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]

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