When I Was a Kid, I Wanted to Be a Libertarian. Then I Read Their Guru’s Book…
I sometimes amuse myself by gazing at the brilliant words of Murray Rothbard (1926–1995), framed and hung on my wall: “Every once in a while, the human race pauses in the job of botching its affairs and redeems itself by a noble work of the intellect.” I liked the quote so much and had thought so long about becoming a libertarian that I bought Rothbard’s book, The Ethics of Liberty. It turned out to be among the nuttiest books I ever read by one of the looniest minds I ever encountered — a champion of libertarians now in the U.S. Congress.
Hans-Hermann Hoppe introduces us to this volume as one that fills a gap between economics and ethics. Rothbard, he says, integrated the two by a concept of property that guides libertarian action. It was Rothbard’s goal to create a “science of ethics.” Without a science of ethics we are left to the whims of the State with its limits imposed on the individual. And yet, if ethics is about anything, it’s about moral behavior in a world of more than one lone person. In other words, ethics and morality include the concerns of others, not ourselves alone. This smelled like a self-contradiction right from the start, but never could I have imagined what I was in for.
After Rothbard establishes his opposition to postmodern relativism (applause), his defense of natural law (applause), and support of reason (more applause), Rothbard digs into his libertarian thought. He claims legal principles can be established in only three ways, “…by slavish conformity to custom, by arbitrary whim [what he labels ‘rule of the State’], or use of man’s reason.” But are these mutually exclusive? Aren’t custom, the State, and reason all aspects of rational law? While Enlightenment philosophy treated the right to property “as one among a number of liberties that derive from, demonstrate, actualize, and reinforce the fundamental right to freedom from tyranny,” only for Karl Marx, feudal lords, and Rothbard are rights subservient to property alone.
Repeatedly, Rothbard attempts to set the table in terms that satisfy his conclusions. In his chapter “Knowledge, True and False,” we learn that Smith has reported that Jones is a homosexual. Again, there are only three possibilities allowed for this action. One reason Smith says this about Jones is because it’s true. “It seems clear then that Smith has a perfect right to [report this fact]… For it is within his property right to do so,” no matter where he is, writes Rothbard. “Current libel laws make Smith’s action illegal if done with ‘malicious’ intent, even though [it] be true. And yet, surely legality or illegality would depend not on the motivation of the actor, but on the objective nature of the act.” But aren’t an accidental killing and a planned one of a different sort? Of course, they are, and for obvious reasons. In Rothbard’s example, Jones has no right to privacy because there isn’t one he can attach to property. What if Jones lives in a place where his homosexuality would lead to his being ostracized, assaulted, executed? What if Jones were a Jew in Nazi Germany and Smith simply told the truth that Jones is a Jew? Jones’ body — property in Rothbard’s view — would then be lost along with Jones. We needn’t climb too far down the social hole Rothbard digs to find its walls about to collapse on any society using Rothbard’s shovel. In this regard, the “force from disseminating” which Rothbard detests was once called virtue, attached to morality, both aspects of community, which Rothbard seeks to eviscerate for his individualist nightmare.
When it comes to those incapable of coping in Rothbard’s property-centric world, we find little relief. “The parent may not murder or mutilate the child,” writes Rothbard (what a swell guy!), “But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to let the child die.” Yes, that’s a quote. This also applies to abortion and marks a departure from typical conservative platforms. Rothbard supports abortion because if the mother decides to abandon her “freely-granted consent…the fetus [then] becomes a parasitic ‘invader’ of her person…[with] a perfect right to expel the invader from her domain.” As Rothbard teaches, the fetus, or any child, is incapable of a contractual agreement in any parental arrangement, so parents owe them nothing, and even an intended pregnancy can be aborted on a whim. Only the calculus of social contract, no moral responsibility in Rothbard’s world. That the fetus is as dependent on the mother as Rothbard’s idealized man is dependent on his sacred property is ignored.
Naturally, this thinking applies to animals. There can be no moral component to the extermination of eight billion passenger pigeons, the last Yangtze River porpoise, or anything else, because it’s just our nature. “Animals [like children] cannot petition for their rights…,” says Rothbard. While two hundred thirty years ago, Jeremy Bentham asked, “The question is not can they reason, not can they talk, but can they suffer?” In the case of children and animals, Rothbard defends his simplistic ideas by forcing requirements of contract and property on those incapable of meeting them and uses the wrong basis for consideration.
When it comes to the State, Rothbard sounds like talk radio with its invention of matters that don’t exist or recasting issues in language of the zealot that makes slaughter seem righteous. Instead of a system that surrenders some individual rights to civil authorities, engaging dispassionate third parties such as courts separated from those involved in argument, for Rothbard, this is “the State’s control of violence of the police, armed services, and the courts….” The “States taxation is theft…on a grand and colossal scale no acknowledged criminals could hope to match…[where] no private competitors are allowed to invade its self-arrogated monopoly to counterfeit new money…[where] the postal service has long been a convenient method for the State to keep an eye on possibly unruly and subversive opposition to its rule…a vast criminal organization.” Even governmental license of radio and television “stations to use frequencies and channels,” is nefarious to Rothbard. Except those broadcasters want centralized government allocation of bandwidth to avoid unwanted electromagnetic interference that comes with spectral turf battles. While the consequences of a power to tax or its absence are clearly seen as necessary in the American Revolution and Founding of the U.S. in order to pay for the military, courts, and police who guarantee those property rights Rothbard was so fond of.
While some of Rothbard’s claims have been experienced in America, from irresponsible taxation and spending to abuses of power (but the post office?), his assertions read like paranoia. Government operation of the Veterans Administration, student loans turned over to private corporations who rape the system, or deregulation of Wall Street with loss of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act all show how government and the private sector can run amok. There are also cases where they work effectively, like the regulation of Wall Street with the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, defeating the Nazis, Imperial Japan, and USSR, or the Clean Water Act. Such is the real world.
Rothbard could never unravel our wrinkles because his definition of the human is so flawed. Like a postmodern sociologist, he then struggles to make reality fit his model. Rothbard tries to separate ethics (right action) from morality (right and wrong) with its humane social influence because morality is a community matter individuals submit to as “coercion, not guidance” in Rothbard’s view. Rothbard’s human is alone in the universe. Others are simply perturbations to his formulaic individual, a hero of nothing but his adolescent defiance. The State is Rothbard’s Boogie Man to blame, inflated to cartoon dimensions. His political philosophy is, as Leo Strauss would say, “engaged in a project to change the world rather than understand it…from the high end of virtue to the low end of commodious self-preservation. Something genuinely human is in danger of being lost.”
Perhaps I should not be surprised when there are adults who believe in Creationism, post-structuralism, crop circles, stolen elections, and QAnon, but I confess, this text stunned me. To think there are adults like Senator Rand Paul who take this thinking seriously and are granted national powers to employ it is staggering. Beyond the current populist liars Left and Right that crowd our Congress, I hesitate to explore what other pseudo-philosophies haunt the halls of governance with a potent foreboding for the future.
Paragraph 4: “by slavish conformity…”Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, 2002, pg. 17. “as one among a number…” W.R. Newell, “Reflections on Marxism and America,” in Confronting the Constitution, AEI Press, 1990, pg. 343.
Paragraph 5: “It seems clear then…” Rothbard, pg. 121.
Paragraph 6: “The parent may…” Ibid. pg. 100. “freely-granted consent…” Ibid. pg. 98.
Paragraph 8: “States taxation is theft…” Ibid. pg. 162. “stations to use…” Ibid. pg. 170.
Paragraph 10: “engaged in a project…” Leo Strauss, Straussianism, Mark C. Henrie, First Principles, 2011.