Lecture 6: Libertarianism: Murray Rothbard (1926 – 1995)

Freedom and Society: Classical Liberalism in the Twentieth Century

A Course with Professor Thomas Patrick Burke
Spring 2007

Murray Rothbard has the distinction of having pushed classical liberalism to its radical extreme. In his hands the doctrine of the free society became a doctrine of complete privatization, in which every service and function traditionally performed by government was to be privatized, and government itself to be abolished. He employed two new terms for this: libertarianism for the philosophy and “anarcho-capitalism” for the system it should create in society. Along the way he developed many particular theses and insights that are interesting in themselves, apart from his project of radical anarchism.

Like Robert Nozick, Rothbard was born in New York. He studied with Ludwig von Mises and became an ardent proponent of Austrian School economics, which gives explicit support to market freedom. He completed a doctorate in economics at Columbia and eventually became professor of that subject at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. His principal publications for our purposes are:

Man, Economy and State (Princeton, Van Nostrand, 1962)

Power and Market (1970)

For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (1973)

The Ethics of Liberty (1982)

Rothbard was a co-founder of the Libertarian Party, which however does not share his anarchist goals, but is committed to working within the existing constitutional structure of the U.S. government. He also founded and edited the Journal of Libertarian Studies.

In this lecture I will focus mainly on the ideas contained in his last major work, The Ethics of Liberty.

Natural Law

We saw that the fundamental philosophical stance of Mises, Hayek and Friedman was utilitarianism. This judges all actions from the viewpoint of their ultimate usefulness in bringing beneficial consequences to human beings. Its guiding principle is to achieve “the greatest good of the greatest number.” A standpoint natural for economists, since economics judges everything in terms of utility. Utilitarianism was also the predominant viewpoint of most philosophers in the English-speaking world during the twentieth century because it seemed to provide a measurable criterion of success. It has serious drawbacks, however. It is difficult, if not impossible, to build a concept of justice on this foundation, because the utility of an action lies in its consequences, but the justice of an action as traditionally understood depends on the nature of the action itself. The Roman writer said, ” Fiat iustitia, ruat caelum:” justice must be done even if the sky should fall. For Rothbard, though an enthusiastic disciple of Mises and a great admirer of Hayek and Friedman, and also himself a philosopher, freedom was not merely useful or beneficial, but a requirement of justice. This led him to adopt the theory of natural moral law as the intellectual foundation of his whole enterprise; about which therefore we must say a few words.

The doctrine of a universal natural moral law was developed initially by the Stoic philosophers of Greece in the 3rd century BC as a result of their experience of the cultural diversity of Alexander’s empire. Trade seems to have played a large role in this. The very varied peoples of the Mediterranean found themselves no longer isolated behind their national borders, each having its own customary morality, but part of a larger common society with a common language, Greek, where trade required the general acceptance of common values and rules. The point of natural law was that since it was “natural,” that is, a consequence of the nature of human beings, it must be universal, applying to all beings without distinction of culture or nationality that possess human nature; and therefore that it must be objective, not subjective or relative. Many people are inclined to feel that what are called “moral values” are just rules that the powerful wish to impose on the weak. The Stoics followed Plato’s Socrates in believing, on the contrary, that justice is a universal human value (cf. The Republic). Christianity adopted a large part of Stoic ethics, and during the middle ages theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas placed the doctrine of natural law at the foundation not only of Christian ethics but also of their legal theory.

In modern times, however, the idea of a natural moral law encountered difficulties as a result of the rise of science. Science does not employ the concept of “nature.” Physicists do not speak of the “nature” of electrons, but merely of their properties. The reason is that the “nature” of an electron would add to the particle’s properties the idea of necessity: a thing’s nature consists not simply of its properties, but its necessary properties, and “necessity” is not something that can be found under a microscope. How can we know what properties of a thing are necessary to it and what are merely accidental? Rothbard says, curiously, that he does not understand why so many philosophers reject talk of nature; but the reason is not very complicated. In the American legal profession at the present time for the most part it is only Catholics who continue to accept the idea of natural law. The prevailing view is positivism. When Justice Clarence Thomas in his confirmation hearing for appointment to the Supreme Court stated that he believed in natural law, a vocal portion of the legal profession derided him.

St. Thomas Aquinas and Kant argued that we can discover the natural moral law by the right use of reason. For long this view has not been considered very persuasive. In recent decades, however, apparently unbeknownst to Rothbard, the idea of necessity has been finding favor again among philosophers owing to the work of the American philosopher Saul Kripke. In his book Naming and Necessity of 1972 (actually a transcription of more or less impromptu lectures, but perhaps the more effective for that), Kripke asked what it is that leads us to consider an item or a person identical over time; what leads us to say that this person sitting here, known as Bob Guzzardi, is the same as the person we called Bob Guzzardi last week. The accepted theory was it is the relevant description of the item or person; that is, a mental concept we have of the item or person. But Kripke argued instead that it is the physical or historical continuity between this person we call Bob Guzzardi here and the one we called by that name last week. Another example was the astronomical discovery that what people called the morning star is identical with what they called the evening star, both being the planet Venus. This relationship of physical or historical continuity is a form of necessity, Kripke argued. It is not only true but necessarily true that this Bob Guzzardi is the same as that Bob Guzzardi and that the morning star is also the evening star. These are not mere truths of logic and cannot be discovered by logical analysis but must be discovered by empirical investigation, i.e. science. By means of this and other ingenious arguments Kripke has restored the idea of necessity to philosophical respectability, and with it the possibility of a renewed foundation for the concept of natural law. Rothbard’s viewpoint has turned out to have a stronger support than he knew.

Why is all this important? Because, in some contrast to utilitarianism (at least in the circumstances of the present time), the doctrine of natural law has the potential to be revolutionary. Since it is considered natural and universal, it provides an objective standard for judging and overturning any civil law. St. Thomas Aquinas argued that a civil law that contradicts the natural moral law is not a true law and there can be no moral obligation to obey it. Rothbard’s discussion of natural law follows traditional Catholic thinking to a remarkable degree.

“…natural law is, in essence, a profoundly “radical” ethic, for it holds the existing status quo, which might grossly violate natural law, up to the unsparing and unyielding light of reason. In the realm of politics or State action, the natural law presents man with a set of norms which may well be radically critical of existing positive law imposed by the State. At this point, we need only stress that the very existence of a natural law discoverable by reason is a potentially powerful threat to the status quo and a standing reproach to the reign of blindly traditional custom or the arbitrary will of the State apparatus.” (17)

A further development that the return to nature and natural law made possible for Rothbard was the restoration of a teleological view of human existence. This is the view, developed especially by Aristotle, that in every living thing its nature impels it towards a particular kind of fulfillment, and that fulfillment constitutes its well-being or happiness.

“The natural law ethic decrees that for all living things, “goodness” is the fulfillment of what is best for that type of creature; “goodness” is therefore relative to the nature of the creature concerned.” (11)

“In the case of man, the natural-law ethic states that goodness or badness can be determined by what fulfills or thwarts what is best for man’s nature. The natural law, then, elucidates what is best for man — what ends man should pursue that are most harmonious with, and best tend to fulfill, his nature. In a significant sense, then, natural law provides man with a “science of happiness,” with the paths which will lead to his real happiness. In contrast, praxeology or economics, as well as the utilitarian philosophy with which this science has been closely allied, treat “happiness” in the purely formal sense as the fulfillment of those ends which people happen — for whatever reason — to place high on their scale of value.” (11,12)

Like the traditional idea of nature, this concept, though pretty obvious to common sense, also fell a casualty to the rise of science. It has been widely replaced in modern times by the idea that personal fulfillment consists in the fulfillment of one’s individual desires — an idea that would have been abhorrent to the fathers of Western philosophy, not to mention Western religion.

A further consequence of Rothbard’s acceptance of natural law is that he believes in free will. Unlike Mises, for example, he is not at bottom a determinist. As I pointed out in the lecture on Mises, it is ironical, to say the least, if a person who dedicates his life to the cause of freedom does not believe that people have free will.


Thinkers in the classical liberal tradition have generally focused their attention on liberty as a quality of actions: liberty means you are free to do as you wish (so long as you do not harm others). If at the present time conservative and classical liberal thinkers lay emphasis on the importance of property, this is largely due to Rothbard. For Rothbard, liberty is expressed above all in property: to be free means especially to have the right to own private property. Property is also the key concept for understanding the market, since all exchanges are at bottom exchanges not so much of goods as of ownership rights. Many of the particular freedoms Rothbard defends are defended as forms of the right to property. Let me give a few examples. We believe in the right of free speech. For Rothbard, this is a property right: if we are on our own property, we are entitled to say whatever we wish. But if we are on someone else’s property, we are limited by their rules about the use of their property. Similarly with freedom of the press, the “right to privacy,” and even the right of self-defense, which is also a property-right, since each of us has a property in himself. All human rights, he maintains, are property rights. This theory of property leads to some interesting proposals, but also some bizarre ones, such as his defense of blackmail and “defensive” bribery. (For blackmail: everyone has a right to disseminate accurate knowledge, however injurious it might be to some individual, and also a right to remain silent. Therefore one has a right to receive payment for not disseminating it.)

Furthermore, all property is inherently private: there is no such thing as genuine public property, since that would belong to the government, which has no right to exist. In the libertarian society all the streets are owned by private individuals. This leads Rothbard to present the following account of immigration, which is typical of his response to many situations.

“…the private ownership of all streets would resolve the problem of the ‘human right’ to freedom of immigration. There is no question about the fact that current immigration barriers restrict, not so much a ‘human right’ to immigrate, but the right of property owners to rent or sell property to immigrants. There can be no human right to immigrate, for on whose property does someone else have the right to trample? In short, if ‘Primus’ wishes to migrate now from some other country to the United States, we cannot say that he has the absolute right to immigrate to this land area; for what of those property owners who don’t want him on their property? On the other hand, there may be, and undoubtedly are, other property owners who would jump at the chance to rent or sell property to Primus, and the current laws now invade their property rights by preventing them from doing so.

“The libertarian society would resolve the entire ‘immigration question’ within the matrix of absolute property rights. For people only have the right to move to those properties and lands where the owners desire to rent or sell to them. In the free society, they would, in first instance, have the right to travel only on those streets whose owners agree to have them there, and then to rent or buy housing from willing owners. Again, just as in the case of daily movement on streets, a diverse and varying pattern of access of migration would undoubtedly arise.” (119f.)

The Family

Traditionally the family has been considered the source of natural rights and obligations that are not merely the result of voluntary agreement. The tie that binds children to parents and parents to children is not a contract. Marriage itself is more than a contract. But for Rothbard, all human rights are negative rights, rights not to be aggressed against. He sees no place for the positive natural rights and obligations that traditionally have been associated with the family. Consequently it is his discussion of the family that is perhaps the most alien to normal human feeling, and the most alienating to normal readers, of all his writings. The centerpiece of this is his argument that parents should have no legal obligation to feed, clothe or care for their children but may freely allow them to die (Ch. 14, Children and Rights). For children have no right to such care; their only right is not to be the object of aggression by their parents after birth. A fortiori he believes parents should be able to sell their children. For a similar reason he defends the right to abortion. He does not necessarily deny that the fetus is a human person, but even so,

“…should the mother decide that she does not want the fetus there any longer, then the fetus becomes a parasitic invader of her person, and the mother has a perfect right to expel this invader from her domain.”

Abolishing Government

Rothbard’s most controversial thesis, however, because so fundamental to his entire philosophy, is that government by its very nature is an unjust institution, because it uses coercion on persons who have caused no harm to others, for example in imposing taxes, and should be abolished. Locke argued in effect that government is a necessary evil; but Rothbard argues that it is not necessary. Many people might be disposed to agree with this a priori. But the question is: what could take its place? Rothbard maintains that all the legitimate functions of government, including rule-making, the police and the courts, can be carried out by private security services, hired and paid for voluntarily by individuals. He refers to this as “free-market defense.” No one security service has the right to establish itself as a monopoly. As we have mentioned, his name for this way of organizing society is “anarcho-capitalism.” (Cf. the “anarchy” in Robert Nozick’s title.) (Rothbard’s treatment of this question is more satisfactory to my mind in his earlier work Man, Economy, State.)

In response to the objection that this will never work, he gives the example of the international situation, where, since there is no world government, all the nations of the globe are in a state of anarchy in their relations with one another. He admits, however, that war between nations is a continual reality.

A Verdict on Rothbard

In the personal opinion of this writer, Rothbard’s writings are a most unusual mixture of extreme wisdom and extravagant folly. In many areas of investigation he has profound insights that leave one almost gasping at their obvious rightness once seen. Yet his very next step may be revolting in its inhumanity, because he has carried that insight over an edge where it loses contact with human reality.