Thursday, March 20, 2014

Book Review: THE ETHICS OF LIBERTY by Murray N. Rothbard

The Ethics of Liberty (1982) by Murray Rothbard; with intro. by Hans-Hermann Hoppe
New York, New York; New York Univeristy Press; 1998 (republication); 1982 (Humanities Press)
308 pages; including bibliography and index
ISBN: 0-8147-7506-3
ISBN-10: 0814775594
Dewey Decimal: 323.44'01--ddl
Library of Congress Classification: JC585 .R69 1982


REVIEW: A Masterpiece of Thought and Political Philosophy

Murray Rothbard (1926-1995) was an interesting figure, a polymath skilled in economic theory, political and ethical philosophy, and libertarianism. He defended the libertarian message so clearly and consistently, supported sound economics in the vein of the Austrian school of economics, and was basically the towering leader of the modern libertarian movement. Without Rothbard, the libertarian movement would be very different. He applied the libertarian message consistently, not shying away from the radical elements but embracing them and defending them. And not only that, he was all around a great man. He was no god, and he had faults like any other man, but he was a great philosopher and economist and historian. His work, along with the works of Ludwig von Mises and the classical-liberal and libertarian traditions, should be recognized more and appreciated.

After finishing Rothbard's 1973 classic For A New Liberty, a crystal-clear and beautiful apologia for the libertarian creed, I have decided to embark on his 1982 masterpiece The Ethics of Liberty, a systematic outline of libertarian law and theory, looking at it from the ethical and moral perspective, as well as from a philosophical and logical standpoint. While it is not a Christian work in that it does not refer to Christianity, it is definitely not only compatible with the Christian faith but in many ways harkens back to it in its profound principles, from its attacking of mere utilitarianism and defense of natural law to the defense of justice and liberty, applying libertarian principles radically and logically, all for the enrichment and the rewarding of the thoughtful reader. While most libertarians would accept the foundational principle of self-ownership on which Rothbard bases his political philosophy, few understand the power of radical application of this principle.

The first part of this book (Introduction to Natural Law) deals with the foundation of libertarian theory, and Rothbard chooses natural law theory and natural rights as his basis, seeing it as moral and ethical. He uses the principle to defend the right of self-ownership and the libertarian/natural rights of mankind. While his philosophy is not strictly religious, it is definitely compatible with the Scriptures in that, even while Rothbard doesn't acknowledge God, he does recognize the natural law that God reveals himself through (Romans 1:19-20). Even while his theory is rationalist in orientation, the theory is not anti-religious or anti-Christian but echoing of past Christian scholars and defenders of natural law and natural rights. He even shows that natural law is not "conservative" but rather radical and revolutionary, particularly in the libertarian forum.

The second part (A Theory of Liberty) applies the natural-law libertarian foundation to construct the libertarian theory, starting with the classical Crusoe model that was used by classical economists and showing how the libertarian principles of self-ownership, the homestead principle, and freedom would work with the case of Robinson Crusoe before going on to apply it to difficult and various situations. Rothbard says of man's needs and his desire to fulfill them:

Crusoe, then, has manifold wants which he tries to satisfy, ends
that he strives to attain. Some of these ends may be attained with minimal
ef-fort on his part; if the island is so structured, he may be able to pick
edible berries off nearby bushes. In such cases, his "consumption" of a
good or service may be obtained quickly and almost instantaneously.
But for almost all of his wants, Crusoe fids that the natural world about
him does not satisfy them immediately and instantaneously; he is not, inshort, in a Garden of Eden. To achieve his ends, he must, as quickly and
productively as he can, take the nature-given resources and transform
them into useful objects, shapes, and places most useful to him-so that
he can satisfy his wants. 
In short, he must (a) choose his goals; (b) learn how to achieve them
by using nature-given resources; and then (c) exert his labor energy to
transform these resources into more useful shapes and places: i-e., into
"capital goods,"and finally into "consumer goods" that he can directly
consume. Thus, Crusoe may build himself, out of the given natural raw
materials, an axe (capital good) with which to chop down trees, in order
to construct a cabin (consumer good). Or he may build a net (capital good)
with which to catch fish (consumer good). In each case, he employs his
learned technological knowledge to exert his labor effort in transforming
land into capital goods and eventually into consumer goods. This process
of transformation of land resources constitutes his "production." In short,
Crusoe must produce before he can consume, and so that he may consume. 

And by this process of production, of transformation, man shapes and
alters his nature-given environment to his own ends, instead of,
animal-like, being simply determined by that environment.
And so man, not having innate, instinctive, automatically acquired
knowledge of his proper ends, or of the means by which they can be
achieved, must learn them, and to learn them he must exercise his powers
of observation, abstraction, thought: in short, his reason. Reason is man's
instrument of knowledge and of his very survival; the use and expansion
of his mind, the acquisition of knowledge about what is best for him and
how he can achieve it, is the uniquely human method of existence and of
achievement. And this is uniquely man's nature; man, as Aristotle pointed
out, is the rational animal, or to be more precise, the rational being.
Through his reason, the individual man observes both the facts and ways
of the external world, and the facts of his own consciousness, including
his emotions: in short, he employs both extraspection and introspection. (pp. 29-30)

After giving a brilliant take on how the free society and freedom will work in Crusoe's situation, Rothbard goes on to apply the theory of libertarianism and self-ownership to develop a corpus of the libertarian system, first applying it to the theory of property rights and just homesteading and then going on to apply that to the other issues, ranging from property and criminality, land reform, land theft, self-defense and punishment theory to the issues of bribery, children's rights, and the problem of knowledge, as well as other issues. I didn't always agree with Rothbard, especially with the issue of abortion (though I believe that a true Christian can hold Rothbard's pro-choice view on abortion and the law), but I agree with everything else Rothbard defends and affirms, including the children's rights theory Rothbard defends (with some of my own reservations). Logic and natural law are part and parcel of Rothbard's defense of liberty and libertarianism.

The third part of the book (The State versus Liberty) goes on to deal with the problem of the State, and how libertarian theory applied consistently precludes the very existence of the State, which is originated in political means, the use of exploitation and initiation of force to exist and gain wealth. He not only refutes the statist myths but also refutes the objections of even limited-government libertarians who see a role for the State in society. Rothbard says:
But, above all, the crucial monopoly is the State's control of the use
of violence: of the police and armed services, and of the courts-the locus
of ultimate decision-making power in disputes over crimes and contracts.
Control of the police and the army is particularly important in enforcing
and assuring all of the State's other powers, including the all-important
power to extract its revenue by coercion.

For there is one crucially important power inherent in the nature of
the State apparatus. All other persons and groups in society (except for
acknowledged and sporadic criminals such as thieves and bank robbers)
obtain their income voluntarily: either by selling goods and services to
the consuming public, or by voluntary gift (e.g., membership in a club or
association, bequest, or inheritance). Only the State obtains its revenue
by coercion, by threatening dire penalties should the income not be forthcoming. 
That coercion is known as "taxation," although in less regularized
epochs it was often known as "tribute." Taxation is theft, purely and simply
even though it is theft on a grand and colossal scale which no acknowledged
criminals could hope to match. It is a compulsory seizure of the
property of the State's inhabitants, or subjects. (p. 162)

He also goes on to show that the State can't own property but only exploits and takes it from others and owns it outside the bounds of just property titles. And he shows how immoral the State is and why it can't exist within a just and proper society, the libertarian society. He even makes the argument that the services that the state provides can be provided in a more just and a more workable manner in the stateless libertarian society, reminiscent of his work For A New Liberty. Also worthwhile are his words on voting and foreign policy, in which he brings a consistent application of the libertarian principles to these tough issues. His perspective is worth considering and even worth embracing.

And the fourth and final parts of the book (Modern Alternative Theories of Liberty and Toward a Theory of Strategy for Liberty) are also valuable in that the fourth section refutes alternative theories that don't reflect natural rights and/or a consistent libertarianism. He critiques Isaiah Berlin for his anti-libertarian theories, attacks F. A. Hayek's faulty definition of coercion, and even critiques his great mentor Ludwig von Mises for adopting utilitarianism and attempting to apply a "value-free" perspective on political philosophy. And the final section is fair and balanced, keeping principles in mind while welcoming any goal, however mild, that defends the cause of liberty. He rejects both opportunism on the right-wing and sectarianism on the left-wing but prefers a moral-pragmatic strategy in which the moral ideal of a pure libertarian society is held up and the pragmatic strategy is allowed which does not contradict the goal.

Also encouraging is Rothbard's optimism and hope for a bright and free future, which, while I don't hold to as highly as Rothbard does, is very inspiring.

Overall, whether or not one agrees with this book's philosophy, The Ethics of Liberty is worth a read by all thoughtful people and all thoughtful libertarians, and I am glad that I spent my time doing so. I will be writing in the future on specific parts of this book, and I will be sure to revisit this book and re-read it, not only to catch what I may have missed when I first read it but also to learn more and to be even more enriched.