Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!

Jun 20, 2012

Reading Murray Rothbard’s “The Ethics of Liberty” - Part I

Following a prompt from Matt Zwolinski, I’m reading Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty, with a long, appreciative introduction by Hans-Hermann Hoppe. This post will look at Hoppe’s introduction, which Matt also addresses here. Three things stood out for me:

I. Rothbard/Nozick

Hoppe begins by contrasting Rothbard and Robert Nozick. Nozick, he suggests, was a relative success in the academy because readers can take his philosophy as being somewhat less than deadly earnest. Nozick offered libertarianism not as a revolutionary credo, but as a series of clever brain teasers:

Rothbard was above all a systematic thinker… In distinct contrast, Nozick was a modern unsystematic, associationist, or even impressionistic thinker, and his prose was difficult and unclear… Nozick’s method rather made for interest and excitement of a particular kind. [His] book was a series of dozens of disparate or loosely jointed arguments, conjectures, puzzles, counterexamples, experiments, paradoxes, surprising turns, startling twists, intellectual flashes, and philosophical razzle-dazzle, and thus required only short and intermittent attention of its reader… Despite his politically incorrect conclusions, Nozick’s libertarianism was deemed respectable by the academic masses and elicited countless comments and replies, because it was methodologically non-committal; that is, Nozick did not claim that his libertarian conclusions proved anything. Even though one would think that ethics is — and must be — an eminently practical intellectual subject, Nozick did not claim that his ethical “explorations” had any practical implications. [xxii-xxiv]

In the academy, the only politics you’re expected to have in earnest is leftist politics. But you’re always allowed to be ironic or playful, and that’s where Nozick comes in. It’s also valuable in the academy to signal that you are able to consider differing worldviews. But to do so, you’ll need a few of these tokens on hand. Even if what an academic means by “consider differing worldviews” is somewhat less than what an ordinary person would.

There are other possible explanations for the difference in reception between Rothbard and Nozick, but I think this one more or less works. You can play with Nozick’s ideas. He comes right out and asks you to. Rothbard doesn’t play. He challenges you to throw out everything you’ve ever believed; he claims that he’s found the right answers, and that you have not. This is annoying to the typical academic, who tends to believe that he had gotten past that mode of argument by the second year of grad school at the latest.

Is there room for both approaches, even setting aside their theoretical merits? I’m inclined to say yes. For the brave, budding libertarian academic, Nozick is a lifeline. You can write about him, and thus about libertarian ideas, and still seem at least a bit respectable — because, ironically, you’re taken less seriously. But that still means more libertarian academics in the future, and that means we’re winning.

II. Subsidiarity and Property

Although I mostly agree with Hoppe about Rothbard and Nozick, I disagree with some parts of the following:

It would be anti-libertarian.. to appeal to the United Nations to order the breakup of the taxi-monopoly in Houston, or to the U.S. government to order Utah to abolish its state-certification requirement for teachers, because in doing so one would have illegitimately granted these state agencies jurisdiction over property that they plainly do not own (but others do).

It would definitely be anti-libertarian to do these things. But not for the reason Hoppe suggests.

I’m fairly sure the United Nations doesn’t own any taxis in Houston. But that’s not the reason the U.N. lacks authority over Houston’s taxi business. (Consider: If the U.N. did own a taxi or two, would it be allowed to set policy? Of course not. Not even if it owned all of them.)

The reason the U.N. can’t properly act here has little to do with property and everything to do with the rule of law. In a constitutionally governed polity, laws are made only according to fixed, public, preexisting rules. The rules for how to make laws in the city of Houston are in Houston’s charter, in the Texas state constitution, and in the American federal constitution. They don’t permit the U.N. to make any laws in Houston, and that should settle the matter.

Things are much the same with the federal government and Utah’s school system. Indeed, the federal government actually does own 57.4% of the land in Utah, but it still rightfully has 0% of jurisdiction over education in Utah. That’s because the U.S. Constitution is silent about education. The federal government’s property holdings are irrelevant.

Hoppe also writes that a “second-best solution” is to favor local governments over central ones. But why should this be? He doesn’t explain. It’s possible that he can’t, because proximity doesn’t do anything to establish a person’s title to property. And if nearby individuals don’t get title, then nearby governments don’t either. I agree that there are many reasons to fear a world government, but the fact that a world government wouldn’t own your property in a meaningful enough sense to legitimate its actions isn’t one of them. My guess is that that a world government would soon enough declare that it owned your property, after which, practically speaking, it would. Then you’d be down your property as well as your argument.

Now, as a matter of fact I do favor subsidiarity, just for a different set of reasons: Local governments are a bit less likely to botch knowledge problems. They are less likely to be co-opted by distant special interests. And if and when they fail, they won’t take the whole nation or the whole world down with them. These are all good things, but none of them to my mind trumps individual liberty, and if a more distant government restrains the unlibertarian impulses of a nearby government, I’m okay with that, as long as it’s within the enumerated powers of the distant government to do so. Any port in a storm.

III. Left and Right

Hoppe addresses one other issue that I’d like to mention here, namely Rothbard’s late-in-life insistence on cultural conservatism as a pillar of his own libertarian thought.

Libertarianism is often said to have two wings, culturally liberal and culturally conservative. Rothbard backed the conservatives, a choice I don’t personally share despite my deep respect for him. The two wings have no necessary connection to America’s major political parties, and my personal advice to libertarians is to avoid them both. We would do best to stand on our own two feet, offer good ideas, and encourage anyone at all to take them up. But even as we do so, a division of outlook remains.

Although the two wings support many of the same policy prescriptions, they bring to the table different tactics and expectations. The cultural conservatives are betting that the introduction or re-introduction of conservative mores will lead to a prosperous, propertarian free-market society with minimal government. The cultural liberals note that free markets very often undermine tradition, and they’re happy about it. They hope to watch the freed market do more of the same in the future, and they encourage a welcoming attitude toward cultural change as a way of making the market more palatable. Markets will bring rapid cultural change; the only question is how we feel about it. And if we want the market’s prosperity, we’d better be ready for its upheavals.

Both wings agree that markets will bring material prosperity. But what should we do with that prosperity? Is there some chance of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs? If so, can we describe that danger? Here again there are disagreements.

Conservatives fear a cycle: Good mores bring free markets; free markets bring opulence; opulence brings decadence; decadence destroys good mores; the free market falls; the society withers… until someone hits upon good mores once again.

Liberals also fear a cycle: Markets produce vigorous cultural change; conservatives fear vigorous cultural change; to stop it, conservatives will eventually turn upon and dismantle the market. Society stagnates… until someone hits upon the free market idea once again.

Of course, they might both be right to a degree. Tyler Cowen suggests that reviving older values and attitudes won’t restrain the growth of government; after all, people with old-time values were precisely the ones who not so long ago abandoned classical liberalism in favor of modern statist liberalism. And while I may welcome the culturally innovative effects of the market, I also don’t know at all what the future will bring. Markets disrupt all kinds of things, and possibly even themselves under some conditions.