Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Horror of Rothbardian Natural Rights

Murray Rothbard adopted a natural rights ethics to justify his system of anarcho-capitalism. I have already written a post here showing the logical foundations of his ethical system are incoherent and unconvincing.

John Maynard Keynes once wrote of Hayek’s book Prices and Production:
“The book, as it stands, seems to me to be one of the most frightful muddles I have ever read, with scarcely a sound proposition in it beginning with page 45 … It is an extraordinary example of how, starting with a mistake, a remorseless logician can end up in Bedlam.” (Keynes 1931: 394).
With the requisite changes, one can say that same thing about Rothbard’s ethical theory.

When judged by the standards of most other ethical theories (whose starting propositions and arguments are at least not so obviously false as natural rights), the logic of Rothbard’s theory takes him to conclusions that can only be described as moral insanity.

This can be illustrated in Rothbard’s argument for why parents should actually have the legal right not to feed their children and even kill them by starvation or neglect:
“Suppose now that the baby has been born. Then what? First, we may say that the parents-or rather the mother, who is the only certain and visible parent-as the creators of the baby become its owners. A newborn baby cannot be an existent self-owner in any sense. Therefore, either the mother or some other party or parties may be the baby’s owner, but to assert that a third party can claim his ‘ownership’ over the baby would give that person the right to seize the baby by force from its natural or ‘homesteading’ owner, its mother. The mother, then, is the natural and rightful owner of the baby, and any attempt to seize the baby by force is an invasion of her property right.

But surely the mother or parents may not receive the ownership of the child in absolute fee simple, because that would imply the bizarre state of affairs that a fifty-year old adult would be subject to the absolute and unquestioned jurisdiction of his seventy-year-old parent. So the parental property right must be limited in time. But it also must be limited in kind, for it surely would be grotesque for a libertarian who believes in the right of self-ownership to advocate the right of a parent to murder or torture his or her children. We must therefore state that, even from birth, the parental ownership is not absolute but of a ‘trustee’ or guardianship kind. In short, every baby as soon as it is born and is therefore no longer contained within his
mother’s body possesses the right of self-ownership by virtue of being a separate entity and a potential adult. It must therefore be illegal and a violation of the child’s rights for a parent to aggress against his person by mutilating, torturing, murdering him, etc. On the other hand, the very concept of ‘rights’ is a ‘negative’ one, demarcating the areas of a person’s action that no man may properly interfere with. No man can therefore have a ‘right’ to compel someone to do a positive act, for in that case the compulsion violates the right of person or property of the individual being coerced. Thus, we may say that a man has a right to his property (i.e., a right not to have his property invaded), but we cannot say that anyone has a ‘right’ to a ‘living wage,’ for that would mean that someone would be coerced into providing him with such a wage, and that would violate the property rights of the people being coerced. As a corollary this means that, in the free society, no man may be saddled with the legal obligation to do anything for another, since that would invade the former’s rights; the only legal obligation one man has to another is to respect the other man’s rights.

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. (Again, whether or not a parent has a moral rather than a legally enforceable obligation to keep his child alive is a completely separate question.) This rule allows us to solve such vexing questions as: should a parent have the right to allow a deformed baby to die (e.g. by not feeding it)? The answer is of course yes, following a fortiori from the larger right to allow any baby, whether deformed or not, to die. (Though, as we shall see below, in a libertarian society the existence of a free baby market will bring such ‘neglect’ down to a minimum.)” (Rothbard 1998: 99–101).
Even as it stands the argument is blatantly unsound:
(1) Rothbard contradicts himself by asserting that a newborn “cannot be an existent self-owner in any sense,” yet arguing in the very next paragraph that every newborn “is therefore no longer contained within his mother’s body possesses the right of self-ownership by virtue of being a separate entity and a potential adult.” Thus the parents’ “ownership is not absolute.” It beggars belief that Rothbard can accept that no child can be killed by active attack, but at the same time can be killed by passive neglect.

(2) According to Rothbard, even though the parents “own” their children in some limited way, they have the legal right to not feed it, and hence kill it by starvation. Rothbard attempts to justify this by appealing to negative rights:
“the very concept of ‘rights’ is a ‘negative’ one, demarcating the areas of a person’s action that no man may properly interfere with. No man can therefore have a ‘right’ to compel someone to do a positive act, for in that case the compulsion violates the right of person or property of the individual being coerced. Thus, we may say that a man has a right to his property (i.e., a right not to have his property invaded), but we cannot say that anyone has a ‘right’ to a ‘living wage,’ for that would mean that someone would be coerced into providing him with such a wage, and that would violate the property rights of the people being coerced. As a corollary this means that, in the free society, no man may be saddled with the legal obligation to do anything for another, since that would invade the former's rights; the only legal obligation one man has to another is to respect the other man’s rights.”
Yet this argument blatantly contradicts Rothbard’s argument elsewhere that creation of fiduciary media (debt money such as fractional reserve banknotes) and use of this as money is not moral, because others suffer the effects of inflation and loss of purchasing power. Yet private transactions in which parties freely and voluntary create and use debt money must be regarded as moral by Rothbard’s own argument here: whatever effects free transactions using debt money have on others’ through inflation is not an argument for banning debt money, for “no man may be saddled with the legal obligation to do anything for another, since that would invade the former’s rights.” Thus Rothbard’s contention that only negative rights must be respected is not even a consistent position in his own work.
It is quite apparent that the Rothbardian moral world is a grotesque, vile and cruel landscape, affording no protection to the most helpless human beings from irresponsible parents. This is a world where parents who are mentally ill, psychopathic or pathologically cruel can kill their children at will, albeit passively by withdrawal of care.

It also raises other issues: if parents have a legal right to withhold food from a newborn child in Rothbard’s mad world, then what about a crippled adult child? If my 40 year old son is a quadriplegic, lives with me and is dependent on me, with no other person to support him, do I as a parent have the legal right to kill him by withholding food or care? Even when he is capable of clearly saying he does not wish to die? If not, why not?

Logically, it appears Rothbard is equally committed to the legal right of parents to kill mentally or physically disabled adult children as well: and, at that point, Rothbard’s world would allow “private sector” groups of humans who, as in Nazi Germany, practise euthanasia of the disabled, even when the disabled vehemently object to being killed.

For most people this is proof enough of the moral bankruptcy both of Rothbard and his natural rights theory, and it is difficult not to agree. (I also direct readers to a fine article by Gene Callahan called “Liberty versus Libertarianism” [2012] that discusses this passage on pp. 8–9.)

As Keynes said of Hayek, one could also say that this is also a perfect example of how Rothbard, starting with flawed assumptions, himself ends up in utter Bedlam.

UPDATE
I also recommend another post on this blog on Rothbard’s family ethics:
“Libertarian Ethics in a Family Way,” February 24, 2012.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Callahan, G. 2012. “Liberty versus Libertarianism,” Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (published online before print February 5, 2012): 1–20.

Keynes, J. M. 1931. “The Pure Theory of Money. A Reply to Dr. Hayek,” Economica 34 (November): 387–397.

Rothbard, M. N. 1998. The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, New York, N.Y. and London.

27 comments:

  1. You should definitely read Gene's relatively recent article in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics.

    He goes through not just Rothbard but a number of other natural rights libertarians on these sorts of points.

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    1. I have read it, and updated the post.

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  2. My favorite part of Rothbardian ethics is the belief in self ownership...Which is a weird concept, for this makes the person his/her own owner and property at the same time.

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  3. I agree with you on Rothbard's grotesque ethics.

    My guess is that only a tiny fraction of Austrain's follow Rothbard on this.

    Mises was a utilitarian and I would be interested in your view on that.

    see:

    http://mises.org/daily/5683

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  4. I have written on Mises's utilitarianism:

    http://socialdemocracy21stcentury.blogspot.com/2010/10/was-mises-socialist-why-mises-refutes.html

    http://socialdemocracy21stcentury.blogspot.com/2010/10/rothbard-on-mises-utilitarianism-why.html

    http://socialdemocracy21stcentury.blogspot.com/2011/09/mises-on-utilitarianism.html

    http://socialdemocracy21stcentury.blogspot.com/2012/01/government-is-not-inherently-evil.html

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  5. "Yet this argument blatantly contradicts Rothbard’s argument elsewhere that creation of fiduciary media (debt money such as fractional reserve banknotes) and use of this as money is not moral, because others suffer the effects of inflation and loss of purchasing power. Yet private transactions in which parties freely and voluntary create and use debt money must be regarded as moral by Rothbard’s own argument here: whatever effects free transactions using debt money have on others’ through inflation is not an argument for banning debt money, for “no man may be saddled with the legal obligation to do anything for another, since that would invade the former’s rights.” Thus Rothbard’s contention that only negative rights must be respected is not even a consistent position in his own work."

    Uh, not saying I agree with his legal/moral theory, but Rothbard said FRB is wrong not because it causes inflation and a loss of purchasing power to certain groups in society, but that it constitutes as fraud/embezzlement and therefore is a coercive burden on society (don't agree with this). Inflation and a loss of purchasing power are only morally wrong to the extent that they were imposed by a coercive entity in Rothbard's society (in Rothbard's view). Gold inflows in a country cause a rise in prices, but Rothbard does not consider those morally wrong (nor economically bad).

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    1. I'm well aware that the primary justification given by Rothbard against FRB is that it is supposedly fraudulent.

      But I maintain that there are passages in Rothbard's writings where he strongly implies that the externality of inflation - robbing people's money of purchasing power - makes money supply expansion via debt money immoral as well.

      I'll supply some passages when I have time.

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    2. Yes, but in his framework that is only a problem to the.extent it comes from "fradulent" fiduciary media if government fiat money. Rothbard was in favor of privately competing monies, not freezing the money stock.

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    3. Give me a chapter and verse citation of Rothbard saying he is "in favor of privately competing monies".

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    4. And I am assuming that by "privately competing monies" you mean private debt money akin to FR banknotes or bills of exchange, not gold/commodity money.

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    5. No, I'm saying what Rothbard considers privately competing monies-100 percent reserves. Rothbard did favor free banking over government intervention. I'm not agreeing with him, all I'm saying is he did not believe FRB was immoral because it caused prices to rise, he thought it constituted intervention in the market. The rise and prices and redistribution of wealth is wrong in his view insofar as it was causes by coercion.

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    6. (1) First, your initial 2 statements are confused.

      If Rothbard was referring to 100 percent reserve currencies, that makes him an advocate of commodity money only.

      (2) "The rise and prices and redistribution of wealth is wrong in his view insofar as it was causes by coercion."

      The free and voluntary creation of debt money in private transactions by private agents is not coercive and that is what I am referring to above: in order to argue that the externality of price inflation caused by private debt money creation justifies abolition of debt money, Rothbard violates his own maxim: “no man may be saddled with the legal obligation to do anything for another, since that would invade the former’s rights.”

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    7. Yes, I agree that those types of voluntary bills, to the extent that they are perceived by the community as money, is not fradulent. Your missing my point.

      All I'm saying that Rothbard never objected to fiduciary media because it caused inflation and a redistribution of income, he said that to the extent that it was (or he thought it was) coercive. Rothbard was never againist inflation or a redistribution of income when it was enacted by (what he considered) voluntary market decisions.

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  6. "It also raises other issues: if parents have a legal right to withhold food from a newborn child in Rothbard’s mad world, then what about a crippled adult child? If my 40 year old son is a quadriplegic, lives with me and is dependent on me, with no other person to support him, do I as a parent have the legal right to kill him by withholding food or care? Even when he is capable of clearly saying he does not wish to die? If not, why not?"

    What about non-crippled people who can't afford food or care? Someone who doesn't think we have any obligation to help such people, would of course answer yes to your question as well. As far as I know real-world (i.e. non-libertarian) laws don't make a distinction between adult dependent children and non-children either. Libertarians are more extreme than Thatcher, there is no such thing a neither society nor families, so it's every man for himself and screw the rest.

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  7. Historians a century from now will probably explain the weirder aspects of 20th Century American libertarianism as a kind of traumatic anxiety disorder caused the Bolshevik Revolution and the early accomplishments and abuses of the Soviet regime. If we didn't have the Soviet Union as an example of a radically different way to organize society which many Americans, along with immigrants like Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises, saw as a horrific Opposite World, would they have felt the need to contrive such bad arguments in the effort to create a world allegedly oriented the right way?

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    1. In the case of Ayn Rand what she and her family suffered in Soviet Russia probably did affect her libertarian philosophy.

      A brief description of her early life here:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayn_Rand#Early_life

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  8. I fail to see why Rothbard is so loved in propertarian circles -- he refutes himself constantly. My favourite is when he admits the existence of economic power which he usually denies with regards capitalism.

    Discussing the abolition of slavery and serfdom in the 19th century, Rothbard argued (correctly) that the "bodies of the oppressed were freed, but the property which they had worked and eminently deserved to own, remained in the hands of their former oppressors. With economic power thus remaining in their hands, the former lords soon found themselves virtual masters once more of what were now free tenants or farm labourers. The serfs and slaves had tasted freedom, but had been cruelly derived of its fruits." (The Ethics of Liberty, p. 74)

    Ironically, Rothbard dismissed the existence of economic power under capitalism in the same work (pp. 221-2). Why? Because capitalism is marked by "voluntary exchange." Yet labourers dispossessed by market forces are in exactly the same social and economic situation as the ex-serfs and ex-slaves. If the latter do not have the fruits of freedom, neither do the former.

    Rothbard sees the obvious "economic power" in the latter case, but denies it in the former.

    Not to mention his opposition to the authority of the state combined with support for the authority of the property owner. At one stage he acknowledged this, thundering against the state because it "arrogates to itself a monopoly of force, of ultimate decision-making power, over a given territorial area" before admitting in an endnote that "[o]bviously, in a free society, Smith has the ultimate decision-making power over his own just property, Jones over his, etc." (p. 170 and p. 173)

    Later in the same work he points to the similarities again:

    "If the State may be said to properly own its territory, then it is proper for it to make rules for everyone who presumes to live in that area. It can legitimately seize or control private property because there is no private property in its area, because it really owns the entire land surface. So long as the State permits its subjects to leave its territory, then, it can be said to act as does any other owner who sets down rules for people living on his property." (p. 170)

    Of course, he considered property to be "justly" acquired and so the authority of the property owner is fine. Although as he admitted with regards to the ex-slaves and ex-serfs, "economic power" results the proletariat having "virtual masters."

    Compare Rothbard's confusions with the genuine libertarian tradition -- from Proudhon onwards, we have recognised that property results in both "theft" and "despotism." That is why we rejected it in favour of liberty.

    I discuss this further in this article: An Anarchist Critique of Anarcho-Statism

    Iain
    An Anarchist FAQ

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  9. I wrote a post examining Rothbard's family ethics in light of the NAP and Susan Okin's critique of Nozick a while back: http://herrnaphta.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/libertarian-ethics-in-a-family-way/

    The Keynes quote is fun, but Rothbard is no remorseless logician. Throughout the Ethics of Liberty, he is constantly making appeals to considered judgments, even though he acts like everything is straight deduction. An utterly ridiculous book.

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    1. That is an excellent post. I have linked to it above in an update.

      Thanks.

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  10. While reading Robert Zubrin's book Merchants of Despair, it occurred to me that he needed to include Austrian economists in his rogues' gallary of Malthusian and eugenicist antihumanists. For example, on p. 19 Zubrin describes British Malthusian policies in India which led to a horrific famine there in the 1870's Zubrin includes the British imposition of the gold standard on India as one of the causes. (Apparently the British rulers declined to provide famine relief to their own subjects because they feared it would debase their money or something.)

    But Zubrin doesn't develop the idea that the gold standard serves as a tool of enforcing Malthusian policies to get rid of excess people by constraining the money supply. Austrian economists who worship gold don't want to argue for this idea explicitly. Instead they apply Malthusian and eugenicist metaphors to attack the fiat money system as a proxy for attacking a surplus of defective people: We have an overpopulation of fiat money, it has become "debased," and we need to destroy it in favor of a finite stock of "sound money" based on gold so that the human population which survives can stay within the gold supply's carrying capacity.

    Perhaps that could explain Rothbard's horrific view of child ownership. He knew on some level that the imposition of the Austrian Just Economy based on the gold standard would result in Malthusian conditions, so he created the right to starve your own children to death because he recognized that many adults under his system might not have the ability to earn enough gold in exchange for their labor to keep both themselves and their children alive.

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    1. I have to say I don't think Austrians adhere to the gold standard because they favour Malthusian policies.

      But the British-induced famines in India in the late 19th century were real and horrific crimes, caused by their deluded laissez faire and free trade mentality.

      See Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, Verso, London, 2001.

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    2. You might want to reconsider this, Lord Keynes. Even if Austrian economists disavow Malthusian goals, the enactment of the Austrian Just Economy could have that effect by, for example, starving the farm economy of the credit necessary to maintain current levels of food production because banks would no longer have the ability to practice fractional reserve lending.

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  11. This was a man who despised public education, saying it put the "ineducable masses" towards an institution which sedated them and did not interest them.

    He favored abortion but used an argument that pro-choice advocates would reject completely: he viewed the fetus as an invader of the woman's property, and that no one had a right to live as a "parasite within or upon some person's body."

    He saw poverty in minority communities as being due not to issues of race and prejudice but due to "those very parasitic values of idleness and irresponsibility" found in those communities.

    Once a child is born, Rothbard saw them as the absolute property of the parents. Short of killing or maiming/injuring them, parents could do what they wished with their kids, even sell them.

    Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty (New York: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1978)

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  12. Rothbard and his followers dont seem to care so much about either philoposophy or economics,i think it is mostly about this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSeoxXDSU0g
    if on put away their nonscencical pseudo scientific language.But there are a cure for that, as everyone could see here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLA3_xch478&feature=relmfu

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  13. I think you conveniently ignore the previous paragraph where Rothbard uses the same standards of self ownership and rights to advocate abortion rights. He logically carries on from one to the next.

    I disagree with him on both points, but he essentially uses the same argument that liberals use to defend abortion, he just carries it on logically.

    And you can't attack Rothbard's moral position if he considers immoral not to feed your children.

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  14. Just reading this article made me want to hop into a shower. More than ever, I realize why I always have found Rothbard anathema to my better instincts.

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  15. In ancient Rome, parents DID have absolute property rights over their minor children. Not a nice time to be a young person with nasty parents. If we want to revert to attitudes of that era, we will have to have gladiators fighting to the death, slaves and free bread for the plebs.

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