It must be difficult to go through life when one is so thick

by Tom Palmer on January 16, 2010

Walter Block and Tom DiLorenzo, neither known for his subtlety, seem to think that “irony” is what you do to get the wrinkles out of your shirts. My colleague David Boaz wrote an essay for the Washington Times (“We miss you, Bubba“), in which he compared the last two administrations to the “good ol’ days” of the Clinton administration, using a well known device to highlight the horrible policies that have been pursued since. Poor Walter Block thought that Boaz was “supporting” Clinton’s policies, including his foreign policy, since David wrote that under Clinton “Government spending was growing only slowly, the bad ideas were mostly small, and we bombed a lot of countries but didn’t put American troops at risk.” Thinking that Boaz was endorsing bombing a lot of countries, Walter Block jumped into action and denounced him as “no libertarian.” Just to emphasize that rhetorical devices other than the denunciation are not to be found in his repertoire, Block informed his readers

The executive vice president of the Cato Institute makes some good points (I’m being tongue in cheek here, for those whose sense of sarcasm is less well developed than my own).

It is hard to imagine anyone whose “sense of sarcasm” (or, to be more precise, any form of indirect expression) is less developed than Walter Block’s, but he felt, nonetheless, compelled to warn any such who might have been reading. He concluded that he now feels “physically ill.” Poor man.

The other dullard in the stable, Tom (“a travesty of historical method and documentation“) DiLorenzo, quickly jumped up and denounced David for apparently endorsing the Republicans, as well as the Democrats!

Now you don’t have to be very clever to understand David’s point, because he made it v-e-r-y s-i-m-p-l-e for everyone, even the irony-challenged, to understand: “Of course, what I’m really nostalgic for is divided government.” Economist William Niskanen (i.e., an actual economist), who was then Chairman of the Cato Institute, pointed out in 2003 that

The prospect of a major war is usually higher with a united government, and the current war makes that clear.

Each of the four major American wars in the 20th century, for example, was initiated by a Democratic president with the approval of a Congress controlled by Democrats. The war in Iraq, initiated by a Republican president with the support of a Republican Congress, is consistent with this pattern and has already proved to be the only use of U.S. military force lasting more than a few days that was initiated by a Republican president in over a century.

DiLorenzo further displayed his skills as an analyst by denouncing the thesis of the superiority of divided government over unified government (formulated as a desire for “gridlock”) on the grounds that “Bush expanded the welfare state as much as any president with his prescription drug welfare legislaition [sic],” somehow missing the fact that the “Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act” was passed when the GOP controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, thus being a rather weak counter-example to Boaz’s point about the relative virtues of divided government over unified, single-party, government.

But it’s been a long time since facts would have stopped Tom DiLorenzo from making a point. I realized that DiLorenzo had dropped off the deep end when he wrote a denunciation of David years ago for urging the voters of Mississippi to vote in a referendum to remove from the state flag a symbol that many people find, rather understandably, ugly and offensive. “Don’t Put Slavery in the Flag” was a temperate call for the voters to put the state’s history of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and lynchings behind them and to remove from the flag a symbol under which such evils had been carried out. But DiLorenzo accused him of “calling for the eradication of the Confederate battle flag from public places,” which was, of course, simply false. David encouraged voters to remove it from the the state flag, not from “public places,” an equivocal term that may mean “all places open to the public.”

But what’s a little confusion and misuse of language for Mr. DiLorenzo, compared to the masses of errors that characterize his recent works? Mr. DiLorenzo would have us think that the reason for the secession of the southern states was, oh, tariffs and such like. His sole evidence is the erection of a straw man: that Boaz and “a small band of Marxist historians” claim that “the war was caused by slavery alone.” Now note the rhetoric: Boaz claimed quite rightly that without slavery, there would have been no secession, not that “the war was caused by slavery alone,” which is a view few could hold, if for no other reason than that “the war” followed the secession and was not necessitated by it. To dispense with the canard that slavery was not the overriding reason for the secession, one need but read the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” which makes it quite clear that the process was very, very, very much about keeping people in chains. I strongly encourage anyone who supports the secession of the southern states — which is quite different from the subsequent decision to wage war on them; either might or might not be justified, but they are very different acts — to read that document. They may not be made “physically ill,” but if they are decent human beings (and more so if they are serious libertarians) they will be repulsed by the sentiments that motivated those who took the south out of the union.

But back to the rhetorical and literary poverty of Block and DiLorenzo. I will write this very slooowwwlly and very clearly, just for them:

David Boaz was using the contrast with Clinton’s terrible policies to emphasize the enormity of the folly and criminality of the foreign policies that followed, not to endorse those of Clinton, which the language suggests were repulsive in their own right. If I did not know that Block and DiLorenzo have all the subtlety of a brick, I would suspect that the reason for the publication of their blog posts was to smear David.

(P.S. A friend pointed out that I had placed a quotation mark in the wrong place ["all public places"--the quotation mark should have been around "public places" only], with the implication that the article to which I linked contained that phrase. It did not. It did necessarily imply it, however, as the phrase “the eradication of the Confederate battle flag from public places” contains the implicit quantifier “all,” rather than “some,” in the same way that the phrase “the eradication of life from oceans” implies “all life” and “all oceans,” rather than referring to, say, the killing of one fish, or of several fish, in the Pacific ocean. In order to avoid confusion among careless thinkers, I have moved the quote mark. The meaning remains unchanged.)

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Now here’s an ugly bit of business….
January 30, 2010 at 11:51 pm

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Drew January 16, 2010 at 9:43 pm

Good job, Dr. Palmer. But wouldn’t it be better to write that Block and DiLorenzo have all the subtlety of two bricks?

MNR-L January 16, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Hahaha! Good one. Despite differences, I’m a David Boaz fan. Glad to see this.

Sadi January 17, 2010 at 2:55 am

Your response is a nice example of rhetoric by itself. And I say that in a very positive way!

But really, it’s a shame you had to write that. How dumb can those guys be?

Sheldon Richman January 17, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Nicely done, Tom! Right on the mark.

AnonLvMIattendee January 17, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Now I know to read DiLorenzo’s books with a (big) grain of salt. I noticed during his lectures that he’s a pretty sloppy and inaccurate speaker, but somehow when it’s in print it looks more accurate. Thank you for the link to the review. I will remember it. And thank you for defending Mr. Boaz.

Mathieu Bédard January 17, 2010 at 3:42 pm

I read David Boaz’s piece the day it went online and I didn’t see in it what Block saw in it. And now that I’m re-reading it, I don’t think I would read it the way he did even if I was totally unfamiliar with Boaz’s writing. But I still think Block misread this paper.

I wouldn’t be as apologetic to the other post you link to however… and I don’t understand this double standard of being unlibertarian and ‘beltway’ to discuss reasonable second best options regarding divided government, while it would be acceptable and libertarian to discuss extreme second best options regarding monarchies, or regarding a constructivist immigration control scheme (it’s probably further down the hierarchy in this case… 7345699^10th best?).

Micha Ghertner January 17, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Hi Tom,

I really enjoyed this post and blogged about it at Distributed Republic (formerly Catallarchy). I also put it in context of Bryan Caplan’s foundational (to me, at least) essay, Purges and Schisms, and focused on some of the zero-sum marketing aspects of fighting over the libertarian “brand”.

http://distributedrepublic.net/archives/2010/01/16/tom-palmer-throws-down-the-gauntlet

RG January 19, 2010 at 12:12 am

It seems to me that Block would have no complaint if Boaz hadn’t suggested that bombing other countries isn’t so bad as long as you don’t put American troops in harm’s way. If that’s what Boaz meant, then it is as bad as Block suggests, because killing innocent people is the main thing (among many) that makes war bad in the first place.

Having said that, I don’t think Boaz thinks this because… why would he? He’s a libertarian. And unlike some people on both sides of this ongoing battle, I’m inclined to interpret my fellow libertarians charitably wherever possible.

If I were Block, and I were concerned about this, I would have asked Boaz for clarification rather than declare him to be “not a libertarian” based on a single sentence.

Gene Callahan January 19, 2010 at 9:25 am

RG, it seems to me to be so obvious that Boaz meant the little wars Clinton fought were better than the big wars we fight now that I couldn’t imagine why anyone would have to ask him.

Josh Hanson January 19, 2010 at 10:34 am

I’m a fan of Block and DiLorenzo, but on this rare occasion, I’d have to agree with Palmer. David’s point was very clear, and even upon my initial skimming of the article, I didn’t get the impression that he was actually endorsing big-government. Sure, I understand the need to take a principled stand on government excess, but to pick a fight over something like this is a bit disappointing.

In defense of Block and DiLorenzo, most Americans don’t read, and I could see how the title of the article could lead many to believe that libertarians support Clinton’s policies. If anything, the Auburn crowd does do a good job of trying to present libertarian ideas to the public, as opposed to those whose primary focus seems to be on other economists and academics.

Charles N. Steele January 20, 2010 at 7:20 pm

Excellent post.

But let’s be a bit charitable. Keep in mind that DiLorenzo is the poor confused fellow who called Russia’s invasion of Georgia a “civil war:”

http://www.lewrockwell.com/blog/lewrw/archives/022348.html

Keep in mind that Walter Block is the sadly addled anarchist who believes in the sanctity of national borders:

http://www.lewrockwell.com/block/block101.html

It’s not to be expected that people so severely “intellectually challenged” would get Boaz’s point.

Antonio January 21, 2010 at 1:15 am

I hate to pile on, but …. it’s too inviting. How could anyone be such a blockhead? The Dilorenzo mistake was precious, and symptomatic of the care with which he makes his arguments.

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