Appendix: An Answer to Walter Block

Walter Block’s “answer” to Peter Schwartz pamphlet was confused and rambling. (Tibor Machan, by the way, gave him a long and impassioned answer, but I do not remember much of the content.) I later wrote an answer to some of the points mentioned by Block; I wanted it distributed to all congress attendants and even offered to pay the postage myself, but this did not happen.

I shall preamble this answer by explaining why I put it in writing rather than communicate it orally.

I did not come to the convention in order to debate Walter Block. I wanted to show why natural rights philosophy needs a solid foundation and how, in essence, Objectivism provides that foundation. I did not want to debate Peter Schwartz’ pamphlet, because I think that pamphlet speaks for itself and everyone concerned should read it and make his own judgment. Furthermore, such a debate would put me in the peculiar and slightly embarrassing position of acting as a stand-in for Peter Schwartz. I don’t like to be a stand-in for anyone. (To do so would actually violate the principle of ethical egoism, of which one point is that you cannot live somebody else’s life.)

This of course means that I took a calculated risk by appearing at all, since I knew Walter Block was to speak in the same slot. But I trusted people would be able to see the “dis”-connection between our respective speeches, and judging by what people said to me afterwards, I was right.

But I did not come prepared to counter wild misrepresentations of Objectivism. And as this is what Mr. Block presented, I would like to give you some answers to them.

To begin with, I talked about axioms, and so Mr. Block found it expedient to pick the term “axiom” and apply it to the Libertarian principles of “non-aggression” and “self-ownership”. Now, I think this tactic backfired, because a few persons I talked to later did see by themselves the point I will now make: namely, that when I talked about axioms, I really meant axioms, i.e. statements of fundamental facts at the base of all knowledge and why such a base is needed – while Mr. Block merely tossed the word around. “Non-aggression” is clearly not an axiom. It has to be supported by a vast philosophical structure, otherwise it’s meaningless.

As for the alleged axiom of “self-ownership”, I agree completely with Tibor Machan’s criticism. The term is meaningless on the face of it, if taken literally. If you use the term at all, you must realize it’s a metaphorical usage. Historically, I think it goes back to a statement by John Locke that “every man has a property in his own person” – which is fine, as a rhetorical device but would not serve as a formal axiom.[1]

But here is something I object most emphatically to. Mr. Block stated that Objectivism has a great many tenets (which is true) and then proceeded to give a list, including among other things “A is A”, “Rachmaninoff is better than Beethoven” and “it’s good to smoke”. (He did not include, for some mysterious reason, the essential corollary of this axiom, namely that smoking to be an unbreached virtue has to be performed by means of long cigarette-holders.)

But how could anyone put the purported axiom of smoking on a par with the law of identity? Where does it say that Objectivism condemn non-smokers and Hegelians alike? This is a “grab-bag” approach to Objectivism and has no place in a serious criticism.

As for the point of Rachmaninoff versus Beethoven, I’d like to point out that Leonard Peikoff gave a full 12-lecture course (Understanding Objectivism) devoted to this and related kinds of confusions (I mean ideas such as that a “hard-core” Objectivist has to share Ayn Rand’s every taste and value in every kind of detail). Now, if there is a problem of authoritarianism and rigid orthodoxy within Objectivism, then the one person doing a job of handling this aspect is Leonard Peikoff, and he should receive some credit for that.

Now, there are alleged inconsistencies and betrayals of her own principles on the part of Ayn Rand, principles which Walter Block obviously understands much better than Miss Rand herself did. The main one was that she “sanctioned” the stealing of tax-payers’ money by appearing as an honored guest at the Apollo 11 launch.

Now, the whole point of this appearance and her subsequent article on the subject is that this was a tribute to and a passionate defense of technology, of Man’s conquest of nature. The question of the taxpayers’ money is insignificant in comparison. There are so many ways the government milks us dry that the space-program is merely a drop in the ocean.

Now, Miss Rand mentioned in the article that she was opposed to government financing, but Mr. Block dismissed that by saying that the sentence was so tiny that nobody might notice it. Let me answer to that, that anyone who knows anything of Ayn Rand at all knows her stand on the proper role of government and does not need any long reiteration of it. And people who don’t know anything of Ayn Rand don’t read “Apollo 11”. So the whole point is pointless.

Now, I’m certain that Miss Rand’s appearance at the moon launch was a betrayal of principles – of Libertarian principles, that is, or at least the principles of some Libertarians. But then Miss Rand was not a Libertarian guru and emphatically did not want to be. So the proper answer is: “If this be treason, make the most of it.”

But what was really shocking and disgusting about Mr. Block’s discussion of this subject was the comparison between it and Robert Stadler’s endorsement of “Project X” in Atlas. Now, if Libertarians think the only thing wrong with Project X was that it was a government project, then no wonder they are Libertarians. Project X was a tool of destruction. It’s aim was to kill, and to enslave the population by the threat of killing. (True, it was also financed by stolen money, and true, that is evil. But does this evil get erased, if it is financed privately for some private galaxy-blaster instead?)

Now contrast this with the moon launch. Does this have the purpose of enslaving mankind or the US population? Clearly not. There is a military purpose involved, but that has to do with warding off Soviet aggression, which only a hard-core Rothbardian could oppose. But the thing which makes a moon launch a great productive endeavor is that it marks the inauguration of Man’s conquest of space. It is really a milestone in Man’s development, or at least we have reason to hope it will be.

Paying tribute to such an enormous achievement of the human mind is what Walter Block regards as “Stadlerite”. Now, I’m not a friend of indiscriminate moral condemnation, but here it is really in its place. So I’ll say that this whole argument should be shoved up the bowel where it belongs.

(As for the West Point speech, which was also mentioned, the issue here is whether America is a moral country and whether it has the moral right to self-defense. If not, then of course not. But if you accept these premises, then you would have to stretch you imagination quite a bit to interpret a “Thank you” and a salute as a blank check for any atrocities committed in war, let alone conscription.)

Now, I don’t know whether Walter Block has listened to The Philosophy of Objectivism or gotten his information second-hand, but he takes up a couple of points mentioned by Peikoff in question periods in this course. One is the subject of a World Government and the other is secession.

What Peikoff said about the idea of a world government was that if this were implemented and the WG went bad (totalitarian), there would be nowhere to run to. There would not be, for example, the asylum that the US provided during the 18th and 19th centuries for refugees from starving and state-ridden European countries.

Now, I think this reasoning is open to debate. I think that there would definitely in a rational world be an institution to resolve disputes between different nations, because even between the best-governed nations disputes could arise. This would mean at least an International Court. What else it would mean is an open question, because here we are talking about a distant future when the world is no longer run from Königsberg and Moscow.

I would certainly endorse an organization like the UN, if it excluded on rigorous principle all dictatorships and was open only to nations with a representative form of government – as opposed to the present UN, which includes not only the Soviet Union as a chartered member, but every other two-bit dictatorship in the world as well.

Now, these are my personal thoughts on the matter, and Peikoff and other hard core Objectivists might quite possibly disagree with me. But notice that my reasoning is based on expanding the notion of an ordered, peaceful, law-bound society to an international level. It’s based on the premise that ordered society is a step forward compared to, for example, middle-age Iceland, where warring factions could go to a court (the “allting”) for a decision, but had to take the execution of it into their own hands. This as opposed to Mr. Block who argued that, as we do have anarchy between nations, why not have anarchy within nations, too? This reasoning obviously will bring us back to anarchy, not forward toward true peace.

As to the issue of secession, it is necessary to know what Peikoff actually did say on the subject. He made a distinction. “Secession”, he said, means a perfectly peaceful thing, just saying that you no longer recognize the authority of the government and want to break away, as distinguished from a “revolt”, where you actually have to take up arms. Now, there is no point to seceding from a free country, and an unfree country would not let you secede and you would have to resort to actual revolt. So the issue is a dead issue, which is exactly what Peikoff called it.

I think there is a (minor) problem with this analysis, but I won’t mention it here [and besides, I do not now even remember what problem I saw], because it was obviously not Mr. Block’s intention to discuss a serious problem but merely to take a jibe. And as such, it is a jibe based on misrepresentation.

I want to mention also the idea that Galt’s oath in the valley really expresses the same idea as the Marxist slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. This obviously needs no discussion, so I’ll just remind you that Mr. Block did say it.

I’d like to touch finally on Peter Schwartz’ pamphlet, because Mr. Block made no attempt to discuss the central issue of it, and neither has any other Libertarian that I know of. The issue is presented in section 8 of the pamphlet (p. 47–53), but this is the gist of the argument:

Most Libertarians would reply to Schwartz’ criticism by saying he is selective and unfair. Why only pick the worst things said by the worst Libertarians? Why not rather the best things said by the best Libertarians? It’s the question of what stands are really representative of the movement, not just of its lunatic fringe.

And Schwartz’ answer to this is that if Libertarianism doesn’t have any basic ideology, then the vacuum is going to be filled. And if Libertarianism rejects any valid ideological foundation and declares that any foundation is equally valid, as long as it can be said to support “non-aggression”, then the vacuum is going to be filled by the worst possible ideologies, not the best possible. This is on the principle that in collaboration between people who hold opposite basic premises, it is the most evil or irrational one that will win out.

Now, this is the argument that Libertarianism has to answer. Because, if Schwartz is wrong on this one point, then indeed you are justified in regarding his pamphlet as vitriolic misrepresentation. But if he is right, then indeed it is the worst representatives of Libertarianism who constitute the “soul and spirit” of the movement.

Now, Mr. Block’s ideology seems to confirm Schwartz’ analysis. Because he quite proudly declared that any road may lead to “non-aggression” – Kantian, utilitarian, hedonist, emotivist, etc. – and he was the one to derive from it such weird, self-contradictory concepts as “voluntary enslavement” and “voluntary Nazism”.

I must say, to be honest and fair, that of all persons I talked and listened to at the convention, the only one who revealed a fundamentally flawed, irrational attitude was Mr. Block. (There were people who disagreed with me, but that’s another matter.) So just by counting noses, I would conclude that he represents an insignificant minority. But it is not majorities that shape the world, it is basic premises. And as long as Libertarianism doesn’t reject the basic premises of Walter Block, then he is “Mr. Libertarian”, and it is his premises that will shape the movement.

This is the issue which has to be faced.

Eskilstuna, Sweden, August 25, 1986
Per-Olof Samuelsson

PS. The above, of course, applies also to Vincent Miller’s reply to Schwartz [in a pamphlet called Libertarianism and the Objectivists]. But there is one point in this reply that I have to point out.

Miller takes issue with the statement that Libertarianism regards America as this century’s “most warlike, most interventionist, most imperialistic government”, and says this is stretching it too far.

But the point which Miller obviously has missed is that Schwartz did not make this up out of full cloth, but that it is a verbatim quote from Murray Rothbard’s book For a New Liberty (p. 170). And the context of the book indicates that Rothbard does mean what he is saying and does not intend an overstatement.

Furthermore, Murray Rothbard is not a minor figure in Libertarianism and could hardly be said to belong “on the fringe”. Rather, as Walter Block said, he occupies a position in Libertarianism similar to Ayn Rand’s position in Objectivism.

This should show, I think, that there is more to the Objectivist/Libertarian split than just some perverted desire on the part of Objectivists to belong to a “cult” or an “in-group”.


[1] PS 2009: Today, I am uncertain about this paragraph. Francisco d’Anconia, in his money speech, says: “Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort.” So it seems that Ayn Rand (I assume that Francisco speaks for her) endorses the idea of “self-ownership” as an axiom. I have never seen or heard this particular point being discussed further by either Ayn Rand herself or other Objectivists. I’m trying to figure out how this relates to the rest of Objectivism.

PS 2016: More on this in my blog post The Concept of Self-Ownership.

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