Thursday, February 20, 2014

Book Review: FOR A NEW LIBERTY (1973) by Murray N. Rothbard

For A New Liberty (1973; 1978) by Murray N. Rothbard,
Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006. 420 pages (including index)

Have you ever wanted to read a libertarian book that systematically defended the concept of liberty? Have you wanted something radical, something that offers real solutions, even if those solutions would seem uncomfortable at first?

Well, in 1973, the great economist and theorist Murray N. Rothbard published a radical, powerful, and invigorating book entitled For A New Liberty, a profoundly radical, realist, powerful and simple book; it was republished in 1978 in a revised edition, and in the 21st century, it was republished in 2006 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, opening the way for more readers to enjoy this brilliant work.

And what does this book contain that makes it so powerful? It defends the idea of liberty so radically, based on the moral and practical arguments, even applying it to the state, calling for its abolition by showing how law and rights can be protected and upheld without the coercive and aggressive nature of the State. It defends laissez-faire economics consistently, even to the point of defending the idea of defense services, harkening upon not only Gustave de Molinari's The Production of Security (which many consider the first anarcho-capitalist tract) but also the great Frederic Bastiat tract The Law, in which the true purpose and nature of the law was revealed (hint: it's not what conservatives and left-wing liberals think). It looks at the tough problems and applies the libertarian creed to them, ranging from welfare to education to law to police to roads to the issue of war and peace itself.

Introduction: Libertarian History

Murray Rothbard opens with a brilliant chapter explaining America's libertarian origins (which has been delved further into Rothbard's massive Conceived in Liberty, Bernard Bailyn's The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and other great works), showing how Locke and the "Cato" folks laid the foundation for the American Revolution's doctrine, defending the right to private property, liberty, natural rights, and the limited government. Rothbard says this profound statement in that chapter:

...the revolution was not only the first successful modern attempt to throw off the yoke of Western imperialism—at that time, of the world’s mightiest power. More important, for the first time in history, Americans hedged in their new governments with numerous limits and restrictions embodied in constitutions and particularly in bills of rights. Church and State were rigorously separated throughout the new states,and religious freedom enshrined. Remnants of feudalism were eliminated throughout the states by the abolition of the feudal privileges of entail and primogeniture. (In the former, a dead ancestor is able to entail landed estates in his family forever, preventing his heirs from selling any part of the land; in the latter, the government requires sole inheritance of property by the oldest son.) (pp. 5-6)

He shows how this laid the foundation for the libertarian movement which arose in the mid-20th century, as well as the ideology of classical liberalism which was predominant in late 18th and 19th century Western civilization, the ideology which defended the right to private property, laissez-faire capitalism, individual freedom and natural rights. It was on these two foundations that the libertarian movement branched out and formed. It was a wonderful movement, a wonderful time, and a lively theory. But what happened that led to the demise of true liberalism. There were many factors, including socialism and growth of statism, but Rothbard points out that the liberals lost their original liveliness and radicalism and shifted toward quasi-conservatism and gradualism, especially with regard to many if the 19th century. They abandoned the higher law/natural law theory that previously undergirded their libertarianism and instead turned to utilitarianism. While it is true that there were utilitarians who were still radical, like the 20th century libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises, most lacked the radicalism that was inherent in natural law theory. So it was this that caused the liberals to start conceding major functions to the State, laying the foundations for the modern welfare-warfare state, which was in many ways a return to the previous conservative Order of pre-liberal Western civilization and also a new form, using democracy (a classical-liberal goal) to support the new statist order and manufacture consent. 

It is this tragedy (exemplified in the major wars and statist atrocities of the 20th century) that now gives further reason for a systematic and radical theory of libertarianism which not only is morally consistent but also practical and realistic.

The Libertarian Creed

The next part of the book is entitled The Libertarian Creed, in which Rothbard starts with the central axiom of libertarianism: the nonaggression principle, which states that no man may aggress against another's life, liberty and/or just private property titles. He shows how natural law and self-ownership means that property rights exist and out of them arise all the other libertarian rights such as free speech, human rights, civil liberties, and others. He shows what is just, what is unjust, and how property becomes private property, based off a radical (neo-)Lockean theory of property titles and homesteading, where man mixes labor with previously unowned and untouched property, thus making it his own property. This is the root of just property titles; the only other ways of obtaining property and resources, as Rothbard shows, are through voluntary exchange and contact or through aggressive and forceful means. 

He also shows that natural rights is the only proper foundation for property-rights and libertarian theory, showing not only the flaws with emotionalism and utilitarianism but also the flaws of other non-libertarian systems like communism and communitarianism. Particularly important is his rebuttal to communism:

“The second alternative, what we might call “participatory communalism” or “communism,” holds that every man should have the right to own his equal quotal share of everyone else. If there are two billion people in the world, then everyone has the right to own one two-billionth of every other person. In the first place, we can state that this ideal rests on an absurdity: proclaiming that every man is entitled to own a part of everyone else, yet is not entitled to own himself. Secondly, we can picture the viability of such a world: a world in which no man is free to take any action whatever without prior approval or indeed command by everyone else in society. It should be clear that in that sort of “communist” world, no one would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly perish. But if a world of zero self-ownership and one hundred percent other ownership spells death for the human race, then any steps in that direction also contravene the natural law of what is best for man and his life on earth. 

Finally, however, the participatory communist world cannot be put into practice. For it is physically impossible for everyone to keep continual tabs on everyone else, and thereby to exercise his equal quotal share of partial ownership over every other man. In practice, then, the concept of universal and equal other-ownership is utopian and impossible, and supervision and therefore control and ownership of others necessarily devolves upon a specialized group of people, who thereby become a ruling class. Hence, in practice, any attempt at communist rule will automatically become class rule, and we would be back at our first alternative.”
Excerpt From: Murray N. Rothbard. “For A New Liberty.” Ludwig von Mises Institue. iBooks. This material may be protected by copyright.

The rest of that chapter on "Property and Exchange" is beautiful, but especially vital is his chapter on "The State." He is very convincing, radical, excellent and refreshing, exposing the immorality of the State and its roots in exploitation and force, which is contrary to the voluntary nature of other societal institutions. Rothbard beautifully explains, like he did in his essay "The Anatomy of the State" that the State is inherently aggressive and that libertarians, in applying the nonaggression principle, are consistent in their antistatism (I would also add that even the limited-government libertarians are still very consistent in their opposition to statism). He points out that the State never voluntarily gives up its power, no matter how small or big, and that the State can't be put on the same moral plane as other voluntary institutions, for it uses forced takings of resources ("taxation"), forced slavery ("conscription"), and use of violence in ways no other institution can or would use. 

As to checks on the government, he shows, from the historical witness of people such as John C. Calhoun, that even constitutions are ultimately ineffective in limiting the government, for somehow the government will use a constitution and interpret it in a way that finds itself favorable. Such is the tragic case of the U.S. Constitution, which was started out with good intentions (or maybe not) but ended up being a permission for the State to increase its own power. He also argues against collectivism, showing that the people do not equal the government, that government is not voluntary (thus putting an end to "If you don't like it, leave!"), that government is inherently oligarchic (even a democracy is oligarchic to one degree or another), parasitic (it can't be run like a business, despite what some politicians might have you think), and sporadic and legalized (private, non-State crime doesn't receive the same love that State crime does, and rightly so).

He beautifully shows how the State manages to propagandize its citizens using intellectuals (the secular alternative to the conservative throne-and-altar regime of past times), how there is a class division (between tax payers and tax looters; not between producers and workers), how many of the doctrines intended to limit government lost their original purpose in the process (the divine right of kings, utilitarianism, constitutions/bills of rights, and others come into mind), and that it is not a good institution. 

Libertarian Applications to Current Problems

Now that we have tasted the meat of the foundations, let us taste the meat of the application, where Rothbard goes further into applying the libertarian creed to current problems (he does this moreso in his 1982 treatise The Ethics of Liberty, a much denser and more philosophical masterpiece than For A New Liberty). He states stuff like education, pollution, the military-industrial complex, economic problems, and the issue of Watergate (other scandals can stand in place, since Watergate is over), union strikes and restrictions and others, showing why this merits libertarianism.

He starts with the issue of involuntary servitude, the foundation of government services. He exposes the army, conscription, antistrike laws, the tax system, and commitment (the practice of committing mentally ill patients), and the courts as all participating in involuntary servitude, which is forbidden by the Thirteenth Amendment. He defends the argument against such from utilitarian and moral grounds, showing that not only is involuntary servitude ineffective but also immoral, be it in any form at all, even if it's a more "politically correct" form.

On the issue of personal liberty, Rothbard makes radical conclusions about the nature of free speech (rooting it in property rights in contrast to some vague "human rights"), even going so far as to say that libel and slander are not worthy of criminalizing, stating that no one has the right to a reputation in the same way that one has a right to private property. 

On sex laws, pornography laws, and prostitution laws, he advocates for their abolition and freedom in these areas. He shows that such laws are not only violations of individual freedom but also violations of property rights. Rothbard also shows that forced morality is not true morality, for real moral action has an element of freedom with it; without that element, no true morality can exist. As to the issue of birth control and abortion (which I agree with on the former but not the latter), he gives a very interesting take which, while one may not agree with, is worth reading and considering.

On the radio and television issue, he advocates a complete free market in this area, allowing for property rights rather than these two being "public" services. He shows that the coming regulations were not because of chaos in the airwaves but because it wanted to prevent competition from television and radio companies establishing private property rights and prevented government power from interfering in the area. He shows that government involvement in radio and television airwaves is not only incompatible with libertarianism and freedom but also with the constitutional rights of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

On wiretapping, Rothbard shows the impracticality of such an action. While he does concede that wiretapping might work in some circumstances and that the police have the right to invade the property of a thief who has committed a crime, he does show that wiretapping is immoral and a violation of property rights.

On gambling and drugs, Rothbard also advocates for freedom in these actions, and on the issues of police corruption and gun laws, he also makes the case for freedom as not only a moral right but also a practical ailment to the problem of both issues.

His other chapters on education, welfare, and the business cycle are also great and worth a read; the chapter on the business cycle clarified many things for me (but I will still have to reread that chapter and maybe the whole book to grasp more of what it has to offer), and it is not too complicated for even the regular person to read.

The chapters on the public sector are really awesome, making the case for a total free market with business, leaving no government involvement whatsoever, showing that without the "public" sector businesses will have incentives to please their consumers and provide high quality to their clients and consumers, because there is a strong link between service and payment, something lacking in government services. The roads chapter is also brilliant too, but what made me change from a classical minarchist libertarian to an anarcho-capitalist libertarian was his chapter on "Police, Law, and the Courts," where he makes not only the moral but the practical case for freedom in the production of security services, the defense of law (as opposed to a monopoly Supreme Court), and even national-security concerns. He points out that the private courts have more incentive for higher quality than government courts, that even the worst conflicts in an anarchist society would not be as bad as government violence, that arbitration courts can work out something, that voluntary justice can be successful (giving historical examples), that private courts would have more incentive to be just in their judgment than government courts, and that even the law itself can be provided privately in the free market, showing the historical example of ancient Ireland (before it was conquered by England).

This chapter made me convinced that anarchy can be ordered and based on law, that it is not chaos (even though I was convinced internally of this truth before I officially became an anarcho-capitalist), and that government is not necessary for order (and in many ways is a hindrance to order). And the rest of the chapter convinced me of the merits and morality of free-market defense, law, courts, and national security. I know that I will have to learn more and solidify my beliefs through more wisdom and knowledge (and I believe that anarcho-capitalism is compatible with biblical Christianity like classical libertarianism is), but as of now, I am fully glad that I became an anarcho-capitalist. I detailed my conversion on this Reddit thread at /r/christian_ancaps

And one thing that the book really did for me was to open my eyes to see a new way of dealing with the issue of conservation and ecology, showing how property rights and liberty will help this issue and alleviate many of the problems. He shows that class action suits against polluters is lawful from a libertarian standpoint, that pollution violates property rights and the nonaggression principle (that applies even to noise), that technological growth and prosperity is compatible with a better world and better ecology, and that a true free market is vital to great conservation.

Also important and vital is his chapter on "War and Foreign Policy," the last and final problem to which libertarianism will be applied to in this great work. Rothbard gives some uniquely interesting history on Soviet foreign policy, that collective security is wrong, that noninterventionism ("isolationism" in his own words) is libertarian foreign policy, and that nuclear weapons and other modern weapons are so deadly and aggressive that they should be abolished completely. As he favors the anarcho-capitalist society, Rothbard opposes the formation of States everywhere, which allows him to see with great clarity the issue of collective security, aggressive warfare, just war, and revolutionary-guerrilla warfare. I agree with his take on foreign policy, for noninterventionism-isolationism is the only right foreign policy, for it promotes freedom, peace, and prosperity. It not only reflects much of American tradition but it also reflects true moral principles and the Golden Rule.

The final chapter, which proposes some strategies for achieving liberty, is especially important, arguing against both sectarianism and opportunism, supporting a happy middle ground with radical goals in mind and even small achievements swiftly supported, all while attaining to the radical goal of pure liberty and a free society. He makes the case for optimism (which I have some reservations about, based on my theology of the last days), which is mostly important for libertarians but helpful for the other readers (who may or may not have become libertarians in the process of reading this book and other libertarian resources).

Overall, despite my disagreement with Rothbard on the issue of abortion (he supports abortion rights and feels that they are not violations of the nonaggression principle; I think they are, but more on that in other posts; BTW, I think that one can be a true Christian and support the Rothbardian view on abortion and the law, but more on that in another post), I overall admire this great book and give it my highest recommendation.

5/5: For A New Liberty is a masterpiece of libertarian literature and worth reading for everyone interested in politics and the science of liberty. It is a truly radical and thoughtful work that deserves not only a read but consideration of the deeper philosophy. While it would be great for people to accept the anarcho-capitalist message of this book, it is still deserving of a read, even if you ultimately disagree with Rothbard. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Here is the Reddit thread on /r/Anarcho_Capitalism (one of my Reddit faves) on my post: