The Ethics of Liberty, by Murray N. Rothbard, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1982, 278 pp., $15.95.
Most readers only read books, but sometimes it is necessary to read the authors of those books instead. I realized this years ago when I read the works of the poet Shelley for the first time. Read by itself, "Ozymandias" is simply, as we remember it from high school, another treatment of the vanity-of-human-wishes theme, warmed up with a bit of irony; but put it next to something like "Prometheus Unbound" and you see at once that it is also a bitter indictment of the arrogance of power, hurled in the face of tyranny by one of the few true anarchists who ever lived. Many of Shelley's verses are like this: their greatness only shows up when they are connected with his other writings.
I suspect that this larger, organic point of view is the proper one to take in reading Professor Rothbard's Ethics of Liberty. Its value is mainly a matter of how it works as a part of the Rothbardian corpus as a whole. Though he is an economist by training, the ultimate basis for the form of anarchism Rothbard defends is not economic but moral. As Rothbard has indicated in a number of his writings, his anarchism is based on a theory of natural law like the one defended in the 13th century by Thomas Aquinas. In this book, he connects his natural-law views with his anarchism by linking both these ideas with various other conceptions—such as his well-known doctrine that all rights are property rights—and in so doing systematically develops the foundation of the body of ideas he has applied with such interesting results in so many other works. For this reason, for those readers who are already interested in his other writings, this one is bound to be of interest.
Especially interesting, I think, is the way he develops his propertarian view of rights by applying it to many concrete moral issues in the second part of this book. There he attempts to show that only the standard of property is sufficiently clear to dispel the various puzzles, antinomies, and confusions in the theory of rights that cluster around such issues as the "crowded theater" objection to unlimited free speech, the perplexing notion of a "right to privacy," the legal question whether "purchase breaks hire," and those "lifeboat situations" in which the most desperate interests of human beings come into conflict. He argues in each case that problems only arise if we assume that there is some right that cannot be seen, in his manner, as a property right. While it is easy to cavil with him on a case-by-case basis, I found the cumulative effect of these arguments a powerful one.
Nonetheless, I suspect that readers who are not already interested in Rothbard's other works—and fundamentally in sympathy with his position—are liable to find this book disappointing. This is mainly because, since such readers will probably disagree with him on a number of issues, they will naturally expect the author to try to convince them that they should agree rather than disagree, and Rothbard often does not seem to be trying to do this.
To take what must be the most striking single instance, a reader who does not know Rothbard's other works is liable to disagree with his anarchism. As if to convince the reader of its merits, the author bases his anarchism on the doctrine of natural law. Unfortunately, this doctrine, nowadays, is almost as unpopular as anarchism, and such a reader is also liable to disagree with it. And Professor Rothbard does not try to prove that this doctrine itself is true. To show that one unpopular idea follows from another one may be perfectly good logic, but it makes poor rhetoric: it is unlikely to bring in those who are not in the fold already.
The dismay of the non-Rothbardian reader is likely to be compounded when the author states that his version of the natural law doctrine also implies quite a few other things with which he is likely to disagree: as, for instance, that parents own their children and have no obligation to feed and clothe them, that blackmail (as well as libel and slander) should not be prohibited by law, or that employment contracts in which someone commits himself to work for someone else for a specified period of time are illegitimate and should not be enforced.
Of course, the doctrine of natural rights is not by any means the only justification Rothbard gives for his conclusions. There are a good many arguments in this book, and the reader who does not agree with the author's most basic assumption certainly does not go away empty-handed. The remarkable consistency of his ideas, by itself, would give them some plausibility, even if nothing else did. Still, for non-Rothbardian readers, there are probably too many times when, as the argument proceeds from one step to the next, they wish more had been said.
For instance, in discussing which sorts of threatening (as opposed to overtly violent) behavior ought to be prohibited by a legal system, Rothbard says that "we must bend over backwards" to make sure that we only prohibit actions in which the threat to another person's rights is "direct and immediate." Given that there are obvious human costs attached to such lenient policies, I am sure that a well-meaning person could ask why it isn't a good idea to sacrifice a bit more freedom in order to make the world a bit more safe. There are trade-offs between liberty and security, and interesting things could be said about the problems they present, but in this case Rothbard says nothing about them—he simply lays down his assumption and proceeds.
To take another instance, he establishes the existence of a right to use violence in defending what is one's own by saying that if individuals do not have a right to defend their property then they do not "have total right to that property." A reader who is not tuned in to the author's way of thinking would be apt to ask why it is not possible to have a right which, nevertheless, one does not have a right to defend—at least by means of violence. Often, the problem seems to be that Professor Rothbard is so passionately convinced of the absolute importance of values like liberty and self-defense that he does not foresee the doubts and questions that might naturally occur to someone who has less than that degree of conviction.
At any rate, this book will undoubtedly be interesting to those who are familiar and sympathetic enough with his system to want to turn it over and see how its underparts are wired together. To others, it is likely to be interesting and frustrating by turns.
Lester Hunt is a professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota at Morris.