December 22, 2008

In his 40 years as a libertarian gadfly, Walter Block is still best known for his 1977 book Defending the Undefendable, in which he defends pimps, drug dealers, blackmailers, corrupt cops, and loan sharks as economic heroes.

Surely the economics Department at Loyola Maryland was aware of his heterodox scholarship and expected controversial remarks when they invited him to speak to its Adam Smith Society on the topic of “Social Justice.”  But they did not expect him to defend something that was truly undefendable: He suggested that differences in wages between women and men, and blacks and whites, are not attributable to discrimination and racism.

What did Block say? One small part of the speech concerned the so-called “gender gap” in pay. Block argued that the main cause was marriage asymmetry”€”namely that in families women tend to raise the kids, which negatively effects their productivity. This accounted for the average differences. As for the lack of women on the very top, he said that while men and women have the same average IQ, women tend to center around the mean while men are outliers.

Towards the end of the Q&A session, someone asked him about the racial gap in pay. Block explained that if highly qualified blacks were passed over for under-qualified whites, certainly someone would start a business to scoop up all these talented blacks and they would outperform. This, of course, has not happened, so he said the difference in pay was due to a difference in productivity.

As for the cause of the low productivity, he said that some people say it’s the legacy of slavery and discrimination while others”€”he pointed to Charles Murray and Richard Hernstein’s bestselling book The Bell Curve“€”say this is attributable to genetic differences.

Keep in mind, he didn”€™t actually say that genetic differences necessarily accounted for the disparity”€”he simply said this is an explanation promoted by some people. No one said a word.

I don”€™t need to tell you what happened next. The Economics Department and the Adam Smith Society who invited him wrote an apology, “Professor Block’s response to a question about the differences between average earnings of African-Americans and whites in America, which maintained that the disparity could be explained by differences in average productivity, was offensive, and we are sincerely sorry for it.” 

Then the president of the University wrote the campus to apologize. After all, “we are a Jesuit institution, and as such, a respect for diversity is one of our defining values.” And according to Block’s own College’s “€œAffirmative Action/Diversity Taskforce,”€ “€œHis flawed remarks are dangerous.”€ 

Unlike Larry Summers or James Watson, Block is sticking to his guns. In a surprisingly good article on the controversy, he told Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Vozella that his critics “respect diversity but not diversity of opinion.” He wrote a number of columns on LRC defending his actions and taking on his antagonists.

Block also offerred to debate any of his critics. In their denounciations of him, few even bothered to do more than offer up critiques like, “Professor Walter Block’s reductionist statements about the productivity of African Americans and women in the marketplace ignore critical factors and structural patterns of inequality” (even though Block explicitly said that “structural” patterns might be the cause of the productivity gap), and “hordes of scholars have rejected [The Bell Curve‘s] thesis” (even though no experts in the field actually have).

Certainly, if Block’s ideas are as dangerous and risible as his critics claim, they could easily defeat him in a debate. But for some reason, no one has taken up Block’s challenge.


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