Saturday, October 28, 2017

Walter Block Solves the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Philosophy

What is the meaning of life?
Where did we come from?
Why are we here?
What is reality?

HA!  Those are simple; mere child’s play – challenges for the lesser philosophers like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.  Walter need not waste his time on such trivialities.  No, I am talking about the connection of libertarianism and culture: is it beneficial – no, even necessary – to maintain a certain type of culture if one wishes to move toward and maintain a libertarian society?  To my surprise (and, I am willing to bet, to Walter’s surprise as well), Walter answered this question more than 20 years ago.

Libertarianism and Libertinism, by Walter Block; Journal of Libertarians Studies, Volume 11, Number 1 (1994).

The least important point Walter makes in this essay is to clarify the difference between libertarianism and libertinism; beyond this, he does significantly more.  I will suggest that he may have made the connection of libertarianism and culture far better than anyone has done since – certainly better than I have done, maybe even better than Hoppe has done (and Hans will likely be surprised by this statement – well, the second part of this statement).

I will spend little time on the immediate subjects:

Libertarianism is a political philosophy.  It is concerned solely with the proper use of force.

Force is justifiable only in defense of or retaliation for aggression against a person or his property.

Libertine: …a person who loves, exults in, participates in, and / or advocates the morality of all sorts of perverse acts, but who at the same time eschews all acts of invasive violence.

OK – but you already knew all of that.  Let’s get to the good stuff:

There is only one thing [the libertarian] cannot do, and still remain a libertarian: He cannot advocate, or participate in, the use of force against these [libertine] people.

Yeah, I know – this doesn’t solve anything in this “libertarians and culture” debate.  Just settle down – do you think solving the greatest problem in philosophy just takes a couple of sentences to explain?

Walter places himself in the category of the cultural conservative who opposes libertinism.  Why?

First and foremost, because it is immoral: Nothing could be more clear than that these perversions are inimicable to the interest and betterment of mankind.

Question: can a society attain and maintain a libertarian order if the actions of individuals in that society work against the “interest and betterment of mankind,” in other words, towards mankind’s destruction?  Doesn’t it seem inherently contradictory, even impossible: a self-destructive libertarian society?

Walter offers another reason – tradition:

At one time I would have scoffed at the idea of doing something merely because it was traditional, and refraining because it was not.  My every instinct would have been to do precisely the opposite of the dictates of tradition.

That’s before he fully appreciated Hayek’s fatal conceit:

From reading his many works (for example, Hayek, 1973), I came to realize that traditions which are disruptive and harmful tend to disappear, whether through voluntary change, or more tragically, by the disappearance of societies that act in accordance with them. (Emphasis added)

Is it possible to have a libertarian society in a society that is disappearing due to disruptive and harmful traditions?  Seems kind of mutually exclusive, doesn’t it.

Presumably, then, if a tradition has survived, it has some positive value, even if we cannot see it.

This is pure Jordan Peterson.  There is a reason that surviving traditions survive: they “work.”  They work in the manner Walter has described above: they work toward the interest and betterment of mankind.  The ones that don’t work get modified or tossed aside; if not tossed aside, the society that maintains (or moves toward) traditions that don’t work will commit suicide.

Of course, this suggests the possibility that tradition can be self-governing.  I agree with this wholeheartedly, if tradition is left to the market.  When tradition-destroying activities are encouraged and subsidized by the state, there is no self-governance; there is only the road to destruction.  Call this one the wide path to hell.

As an aside, nations (and I did not write nation-states) were traditionally formed this way – left to the market. Joe Salerno offers an excellent summary of Mises on this matter.

But, returning to Walter:

Tradition, however, is just a presumption, not a god to be worshipped.  It is still reasonable to alter and abolish those traditions which do not work.

Again, what is meant by “work”?  Toward the interest and betterment of mankind.  Traditions that work survive; traditions that do not work are modified or eliminated.  Well, if left to the market.

Walter offers the value of religion:

Religion now seems to me one of the last best hopes for society, as it is one of the main institutions still competing valiantly with an excessive and overblown government.

Well, at least when it comes to organized, mainstream religion, I think times have changed a lot since 1994.  But this in no way diminishes Walter’s point: competing governance institutions, institutions to be found in the traditions of society.  Absent competing governance institutions, all we are left with is monopoly government by force.  Does that sound very libertarian?

We suffer far too much state interference.  One remedy is to apply moral measurement to government.

I know Walter views this as a dead end road – you cannot get moral from the inherently immoral.

Another is to place greater reliance on “mediating” institutions, such as the firm, the market, the family, and the social club.

And the aforementioned “religion.”

These organizations – predicated upon a moral vision and spiritual values – can far better provide for mankind’s needs than political regimes.

These organizations, all making up the fabric of tradition and culture in society.

Walter offers further reasons:

I have come to believe that each of us has a soul, or inner nature, or animating spirit, or personhood, or purity, or self-respect, or decency, call it what you will.  It is my opinion that some acts – the very ones under discussion, as it happens – deprecate this inner entity.

Yes, call it what you will: man has something that is missing in every other living creature on earth.  Is it possible that a society made up of individuals who so callously abuse this soul or inner spirit can at the same time maintain a society that respects the non-aggression principle?  They can be abusive against themselves but not against others?

I think about this when it comes to abortion.  Set aside whatever arguments you believe make this a valid libertarian practice: is it possible for a society that so callously views the lives of tens of millions of the most innocent and vulnerable to at the same time defend the non-aggression principle?

…this destruction of individual character has grave repercussions for all of society.

Do you think that Walter is thinking of the future libertopia when he writes of “grave repercussions”?  I think not.

Walter examines the value of traditional marriage; he offers the benefits of this institution in raising children.  I will add: the patriarchal family structure is perhaps the most important governance institutions standing between man and the state.

Why do you think the state works so hard to destroy all of these traditional institutions?  Simple answer: when their work is complete, there will be only one option remaining.  The state.

Ask yourself: which culture is subsidized in the west?  Is it the one that values western civilization and the conservative, or the libertine and foreign?  Absent the subsidy, what result would you expect to see in the market?  If libertarians do not recognize this and are unable to draw the proper response, they are contributing to, in Walter’s words, “the disappearance” of society.

Good luck building a libertarian world on that foundation.


Why do I suggest at the beginning of this essay that Walter will be surprised that he has solved the unsolvable (Hey, maybe the title of a new book)?  From my opening paragraph:

…is it beneficial – no, even necessary – to maintain a certain type of culture if one wishes to move toward and maintain a libertarian society?  To my surprise (and, I am willing to bet, to Walter’s surprise as well), Walter answered this question more than 20 years ago.

Walter answered the question, as you can see from the above.  The problem is, he didn’t (and, to my knowledge, still doesn’t) state openly that he has answered it.  He has left this ground for Hans Hoppe to plough, perhaps never realizing how closely he is aligned with Hans on this matter.

I will do so: if one desires moving toward libertarianism, culture matters, and a certain kind of culture.  One built on tradition, one that has a healthy sense about improving what works (as defined above) and eliminating what doesn’t work.  One that does not subsidize behavior of any sort.  One that allows the free market for culture and tradition to work.

Do you want a libertarian order?  Start with that.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. "Why do you think the state works so hard to destroy all of these traditional institutions? Simple answer: when their work is complete, there will be only one option remaining. The state."

    This quote needs to be bronzed and framed on your homepage.

  3. There is only one thing that explains reality and answers the questions at the beginning of your post. While Stand to Reason is overall a great apologetics ministry, they are mistaken on the time frame of the Creation week, the age of the earth, the meaning of the word "day" in Genesis Chapter One, etc. (just a small caveat) But the following short video that they just released (four minutes) is excellent at providing the world view, or grid, that we must judge all things (including libertarianism, culture, etc.) by.

  4. Ah Traditions... like nepotism, Good ole Boy, backward thinking... etc...(I'll refrain from mentioning religious). Traditions tend to hang around beyond one's life span regardless... so what good is a non-workable theory.

    1. And the state is always forward thinking and merit based? Think Bush or Clinton or worse the dictatorship/monarchy in North Korea. All of these are examples of the worst kind of nepotism, Good ole Boy networking and backward thinking.

      But nepotism is actually a positive. Who do you trust more? Your family and friends, or the recent Ivy League graduate who wants $60000 with their psychology degree?

  5. One of the things which attracted me to the Mises Institute was their parading Ayn Rand quotes in attractive memes floating around social media. I assumed they, and Libertarianism as a whole, was grounded on Aristotle (and by extension, Rand). Surely any thinking individual can appreciate my confusion when I encountered what I perceived to be cognitive dissonance popping up here n' there.

    So, yes, I'm disappointed and feel somewhat misled, but overall am glad for the intellectual exercise. It turns out my instincts and reason were spot on. My next step is to further understand the dissonance of the libertarian movement by reading Peter Schwartz's booklet entitled "Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty" promising to be "a devastating analysis of why Libertarianism and liberty are antithetical ideas".

    Live and learn, right?


    1. Perhaps you can spend your time on a Randian site?

      Pearl, I think you will set a record for this site.

    2. Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum, Peter Schwartz and Leonard Peikoff don’t like foreign non-intervention. As Ms. Rosenbaum said regarding Israel:

      The Arabs are one of the least developed cultures. They are typically nomads. Their culture is primitive, and they resent Israel because it's the sole beachhead of modern science and civilization on their continent. When you have civilized men fighting savages, you support the civilized men, no matter who they are. Israel is a mixed economy inclined toward socialism. But when it comes to the power of the mind—the development of industry in that wasted desert continent—versus savages who don't want to use their minds, then if one cares about the future of civilization, don't wait for the government to do something. Give whatever you can. This is the first time I've contributed to a public cause: helping Israel in an emergency.- Ford Hall Forum Lecture, 1974

      This is in keeping with Rand's broader theory about "primitive" cultures. She explains that one’s right to be protected by the NAP is dependent upon one’s philosophical justifications for it:

      They (Native Americans) didn't have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using. What was it that they were fighting for, when they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their 'right' to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent. Q & A session following her Address To The Graduating Class Of The United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, March 6, 1974

      Peter Schwartz explains the importance of defending Israel:

      Murray Rothbard isn’t happy:

    3. Bob, precisely what I think about when someone lauds Rand and denigrates LvMI / Rothbard.

      Pure, evil, criminal, immoral. Pearl has cast herself before swine.

    4. The back story is that I’m triggered by the very mention of Peter Schwartz. In the 80s, we had a loudmouth “Objectivist” talk show host here in Detroit who had Schwartz on as a guest about once a month. An obnoxious, arrogant Objectivist version of Mark Levin with a deeper voice who you just want to slap. I have had “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty” somewhere in the attic for 30 years.

    5. "a loudmouth Objectivist”

      The Department of Redundancy Department.

    6. Bob Roddis, I appreciate your providing that troubling detail about Ayn Rand, her stance on "primitive cultures". I find that conviction repulsive. I will also take your other points into serious consideration as I continue my quest.

      I was aware of the Objectivists’ stance on interventionism, and as the very nature of Objectivism allows that truth can be known by facts grounded in reality, I have to be honest and admit that with all the abundance of damning evidence undermining the official story of 9/11, it troubles me how they themselves are willfully ignorant and advocate the course of action taken by our government.

      So, while I am an enthusiastic proponent of their philosophic assumptions, which are diametrically opposed to Platonism which asserts that the unwashed masses cannot know anything and must rely on philosopher kings to guide them (affirmed by Luther’s assertion that reason is “the devil’s whore”), I know the Objectivists wouldn’t have me since I believe in God. Likewise, if my wearing the Objectivist label dictated that I must agree that my individual rights trump my neighbor’s (as in, “who is my neighbor?”), then I am most certainly not a card-carrying Objectivist.

      Meanwhile, as an individual with no mediator but Christ, I will continue to reason, yea, even celebrate it, and do my very best to apply consistent logic to any problem which confronts me. I am convinced that neglecting to do so is to spit in the face of God who made me, who purchased me with His blood; akin to burying the talent given me.


  6. "Perhaps you can spend your time on a Randian site?"

    Lol...gee, you think?