The Abstract and the Actual…

Having called Murray Rothbard a more readable and likeable advocate for libertarianism than Ayn Rand I was inspired to re-visit the irrepressible old anarcho-capitalist and have been savouring his Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, and Other Essays.

It has had its pleasures. Rothbard was a good essayist: erudite but unpretentious; funny but not frivolous. A man who was by all accounts a delightful friend, and who enjoyed a happy marriage up until his death, he can at times resemble HL Mencken with joi de vivre. Yet the higher one builds a person up, the harder they can fall. Despite Rothbard’s human qualities his worldview was not shaped for men. Devotion to the pure, abstract ideals of rights-based libertarianism conflicted with essential features of civilised existence.

Such ideals are on loose epistemological grounds regardless. Edward Feser has criticised Rothbard’s fallacious philosophical foundations for anarcho-capitalism, and the man found it difficult to support them. His response to L.A. Rollins’ egoist monograph The Myth of Natural Rights was summarised in its title: “shut up”. Yet the logical coherence of political philosophies is not all that matters. One also has to consider how they might work. Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, and Other Essays offers instructive lessons.

Rothbard knows the importance of practical considerations. In a spirited ripose to those who say political ambitions can be good in theory if not in practice he snorts that “if a theory is correct, then it does work in practice; if it does not work in practice, then it is a bad theory”. Rothbard knows this but can seem forgetful on the point. In “Kid’s Lib” one sees bizarre and sometimes grotesque contortions that his rights-based ideals force him into as he considers the world around him. In assessing where the rights of children begin and end he judges that…

…the child must always have, regardless of age, the absolute freedom to run away…the parent should, of course, have the right to try to persuade or cajole the kid to return, but he should never have the right to force him to do so, for that is kidnapping and a high crime that violates every person’s absolute right to his body.

Elsewhere, Rothbard grants that most kids are “not in possession of knowledge, values, self-discipline, or much rationality” and are “hardly in a position to be able to decide what [they] should be doing or wishing”. Yet his values demand that these essentially irresponsible young men and women should be allowed to venture into a world of exploitation, deprivation and sheer accident without their parents, or anyone else, being allowed to stop them. In the face of some assertions the human mind is forced to say “no”.

Rothbard considered how good parents might respond to the departure of their children…

The absolute right to run away, then; but this means, of course, that the child cannot continue to exert a legal or moral claim upon the parents’ continued economic support. In fact, it is rather absurd for the parent to continue supporting the child under those circumstances…

To his mind, then, it would be absurd for a parent to support their child if they had done a bunk. Rational behaviour would have a mum and dad refuse to send their kid a hundred pounds if he or she phoned up and begged for the price of a room and meal. Well, perhaps it is a risk worth taking if discomfort might encourage the young rebel to return but it is strange to think that it is the obvious course of action to refuse a child love if they will not accept one’s own. Here, again, we witness dessicated rationality in conflict with the actual emotions and habits of our kind.

As for parents who feel no love for their kids, Rothbard says they have a moral obligation to look after them. He adds, though, that there should be no legal repercussions should they choose to ignore this…

…a parent may be a moral monster for not caring for his child properly, but the law cannot compel him to do otherwise. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that there is a host of moral rights and duties which are properly beyond the province of the law.

Such is the insistence of the good anarcho-capitalist that the law “cannot compel positive acts” that children who are unfed, unclothed, unwashed and unloved can only dream of finding better homes on the “free market in babies” – or else run away.

* * *

Radicals are often charged with being unrealistic. This is a criticism that Rothbard was used to. There are different conceptions of “unrealistic”. There is that which cannot be accomplished in the near future. There is that which cannot be accomplished without grave consequences. There is that which is impossible per se.

In “Why Be Libertarian”, Rothbard defines himself as an “abolitionist”: one who, if he could, would “abolish instantaneously all invasions of liberty, whether it be, in the original coining of the term, slavery, or whether it be the manifold other instances of State oppression”. (It is worth bearing in mind that Rothbard would categorise almost if not all activities of the state as instances of state oppression.) This, it seems to me, is unrealistic in two senses: unrealistic because the state will not dissolve itself and unrealistic because the consequences of its dissolution – as criminals roam the streets, hospitals collapse, international trade goes haywire and weapons of mass destruction quietly await new masters – would be catastrophic.

Rothbard ignores the second point (though he would of course have disagreed with my assessment). His target is the “moderate” who feels that state will not die, and that citizens would not choose for it to, and therefore becomes a boring incrementalist. Rothbard defends his own radical stance from the charge of utopianism…

Other traditional radical goals—such as the “abolition of poverty”—are, in contrast to this one, truly utopian, for man, simply by exerting his will, cannot abolish poverty. Poverty can only be abolished through the operation of certain economic factors — notably the investment of savings in capital—which can only operate by transforming nature over a long period of time. In short, man’s will is here severely limited by the workings of— to use an old-fashioned but still valid term—natural law. But injustices are deeds that are inflicted by one set of men on another; they are precisely the actions of men, and, hence, they and their elimination are subject to man’s instantaneous will.

It is wrong to think human inclinations towards dominance, submission and, above all, self-interest are not themselves part of what might be called “natural law”. If, in 1939, I had attempted to persuade Hitler that lebensraum was a bad idea I could not have responded to the charge of naivete with the observation that Hitler could have changed his mind. He had the potential to, of course, but there was no chance of his exercising it.

Rothbard insists that one should not confuse “a desired goal with a strategic estimate of the probable outcome”. “First, goals must be formulated…then, after we have decided on the goal, we face the entirely separate strategic question of how to attain that goal”. Perhaps, yes, but if the goal is unattainable one must go back and alter it. If, in 1941, I had yearned for the immediate triumph of the Allies it would have been sensible not to dwell on the idea once I had grasped that it could not be fulfilled. Like most radicals, Rothbard spent time thinking about how the world ought to be that should been spent thinking about how it is.

* * *

Rothbard makes the fair point that ambitious rhetoric can be more inspiring than clear-eyed realism. This explains some of prose. For much of the time, he is not, as far as I can tell, arguing the merits of his ideas but attempting to rally the troops. This is obvious in “The Meaning of Revolution”. The history of man, Rothbard claims, was “a dark and gory record of tyranny and despotism” before “classical liberalism and radicalism…brought to the mass of people…hope and promise”. “All that man has achieved today,” he continues, “In progress, in hope, in living standards, we can attribute to that revolutionary movement”.

In the awkward repetition of “hope” one glimpses the man’s critical faculties departing. The history of mankind has in large part been one of tribes. Despotisms are a far more recent innovation. Regardless, it seems inane to dismiss the civilisations of Egypt, Greece and Rome, for example, on the grounds of their failure to preempt the cultural and economic expectations of our time. It is also wrong-headed to attribute all that we hold dear to liberals. Many of our greatest buildings, books, artworks and ideas precede them, and they can by no means take all the credit for our ability to be safe, well-fed and free of tapeworm. Rothbard refers to “enormous strides for freedom…and the prosperity unleashed by the consequent Industrial Revolution”. What caused the industrial revolution is a controversial and complex debate, with significant factors believed to include border controls (which minimised disease) and colonial expansion. Hardly the stuff of liberal values. Much of the scientific progress that enabled it, meanwhile, was accomplished independently of the nascent idea of liberalism, and without opposition from tyrants and despots. Rothbard is engaged in the most mainstream sort of ahistorical Enlightenment triumphalism.

Almost all of what is good is attributed to liberals. Almost all of what is bad is pinned on the state. Libertarians were often sage and energetic foes of twentieth century conflicts yet Rothbard’s ideological absolutism forces him into taking an odd stance on war qua war. Since wars conducted by states are funded by taxation, they “involve increased aggression against the State’s own taxpayer” and “are always to be condemned” (his italics). I wonder how many Britons resented the taxes paid to the state to fund the war against Napoleon – and I wonder how many more would have the resented backing away to let the little man cross the English channel. Even if it can be said that taxation always involves an aggressive element, we sometimes have to ask ourselves whether the actual consequences of this aggression are more serious than consequences of its absence. “Aggression” here is a concept that bears little or no relation to worldly things like bombs, guns, bones and blood. For all that the innate cynicism of the anarchist allows him to protest against state evils when they exist, it can be cynicism without discrimination.

What to do if there is a truly defensive war? (They happen, unless one thinks it impossible for one’s nation to have a committed foe.) “People under each State,” Rothbard suggests, “Should pressure “their” respective States not to attack one another, and, if a conflict should break out, to negotiate a peace or declare a cease-fire as quickly as physically possible.” But what if the people of one’s enemies fail to do this? One is left with a desire, and with a defeat.

* * *

There is some good stuff in here. Rothbardian side-swipes against socialists, feminists, opponents of “conspiracy theories”, progressive educationalists and others made me smile as well as nod. There are useful correctives to statist optimism, such as when he notes that urban renewal was doing more harm to cities than private businesses. Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature itself is a spirited riposte to one of the more influential assumptions of our age: that human equality is, if not always achievable, always desirable. It is here that he observes that one should not spend time desiring the impossible. He also gives us mordant comments on egalitarian fanatics who would blend the human race into one form, as eccentric as it would be dull. A point which he fails to mention – which, to me, is the most compelling response – is that we can be equal in poverty and danger as well as in safety and success, and that one should hope for the poor to be enriched and the weak to be made strong whether or not this brings them nearer to the most fortunate. Yet this argument implies that leftists can have better motives than Rothbard admits. He was not a man to see the best in his opponents.

I like Rothbard. In passages such as that devoted to nuclear weapons – which, he soberly and rightly notes, have changed warfare for good – the reader notices concern for human beings of the world and not of the imagination. Nonetheless, his ideology constrained his humanity. For all that he strove to “demonstrate to the world that libertarian theory can be brought sharply to bear upon all of the world’s crucial problems”, he ended up placing the abstract above the actual – actual humans and actual truths.

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One Response to The Abstract and the Actual…

  1. Pingback: In Defence of James Burnham, Who Barely Needs It… | Wandering Near Sawtry

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