Another take on Rothbard

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.

Rothbard’s folly

Note: For those of you with a low tolerance for long-winded arguments and poor off-the cuff writing, I’ve summarized this post here: Please read that instead. I’m keeping this post only for the sake of chronological accuracy.

At the recommendation of my friend Steve I’ve been reading Murray Rothbard’s “For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto”. Well, the first few chapters have certainly shown me why I’m not, and likely will never be, a libertarian.

I guess it would be easiest to start with Rothbard’s concept of society – or actually his denial of its existence. Now, on the face of it the argument seems reasonable – there’s no single sentient entity called “society” that could actually make the decisions and bear the responsibilities that have been laid at its door. Therefore, Rothbard concludes, it’s nonsense to talk of society as a force – it’s all up to the individuals that constitute it.

What he misses, however, is the fact that society does not have to be an entity to have a will separate from that of its consituents. To illustrate what I mean, imagine a number of forces acting in different directions to a body. The object will, not surprisingly, move in the direction of the resultant force, and not that of any of the individual forces. The same goes for society – what a society does is the resultant of the projection of the wills of its constituents. While some have a lot of influence over what happens (call it “power”) and some very little, even in an absolutist or totalitarian system nothing happens without the interaction of many power centers, and a single individual can’t ever completely control everything that happens. Thus, “society” does not have to be a sentient individual to be considered a unit that carries out its own actions, separate from those of its members. And being social animals, we are very dependent on our social contract for our continued existence.

The second thing that I disagree with him on, and this is really a fundamental one, is the idea of “natural law”. He cites three basic reasons for believing in the value of individual liberty: the “emotivist” or romantic, the utilitarian, and “natural law” argument. He rejects the first two as, respectively, too subjective to be used as an argument (you either “feel” it or not) or too flexible when circumstances favor placing limits on personal liberty. He sides with the “natural law” camp:

While the behavior of plants and at least the lower animals is determined by their biological nature or perhaps by their “instincts,” the nature of man is such that each individual person must, in order to act, choose his own ends and employ his own means in order to attain them. … Since men can think, feel, evaluate, and act only as individuals, it becomes vitally necessary for each man’s survival and prosperity that he be free to learn, choose, develop his faculties, and act upon his knowledge and values. This is the necessary path of human nature; to interfere with and cripple this process by using violence goes profoundly against what is necessary by man’s nature for his life and prosperity.

Now even in the 1970s when he wrote it, the idea that humans do not act on instinct but rationally choose their actions must have been at least suspect. In fact, the more you look at the way people act, the harder it is to find examples of actions dictated by pure reasoning and logic. Most of our actions appear to stem from our basic drives for survival and procreation – and these can all be boiled down into the Nietschean element of power – the ability to control ourselves and our surroundings.

Rothbard takes a different tack: he goes on to elaborate the principle of “natural law” into man’s “natural rights”, including the chief one, of self-ownership. It’s nice-sounding stuff, and something that few people would oppose as a principle. However, he fails to see that all rights we have are purely social, not natural, constructs. The rights he refers to were unknown to many people throughout history – slaves, indentured servants, harem wives – you get the idea. If you consider an individual living outside society – let’s say in the mountains somewhere – he has no “rights” at all. He can’t claim a “natural right to life” in the face of a mountain lion – he either has the power to survive or not, nothing more. Therefore, it’s easy to see that there are no “natural rights” – all the rights we have are a result of social covenants. Simply speaking, society – or the people who wield real power in society – decided that it is even in their own interest to ensure that an individual can only be denied so much. Likely as not this was the result of the realization that nothing in this life is given forever (i.e. is not a “natural right”) and it’s better to set up a limit on how much can be taken from you, just in case.

Rothbard then goes on to expand this concept into his entire libertarian philosophical framework. Once you overlook the fundamental flaw at its base, the argument seems very logical – if you’ve got a natural right to control your body, then you need the freedom to maintain it – to grow crops, clothe it, and so forth. This brings on the “right” to ownership of the means of production and to free enterprise. But with no “natural rights”, the whole argument falls apart.

Reply to my friend Steve

I still haven’t read the book you recommended, but I’d like to explain one thing – what I meant when I said libertarians believed that markets could be “magically” free.

I understand your point about free-market mechanisms balancing things out, both in theory and in most cases in practice. However, there are other factors that affect a market than just the internal ones. Markets operate in the broader context of society and the power relationships between their participants, and they should be taken into account when considering how they function.

I think we can agree that somewhere down the line there was such a thing as an entirely free, completely unregulated market – I would assert it was somewhere at the level of Grawp and Groop trading fish for deer hides, and not much later. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find one that isn’t regulated to some degree. The logical conclusion is that there must be a reason (or more likely a set of reasons) for this.

I think that the main one is the fact that the participants in a market try to bend the rules to their own advantage by establishing market regulators (starting with guilds and such, ending with the likes of the FDA and SEC). If you can accept this, you have to conclude that when you establish a free market, it will naturally (in other words through the natural inclination of market participants to mess with the rules of the game) devolve into a regulated one, unless something stops it from happening. The question then is what that something could be.

The way I see it, it could either again be the market participants seeing their own advantage best served by setting up rules to keep regulators out (but in effect enforcing “free market” rules), by an outside body (i.e. “government”) motivated by some external ideology or their own interests (resulting in “anti-monopoly” regulations), or finally “market magic”, which is where I see most libertarians sitting. I have yet to hear a libertarian explain how markets would keep themselves from by-and-by descending into one kind of regulation or another without an external force to ensure this.

I will read the Rothbard book when I have a bit more time around mid-May, and I’m really curious if and how it addresses this issue.

Libertarianism redux

After reading the answer from Steve from to my earlier post on libertarianism (here), I thought my answer really deserved a separate post.

My general problem with libertarianism isn’t that it seeks to expand the scope of individual freedom – this I wholeheartedly agree with. Rather, it’s the fact that libertarians have limited the idea of individual liberty to freedom from government coercion. My way of thinking is that in most cases this is an insufficient approach, and in some a completely counterproductive one.

As I’ve written before, while we choose to live in society, the concept of total unfettered liberty is a Utopian dream. What there is is a delicate balance of power relationships between the individual and others members of society. There really are two types of interactions – individual-to-individual and individual-to-group. For the sake of this argument I’ll stick to the relations between individuals and groups, although it’s important to remember that groups are themselves composed of individuals, no matter how monolithic they may appear.

In dealing with groups, an individual is generally at a disadvantage – groups by their very nature have more power, and this is the main reason why they are formed in the first place. The bigger the group, generally the more powerful it is. The power of a group over an individual is also directly related to the amount of influence it has over the individual’s material and emotional well-being. In my mind, there is really no substantive difference between the government and any other group exercising its power over an individual – the difference lies entirely in its magnitude.

Steve rightly points out that businesses do not have many of the powers vested in most governments – to imprison, to prosecute, to dispossess, sometimes to kill. However, this is only a question of the balance between their power against those of others – in a completely unregulated world (i.e. anarchy) the power vacuum would soon be filled by groups that, unfettered by government power, would soon assume many of those prerogatives themselves.

The second issue is one I’ve mentioned before, but one that bears repeating: for me personal liberty is not some abstract idea, but rather the sum total of real opportunities for action open to the individual. Theoretical freedom is worthless if, for instance, economic conditions make it impossible for you to take advantage of it.

Now I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m not of a mind to get back to the sweatshop-ridden, child-laboring, subsistence-wage, laissez-faire capitalism of the 19th century. On the other hand, I’ve had more than my share of experiences as an entrepreneur and employer set upon by a burgeoning bureaucracy to know that totalizing government regulation is not the way to go, either. To me, the question is how to maximize real individual freedom not by limiting one side of the power equation, but by balancing all sides of the equation so as to have them leave the most opportunities for action to the individual.

More deep thoughts on libertarianism

It just won’t let me go. I promised myself I’d give it up, but here it is – I think I’ve arrived at a sort of a synthesis of my previous two posts on the subject:

Libertarians are looking for a maximum of liberty for the individual. However, if liberty is understood as a lack of reliance on outside factors, the world is heading in the opposite direction, largely unifying people into a cybersociety where any talk of genuine individualism is moot. And there’s no turning back, unless some unthinkable disaster strikes or a new band of Luddites takes over and turns us all Amish.

The Internet – or the world computer, as I’m beginning to think of it – is here to stay, incorporating increasing numbers of human neurons into it. However, the analogy to the Borg I gave a couple of posts down is a bit misleading in the sense that the Borg were controlled by their “hive”. The new cybersociety, even when we’re all wearing nifty brain implant communicators, is unlikely to work that way – mainly because the Internet operates on a commercial paradigm that has productivity at its heart. So individualists will continue to think they are individuals, and the fact that they are hard-wired into a network will not likely change that view – just as we today don’t think ourselves any less individual than our predecessors did, even if our lives and livelihoods are completely dependent on technologies that couldn’t exist without the collaboration of thousands of people.

Here I must warn you – the next bit is a bit weird, even for my usual standards. So if you have no mind for that sort of thing, go have some cocoa.

Now that the linear thinkers are gone, I can continue: I’ve started to think of society – no matter what kind – not as a collection of individuals, but as sort of a doughy cellular matter – the Blob, let’s call it. In this model people are not in any way individuals – everyone is connected to everyone else, though some are at the very center and some at the periphery. Here’s the key thing – some cells are stronger, some weaker. Some can barely impact their own vicinity of the matter field, some are strong enough to move entire sections of it. However, no single cell can move the whole mass – you can only act at distance by influence.

What’s the point of all this, you ask? Well, my idea is that this cyberblob – or call it “society” if the imagery offends – affords its cells unrestricted freedom within the system. Its actions are a resultant of their combined wills and actions. Each cell can decide what it wants to do, where it wants to push the whole mass, and is limited only by its own strength and the resistance of its neighbors, BUT NOT BY THE BLOB ITSELF, which does not have an individual will of its own. And exiting the mass is no more of an option for large segments of the blob than a mass dropping out of society is for us – if we all dropped out, we’d just coagulate into another blob somewhere else.

Now for the serious stuff – libertarianism calls for the establishment of free markets and for governments to butt out of people’s business. All fine-sounding slogans. However, if you allow yourself to adopt the blob analogy for a while, you can see that there’s no such thing as complete freedom. Free-market economics may rid you of government interference, but that doesn’t mean they’ll rid you of interference as such. You’ll always have somebody pushing you this way or that, and it’s only up to your strength of will whether you yield or stand. Now stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

Libertarianism and power

For various reasons I’ve been rethinking classical liberalism. It’s an idea that on the surface of things promises all good things – personal liberty and a booming economy to boot. When I lived in Poland, the bloated, listless bureaucracy and dynamic business sphere made it seem like the ideal way out. However, once you start looking at it, the underlying idea becomes somewhat problematic.

First of all, you have to ask yourself what kind of vision of society you have. Laissez-faire economics view society as a collection of individuals related by ties of commerce (understood as any exchange of value, such as work for cash, and so forth). However, even a perfunctory look at society shows that the links are of a very varied nature – even discounting such instinctual relations as love and friendship, it is easy to see organizations (i.e. power structures) that have little or nothing with money (various social causes that have aims only very loosely related to the marketplace). What they all have in common is that they always aim to change the world in some small way – in other words, they all aim to exercise power.

In turn, you have to ask yourself why people view wealth in such a positive light. The three obvious reasons, the “instinctive” ones, are material security, the ability to purchase goods and services and financial independence. Without getting into long treatises, these all translate into power – the power to control one’s own life and that of others (by buying their services, for instance).

Therefore, it is easy to see that the whole of society can be seen as a complex of power structures, and not the rational machine that classical liberals hold it to be.

Second, I have a bit of a problem with economics as a prescriptive and not descriptive discipline. Obviously, for various reasons, a descriptive science of economics is useful. Conclusions drawn from analyzing the mechanisms of the economy are useful for achieving specific aims. However, the aims are what really counts here, and you have to have a consensus on these before you can look for ways of achieving them.

Third, the concept of personal liberty and economic growth have to be examined to see what, if anything, is meant by them. Let’s take personal liberty: “instinctively” we measure the level of personal liberty as the possibilities open to us at a given moment. A person who has more possibilities of action is more free than one who has fewer choices. It doesn’t seem very hard to see that personal liberty is simply an expression of personal power, and with society being a field of competing power structures – small and large – personal liberty isn’t something that can be seen only as the freedom from government regulation. To simplify things immensely, your free-market boss limits your liberty at least as much as the government, and perhaps much more so.

Next, economic growth is obviously the rate at which wealth is accumulated. But is it necessarily a goal to be striven for? That seems questionable – you have to ask yourself what a high rate of growth leads to. People being able to buy more things and more services? Up to a certain level this makes sense, but what beyond that? In classical liberalism, there is no “desirable” level of wealth. However, a common sense approach would suggest that it wouldn’t be desirable for EVERYONE to own a 130-foot yacht, or for EVERYONE to be able to lead a life of leisure. So there are limits to the desirable level of general wealth, clearly showing the inadequacy of economic growth as a goal in itself.

For me this puts too many holes in classical liberal dogma to make it viable. Please note that this is not a manifesto but a critique – I’m not proposing anything in its place. Maybe another day.