[Added, July 4: In response to a video of Rand on the Middle East, posted at Lew Rockwell.
Yes, Rand was wrong about that.
But that does not diminish the validity of her thinking in other areas, any more than Rothbard’s rightness on foreign policy validates everything else he wrote. Nor is the Middle East the reason the left hates Rand. It detests her because her appeal to individualism and achievement is perennially powerful and popular.
And it also detests her because she dissected at least a part of the motivation behind much charity/altruism, to which the left insistently appeals.
Now, Rand owes her thought on that subject and other things to Nietzsche, whom she adapted very originally and powerfully. In turn, Nietzsche, also an original and creative mind, owed his thinking to his studies of Eastern religion, especially Buddhism and Hinduism.
As is the case with Heidegger, Nietzsche, as far as I know, did not properly credit that influence.
(On the other hand, Yeats, also massively influenced by Nietzsche, did….]
In this way, intellectual chicanery/cultural fraud is at the heart of the modernist project.
Imagine if I were to study Christianity surreptitiously, and then go to some state in India where the villagers knew nothing about it and preach about such things as the resurrection of the body, judgement day, the fall, and original sin, passing off these notions as my own original thought, while denigrating the culture from which I took those ideas?
What kind of a fraud would that be?
What kind of damage would that do to the villagers’ understanding of the world at large, and to my own ability to reach valid conclusions about that world?]
Edward Feser on Murray Rothbard as a philosopher:
“I should also make it clear that my low opinion of Rothbard’s philosophical abilities has nothing to do with the particular conclusions he wants to defend. I certainly share his hostility to slavery, socialism, communism, and egalitarian liberalism. I also agree that much of what modern governments do is morally indefensible and that many of the taxes levied by modern governments (maybe even most of them) are unjust. And while I strongly disagree with his claims that government per se is evil and that all taxation is unjust, these are at least philosophically interesting claims. The problem is just that Rothbard seems incapable of giving a philosophically interesting argument for his claims. (Moreover, the claims in question were borrowed by Rothbard from 19th century anarchists like Lysander Spooner, so even where Rothbard is philosophically interesting he isn’t original.)”
Lila: He also borrowed from Rand, indeed, plagiarized her theory of volition, it is said, as well as a dissertation by a student, Barbara Branden. Which might explain why some Rothbardians feel the need to attack Ayn Rand all the time, usually without seeming to have read her very well. It is another way the modern libertarian movement panders to the left – by adopting its superficial reading of Rand, who, while flawed, is a giant next to most of her critics.
Feser goes on to deconstruct Rothbard’s arguments about self-ownership:
“Here, then, is the example. It is Rothbard’s main argument for the thesis of self-ownership, which is, as I have indicated, the very foundation of his moral and political philosophy, without which his moral case against taxation and government totally collapses.
I know of at least three places where he presents it (there may be others): in his book For a New Liberty (first published 1973, revised 1978); in his essay “Justice and Property Rights” (first published 1974, reprinted in his anthology Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays, 2nd edition); and in his main work on moral and political philosophy, The Ethics of Liberty (1982, revised edition published in 1998). In the revised edition of For a New Liberty, the argument begins as follows:
“Since each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation. Consider, too, the consequences of denying each man the right to own his own person. There are then only two alternatives: either (1) a certain class of people, A, have the right to own another class, B; or (2) everyone has the right to own his own equal quotal share of everyone else. The first alternative implies that while Class A deserves the rights of being human, Class B is in reality subhuman and therefore deserves no such rights. But since they are indeed human beings, the first alternative contradicts itself in denying natural human rights to one set of humans. Moreover, as we shall see, allowing Class A to own Class B means that the former is allowed to exploit, and therefore to live parasitically, at the expense of the latter. But this parasitism itself violates the basic economic requirement for life: production and exchange.” (pp. 28-29)
The rest of the argument attempts to rule out alternative (2) and has its own problems, but I won’t bother with it because the passage quoted is enough for my purposes.
I think this argument is a very bad one; indeed, I think that to anyone with any philosophical training it will be quite obvious that it is bad. And not only is it bad, but given that Rothbard says nothing more in defense of the claims made in this passage (apart from trying to rule out alternative (2)), I think it is clear that the argument fails to be even minimally respectable in the sense described above. I suspect that most readers can immediately see at least some of the problems with it. Here are the ones that occur to me:
1. Even if it were true that “each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish” and that “the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation,” it just doesn’t follow that anyone has a right to self-ownership. For all Rothbard has shown, we might also be able to think, learn, value, etc. even if we didn’t have any rights at all. (That X could get us Z doesn’t show that Y wouldn’t get it for us too.) Or we might need some rights in order to do these things, but not all the rights entailed by the principle of self-ownership. Or we might really need all the rights entailed by self-ownership, but nevertheless just not have them. After all, the fact that you need something doesn’t entail that you have it, and (as libertarians themselves never tire of pointing out), it certainly doesn’t entail that you have a right to it. For example, wild animals need food to survive, but it doesn’t follow that they have a right to it (indeed, Rothbard himself explicitly denies that animals can have any rights).
Furthermore, why should we grant in the first place that “each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish”? Children survive and flourish very well without choosing most of their means and ends. Some adults are quite happy to let others (parents, a spouse, government officials) choose at least some of their means and ends for them. Many physically or mentally ill people couldn’t possibly survive or flourish unless others chose their means and ends for them. Even a slave or serf could obviously survive and even flourish if his master or lord was of the less brutal sort. And so forth. And if surviving and flourishing are what ground our rights, how could we have a right to suicide or to do anything contrary to our flourishing, as libertarian defenders of the thesis of self-ownership say we do?
Also, why should we grant that respect for each individual’s self-ownership really would ensure every individual’s ability to choose his means and ends, etc.? A leftist might argue that respect for self-ownership would benefit some but leave a great many others destitute and bereft of any interesting range of means or ends to choose from.
Of course, there might be some way a Rothbardian could reply to these objections; I certainly don’t find all of them compelling. But the point is that they are obvious objections to make, and yet Rothbard doesn’t even consider them, much less answer them. Even a brief acknowledgement of some of these objections and a gesture in the direction of a possible reply might have been enough to make the argument minimally respectable, but Rothbard fails to provide even this.
2. The claim that there are “only two alternatives” to denying the thesis of self-ownership is just obviously false. Here are some further alternatives that Rothbard fails to consider:
(a) no one owns anyone, including himself
(b) God owns all of us
(c) one class of people has a right to only partial ownership of another class (e.g. the former class has a right to the labor of the latter class, but may not kill members of the latter class, or refuse to provide for their sustenance, or forbid them from marrying, etc.)
(d) everyone has partial and/or unequal ownership of everyone else (e.g. everyone has an absolute right to bodily integrity, but not to the fruits of his labor, which are commonly owned; or everyone has an absolute right to bodily integrity, and an absolute right only to some percentage of the fruits of his labor, with the rest being commonly owned; or everyone has a presumptive right to bodily integrity, which might be overridden in extreme cases, with a right to a percentage of the fruits of his labor; or the weak and untalented have an absolute right to bodily integrity and to a large percentage of, though not all of, the fruits of their labor while the strong and talented have an absolute right to bodily integrity and to a much smaller percentage of the fruits of their labor; or the strong and talented, unlike the weak and untalented, have only a presumptive right to bodily integrity, which might be overridden if someone desperately needs an organ transplant; and so on and so forth).
Alternative (b) was defended by Locke (for whom talk of self-ownership was really just a kind of shorthand for our stewardship of ourselves before God) and it would also have been endorsed by natural law theorists in the Thomistic tradition. Rothbard explicitly cites both Locke on self-ownership and the Thomistic natural law tradition, so this alternative should have been obvious to him, and yet he fails even to consider it.
Lila: Chesterton has an excellent essay about the uses of the word “own,” but I think anyone with common sense can understand that the meaning of ownership itself varies with the context.
That Rothbard is not reflective about language – a lack of reflection pervasive among certain kinds of libertarians – is immediately apparent to any reader with the slightest acquaintance with modern literature, let alone semiotics or philosophy.
“Alternative (c) was the standard view taken by defenders of slavery, most of whom would not have endorsed the unqualified ownership of other people implied by Rothbard’s alternative (1). One would think that Rothbard, who fancied himself a historian of ideas, would be aware of this, and yet here again he simply ignores what should have been another obvious possible alternative.
Some version or other of alternative (d) is arguably implicit in the views of many leftists, very few of whom (if any) would really claim that all of us have equal quotal ownership of each other. At the very least, a minimally charitable reading of left-wing arguments about taxation and redistribution would acknowledge that this, rather than Rothbard’s alternative (2), might be what egalitarian leftists are committed to. But Rothbard fails even to consider the possibility. He suggests (later on in the argument, after the passage quoted above) that “communist” ownership by everyone of everyone would entail that no one could take any action whatsoever without the permission of everyone else, but while this might be true under option (2), it would not be true under the less extreme egalitarian possibilities enshrined in (d).
Alternative (a) is one that Rothbard finally did consider – almost a decade after first giving the argument and after once again ignoring this alternative when repeating the argument in “Justice and Property Rights” – in a brief footnote in The Ethics of Liberty. (He attributes it to George Mavrodes, apart from whom, apparently, Rothbard might never have seen the obvious.) Rothbard’s reply to it is to say that “since ownership signifies range of control, this [i.e. no one’s owning anyone, including himself] would mean that no one would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly vanish.”
But the badness of this argument should also be obvious. While having ownership of something does imply having a range of control over it, having a range of control over it doesn’t imply ownership. I have a certain “range of control” over my neighbor’s flower bed – he couldn’t stop me if I walked over right now and pulled some flowers out of it – but it doesn’t follow that I own it. Animals have a range of control over their environment, but since ownership is a moral category implying the having of certain rights, and animals (by Rothbard’s own admission) have no rights, it follows that they have no ownership of anything. And of course, their lack of ownership of anything hasn’t caused animals as a whole to “vanish,” “quickly” or otherwise, which makes evident the absurdity of Rothbard’s claim that alternative (a) would entail the extinction of the human race.
3. Alternative (1) just obviously doesn’t imply that the members of class B are “subhuman.” Not all defenders of slavery have denied that slaves are fully human; their view is just that some human beings can justly be owned by other ones. Rothbard’s assertion that this “contradicts itself in denying natural human rights to one set of humans” is just blatantly question-begging, since what is at issue is precisely whether there are any natural human rights that might rule out slavery.
4. Rothbard’s claim that the “parasitism” entailed by alternative (1) “violates the basic economic requirement for life: production and exchange” is also just obviously false. Animals do not engage in “production and exchange,” certainly not in the laissez-faire economics sense intended by Rothbard, but they are obviously alive.
In this one brief passage, then, Rothbard commits a host of fallacies and fails even to acknowledge, much less answer, a number of obvious objections that might be raised against his argument. Nor is this some peripheral argument, which might be written off as an uncharacteristic lapse. It served as the foundation of his entire moral and political theory, and was repeated several ti”mes over the course of a decade virtually unaltered. And if things are this bad in the very foundations of his moral and political theory, you can imagine how bad the rest of his philosophical arguments are.”
I would also add that Rothbard’s weaknesses as a thinker are replicated in some of his most fervent acolytes, who substitute sound and fury for depth of reasoning and seem to think incorrect thinking becomes better the more violently it is articulated.
This is not a criticism of libertarianism as such. A term broad enough to embrace everyone from Tolstoy to Milton Friedman can hardly be criticized as one. “Libertarianism” cannot be considered a singular movement, however much, for political or marketing reasons, some anarcho-capitalists might try to drag someone like Tolstoy into their fold.
Tolstoy was a libertarian in the way Gandhi was. Profoundly anti-capitalistic. They both believed in voluntary poverty and simplicity and abhorred the complexity of modern life. I doubt either would relish becoming the mascot of the Mises or Bastiat Institutes. To try to ride their reputations for the sake of broadening one’s appeal is intellectually disingenuous.
So I have profound differences with American-style libertarianism (of the LRC type or of the Reason Magazine type), while supporting LRC’s antiwar and anti-police state positions.
Another point. In things of which I know something, I can clearly spot the flaws and limitations of Rothbard’s arguments, which makes me think that in areas in which I am uncertain, he must be flawed too.
Anyway, Feser’s points don’t need any great acquaintance with Rothbard’s economic reasoning to follow. They are points that have occurred to me on and off, as I’ve read the great (?) man.
But frankly, my increasing disinterest in Rothbard has grown from more intuitive roots.
First, there is something cocky, smug, and shallow in the writing itself….despite its superficial good humor and sense.
Then, there are the stories of plagiarism – something which intensely prejudices me against a writer. And there are his attacks on writers many would consider his superior, like Ayn Rand and Adam Smith. I wonder how much of envy lay behind all that.
On the many people whom he knew and taught, he seems to have had a profound influence, which speaks well of him. But I haven’t had the pleasure of knowing him personally, so my judgement must be from what I read of him.
And from reading him, and reading of him, I get the picture of a shallow, bright, abrasive man, who thought very highly of himself, yet plagiarized often, and covered up the lack of originality by attacking others, attacks that his followers continue, see here,
as well as here.
[Rand was the most famous instance of Rothbard’s plagiarism. But he also borrowed from Spooner, as Feser points out. And a commenter at this blog adds this:
“The first part of his book on the history of American banking drew on a report about the “Suffolk System” published by that bank, but since buried in the archives. After finding a bad microfilm copy at my university library, I paid the Adam Smith Institute to send me a good one. (I also bought one of their neckties.) Rothbard plagiarized heavily from the original Suffolk Banking System and, worse, projected his own anarchist opinions on the facts of history. As a criminologist, I am fully sympathetic to a free market in protection and adjudication, but the fact is that the Suffolk System was not destroyed by the evil machinations of Salmon P. Chase’s Treasury Department.”
So, if Rand has her flaws (and she does), Rothbard has his, analyzed at length in this piece by G. Stolyarov.
Meanwhile, in general power of reasoning, insight into the psychology of the modern mind, and overall influence, frankly, Rothbard cannot hold a candle to Rand, whatever powers he might have as a historian or economist.
There is a reason that the left attacks her, not him.