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The Moral Poverty of Libertarianism

1,380 words

Murray Rothbard

There’s an old-school form of libertarianism that draws from the work of figures like Ludwig van Beethoven, Selma Hayek, and RuPaul (sorry, I mean to say Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Ron Paul). This form of libertarianism works from a reasonably comprehensive picture of what it is to be a human being. Rather than thoroughly replacing homo sapiens with homo economicus, it simply focuses on addressing itself to the economic realm of life; and it proposes that people out to support a strongly libertarian order because such is in their best practical interests. 

This strain of libertarianism probably gets a lot right. Maybe it also gets some things wrong. But the most important thing is that with an old-school libertarian of this variety, it’s actually possible to have this discussion in a sane and reasonable manner. Whatever they may get right or wrong, these thinkers are fundamentally placing the question of how well these proposals would actually work to create a functioning human society in which a whole variety of things we want flourish front and center, and at least theoretically they could be convinced to change their policies if convinced that a different set of policies would actually work better to achieve these ends. If there are sociopolitical debates to be had in a future ethnostate, these types of libertarians certainly deserve a seat at the table. If there are disagreements to be hammered out, old-school libertarians can be disagreed with respectfully.

There is, however, a different form of libertarianism that models itself more closely on a religion than a sociopolitical project. It concerns itself less with paying attention to how the world actually works first and only then drawing lessons about it second, and more with making adamant pronouncements about how the world ought to work. It comes with a single axiomatic doctrine that can’t really be “proven” in any meaningful sense, and yet nonetheless must be believed, on pain of excommunication from the libertarian fold. This form of libertarianism is toxic.

These kinds of dogmatic libertarians simply don’t care first and foremost whether, for instance, legalization of cocaine would create a better, more flourishing society for actual human beings—interfering with cocaine trafficking is simply a moral wrong, in and of itself, regardless of any further consequences that do or do not follow from either allowing or prohibiting cocaine trafficking. If allowing it has positive consequences, then that may be a perk, but to them, it still isn’t the point. Of course, the dogmatic libertarian who actually has the balls to support—much less engage in—counter-violence against police who interfere with things like cocaine trafficking is rare to nonexistent.

These libertarians simply don’t care first and foremost about analyzing phenomena like the Laffer Curve to identify the optimal rate of taxation and suggest that we’ve gone far past it. To the dogmatic libertarian, reasoning like this is simply beside the point. And the point is that taxation is theft. But the problem with staking your worldview on dogmatic axioms is that something has to be done with people who don’t agree with you. Unlike, say, the empirical question of how far we’ve gone past the point where increasing tax rates actually result in reduced tax revenue, there’s really not a whole lot of productive discussion to be had around disagreement over a claim like “taxation is theft.” One either agrees with it or disagrees with it, and that’s basically that. There just aren’t any further empirical issues that we can continue to analyze in hopes of persuading people to change their minds. And that makes this into something that would be a dead-end philosophy even if it were true.

For the dogmatic libertarian, absolutely every belief he holds about every single political issue of any kind—the pros and cons of corporations mass-producing legal crack cocaine, the pros and cons of varying rates of taxation, and more—is distilled from one singular principle: “the non-aggression principle.” Or at least, so he thinks. In a minute, I’ll explain why this actually isn’t the case at all.
Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty is the closest thing to a “Bible” for this variation of the libertarian philosophy. And it’s incredibly instructive to notice that in this “Bible,” Murray Rothbard literally advocates the right of parents to starve their children to death in the woods.

Quoting from Chapter 14, “Children and 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.

Holy fucking shit. Jesus everloving Christ. How many levels of autism do you have to be on to think there’s a difference between killing an infant and intentionally “letting it die”? Not only is there no serious difference at all, if anything this still gets it ass-backwards.

Do you know how long it takes to starve a newborn baby to death? Up to 26 days. If anything, giving an infant euthanasia drugs for a peaceful death would be infinitely more merciful than this. But the morally retarded ethical system advanced in this book would classify that as murder, while letting the infant-starvers go free. Let it sink in that this is what Rothbard comes up with in a book whose entire pretense is complete devotion to figuring out the political consequences of “non-aggression”: let people who let their children die miserable and slow deaths from starvation go free; but punish people who give them quick, painless deaths as murderers.

No matter how voluminous the rest of the man’s intellectual output may or may not have been, it’s hard to see this as a trivial side-effect of his worldview. It is extremely difficult not to see this as such a glaringly idiotic position on par with thinking the Earth is flat or that the world is definitely going to end next Tuesday that anyone who “accidentally” believes it really does invalidate the rest of their thought.

Because it isn’t just that Rothbard gets the question of whether killing an infant or “letting it die” are meaningfully different wrong. It isn’t just that he gets the important differences that would exist if there were meaningful differences worth discussing wrong. It’s that Murray Rothbard would literally give whole-hearted support to an apparatus of force which would enforce this morally disgusting view on dissenting people through the institutional use of violence.

Furthermore, even if a given dogmatic libertarian disagrees with Rothbard’s point of view, even his disagreement itself still shows the problem with dogmatic libertarianism. Why? Because it reveals that the use of violence, or threat of violence, in society over disagreements that do not simplistically reduce down to the question of whether “aggression” was used inappropriately are impossible to escape—even between the luminaries of this particular worldview and its basic adherents.

Rothbard wanted to write The Ethics of Liberty to logically distill an entire political system from a single axiom: that initiating the use of violence against other human beings is immoral. But he ends up setting himself up quite literally for violent conflict with sectarians of his own philosophy over the pathetic question of whether people who euthanize their children are murderers and people who let them die slow and miserable deaths from starvation are not.

As Jack Donovan wrote, “violence is golden.” And as I put it in a previous essay, at the end of the day quite literally everyone endorses violence in some form or another in order to create and maintain the kind of society, with the kind of system of obligations and rights and privileges, that they want to live in. There is no way around it, and “the non-aggression principle” doesn’t get us around it either.

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  1. Jud Jackson
    Posted November 30, 2017 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Excellent article.

    I have read some of Rothbard’s articles and especially liked “Milton Friedman unraveled” and “America’s Two Just Wars.” Also, I think that of all the old Libertarians, Rothbard was closest to being “Old Right.” Justin Raimondo wrote a book about him, “An Enemy of the State” which was very positive. Rothbard supported Pat Buchanan in 1992. So there are many good things to be said about him.

    But I haven’t read the book you cited and the example of letting a child starve to death was certainly a definitive counter-example to a moral theory, in this case Libertarianism, if ever there was one.

    In my view, the current Libertarian whose views are closest to ours is Hans Hoppe. I wonder what he might say about the child starving to death?

  2. Posted November 30, 2017 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    One should never underestimate the irrationality and inhumanity of the Libertarian and Objectivist movements.
    I could never have imagined the following “rational arguments” even in my wildest moments as a satirist.
    The foetus is an “aggressor”, the foetus is a “trespasser”, etc. etc.etc.
    The foetus is guilty of the “initiation of physical force” [!] by “occupying your property” [!], etc. etc. etc. therefore it may be “evicted” [!] or “expelled” [!], etc. etc. etc.

    One of the foremost proponents of this line of “rational argument” is the “libertarian” Murray Rothbard, a Jew so ugly he makes an ant-eater look like Brad Pitt.
    This is Talmudism.
    What is slavery compared to this?

    • Niko
      Posted November 30, 2017 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

      “This is Talmudism.”

      I think that about sums it up, yes.

    • Posted December 1, 2017 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      Children are completely absent as characters, even peripheral characters, in Ayn Rand’s novels. They have no real place in Rand’s “system” of Objectivism.

      • Posted December 1, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

        “..Children are completely absent as characters… in Ayn Rand’s novels. They have no real place…”
        Even worse than that.
        The one thing all Objectivists and Libertarians seem to have in common is an utter and absolute obsession with abortion. They think of children the way most of us think of tapeworms or cockroaches.

        • Posted December 2, 2017 at 5:21 am | Permalink

          Except that most of us are not obsessed with tapeworms and cockroaches. I hardly think about them.
          Another question: if I can take my child into the woods and starve him to death Hansel and Greta style, why can’t I grab him by the ankles and bash his brains out on a stone fireplace?
          After all, I made him, therefore he’s “mine”. Why not?

  3. Petronius
    Posted November 30, 2017 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    No feeding a child, and your own even more, until it dies is an extremely aggressive act. Passive aggression at its most extreme. Breathtakingly retarded on Rothbard’s side…

  4. Posted November 30, 2017 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Stefan Molyneux is an interesting case to follow. Having been quasi-red-pilled in recent years, he’s struggling to preserve his anarcho-libertarian fetishization of NAP in lieu of his newly discovered ‘axioms’ about HBD and its relation to culture-formation. His debate this past August with a self-proclaimed ‘fascist’ was quite telling, mainly for the ‘fascist’ getting the better of him, and just yesterday Molyneux posted on “Why I Was Wrong About Nationalism”, now believing ethnicity-based nationalism is vital.

    • K
      Posted December 1, 2017 at 3:00 am | Permalink

      I think for the libertarians and the civic nationalists(if they are white) can’t escape white nationalism. There is too much vitriol and open hatred directed at whites. These internet personalities are bound to become aware of it and they will be simply forced to accept our ideas if they are white. Of course, there are the opportunists, but to Molyneux’s credit he seems somewhat concerned with the truth.

  5. Posted November 30, 2017 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    In my previous comment, I posted the wrong link for “Why I Was Wrong About Nationalism”. It should be:

  6. Proofreader
    Posted November 30, 2017 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    “How many levels of autism do you have to be on to think there’s a difference between killing an infant and intentionally ‘letting it die’?” Such thinking is better characterized as Talmudic rather than autistic.

    The Jews of biblical times made a religion out of bad faith, while the Jews of today make intellectual and political movements out of it. Although the latter may be secular, indeed atheistic, their identity is Jewish and their thinking is Talmudic.

    In his illuminating little book, Bolshevism from Moses to Lenin, Dietrich Eckart has Adolf Hitler justly remark of the Talmud: “The most abominable perversity and the most tedious syllable-thrashing in the same breath. What goes on within Jewish heads must really be frightful.” We can see this combination of “perversity” and “syllable-thrashing” (i.e., pilpulism) in the citation from Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty.

    Elizabeth Dilling’s work, The Jewish Religion: Its Influence Today, reproduces passages from the Talmud that maintain that deliberately but indirectly causing somebody’s death isn’t murder:

    “As noted elsewhere, regarding murder of the non-Jew, it is good and meritorious, providing you do not get caught and thus get the Talmudic religion exposed for what it is.

    “However, permissible murder in Judaism embraces more than just killing Gentiles. Murder by suffocation is permissible. Here shyster hairsplitting is inserted in the Talmud, it being permissible to seal up a neighbor in an airtight ‘alabaster chamber,’ providing one does not put in a lighted candle to help eat up the oxygen, but merely allowing the victim to expire by breathing the oxygen up himself unaided, this is acceptable. (See Exhibit 86 from Sanhedrin 77a-77b of the Talmud)

    “Under Talmudic ‘law’ other forms of murder are also permissible:

    “Binding up your neighbor so that he dies of starvation. Just bind up the neighbor before it is hot or cold enough to kill him and all is well — you are guiltless of what follows. (See Exhibit 85)

    “Binding up your neighbor so that he dies of sunstroke. (See Exhibit 85)

    “Binding up your neighbor so that he dies of cold. (See Exhibit 85)

    “Binding up your neighbor so that a lion may kill him. (See Exhibit 85) He could not have fought the lion anyway, so, it is acceptable, says the Talmud.

    “Letting mosquitoes bite your neighbor to death. As for the mosquitoes, they come and go, so, since the ones which bit him when you tied the victim go away and others end his life, you are pure and blameless. (See Exhibit 85)

    “Throwing your neighbor into a pit and leaving him to die there. (See Exhibit 86)

    “Killing your neighbor with arrow wounds. (See Exhibit 86) Shooting the neighbor with an arrow is acceptable, since if there is balsam for sale somewhere, he presumably could have sent for some and thus have been cured instead of dying. (See Exhibit 86)

    “You can also drown your neighbor and yet be ‘guiltless’ of his death! Remember to follow Talmudic law, however, and cause the water to travel a little distance before it drowns the neighbor — then you are guiltless of his death!”

  7. Peter Quint
    Posted December 2, 2017 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Typical jew!

  8. Posted December 2, 2017 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    With some of the more hardcore Libertarians, and the AnarchoCapitalists, it seems as if there is a personality disorder with them, where they are incapable of understanding human social relations. Their world view is to them rational, but at the same time irrational in that it denies, or tries to suppress very human emotions and instincts, such as the instinct for group identity and cooperation.

    This is what was odd about my first reading of Atlas Shrugged, that the author would dictate to me what actions were moral or not, and dictate to me where my self interest lies. If my self interest is dictated by an ideology, then is it my self interest?

    The answer with Libertarianism is no, which is why the hardcore version never spreads much further than the Aspergeresque hyper rational types. Most people easily see the benefit in some form of statehood, in some form of taxation and in some form of social obligation. Sure, there are major issues with its manifestation today, but the Libertarian considers these proposals, which are necessary for group cohesion and survival, immoral. Paradoxically, the Libertarian is arguing that a group of people acting in their collective self interest is immoral. Libertarianism, especially Anarcho-Capitalism is therefore logically contradictory.

  9. nineofclubs
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    As something of a digression, I’d note that the only web forum I’ve ever been banned from was a libertarian one. Not for being rude or disrespectful, but for pointing out the logical inconsistency between supporting Citizen Initiated Referenda on the one web page, and pearl clutching about the ‘dictatorship of the majority’ on another. The Australian libertarian operators of this site also removed my comments (but left all the responses alone).
    So much for these champions of free expression..
    The Von Mises website is also a good indicator of the warped thinking that underpins libertarian philosophy. A favourite article of mine is from 2006, entitled ‘Stateless in Somalia – and loving it’ by Yumi Kim. The article praises the development of Somali society during a period when that country was without a state apparatus. It notes that mobile phones still work in Somalia and that murders may be atoned for by giving 100 camels to the murdered persons family. So there you have it folks. Concrete proof that the libertarian vision works in practice. I found this article so impressive that I wrote to the Von Mises institute in about 2010 asking if Yumi Kim had moved to Somalia and when the follow-up article might be expected. They haven’t got back to me yet.

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