Rothbard As Social Critic


EGALITARIANISM AS A REVOLT AGAINST NATURE. By Murray N. Rothbard, Washington: Libertarian Review Press, 1974, 151 pp., $2.50.

As most libertarians know, in addition to his five books, Prof. Murray Rothbard has written a multitude of monographs, articles, papers, and reviews; but these have appeared in journals so widely dispersed and often of such limited circulation that few people can very likely read even half of them. This book seeks partially to remedy that circumstance by gathering between covers some 17 of Prof. Rothbard's articles, mostly on "extra-economic matters" such as "property rights, the nature of government or the importance of justice" and we welcome its publication.

The most substantial of the articles, constituting about half the book, are the first five: the title essay, "Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty," "The Anatomy of the State," "Justice and Property Rights," and "War, Peace and the State." The second half of the book consists of essays on divergent topics of a more popular or current-issues orientation such as the notion of the public sector, women's liberation, children's liberation, conservation, anarcho-communism, and the economic doctrines of Spooner and Tucker. In each essay Rothbard is engaged in applying microeconomic analysis and the libertarian "axiom" of nonaggression to the particular problem or phenomenon under discussion. There is also a tribute to Ludwig von Mises using Thomas Kuhn's idea of paradigms to explain why Austrian economic theory has not been more widely accepted.

"Left and Right" is a historico-political manifesto which was part of an effort in the mid-sixties to drive a wedge between libertarians and conservatives by clarifying or re-aligning the ideological spectrum (the Old Order versus Liberalism); reminding or informing libertarians of who their true ancestors were; explaining how the bases for libertarian principles had become corrupted and even abandoned, and, concomitantly, the principles themselves compromised (by utilitarianism and social darwinism); drawing on then-recent historical research to provide a largely new understanding of the American situation (Big Business as a supporter of the Progressive Movement, the drift of some early libertarians to a conservative rhetoric, etc.); and concluding with some remarks on problem of terminating the hegemony of the ruling "caste" (p. 32, cf. p. 117).

To the extent that the article constructs a dichotomy between Enlightenment, liberalism, hope, radicalism, the Industrial Revolution, progress, and humanity, on the one hand, and reaction, statism, (political) hierarchy, theocracy, serfdom, romanticism, irrationalism, and class-exploitation on the other, it may be under-nuanced. Similarly, its identification of socialism as a middle-of-the-road movement is a piece of semantic prestidigitation and its claim that "long run victory for liberty is inevitable" (p. 29) is philosophical nonsense, but these aspects (reminiscent in ways of Hegel or Marx—cf. p. 48) are perhaps attributable to Rothbard's aims and the circumstances in which he wrote. By and large the essay holds up well and, I think, is still capable of doing its intended work of providing a rough sketch of how things stand and some of the valid grounds for libertarian optimism.

Immediately following is "The Anatomy of the State" which argues that (I) the "State" is not "us," that (II) it is coercive and parasitic (essentially a gang of predators), that (III) it retains power by an alliance with the intellectuals (though not, one should add, with the philosophers, who have generally been patronized by the urban patriciate), and (V) offers some examples of things that threaten the power and existence of the state. Many readers will find the central section (IV) to be of the most interest: titled "How the State Transcends Its Limits," it draws on Calhoun, de Jouvenel, and J. Allen Smith to argue that there is no institutional way to limit the state. That there might be noninstitutional ways is not necessarily precluded by Rothbard's analysis, but he alludes to such matters only in footnotes, and, so to speak, between the lines.

"Justice and Property Rights" follows immediately as a kind of corrective or alternative to the state. Rothbard's argument begins with a critique of utilitarianism and recent writings by economists Ronald Coase and Harold Demsetz, asserting (if I read him correctly) that their attempt to be value-free as economic analysts necessarily entails their leaving the decision regarding the justice (justness of the origin) of property rights to be determined by the state and that therefore they are "blindly apologizing for the status quo" (p. 56). However that may be, Rothbard then offers his own theory based on the premises that (a) each person has an absolute property right in his own person and that (b) previously unused material resources are acquired by occupying or transforming them. He then applies his principles to existing property titles and shows, among other things, how they provide a valid basis for the desire for "land reform" among the peasantry in underdeveloped countries.

Rothbard's title for this essay is perhaps inexact for he is not concerned with property rights (rights deriving from the fact that one owns property; or, what absolute ownership means; cf. p. 89), but rather with that part of justice which gives the notion of property rights (or, indeed, any rights) philosophical undergirding. Whether justice can manifest itself in other modes than property rights (in the sense of justly owning property) is not made wholly clear. Put another way: the essay does not suggest that justice makes any claims (or: has any operational meaning) once property rights are justly founded. As close as Rothbard comes to a discussion of that matter is his statement that "there is a host of moral rights and duties which are properly beyond the province of the law" (p. 93), but those may not be related to justice.

Rothbard says that his understanding of justice derives from—"to use an old-fashioned but still valid term—natural law" (p. 148), and more specifically natural law understood as "what is best for man and his life on earth" (p. 59). But the term "natural law" is not unambiguous, and different conceptions of it have resulted in different understandings of justice. For instance, an ancient version of natural law asserts that since what is best for Man is a proper object of philosophical investigation and is accordingly—at least in principle—knowable, that justice and coercion are not mutually exclusive, and that, in fact, "it is not altogether wrong to describe justice as a kind of benevolent coercion." Rothbard's notion seems, however, much closer to the modern understanding originating with Hobbes, by which "a man is forbidden to do, that, which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same" so long as he is "content with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself" (Leviathan, Ch. 14). In fact, this last reminds one of the "law of equal liberty" which Rothbard attributes to Spencer and Tucker (p. 128). But it is by no means certain that Rothbard is accepting (or would be willing to accept) the teaching about the nature of Man which Hobbes's ethical conclusions presuppose.

It has been persuasively argued by a number of political philosophers (Strauss, Cox, Goldwin) that Locke, whose account of the justness of claims to property Rothbard draws on and overtly acknowledges (p. 128), simply elaborated Hobbes' doctrines with particular attention to property. But Locke's approval of property rights and unlimited acquisition is based not on an absolute right to property, but on the grounds that it fosters the greatest prosperity in society. Rothbard, on the other hand, says elsewhere that "even if a society of…systematic invasion of rights could be shown to be more productive than [Rothbard's system] the libertarian would support this [Rothbard's] system" (For a New Liberty, p. 41), so Rothbard is not simply plugging into John Locke for a philosophical justification for the right to property.

Rothbard says that his understanding of natural law is based on the nature of human beings, which is such that "each individual must use his mind to learn about himself and the world, to select values and choose ends…in order to survive and flourish" (p. 59). This is the case, I take it, because either no one else can know what is good for another person (i.e., what he needs) or no one else can know what another person wants, for Rothbard also says "if individual diversity were not the universal rule, then the argument for liberty would be weak indeed" (p. x). Still, Rothbard suggests that parents have "the moral duty as well as the right…to train the children in the values [and] self-discipline…needed to become a fully mature adult" (p. 91), and have a "moral…responsibility to…train their persons and their character" (p. 93). Thus it seems that human beings are in some respects not so diverse as it at first appeared and that we can know some values which accord with, or are part of, "the ontological structure of reality, of the laws of human nature and the universe" (pp. 12-13).

All of this is not to suggest that Rothbard's account of justice, human nature, and natural law is necessarily defective; it is, however, to notice that it is as yet incomplete, and, accordingly, somewhat troublesome. One might in this connection wonder whether Rothbard is not attempting to derive some Kantian ethical conclusions (such as that each person should be treated as an end in himself) by pre-Kantian (or even pre-modern) means. Be that as it may, in the Foreword to the book, Roy Childs writes that "Rothbard is working to complete his book on the ethics of liberty" (p. iv). It is a book which the present one by its hints and partial formulations invites us to look forward to.

As to the rest of the book, I must make the reviewer's usual reference to the necessary brevity of a review and his desire to focus on those matters which seem to be most significant. The remainder of the articles are unfailingly interesting, and I have perhaps insufficiently stressed the ingenuity and incisiveness of Rothbard's analyses. There are, to be sure, the overlaps and repetitions perhaps almost inevitable in a volume consisting of articles each originally written so as to be wholly intelligible on its own, but that circumstance is easily outweighed by the pleasure of seeing how the widely diverse topics Rothbard considers are each clarified by his application to them of libertarian principles. In this regard, I wish the book were longer so that it might also have included such articles as "Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor," "Conservatism and Freedom: A Libertarian Comment," his review of Bruno Leoni's Freedom and the Law, and his discussion of Milton Friedman's economic principles.

Since the book appears as the maiden issue of the Libertarian Review Press, one should mention the handsome appearance of the book itself: the paper is of high quality, the typeface clean, and I found only a solitary misprint. On the other hand, there is some uneven leading between the lines, some skewed letters (p. 113), some short pages, and no half-title page. I also regret the absence of at least a name index, an item which the publishers can easily provide in their future volumes.

Prof. Rothbard closes his book with an essay called "Why Be Libertarian?" which explains that "a life-long dedication to liberty can only be grounded on a passion for justice" (p. 148). Prof. Rothbard's own passion for justice is readily visible—even luminous—on every page of this book, and just as the essays themselves deserve and even demand careful and thoughtful reading, so Prof. Rothbard deserves our appreciation for increasing our understanding and for provoking our own thought.

Paul Varnell is a doctoral candidate at Indiana University and Editor of The Libertarian Scholar.