Saturday, March 02, 2013

Murray Rothbard was an Idiot

This post is not part of the series on credit card fraud.  I just felt the need to vent.  Some anonymous coward posted a comment that pressed one of my buttons.
I'd suggest: Rothbard
It 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.

I wasn't.

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.[4] 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.

On Rothbard's view, then, it is a perfectly moral act for Crusoe to cut a ring of trees around the island and thereby stake his claim to the land, and then deny Friday access to the sea (or, if he were clever, to start charging tolls) because Friday can no longer get there without trespassing on Crusoe's property.  On Rothbard's view this act is not just legal but moral.  Exactly what Friday is supposed to do to defend himself is not clear; perhaps cut down a few trees of his own before Crusoe gets to them in order to stake his own claim to a right-of-way.

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.

All this brings me to an answer to the question [name deleted] posed: How much tax do you think Warren Buffet should be required to pay to make you say that he's not doing you harm?

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.


Don Geddis said...


Anonymous said...

So your argument is in order to prevent the violence we must use violence.

Try again.

Tony Mach said...

Interesting that you mention "The Robot's Rebellion" by Stanovich.

Yes, what he writes in that book should be "patently obvious" (and for me it is patently obvious *after* reading the book).

But it is only obvious if you have already acquired the requite educational background by other means – which I hadn't.

I found it very helpful to have read Stannovich's book (along with Dennet's "Dangerous Idea"). And reading part of Dawkins' "Selfish Gene" afterwards, I doubt I would groked the ideas expressed by Dawkins, Stannovich and Dannet if I had read Dawkins' book first (and I would probably have not read more on the topic, had I started with Dawkins).

There may be other books to get a good access to these ideas, but Stannovich is a good starting point for someone who hadn't had access to them.

Ron said...

> to prevent the violence we must use violence

The threat of violence actually makes a very effective deterrent to actual violence, and the more extreme the potential violence the more effective the deterrence. World War III has so far been effectively prevented (or at least prevented from becoming a hot war) by the threat of nuclear annihilation.

mtraven said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mtraven said...

For your consideration.

Nice series on electronic transaction stuff btw.

Anonymous said...

Democratic government isn't the only way of solving the "prisoner's dilemma" of producing public goods.

The same can be achieved with assurance contracts.

Assurance contracts are superior to democracy in my opinion because democracy relies exclusively on cheap talk both on the side of the politicians and the side of the voters, while assurance contracts require costly signalling. Thus, assurance contracts are less likely to lead to waste and unnecessary production of public goods.

Anonymous said...

You misunderstand Rothbard's chapter on children.

Rothbard does not say that parents are not morally obliged to feed their children, all he says is that they should not be legally obliged. The law simply defines a minimum obligation for a parent, not a recommended course of action.

That does not mean that society should condone parents who callously let their children starve to death. In anarcho-capitalism, such a parent would probably face massive ostracism and vilification, however, retaliatory violence against him would not be permitted.

The problem with positive rights for children is that they are highly subjective. Where does "acceptable" parenting end and negligence begin? Who decides? culture? politicians? pediatricians? The point that Rothbard is trying to make is that law should be based on things that can be measured objectively, and not on transient things like culture and politicians' taste du jour.

A hypothetical example:

There is a famine. A mother and her 2 children are on the edge of starving to death. She has a small amount of food left. One of the children is very sick and unlikely to survive even if she gives him all her food. So she decides to let him starve to death and share the food with the remaining child. That way, at least there is higher chance that not all 3 of them will starve.

This might be an extreme example, but in poor countries parents are faced with these kinds of tough choices all the time, and there are plenty of cases that are more morally ambiguous than the above.

Should parents be imprisoned for making tough choices? Rothbard would say no.

Bob said...

Being that you haven't read even a 20th of Rothbard, I wouldn't expect you to be able to thoroughly critic his work. Externalizations are dealt with at length in his other writings. But the key here is that Rothbard didn't magically come up with this anarcho formula. Read John Locke or Bastiat or Hyack, or even Mises. The idea of property ownership through homesteading is older than Rothbard. A lot of rhetoric in this article.

Ron said...

> I wouldn't expect you to be able to thoroughly critic his work.

I'm not claiming to thoroughly critique his work. I'm only critiquing the parts I read.

> Externalizations

Eternalities. Do you have a reference?

> Rothbard didn't magically come up with this anarcho formula. ... The idea of property ownership through homesteading is older than Rothbard.

What difference does it make what the idea's pedigree is? Rothbard is endorsing it, and that makes it fair game whether he invented it or not.

MaysonicWrites said...

Re: man's animal nature

You might find The User Illusion by Tor Nørretranders - "cutting consciousness down to size" as the subtitle goes.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with anarchocapitalist principles most of the time. I see where you're coming from on a lot of these points.

>> "Man's true nature is that he is an animal."

I believe this statement is a bit dishonest. Man is an animal, but what makes man special is the capacity to think. I don't think you can leave that part out and claim the "true nature" of man.

>> "We don't even know if being alive is even a prerequisite for being rational."

I deny a dichotomy between life and rationality; both concepts are heavily intertwined. In my eyes, the more you act without thinking, the less alive you are. The more you think, the more alive you are.

>> "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."

Funny observation, good one. :-)

>> "As an aside, Rothbard axiomatically precludes people from voluntarily selling themselves into slavery."

Of course. It is a contradiction in terms. Slavery is per definition involuntary (at least according Rothbard). He is not against a voluntary trade involving lifetime labour.

>> "It is possible that Rothbard deals with the problem of externalities somewhere, but I can find no hint of it."

I agree externalities are a problem. I am open to new ideas and this might be a place for "government". Of course there would be some sort of private resolution agencies in place to resolve "every day conflicts" though.

>> "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."

People don't give to charity because they want other people to give to charity.

>> "I submit that the best mechanism yet devised for organizing such collective action is democratic government."

You are critical of other positions such as anarchocapitalism. But are you critical of your own democratic positions? Does the majority decide right from wrong? Does might make right? Do the ends justify the means? In "ideal" democracy you can actually say the means justify the ends, so long the means are of the majority.

Women Incarcerated said...

Real happiness is, according to the official libertarian position, alleviation of sensations of unease. This means that happiness can only be known and recognized by each individual on behalf of himself. Anything that is not preferred (or demonstrated through action) such as involuntary taxation or involuntary conscription goes against happiness. It is, of course, possible that something can happen to you that you initially disagreed with, but which later prove to make you happy. However the opposite is equally true and the libertarian thinks that for practical reasons coercion should be condemned because if men are allowed to choose themselves they are simply more likely to successfully pursue their own happiness.

I think that Rothbard implements libertarian principles incorrectly when he deals with children. Yes children are individuals and nobody is forced to sustain the lives of another individual at the detriment of your freedom. But children are put in a situation of dependency BY the parent. Children are only in need of sustenance and stimuli because the parent conceived the child. If the parent is not interested in sustaining a child, they should never have ACTIVELY placed the child in a situation of parental dependency. It is like throwing a prisoner into a jail cell under the condition that he lives there, but leaving it to the prisoner to collect food and water for his sustenance. So unless you feed someone whom you are responsible for making incapable of feeding himself, you are guilty of depriving him of his life.

Labor does not imply that you need to cut the tree down to make it yours. You simply have to claim the land. People usually make up conditions amongst themselves of what constitutes "claiming" something, but some say it's on whichever trees upon which you mark your name, whatever area you enclose with a fence or whatever area you can reasonably manage to defend. It is only in the initial stages of property enclosure that issues such as these may arise - when not all land on earth was discovered - but now it is quite simple to determine the ownership of various units of property. It will be interesting to see how we solve property disputes once Mars gets inhabited by humans.

In your thought experiment where Crusoe cut down the trees around Friday confining him on a small area unable to walk anywhere without trespassing. Just as with the parent conceiving a child, Crusoe is confining Friday by holding him as a prisoner. This impugns with Friday's personal sovereignty which goes against libertarian principle.

You finish up by pointing out why taxation is needed. You speak of infrastructure and poverty alleviation amongst other things and you employ the logical fallacy of false dilemma to make it seem like infrastructure and poverty would not be dealt with if that which currently deals with it is removed. A USSR leader would likely say, as a reaction to a call for privatization of the auto industry, that "cars are necessary for the productivity of our society, and you want to get rid of our government's department of automobile construction? Who would build the cars?" In reality, we all know that auto mobiles can be dealt with just fine without government involvement, and all the anarcho-capitalist claims is that it would be desirable of the building of infrastructure and poverty alleviation could be dealt with through the voluntarily sustained price mechanism in a free society..

Women Incarcerated said...

As to the issue of the dispute that may arise if Crusoe builds a dam upstreams from Friday. There is always room for ambiguities, such as when does a fetus become an individual? When can you claim a dead man's property? What rights do you have to the water in your river? Ultimately this would likely be determined by any court reflecting the, in libertarian circuits, forbidden phrase "general will". It may vary from one society to the next what a river constitutes. The important thing is that any ambiguities get figured out over time so property owners can go about their business in a deliberate manner. This is also one of the main arguments against statism; rules tend to change more frequently to fit the ruling elite, whereas a spontaneously organized and free society reflects the general will through traditions and culture in their courts.

Ron said...

> we all know that auto mobiles can be dealt with just fine without government involvement

You must not have been reading the news lately. Have you not heard of the auto bailouts? Also, without pressure from the government cars would almost certainly be a lot less safe, less efficient, and emit more pollution than they do.

> any court reflecting the, in libertarian circuits, forbidden phrase "general will"

And who pays for the court? Or is it staffed by volunteers?

> whatever area you can reasonably manage to defend.

Well, that's a problem (for a libertarian), because what you will find is that you can much more effectively defend your territory with a team than you can by yourself, and the bigger your team the bigger the territory you can effectively defend. And so you end up exactly where we are, except that instead of "teams" we call them "countries."

Dark.Cyberian.Knight said...

Really enjoyed this.
Sad to see you haven't done Rand yet.

I am a recent convert to a more geo-liberal or georgist perspective and was wondering if you were familiar with the ideas of trying to separate a universal right to natural wealth by distributive taxes and wealth created by the individual?

I'm not strictly opposed to taxing other wealth I just think taxing natural wealth privatization might be sufficient and arguing against it seems indefensible in fact to me.

Thanks, Have a nice day.

Ron said...

> Really enjoyed this.


> Sad to see you haven't done Rand yet.

Sorry, too busy. Some day.

> was wondering if you were familiar with the ideas of trying to separate a universal right to natural wealth by distributive taxes and wealth created by the individual?

I'm "familiar" with it in the same sense that I'm "familiar" with the sun rising in the east. It seems like a complete no-brainer to me that natural resources should be collectively owned, managed by the government, and leased to private enterprise for development. I'm sure someone somewhere has advanced this idea academically, but I haven't seen it.

I think wealth should be taxed progressively too because extreme wealth inequality is bad for society. At the very least, there needs to be an extremely high progressive estate tax, because *inherited* wealth is *extremely* bad for society. But those are all longer stories than I have time to tell right now.