Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays, by Murray Rothbard
So now it’s time to start looking at the “other essays.” This one is entitled Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty. Rothbard covers much ground in this essay. I intend to focus on two aspects: the first is Rothbard’s view regarding the foundation necessary for liberty; the second is the connection of libertarianism and communism.
Fair warning: I hold some disagreement with Rothbard on the first; however, at the end of this piece, I will bring in a guest libertarian far more qualified than I am to make this point.
On the second, his analysis confirms a conclusion I reached some time ago (and is also supportive of the reasons behind my disagreement with the first): libertarianism and communism hold common roots that many libertarians might not care to admit. I suggest that it is imperative for libertarians to understand this relationship in order to understand the hazards to avoid.
Perhaps I should add “or the lack thereof.” Bear with me.
The Conservative has long been marked, whether he knows it or not, by long-run pessimism: by the belief that the long-run trend, and therefore time itself, is against him.
This belief drives the Conservative to liberty-crushing political action, both at home (left-wing statism) and abroad (the fight against communism).
Pessimism, however, both short-run and long-run, is precisely what the prognosis of conservatism deserves, for conservatism is a dying remnant of the ancien régime of the pre-industrial era, and, as such, it has no future.
To get the right timeframe and context:
The Ancien Régime (French for "old regime") was the political and social system of the Kingdom of France from the Late Middle Ages (circa 15th century) until 1792, when hereditary monarchy and the feudal system of French nobility were abolished by the French Revolution.
Returning to Rothbard:
In its contemporary American form, the recent Conservative revival embodied the death throes of an ineluctably moribund, fundamentalist, rural, small-town, white Anglo-Saxon America.
I know you are thinking: “Wait a minute. How is Rothbard writing about the election of 2016? Is high-speed internet provided in the after-life?”
I am just pulling your leg; Rothbard wrote this essay in 1965. I can’t comment on the situation regarding “Conservative” at the time Rothbard wrote those words; however, could these words come from any mainstream, East Coast, establishment, liberal newspaper regarding the flyover country that elected Trump?
What, however, of the prospects for liberty?
And here is where I begin to part ways with Rothbard on this topic. Because if there is to be any type of move toward liberty in contemporary America, it will come from people who live precisely in this flyover country; most certainly it will not come from places like New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Seattle – the places where they write those kinds of words.
The absolute monarchs were the Old Order writ large and made even more despotic than before. Capitalism, indeed, flourished earliest and most actively precisely in those areas where the central State was weak or nonexistent: the Italian cities, the Hanseatic League, the confederation of seventeenth-century Holland.
I have two thoughts on this: first, Rothbard rightly rails against the old order that existed in the west before the eighteenth century; he sees the triumph of the liberal revolution at this time as the turning point – on this point, I don’t fully agree.
Rothbard doesn’t look back far enough, or to the right history. I have argued that the liberal ideas of the time gave us the progressivism that we are buried under today (with further roots in the Renaissance). The central state was weak and non-existent and the law came closest to what might be considered a libertarian private-property order, in the law of the European Middle Ages. This was destroyed, not coincidentally, when the Church was torn asunder.
My second thought: why the switch to “capitalism”? Is the discussion about liberty or about capitalism? And yes, I understand how and why these would be connected, but is liberty to be defined only (or even primarily) in economic terms?
More important was a series of cataclysmic revolutions that blasted loose the Old Order and the old ruling classes: the English Revolution of the seventeenth century, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution, all of which were necessary for the ushering in of the Industrial Revolution and of at least partial victories for individual liberty, laissez-faire, separation of church and state, and international peace.
I have not studied much of the English Revolution, so I will take a pass on this. The spirit of the American Revolution did not survive the founding generation, and even in the most generous case it did not survive four score and seven years. The French Revolution? A catastrophe for liberty from the beginning, and to this day.
As to the separation of church and state, there is something to be said about how this has diminished liberty instead of enhanced it. Finally, international peace: these revolutions ushered in the ideologies and philosophies that brought us the bloodiest century in recorded history – to include the English, Americans and French as some of the primary perpetrators.
Libertarianism and Communism
I first began to see this connection when I was working through a post on left-libertarianism, authored by perhaps the most consistent (and most “left”) left-libertarian I have read, Kevin Carson. Libertarians and communists today both can trace roots to some of the same thinkers identified by Carson – and for similar reasons.
But what do I know; I am just a mosquito. So, let’s ask Rothbard:
Soon there developed in Western Europe two great political ideologies, centered around this new revolutionary phenomenon: one was liberalism…; the other was conservatism….
It is the “liberalism” political ideology that will now be examined:
That genuine liberalism was essentially radical and revolutionary was brilliantly perceived, in the twilight of its impact, by the great Lord Acton…[who] wrote that “Liberalism wishes for what ought to be, irrespective of what is.”
“What ought to be” runs the risk of utopia (and often what follows the chase for utopia is the tyrant) unless one keeps in mind the “what is.” This includes…humans…as they are. It includes social norms, customs, traditions, culture. It includes the lessons learned through hundreds of generations and thousands of years – lessons that teach us what works and what doesn’t work.
Maybe I am over-reacting to this passage. Let’s try another:
“Liberalism is essentially revolutionary,” Acton observed. “Facts must yield to ideas. Peacefully and patiently if possible. Violently if not.”
Is there a way to misinterpret this? “Facts must yield to ideas…Violently”? Is it not a violation of the non-aggression principle to initiate violence if I disagree with your facts? Does this sound more like a communist idea?
Yet, Rothbard is favorably citing Lord Acton. And there is no doubt what Rothbard thought about communism. My point is…the greatest libertarian mind finds as great a statement that sounds as much like a communist slogan as anything approaching the NAP. No, I don’t believe Rothbard was a closet commie; just that there are ideas that make libertarianism and communism cousins.
What happened to liberalism? Why then did it decline during the nineteenth century?
Rothbard finds that the liberals went from being radical to becoming conservative – they lost their mojo. But I think the answer is to be found elsewhere. Rothbard cites Gertrude Himmelfarb, who is writing of Acton:
This idea of conscience, that men carry about with them the knowledge of good and evil, is the very root of revolution, for it destroys the sanctity of the past.
But the man in the past also held this knowledge of good and evil, didn’t he? Might it make sense to learn from what he learned?
The Renaissance began man on the road of “reason,” with the “reason” necessary to create law; man’s knowledge of good and evil. Before this, law was determined by tradition – old and good law. Once man’s reason became superior to tradition, it was only a matter of time before we had “legislation.” The sanctity of the past was destroyed – as Acton desired, apparently; in its place we have Congress and the Politburo.
I know what you are thinking: “bionic, you are thinking too much; you are reading way too much into this idea of a connection between libertarianism and communism and that the roots of our present less-than-free order are to be found in the Renaissance and Enlightenment.” OK, let’s see.
Libertarians of the present day are accustomed to think of socialism as the polar opposite of the libertarian creed. But this is a grave mistake…. [Socialism] was, and still is, middle-of-the-road because it tries to achieve liberal ends by the use of conservative means.
I know. Not totally convincing.
In short, Russell Kirk, who claims that socialism was the heir of classical liberalism, and Ronald Hamowy, who sees socialism as the heir of conservatism, are both right. (Emphasis added.)
That should be enough for the sceptic. But I will offer one more: Rothbard describes the “left-wing, relatively libertarian strand” of socialism…wait…a libertarian strand of socialism?
…exemplified in their different ways by Marx and Bakunin, revolutionary and far more interested in achieving the libertarian goals of liberalism and socialism….
“Libertarian goals of…socialism.” Like I said…cousins. Maybe kissing cousins.
Look, I am not dumping all of liberalism. As I said, consider this a warning that must be considered by libertarians: libertarianism is closer to communism than you might like; your advocacy of theory and application should always keep this in mind.
I offer three:
First, once man’s reason was taken as supreme (starting with the Renaissance), man-made law (legislation) was inevitable. By destroying the dependence on tradition and custom, anything was possible. The twentieth century and today’s environment are a result of “anything” being “possible.”
Second, Rothbard offers the connections between libertarianism and communism. “Man’s reason” opened the door to one of the two, or something in between – and we all know where the “somewhere in between” leads; it isn’t liberty.
Third, Acton’s “permanent revolution” can never result in liberty. Revolution offers the best opportunity for the worst to get on top.
Oh, I almost forgot. Look, don’t listen to me about the value of continuity in tradition and custom. I will offer some words from the aforementioned libertarian who is far more qualified than I am for your consideration:
Contemporary libertarians often assume, mistakenly, that individuals are bound to each other only by the nexus of market exchange. They forget that everyone is necessarily born into a family, a language, and a culture. …usually including an ethnic group, with specific values, cultures, religious beliefs, and traditions. (1)
While the State is a pernicious and coercive collectivist concept, the "nation" may be and generally is voluntary. The nation properly refers, not to the State, but to the entire web of culture, values, traditions, religion, and language in which the individuals of a society are raised. (2)
The corrupt, rotten New Culture, versus the glorious life-affirming Old. (3)
Who is this charlatan, this madman who dares contradict Rothbard? Well, here you go:
(1) Rothbard, 1994
(2) Rothbard, 1990
(3) Rothbard, 1992
I will add: the first six chapters in the compilation “The Irrepressible Rothbard” are dedicated to “A Strategy for the Right.” (Hint: the strategy wasn’t “I hope you die.”)
I must add the disclaimer that I have made dozens of times: do I criticize Rothbard for evolving, for holding certain positions early in his intellectual exploration of libertarianism and then evolving to different views later? Far from it: the man was an honest intellectual, one who had to find his way in the dark – the earliest days when there was no libertarian literature to lean on, the days when Rothbard was the literature.
I admire him for this. There are others who could take his lead.