block on Laurence Vance and Pornography

The following exchange took place between Dr. Walter Block and an emailer:

Question:  Lawrence Vance is mistaken?

Isn’t Lawrence Vance’s analysis of pornography and the military incompatible with libertarianism?

Here is a link to Lawrence Vance's latest diatribe at LRC.

It seems that Vance's attack on the porn industry and the military violates the NAP. Is it not inflammatory? Does it not attempt to harm the reputation of other individuals? The Sgt., in this case?

In a more general sense, if we are free (in principle, at least) to pursue our aims, ambitions, and desires as long as that pursuit does not harm another, is not Vance's diatribe denying those very choices to the Sgt. and members of the porn industry, not to mention the hundreds of millions of porn viewers world-wide? I am not attacking Vance personally, he is not the only one writing at LRC who slanders and demonizes. Just the most recent.

I would like to see you address this at LRC. I doubt you will, but I believe you should in the interests of all libertarians, no matter how fat or thin. In conversations with friends and others, I find myself trying to defend such libertarian writings that are being compared with the vitriol of a Hillary or a McCain by whomever I'm speaking to. I have no defense. I find myself unable to defend even the yap-dog attacks that Rand was making against his foes. It makes libertarian politicians and writers no different than those at Huffington Post or Salon. And maybe, regrettably, that is true.

Dr. Block Response Response:

When I first saw your critique of Lawrence Vance, I thought right off the bat that you must be wrong. I regard Lawrence as one of the most gifted libertarian theorists on the planet, and I was ready to leap to his defense.  And, on U.S. militarism, he has long been a one-man band excoriating its evil imperialism.  But upon a slightly deeper look at what you wrote, my initial reaction was to side with you. After all, in my book Defending the Undefendable I, I devoted an entire chapter to the defense of the pornographer, and here he was, attacking this calling. But upon a third reading, and deeper consideration, I return to my initial assessment: Lawrence is entirely correct, and your criticisms of him are invalid.

You raise several important points. Let me answer them in the order you raise them, from a libertarian point of view. First, yes, Mr. Vance does indeed “to harm the reputation of other individuals” and does so in an “inflammatory” manner. But, there is nothing here incompatible with libertarians. Paradoxically, people cannot own their own reputations. The latter consist of the thoughts of people other than themselves. (I also have a chapter in Defending I defending libel and slander). Mere inflammation, or incitement, is also compatible with libertarian law. Read up on this in Mr. Libertarian’s book:

Rothbard, Murray N. 1998 [1982]. The Ethics of Liberty, New York: New York University Press.

You might also want to peruse these publications of mine:

Block, Walter E. 2012. “Spike Lee and Incitement.” April 2;;

Block, Walter E. 2011. “Rejoinder to Kinsella and Tinsley on Incitement, Causation, Aggression and Praxeology” Journal of Libertarian Studies; Vol. 22, pp. 641–664;

O'Neill, Ben and Walter E. Block.2013. “Inchoate crime, accessories and constructive malice in libertarian law.” Libertarian Papers, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 219-249;

Second, you couch libertarianism, falsely, as prohibiting harming other people. But we are allowed to harm others, such as in competing with them for spouses, for customers, etc.

Here is what Murray Rothbard had to say about this in his excellent essay on libertarian law:

“Legal and political theory have committed much mischief by failing to pinpoint physical invasion as the only human action that should be illegal and that justifies the use of physical violence to combat it. The vague concept of "harm" is substituted for the precise one of physical violence. Consider the following two examples. Jim is courting Susan and is just about to win her hand in marriage, when suddenly Bob appears on the scene and wins her away. Surely Bob has done great "harm" to Jim. Once a nonphysical-invasion sense of harm is adopted, almost any outlaw act might be justified. Should Jim be able to "enjoin" Bob's very existence?

“Similarly, A is a successful seller of razor blades. But then B comes along and sells a better blade, teflon-coated to prevent shaving cuts. The value of A's property is greatly affected. Should he be able to collect damages from B, or, better yet, to enjoin B's sale of a better blade? The correct answer is not that consumers would be hurt if they were forced to buy the inferior blade, although that is surely the case. Rather, no one has the right to legally prevent or retaliate against "harms" to his property unless it is an act of physical invasion. Everyone has the right to have the physical integrity of his property inviolate; no one has the right to protect the value of his property, for that value is purely the reflection of what people are willing to pay for it. That willingness solely depends on how they decide to use their money. No one can have a right to someone else's money, unless that other person had previously contracted to transfer it to him.”

The correct way to put this is that libertarianism supports all we do except when it violates the rights of our fellows. This is entirely a different matter. And this can be seen in the case of pornography. Does this harm some people? It is difficult to deny this. Many oppose this type of expression, are disgusted by it. But, does it violate human rights, as long as it is conducted by consenting adults? Of course not. And, how does Lawrence Vance treat this practice? Does he condemn it qua libertarian law? He does not. He merely claims it is immoral, an assessment outside of libertarian law. Lookit, there is more to life than libertarianism. There is also aesthetics, ethics, etc.  Vance’s condemnation of pornography as immoral is thus not incompatible with libertarianism. (Yes, if he called for its prohibition, he would be stepping outside the bounds of libertarianism; but he does not do this.)  Moreover, he is making his point vis a vis the military. All to many people see this institution as a paradigm of righteousness. Vance is quite right in pointing out the clay feet of this argument.

Your last point, that libertarians are just like everyone else ‘yapping’ at all and sundry. I also have difficulty accepting this criticism. To me, there is nothing whatsoever wrong about being highly critical of the bad guys. Menger, Bohm-Bawerk, Mises, Rothbard, all engaged in this practice. Heck, you’re engaging in this right now.  The devil is in the details. Libertarians are highly critical of war-mongers, and rights violators. In sharp contrast, the targets of politicians in the major parties (with the exception of Ron Paul) and of writers at Huffington Post or Salon, are those who try to promote liberty. This is entirely a different matter.

1 comment:

  1. Great response by Walter Block. Letting us in on his (Block's) thought process shows how difficult this issue can be. If even Prof. Block vacillates how can we expect the average citizen to take the time to understand the difference between a libertine and a libertarian? As usual Rothbard explains it best.