I. Rothbard vs. Nozick
Hoppe’s lengthy introduction to the 1998 edition of The Ethics of Liberty begins by describing the book as Rothbard’s second magnum opus, the first being Man, Economy, and State (1962). Its purpose, as Hoppe sees it, is to explain
the integration of economics and ethics via the joint concept of property; and based on the concept of property, and in conjunction with a few general empirical (biological and physical) observations or assumptions [to deduce] the corpus of libertarian law, from the law of appropriation to that of contracts and punishment. (xii)
This is an ambitious goal. And Hoppe takes Rothbard to have been basically sucessful in accomplishing it. It is thus a puzzle to Hoppe why Rothbard’s book has received so little consideration within the academy, especially compared to the lavish praise and attention bestowed upon Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The answer to this puzzle, Hoppe says, is “method and style.” Rothbard’s method was systematic and deductive, whereas Nozick’s was an “unsystematic, associationist, or even impressionistic” thinker whose writing was “difficult and unclear” (xxii – xxiii). Rothbard was out to fight an intellectual war for truth against evil. Nozick, on the other hand, was merely interested in “fascinating, entertaining, or suggestive intellectual play” (xxv). An academy largely hostile to libertarian ideas could safely tolerate Nozick’s relatively non-threatening philosopical explorations. Not so for Rothbard’s deadly-serious thought. At least, that’s Hoppe’s explanation. There are, of course, other posisble explanations for the different receptions these two books have experienced. But Hoppe does not seem terribly interested in exploring them.
Hoppe defends Rothbard’s anarchisism against the classical liberal minimal-statism of the American Declaration of Independence and Ludwig von Mises. The “classical liberal solution to the problem of protection” is a “hopelessly confused and naïve idea,” for several reasons (xxi). First, a tax-funded protection agency is a “contradiction in terms – an invasive protector.” Second, “every minimal state has the inherent tendency to become a maximal state, for once an agency is permitted to collect any taxes…it will naturally tend to employ its current tax revenue for the collection of even more future taxes for the same and/or other purposes” (xxi).
Neither of these arguments seems especially compelling. There’s certainly no formal contradiction in the concept of tax-funded protection. Even if taxation is theft, it is possible that the government can use the tax funds to provide protective services, and even possible (if not probable) that citizens will be subject to fewer violations of their rights with this protection cum taxation than they would be without it. Maybe that’s immoral, but it’s certainly not contradictory.
As for the second idea, it is first of all not at all clear that there is any tendency for minimal states to become maximal states. Lots of liberal democracies have existed for a fairly long time without becoming anything close to “maximal,” even if they’ve grown larger than classical liberals might like. The claim that minmal states tend inevitably to evolve toward maximal one seems to rely on a very selective survey of how freedom has changed over the past 250 or so years in, say, the United States. Perhaps it is true for propertied white males. I’m not so sure. But it’s *certainly* not true if you’re black, or a woman, or a homosexual, or an atheist. I think an honest and comprehensive look at the history of limited government in the United States reveals an experiment that has, all-things-considered, been remarkably successful. But moreover, if this argument did cut against minimal statism, why wouldn’t it cut against anarchism too? After all, every actually existing anarchist society has “evolved” into a statist one. That would seem to suggest that anarchist societies are at least as unstable as minimal state ones.
III. Pluralism vs. Reductionism
An interesting point for me was Hoppe’s consideration of a critique of Rothbard’s work by the Cornell economist Peter McClelland. McClelland argues (in his own words) that Rothbard “provides a classic example of how not to reason about economic justice” insofar as it ignores the fact that
to problems of economic justice we bring a multitude of values to be honored; these values can and do conflict; when conflicts arise, tradeoffs among competing values must be made; general rules for making such tradeoffs are difficult to formulate; and thus judgments about economic justice are difficult to make independent of the context of the situation in which such judgments must be made. Or, more simply put, in reaching decisions about economic justice in a concrete situation, we do not generally rely upon universal rules to determine the ‘right’ or ‘just’ choice…[Rothbard’s “reduction” of moral dilemmas to one or few basic principles] is itself objectionable, precisely because it is achieved by ignoring much that is important – or at least much that is important to the vast majority of Americans. (cited on xxxii, elipses are Hoppe’s)
I took special interest in this line of argument because, as a pluralist, it is one to which I am quite sympathetic. Hoppe’s response makes a variety of points, but the one I found most peculiar was this:
if conflicts exist and if these can be resolved at all, then such a solution cannot possibly be found except by means of a ‘reductionist’ method, i.e., the subsumption of of specific cases or conflict-situations under general and abstract rules or principles. Rothbard’s view in this regard is not essentially different form that of most other political and moral philosophers: ethics, if it is possible at all, must and can never be anything else but “reductionist.”
There’s a certainly plausibility to this response, but I think it trades on an equivocation on the term “reductionist.” In one sense, of course ethics must be reductionist. Ethics helps us live our lives by giving us general concepts under which to subsume the vast complexity of our experience. To talk about “honesty,” for instance, is to “reduce” a whole set of behaviors and experiences into a single concept which can then be analyzed in applied in those and other yet-to-be-encountered situations. A good ethical theory will give us useful concepts, and useful principles that employ those concepts. And I don’t think McClelland would disagree. What McClelland seems to object to is not that Rothbard’s theory employs general concepts or principles, but that it involves too few, and that it gives those principles greater weight than they merit. As Hoppe correctly notes, Rothbard’s political philosophy is almost entirely derived from the concept of “property.” And McClelland’s worry – and mine – is that this just won’t do.
Now, Hoppe seems to worry that if we introduce too many concepts, or too many values, we won’t be able to use them to determine what exactly we should do in any particular situation. And there’s some truth to this. Pluralistic moralities don’t give us algorithmic decision procedures – simple rules that we can follow in a mechanistic way to ensure that our behavior meets the demands of morality. But is that a reasonable aspiration for morality? Can’t morality be action-guiding without being mechanistic? Perhaps we should think of moral theories more like aesthetic theories. Not in the sense that “it’s all subjective.” But in the sense that truths about the subject can’t be expressed in terms of simple decision procedures. A theory of aesthetics can tell you important things about what makes something beautiful – the role of perspective in a painting, or proportion. But it can’t give you a single rule, or even a set of rules, that is guaranteed to produce beauty in any given case. Figuring out what that requires is a matter of good judgment – of practical wisdom. So, even if action-guidingness is a legitimate desideratum in a moral/political theory – and I think it is – this doesn’t mean we should reject pluralism in favor of a more narrowly-focused theory like Rothbard’s. Hoppe’s response – at least, this particular response – is off-base.
IV. Argumentation Ethics
Near the conclusion of his introduction, Hoppe credits Rothbard with an argument for which Hoppe himself is best known:
Rothbard’s distinct contribution to the natural-rights tradition is he reconstructionof the principles of self-ownership and original appropriation as the praxeological precondition – Bedingung der Moeglichkeit – of argumentation, and his recognition that whatever must be presupposed as valid in order to make argumentation possible in the first place cannot in turn be argumentatively disputed without thereby falling into a practical self-contradiction. (xxxiv)
In Hoppe’s own development of this argument, presented at length in his The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, he claims that argumentation presupposes self-ownership, a homesteading principle, and everything that follows deductively from these principles, namely, anarcho-capitalism.
I won’t say much of my own about this argument here. Suffice it to say that I think it is a very poor one, and that the criticisms of Gene Callahan and Bob Murphy and of our own Roderick Long are devastating. A sound argument for anarcho-capitalism will need to do better than this.