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May 4, 2004

Block, Epstein will duel over domain

Two noted scholars are ready for a High Noon, knock-down, drag-out debate at the University of Chicago Law School.

The debate revolves around the question: Should government have a right to take anyone's property for less that what the owner would freely and voluntarily agree to accept as payment? Or, more formally: Is the state's power of eminent domain necessary in a free society?

Chicago Law School professor Richard Epstein thinks so, and Loyola of New Orleans economics professor Walter Block vehemently disagrees.

As a result of their overwhelming differences, Block is flying into Chicago to go head to head with Epstein in a contest of libertarian ideas.

Epstein is so sure of his views on a variety of topics, including eminent domain, that he has openly promised to debate "anyone, anywhere, anytime, about anything…provided that I disagree with them," he said.

Block, too, is believed to have never shied away from a good debate. As a senior at Brooklyn College in 1963, Block found his way to a luncheon honoring novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, and proceeded to the head of the table. He poked his head between Rand's and that of her companion, psychologist Nathaniel Branden, and announced that there was a socialist present who wanted to debate someone on economic issues pertaining to capitalism. They politely asked him, "Who is this socialist?" and Block declared that it was him. Branden graciously took Block aside and agreed to debate, not only right then and there, but also thereafter, continuously, until one of them had changed the other's mind on the merits of capitalism and socialism.

Today, Block is pleased to admit that he lost that debate. Although Branden failed to turn Block into a full-fledged "Randroid," as Block now puts it, Branden convinced him of the merits of libertarianism—that is, of laissez-faire capitalism.

Block's search for like-minded individuals in New York led him to one of the founders of the modern libertarian movement, Austrian-school economist Murray N. Rothbard.

While Block was completed his graduate studies at Columbia University, Richard Epstein was embarking upon his own intellectual odyssey at Columbia, Oxford, and Yale.

To many of his students in the Law School and most mainstream academics, Richard Epstein is the most extreme libertarian they know. He frequently argues, in his voluminous output in both books and law reviews, against government "evils" like socialized medicine, and even against anti-discrimination laws.

But, unlike Block, Epstein did not begin his post-graduate academic career as a libertarian ideologue. Instead, he began with an inclination toward finding simple rules for a complex world—the basis for a book he would later write. And it just so happened, he found, that many of the best "simple rules" are libertarian rules of private property and freedom of contract. But this was not without exception—and one exception that he famously made in his highly influential book, Takings, is for the power of eminent domain, which allows the government to forcibly take property for such ostensible "public goods" as roads, as long as it pays "just compensation."

Block, however, says there is no such thing as a public good, and promises that he can back up his claim not only through libertarian ideology, but also through sound economics.

Throughout his career, Block has directed some of his strongest criticism in numerous economics journals and law reviews at the University of Chicago's supposedly "free market" thinkers, including Ronald Coase, Richard Posner, Epstein, and Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman. Block spares no one when he finds that they hold views that are less than what pure libertarianism or the rigorously logical Austrian school of economics demands.

Block's no-exceptions approach to laissez-faire was made famous in libertarian circles through his book, Defending the Undefendable. There, he upheld such apparently unsavory characters as pimps, litterers, counterfeiters, and blackmailers as "heroes" of the free market.

The time and place will be the Law School, room IV, on Monday, May 10, beginning promptly at 12:13 p.m. The debate, which is sponsored by the Ludwig von Mises Institute (www.mises.org) is free and open to the public.