As I read over my arguments against Murray Rothbard’s “For a New Liberty”, I started feeling uneasy about the rambling, unfocused writing. So here is a shorter and hopefully somewhat clearer explanation of what I meant:
First, something that may not have been really clear in the original post: I’m all for personal liberty. I think it’s peachy-keen, and I think we should work as hard as possible to expand the scope of liberty available to everyone. The problem I have with Rothbard is not the goal, but the reasoning he presents to arrive at it. Simply put, poor reasoning is easily refutable, and there is a very solid basis for supporting individual liberty. Unfortunately, Rothbard’s is not it. He bases his argument on the concept of “natural law”, which he doesn’t substantiate other than by stating that people have natural needs that they need to be able to satisfy. However, he doesn’t say why these needs are supposed to generate “natural rights”.
My argument is that people don’t have ANY natural rights – meaning rights outside the social framework. A hermit living in the mountains has no “rights” – claiming the “natural right to life” in the face of a mountain lion would be absurd. He either has the skills and luck needed to survive, or he doesn’t – it’s as simple as that. No rights involved, because without other people around, rights are a moot concept. If you have no rights in a natural environment, it’s easy to see there can be no “natural rights”. End of argument.
Now if rights are a social construct, then we have to consider what the “society” that grants them really consists of. Rothbard argues that society is a mistaken concept – that society is really the interaction of many individuals and that it is the individuals that have the power to act, individually. In his view, the concept of society is an excuse used by those in power to justify their actions. That’s partly true, but I think that society is a force independent of the will (or if you prefer the power) of the individuals that constitute it, even those most powerful. The example I like to use is the behavior of a body on which a number of forces act in different directions – the body will not move along the path of any of the constituent forces. It will move along the line of the resultant force – which though it is not an entity in itself, is the sum total of the real forces acting on the body. The same goes for a society – it changes differently than even its most powerful members would like to see – weaker power centers exert some influence, changing the outcome. Therefore, since “society” is not the product of any individual but the resultant of complicated interactions within it, in certain circumstances it is reasonable to treat it as an entity even if it does not have a unitary intelligence of its own.
This brings us back to the idea of rights – contrary to what Rothbard believes, we are dependent on the society in which we live for our survival and well-being, and therefore should consider it in our calculations. The utilitarian argument which he rejects – that personal liberty is useful for the common good – is in fact the best reason why people should be given the liberty to act the way they want to. It is also, as Rothbard rightly points out in arguing against it, the reason why sometimes the interests of “society” should prevail against the particular interests of individuals. However, the utilitarian approach shows itself more reasonable than ideology, even if it isn’t as pretty and clear-cut as Rothbard would like it to be.