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Advancing the scholarship of liberty in the tradition of the Austrian School

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By Hans-Hermann Hoppe

IN AN AGE OF intellectual hyperspecialization, Murray N. Rothbard was a grand system builder. An economist by profession, Rothbard was the creator of a system of social and political philosophy based on economics and ethics as its cornerstones. For centuries, economics and ethics (political philosophy) had diverged from their common origin into seemingly unrelated intellectual enterprises. Economics was a value-free "positive" science, and ethics (if it was a science at all) was a "normative" science. As a result of this separation, the concept of property had increasingly disappeared from both disciplines. For economists, property sounded too normative, and for political philosophers property smacked of mundane economics. Rothbard's unique contribution is the rediscovery of and philosophy, and the systematic reconstruction and conceptual integration of modern, marginalist economics and natural-law political philosophy into a unified moral science: libertarianism.

     Following his revered teacher and mentor, Ludwig von Mises, teachers Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk and Carl Menger, and an intellectual tradition reaching back to the Spanish late-Scholastics and beyond, Rothbardian economics sets out from a simple and undeniable fact and experience (a single indisputable axiom): that man acts, that humans always and invariably pursue their most highly valued ends (goals) with scarce means (goods). Combined with a few empirical assumptions (such as that labor implies disutility), all of economic theory can be deduced from this incontestable starting point, thereby elevating its propositions to the status of apodictic, exact, or a priori true empirical laws and establishing economics as a logic of action (praxeology). Rothbard modeled his first magnum opus, Man, Economy, and State [1] on Mises's monumental Human Action.[2] In it, Rothbard developed the entire body of economic theory—from utility theory and the law of marginal utility to monetary theory and the theory of the business cycle—along praxeological lines, subjecting all variants of quantitative-empirical and mathematical economics to critique and logical refutation, and repairing the few remaining inconsistencies in the Misesian system (such as his theory of monopoly prices and of government and governmental security production). Rothbard was the first to present the complete case for a pure-market economy or private-property anarchism as always and necessarily optimizing social utility. In the sequel, Power and Market[3], Rothbard further developed a typology and analyzed the economic effects of every conceivable form of government interference in markets. In the meantime, Man, Economy, and State (including Power and Market as its third volume) has become a modern classic and ranks with Human Action as one of the towering achievements of the Austrian School of economics.

     Ethics, or more specifically political philosophy, is the second pillar of the Rothbardian system, strictly separated from economics, but equally grounded in the nature of man and complementing it to form a unified system of rationalist social philosophy. The Ethics Liberty, originally published in 1982, is Rothbard's second magnum opus. In it, he explains the integration of economics and ethics via the joint concept of property; and based on the concept of property, and in conjunction with a few general empirical (biological and physical) observations or assumptions, Rothbard deduces the corpus of libertarian law, from the law of appropriation to that of contracts and punishment.

     Even in the finest works of economics, including Human Action, the concept of property had attracted little attention before Rothbard burst onto the intellectual scene with Man, Economy, and State. Yet, as Rothbard pointed out, such common economic terms as direct and indirect exchange, markets and market prices, as well as aggression, invasion, crime, and fraud, cannot be defined or understood without a prior theory of property. Nor is it possible to establish the familiar economic theorems relating to these phenomena without an implied notion of property and property rights. A definition and theory of property must precede the definition and establishment of all other economic terms and theorems.[4]

     At the time when Rothbard had restored the concept of property to its central position within economics, other economists—most notably Ronald Coase, Harold Demsetz, and Alchian—also began to redirect professional attention to the subject of property and property rights. However, the response and the lessons drawn from the simultaneous rediscovery of the centrality of the idea of property by Rothbard on the one hand, and Coase, and Alchian on the other, were categorically different.

     The latter, as well as other members of the influential Chicago School of law and economics, were generally uninterested and unfamiliar with philosophy in general and political philosophy in particular. They unswervingly accepted the reigning positivistic dogma that no such thing as rational ethics is possible. Ethics was not and could not be a science, and economics was and could be a science only if and insofar as it was "positive" economics. Accordingly the rediscovery of the indispensable role of the idea of property for economic analysis could mean only that the term property had to be stripped of all normative connotations attached to it in everyday "non-scientific" discourse. As long as scarcity and hence potential interpersonal conflict exists, every society requires a well-defined set of property rights assignments. But no absolute—universally and eternally—correct and proper or false and improper way of defining or designing a set of property rights exists; and there exists no such thing as absolute rights or absolute crimes, but only alternative systems of property rights assignments describing different activities as right and wrong. Lacking any absolute ethical standards, the choice between alternative systems of property rights assignments will be made—and in cases of interpersonal conflicts should be made by government judges—based on utilitarian considerations and calculations; that is, property rights will be so assigned or reassigned that the monetary value of the output produced is thereby maximized, and in all cases of conflicting claims government judges should so assign them.

     Profoundly interested in and familiar with philosophy and the history of ideas, Rothbard recognized this response from the outset as just another variant of age-old self-contradictory ethical relativism. For in claiming ethical questions to be outside the realm of science and then predicting that property rights will be assigned in accordance with utilitarian benefit considerations or should be so assigned by government judges, one is likewise proposing an ethic. It is the ethic of statism, in one or both of two forms: either it amounts to a defense of the status quo, whatever it is, on the grounds that lastingly existing rules, norms, laws, institutions, etc., must be efficient as otherwise they would already have been abandoned; or it amounts to the proposal that conflicts be resolved and property rights be assigned by state judges according to such utilitarian calculations.

     Rothbard did not dispute the fact that property rights are and historically have been assigned in various ways, of course, or that the different ways in which they are assigned and reassigned have distinctly different economic consequences. In fact, his Power and Market is probably the most comprehensive economic analysis of alternative property rights arrangements to be found. Nor did he dispute the possibility or importance of monetary calculation and of evaluating alternative property rights arrangements in terms of money. Indeed, as an outspoken critic of socialism and as a monetary theorist, how could he? What Rothbard objected to was the argumentatively unsubstantiated acceptance, on the part of Coase and the Chicago law-and-economics tradition, of the positivistic dogma concerning the impossibility of a rational ethic (and by implication, their statism) and their unwillingness to even consider the possibility that the concept of property might in fact be an ineradicably normative concept which could provide the conceptual basis for a systematic reintegration of value-free economics and normative ethics.

     There was little to be found in modern, contemporary political philosophy that Rothbard could lean on in support of such a contention. Owing to the dominance of the positivistic creed, ethics and political philosophy had long disappeared as a "science" or else degenerated into an analysis of the semantics of normative concepts and discourse. And when political philosophy finally made a comeback in the early in the wake of John Rawls and his Theory of Justice[5], the recognition of scarcity as a fundamental human condition and of private property and private property rights as a device for coordinating the actions of individuals constrained by scarcity was conspicuously absent. Neither "property" nor "scarcity" appeared in Rawls's elaborate index, for instance, while "equality" had several dozen entries.

     In fact, Rawls, to whom the philosophy profession has in the meantime accorded the rank of the premier ethicist of our age, was the prime example of someone completely uninterested in what a human ethic must accomplish: that is, to answer the question of what I am permitted to do right now and here, given that I cannot not act as long as I am alive and awake and the means or goods which I must employ in order to do so are always scarce, such that there may be interpersonal conflicts regarding their use. Instead of answering this question, Rawls addressed an altogether different one: what rules would be agreed upon as "just" or "fair" by "parties situated behind a veil of ignorance"? Obviously, the answer to this question depends crucially on the description of the "original position" of "parties behind a veil of ignorance." How, then, was this situation defined? According to Rawls, behind the veil of ignorance "no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like. . . . It is taken for granted, however, that they know the general facts about human society. They understand political affairs and the principles of economic theory; they know the basis of social organization and the laws of human psychology."[6]

     While one would think that scarcity ranks among the general facts of society and economic theory, Rawls's parties, who supposedly knew about scarcity, were themselves strangely unaffected by this condition. In Rawls's construction of the "original position," there was no recognition of the fact that scarcity must be assumed to exist even here. Even in deliberating behind a veil of ignorance, one must still make use of scarce means—at least one's physical body and its standing room, i.e., labor and land. Even before beginning any ethical deliberation then, in order to make them possible, private or exclusive property in bodies and a principle regarding the private or exclusive appropriation of standing room must already be presupposed. In distinct contrast to this general fact of human nature, Rawls's moral "parties" were unconstrained by scarcities of any kind and hence did not qualify as actual humans but as free-floating wraiths or disembodied somnambulists. Such beings, Rawls concluded, cannot but "acknowledge as the first principle of justice one requiring an equal distribution (of all resources). Indeed, this principle is so obvious that we would expect it to occur to anyone immediately."[7] True; for if it is assumed that "moral parties" are not human actors but disembodied entities, the notion of private property must indeed appear strange. As Rawls admitted with captivating frankness, he had simply "define[d] the original position so that we get the desired result."[8] Rawls's imaginary parties had no resemblance whatsoever with human beings but were epistemological somnambulists; accordingly, his socialist-egalitarian theory of justice does not qualify as a human ethic, but something else entirely.

     If anything useful could be found in Rawls in particular and contemporary political philosophy in general, it was only the continued recognition of the age-old universalization principle contained in the so-called Golden Rule as well as in the Kantian Categorical Imperative: that all rules aspiring to the rank of just rules must be general rules, applicable and valid for everyone without exception.

Rothbard sought and found support for his contention regarding the possibility of a rational ethic and the reintegration of ethics and economics based on the notion of private property in the works of the late Scholastics and, in their footsteps, such "modern" natural-rights theorists as Grotius, Pufendorf, and Locke. Building upon their work, in The Ethics of Liberty Rothbard gives the following answer to the question of what I am justified doing here and now: every person owns his own physical body as well as all nature-given goods which he puts to use with the help of his body before anyone else does; this ownership implies his right to employ these resources as one sees fit so long as one does not thereby change the physical integrity of another's property or delimit another's control over it without his consent. In particular, once a good has been first appropriated or homesteaded by "mixing one's labor" with it (Locke's phase), then ownership of it can only be acquired by means of a voluntary (contractual) transfer of its property title from a previous to a later owner. These rights are absolute. Any infringement on them is subject to lawful prosecution by the victim of this infringement or his agent, and is actionable in accordance with the principles of strict liability and the proportionality of punishment.

     Taking his cues from the very same sources, Rothbard then offered this ultimate proof for these rules as just rules: if a person A were not the owner of his physical body and all goods originally appropriated, produced or voluntarily acquired by him, there would only exist two alternatives. Either another person, B, must then be regarded as the owner of A and the goods appropriated, produced, or contractually acquired by A, or both parties, A and B, must be regarded as equal co-owners of both bodies and goods.

     In the first case, A would be B's slave and subject to exploitation. B would own A and the goods originally appropriated, produced, or acquired by A, but A would not own B and the goods homesteaded, produced, or acquired by B. With this rule, two distinct classes of people would be created—exploiters (B) and exploited (A)—to whom different "law" would apply. Hence, this rule fails the "universalization test" and is from the outset disqualified as even a potential human ethic, for in order to be able to claim a rule to be a "law" (just), it is necessary that such a rule be universally—equally—valid for everyone.

     In the second case of universal co-ownership, the requirement of equal rights for everyone is obviously fulfilled. Yet this alternative suffers from another fatal flaw, for each activity of a person requires the employment of scarce goods (at least his body and its standing room). Yet if all goods were the collective property of everyone, then no one, at any time and in any place, could ever do anything with anything unless he had every other co-owner's prior permission to do what he wanted to do. And how can one give such a permission if one is not even the sole owner of one's very own body (and vocal chords)? If one were to follow the rule of total collective ownership, mankind would die out instantly. Whatever this is, it is not a human ethic.

     Thus, one is left with the initial principles of self-ownership and original appropriation, homesteading. They pass the universalization test—they hold for everyone equally—and they can at the same time assure the survival of mankind. They and only they are therefore non-hypothetically or absolutely true ethical rules and human rights.

     Rothbard did not claim that these fundamental principles of just conduct or proper action were new or his own discovery, of course. Equipped with near encyclopedic knowledge ranging over the entire field of the sciences of man, he knew that—at least as far as the social sciences are concerned—there is little new under the sun. In the fields of ethics and economics in particular, which form the cornerstones of the Rothbardian system and which are concerned with non-hypothetical truths, it must be expected that most of our knowledge consists of "old," long ago discovered insights. Newly discovered non-hypothetical truths, even if not impossible, should be expected to be rare intellectual events, and the newer they are, the more suspect they are. It must be expected that most non-hypothetical truths already have been discovered and learned long ago and merely need to be rediscovered and relearned by every successive generation. And it also should be expected that scientific progress in ethics and economics, in other disciplines concerned with non-hypothetical propositions and relations such as philosophy, logic, and mathematics, will usually be extremely slow and painstaking. The danger is not that a new generation of intellectuals cannot add anything new or better to the stock of knowledge inherited from the past, but rather that it will not, or only incompletely, relearn whatever knowledge already exists, and will fall into old errors instead.

     Accordingly, Rothbard saw himself in the role of a political philosopher as well as an economist essentially as a preserver and defender of old, inherited truths, and his claim to originality, like that of Mises, was one of utmost modesty. Like Mises, his achievement was to hold onto and restate long-ago established insights and repair a few errors within a fundamentally complete intellectual edifice. Yet this, as Rothbard knew well, was in fact the rarest and highest possible intellectual achievement. For, as Mises once remarked about economics which holds equally true for ethics, "there never lived at the same time more than a score of men whose work contributed anything essential to economics."[9] Rothbard was one of those rare individuals who did contribute to ethics as well as economics.

     This is illustrated in The Ethics of Liberty. All elements and principles—every concept, analytical tool, and logical procedure—of Rothbard's private-property ethic are admittedly old and familiar. Even primitives and children intuitively understand the moral validity of the principle of self-ownership and original appropriation. And indeed, the list of Rothbard's acknowledged intellectual predecessors goes back to antiquity. Yet, it is difficult to find anyone who has stated a theory with greater ease and clarity than Rothbard. More importantly, due to the sharpened methodological awareness derived from his intimate familiarity with the logical, axiomatic-deductive method, Rothbard was able to provide more rigorous proof of the moral intuitions of self-ownership and original appropriation as ultimate ethical principles or "axioms," and develop a more systematic, comprehensive, and consistent ethical doctrine or law code than anyone before him. Hence, The Ethics of Liberty represents a close realization of the age-old desideratum of rationalist philosophy of providing mankind with an ethic which, as Hugo Grotius demanded more than 300 years ago, "even the will of an omnipotent being cannot change or abrogate" and which "would maintain its objective validity even if we should assume—per impossibile—that there is no God or that he does not care for human affairs."

     When The Ethics of Liberty appeared in 1982, it initially attracted only a little attention in academia. Two factors were responsible for this neglect. First, there were the anarchistic implications of theory, and his argument that the institution of government—the state—is incompatible with the fundamental principles of justice. As defined by Rothbard, a state is an organization

which possesses either or both (in actual fact, almost always both) of the following characteristics: (a) it acquires its revenue by physical coercion (taxation); and (b) it achieves a compulsory monopoly of force and of ultimate decision-making power over a given territorial area. Both of these essential activities of the State necessarily constitute criminal aggression and depredation of the just rights of private property of its subjects (including self-ownership). For the first constitutes and establishes theft on a grand scale; while the second prohibits the free competition of defense and decision-making agencies within a given territorial area—prohibiting the voluntary purchase and sale of defense and judicial services (pp. 172–73).

"Without justice," Rothbard concluded as St. Augustine had before him, "the state was nothing but a band of robbers."

     Rothbard's anarchism was not the sort of anarchism that his teacher and mentor Mises had rejected as hopelessly naive, of course. "The anarchists," Mises had written,

contend that a social order in which nobody enjoys privileges at the expense of his fellow-citizens could exist without any compulsion and coercion for the prevention of action detrimental to society. . . . The anarchists overlook the undeniable fact that some people are either too narrow-minded or too weak to adjust themselves spontaneously to the conditions of social life. . . . An anarchistic society would be exposed to the mercy of every individual. Society cannot exist if the majority is not ready to hinder, by the application or threat of violent action, minorities from destroying the social order.[10]

     Indeed, Rothbard wholeheartedly agreed with Mises that without resort to compulsion, the existence of society would be endangered and that behind the rules of conduct whose observance is necessary to assure peaceful human cooperation must stand the threat to force if the whole edifice of society is not to be continually at the mercy of any one of its members. One must be in a position to compel a person who will not respect the lives, health, personal freedom, or private property of others to acquiesce in the rules of life in society.[11]

     Inspired in particular by the nineteenth-century American anarchist political theorists Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker and the Belgian economist Gustave de Molinari, from the outset Rothbard's anarchism took it for granted that there will always be murderers, thieves, thugs, con artists, etc., and that life in society would be impossible if they were not punished by physical force. As a reflection of this fundamental realism—anti-utopianism—of his private-property anarchism, Rothbard, unlike most contemporary political philosophers, accorded central importance to the subject of punishment. For him, private property and the right to physical defense were inseparable. No one can be said to be the owner of something if he is not permitted to defend his property by physical violence against possible invaders and invasions. "Would," Rothbard asked, "somebody be allowed to 'take the law into his own hands'? Would the victim, or a friend of the victim, be allowed to exact justice personally on the criminal?" and he answered, "of course, Yes, since all rights of punishment derive from the victim's right of self-defense" (p. 90). Hence, the question is not whether or not evil and aggression exist, but how to deal with its existence justly and efficiently, and it is only in the answer to this question that Rothbard reaches conclusions which qualify him as an anarchist.

     The classical-liberal answer, from the American Declaration of Independence to Mises, was to assign the indispensable task of protecting life, liberty, and property to government as its sole function. Rothbard rejected this conclusion as a non sequitur (if government was defined by its power to tax and ultimate decision-making [territorial monopoly of jurisdiction]). Private-property ownership, as the result of acts of original appropriation, production, or exchange from prior to later owner, implies the owner's right to exclusive jurisdiction regarding his property. In fact, it is the very purpose of private property to establish physically separate domains of exclusive jurisdiction (so as to avoid possible conflicts concerning the use of scarce resources). No private-property owner can possibly surrender his right to ultimate jurisdiction over and physical defense of his property to someone else—unless he sold or otherwise transferred his property (in which case someone else would have exclusive jurisdiction over it). That is, so long as something has not been abandoned, its owner must be presumed to retain these rights. As far as his relations to others are concerned, every property owner may further partake of the advantages of the division of seek better and improved protection of his unalterable rights through cooperation with other owners and their property. Every property owner may buy from, sell to, or otherwise contract with anyone else concerning supplemental property protection and security products and services. Yet every property owner may also at any time unilaterally discontinue any such cooperation with others or change his respective affiliations. Hence, in order to satisfy the demand for protection and security among private property owners, it is permissible and possible that there will be specialized or agencies providing protection, insurance, and arbitration services for a fee to voluntarily buying or not buying clients. It is impermissible, however, for any such firm or agency to compel anyone to come exclusively to it for protection or to bar any other agency from likewise offering protection services; that is, no protection agency may be funded by taxes or exempted from competition ("free entry").

     In distinct contrast, a territorial monopoly of protection and jurisdiction—a state—from the outset on an impermissible act of expropriation, and it provides the monopolist and his agents with a license to from discontinuing his cooperation with his supposed protector, and that no one except the monopolist may exercise ultimate jurisdiction over his own property. Rather, everyone (except the monopolist) has lost his right to physical protection and defense against possible invasion by the state and is thus rendered defenseless vis-à-vis the actions of his own alleged protector. Consequently, the price of justice and protection will continually rise and the quality of justice and protection will continually fall. A tax-funded protection agency is a contradiction in terms—an invasive protector—and will, if permitted, lead to increasingly more taxes and ever less protection. Likewise, the existence of a judicial monopoly will lead to a steady deterioration of justice. For if no one can appeal for justice except to the state and its courts and judges, justice will be constantly perverted in favor of the state until the idea of immutable laws of human conduct ultimately disappears and is replaced with the idea of law as positive state-made legislation.

     Based on this analysis, Rothbard considered the classical-liberal solution to the fundamental human problem of protection—of a minimal or night-watchman state, or an otherwise "constitutionally limited" government—as a hopelessly confused and naive idea. Every minimal state has the inherent tendency to become a maximal state, for once an agency is permitted to collect any taxes, however small and for whatever purpose, it will naturally tend to employ its current tax revenue for the collection of ever more future taxes for the same and/or other purposes. Similarly, once an agency possesses any judiciary monopoly, it will naturally tend to employ this privileged position for the further expansion of its range of jurisdiction. Constitutions, after all, are state-constitutions, and whatever limitations they may contain—what is or is not constitutional—is determined by state courts and judges. Hence, there is no other possible way of limiting state power except by eliminating the state altogether and, in accordance with justice and economics, establishing a free market in protection and security services.

     Naturally, Rothbard's anarchism appeared threatening to all statists, and his right-wing—that is, private-property—anarchism in particular could not but offend socialists of all stripes. However, his anarchistic conclusions were not sufficient to explain the neglect of The Ethics of Liberty by academia. Rothbard's first handicap was compounded by an even weightier one. Not only had he come to unorthodox conclusions, worse, he had reached them by pre-modern intellectual means. Instead of suggesting, hypothesizing, pondering, or puzzling, Rothbard had offered axiomatic arguments and proofs. In the age of democratic egalitarianism and ethical relativism, this constituted the ultimate academic sin: intellectual absolutism, extremism, and intolerance.

     The importance of this second methodological factor can be illustrated by contrasting the reception accorded to Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty on the one hand and Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia[12] and on the other. Nozick's book appeared in 1974, three years after the publication of Rawls's A Theory of Justice. Almost overnight Nozick was internationally famous, and to this day, in the field of political philosophy Anarchy, State, and Utopia ranks probably second only to Rawls's book in terms of academic recognition. Yet, while Rawls was a socialist, Nozick was a libertarian. In fact, Nozick was heavily influenced by Rothbard. He had read Rothbard's earlier Man, Economy, and State, Power and Market, and For A New Liberty,[13] and in the acknowledgments to his book he noted that "it was a long conversation about six years ago with Murray Rothbard that stimulated my interest in individualist anarchist theory." To be sure, the conclusions arrived at by Nozick were less radical than those proposed by Rothbard. Rather than reaching anarchistic conclusions, Nozick's

main conclusions about the state are that the minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified; that any more extensive state will violate persons' rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified; and that the minimal state is inspiring as well as right.[14]

     Nonetheless, in claiming "that the state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others, or in order to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection",[15] even Nozick's conclusions placed him far outside the political-philosophical mainstream. Why, then, in distinct contrast to the long-lasting neglect of Rothbard's libertarian the Ethics of Liberty, the stupendous academic success of libertarian Anarchy, State, and Utopia? The answer is method and style.

     Rothbard was above all a systematic thinker. He set out from the most elementary human situation and problem—Crusoe-ethics—and then proceeded painstakingly, justifying and proving each step and argument along the way to increasingly more complex and complicated situations and problems. Moreover, his prose was characterized by unrivaled clarity. In distinct contrast, Nozick was a modern unsystematic, associationist, or even impressionistic thinker, and his prose was difficult and unclear. Nozick was explicit about his own method. His writing, he stated, was

in the mode of much contemporary philosophical work in epistemology and metaphysics: there are elaborate arguments, claims rebutted by unlikely counterexamples, surprising theses, puzzles, abstract structural conditions, challenges to find another theory which fits a specified range of cases, startling conclusions, and so on. . . . One view about how to write a philosophy book holds that an author should think through all of the details of the view he presents, and its problems, polishing and refining his view to present to the world a finished, complete, and elegant whole. This is not my view. At any rate, I believe that there also is a place and a function in our ongoing intellectual life for a less complete work, containing unfinished presentations, conjectures, open questions and problems, leads, side connections, as well as a main line of argument. There is room for words on subjects other than last words.[16]

     Methodologically then, Nozick and Rothbard were poles apart. But why would Nozick's unsystematic ethical "explorations" find so much more resonance in academia than Rothbard's systematic ethical treatise, especially when their conclusions appeared to be largely congruent? Nozick touched upon the answer when he expressed the hope that his method "makes for intellectual interest and excitement."[17] But this was at best half of the answer, for The Ethics of Liberty, too, was an eminently interesting and exciting book, full of examples, cases, and scenarios from the full range of everyday experiences to extreme—life-boat—situations, spiced with many surprising conclusions, and above all solutions instead of merely suggestions to problems and puzzles.

     Nozick's method rather made for interest and excitement of a particular kind. Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty consisted essentially of one successively and systematically drawn out and elaborated argument, and thus required the long sustained attention of its reader. However, a reader of Rothbard's book could possibly get so excited that he would not want to put it down until he had finished it. The excitement caused by Anarchy, State, and Utopia was of a very different kind. The book was a  series of dozens of disparate or loosely jointed arguments, conjectures, puzzles, counterexamples, experiments, paradoxes, surprising turns, startling twists, intellectual flashes, and razzle-dazzle, and thus required only short and intermittent attention of its reader. At the same time, few if any readers of book likely will have felt the urge to read it straight through. Instead, reading Nozick was characteristically done unsystematically and intermittently, in bits and pieces. The excitement stirred by Nozick was intense, short, and fleeting; and the success of Anarchy, State, and Utopia was due to the fact that at all times, and especially under democratic conditions, there are far more high time-preference intellectuals—intellectual thrill seekers—than patient and disciplined thinkers.[18]

     Despite his politically incorrect conclusions, Nozick's libertarianism was deemed respectable by the academic masses and elicited countless comments and replies, because it was methodologically non-committal; that is, Nozick did not claim that his libertarian conclusions proved anything. Even though one would think that ethics is—and must be—an eminently practical intellectual subject, Nozick did not claim that his ethical "explorations" had any practical implications. They were meant to be nothing more than fascinating, entertaining, or suggestive intellectual play. As such, libertarianism posed no threat to the predominantly social-democratic intellectual class. On account of his unsystematic method—his philosophical pluralism—Nozick was "tolerant" vis-à-vis the intellectual establishment (his anti-establishment conclusions notwithstanding). He did not insist that his libertarian conclusions were correct and, for instance, socialist conclusions were false and accordingly demand their instant practical implementation (that is, the immediate abolition of the democratic welfare state, including all of public tax-funded education and research). Rather, libertarianism was, and claimed to be, no more than just an interesting thought. He did not mean to do any real harm to the ideas of his socialist opponents. He only wanted to throw an interesting idea into the democratic open-ended intellectual debate, while everything real, tangible, and physical could remain unchanged and everyone could go on with his life and thoughts as before.

     Following the publication of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick took even further steps to establish his reputation as "tolerant." He never replied to the countless comments and criticisms of his book, including Rothbard's, which forms chapter 29 of this book. This confirmed that he took his non-committal method seriously, for why indeed, should anyone reply to his critics, if he were not committed to the correctness of his own views in the first place? Moreover, in his subsequent book, Philosophical Explanations, Nozick removed all remaining doubts as to his supposed non-extremist tolerance. He went further than merely restating his commitment to the methodological non-committal:

So don't look here for a knockdown argument that there is something wrong with knockdown arguments, for the knockdown argument to end all knockdown arguing. It will not do to argue you into the conclusion, even in order to reduce the total amount of presentation of argument. Nor may I hint that I possess the knockdown argument yet will not present it.[19]

     Further, in a truly startling twist, Nozick went on to say that the use of knockdown arguments even constituted coercion and was hence morally offensive:

The terminology of philosophical art is coercive: arguments are powerful and best when they are knockdown, arguments force you to a conclusion, if you believe the premises you have to or must believe the conclusion, some arguments do not carry much punch, and so forth. A philosophical argument is an attempt to get someone to believe something, whether he wants to believe it or not. A successful philosophical argument, a strong argument, forces someone to a belief. . . . Why are philosophers intent on forcing others to believe things? Is that a nice way to behave toward someone? I think we cannot improve people that way. . . . Philosophical argument, trying to get someone to believe something whether he wants to believe it or not, is not, I have held, a nice way to behave toward someone; also, it does not fit the original motivation for studying or entering philosophy. That motivation is puzzlement, curiosity, a desire to understand, not a desire to produce uniformity of belief. Most people do not want to become thought-police. The philosophical goal of explanation rather than proof not only is morally better, it is more in accord with one's philosophical motivation. Also it changes how one proceeds philosophically; at the macro-level . . . it leads away from constructing the philosophical tower; at the micro-level, it alters which philosophical "moves" are legitimate at various points.[20]

     With this surprising redefinition of systematic axiomatic-deductive reasoning as "coercion," Nozick had pulled the last tooth from his libertarianism. If even the attempt of proving (or demonstrating) the ethical impermissibility and injustice of democratic socialism constituted "bad" behavior, libertarianism had been essentially disarmed and the existing order and its academic bodyguards rendered intellectually invincible. How could one not be nice to someone as nice as Nozick? It is no wonder that the anti-libertarian intellectual establishment took kindly to a libertarianism as gentle and kind as his, and elevated Nozick to the rank of the premier philosopher of libertarianism.[21]

     The interest stimulated and the influence exerted by Rothbard's libertarianism The Ethics of Liberty was significantly different: slow, intensively growing, and lasting, and reaching and affecting academia from outside (rather than being picked up by it and from the ivory tower communicated "down" to the non-academic public).

     Rothbard, as every reader of the following treatise will quickly recognize, was the prototype of a "coercive philosopher"(in the startling Nozickian definition of coercion). He demanded and presented proofs and exact and complete answers rather then tentative explanations, open questions. Regarding Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick had written that "some may feel that the truth about ethics and political philosophy is too serious and important to be obtained by such 'flashy' tools."[22] This was certainly Rothbard's conviction. Because man cannot not act as long as he is alive, and he must use scarce means to do so, he must also permanently choose between right and wrong conduct. The fundamental question of ethics—what am I here and now rightfully allowed to do and what not—is thus the most permanent, important, and pressing intellectual concern confronting man. Whenever and wherever one acts, an actor must be able to determine and distinguish unambiguously and instantly right from wrong. Thus, any ethic worth its salt must—praxeologically—be a "coercive" one, because only proofs and knockdown arguments can provide such definite answers as are necessary. Man cannot temporarily suspend acting; hence, tentative conjectures and open questions simply are not up to the task of a human ethic.

     Rothbard's "coercive" philosophizing—his insistence that ethics must be an axiomatic-deductive system, an ethic more geometrico—was nothing new or unusual, of course. As already noted, Rothbard shared this view concerning the nature of ethics with the entire tradition of rationalist philosophy. His had been the dominant view of Christian rationalism and of the Enlightenment. Nor did Rothbard claim infallibility regarding his ethics. In accordance with the tradition of rationalist philosophy he merely insisted that axiomatic-deductive arguments can be attacked, and possibly refuted, exclusively by other of the same logical status (just as one would insist, without thereby claiming infallibility for logicians and mathematicians, that logical or mathematical proofs can be attacked only by other logical or mathematical arguments).

     In the age of democratic socialism, however, such old-fashioned claims—certainly if made in conjunction with ethics and especially if this ethic turned out to be a libertarian one—were generally rejected and dismissed out of hand by academia. Unlike the modern Nozick, Rothbard was convinced that he had proved libertarianism—private-property anarchism—to be morally justified and correct, and that all statists and socialists were plain wrong. Accordingly he advocated immediate and ongoing action. "Libertarianism," wrote Rothbard,

is a philosophy seeking a policy. . . . The libertarian must be possessed of a passion for justice, an emotion derived from and channeled by his rational insight into what natural justice requires. Justice, not the weak reed of mere utility, must be the motivating force if liberty is to be attained; . . . (and) this means that the libertarian must be an "abolitionist," i.e., he must wish to achieve the goal of liberty as rapidly as possible . . . . [He] should be an abolitionist who would, if he could, abolish instantaneously all invasions of liberty (pp. 258–59).

     To the tax-subsidized intellectual class and especially the academic establishment, Rothbard could not but appear to be an extremist, best to be ignored and excluded from mainstream academic discourse.[23]

     Rothbard's "unkind" and "intolerant" libertarianism took first hold among the non-academic public: among professionals, businessmen, and educated laymen of all backgrounds. Whereas "gentle" libertarianism never penetrated outside academia, Rothbard and his "extremist" libertarianism became the fountainhead and theoretical hardcore of an ideological movement. Rothbard became the creator of modern American libertarianism, the radical offspring of classical liberalism, which, in the course of some three decades, has grown from a handful of proponents into a genuine political and intellectual movement. Naturally, in the course of this development and transformation, Rothbard and his libertarianism did not remain unchallenged or undisputed, and there were ups and downs in Rothbard's institutional career: of institutional alignments and realignments. Yet, until his death Rothbard, remained without doubt the single most important and respected moral authority within the entire libertarian movement, and his rationalist—axiomatic-deductive, praxeological, or "Austrian"—libertarianism provides to this day the intellectual benchmark in reference to which everyone and everything else in libertarianism is defined and positioned.

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[1] Murray N. Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1962).

[2] Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1949).

[3] Murray N. Rothbard, Power and Market, 2nd ed. (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977) .

[4] See Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State, ch. 2, esp. pp. 78–80.

[5] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971).

[6] Ibid. p. 137.

[7] Ibid. pp. 150–51.

[8] Ibid., p. 141.

[9] Mises, Human Action, p. 873. 

[10] Ibid., p. 149.

[11] Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and 1978) p. 37.

[12] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).

[13] Murray N. Rothbard, For A New Liberty, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1978).

[14] Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. ix.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibiid., pp. xx–xii, emphasis added.

[17] Ibid., p. x.

[18] In his subsequent book, Philosophical Explanations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), Nozick further confirmed this judgment. There he wrote,

I, too, seek an unreadable book: urgent thoughts to grapple with in agitation and excitement, revelations to be transformed by or to transform, a book incapable of being read straight through, a book, even, to bring reading to stop. I have not found that book, or attempted it. Still, I wrote and thought in awareness of it, in the hope that this book would bask in its light. . . . At no point is [the reader] forced to accept anything. He moves along gently, exploring his own and the author's thoughts. He explores together with the author, moving only where he is ready to; then he stops. Perhaps, at a later time mulling it over or in a second reading, he will move further. . . . I place no extreme obligation of attentiveness on my readers; I hope instead for those who read as I do, seeking what they can learn from, make use of, transform for their own purposes. . . . This book puts forward its explanations in a very tentative spirit; not only do I not ask you to believe they are correct, I do not think it important for me to believe them correct, either. Still, I do believe, and hope you will find it so, that these proposed explanations are illuminating and worth considering, that they are worth surpassing; also, that the process of seeking and elaborating explanations, being open to new possibilities, the new wonderings and wanderings, the free exploration, is itself a delight. Can any pleasure compare to that of a new idea, a new question? There is sexual experience, of course, not dissimilar, with its own playfulness and possibilities, its focused freedom, its depth, its sharp pleasures and its gentle ones, its ecstasies. What is the mind's excitement and sensuality? What is orgasm? Whatever, it unfortunately will frighten and offend the puritans of the mind (do the two   share a common root?) even as it expands others and brings them joy" (pp. 1, 7, 8, 24).

[19] Ibid., p. 5.

[20] Ibid., p. 4, 5, 13.

[21] In accordance with this non-methodical philosophical interests continued to drift from one subject to another. Already in his Philosophical Explanations, he had confessed "I have found (and not only in sequence) many different philosophies alluring and appealing, cogent and impressive, tempting and wonderful." (p. 20). Libertarianism—ethics—carried no particular or even unique weight within Nozick's philosophy. It was one exciting subject among unnumerous others, to be taken up for "exploration" or dropped as one's curiosity demanded.  It was not entirely surprising then when, only a few years after the publication of the very book that had made him famous, it became increasingly obvious that Nozick had all but abandoned even his kind and gentle libertarianism. And when he at last acknowledged openly (in The Examined Life, a book of neo-Buddhist   on the meaning of life) that he was no longer a libertarian and had converted to communitarian social democracy, he still felt under no obligation to give reasons for his change of mind and explain why his previous ethical views had been false. Interestingly, this development seems to have had little effect on the status of Anarchy, State, and Utopia as prime libertarian philosophizing.

[22] Ibid., p. x.

[23]An interesting parallel exists between the treatment of Rothbard vs. Nozick by the philosophy establishment, and that of Mises vs. Hayek by the economic establishment. Even if Mises's conclusions were significantly more radical than both came to largely similar—politically "incorrect"—free-market conclusions. Based on the similarity of their conclusions, both Mises and Hayek were considered Austrian School economists. Yet the method by which they derived their conclusions fundamentally differed. Mises was a philosophical rationalist: systematic, rigorous, proving and demonstrating, and lucid as a writer. In comparison, Hayek was a philosophical skeptic: unsystematic, methodologically eclectic, tenatative and probing, and a less than lucid writer. Consequently, treatment by academia was significantly more friendly than that accorded to Mises. But also: it was the pre-modern "extremist Austrian" Mises, not the modem "moderate Austrian" Hayek, whose influence proved more intense and enduring, and whose work led to the formation of an ideological movement.

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