I’ve been re-reading Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty in preparation for a seminar I’m teaching this semester on contemporary libertarian philosophical thought. It’s probably been at least ten years since I last read it, long before I ever started thinking about libertarianism in bleeding heart terms. So a lot of things that didn’t make much of an impression on me before are really jumping out at me on this reading.

It is striking, for instance, just how frequently Rothbard makes a special point of emphasizing the ways in which the state hurts the poor. Here’s a sample:

  • “…it is clear that the practice of bail discriminates against the poor.” (109)
  • “The law of libel, of course, discriminates … against the poor.” (117)
  • “It is becoming recognized that urban renewal programs, supposedly designed to aid the slum housing of the poor, in fact demolish their housing and force the poor into more crowded and less available housing, all for the benefit of wealthier subsidized tenants, construction unions, favored real estate developers, and downtown business interests.” (197)
  • “The existence of the public school also means that unmarried childless couples are coerced into subsidizing families with children…This means, too, that poor single people and poor childless couples are forced to subsidize wealthy families with children. Does this make any ethical sense at all?” (164)
  • “There is increasing evidence that, certainly in the case of public higher education, the coerced subsidy is largely in the direction of forcing poorer citizens to subsidize the education of the wealthier! … Hence a net redistribution of income from the poorer to the richer via the public college! Where is the ethical justification here?” (169)

Why are these quotes interesting? Because for someone like Rothbard who thinks that libertarianism is justified on grounds of self-ownership alone, none of this ought to matter. If public schools are immoral for Rothbard, it’s because they are coercive. And because they are coercive, we should seek to abolish them regardless of whether they hurt the poor or help them. The same goes for welfare, urban housing, anti-libel laws, and so on.

But if the consequences of these policies on the poor don’t matter, why does Rothbard spend so much time talking about them? Is it just empty rhetoric, intended to make libertarianism palatable to the squishy left?

I don’t think so. I think Rothbard really thought that the way state policies affect the poor mattered. And mattered in a way that was morally significant.

Notice what he does in those last two items on the list. In both cases, he points out that a state policy actually helps the rich at the expense of the poor. And then he seems to express a kind of moral shock. What on earth kind of moral principle could justify that kind of coercion? You don’t see him expressing that same kind of shock and puzzlement with other sorts of coercive policies – ones that actually do take from the rich and give to the poor.

He still thinks that those kind of policies are wrong of course. But that’s the thing. You can think that all cases of coercion are wrong and still think that there’s something especially wrong with coercive policies that help the rich and hurt the poor. In the same way that breaking someone’s leg is worse than punching him in the arm, using coercion to help the rich is worse than using coercion to help the poor. All of these acts are coercive, and hence impermissible. But some impermissible acts are morally worse than others.

Does that make Rothbard a Bleeding Heart Libertarian? Well, I’m a big-tent kind of guy when it comes to BHL, so I say “yes.” Rothbard’s not exactly advocating for social justice here. And maybe he’d bite the bullet and say that even if the poor would be much, much worse off without the state, we would still be morally required to abolish it. Fiat justicia ruat caelum. But recognizing that the way our policies affect the poor and vulnerable matter enough to strengthen the case against the state is at least a good start. Recognizing that in some cases those same considerations might conceivably weaken it would be the next.

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  • Adam McGoldrick

    Great article Matt although it’s not surprising to see Rothbard fall back on consequentialist arguments to buttress his libertarianism. It’s symptomatic as Jeffrey Friedman pointed out long ago (http://goo.gl/dCiIBh) of natural rights libertarians ‘straddling’ back and forth between deontology and consequentialism in attempting to make their arguments persuasive. Where natural rights seem to be unpersuasive, you straddle to arguments about the beneficial effects of markets and where this seems lacking in a case for thoroughgoing libertarianism, fall back on absolutist property rights.

    Again, great article – you’ve snippeted out Rothbard in his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to square the circle. You can see this is Rand as well. No matter how hard you try, you can’t squeeze blood from a stone and you can’t leave out the consequences of following your philosophy as part of its justification.

    • Cole Gentles

      ” It’s symptomatic as Jeffrey Friedman pointed out long ago (http://goo.gl/dCiIBh) of natural rights libertarians ‘straddling’ back and forth between deontology and consequentialism in attempting to make their arguments persuasive.”

      Not for nothing, but I’m pretty sure that goes the other way as well. In fact, it seems to me anyone who relies on only one side (deontological or consequential) in their arguments is not a very well rounded libertarian.

    • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

      No single ethical basis can possibly account for all aspects of a complex moral issue. That doesn’t mean someone is “attempting to squeeze blood from a stone,” it simply means that he/she is cognizant of more than one aspect of a moral quandary and is not content to let one theory of ethics say absolutely everything.

      Anyone who has been even a little bit objective about consequentialist moral calculus knows how far it can fall short. Ultimately something as complex as moral decision-making requires that we account for the consequences of our actions, the social rules that dictate ethics to us in a deontological way, virtue-ethic ideal types, and so on.

      Why in the world would we ever expect a single ethical theory to cover everything? That’s naive.

      • Adam McGoldrick

        I’m in agreement with you but this is an indictment of Rothbard who claimed that libertarianism could be founded on natural rights alone (regardless of consequences).

        • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

          I’m not the world’s biggest Rothbard fan (to say the least), but it need not be an indictment. Rothbard wrote an impressively large body of work; we might expose holes in some of it, but that ought not minimize his overall value as a thinker. Newton’s laws of physics weren’t perfect, but we all have plenty to learn from Newton, nonetheless. (I think this is to Zwolinski’s point here.)

    • Theresa Klein

      What the heck is wrong with attempting to persuade people using multiple lines of argument from within a variety of moral worldviews?
      I should think that understanding how other people think and attempting to persuade them using arguments that they will relate to would be considered a good thing.

  • famadeo

    So all it takes to be a libertarian with a “bleading heart” is express sentiments that take into account the poor or dissadvantaged? Even if that doesn’t necessarily translate (as it certainly doesn’t in the case of Rothbard) into any de facto ideological twist?

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      Well, like I said, I’m a big tenter. And I’m willing to grant that Rothbard had a foot in that big tent. But of course I wish he’d brought more of himself in.

      • famadeo

        But if all that distinguishes BHL from generic libertarianism is simply a matter of tone (since the ideological blueprint remains, by all accounts, intact) having a “big tent” attitude seems like a pretty dubious move.

  • Aeon Skoble

    Nothing remarkable here, Matt. There’s no conflict between saying that the _reason_ all coercive programs are bad is that they violate some deontological principle and also pointing out that they’re also ill-adivsed. Indeed, he’s clearly anticipating this sort of dialogue:
    A: people have rights, self-ownership, etc.
    B: we have to override those to help the poor.
    A: but those things _don’t_ help the poor, they make things worse.
    In other words, A has a non-consequentialist argument, B attacks it on consequentialist grounds. If A then replies with more non-consequentialism, it would be correct but ineffective. Noting instead that B’s rationale for overriding rights is made of fail is a more effective move to make. That doesn’t mean A is “really” consequentialist or that deontology is wrong. Just means A is trying to persuade people outside his own framework. This is a good thing.

  • Aeon Skoble

    Nothing remarkable here, Matt. There’s no conflict between saying that the _reason_ all coercive programs are bad is that they violate some deontological principle and also pointing out that they’re also ill-adivsed. Indeed, he’s clearly anticipating this sort of dialogue:
    A: people have rights, self-ownership, etc.
    B: we have to override those to help the poor.
    A: but those things _don’t_ help the poor, they make things worse.
    In other words, A has a non-consequentialist argument, B attacks it on consequentialist grounds. If A then replies with more non-consequentialism, it would be correct but ineffective. Noting instead that B’s rationale for overriding rights is made of fail is a more effective move to make. That doesn’t mean A is “really” consequentialist or that deontology is wrong. Just means A is trying to persuade people outside his own framework. This is a good thing.

    • http://www.bonzai.squarespace.com/ mfarmer

      bingo

    • Adam McGoldrick

      Why is Rothbard trying to convince the consequentialist? Is it because his non-aggression principle lacks adequate foundations? If they really were convincing he wouldn’t have to meet the consequentialist on his own ground. If Rothbard really thinks he can demonstrate that all government interventions are unwise from a consequentialist point of view, then why doesn’t he rely on this to support libertarianism? The problem is he can’t and so he straddles back between natural rights and consequentialism because when looked at separately the arguments fall apart.

      • Aeon Skoble

        He’s trying to convinve _everyone_. He calls it a manifesto. That means he is not making an in-house argument about metatheory but rather an outreach argument to show everyone that it’s a good idea to have max liberty. People who are already on board with rights theory need to see what it means to be consistent about this; a tougher crowd will be the consequentialists, who are _already disposed to reject rights theory_ because they’re worried about the poor. If your answer to _them_ is “no, srsly, rights,” then you’re not going to get anywhere. What he’s doing is saying “look, I understand that you may object to my claims because you think it will hurt the poor. But you’re mistaken.” That this is a good dialectcial move tells us nothing about whether his position is inadequate.

      • Les Kyle Nearhood

        I actually do not see him making much of a conventionalist argument in those excerpts as much as offering a moral outrage that policies which are in his view coercive, are also hurting those who can least afford the harm.

    • Cole Gentles

      I agree. Defining rights is ultimately about convincing others as to why they are worthy of being respected. So while you or I may personally hold completely deontological views, it doesn’t matter if it isn’t enough to convince others. In a very Adam Smith-like sense, appealing to the self-interests of others in order to serve our own interests is best way to go about arguing for rights.

      • Aeon Skoble

        Cole, see my reply to Adam above.

        • Cole Gentles

          Heh… always nice to see my own amateur thought process is in line with a professional thinker who’s view i respect. :)

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      I’m not sure whether to read your “nothing remarkable here” as

      a) Nothing remarkable here, this is all just obviously correct. Right on!
      or
      b) Nothing remarkable here, but you think it’s remarkable. You’re wrong!

      I didn’t see this as a consequentialist vs. deontology thing. And I wasn’t trying to argue that Rothbard was really a closet consequentialist or anything like that. I was just noting that even a natural rights guy like Rothbard seems to think that how policies affect the poor is a matter of special moral significance. And I think that’s cool.

      • Aeon Skoble

        Well, I was anticipating the sort of response “OMG THIS SHOWS THAT NAP IS CRAP!!1! ROTHBRADS IS TEH IDIOT.” See my reply to Adam above. I don’t think him (or any rights theorist) making this move says anything about metaethics, but rather something about how to be persuasive.

        • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

          I don’t think it says anything about his metaethics either, but I do think it says something about his normative ethical theory.

          Do you really think it’s just rhetoric? Like, Rothbard’s sitting there thinking that “really it doesn’t make a damn bit of moral difference whether freedom leads the poor to flourish or starve, but I’m going to write as though it did just to win over my audience”?

          • Cole Gentles

            “Do you really think it’s just rhetoric? Like, Rothbard’s sitting there thinking that “really it doesn’t make a damn bit of moral difference whether freedom leads the poor to flourish or starve, but I’m going to write as though it did just to win over my audience”?”

            No, he’s sitting there thinking “really it doesn’t make a damn bit of moral difference whether freedom leads the poor to flourish or starve, however, it so happens that it DOES lead them to flourish, and that matters to many people, therefore I would be remiss not to note it in my attempt to persuade them to support freedom.”

          • Aeon Skoble

            Not “just” rhetoric; what Cole said is what I had in mind.

      • Theresa Klein

        I think you missed his point entirely. Rothbard himself doesn’t think that how policies affect the poor is of special moral significance. He’s making an argument to people who DO think they have significance that the policies he disagrees with have bad effects on the poor. He’s attempting to persuade people from within their own moral framework.

        • Mark Rothschild

          I agree, but if this is true, then another question is, should such arguments be made?

          My answer is, no. Because consequentialist arguments are inherently weak.

          • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

            I don’t know how many times I have to say this on this blog, but I’ll say it again. Claiming that the consequences of a policy are relevant to the moral evaluation of that policy does not make you a consequentialist. Consequentialist a are distinguished by the belief that consequences are the *only* thing relevant to moral evaluation. But *no* sane moral theory denies that they have *some* relevance.

          • Mark Rothschild

            Matt, would you accept the word “consequentialistic” to mean reliance on arguments that emphasize consequences?

    • DavidRHenderson

      Well said, Aeon.

      • Aeon Skoble

        Thanks, David!

  • Sol Logic

    Interesting stuff but, If this is enough to qualify Rothbard as a BHL, then what libertarian philosopher would NOT be considered one? It seems like you could find this kind of concern for the poor almost anywhere if you look hard enough.

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      See my reply to sauce above. I count him as a BHL in the same way that I would consider, say, Justin Amash to be a libertarian. He’s good enough to get under the tent. But he could be better.

      • Sol Logic

        I read it and i believe I understood it. I’m sold on the whole BHL thing I just don’t get why it needs Rothbard to be a part of it. Rothbard seems to be the most critizised of the major libertarian thinkers on here yet somehow he still counts as a “bleeding heart”? Also, seriously i would like to know: If Rothbard is a bleeding heart, who isn’t? Which major libertarian thinker does NOT show elements of BHL? Amash is a tuff example it seems as a direct comparison since he is an elected official and has to stay within certain boundaries (of which he is already pushing to the limit), as opposed to philosophers and economists who can hold more extreme views and still be successful.

  • t3hsauce

    Since Rothbard is a BHL, I conclude that the BHLism is redundant/pointless. Cool story bro.

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      This is a weird reaction. But maybe it is instructively weird.

      A lot of people seem to assume that BHL is intended as some kind of radical departure from the main line libertarian intellectual tradition. And, in particular, people seem to assume that BHL is absolutely incompatible with Rothbardianism, natural rights, anarchism, etc.

      But that’s not right at all. I’ve always thought of BHL as a kind of reinterpretation of the libertarian intellectual tradition. We don’t claim to be inventing some new philosophy out of whole cloth. We’re simply pointing out what was already there, latent in the writings of most other libertarians.

      Of course, in some thinkers it was more latent than in others. You can find BHL elements in most libertarians, I think, from Locke to Spencer to Rand and Rothbard. But some people do a better job than others of integrating the BHL insights more consistently into their philosophical system.

      So what we want to do here at BHL is point out the BHL strand in the mainstream libertarian tradition, and to call on libertarians to embrace that strand more consistently.

      • Pochy

        Well, reinterpretations can often be (to some people like me) NOT that thing. In the hard sciences, people re experiment with the doctrine to see if it is right. Think about al of this low carb hoo ha that has been so popular. But in Philosophy and all squishy sciences (not science) reinterpretation is seen as fashionable , even needed. I understand that completely, you need to stay fresh and new. But some concepts in libertarianism don’t need change, this also goes with some attitudes. Libertarians (traditionally) don’t ask for state power to change “bad” things like using the military to defend integrated schools. Libertarians (traditionally) don’t apply their own morals onto policy and thinking. like “oh why do the poor have so little while the rich have so much?

      • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

        I don’t really want to push this point, because I’ve come to the conclusion that it ultimately doesn’t matter much, but this response of yours buttresses David Friedman’s suggestion that part of BHLism is just marketing. Traditional libertarianism needs to be reinterpreted if one finds traditional libertarianism objectionable. If one doesn’t, then the reinterpretation doesn’t add much value.

        To the extent that BHLism allows libertarianism to reach a wider audience, I say, “Right on!” But to the extent that it results in libertarian in-fighting, I say, “Hmmm!”

        It’s a tough bog to wade through, and I don’t envy your navigation of its murky waters. I think posts like this one of yours are an excellent example of showcasing the best aspects of BHLism. So today, I say, “Right on!”

        • j r

          Why does it have to be in-fighting? Why can’t it just be a conversation among people who self-identify as libertarians or classical liberals but have all sorts or particular disagreements about priors and methods and outcomes?

          The point of a conversation is to help people clarify their own positions and expose them to others. I don’t see how that can do anything but strengthen libertarian thought as a whole.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            I don’t disagree, but you’re talking about how it should work, not how it actually works. In practice, we see many comments (even here under this post) providing good examples of in-fighting. And we’ve all seen the various backs-and-forths involving the big names who see themselves as members of different strands of libertarianism. I can name names and cite examples if I have to, but I’m hoping we are all self-aware enough to acknowledge the obvious.

          • j r

            You are correct, but I have made a bit of a mistake in talking about why things can’t be a certain way.

            Really, I’m not all that interested in how things should be. I am content to accept things for what they are. I come here, because I find the posts and the resulting discussions interesting. I get that some people come here to beat other people over the head with ideological truncheons. That’s a little unfortunate, but ultimately it doesn’t bother me that much. That is the nature of the internet.

            The people who write this blog have a purpose and other people find value in the resulting conversation. Why should the authors change what they’re doing just to accommodate the squeaky wheels who come here for the sole purpose of screaming about how this place isn’t libertarian enough?

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            Well said, and I agree.

        • Damien S.

          “buttresses David Friedman’s suggestion that part of BHLism is just marketing”

          Kind of like the US or Israel hiring PR firms to market themselves better, without changing any of the policies that make them unpopular…

      • Phil

        Shouldn’t whether or not someone is a BHL at least partly depend on whether they would affirm or deny the counterfactual: If it turned out that strict NAP means would turn out badly for the poor, then we should deviate from strict NAP means.

      • Mark Rothschild

        “latent in the writings” is a standard of criticism that yields whatever blasphemy a critic may desire.

        Better to ignore “latent” thoughts of people who are not here to clarify.

  • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

    Hi Matt,
    Excellent post, which raises some interesting questions. I wish I had great answers. I note that neither Rand nor Nozick (so far as I can remember) had comparable observations. Perhaps as Aeon suggests, Rothbard just wished to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. My guess is that it is just an off-shoot of Rothbard’s hate-affair with the state, which he carried out with a burning passion. It is enough to hate the state for what it does the affluent and the middle class, but perhaps even better to hate it for what it does to the poor. Like a guy who steals $100 from Bill Gates is a jerk, but the guy who steals the last $100 from a homeless man is far worse.

  • Mandy

    Posts like this somewhat strike me as grasping. One of the problems I see in the way many libertarians frame their ideas is the denial of economic power as an issue in itself. And simultaneous to what he says in the above quotes, Rothbard. strongly denies any concept of “economic power”. As a result, these problems are only talked about within the context of purely blaming state intervention, and never taking into account power dynamics in a broader sense. And it makes it seem more like any consideration of “the poor” is only part of a talking point for preconceived libertarian conclusions.

    • 1234

      Economic power remains starkly different than state power because the latter monopolizes decision-making. Where there is no exit option, government homogenizes the behavior and lives of those subject to it; there is no escape but emigration (if that). On the other hand, Bill Gates has 72 thousand million dollars, and no one is afraid of him. Exit options (competitors) abound; Apple is the most valuable brand in the world. Critics of power should want more capitalism (an ever larger option-set), not less.

      Libertarians need to replace “coercion” with “imposition” in their vocabularies. It may plausibly be argued that dire circumstances coerce you into accepting a job offer that you don’t like, but no imposition has occurred – no person has imposed a cost onto you. Demanding that others bear the costs of your life, on the other hand, clearly *is* an imposition. Minimizing impositions may or may not be an overriding value, but lets at least get straight who plans on doing the imposing, and it’s the left. Take a look at even the moderate left on healthcare, education, and regulatory policy – the pattern is homogenization and imposition.

      • famadeo

        “Economic power remains starkly different than state power because the latter monopolizes decision-making.” Unlike private enterprises? I don’t recall any newspaper article describing Microsoft as a workers’ co-op.

        Where power is concerned, “coercion” and “imposition” is a distinction without a difference. Working at a sweatshop may be better than starving, but if necessity still dictates your every move, you are not free. That’s how ther term exploitation becomes meaningful.

      • Farstrider

        I like what you are saying, but this is a bit one-sided. The right is just as likely to “impose” on you, they’ll just do it in a different way. The main difference between the right and left as I see it is that they have different kinds of pork – but they both have it.

      • Mandy

        My reply would be that when the power dynamics of the situation are such that one is in a state of dependency or necessity, in which that person has little or no real bargaining power, then their decision-making power “in the market” loses a lot of meaning. It is more of a “practical submission” than anything else.

        Worse, when the state of dependency or need of others is sometimes exploited for the personal gain of economic and political elites and the reinforcement of an institutional hierarchy, then we get some problems.

        The reality is that most people in “the market” don’t have much bargaining power relative to the massive economic institutions they have little choice but to deal with, that management in many organizations is rife with narcissism and power games, that there has been the standardization of business policies that stagnates opportunities for people and effectively keeps them in their place, that sometimes bosses are power tripped goons.

        The fact of the matter is that if “the free market” on its own was truly a glowing paradise of mutual benefit and personal autonomy for all to the extent that many market-oriented libertarians claim, there wouldn’t be demand for a welfare state to begin with.

        “The market”, in practical reality, contains elements that are *constraining* on personal autonomy. Sometimes this is reinforced through the state or a consequences of a policy. Sometimes this functions independent of the state, as the consequences of organizational models and policies taken for granted. Of institutionalized hierarchy.

        The notion of “being free to exit” (a monopolistic sentiment) also loses a lot of meaning when the means of leaving are unrealistic or when there is no comprehensible sense of “exiting”. I don’t personally see “love it or leave it” logic being legitimate in either case (whether you’re focused on interaction with the state or the market). “The market” is not necessarily much more “chosen” than the country you happen to live in – it effectively represents a gigantic, global social-psychological environment that you didn’t “choose” at all.

        The fact of the matter is that both state and economic power are dual threats to personal freedom, and there are plenty of ways in which states are already controlled by economic interests. These issues are much more complicated than what can be tackled through the singular lens of anti-statism.

    • jdkolassa

      In addition to 1234’s reply below, I would also recommend reading this post by Fernando Teson: http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2013/11/sufficientarian-liberalism/

      There, he makes the Kantian argument that government should provide basic resources to the truly poor so they can be autonomous, as one without resources would be kinda stuck. Kinda speaks to economic power.

  • Giovanelo

    What is “social justice” that you use as a self-evident category in discussing Rothbard?

    • Watoosh

      The search bar is up there, and it’s not even hidden or anything.

      Apparently it’s never enough for the bloggers to wax on about social justice, define it, address criticisms, contextualize it in a libertarian framework etc. hundreds of goddamn times for three years. All a critic needs to do is to channel their inner Hayek and ask “but what is social justice anyway lol” in the comments, and the house of cards will come crumbling down and the bloggers’ hidden statist agenda is exposed.

      • Hayek

        But what exactly is social justice?

      • Giovanelo

        I am not a regular reader of this blog, was just curious.

  • jdkolassa

    I’m confused. How do libel laws discriminate against the poor?

    • Farstrider

      Because litigation is expensive, and defamation claims can only be pursued by those who have the resources to do so, and because defending such claims is often prohibitively expensive even if the claim is bogus. Because of this, the wealthy can use libel suits to punish the speech of their economic inferiors, because the wealthy can afford the cost and the distraction of litigation as well as the consequences of losing), while the have less resources to defend themselves and cannot afford the consequences of losing.

    • CT

      I would suggest you research the history of libel laws (how they came into being and how they were used). When I did so it completely changed my understanding of them. Hint: they have always been used to screw over the disadvantaged.

      • j_m_h

        Can you point to a couple of items that lead to your views? I’m not an academic with easy access to university libraries so hopefully some will be available online for the public.

  • Theresa Klein

    You don’t necessarily have to interpret Rothbard as thinking there is something “especially wrong” about those policies hurting the poor.

    Another way of interpreting this is that Rothbard is arguing to liberals that state intervention is not necessarily just, even according to their own moral beliefs. The belief in the interventionist state is based on an assumption that it’s possible to make the state consistently act in the best interests of the poor. But experience has shown that while the original justification is often made on the moral basis of aid to the poor, the actual effect of intervention in practice is frequently the opposite.

    This isn’t an argument that government intervention is unjust because it harms the poor, it’s an argument that government intervention is unjust, and doesn’t achieve the desired end anyway.

  • Andrew Lister

    Here is a relevant passage from For a New Liberty, pp.48-9:

    “It so happens that the free-market economy, and the specialization and division of labor it implies, is by far the most productive form of economy known to man, and has been responsible for industrialization and for the modern economy on which civilization has been built. This is a fortunate utilitarian result of the free market, but it is not, to the libertarian, the prime reason for his support of this system. That prime reason is moral and is rooted in the natural-rights defense of private property we have developed above. Even if a society of despotism and systematic invasion of rights could be shown to be more productive than what Adam Smith called “the system of natural liberty,” the libertarian would support this system. Fortunately, as in so many other areas, the utilitarian and the moral, natural rights and general prosperity, go hand in hand.”

    Rothbard doesn’t say that arguments from general wealth are irrelevant, just that they come second. They generally point in the same direction as natural rights arguments, but if they didn’t, natural rights would win. I take it that he would say the same thing about raising the position of the worst off. It’s not entirely irrelevant, it just can’t compete with natural property rights. But now, if a particular kind of state coercion both violates natural rights AND makes the poor poorer, its doubly bad. I don’t think Rothbard is being purely rhetorical, in the bits Matt cites; he can accept that the position of the worst off has some importance; but he must insist that wherever improving their position conflicts with natural property rights, natural property rights win.

    And natural property rights, for Rothbard, are defined and delimited based on a historical, labour-mixing theory, without reference to the effects of different systems of property rights on the position of the worst off. For that reason, he can’t count as a BHLer, it seems to me. The underlying approach to normative thinking about politics is different.

  • Jeffrey Tucker

    Yep. He was in the business of persuasion. Thanks for this!

  • martinbrock

    The existence of the public school also means that unmarried childless couples are coerced into subsidizing families with children…

    This conclusion assume, incorrectly, that adults finance the education of children, as opposed to children (who exclusively govern the yield of their education) financing it. “Public” education is sustainable only insofar as children obtain from the education value sufficient to finance the institutions that educated them, so from an economic perspective, public education is financed by debts imposed on the children educated.

    From this perspective, imposing upon children debts supporting the incredibly useless institutions increasingly constituting public “education”, from uncommonly generous pensions to multi-million dollar football fields, is all the more indefensible.

  • John

    Libertarians who believe in wealth distribution must be the smallest tent in the universe. But it’s still pretty spacious.

  • Phil

    “The existence of the public school also means that unmarried childless couples are coerced into subsidizing families with children…This means, too, that poor single people and poor childless couples are forced to subsidize wealthy families with children. Does this make any ethical sense at all?”

    He only mentions half of the equation. It also means rich single people and rich childless couples are forced to subsidize poor families with children. He has to first determine which direction outweighs the other before asking if it makes any ethical sense at all. He can’t simply point out a pro tanto reason against something and pretend that’s enough to make an all-things-considered judgment.

  • Mark Rothschild

    You have pushed Rothbard’s intent past his intended meaning.

    He points out that the state sometimes creates unhappiness for the poor. True, and perhaps seemingly ironic for some, but not not an argument, simply an observation.

    Rothbard was more than capable of making such an argument. No such argument was made for the good reason that it is not needed.

    You are imputing a destructive consequentialism where none is found.

    • Phil

      How do you reckon it is not needed?

      • Mark Rothschild

        The argument is not necessary because the conclusion (state = bad) is not dependent upon the consequence (state sometimes hurts poor people). So, while it may be true that the state sometimes harms the interests of the poor, this knowledge is not necessary for concluding that the state is bad. NB, this is not my argument, rather Rothbards.

  • reason60

    Asserting that is is immoral to harm the poor requires us to agree on what harm consists of.
    Is it nothing more than a reduction of liberty? Or are there other harms that need to be balanced against this?
    If a policy demonstrably increases their income, yet reduces their self-ownership, or reduces the liberty of others, which consequence is the worse?
    More importantly, how is this decided?

    Ultimately, in order for any society to resolve this, and take action accordingly, it requires some form of consensus that states “We Believe [X] is a moral priority, therefore [Y]”. Which ultimately strengthens the argument for some form of state action.

  • KW

    I don’t see why responding to a frequently made consequentialist argument with a consequentialist counterargument should make one a consequentialist.

  • John

    Look, the ostensible reason for almost any law is to protect the poor. But when these laws hurt the poor, only libertarians stand up and say “you can’t help the poor with laws”. That doesn’t suddenly mean “we need to distribute wealth”. That is just an absurd, liberal proposition that has nothing to do with libertarian thinking. You guys need to stop misusing the word “libertarian”. You already ruined the word “liberal”.

  • Janusz

    I think those quotes must be viewed in a context of his book. That was book sold
    to wide audience, not to scholars, academics and economy buffs. For years litmus
    test of every government policy was “is it good for the poor” and Rothbard make
    this connection for a reader showing that his ideas will be beneficial for everyone
    including poor. Your videos on YouTube (which brought me here and are very good) very often are showing policies or certain actions in relation to the poor basically validating those policies or actions.

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