Saturday, June 21, 2008

Why Be Libertarian? - Murray N. Rothbard - Mises Institute

One of the better pieces in favor of the libertarian movement.  Thank you Carl for pointing it out.  I mostly agree 100%.  Especially with his analysis of the motivations of those who choose libertarianism as a movement.  It strikes me that many of the adherents today are of the selfish variety- liberty for ME, NOW, for the stuff I want to do.  And then maybe for the people I agree with.  And probably not for the people I don't agree with.  All but the purest of libertarians agree with the ACLU, for example.  (And frankly, I'm not sure whether their goal is the furthering of liberty, or the mocking of the idea via reductio ad absurdum.)

My quibbles:

- Pure, absolute liberty is impossible, just like perfection.  We humans just don't have it in us.  We can try to come close, and should.  But all (tangible) resources are finite- if there isn't some way for society to reset some of those things, resources will tend to concentrate.  Those who are smart, motivated and  lucky will eventually gobble them up during the good times and eventually (my turn at reductio ad absurdum) one person/entity/family will have everything.  Sure, they'll dole out their resources to the peasants to gain things they need, but it just won't even out.  To accept absolute freedom (even within the constraints of justice) is to accept that nature is brutal, and there will be losers.  And they will lose badly.  And then you get revolution.  I just don't see how living such a brutal, hardscrabble life is freeing in any tangible way for the actors involved. 

- It strikes me that libertarianism only works when there is a seemingly endless supply of resources.  And/or when you have the freedom to be able to ignore externalities.  Why, if you need more water, you just pay someone to get you some more- build a canal, hire laborers to cart some more in, build another well, etc.  That's fine when the natural resource isn't being stressed.  Or when, if you run out of resources in your current place, you can sell the farm, pack up the kids and Move West.  It just seems wasteful, for one.  What happens when resources are at their limit?  Those who control them have the power, those who don't lack the power (liberty?).  Sure, if I don't like what Big Mousetrap is doing, I can build a better mousetrap to my profit, and that of my customers.  But what do I do when Big Water uses up all the water in my stream?  I dig a well.  But Big Sorghum has sucked up all the groundwater.  My free market choice there is to not but their product.  Which is easy to do since I will have long since starved to death before I need another hog.

- And so I disagree with his abhorrence of the utilitarian.  Life is compromise, it just can't be any other way.  The libertarian hates government intrusion.  But I, individual, am free to associate and am further free to use that freedom to start a labor guild, right?  What is government but an all-encompassing citizens' guild? 


At Sunday, June 22, 2008 12:29:00 PM CDT, Blogger cljo said...


I'm glad you liked this piece. It is quite good .... let me point out of few things and address some of your comments.

I also agree with Rothbard (and you) that most self-proclaimed libertarians are in it for the profit or pure "leave-me-alone"-ism. Rothbard complains that this motivation does not provide enough reason to "man the barricades". I would also argue, on the other side, that its an intellectual overlay for people to shout slogans but as soon as they are on the losing end of the market (my job!), they leave. So Rothbard tries to construct a moral case for libertarianism, something that many of my colleagues and bosses at Cato are also trying to instill in the interns by exploring the intellectual roots of liberalism.

Regarding your quibbles, I would first say to be aware of where Murray Rothbard ( is coming from. He is not an everyday 'morally committed' libertarian. He was a full-blown Anarcho-Capitalist, who later went to even stranger and darker places hanging with the likes of Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, and Lew Rockwell. Its not a clear line, but one can definitely point out a libertarian intellectual split with Cato, Ed Crane, etc. on one side and Rothbard, Paul, and the Mises Institute on the other. My point here being: Rothbard is hard core and while people on the other side I have met are just as committed to a libertarian society, they disagree strongly on the means.

Perfection is impossible, I agree. But isn't that a good argument FOR libertarianism? Collective action (especially if it is coerced) will be less than satisfactory to most if not all.

But what you meant was this: pure, absolutely liberty is impossible. And I agree there too. Murray Rothbard would disagree with you. And my response is this, first on a political level. Liberty is a fundamental foundation of the American experiment and I find it very valuable to have an organization (like Cato) and a movement with some intellectual influence to ensure that the libertarian tradition is not lost. Now on a moral level: I actually do believe that a liberal system based in individual freedoms is morally superior to anything else you can name. And, when it gets right down to it, that is because I believe coercion (political, personal, etc.) is immoral.

Now, if we were to imagine a world where we got closer and closer to Murray Rothbard's perfect world, I would probably get scared and back off. Does that make me as bad as the "profit-seeking" bandwagon libertarians? I think I'm a little bit better. But I also think we will never get there. And organizations such as the Cato Institute focus on "getting back to the Constitution" not going completely anarchic like Rothbard. Yes, Cato hates government intrusion but does NOT argue for the elimination of the State.

In regards to your endless resource questions: I think this is an example of confusing a Murray Rothbard with a Cato. I, frankly, don't know how Rothbard when answer your question. But Cato would say that enforced property rights and markets designed to clear externalities would ensure that Big Water can't take all your water .... because you own some of that water and you don't have to sell unless you want to. The problem is not that is owned by Big Water ... its that its owned by no one and the tragedy of the commons kicks in.

Finally, I think any libertarian would argue with you on your labor guild point. There are too many difference between government and guilds to make a clear, direct linkage. Guilds are voluntary, governments are ... less so. If I chose to act outside the guild and not pay dues I receive the enmity of my former friends in the guild but I am protected by the law (and morals) from being killed, threatened, etc. If I chose to act outside of government by not paying my taxes, I am threatened with jail and financial penalties. Its not the same. There is no voluntary exit from government. Because of that fact it is preferable to keep its power and intrusion at a minimum.

At Sunday, June 22, 2008 4:12:00 PM CDT, Blogger gc said...

- I like the idea of a moral case- its wrong to push people around. Too many "libertarians" (or the "I'll do whatever I want" wing of the GOP) only want that freedom to go one way. When others' freedom gets in their way, they (it seems to me) are the first to want to deny it. So not arguing that.

- In that same spirit, I guess I see, but can't define, a bright line between the Cato-style liberty and the more brutal anarchistic version. I guess I just can't wrap my mind around the concept of the private, for-profit courts, and how such a marketplace would work. If someone sues me for a breach of contract and I choose not to submit to that court, and he doesn't like mine, what happens next? Does he now have the right to storm my homestead to extract what he thinks is his? Now whose right is bigger- his to get what's his, or mine to protect my home?

- What happens if I don't consent to ... anything? I live in a town by a lake. I drag my boat to the river via a natural opening in the surrounding brush. The town takes up a collection to build a pier on that path. Now what do I do? Their acts messed with my liberty to use the shared resource. But I can't ethically use their pier because I didn't help with its construction.

- I would posit that it's no more or less impossible to get perfection in a libertarian system as in one like ours in the US. Either way, you have to fight hard against those who try to tip the balance in their favor or would go too far. And in the absence of perfection, a little collectivism sure makes life easier (and thus more fulfilling) for everyone.

- There's no voluntary exit from the government, but since the gov't is by/of/for the people, one shouldn't have to. Just change the law.

- Maybe I'm saying that it's no more fair to be born into a society that "forces" freedom upon someone than one that forces that taxes be paid. Either way, if you want to live, you're stuck paying for it somehow.

- I also might be arguing that the modern global society makes pure libertarianism harder.

But I certainly agree that the moral "default" is the individual has all the freedoms, minus as few as possible, as society determines.

At Tuesday, July 1, 2008 1:51:00 PM CDT, Blogger cljo said...

I think the bright-line between American libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism is the acceptance of the Constitution as a legitimate holder and enforcer of rights. The anarcho's will have none of it. And I will not defend or explain their position mostly because I agree with you. It all descends into a protection racket relatively quickly in my opinion.

The consent problem seems to be the crucial philosophical problem of republicanism. There is a (admittedly philosophical) difference between consenting to a governmental structure that enshrines majoritarianism and consenting to an individual law. Consenting to the first obligates you to obey following things which you may not consent to.

This is why the "Social Contract" theory is so useful. But the anrchos never actually signed the social contract. Neither did you or I, for that matter. Ironically, adult immigrants to the US have. They voted with their feet and took a public oath to this country.

Its all fascinating philosophically.

I would argue that libertarianism will get easier as things globalize. As people get richer and more mobile, they will vote with their feet.


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