James Gill: Block raises controversy again

They’re handing out pink slips at Loyola University, where much of the faculty would love to see the back of cantankerous old Walter Block.

Won’t happen, for Block is a tenured professor, and thus can offend with impunity. He does it so often that you have to figure he enjoys it.

The rest of us certainly do. Academic squabbles can be great spectator sport.

Block, as a prominent Libertarian and adherent of the Austrian School of Economics, will always be viewed as a maverick in academe. But he has excelled himself this time. When the New York Times reported that he thought “slavery wasn’t so bad,” outrage swept through the campus.

In a letter to the university newspaper, The Maroon, Loyola President Kevin Wildes said he would give Block “a failing grade” for presenting “assertions without argument or evidence, to gain attention.” Scores of faculty members signed another letter to the editor calling for the university to “take the long overdue and necessary steps to condemn and censure Professor Block,” and expatiating on the “considerable scholarship” that shows slavery was “an intellectually, economically, politically and socially condemnable institution.”

They urged Block to “educate himself on the reality of American slavery,” and described various cruelties inflicted by the “traders in human flesh.”

Only Ph.D.s could iterate the blindingly obvious so stridently. Did it not occur to even one of them that a pro-slavery Libertarian is a contradiction in terms? Given their faith in “scholarship,” you’d think they could figure out that Block does not really hanker for the days of involuntary servitude.

Still, Block, by accident or design, does tend to advance his arguments in the most inflammatory style possible, and his puckish sense of irony will always confound the earnest and literal-minded. There’s no shortage of such characters on any campus.

Block did indeed utter the words attributed to him in the New York Times when he was being interviewed for a profile of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., his ally in the anti-statist cause and a contender for the presidential nomination next time round. Block was explaining his theory that freedom of association is the cornerstone of liberty. His somewhat obvious point was, you got free association, you got no slavery. Thus, the “only real problem,” according to Block, was that “it violated the law of free association, and that of the slaves’ private property rights in their own persons.”

But he was really asking for trouble when he said, “Otherwise, slavery wasn’t so bad. You could pick cotton, sing songs, be fed nice gruel etc.” That was evidently a clumsy attempt to be cute. Excitable academics were bound to take it as a serious endorsement of slavery.

Wildes in his letter did note that “by even hinting to endorse slavery enforced against someone’s free will, Dr. Block seems to contradict his basic libertarian principles,” but evidently did not pause to wonder whether that was really the intention.

You might think that “slavery enforced against someone’s free will” is seriously redundant, but there is one professor at Loyola who is on record as saying “voluntary slavery” is OK. That professor, of course, is Block.

If, on this occasion, Block’s remarks have been misconstrued — surely nobody these days doubts that slavery was pure evil — he can be pretty provocative even when his meaning is clear. He believes, for instance, that the Civil Rights Act infringed on the right of free association and “made partial slaves of the owners of establishments like Woolworths.”

The last time he had the campus in an uproar was when he delivered a lecture explaining that black people and women deserved to be paid less because they are less productive.

He has now written his “Reply to the Scurrilous, Libelous, Venomous, Scandalous New York Times Smear Campaign,” and is evidently offended to be cast as a fan of slavery.

But he shouldn’t be surprised. If he didn’t relish controversy, he would choose his words more carefully.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.