Tuesday, April 21, 2015

In Defense of Walter Block

CounterPunch is carrying a vicious post  about Walter Block, written by Kevin Carson.

The focus of the attack is a Block essay that was published at LewRockwell.com.

The essay, titled The Gentrifier, simply makes the case that there is nothing evil about real estate values going up and the accompanying changes in a neighborhood becasue of those increasing values and the accompanying rent increases. Writes Dr. Block:
Gentrification has a bad press. It would appear that the gentrifier (he who engages in gentrification) is a malign exploiter, a bully, someone who takes advantage of the weak and the poor. And these are the nice things said about him.
What is the case against this practice? First and foremost, it pushes previous residents out of their homes. These people may have lived in their neighborhoods for years. They may be the third or fourth generation to occupy these premises. But when someone comes along, flashing big bucks, it is game over: the occupants have to vacate.

What is the means through which the gentrifiers do their evil deeds? They simply try to purchase real estate in the target area, or attempt to rent accommodation there, thus bidding up rents and sale prices higher than would otherwise exist. The locals cannot compete with these hyped up rates, and are forced to retreat. Where do they go? Who knows? But wherever it is, they now occupy less preferred real estate. We know this since if they liked their new domiciles more than their previous ones, they would have already moved there, without any pressure being placed on the market by the new gentry. And it not only homes those forced to leave lose out on. These houses are part of neighborhoods, communities, associations. They have a history there. Their children are wrenched away from their friends....

In order to put this into context, let us consider other arenas apart from real estate. For, something very much like gentrification occurs all throughout the economy. Take automobiles for example. The rich get the pickings and the poor the leavings. The former walk away, or, rather, ride away, in cars such as the Mercedes, the Rolls Royce, the Cadillac; the latter have to content themselves with the vastly inferior Fords, Chevrolets, Hondas, Toyotas. The only difference between this case and the former is that the poor were never “pushed out” of luxurious vehicles, and into inferior ones. They never had the better cars in the first place. Otherwise, the story is the same: the rich eat high off the hog, the poor take the hind quarters. Ditto with food: it is lobster and steak for the wealthy, spaghetti and peanut butter for the impoverished.

But is this unfair? Certainly not. Assume that the rich came by their wealth in an honest way, not through government grants of special privileges, subsidies, bail-outs, a la crony capitalism, but via laissez faire capitalism. Thus they have contributed more to everyone else than the poor. If anything would be unfair, it would be that the well-to-do would have to take the leavings and those without much honestly earned wherewithal get the lion’s share. Or, that everything gets divided equally. We can see that opposition to gentrification is at least in part a disguised demand for equality.
How does CounterPunch portray this argument by Dr. Block? With this headline,“Libertarians” For Ethnic Cleansing.

First off, one may or may not like Dr Block's position, but there is no need for sneer quotes around Libertarians. A fundamental principle of libertarianism is a respect for property rights. Dr. Block is arguing well within the boundaries of standard libertarianism when he makes his case for the gentrifier, since Block never wavers from his recognition that it is the owner of the property, who has the final say on a rent price or sale.

Carson, however, attributes an argument to Block, which is simply a misreading of Block. Block writes at one point:
When the Olympics come to town, people are moved en masse to make way for the new stadiums, swimming pools, ball fields, etc. Ditto for the World’s Fairs. They, too, export inhabitants with a long history, willy nilly. 
Block follows this comment two sentences later with:
This is the usual argument put forth by those who oppose gentrification.
There are grave problems with this account. 
In other words, this does not mean that Block is in favor of eminent domain takings, it means that Block is using the Olympics as an example of how anti-gentrifiers argue their case.

Carson takes a different view of what Block writes and finishes with another suggestion that Block is in favor of "ethnic cleansing."
 After this display of pathos on behalf of the poor, suffering rich folks, I halfway expect (with apologies to Blazing Saddles) one of Block’s graduate assistants to step in with “I sure hate to see you like this, Boss. Would it make you feel any better if I was to go and shoot them poor people dead?”

Block doesn’t go quite that far, but he does include in his list of gentrification examples (alongside college students “who often have more money to spend than the people they replace”) the wholesale eviction of poor people from their neighborhoods for the sake of projects like World’s Fairs and the Olympics. In cities that host the Olympics, he notes matter-of-factly, “people are moved en masse to make way for the new stadiums, swimming pools, ball fields, etc…. They, too, export inhabitants with a long history, willy nilly. They, too, eradicate cultures and communities that were thriving before the rampage took place.”

Block neglects to mention that all these things “happen” with the very active involvement of local government using eminent domain to demolish entire neighborhoods (mostly inhabited by poor people of color); we recently saw an example in Brazil, with demolition of favelas for the World Cup on a scale that would put Israel’s operations on the West Bank to shame. The ethnic cleansing extends further, to driving away street vendors and sweeping homeless people out of sight.

All this framing by Carson as the poor against the rich, when Block is really in the end just talking about the recognition of property rights, (and the value created by free market rich) suggests that perhaps Block's most insightful comment in his essay is when he writes:
 We can see that opposition to gentrification is at least in part a disguised demand for equality. 
How true.

Block also  makes clear he is only talking about wealth honestly earned:
 Assume that the rich came by their wealth in an honest way, not through government grants of special privileges, subsidies, bail-outs, a la crony capitalism, but via laissez faire capitalism. 
When this is the case, all real estate transactions, be they rent increases or housing sales at higher prices are free exchanges that do not violate the non-aggression principle. They are, in other words, truly libertarian. To label someone making this point as being in favor of "ethnic cleansing" is quite the evil distortion, especially against someone like Dr. Block, who is Jewish, and may know a thing or two about what real attempts at ethnic cleansing are all about.



  1. Kevin should write more articles like this so that he can show the world how left-libertarianism is retarded.

    1. There is no such thing as "left-libertarianism" ---- if it's "left" it's against anything that libertarianism stands for. The leftists fear liberty, free markets and free thinking.

  2. Carson should stick to looking for remunerative employment because begging for money to pay a lawyer for a D.U.I. charge is kind of giving it to your opponents.

  3. Pardon my ignorance, but isn't the phrase "left-libertarianism" a contradiction in terms?

  4. The problem of gentrification is due to the preeminent role that taxation plays. In other words, politicians use their power to tax and then complain about the consequences.