Profiles in Liberty

Walter Block

By: Trent Hill

Walter Block, the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Chair of Economics at Loyola University in New Orleans, is a titan of the freedom movement. He is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, columnist for, and the author of Defending the Undefendableimage and Economics and the Environment: A Reconciliationimage. He is an anarcho-capitalist and an adherent of the Austrian School of economics.

Block attended Brooklyn College for his undergraduate degree and was, by his own admission, “a dumb pinko.” His life changed in 1963, when Ayn Rand came to lecture at his college, and the self-described socialist Block decided to attend in order to boo, hiss, and discredit the abominably capitalist novelist. At a luncheon after the speech, Block challenged Rand’s chief disciple, Nathaniel Branden, to a debate. Before entering into the discussion, Branden insisted on two conditions. First, the argument would not end when the luncheon was over, but would continue until one side had converted the other. Second, Block had to read two books, Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lessonimage and Rand’s Atlas Shruggedimage. After a few rounds of exploratory discussions, Block came around to the limited-government libertarian perspective held by Objectivists, though he claims this was “largely through reading the two books they recommended.”

In 1966, while he was still in graduate school, Block’s path crossed that of libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard. “After I met Murray, it took him probably all of 15 minutes to convert me to the same anarcho-capitalist position I have held ever since,” he says. “In retrospect, before I had met Murray, I was nine-tenths of the way toward embracing laissez-faire capitalist anarchism. All I needed was a little push in the same direction I had already been going for some time.”

Block would go on to receive his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1972, writing his thesis on the economics of rent control. Over the next 36 years, Block became a fixture in the libertarian movement. His contributions to academic libertarianism and to Austrian economics have been prodigious. He has published over 200 articles in refereed journals, been associated with four separate research institutions, and has served as the editor of several journals, including the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, the Review of Austrian Economics, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Cultural Dynamics, and the Journal of Labor Economics.

I interviewed Dr. Block in January, asking him whether his attainment of an endowed chair at Loyola University meant that pro-liberty views were more acceptable in academia. Displaying the positive thinking for which he is well known, he responded, “When I first got into the Austrian-libertarian movement, in 1962, this philosophy was very dormant. Hayek and Mises had both feared that these ideas would die with their passing. Now, there are hundreds of such professors all over the world.” Indeed, the Ludwig von Mises Institute alone has 275 faculty associates, and there are thousands of other libertarian professors all over the country and around the world. But Block is well aware of troubling developments in university life. “Early in my career, the forces of political correctness and cultural Marxism were nonexistent. Today, they are very powerful on every campus. In that sense, the pro-liberty views I espouse are considerably less acceptable in the present academic atmosphere.”

Block was alluding to his recent run-in with those forces at Loyola College in Maryland, where on Nov. 6 he gave a talk at the invitation of fellow Mises Institute scholar Thomas DiLorenzo. This lecture was sponsored by the school’s Adam Smith Society, and over 100 faculty and students attended. Block’s speech, on the topic of “social justice,” provoked outrage from the multicultural Left. When asked what advocates of freedom could learn from the controversy, Block was his typically humorous self:

“It is fun to tweak noses, particularly grandiose noses. I have never had so much fun in my life replying to these people. You know, when I first got into this business in a professional way, I gave several speeches on the topic of my Ph.D. dissertation, on rent control. Boy, was I ready to deal with objections. However, the criticisms, objections, I faced from our friends on the Left had nothing to do with the merits or demerits of rent control. Instead, they were virtually all ad hominems: am I a landlord? Am I in the pay of landlords? Do I like landlords? Do I know any landlords?

“Nothing much has changed. In Baltimore, I gave a straightforward, noncontroversial (within economics, that is) answer to the question of why is it that there is a wage gap between males and females, whites and blacks. Is it due to innate sexism and racism of the free enterprise system? I answered in the negative. But instead of coming to grips with the statistics and logic I employed to make this case, my critics again lowered themselves to ad hominems. Only this time it had nothing to do with landlords. Instead it consisted of name calling. Block is a racist. Block is a sexist. Block is a moron.

“I think the thing to learn is to keep your cool. The other side resorts to such tactics because they have nothing of substance to say. Keep cool, be polite. Ronald Reagan’s favorite saying was non carborundum illegitimi—‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down.’”

Through his years of libertarian activism and scholarly work, Block has crossed paths often with luminaries like Ron Paul, F.A. Hayek, Leonard Liggio, and Roy Childs. He attended Ludwig von Mises’s last lecture at New York University. Block had a cordial relationship with Ayn Rand, something very few libertarians were able to do, and he remembers her being “very gentle and sweet with newcomers like me” but “very bitter and hostile if you were a long-term member of her group and crossed her—criticized her, asked her tough, challenging questions.” He recalls, “what I remember most about her is her sparkling eyes. Boy, did she sparkle. She would make a great entrance—wearing a cape, smoking a cigarette with a long cigarette holder.” Block is also a longtime friend of Congressman Ron Paul, having met him in the 1970s when both of them were “members of the hard-money—gold—libertarian movement.”

Block has long been involved with student organizations within the pro-liberty movement. In 1969, he was present and active—helping Karl Hess and Murray Rothbard stir things up—at the national Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) convention in St. Louis, where libertarians and conservatives first split in earnest.He was later involved with the Radical Libertarian Alliance and the Society for Individual Liberty, student groups full of libertarians, voluntaryists, and individualists. I asked Block if he thought pro-liberty groups like Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) are important today:

“Yes, yes, yes. Did I mention yes? Groups of this sort are extremely helpful to our cause. They raise a banner around which students who favor free enterprise, private property rights and limited government can rally around. It is very lonely being a student on campus, surrounded by hordes of socialists, including fellow classmates and professors. It is good to realize that there are other students on campus of like mind. That is a great function that YAL and other such groups, provide. If they only did that, that would be enough. But they typically do so much more: set up meetings, Invite outside speakers who can articulate the freedom philosophy, raise money, and do legwork for candidates.”

At the end of our interview I asked Block if he believes universities are more receptive to the ideas of liberty now than when he was a student. “Yes and no. Yes, there are many, many more people espousing these ideas nowadays. No, the campus student radicals of the 1960s are now the professors and administrators. For them, diversity means having a faculty with a female Marxist, a black Marxist, a homosexual Marxist, a transgendered Marxist.” His response was not a compliment to modern academia, but it gives pro-liberty students all the more reason to fight on. Perhaps someday we will take the commanding heights of the public universities—right before we privatize them.

Trent Hill [] is a history major at Louisiana State University. He runs a blog focusing on third party news at