Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty

The Ethics of Liberty by Murray Rothbard is a difficult book to which few could subscribe in full.

It is difficult partly because it is concerned only with ‘that subset of the natural law that develops the concept of natural rights, and that deals with the proper sphere of “politics,” i.e., with violence and non-violence as modes of interpersonal relations.’ The book is not concerned with the ethics of personal morality, simply ‘a political philosophy of liberty’.

In confining itself so, it presents an ethic which is surely untenable to most minds, perhaps minds unaccustomed to separating fully personal morality and politics, as Rothbard does. It is nevertheless useful on the subject of self-ownership, a concept which most people would accept, and gladly insist upon.

Consider this from Chapter 8, “Interpersonal relations: ownership and aggression”:

Let us set aside for a moment the corollary but more complex case of tangible property, and concentrate on the question of a man’s ownership rights to his own body. Here there are two alternatives: either we may lay down a rule that each man should be permitted (i.e., have the right to) the full ownership of his own body, or we may rule that he may not have such complete ownership. If he does, then we have the libertarian natural law for a free society as treated above. But if he does not, if each man is not entitled to full and 100 percent self-ownership, then what does this imply? It implies either one of two conditions: (1) the “communist” one of Universal and Equal Other-ownership, or (2) Partial Ownership of One Group by Another—a system of rule by one class over another. These are the only logical alternatives to a state of 100 percent self-ownership for all.

Let us consider alternative (2); here, one person or group of persons, G, are entitled to own not only themselves but also the remainder of society, R. But, apart from many other problems and difficulties with this kind of system, we cannot here have a universal or natural-law ethic for the human race. We can only have a partial and arbitrary ethic, similar to the view that Hohenzollerns are by nature entitled to rule over non-Hohenzollerns. Indeed, the ethic which states that Class G is entitled to rule over Class R implies that the latter, R, are subhuman beings who do not have a right to participate as full humans in the rights of self-ownership enjoyed by G—but this of course violates the initial assumption that we are carving out an ethic for human beings as such.

What then of alternative (I)? This is the view that, considering individuals A, B, C . . ., no man is entitled to 100percent ownership of his own person. Instead, an equal part of the ownership of A’s body should be vested in B, C . . ., and the same should hold true for each of the others. This view, at least, does have the merit of being a universal rule, applying to every person in the society, but it suffers from numerous other difficulties.

In the first place, in practice, if there are more than a very few people in the society, this alternative must break down and reduce to Alternative (2), partial rule by some over others. For it is physically impossible for everyone to keep continual tabs on everyone else, and thereby to exercise his equal share of partial ownership over every other man. In practice, then, this concept of universal and equal other-ownership is Utopian and impossible, and supervision and therefore ownership of others necessarily becomes a specialized activity of a ruling class. Hence, no society which does not have full self-ownership for everyone can enjoy a universal ethic. For this reason alone, 100percent self-ownership for every man is the only viable political ethic for mankind.

And, for Rothbard, the consequences are profound.

However, life cannot be lived according to a political ethic of liberty alone. In a world of imperfectly moral individuals, a world of perfect political liberty would have repulsive implications. For example, Rothbard claims the law should be silent in respect of neglect, something wholly unacceptable to a moral mind in a world of comprehensive legislation.

As Mises wrote in 1944:

With human nature as it is, the state is a necessary and indispensable institution. The state is, if properly administered, the foundation of society, of human cooperation and civilization. It is the most beneficial and most useful instrument in the endeavors of man to promote human happiness and welfare. But it is a tool and a means only, not the ultimate goal. It is not God. It is simply com­pulsion and coercion; it is the police power.

All of this leaves us with the question, “Who shall govern?” and the issue of the purpose of democracy, of which more another day. What is, for me, settled is that there must be no legal privilege for those who make the law.

Further reading

For an account of natural law which does consider personal morality and which explores the forces working against objective morality in the world of ideas, see my review of C S Lewis’ The Abolition of Man.

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Comments & Responses

One Response so far.

  1. Hugo says:

    Rothbard advocated complete liberty for 5-year-olds. His essay “Kid Lib” is stunningly naive.

    His arguments like the one above exemplify him as a philosopher.

    “These are the only logical alternatives to a state of 100 percent self-ownership for all.” No, they’re not. For example, another logical alternative is nobody owns anybody, including himself. Edward Feser gives some more.