It seems that the Walter Block quote on sexual harassment I posted a while back has been rediscovered by various libertarians online and lots of criticism, analysis and defenses (of PP not Block) have been written about it. It appears as even Walter Block himself appeared on the scene to distance himself from his own words.
However, the issue here is not as simple as merely saying that Block made a flawed logical reasoning, or that it was all a mistake or anything as simple as that. The quote above is simply a pointed example of the intellectual dead-end one reaches when his whole ethical framework resolves around respect for Private Property and fetishism of voluntarism.
The issue here is that what Block wrote, unfortunately is a logical conclusion of suggesting voluntarism and the non-aggression principle within a propertarian environment as the core of ethics. It is, unfortunately consistent with “Anarcho”-Capitalist principles.
Most defenses of Private property I’ve seen (for an example, see the No Third Solution argument) orbit around the concept that harassment is prevented by the Non-Aggression principle and the lack of an explicit contract to allow it to happen. In short they consider the problem to be simply one of a contractual nature. They miss the elephant in the room by looking at the murals.
You see, there’s basically two arguments put forth here. So lets look at them in turn
“The Problem is not that the boss is harassing the secretary, but that he is harassing her without having an explicit clause in their employment contract allowing him to do so.”
This argument in short suggests that there is nothing wrong with a boss who only hires secretaries as a personal semi-harem, as long as he makes that known from the start. It assumes then that any secretary which agrees to this contract cannot then consider the sexual advances she agreed to, to be harassment.
This argument, while on the surface seems legit, is not in fact any more different than Block’s. It simply moves the agreement of the secretary from the implicit to the explicit. Whereas block asserted that the secretary’s continuous acceptance of the sexual harassment (i.e. not quitting her job over it) was an implicit agreement to it and thus not “harassment”, the contractual argument simply desires to take the same exact situation and legitimize it via the legal stamp.
However this argument misses the point that in both cases, the implicit or explicit acceptance of the harassment from the secretary is not caused because she wants it but because of the lack of alternatives. Because the other choices that remain to her if she does not accept the harassment or sign the contract are worse (ex starvation of her and her family.) The same secretary which “volunteered” to be harassed without a contract in Block’s example will also “volunteer” to sign the contract. Does the nature of her harassment change because she signed a piece of paper? Does the moral condemnation the boss deserves for abusing his position disappear?
Of course not, because the moral condemnation does not spring from the “aggression” the boss performs against the secretary but from the fact that he is using his position of power, which stems from inequality of wealth, to passively coerce the secretary to accept behaviour she would not otherwise accept if she was on equal standing.
The second problem which logically follows from the propertarian system is this:
“The boss can initiate a sexual advance towards the secretary who is at all liberty to refuse. However the boss then is at all liberty to fire her and there is nothing at all wrong with this.”
I believe that this is even more tricky for propertarians to defend. If we assume that the boss would not go straight to pinching (which the right-”libertarians” can then jump to label as “aggression”) but would initially “test the waters” so to speak by starting with subtle advancement and then growing bolder the more such advancements are accepted we end up exactly in the original Blockean argument once more.
Let’s say that this Boss does a subtle sexual advancement which the Secretary refuses. The Boss then fires her (terminating their “voluntary contract”). Next secretary? Same thing. And so on until he finds one secretary which is in a desperate enough situation that she tolerates his initial advances. He then becomes bolder and bolder until we reach the phase of pinching. Can we call that “aggression”? No since the secretary did not show outright refusal to such an advance and for the boss it can look like a normal progression of human relationship (or some other similar phrasing of his excuse). After all, the secretary is free at any point to make it clear that she does not appreciate his advances…and get fired.
In fact, the prudent “libertarian” boss, would not offer a sexual contract upfront to his potential secretaries but would rather follow the above actions until he’s determined that she’s desperate enough, and before moving on to actual physical contact, he would simply request that his secretary sign a new job contract volunteering to his sexual advances so as to legally cover his arse…just in case, you know.
Is there any way for Voluntarism and the NAP to morally condemn the actions of the boss? I fear not. And this again points out the intellectual bankruptcy of this ideology which cannot be covered by shallow “I was wrong to say that” excuses. The problem is that Block was not inconsistent with his ideology. He simply took it to his natural conclusion as he’s done with his acceptance of slave contracts. It just so happened that his argument struck a chord in the feminist movement who saw through the bankruptcy of voluntarism and forced him to backtrack hurriedly, even if he can’t explain the reasoning behind this.
Unlike vulgar-libertarians, a boss firing a secretary because she would not accept such a debasement is immediately a cause for moral condemnation by egalitarians1 as we condemn all situations which passively coerce people to “volunteer” to such humiliation. It is the same reason why we condemn wage-slavery just as much as we condemn sexual harassment. The only difference between those two is that the latter has been taken out of the status of “normal” by the brave actions of the feminist movement while the former is still seen as something natural. But the underlying causes for one to “volunteer” to sexual harassment are exactly the same as what causes one to “volunteer” to wage slavery: Private Property.
- Of course I maintain that one cannot be a consistent libertarian without being egalitarian as well but that’s beside the point [↩]