Murray Rothbard

Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty: Still Worthy After All These Years

Readers who are eager to get on to Rothbard's discussion of the Nonaggression Principle may be tempted to skip the part on natural rights. Don't do it!



In 1982 Murray Rothbard published his magnum opus in political philosophy, The Ethics of Liberty. It is a tour de force, a remarkable presentation of the moral case for political freedom. What a complement to Man, Economy, and State and Power and Market, Rothbard's towering contributions to our understanding of free markets!

The first striking feature of Ethics is that the opening five chapters, which comprise part one, seek to establish the validity of natural law, an approach to moral inquiry based on the distinctive nature, faculties, and tendencies of the human being; this approach began with the ancient Greek philosophers and developed through the thought of Catholic and Protestant thinkers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius. (For these religious philosophers, natural law was discoverable through reason, and was separable from theological questions.) One can judge Rothbard's deep interest in this subject by his first four chapter titles: "Natural Law and Reason," "Natural Law as 'Science,'" "Natural Law versus Positive Law," and "Natural Law and Natural Rights."

Rothbard wanted us to read this material before moving on to such topics as property, enforceable rights, voluntary exchange, aggression, and self-defense. Why?

Because natural law gives meaning to and thus is indispensable to understanding those concepts. It provides the context. He approvingly quoted the natural-law philosopher John Wild: "The philosophy of natural law defends the rational dignity of the human individual." He praised the English natural-law liberals (such as John Locke and the Levellers), "who transformed classical natural law into a theory grounded on methodological and hence political individualism." And he identified the "great failing" of "classical" natural-law thinkers from Plato to Leo Strauss: they were "profoundly statist rather than individualist."

Rothbard's conviction that individual rights are derived from something more fundamental can be seen in this statement: "The myriad of post-Locke and post-Leveller natural-rights theorists made clear their view that these rights stem from the nature of man and of the world around him."

For Rothbard, individual rights boil down to the right to be free from aggression. (Thus complete freedom in society is possible and realistic.) This is what he wished to derive from the natural law. The principle is not self-evident (though it surely has intuitive appeal). It is no free-floating iceberg. Rather, it follows from earlier findings that reason discloses about human nature ("the primordial natural fact[s] of freedom" and self-ownership), human action, the nature of the world around us, and the conditions under which we may flourish. The book does not discuss the nature of aggression until the third chapter of part two: "A Theory of Liberty" (chapter 8 in the book).

Readers who are eager to get on to Rothbard's discussion of the Nonaggression Principle—which I think is better expressed as the Nonaggression Obligation—may be tempted to skip part one. To them I have three words of sage advice: Don't do it! You will deny yourself the full benefit of this marvelous book. Read and enjoy the discussion of natural law.

For Rothbard, natural law concerns the discovery of objective values and objective ethics. He writes:

In the Thomistic tradition, natural law is ethical as well as physical law; and the instrument by which man apprehends such law is his reason — not faith, or intuition, or grace, revelation, or anything else. In the contemporary atmosphere of sharp dichotomy between natural law and reason — and especially amid the irrationalist sentiments of "conservative" thought — this cannot be underscored too often.

With obvious approval he quoted William J. Kenealy, a Jesuit priest, who wrote:

This philosophy maintains that there is in fact an objective moral order within the range of human intelligence, to which human societies are bound in conscience to conform and upon which the peace and happiness of personal, national and international life depend. [Emphasis added.]

Rothbard then asked a question posed by another natural-law philosopher, John Wild: "Why are such principles felt to be binding on me?" And he supplied Wild's answer:

The factual needs which underlie the whole procedure are common to man. The values founded on them are universal. Hence, if I made no mistake in my tendential analysis of human nature, and if I understand myself, I must exemplify the tendency and must feel it subjectively as an imperative urge to action.

Or, Rothbard adds, as 19th-century American Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing put it, "All men have the same rational nature and the same power of conscience, and all are equally made for indefinite improvement of these divine faculties and for the happiness to be found in their virtuous use."

Much modern philosophy dismisses natural law as old-fashioned and unscientific, but Rothbard endorsed Étienne Gilson's observation, "The natural law always buries its undertakers."

Now here is a puzzle. On the one hand, Rothbard emphasized that natural-law philosophy seeks to identify that which is objectively good for all human beings. He writes:

Aquinas, then, realized that men always act purposively, but also went beyond this to argue that ends can also be apprehended by reason as either objectively good or bad for man. Moral conduct is therefore conduct in accord with right reason.


If, then, the natural law is discovered by reason from [quoting Edwin W. Patterson] "the basic inclinations of human nature … absolute, immutable, and of universal validity for all times and places," it follows that the natural law provides an objective set of ethical norms by which to gauge human actions at any time or place.

And, finally, "The natural law, then, elucidates what is best for man—what ends man should pursue that are most harmonious with, and best tend to fulfill, his nature."

But on the other hand, Rothbard was an economist in the Austrian tradition, which holds that value is subjective. Can this paradox be resolved?

Rather easily, it turns out. Rothbard wrote:

The natural law, then, elucidates what is best for man—what ends man should pursue that are most harmonious with, and best tend to fulfill, his nature. In a significant sense, then, natural law provides man with a "science of happiness," with the paths which will lead to his real happiness. In contrast, praxeology or economics, as well as the utilitarian philosophy with which this science has been closely allied, treat "happiness" in the purely formal sense as the fulfillment of those ends which people happen—for whatever reason—to place high on their scales of value. Satisfaction of those ends yields to man his "utility" or "satisfaction" or "happiness." Value in the sense of valuation or utility is purely subjective, and decided by each individual. This procedure is perfectly proper for the formal science of praxeology, or economic theory, but not necessarily elsewhere. For in natural-law ethics, ends are demonstrated to be good or bad for man in varying degrees; value here is objective—determined by the natural law of man's being, and here "happiness" for man is considered in the commonsensical, contextual sense.

Many of these quotations indicate that Rothbard believed that under natural law, binding moral constraints can be rationally identified. Respect for other people and their just possession is one such binding constraint; it does not require explicit or implicit consent. I wish he had developed this point further because it seems crucial to the libertarian case. Why do we owe other people nonaggression? What is the nature of that obligation? (I discuss this question in "What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.")

Instead, Rothbard, in part two, seemed to shift ground and offer other reasons for respecting people's rights. He wrote that any proposed political ethic that permits some to rule others fails the test of universalizability; an objective moral code must be applicable to everyone. (This sounds like one of Kant's formulations of the categorical imperative.) He also wrote that living parasitically off of other people conflicts with the exploiter's own self-interest because it reduces the volume of goods produced while violating his nature:

Coercive exploitation or parasitism injure the processes of production for everyone in the society. Any way that it may be considered, parasitic predation and robbery violate not only the nature of the victim whose self and product are violated, but also the nature of the aggressor himself, who abandons the natural way of production—of using his mind to transform nature and exchange with other producers—for the way of parasitic expropriation of the work and product of others. In the deepest sense, the aggressor injures himself as well as his unfortunate victim.

True enough, but why ought one, first, act only in accord with a universal ethic and, second, not exploit others if one were to calculate that in a great society the reduction in the volume of goods would be only marginal? Why exactly is an exploiter harmed because he loots rather than produces? Or, what exactly is the price to be paid for not living in harmony with one's nature as a human being?

In fairness to Rothbard, he did not set out to formulate a complete ethical philosophy, just the subset of ethics dealing with aggression. He likely believed that a complete ethics had already been formulated by others. (He cited several Aristotelian and Thomist thinkers and was influenced by the Aristotelian novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, although he did not cite her.) So why reinvent the wheel?

My questions aside, The Ethics of Liberty is a great book that deserves the attention of anyone interested in the good society and human flourishing.

This article originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.

NEXT: Are You an "Electronic Child Molester"?: 10 Dumb Quotes About Video Games From Pols And Pundits

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  1. NY Times writer explains why divestment doesn’t work.

    Commenters get angry because it feelz good.…..inion&_r=0

    1. The doublethink required to believe that the embargo on 1980s South Africa was self-evidently virtuous and what kind of evil bastard would you hvae to be to oppose it on the one hand, and that the embargo on Cuba was so obviously wrong and how could you want to kill those poor Cuban peasants, always astonished me.

      1. There’s no contradiction to those people because they think communism is good, even if poorly implemented.

        1. Yes, doublethink requires holding contradictory beliefs simultaneously, but this is making a logical fallacy and then stubbornly refusing to reconsider the fallacy when flatly refuted by facts and outcomes.

          Doublethink is arguably less worse, since one of the thoughts you hold might actually be right.

        2. Start working at home with Google. It’s a great work at home opportunity. Just work for few hours. I earn up to $500 a week. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out.

    2. “Earlier this week, a group called “Fossil Free Stanford” persuaded the university’s endowment to divest its stock holdings from coal-mining companies. ……. It would not lead the executives of the affected companies to engage in soul-searching,”

      Without fossil fuel modern life would cease. Famine, disease, crime would be rampant. Infant mortality would skyrocket. If these fuckwits were able to accomplish their goal how much soul searching would they do?

      1. I think they would be too busy dying like flies to engage in much soul searching.

      2. Considering the reaction I get from enviros when I point out that the only reason millions of people, mostly children, die of malaria every year in Africa is because their forebearers of the cause got DDT banned I don’t think most of them would give a shit.

        A solid majority of the truly committed enviros I’ve encountered know that their policies will necessarily result in death and suffering for millions (billions?) of people and they are perfectly fine with that. The rest are bumper sticker signaling progressive morons who’ve never thought through a single one of their sloganeered positions.

    3. The comments are full of derp like this:

      Divestiture may not change corporate behavior in significant ways, but it’s worth promoting anyhow if only for the sense of solidarity it can engender amongst people struggling to resist. If we organize to force divestiture, we may or may not succeed, but we will have organized; and organizing is the essential prerequisite to meaningful change.

      Shorter: “Who cares if it doesn’t change anything? We’ll all FEEL good! We’ll all feel good TOGETHER! With Solidarity TM!”

  2. Sheriff pushed for aggressive civil asset forfeiture, was fired for thievery, and then his daughter got her second DWI in his car and the government seized it for asset forfeiture. Now he feels disrespected, says asset forfeiture isn’t fair.…..r-seizure/

    1. Fuck the sheriff but wtf is up with seizing a car when the driver is dui?

      1. Dunno, but it was her second, and for all I know, she had a suspended license, or the laws make a special case for repeat DUIs in a short interval.

      2. What it really points out is both the short-sighted hypocrisy of those who think they are our betters, and the greed involved in taking the inanimate tools which had nothing to do with the crime itself. Punish someone and be done with it; but confiscating unrelated property just because you pass a law allowing it only shows how immoral the law is.

        I am reminded of the 1970s era joke, when the Coast Guard was being given more and more roles but with shrinking budgets, that they should conduct a search of a Navy carrier and confiscate it when they found a single seed. That would balance their budget very nicely!

      3. “…wtf is up with seizing a car…?”

        It isn’t complicated. Money. State sanctioned theft.

    2. “”This has changed my perspective on it a lot,” Solano said. “Not just because my car was taken but because the whole process just seemed so stacked against you and seemed so unfair.” ”

      Yeah. Fuck you buddy.

  3. It seems to me all this natural rights philosophy can be boiled down to a few simple steps.

    1. All people must be treated equally because assigning some people as superior presupposes the superiority of those who do the assigning.

    2. People are individuals. Common problems affect individuals differently, and people want individual solutions, and make individual decisions. Even when we make decisions as a group, such as where to go for lunch or what movie to see, we always make the decision whether to go along or not. The concept of group problems, solutions, and decisions is a fiction.

    3. A society based on individualism can simulate most of a collectivist society with contracts, but a collectivist society must deny any simulation of individualism.

    It all adds up to having what I think of as self-control: not only the right to own ourselves, but to be held accountable for ourselves. Because this includes not just survival but how we survive, slavery is a violation of self-control. Because property is the result of us doing something, our property is part of our self-control, and theft is just slavery after the fact instead of beforehand.

    It’s not a question of morality so much as equality, or fairness. The only way to treat everybody equally is either a robotic society in equal obeisance to a superior race, or everybody in charge of themselves.

    1. Point 3 is a good one that I had not thought of before.

      Point 1 leaves out that the only method for assigning some a superior status is force.

      If you eliminate self ownership the only thing left is ‘might makes right’. Thus collectivism is a form of barbarism.

      1. Thanks; it sometimes seems so logical to me that I wonder if a Harry Seldon will someday prove it 🙂

        I guess I take the NAP for granted so much that I hadn’t thought of force as regards self-selected superiority.

  4. “natural law concerns the discovery of objective values and objective ethics”

    Which is why it is irrelevant. Because neither values nor ethics are objective. I think that you could argue that most people are in agreement on their preference of certain values or ethics. You could also argue that most people want to be treated in a similar fasion. That still does not prove objectivity.

    1. You are correct, sir. Natural law is a fiction.

    2. Which is why it is irrelevant. Because neither values nor ethics are objective. I think that you could argue that most people are in agreement on their preference of certain values or ethics. You could also argue that most people want to be treated in a similar fasion. That still does not prove objectivity.

      This is a common attack on natural law, but the two sides are talking past one another. FTA: “the natural law is discovered by reason from [quoting Edwin W. Patterson] ‘the basic inclinations of human nature ? absolute, immutable, and of universal validity for all times and places.'”

      Human beings have a nature in that we are Randianly selfish (not from the benevolence of the baker that we expect our dinner, but from his regard to his own interest), and the degree to which positive law respects and reflects this natural law is the degree to which humanity will thrive. For most of our history, states haven’t respected human nature, which was why capital was non-existent for millennia and why everyone was mired in grinding poverty, even the kings according to modern standards. It’s no coincidence that we became fantastically wealthy just after natural-law theorists began to take over governments.

      The success of markets–imperfect and manipulated as they are, they’re impossible without natural law and individualism–and the exponential economic growth the West has experienced since 1800 are the objective demonstration of natural law’s existence.

      1. I should probably say that we are Randianly selfish social creatures, which is why markets function the way they do. If sentient, hyperintelligent reptiles had evolved to be the dominant life form on earth, they’d still have a natural law, but they wouldn’t have markets and wouldn’t be very wealthy without the division of labor and capitalism, both of which are social institutions.

        1. You make a lot of great points. The happiness and prosperity that freedom brings is the argument for freedom. The “basic inclinations of human nature” covers a lot of ground and also includes aggression and of course the history of the world is one of war. That is my main problem with this idea of a natural ethos. Certainly there is such a thing as human nature and you are correct in what you say regarding respect for our inclinations towards self-interest breeding wealth and there are countless historical examples that back that up. Not only is that a great argument for respect for private property and accumulation of wealth but also a great argument again communism.

          1. The problem is when people want to turn this all into some ethics argument. Ethics are subjective and so these attempts to create some branch of ethics as the one great “natural” truth is in my opinion a waste of time. The same goes for recent attempts to try and create some ethos based on social evolution. In most cases these arguments have all of their conclusions already baked into their premises so of course the logic plays out the way they want.

    3. You do realize subjectivism is self-defeating?

      1. So is getting old.

        1. Seriously though. If you’re a subjectivist and I’m an objectivist, your view holds that I’m correct. It’s an inherent contradiction.

          1. That’s not true. Lot’s of things are subjective. If you say Obama is the greatest president ever. That’s subjective. Only if the criteria which makes one the greatest president is objective could you make an objective statement about who that was. I do not conceed that you are correct by saying that is subective. Now, if you and those who agreed with you had enough power, you could get an official proclaimation that Obama was the greatest, get it written into the history books, etc. It would still be a subjective statement regardless.

    4. Ethics, not objective? Then might makes right. That’s your philosophy?!

      1. If one group says they are morally right about something and another group within the country/tribe/whatever has the opposite view who gets to decide? In the real world, not in some philosopher’s mind.

        1. Or…if your in a dark alley with a sociopath which comforts you more, your sense of moral superiority, or your glock:)

          1. Might makes right is an objective view of ethics.

            1. If I am stating that “might makes right” is morally superior to other ethical viewpoints (and I do not believe that) than that is subjective. On the other hand, I can say Libertarianism is the best political idealology. Without power (whether that be political, popular, military,etc) , what I think is pretty irrelavant. That is an objective staement based on political reality. Note, I am making no moral jusdgment about that reality. Those are two separate things.

              1. Now the way I obtain that power is to convince the majority that it is in their best interest to adopt my ideology. There are a lot of great rational, objective arguments to be made to that effect. Moral superiority based on some Natural Law that in my opinion does not exist is not one of them.

                1. Personally I’m more of a “golden rule” guy when it comes to personal ethics which I think is pretty consistant with libertarianism.

  5. “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn. A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test. A man falling dead in a duel is not thought thereby to be proven in error as to his views. His very involvement in such a trial gives evidence of a new and broader view. The willingness of the participants to forego further argument as the triviality which it in fact is and to petition directly the chambers of the historical absolute clearly indicates of how little moment are the opinions and of what great moment the divergences thereof. For the argument is indeed trivial, but not so the separate wills thereby made manifest.”

    1. Yeah, I think the first sentance is a good definition of ethics. If there is any such thing as a “natural” law it would be some equivilant to survival of the fittest. Ethics are devised to oppose that under the guise of seperating men from other animals.

      1. I think you’re conflating the notion of natural laws with physical laws. The existence of a natural law simply means that any rational person would implicitly understand such a law and expect to benefit from it, not that there are natural laws in the sense of inviolable forces, e.g. the law of gravity.

        Considering two rational people, if one person would need to use force against another to achieve a given end, that end probably violates a natural law. If person A wanted to take the life of person B, person A would need to use force to do so. If person A wanted to take something that belonged to person B against the will of the latter, he or she would have to use force to do so.

        As a thought experiment, try to envision a rational person in a socially-neutral state, i.e. uninfluenced by social traditions or norms. You couldn’t envision such a person not reacting to being attacked by another person, right? That’s because there is an implicitly understood right to be safe from aggression. If that person possessed some item and another person walked up and took it, our “natural human” would probably take exception–at least he/she wouldn’t see such behavior as natural and just. That’s because there’s an implicit understanding of the idea of property and ownership.

        That every single society in human history has codified laws against murder, assault, rape, and theft on the basis that such actions are inherently immoral goes a long way towards indicating a natural law.

        1. “That every single society in human history has codified laws against murder, assault, rape, and theft on the basis that such actions are inherently immoral goes a long way towards indicating a natural law.”

          Couple things regarding that argument. First, all power structures value order for pretty obvious reasons. Codifying these laws help create and keep order. Without them you would have mob justice in the streets every night. Second, for many if not most “primitive” societies, these laws only applied within the “tribe”. if you were invading or looting another tribe, you could murder, rape, steal, and assault to your hearts content. In fact, in certain parts of the Old Testament invading Hebrews were encouraged to slaughter and enslave. Which makes these laws much less about being immoral and much more about keeping the peace.

          1. Also, I was not really referencing physical laws as much as I was simple human instinct which is really what your person under attack above is displaying. Fight or flight is something displayed by all animals and is evolutionary. It is of course very much natural, but has nothing to do with morality.

            “there’s an implicit understanding of the idea of property and ownership.”

            Oh, how I wish that were true:)

  6. Richman gets a lot of flack, but I’m enjoying the Sunday series quite a bit. He fits in well with a lot of the better authors on BHL, many of whom are thoughtful and challenging characters. And I’m always a sucker for Rothbard, who had a gift for cutting through jargon and philosophese to offer clear arguments:

    The natural law, then, elucidates what is best for man?what ends man should pursue that are most harmonious with, and best tend to fulfill, his nature. In a significant sense, then, natural law provides man with a “science of happiness,” with the paths which will lead to his real happiness.

  7. I often think when people point to natural law that they have given up on the utilitarian argument for liberty.

    Which makes me sad.

    1. Plenty of room for Rothbard and D. Friedman at the table, as liberalism has a pretty nice record, utilitarianism speaking. My experience is that natural-law arguments are for the philosophers, while most people make up their minds on the basis of utilitarianism.

  8. “”The natural law always buries its undertakers.” I looks more like the the assumption the natural law is a valid foundation for ethical or moral thought and conduct is about to bury us all!

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