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.