Professor Walter Block’s Defending the Undefendable is mandatory reading for the libertarian. It’s extremely brief, given the scope of material it covers, easy to read, straightforward, and accessible to the average layman. By using sound economic principles and applying them consistently and vigorously to the most socially stigmatized aspects, Professor Block reaches some startlingly conclusions. Conclusions that initially sound repulsive, but once the clarifying lens of economics is applied thoroughly, we see these matters in a much different light. As Hayek said in his review of this profound work, even if you find yourself disagreeing with Professor Block’s conclusions, it will do you much good to read this book anyway. Professor Block is at his finest when drawing attention to the inherent logical contradictions in so many of the arguments advanced for government intervention:
But the strongest argument against governmental regulation of advertising is not the empirical one showing its dismal record to date, strong though that may be. The strongest argument is the logical one. The reasoning employed by those who want governmental regulation contains a self-contradiction. On the one hand they assert that the American people are unalterably gullible. They must be protected because, left to their own devices, they become victims. They can be made to think, for example, that if they use a certain brand of aftershave lotion, they will end up with the girl in the ad. On the other hand, the argument assumes that the boobs are smart enough to pick political leaders capable of regulating these sirens. This is impossible.
One of the most important consequences of Professor Block’s (successful) defense of the pimp, the prostitute, the litterer, and so on, is that the things we revile about these types of characters, namely the violence, abuse, and other forms of harm associated with them, are revealed to be a consequence of the conditions in which government interventions has created for them. That is to say, the violence that comes to mind between the pimp and prostitute is exacerbated, if not completely caused by, the government prohibition of this voluntary activity. Professor Block’s defense of the litterbug is a perfect illustration of revealing the true villain is not the litterbug, but once again, the conditions created by government intervention:
In the medical practice, on the other hand, littering cannot be tolerated. Operating, consulting, or treatment rooms must be sanitary, well-scrubbed and free of debris. Failure to adopt a strong anti-litter campaign here would involve the administrator of the hospital in financial failure, as it became known that his institution was unsanitary.
In the case of consumption, most restaurants, for example, do not pursue anti-litter campaigns. There are no signs on restaurant walls forbidding the dropping of forks, napkins, or bread crumbs. A restaurant could prohibit litter, but it would lose its customers to other establishments.
What these seemingly disparate examples have in common is to illustrate that in the market, the decision of whether and how much litter to allow is based ultimately on the wishes and desires of the consumers! The question is not treated simplistically and there is no general outcry to “get rid of litterbugs.” There is rather, a careful weighing of the costs and benefits of allowing waste materials to accumulate.
After some hypothesizing about what private ownership of all public land would look like, Block concludes:
In the light of the inflexibility of the government, and its apparent lack of interest in accommodating public tastes, how is the litterbug to be viewed? The litterbug treats public property in much the same way he would treat private property if he were but free to. Namely, he leaves garbage around on it. It has been demonstrated that there is nothing intrinsically evil about this activity, and that but for governmental calcification, it would be as widely accepted in the public arena as it is in the private. It is an activity which should be regulated by people’s needs, not by government fiat.
You know when you are getting gushing praise from both F.A. Hayek and Murray Rothbard you have done something pretty spectacular. Any libertarian who wishes to pursue that system to its logical conclusion owe it to themselves to grapple with the arguments put forth in this libertarian masterpiece.