Criticism of Murray Rothbard and Natural Rights (2)

David Ritchie in his book Natural Rights: A Criticism of Some Political and Ethical Conceptions, 2d ed. 1903, on p. 65,  gives the following description of one kind of anarchism, which he identifies with the French Radicals associated with the French Revolution of 1789.  I see no difference between this description and that of Murray Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism.

“Anarchists are of three kinds. First of all, there is the old-fashioned Radical who repeats the revolutionary creed of 1789 in changed times, to whom an association called a government is an object of suspicion, whilst an association called a joint-stock company is an object of admiration. This old-fashioned Radical does not think himself a survival, but imagines that
he has the verdict of the newest science on his side.  He would abolish legislation, but would leave the judicial functions of government to enforce what he calls natural rights, but what are really the legal and customary rights resulting  from ancient legislation or want of legislation. He professes to give every one a fair start, but does not notice that the runners are unequally weighted. He calls himself an individualist, and is only a half-hearted Anarchist. His anarchy is anarchy based on the existing economic structure of society.  He believes in Nature, but forgets that it is a Nature that has been operating for ages among human beings. Nature to him really means human society under a completely triumphant  “Manchester School.” He would contribute to the amelioration of the species by abolishing all sanitary legislation, but would perhaps leave the tender-hearted private philanthropist a free hand in encouraging the propagation of beggars in order to give scope to his altruistic sentiments.”

Criticism of Murray Rothbard and Natural Rights

Let me start off by saying something about the phenomenon of the so-called “reinventing the wheel.” Sometimes people come up with old ideas (claims and theories) as if they created them.  (I am talking about ideas which have been published previously.) Now there are two ways of relating to previously published materials: either the person does not know of the previous publications, or he does. If he does, then he should give credit; otherwise, he is a plagiarist and a fraud. If, on the other hand, he does not know of the previous publication, then he is not a scholar — though he may be an original thinker. And scholarship — as I am too much aware — comes in degrees. (There is just too much being published.)

What is prompting me to think about this is the debate between Peter Joseph and Stefan Molyneux on capitalism.  Molyneux is in the business of making a buck on the Internet as a self-proclaimed philosopher who claims to be an abyss of wisdom. In other words, he is posturing as if he has invented the wheel. And boastfully he characterizes himself as being, among other things, an anarcho-capitalist.

Because of the apparent popularity of anarcho-capitalism, I am interested is assessing  its merits; so I will turn my attention to the writer who came up with this label in the first place: Murray Rothbard.

I will limit my focus on the beginning chapters of his Ethics of Liberty (1982) where he lays down the foundations, or as Hans-Hermann Hoppe, in his introduction (1998), wants to put it, the axioms of anarcho-capitalism.

Incidentally, there is a trivial sense of axiom in which any claim which is not derived from any other claim in a piece of writing is an “axiom.” If, however, this so-called axiom can be derived from some other claim not made by the author, then it is not an axiom. “Axiom” is then a relative notion within some system of claims.

As one begins to read Rothbard’s book, it is explicitly acknowledged by Rothbard that he is squarely in the Natural Rights tradition.

Rothbard, however, is definitely not a dialectical thinker. By a “dialectical thinker” I mean someone who will discuss alternative hypotheses and criticisms of the view he is defending. These alternatives and criticisms he can cull from published materials or through the consideration of possible alternatives. Such a procedure was used by Aristotle, by Abelard in Sic et Non, and by Thomas Aquainas.  Mortimer J. Adler recounts how he
discovered and was impressed by this approach in reading the Summa Theologica of Aquinas, where alternatives and criticisms are taken stock of and answered.

However, when we look at Murray Rothbard’s approach, we find at work what may be called Appeal to Authority. A claim is advanced and then a roster of famous authors is drawn up which supports the claim. This is not a dialectical examination. It is fine to cite and use the arguments of others for a claim. In that way the claim can be formulated in its best light. But the dialectical author will then want to summon the best critics of this claim, and answer the critic, like did Aquinas.

Rothbard is working from a natural rights perspective, which seems to culminate for him in John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.

As to dialectics, i.e., taking stock of alternatives and answering criticisms, Rothbard’s approach is best described as composed of straw man and red herring tactics.

Why do I say this? First, because the only opponent which he deals with is called by him “Positivism.” He understands positivism to consist of the claim that all meaningful statements are either analytic or empirical; metaphysical claims are meaningless, while ethical claims express emotions.

Second, he cites Hannah Arendt, out of context, as a representative of “scientific philosophy”, to the effect that there is no human nature. Now, even if he were correct about Arendt — which he isn’t — to use one example of a philosopher to condemn a generation of philosophers is a very serious hasty generalization.

Not only is Murray Rothbard not a dialectical philosopher, but he is not even a respectable scholar. Why do I say this?

If I were to write about natural rights, I would look for some critical literature on this topic. And I don’t know how it is possible for a scholar to miss David Ritchie’s book Natural Rights: A Criticism of Some Political and Ethical Conceptions, 2d ed. 1903. This is both a very scholarly book (full of references to previous scholarship) and a dialectical treatment — taking into account alternatives and criticisms.

As to more recent work, how could he miss Margaret Macdonald’s “Natural Rights,” (1946-47)?

A more serious scholarship should have included George Henrik von Wright’s “Deontic Logic” (1951), and his subsequent expansion of his ideas in Norm and Action and in The Varieties of Goodness (1963).

The conclusion all these writers reach is that talk of rights makes sense only in a social context. [“But the rights, in any case, are
determined by a society, and do not exist prior to the society.”  David Ritchie, Natural Rights, p. 267]. Rights are either granted by some authorities, or are agreed to by some group.  Rothbard’s alleged two property rights of self-ownership and homestead rights, and the non-aggression principles, are all a matter of decisions between people. What this means is that one can opt for or prescribe such rights, but without an agreement or coercion from others, these prescriptions are powerless.

[to be continued]

A documentary of how an American lived for 6 weeks in a Ukrainian village

Peter Santenello, an American from San Francisco with limited Russian language skills, moves in with a local family in the village of Osypenko near the city of Berdyansk near the Sea of Azov in Ukraine. From one perspective, this shows how one can live on a homestead as an alternative to living on welfare, as in the United States.

Andrew Chrucky’s speech at the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument, Forest Home Cemetery (Waldheim), Forest Park, IL — May 1, 2018

Transcript of Andrew Chrucky’s speech:

First of all, as I was riding here … anyway, I became an anarchist somewhere in 2000. The rest of my life I have been in philosophy, studying epistemology and logic … until it hit me in 2000, roughly. . . . Anyway, as I was biking over here I was thinking about what is the significance of this? … Well, when I woke up this morning I said, shit it’s May 1st, its the labor day for the whole world, and this is the greatest monument … this is the Mecca of the laboring people of the world. This is it, its like the Muslim Mecca. So, I said, what does this mean? I felt like it was like Easter for Christians. Why Easter? Well, I was talking with a fellow here and he said it was like Christmas for him. Well I said, Christmas was when Christ was born, and there is a promise of things to come. But Easter is the big event. Easter is the promise of heaven, of resurrection. Well, perhaps these people are buried here and they are dead, but their spirit has resurrected . . . it spread all over the world, so in a sense this to me is Easter.

Here we are.  I was listening to you talking about and thinking about workers.  And I want to talk to you about capitalism. What is the definition of capitalism? There is a movement called anarcho-capitalism. It is bullshit. I’ll tell you why its bullshit. They think that capitalism is free trade. Well, free trade is just barter. It always existed. It existed under slavery, it existed under feudalism. What is unique to capitalism is what came after the French Revolution. It came after the end of feudalism, at the end of slavery. But what happened? Well, you had wage workers, you had wage-slaves. You had to work because what was the alternative? The alternative was starvation, or being homeless, going around looking in garbage for food. Now, why is that? Why if you don’t work you don’t have food, you don’t have shelter? Well, it’s a simple thing: you don’t have access to land. You cannot grow your own food. All land is privatized. You cannot be a free man if you do not have access to land. This has been recognized throughout history. It was recognized in Roman times…you have a problem of people not having access to land. You had the Mexican Revolution … what was their slogan? Tierra y libertad. Tierra is land. After that you had the Russian Revolution in 1917. What do you think their slogan was? Zemlia y volia, which translates into land and freedom. They were fighting for land. Then in 1936 to 1939 you had the Spanish Civil War. What do you think their slogan was? [Someone in the audience says “Tierra y libertad”] Tierra y libertad! It’s all about land. Capitalism cannot exist if people have access to free land. All these other definitions of capitalism make so sense. They say its free trade. No. Free trade has always existed. If you don’t have free access to land, then you have to sell yourself. All right. Glory to the anarchist Easter!