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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Walter Block: Controversy can’t eclipse this giant of the freedom movement

Walter Block doesn’t believe in glass ceilings or colour bars, or, if he does, he doesn’t think they explain income inequality. He explains this unfortunate social condition in a less politically correct way: discrepancies in productivity.

Women and blacks are less economically productive than men and whites, Block told a mostly student audience at Loyola College in Baltimore. (Block teaches economics at Loyola College in New Orleans.)

This conclusion sparked outrage on campus and moved the Loyola College (Baltimore) president to publicly apologize for Block’s comments in an email. Block, however, is offering no apology and is, in fact, inviting any and all economists to debate him on his arguments.

In a story published on the website NOLA.com, James Gill reports:

Women are less productive in the workplace than men because of the time they devote to [parenting and family] duties and to domestic chores, according to Block. As evidence for this thesis, he notes that among 18-24 year olds, and workers who have never married, income disparity is virtually non-existent.

Pretty tame really, but Block goes on to suggest intelligence is also behind the productivity gap between the genders:

The way Block sees it, women's intellects cluster around the mean, while men dominate the high and the low ends of the spectrum. Thus, while women are much less likely to wind up in prison, an early grave or sleeping on the streets, they are also much less likely to win a Nobel Prize -- except for "wussy stuff like poetry" -- or rise to the top of a corporation.

Block is then asked a more thorny question about race. When asked why blacks earn less than whites, Block said:

"The politically correct answer is that lower black productivity is due to slavery, Jim Crow legislation, poor treatment of African-Americans in terms of schooling, etc. The politically incorrect explanation was supplied by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in their book 'The Bell Curve': lower black IQs."

Almost 15 years after it was first published, The Bell Curve still elicits hostility with its mere mention.

At a conference in Las Vegas, I heard Bell Curve co-author Murray speak about how IQ, and not race, is the primary determinant of success and social standing in America (if you’re smart, you’ll get ahead in America regardless of race). But he also argued that there is a relationship between race and IQ, with Asians at the top, blacks at the bottom and whites in the middle. In his speech, Murray expressed deep concern about a growing intellectual underclass in America, a social problem, unlike racial prejudice, that in his estimate can not be solved by tearing down stereotypes or encouraging multi-cultural understanding.

The idea that there are enduring racial differences in intelligence offends our sense of natural justice, and makes us inclined to discount IQ entirely, but Herrnstein and Murray bring a staggering amount of empirical data to their theory, which fills over 800 pages of The Bell Curve.

It’s a controversial subject that was thrust into public discourse by a controversial book. Most stay clear of the topic, but not Block. According the report by Gill, Block “regards sensitivity as the enemy of intellectual inquiry and truth.”

That’s true of the Block I know and love. It is also true that Block is a favourite figure among students of libertarianism not just because he is a brilliant theorist and entertaining author, but because he has endless patience, generosity and kindness. In a memorable dinner I had with former UNLV libertarian professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe, I pestered the master property rights theorist with questions about libertarianism. He eventually grew bored with me and said: “I don’t know. Ask Walter. He loves this stuff.” While I had a wonderful evening with Hoppe, complemented by martinis and cigars, it is Walter Block who I go to with questions about liberty and even once for career advice.

My experience with Block is not dissimilar to that of many other libertarians who know this controversial intellectual as a man incapable of malice or prejudice, which is why this fake controversy will never eclipse this giant of the freedom movement.

Posted by Matthew Johnston on November 29, 2008 in Libertarianism | Permalink


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Matthew, I have heard about productivity differences between women and men due in part to parenting and family, and I agree. But I have never heard of Walter Block or The Bell Curve. More for me to read.

But I wonder if there is also a cultural contribution to the difference. A friend of mine in Baton Rouge told me that black children are not encouraged to succeed as much as white children. That includes university and business. In other words, they are just not as ambitious on average.

So whether from IQ, or upbringing, wouldn't the result would be the same?

Posted by: TM | 2008-11-29 10:24:00 AM

TM wrote: "So whether from IQ, or upbringing, wouldn't the result would be the same?"

The result would be the same, and this gets to the heart of the issue. Is this productivity gap due to culture, systemic discrimination, etc. -- or is it IQ? (And is there an empirically measurable productivity gap between blacks and whites?)

And then there are those who discount IQ as a determinant of success...the EQ crowd. We can all point to smart people who are socially dysfunctional. We can also point to dull people who through force of personality achieve great things in the business world.

Obviously Murray would challenge this. He believes the American meritocracy pulls talent from wherever it is found without regard to race or gender, which means the current allocation of wealth in society, while unequal, is on some level just.

It's a very challenging thesis. It makes me want to plug my ears and yell "blah, blah, blah" until these guys stop talking about it.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2008-11-29 10:49:09 AM

Thanks Matthew. One thing I don't believe, is that the productivity gap is because of sexism or racism. America may be the most tolerant country on earth.

Posted by: TM | 2008-11-29 12:39:08 PM

Interesting comments.
I wonder how it really matters though...
If people are able to accept that what they accomplish is a direct result of their own efforts, regardless of gender or race, then its not even an issue. Those who don't care to put in the same efforts that more successful people do, have no right to pull the race or gender card by way of complaint.
Working mom's have the choice to either work, be mom's or both...any of these choices will have a foreseeable outcome. Minorities can shed the stereo types and become whatever they wish, simply by not playing into those stereotypes.
If that involves relocating from Decatur to New York, then so be it...
Its all about choices.

Posted by: JC | 2008-11-29 9:37:40 PM

JC, agreed. It matters I suppose, if legislation forces us to be more tolerant, to hire minorities, etc.

Posted by: TM | 2008-11-29 9:47:30 PM

JC, agreed. It matters I suppose, if legislation forces us to be more tolerant, to hire minorities, etc.

Posted by: TM | 29-Nov-08 9:47:30 PM

Indeed. Now that we are more politically correct and multicultural, we've never been more divided.
And it suits the pattern of a divided majority being more easily ruled by a united minority. I think its sad that we actually buy into it. And we quite literally do, our tax dollars pay for all this..."stuff".

Posted by: JC | 2008-11-29 9:59:23 PM

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