I'd suggest: RothbardIt just so happens I have read a bit of Rothbard. About five years ago I took a deep dive into libertarianism (lower-case l) and anarcho-capitalism. Both theories had always struck me as obviously utopian and unworkable, and yet a lot of people I respected seemed to subscribe to one or the other (or both) so I wanted to find out if I was missing something.
On the recommendation of some of the members of a mailing list that contained the word "freedom" in its name, I read The Ethics of Liberty and found it completely, utterly, and transparently intellectually bankrupt. I wrote up a critique back then, but never published it outside that mailing list. The response from the list was not unlike the response I used to get when I debated with religious fundamentalists. It was, in essence: we can't rebut any of your arguments. But we believe it anyway.
Here, then, is a lightly edited version of the essay I wrote back in 2008.
A couple of preliminary disclaimers:
First, I have not read even a small fraction of Rothbard's writings, and I never will. Rothbard is too prolific, I'm too busy, and life is too short. This is a critique of the work that [names deleted] pointed me to as representative of their positions [The Ethics of Liberty]. I've so far read about half of it thoroughly, and skimmed about another fourth. A pretty clear picture emerges even from this incomplete perusal. In particular, Rothbard bases his entire argument on premises which I reject. So it is not necessary to look into all the details of his reasoning to know that he is wrong, just as it is not necessary to read the entire Bible to convince onesself that it is not the inerrant word of God. Garbage in, garbage out. But it is interesting to follow some of the lines of thought nonetheless.
To give Rothbard credit, he doesn't actually run off the rails until chapter 2:
The natural law, then, elucidates what is best for man—what ends man should pursue that are most harmonious with, and best tend to fulfill, his nature. In a significant sense, then, natural law provides man with a “science of happiness,” with the paths which will lead to his real happiness.This, of course, begs the question of what "real happiness" means, and Rothbard struggles to define it because he doesn't want to use the common economic definition and thereby become a utilitarian. The problem is, Rothbard gets it wrong. It is hard to summarize Rothbard's definition of "man's nature" and "true happiness" because it is so incoherent, but it is easy to tell what it is not, and what it is not is the right answer.
Man's true nature is that he is an animal. I mean that in the strictly scientific sense of the word, i.e. a living thing that is not a plant, the product of a few billion years of evolution. Each instance of man is constructed by natural processes involving DNA being transcribed into RNA and thence into proteins by ribosomes, which then assemble themselves into a startlingly complex array of structures including a frontal cortex. Which is where all the trouble starts. :-)
The problem is that our capacity for rational thought is only a small part of our true nature. Not only are we (at least potentially) rational, we are also alive, and our being alive is antecedent to our being rational, and therefore a much more fundamental part of our true nature than our rationality is. We don't even know if being alive is even a prerequisite for being rational. It is not out of the realm of possibility that there could exist rational entities that are not alive. So there is no reason to believe a priori that being alive is just an incidental detail that is subsumed by being rational, and can therefore be safely ignored. Indeed, there is reason to believe that being alive and being rational are in active conflict with each other, perhaps even necessarily so. But this is a tangent. If you're really interested in pursuing this line of thought, go read "The Robot's Rebellion" by Keith E Stanovich. (I don't particularly recommend this book because I think what it says is patently obvious. But if you don't agree you'll find extensive supporting arguments there.)
What is it, then, to be alive, and specifically to be an animal rather than, say, a plant or a fungus? It means that sexual reproduction is fundamental to our nature. And I don't just mean the act of sexual intercourse, I mean the entire end-to-end cyclical process of being born, surviving long enough to reach adulthood, and having and (usually, at least for mammals like us) raising children.
Rothbard completely ignores this aspect of our nature, basing his analysis largely on thought experiments involving one or two fully fledged and functional adult human beings capable of surviving and even prospering on desert island without any outside assistance whatsoever, not even tools and other vestiges of civilization salvaged from a shipwreck. Having established the dynamics of such a fantasy world he then, with no justification whatsoever, extrapolates his results to the real world as if the principle of mathematical induction could be applied to humans. He then tacks on children as an afterthought -- in chapter 14! -- continuing to completely ignore the fundamental role of children in human nature, and the fact that people have deeply rooted visceral -- which is to say irrational -- reactions when children come into play. Because we are animals.
It is, frankly, a completely ridiculous line of argument.
[UPDATE in 2013]: I am re-reading chapter 14 now and it is every bit as -- words fail me -- untenable? idiotic? horrific? -- as I remember it. Here's a choice quote:
Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive. [Emphasis added.]
If I have to explain to you the problem with that then you are beyond help. [End update.]
Even if you ignore all that and accept Rothbard's premises at face value, his argument still falls apart because it hinges on two completely arbitrary and ultimately untenable definitions. The first is his definition of property and ownership. Rothbard defines the "natural" owner of a resource as the first person to transform that resource into something else. So destroying nature is a pre-requisite to ownership. One person's desire to enjoy the pleasure of hiking through virgin forest is axiomatically subjugated to someone else's desire to cut down the trees and burn them for fuel.
It's even worse than that. Not only does the logger axiomatically get preferential treatment over the hiker, he also gets axiomatic preference over all other living beings on the planet. Although Rothbard claims to be taking a scientific approach, he tacitly appropriates the Biblical license for man's dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over the cattle and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
Now, it is not the case that in Rothbard's world there will not be a single tree left standing, because (chapter 10):
Note that we are not saying that, in order for property in land to be valid, it must be continually in use. The only requirement is that the land be once put into use, and thus become the property of the one who has mixed his labor with, who imprinted the stamp of his personal energy upon, the land. After that use, there is no more reason to disallow the land’s remaining idle than there is to disown someone for storing his watch in a desk drawer.So environmentalists do have a leg to stand on, but perversely, in order to stake their claim to a virgin forest they first have to cut down all the trees in order to stake their claim to the land. Only then may they let the land rest fallow and let the trees regrow secure in the knowledge that they are the "rightful" owner of the land.
To prevent the history of anarcho-capitalism from being one of a single mad rush to cut down every tree on the planet as quickly as possible in one vast primordial land-grab, he introduces the concept of abandonment. But now we are right back where we started because now we have to decide when "lying fallow" ends and "abandonment" begins, and such a delineation cannot be anything but completely arbitrary.
The second arbitrary and untenable definition upon which Rothbard's theory rests is that of "violence." Violence is the axiomtic evil, and Rothbard never really defines it explicitly, but implicitly he seems to restrict the definition to direct physical violence against another person's property, which axiomatically includes their own body. As an aside, Rothbard axiomatically precludes people from voluntarily selling themselves into slavery. Exactly how this differs from, say, entering into a long-term contract for their labor is not clear, but even that aside, this is a very peculiar position to take from someone who presumably would not axiomatically preclude someone from selling off pieces of themselves -- like kidneys -- even if it lead to their death. So people can voluntarily kill themselves, but they cannot voluntarily enter into long-term labor contracts. Weird.
But the problem of what constitutes violence is very thorny even in Rothbard's oversimplified fantasy world. He paints a picture of Crusoe happily fishing and Friday happily raising wheat and both of them happily exchanging wheat for fish, but what if Crusoe decides that his version of paradise is a high-rise condominium development that casts a permanent shadow over Friday's wheat field? Or a dam upstream of Friday's fields that produces electricity, but stops the seasonal flooding that made Friday's wheat fields fertile? Of such sticky situations we hear nothing. It is possible that Rothbard deals with the problem of externalities somewhere, but I can find no hint of it. The word "externality" does not appear anywhere in the book, and that's a pretty clear indication that Rothbard has simply swept this crucial issue under the rug.
But these difficulties pale in comparison to an even more fundamental flaw in Rothbard's theory. The problem is that the idea of violence as the ultimate evil is not supportable on the basis of human nature. It might be supportable on the basis of rationalism (relative to some quality metric, of course), but as I pointed out earlier, being rational is not the totality of our nature. We are not only rational, but living animals with a powerful and altogether irrational drive to reproduce (inherited from our parents who, if they lacked this drive, tended not to reproduce). When push comes to shove, and one is faced with a choice of starvation or doing violence against another person's person or property, violence will often -- indeed usually -- win, because the person who will starve to death rather than steal a loaf of bread will tend not to reproduce as well as someone who doesn't buy in to Rothbard's theories.
Now, Rothbard doesn't actually address this problem (as far as I can tell) so I'll do it for him: because rational people are aware that evolution tends to produce creatures that will resort to violence before they allow themselves to starve to death, they will recognize that it is in their own interest to prevent people around them from starving to death. Hence, people will engage in charitable acts of gift-giving precisely to prevent the violence that Darwin predicts. (Rothbard does not actually make this argument. The only justification that Rothbard can come up with for engaging in charitable gift-giving is the "psychic [sic] satisfaction" that such acts provide. [chapter 7])
The problem with this approach to dealing with the poor is that there is a reverse-externality. If I feed a poor person and thereby prevent him from doing violence, everyone benefits from my good deed, and yet only I have borne the cost. This is the classic prisoner's dilemma. Individually, everyone's rational decision is to wait for someone else to feed the poor. And yet, if everyone acts on this reasoning, the result is, at least potentially, food riots.
And this, I submit, is the fundamental reason why government is necessary from both a rational and a moral point of view. The fact of the matter is that humans are more than just rational beings, society is more than just the sum of its parts, and nature has intrinsic value which is destroyed when someone transforms it for some other use. As a consequence of these self-evident facts, there are things that humans must work on collectively if we are to live in peace. I submit that the best mechanism yet devised for organizing such collective action is democratic government. There is certainly room for improvement, but anarchism is throwing out the baby with the bath water.
This question is based on a false assumption, namely, that the reason for paying taxes is to mitigate the harm that my externalities cause other people. It isn't. The reason for paying taxes is to bear your fair share of the burden of conducting society's collective actions, whether they be feeding the poor to prevent food riots, or building transportation infrastructure, a pre-requisite for industrialization, by the way, that Rothbard completely ignores.
So the right question to ask is: how much tax should Warren Buffet pay to justly compensate for the benefits that receives from the state? And I'll answer that question with the answer that Warren Buffet himself gives: more than he is currently required to pay.
Some day I'll write a sequel about Ayn Rand.