“Vices Are Not Crimes”: Defending the Undefendable

by Carl Watner

(from No. 77, December 1995)
When I first read Walter Block’s “Libertarianism and Libertinism,” reprinted in this issue of The Voluntaryist, I was inclined to agree with his “Mea Culpa,” in which he expressed second thoughts about having published certain sections of Defending the Undefendable ( 1976). Walter expressed regret for being “too enthusiastic” and “wax[ing] eloquent” about the virtues of various deviant, non-violent, but politically-outlawed activities. Although he didn’’t explicitly identify them, presumably he was referring to his chapters on prostitution and drugs. His “present view with regard to social and sexual perversions is that while none should be prohibited by law, [he] counsel[s] strongly against engaging in any of them.”
Never in the twenty-plus years that I have read Walter’s writings, have I ever known him to advocate personal participation in these “social and sexual perversions.” In fact he specifically states that his defense of

the prostitute, pornographer, etc. is … a very limited one. It consists
solely in the claim that they do not initiate physical violence against non-aggressors. Hence, according to libertarian principles, none should be visited upon them. This means only that these activities
should not be punished by jail sentences or other forms of violence. It decidedly does not mean that these activities are moral, proper, or good.

This being the case, why should Walter be ashamed about having written in defense of the non-aggressive pervert?

This reminds me of a similar situation regarding H. L. Mencken, which is described in a “Personal Note” by Hamilton Owens in Letters of H. L. Mencken, selected by Guy J. Forgue (New York, 1961). Not believing that the German people would embrace Hitler, during the mid-1930s, Mencken refrained from criticizing the Nazis. Consequently, Mencken was often called a Nazi supporter. One day he asked if Owens thought he (Mencken) was an anti-Semite. Owens replied in the negative. Reassured, Mencken offered the following, which Owens called “one of the frankest confessions of faith I ever heard from” Mencken:

“I believe,” [said Mencken] “in only one thing and that thing is human liberty. If ever a man is to achieve anything like dignity, it can happen only if superior men are given absolute freedom to think what they want to think and say what they want to say. I am against any man and any organization which seeks to deny or limit that freedom.”

I made the obvious comment that he seemed to limit freedom to superior men. His reply was simple, to the effect that the superior man can be sure of freedom only if it is given to all men. So far as my observation goes, that little exchange gets close to the core of the Mencken philosophy.

Extending Mencken’s comments to include non-aggressive actions, liberty simply means that perverts have just as much right to their peaceful, corrupt activities as do the rest of us to our own moral, non-aggressive pursuits. As Benjamin Constant wrote in “On Conquest and Usurpation”: “Freedom cannot be denied to some men and granted to others.” No man is safe when another man’s liberty may be politically violated. If one man’s rights may be restricted, none are safe. In fact, the efforts to forcibly insure man’s morality by passing laws to inhibit his choice of activities is one of mankind’s oldest political myths. The attempt to compel virtue by outlawing certain activities is not only doomed to fail, but is self-contradictory. Virtue rests on choice, and if choice is denied what is left of virtue? “If there is to be a chance for the good life, the risk of a bad one must also be accepted. There is no escape from that.”

As responsible and self-disciplined adults, what lessons are there for us in Defending the Undefendable? First, as Ayn Rand pointed out, we have to be prepared to accept the least attractive instance of a principle. In other words, if we are to stand by the statement “no aggression against non-aggressors” we have to defend the right of the immoral to be immoral and the virtuous to be virtuous. There is no middle ground. As Walter and others have repeatedly said, this does not mean that we endorse, sanction, or personally participate in these perversions, but only that we consistently demand that every peaceful person be left alone. Secondly, it is necessary to formulate and elaborate a personal code of ethics to explain why these perverted activities are vicious and morally wrong. We need to be able to ex- plain to our children why they should refrain from these pernicious activities, yet at the same time we defend the right of these people to be “the scum of the earth.” Everyone needs to understand why these perverts have rights, and why they are not admirable or to be emulated.

Walter has made a good beginning in this direction. Any successful ethical code has to be life-oriented, and focused upon personal and family survival. None of these perverted activities build strong character, independence, self-control, or teach moderation. Intemperance, promiscuous sex and taking drugs lead to self-destruction of both the mind and body, and hence are to be avoided and shunned. These vices will undoubtedly exist in a stateless world, as they do in a statist environment. Thus we must teach our children that it takes morally strong individuals to resist both the lure of the State and the seemingly attractive snares of libertinism. They must learn that if they cannot govern themselves, then some- one else will try to rule them. Only self-controlled individuals can earn freedom and liberty. People must be good and virtuous to be free in mind, body, and spirit.

Proper discipline of our children teaches them how to be self-governors. This in turn leads to success in the disciplines of life. Self-discipline is critical to success in every realm of life. If you can teach them correct principles, ultimately you’ll be teaching them to govern themselves. This in turn leads to a freer society. This recalls the words of Albert Jay Nock, who wrote that the only thing that the individual can do “is to present society with ‘one improved unit.’” A person who practices all sorts of vices is not an “improved” or improving person. “It is easy to prescribe improvement of others… to pass laws.” But the voluntaryist method is “the method of each ‘one’ doing his best to improve” himself. This is the “quiet” or “patient” way of changing society because it concentrates upon bettering the character of men and women as individuals. As the individual units change, the improvement of society will take care of itself. In other words, “If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.”