Sunday, June 13, 2010

Review of Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty

The Ethics of Liberty (full text online)
Murray N. Rothbard

This is a complex book and I am not honestly sure how I feel about it overall. There is a great deal of good in this book, in particular for one who has never seriously considered the origins and propriety of property rights. Rothbard's criticism of the state is penetrating to such an extent that even minimal state libertarians will have difficulty justifying their positions. However, I think the case for an anarchist system is not particularly well made and that a critical eye on par with Rothbard's would find as many, if not more, problems with his solution than he has come up with the concerning the state. I could spend the better part of a year going into each intellectual crevice opened up by this book, but rather than going into such detail I will point out a few of the more interesting topics that the reader would certainly benefit from chewing over.

Rothbard's theory is that all rights are derived from a human having an intrinsic right to his own body and the works thereof. As anyone who follows the courts knows, even widely accepted rights, such as the right to free speech, religion, press, etc., become fairly complex when argued before the court. Why is this? Rothbard sees the problem as the courts looking for a mystical right out of thin air rather than basing these rights in the person and his property. So long as I own the property I use to speak, write, or worship on, it is nobodies business how I do so and nobody, but nobody, may deny me the ability to do so as long as their property right is not violated. This clears up a great deal of confusion concerning gun rights, freedom of speech and press, among others. I think that such an analysis makes sense. Consider the FCC/Citizens United case that was decided earlier this year with a surprising amount of controversy. If a corporation, using its own money, decides to buy political advertisements, they should be allowed to so long as somebody is voluntarily willing to sell them a forum. It is the business of nobody else to deny them the use of their own property.

Punishment for crimes against a person or their property is to be dealt with "proportionally" in that the criminal will pay back what was damaged plus lose from their own personal property an equivalent amount. Rothbard comes up with some interesting ways of applying this to situations of assault, murder, kidnapping, and other situations where a literal tit for tat would make no sense. In his section concerning children, however, Rothbard fails to apply his own theory when it comes to abortion. Concerning proportionality, the only case justifying the death penalty is in a case of murder, according to Rothbard himself, but he then allows the "crime" of "invasion" committed by a fetus upon the mother to also be punished with death. With this exception, his theory concerning children does logically flow from his theory of property rights, harsh as it may sound. I believe children to be the bane of political philosophy. In children we have a human being incapable of taking care of themselves yet with the future ability to do so, who did not bring themselves into existence, who will depend greatly upon their parents for what sort of life they will end up living with. No ideology seems to really know what to do with them.

My problem with this book lies generally in that I have no idea how wrongs will be redressed. I fear such an anarchist society would devolve into gang warfare, as individuals will collect into groups for mutual protection and see that group as the source of authority. All groups follow the iron law of oligarchy in that they will always pick leaders, who will then have incentive to abuse their power, often at the expense of those outside of the group. The state apparatus, for all of its problems, does provide a means of executing justice without competition. This is important because competition in terms of executing justice will not come just in the form of a lower price; it may also come in the form of a different judgment. Rothbard seems to believe that be describing those groups enforcing justice incorrectly as criminals means something. Labelling them criminals means nothing if they are the most powerful group. Replacing the state with a very powerful gang or groups of gangs does not really solve the problem of reducing and eliminating illegitimate force. Such a society would also be at the mercy of other nations, in particular those that develop advanced military forces. Rothbard never deals with this problem; presumably he would look to volunteer militias or security forces. The former would have no chance against professional soldiers, the second creates a powerful force that could abuse the people.

Rothbard's attempt to create a political philosophy based on the nature of mankind has many successful points concerning property rights but fails to really take in the nature of mankind itself. We are a violent species and are willing to use violence to gain what we like. While social ties do tend to negate this, it is not a cure all, and violence between societies in the same geographic area may actually be increased by this organizing power. Anarchy fails to prevent groups from forming and abusing their own power; obliterating "the state" leads to a situation where many little "states" come into existence. Whoever has power will always be able to abuse that power, even (or perhaps especially) in anarchy. Libertarianism is the best of all possible outcomes, but it does contain an emotional letdown in that the 'promised' land type outcome isn't included. At best, we'll have a world where abuses of justice will be kept lower than in others but not entirely wiped out. It is a lamentable aspect of our species that the need for politics will always be with us and that the best solution we have is a vigilant, perpetual guard against abuses of our liberties. That all being said, I think Rothbard does an excellent job defining what those liberties are, even if his solution to protecting them is not top notch.

Companion Reading

Rothbard vs. Strauss: Libertarianism, Rights and Reason (free download)