September 5, 2016: Murray Rothbard’s strange and zany world

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 I bought Rothbard’s book, The Ethics of Liberty. [1] While my review of it was less than warm, as an influence in America’s political arena, Rothbard, an economist and libertarian, deserves a more extensive hearing.

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” in the face of opposition that denies such a science is possible. Without a science of ethics, they claim, we are left to whims of the State with its limits imposed on the individual. In the text, Rothbard tries to separate man’s political existence from morality, yet the science he strives for seeks to provide a moral logic based on reasoned argument, therefore a moral legitimacy to his ethic.

One opposition to an ethical science comes from relativistic views that allege objectivity in ethics impossible. Since the cultures people are raised in have different value systems and meaning—so relativists claim—there can be no objective truth or human universals, which are in reality a matter of social preference. This is the truth promoted by those who claim there is no truth.

On this matter I side with Hoppe and Rothbard. At the most fundamental level, humans are humans no matter where you go. Of course there are extremes. The Taliban value life in a manner quite different from the Pope. Such differences can be grounds for conflict. But both are born, grow old, die, and most of all have quite similar wiring in the space between their ears, at least since the last forty thousand years or so. Universal, timeless human truths are why we understand Chief Seattle’s lament, Shakespeare’s plays, Biblical cautions, Greek tragedy, and the sad facts of life expressed by Sumer’s Gilgamesh. Such morality tales span five thousand years of different cultures, languages, perspectives, and their own shades of human meaning. Evidence that there exist moral convictions more than mere social preferences particular to each society. Why would thousands perish in attempts to free themselves from tyranny in Babylon, the Roman Empire, America’s slave trade were it not for universal desires for freedom? The inkling of rights and justice can be seen all the back to the first known law code of Ur-nammu, ca. 2100 BC. Despite Rothbard’s lose use of the word science, three cheers for his defiance of social fashion.

With this perspective Rothbard proceeds with a fine defense of natural law - general rules based on human nature and universals. Natural law is agnostic, without need of religion, notes Rothbard. “In natural-law philosophy, reason is not bound, as it is in post-Humean philosophy, to be slave to the passions, cranking out the means to arbitrarily chosen ends.” Somehow, only Hume’s application of reason was except from reason’s impotence. While opponents of natural law ask “who is to establish these truths about man?” The answer, says Rothbard, is not who but what, and that is reason. There is for Rothbard, an objective moral order, much as we moderns prefer otherwise. And just because it may be difficult to deduce, in the words on Allan Bloom, “is not to say it is unavailable.” [2] Though Bloom and Rothbard would not be fellow travelers.

Rothbard then digs into his libertarian thought. He claims legal principles can be established in three ways, “…by slavish conformity to custom [i.e. tradition], by arbitrary whim [what he labels “rule of the State”], or use of man’s reason.” But are these mutually exclusive?

Michael Polanyi offers a reasoned tradition that is anything but slavish. [2] Last time we touched on Polanyi’s idea that societies in the real world must have a traditional framework of some sort or they couldn’t exist. Even Rothbard seeks to establish a tradition of thought with a set of rules, entailing a persistent practice of allowance and restriction. Polanyi’s analogy is science, with a tradition of practice that elevates good science as it seeks to suppress frauds. A practice not so unlike the policing of religious orthodoxy, with exceptions, like encouraging free contributions of creative descent. The highest rewards in science are given to insight that modifies or upends current understanding in the interest of Truth about nature, not maintenance of an orthodoxy. These rules are unwritten, not enforced by a State, and always conditional on our best understanding. Polanyi’s traditional society is not static, without freedom or challenge, but grows through reinterpretation of the same traditional rules. But Polanyi recognizes political persuasion does not operate in the same way as science. People will occasionally engage in deceit for personal gain without open review by others of mutual authority. So institutions are required to keep factions from destroying each other, and this implies the State, with laws and regulations, as America’s Founders envisioned. The establishment of law has more latitude than Rothbard allows.

It becomes clear that Rothbard wants to make all rights subservient only to property. “For not only are there no human rights which are not also property rights,” he claims, “but rights lose their absoluteness and clarity…when property rights are not used as the standard.” This absoluteness becomes Rothbard’s biggest problem. As he tells it, free speech is a right one has only “on his own property or on the property of someone who has agreed…to allow him on the premises.” This perspective denies more abstract rights, like belief. Does someone have a right to hold their religious beliefs only on their own property, or granted access by the owner? While I agree with Rothbard that speech rights do not provide a right to trespass, this recurrent tactic stretches a valid idea (free speech) to absurdity in order to indict something different. The invader still has free speech rights no matter where they are, just as they have a right to their own religious beliefs, but these rights are circumscribed, in this case not to supersede property rights. Society requires a rational balance, not an absolutist dogma that makes all things subservient to Rothbard’s materialist notions.

Repeatedly Rothbard sets the table in terms that satisfy his conclusions. In his chapter “Knowledge, True and False,” we learn that Smith has reported Jones is a homosexual. Again, there are only three possibilities allowed. 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,” 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 murder and a planned one of a different sort? In Rothbard’s example, Smith has no right to privacy because there isn’t one he can attach to property. What if Smith lives in a place where his homosexuality would lead to his being ostracized, assaulted, executed? We needn’t climb too far down the social hole Rothbard digs to find it flawed. The “force from disseminating” which Rothbard abhors was once called virtue, attached to morality. For one who supports true community, what does community do when moral judgment says homosexuality is wrong? As Polanyi says, a tradition of truth seeking discovers homosexuality not a free choice or mere preference, but a fact of some human genomes. Hence, human rights. Though this example begs the question of religious community.

When it comes to those unable to cope in Rothbard’s property-centric world, we find little relief. “The parent may not murder or mutilate the child,” writes Rothbard, “But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e. to let the child die.” 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.” This transformation of a living creature based on perception is striking. While parasites invade with instinctive intent, humans are created by willful acts. But as Rothbard teaches, the fetus, or any child, is incapable of a contractual agreement in any parental arrangement, so parents owe them nothing. 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 property for life—sacred ground for Rothbard—is ignored.

Naturally, this thinking applies to animals. There can be no moral component to the extermination of eight billion passenger pigeons, the last Yanksee River porpoise, or anything else, because it’s just our nature. “Animals [like children] cannot petition for their rights…,” says Rothbard. While two hundred twenty-seven 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 simplicity 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 as a means of engaging dispassionate third parties, 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 if 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. But business wants centralized government allocation of bandwidth to avoid unwanted electromagnetic interference. While the consequences of a power to tax or its absence are clearly seen in the American Revolution and founding of the United States, which presumably Rothbard would have rejected. Rothbard would have benefited from reasoned debates of problems in governance by The Federalist and Anti-Federalist.

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. Otherwise known as the real world.

Rothbard could never unravel our wrinkles because his definition of the human is so flawed. 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 psyche is alone in the universe. Others are simply perturbations to his formulaic individual. 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.” [4]

Perhaps I should not be surprised when there are adults who believe in Creationism, Postmodernism, and crop circles, but as a relative newcomer to this arena, I must confess a measure of naiveté. This text stunned me. To think there are adults who take this kind of purportedly serious thinking seriously, and in our Congress on this very day. I hesitate to explore what other pseudo-philosophies haunt our halls of governance with a potent foreboding for our future.

Until next time, the first Monday and 7th of November.


[1] Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, 2002
[2] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, Simon And Schuster, 1987
[3] Michael Polanyi, Meaning, University of Chicago Press, 1975
[4] Leo Strauss, Straussianism, Mark C. Henrie, First Principles, 2011
Revised the usual dashes and word or two. 1/17/19
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Published on September 05, 2016 08:53
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