Rothbard's Ethics of Liberty, Libertarianism

Reading The Ethics of Liberty, Part 1 – Hoppe’s Introduction

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.

II. Anarchism

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.

  • LibertarianGrump

    First off, your point about the slippery slope of anarchy protection vis-a-vis night-watchman-state is excellent.  I never thought of that, and my favorite ideas are those both surprising and true!

    However, Regarding your statement: “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.”  I believe that’s exactly the position Rothbard wanted the reader to be placed in; that is, having to confront his notion of self-ownership and the logical moral consequences of it and say “Yes” or “No, You don’t own yourself.  Someone else can!”.  I get that you find this position stark or uncomfortable, or perhaps unintuitive, but are those good reasons to affirm or deny it? Having said that, this is not to say that Rothbard was presenting a comprehensive discussion of ethics in general, but as far as that observation about ownership goes, it is a powerful one, and if its opponents have to reject moral reason or absolutism wholesale to escape it, I think Rothbard would be OK with that.

  • 3cantuna

    “Certainly no formal contradiction in the concept of tax-funded protection. ” 

    I am glad you think this way. My gang has declared itself the government and will be needin’ some things from you– for your own safety, of course.  We will take what we want– since you have given us the ‘right’ to set the price of this protection. In fact, we will make you protect us first, and you second, and doubly, pay for both.  Of course, this is all for your benefit– at least that’s what our brochure, sometimes called a constitution, says. 

    • As I said in the article, the fact that something is immoral does not make it contradictory. Perhaps this seems a small point, but I think it’s important to be careful about the way we use words in philosophical arguments, and I think that Rothbard and Hoppe are sometimes not careful enough, and make mistakes as a result.

      • 3cantuna

        Okay, thanks. Let me see if this philosophy noob understands what you mean. I take it you are saying that invasion to fund anti-invasion is not a moral contradiction.  Emphasis on moral. After all, Hoppe and Rothbard are talking ethics in these instances. Yet, when I look at it from the point of action– I see  (semantic?) contradiction. Alright. If the taxers were honest and philosophically correct– wouldn’t they state something like:

        “We, the taxers, are forcing/threatening you to pay us, so 1) you can protect us; 2) we can protect ourselves from you and outsiders; 3) we can protect you against outsiders, regardless of the nature of these outsiders;  and, 4) we can exploit you exclusively for your/our benefit.”  

        Still no contradictions there?  Not sure I have a career in syntactic/semantic research hehe.   

      • 3cantuna

        Actually I think you have it backwards. Tax-funded protection is first and foremost a conceptual contradiction. Secondly, then, it may result– empirically– not being as bad as a non-contradictory form of protection in some instances.  Mostly instances where social institutions, i.e. not the state, are more predominant. But is this a reasonable defense of the state– a permanent form of protection racket? 

      •  “[T]he fact that something is immoral does not make
        it contradictory…”

        And yet the tax collectors exempt government property from the rules that they would apply to the property of others.  If not contradictory, this is at least arguably inconsistent in a way that ethical rules are not allowed to be.

        • Fair enough, but this isn’t really a fundamental problem with state-provided protection services in the way that Rothbard intends it to be, right? IOW, we could tax and regulate government property in much the same way we tax and regulate other property, but this wouldn’t satisfy Rothbard.
          Whether it is “inconsistent in a way that ethical rules are not allowed to be” is an interesting question. I take it you have in mind some kind of universality/generality principle – a moral principle should treat like cases alike. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t seem to go very far. After all, one can always respond that the differently treated cases aren’t really alike in the relevant respect.

  • billwald

    >First, a tax-funded protection agency is a “contradiction in terms – an invasive protector.” 
    Anyone out there want to replace the US Army with Blackwater? Or replace your local police with Pinkerton? I don’t know any jurisdiction which uses private police to replace local police or sheriffs.

    Yes, Maricopa County, AZ, has successfully used a private fire department. I have no problem with private contractors providing municipal services if it more efficient and less costly for the taxpayers. But not the people who carry guns.

    Libertarians don’t understand that municipal governments provide the same sorts of services as home owners and condo associations. Living in a community is a voluntary association same as living in a condo. Don’t like it, leave!

    • 3cantuna


    • J D

      “Libertarians don’t understand that municipal governments provide the same sorts of services as home owners and condo associations. Living in a community is a voluntary association same as living in a condo. Don’t like it, leave!”
      Except for scale, which is everything when talking about Exit in deontological libertarianism.

      Critics very often fail to even address the ideology as it presents itself. They at once complain that libertarians are doctrinaire and fail to accurately take account of the doctrine. How is that possible? What poetic irony it is that those same people often begin their paragraphs with phrases like “Libertarians don’t understand…” Of course this is emphatically not evidence of libertarian strength, only of embarrassing critical hubris.

    • DerivativeEqualsZero
      • billwald

        Thanks. Learn something new every day but I forget 2 old things.

  • Tkwelge

    Eh, i read these posts every now and then, but I’ve notice a painfully annoying pattern here.  You tend to state an argument made by somebody else, announce that this argument “isn’t good enough,” or “isn’t convincing enough.” 

    That seems like an odd, meaningless statement to make.  Why not just jump right into your criticism?  That is just an addition of rhetorical flair that is an attempt to persuade people using something other than logic.  Sorta like saying, “oh, you believe that? HA!”  

    • Not sure what you mean here. I make arguments for my claims about anarchism and about pluralism. The only case where I make an assessment without an argument is in my discussion of Hoppe’s argumentation ethics, and there I link to two articles whose arguments I endorse.

  • 3cantuna

    “Liberal democracy” is too bundled to make any sense in connection with the tendency of a taxing state apparatus.  Liberal is not the same as democracy. Even liberal needs context:  do you mean liberal outside of the government or a government manned by individuals with a liberal outlook?  When it comes to state– it can never mean that government and society are the same thing.

    It can be reasoned that liberal democracy has survived because society has flourished and the “liberal” government, made up of parasites nonetheless, have not killed the golden goose of the captured society. On the latter point, either the parasites are smarter than totalitarians of the past; or they can’t get away with what they really want-  total submission- because the push back from civil and voluntary cooperation is just too strong. The state needs the market. But the market has no need of the state.

    Empirically oriented, Robert Higgs has masterfully illustrated the tendency of state power to grow in his work Crisis and Leviathan.

  • I would advise people to skip Hoppe’s Introduction. It actually put me off reading the book. But I persisted, and I read Part I yesterday. I was pleased I did so, too. Rothbard’s book (at least, so far) is a lot better than Hoppe’s Intro would lead you to expect.

    • Oops! I just started reading Part II and it has gone badly downhill. But I presume that the main things that Rothbard wants to say can be extricated from the naive ‘blank slate’ view with which he entangles them. I will persevere.

  • 3cantuna

    Thanks for the Callahan/Murphy link.  Looks like argumentation ethics has a lot of holes in it. Not Hoppe’s best or strongest work, for sure. Excellent that a solid critique of Hoppe’s ethics would come from a fellow Misesian and strong advocate of free market anarchy, Robert Murphy. (If Murphy was an ancap back then. I think Callahan has gone neoliberal in the meantime…But I digress).

  • 3cantuna

    I think Hoppe’s intro is indicative of the ‘reach out to the right’ phase of the late 1980s through the 1990s coming from the Lew Rockwell crowd.  (It was during this time that the Ron Paul Newsletters of note were written.) It emphasizes a positive return of discrimination (reaction to affirmative action) and bourgeois natural heirarchy with the removal of illegitimate state authority on social matters. Ok, fine. They saw Elizabeth Warren coming (lying about native status to get teaching positions at elite universities…)  But…

    Hoppe also believes in IQ racialism– and remains friends with e.g. the Pioneer Institute and Peter Brimelow. This is not to say that he would champion racial judgments over character or property. Yet Hoppe is nationalist in his anti-immigration stance, claiming pragmatic prudence…  Not surprising that Hoppe loves Murray and Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve… Murray, btw, graces Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness book jacket.

  • Astheise

    Regarding Hoppe’s attempt to, A Priori, deduce a strong principle of self-ownership from principles of rational argument, I once found myself on the receiving end of a fervent argument from a resolute, hard-core anarchist disciple of Hoppe’s, who tried to argue that, in supporting the use of force in certain limited cases that go beyond self-defense, I was in fact arguing that “might makes right” and thereby denying the very possibility of reasoned argument. This, needless to say, got quite irritating, and although I tried to be as polite as possible in debating him, one can only go so long being told what “RATIONALITY” (always said in a deeply foreboding, serious tone) requires (without so much as a single syllogism of deductive reasoning) without feeling fundamentally cheated. Objectivists are often prone to a similar argumentative style: instead of, in detail, breaking down an opponent’s viewpoints and reasons, many Objectivists I know of tend to  respond to attacks by playing some vague associative games with words, all while loudly repeating “REASON!” and “RATIONALITY REQUIRES!”, as if those words somehow provided a magical talisman against sloppy argument.

  • martinbrock

    Jeff Riggenbach’s excellent rendition (as usual) makes this task tolerable. I really miss his Libertarian Tradition podcasts.

    As a mathematician familiar with the limitations of formal logic, I don’t think much of Rothbard’s deductionism, and I can’t fathom Hoppe’s idea that Rothbard is somehow not a positivist. He’s the quintessential positivist, even if he rejects the label. He posits nominally “natural” rights, but since these rights exist nowhere in nature, the relabeling seems meaningless.

  • martinbrock

    … every person owns his own physical body as well as all nature-given goods which he puts to use with the help of his body …

    “Put to use” is not the Lockean standard. If I mix my labor with an unclaimed natural resource, so that the resource and my labor are inextricably woven together, as when I clear a field and plow it, then I have a claim to the resource, because the value of the field reflects the value of my labor, and I cannot take this value of my labor away from the field.

    If I simply use a natural resource, without altering its value this way, I have no Lockean claim to it when I have finished using it. In the later, marginalist way of thinking, if I add value to a natural resource, I have a right to my marginal contribution, not to the full value of the resource, and if I don’t continually add value to a given resource, the value of my marginal contribution almost invariably depreciates.

    … before anyone else does;

    Needless to say, finding a valuable, natural resource before anyone else does, outside of Antartica, has been problematic for millenia, and claims to governance of a resource for all time are far more problematic.

    … this ownership implies his right to employ these resources as one sees fit so long as one does not thereby uninvitedly change the physical integrity of another’s property or delimit another’s control over it without his consent.

    An absolute assertion of this sort, leading logically to some conclusion like a parent’s right to starve a child to death, is not my idea of an axiomatic assumption of an incontestable ethics.

  • Hoppe’s claim that “Rothbard’s distinct contribution to the natural-rights tradition is the reconstruction of the principles of self-ownership and original appropriation as the praxeological precondition … of argumentation” is a bit puzzling, since the only bit in Ethics of Liberty that bears any similarity to argumentation ethics occurs not in Rothbard’s discussion of property but in his discussion of the value of life, and that argument is essentially lifted from Rand.
    Ironically, McClelland’s critique of Rothbard looks very similar to both a) Rand’s critique of Rothbard, and b) Rothbard’s critique of Rand.  (I think all three were partly right and partly wrong, but that’s a long story.)

    But the nationalist focus of McClelland’s reference to what is “important to the vast majority of Americans” bugged me.  Why Americans, rather than people?

    • Regarding your last point, in fairness to McClelland, the quote was taken from a book entitled The American Search for Economic Justice. So, I guess it was only nationalism by stipulation.

    • Regarding your last point, and in fairness to McClelland, the quote did come form a book entitled “The American Search for Economic Justice.” So I suppose it was just nationalism by stipulation.

      • But that raises the question why he’s writing about the American search for economic justice.  Why not just the search for economic justice?

        I have the same grip when an article about censorship — a general philosophical article, not specifically about u.s. supreme court cases and the like — starts talking about “First Amendment concerns.”  I’m always tempted to respond by calling them “Article I.4” concerns — referring to Article I.4 of the Alabama constitution.

        • I dunno. Intellectual division of labor, I guess. Seems fair enough.

  • CFV

    Well, another devastating criticism of Hoppe’s argumentation ethics:

  • Alex Strekal

    Rothbard’s book would be more appropriately titled: the ethics of property.

  • martinbrock

    Private-property ownership, as the result of acts of original appropriation, production, or exchange from prior to later owner, implies the owner’s right to exclusive jurisdiction regarding his property. In fact, it is the very purpose of private property to establish physically separate domains of exclusive jurisdiction (so as to avoid possible conflicts concerning the use of scarce resources). No private-property owner can possibly surrender his right to ultimate jurisdiction over and physical defense of his property to someone else-unless he sold or otherwise transferred his property (in which case someone else would have exclusive jurisdiction over it). That is, so long as something has not been abandoned, its owner must be presumed to retain these rights.

    In reality, countless arguments against this assertion exist. Countless formulations of propriety do not presume an exclusive right in perpetutity following first possession, but Rothbard simply takes this right for granted and defends its forcible imposition by labeling it “natural”, despite the fact that no such right exists in nature. The right is utterly artificial and exists nowhere outside of artificial states.

    In nature, a lion holds the territory of a pride only while he defends the territory by his own force. I’m willing to call this territoriality “natural”, and maybe it’s not as terrible as statesmen and their philosophers have claimed, but I cannot call Rothbard’s or even Locke’s property “natural”. Where is it natural? Where does it exist outside of a state or a philosopher’s utopian musing?

    Rothbard’s entire logical framework rests on this core, axiomatic assumption, so if I reject this assumption, I hardly know which of his conclusions to trust. He therefore leaves me no room to reject it. In Rothbard’s utopia, I must accept this assumption or be forced to respect it regardless of my will, yet Rothbardians will not acknowledge that enforcement of this principle everywhere in a territory constitutes a “state”.

    The axiom is not only unnatural. It is positively ridiculous. Rothbard’s forumulation takes no account of marginal value or depreciation, but he at least recognizes “abandonment”; however, his abandonment seems to be require a proprietor’s willfull surrender of a resource to no one in particular, as opposed to his absence from the resource for a period of time. He therefore requires a title registry, but even if this registry is distributed geographicaly, it must be centralized in some sense; otherwise, a search resolves nothing. I must know where to go to determine that a particular claim to a particular acre is the one and only legitimate claim. For better or for worse, Rothbard simply assumes a state.

    The common law of adverse possession arbitrarily sets a time span of twenty years, after which the intruder, despite his aggression against the property of another, retains absolute ownership of the land. But our libertarian theory holds that land needs only to be transformed  once by man to pass into private ownership. Therefore, if  Green comes upon land that in any way bears the mark of a former human use, it is his responsibility to assume that the land is owned by someone. Any intrusion upon his land, without further inquiry, must be done at the risk of  the newcomer being an aggressor. It is of  course possible that the previously owned land has been abandoned; but the newcomer must not assume blithely that land which has obviously been transformed by man is no longer owned by anyone. He must take steps to find out if his new title to the land is clear, as we have seen is in fact done in the title-search business … [my emphasis]

    Arbitrariy sets? Why is Rothbard’s assertion of an exclusive, perpetual right of first possession not arbitrary? What must I do to possess this right to an acre? Drive a few stakes in the ground to mark the boundary? Fence it? Plow it? Plant it? Build a structure on it? If I do any or all of these things, do I own water a hundred yards beneath the ground? If a stream of water beneath the ground extends beyond the boundary of my acre, may I pump as much as water as I like from the stream? May I impede the flow of the water so that the stream no longer reaches a neighboring acre?

    Rothbard might address all of these questions in some way given sufficient time, but he cannot deduce the answers from his first principles, because answers do not follow logically from his first principles. He must continually assert new principles.

    Our libertarian theory? Who is “us” in this way of thinking? Clearly, it is everyone agreeing with Rothbard and Hoppe to enforce this principle. It is Rothbard and his costatesmen.

    Any mark of human use? I plant my flag on an acre, and that’s enough? Rothbard himself reflects this notion later in the book, with reference to Crusoe’s claim on the whole of an island, but where is Rothbard drawing the line exactly? I’ve reached chapter eleven, and I still don’t know.

    Title to the land is clear? When once a man has staked a claim to an acre, the burden falls on every man thereafter to prove the original claim abandoned by consulting the right title registry? This sort of thinking gets us endless war in the middle east. Must I expect these wars in a Rothbardian utopia?

    The perpetual right of first posssession is not the only example of a vague, positive right in Rothbard’s formulation, and he even rejects common law as a remedy for gaps in the system he posits. If he rejects common law, what does he accept? A crown? His monarchy must be more absolute than John Lackland’s.

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  • martinbrock

    I’ve reached chapter 14. If I didn’t know better, I might assume that Rothbard is constructing an argument against his own thesis, reductio ad absurdum. The argument presumably has this effect on typical readers, and with half of this exercise still ahead of me, I’m tempted to stop at this point. O.K. I get it. Rothbard follows his assumptions wherever they lead, but I reject the assumptions.

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