Walter Block on Slavery: Another View

Many moons ago now, Walter Block was summarily condemned by the president of the university he teaches for — Loyola University New Orleans, a Jesuit university — named Rev. Kevin Wm. Wildes. In his criticism of Dr. Block, he mentions Walter Block’s purported criticism of slavery as “not so bad— you pick cotton and sing songs,” which was quoted in a New York Times article about Rand Paul. He claims that this is tantamount to “hinting to endorse slavery enforced against someone’s free will,” which would then “contradict [Dr. Block’s] basic libertarian principles.”

Many libertarians rightly noted that this quote was taken out of context in the original NYT article, that likely Rev. Wildes never read the source of the quote himself to ascertain any context, and that the quote was not an endorsement of, nor did it “hint” at, endorsement of slavery. In the original piece, Dr. Block was writing in hyperbole in order to draw attention to what was wrong with slavery; namely, it was a forced association between individuals. In the original piece he talked about slavery noting various innocuous features of slavery, which include picking cotton, singing songs, and eating gruel. These are not why slavery is wrong. It is not wrong because of what minimal benefits slaves receive, i.e. food, shelter, or singing while they work; it is wrong because a slave does not get to choose his or her employer or the nature of his or her work. They are bought and sold without the consent of the individual slave. This is a fundamental denial of a slave’s freedom of association.

To put it another way, let’s assume a relationship in which a slave gets better working conditions. They have a beneficent master who is kind to his slaves, feeds the slaves the same food he eats, dresses the slaves in nice clothing, etc. Do we not still condemn this relationship just as much as the one where a slave is fed gruel, beaten, and barely dressed? Of course. In fact, the hypothetical I just presented is the same kind of argument some Southern slave-owners were making leading up to the Civil War; that most slaves were treated kindly and liked their masters. Yet, historians understand that regardless of the truth of this argument of “beneficence”, the institution of slavery is still inherently wrong.

And this brings me to the neglected point in the discussion. Dr. Block’s line of thinking, that most people can recognize slavery is wrong because of its denial of the principle of freedom of association, is not quite true, particularly of his detractors. What do I mean, exactly? Most of his criticizers tend to be of the liberal, socialist, communist, or other leftist ideologies. Hence, it is probably true for them that slaves being fed gruel or forced to live in poor housing is just as wrong as the forced nature of the slave relationship. These individuals are of the idea that every individual is entitled to a minimum wage, adequate housing, food, and so on. This is why things like sweat shops are looked at as inherently “evil”, exploitative, and are akin to slave labor. They subscribe to the idea that if an individual has no other options than to take a job in a sweat shop they are being exploited; whether they chose this or not is of little consequence to them.

In this light, it is easy to see how even if Dr. Block’s detractors understood his argument on slavery, they would likely still disagree with him.