What accounts for the fame of Walter Block’s Defending the Undefendable? It is a defense of the rights of the least popular professions and occupations in the social order: the advertiser, the miser, the moneylender, the slanderer, the slumlord, the profiteer, the stripminer, the scab, drug pusher, the blackmailer, the addict, the pimp, and so on.
Yes, provocative reading. But there’s more going on here. The book is full of theoretical substance. This has something to do with the time in which it was written. Block was in graduate school at Columbia University. His “day job” was to learn things that he had progressively come to believe have nothing to do with economics properly understood.
Meanwhile, the world around him was crying out for economic logic to be brought to bear on a range of human problems. This is when he began to work on this book, essay by essay. It was written on nights and weekends. It was his means of intellectual survival, a tactic for staying interested in real human problems while his mind was otherwise occupied with endless mathematical abstractions.
The book benefits from this timing. You can tell in the sheer rigor of the argument. The subject matter is obviously provocative and popular, but the method of argumentation draws from the highest level of scholarship and logical analytics. The result is that you can learn from this work how to think about microeconomic issues, even as you find yourself drawn to Block’s seemingly outrageous claims throughout. The book manages that rare combination of being both rigorous and fun at the same time.
It is among the most famous of the great defenses of victimless crimes and controversial economic practices, from profiteering and gouging to bribery and blackmail. As Murray Rothbard said of this book:
Defending the Undefendable performs the service of highlighting, in the fullest and starkest terms, the essential nature of the productive services performed by all people in the free market. By taking the most extreme examples and showing how the Smithian principles work even in these cases, the book does far more to demonstrate the workability and morality of the free market than a dozen sober tomes on more respectable industries and activities. By testing and proving the extreme cases, he all the more illustrates and vindicates the theory.
Interestingly, F.A. Hayek agreed, writing the author as follows:
Looking through Defending the Undefendable made me feel that I was once more exposed to the shock therapy by which, more than 50 years ago, the late Ludwig von Mises converted me to a consistent free market position.… Some may find it too strong a medicine, but it will still do them good even if they hate it. A real understanding of economics demands that one disabuses oneself of many dear prejudices and illusions. Popular fallacies in economics frequently express themselves in unfounded prejudices against other occupations, and in showing the falsity of these stereotypes, you are doing a real services, although you will not make yourself more popular with the majority.
These must have been extraordinary times! For a young PhD student to attract praise from these two giants illustrates, to some degree, how much the world has changed. Block was singular in his day, and in many ways he still is. In our times, however, there are hundreds or even thousands of PhD candidates, plus millions of liberty-minded writers and activists. In a matter of a few decades, we’ve moved from only a handful of people who accepted the main tenets of libertarian theory to a global, decentralized movement that is populating the world.
What’s attractive is the sheer radicalism of the topic. As Hayek, suggests, it pushes the logic as far as it can go, and the logic still holds up. It doesn’t become absurd; it actually makes previously unthinkable conclusions wholly believable. If this is true, if liberty beautifully deals with the hard cases, how much more obvious can it be that liberty is the solution for the easy cases too?
Another point in favor of this book: It is impossible to read it without being intellectually engaged at every step. Every page keeps the synapses firing at their full potential. There is no more productive enterprise for anyone than to think, and think extremely hard. This book invites the reader to be critically minded and to seek understanding toward ever greater degrees of intellectual coherence. This is a very different approach from merely stating conclusions of a required belief set, as you might expect from a conventional political argument emerging from the prevailing consensus of the civil religion.
If you are outraged, appalled, offended, and stretched to your limits, your response is exactly what Block intended. That’s the idea: to think and consider and imagine liberty as a solution to our social and economic problems. How many books can you name that really achieve that? Not that many. In this sense, this really is a book for the ages.