March 16th, 2023
Defending the Undefendable
Defending the Undefendable is a “dangerous” book about the commercial society's unsung "heroes," but not necessarily saints, that will challenge your convictions.
Free market capitalism has many enemies. People love to hate the rich “good-for-nothing” bosses of the world, the industrialists that “exploit” the workers, Wall Street traders and speculators and more, rarely understand the role they play in the cog called the market economy. In Defending the undefendable Walter Block goes a step further than just defending those that stare you in the face – he defends the undefendable, what he calls the unsung “heroes” of this world, who are not necessarily saints. Heroes because even if they commit an immoral and unlawful act, they don’t hurt third parties. Despite acting on the black-to-grey market and not being equally protected by the law, everyone of these heroes is nevertheless a net benefit to society.
Think of the prostitute, tackled by Block in the first chapter. A societal pariah, the prostitute is not a profession one is ever proud of, and yet, before people start spewing their insults, they seldom remember that it has been chosen voluntarily. Like it or not, in this imperfect world, “it pays the bills” best. Similar to the prostitutes that trade sexual goods with their clients, so do the pimps, that is trade, in this case, brokering and protection with the prostitutes.
In the third section, we are dealt a hard hand by Block: free speech. The book, written almost fifty years ago doesn’t deal with the problems of the internet era but has a philosophical approach. No one would initially agree with Block’s defense of blackmail, for instance. He argues that blackmail is nothing but “the offer of trade” – usually silence for money. Block continues by explaining that “the sole difference between a gossip and a blackmailer is that the blackmailer will refrain from speaking—for a price.” And if you thought it won’t get more extreme, he also defends the slenderer and the libeler. In short, Block asks, what is reputation, the very thing being ruined by the slenderer and the libeler? Because reputation is “what other people think of you,” that is “it consists of the thoughts which other people have,” you do not “own” your reputation. And what you don’t own cannot be stolen. If the slandering is in fact incorrect, “the public would soon learn to digest and evaluate the statements of libelers and slanderers—if the latter were allowed free rein.”
In the next section, we are introduced to the gypsy cab driver who drives prices down because with him on the streets there is a higher supply of cabs. Again, everybody benefits, except the hurt cabbies protected by the legally granted monopoly power. In essence, Block wrote a defense of Uber and the ride-sharing revolution that changed the world for the better a few decades before it happened.
In many of the chapters, Block explains the role certain groups in society play and in what way they are beneficial to society, as long as they follow Leonard Read’s motto “anything that’s peaceful.” Ticket scalpers, similar to speculators, money lenders, importers, the middleman as well as the profiteer don’t just make money. They take, oftentimes, huge amounts of risk to offer something of value for trade. When their investments fail, they are the ones suffering the losses, not society at large, unless, of course, when the government steps in and “covers” the bill. And when their investment succeeds, they are not the only ones making a profit, but society at large. Think of scalping for a second. Ideally, you, earning higher than many, would have still preferred to buy the concert ticket for your favorite band at the regular price. But because you had to work or were busy otherwise, you had to pay the scalper’s fee. Indeed, the less wealthy folk might not have been able to get scalped tickets, but an example of a sold-out scalper-ticketed concert shows that there has been a market for it. The only reason event organizers don’t employ similar tactics to the full extent is because of the public outcry that would follow.
The book is divided into eight sections with thirty different yet similar heroes, as per Block’s definition. He sometimes goes too far, some might say even for libertarians, when he says that counterfeiting is more than just fine, because after all, what the government has done with our money is nothing less than counterfeiting itself. Nevertheless, whether agreeing with Block on something, nothing, or anything, it is important to go back to the introduction when he says that “this book does not claim that the marketplace is a moral economic institution.” Furthermore, the market produces, “to say the least, highly questionable and in many cases highly immoral” products. And that, if we believe in freedom, with “the basic [libertarian] premise… that it is illegitimate to engage in aggression against nonaggressors,” “these activities should not be punished by jail sentences or other forms of violence. It decidedly does not mean that these activities are moral, proper, or good, and yet, these people are indeed heroes that better society.
Defending the Undefendable is a dangerous book. On many occasions you will be left with your mouth opened in disbelief, wondering how can someone write something like this. Or, you might ask yourself how haven’t you been able to comprehend this before when it has been staring you in the face all this time. In other words, you will be confronted with many commonly held presumptions that should be questioned more often, to say the least. The Blockian heroes might not change your mind as to whether some acts done in the market are moral – that is not his aim anyhow. However, they will show you how through the efficiency of the market economy we are all richer. Transacting with the moral enough for you heroes, you make the world a better place in the process.
The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.
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