Friday, March 2, 2018

The Imbecile

Only an imbecile could ever hold that freedom is the highest or indeed the only principle or end of life.

-        Murray Rothbard, Frank S. Meyer: The Fusionist as Libertarian Manqué

This quote was offered by Anonymous February 24, 2018 at 9:46 AM (aka –M) at this post.  After asking for, and receiving, the source of this quote…well, this current post is the result. 

For some context to Rothbard’s piece: the “fusionism” which Rothbard critiques is the fusion offered by Frank Meyer between “libertarian” and “traditionalists.”  So, let’s begin:

At the heart of the dispute between the traditionalists and the libertarians is the question of freedom and virtue: Should virtuous action (however we define it) be compelled, or should it be left up to the free and voluntary choice of the individual?

Rothbard answers the question, and I agree with his view: there is no virtue possible if one is “compelled.”

However, what about the portion of the statement “however we define it”?  “However we define it” (more specifically, what we find to be “virtuous action”) I believe to be an important issue to deal with when it comes to understanding the possibility of moving toward something approaching a libertarian society.

We cannot come to a definition of virtue via the NAP.  However might we come to a definition via thinking through what it takes to achieve and maintain a society that generally conforms to the NAP?  Alternatively, might we look to history for an example of such a society and the characteristics that made it so?  (I say “yes” and “yes.”)

Is the universe of “virtuous action” to be discovered solely in the non-aggression principle?  Impossible, as the non-aggression principle is something closer to virtuous inaction.  Alternatively, is “virtuous action” to include that one respect his neighbor’s right to not be aggressed against?  I would certainly label this a virtuous action, but are we limited to this?  As libertarians, maybe; as human beings, of course not.

Which Rothbard effectively addresses:

…what of the fusionist critique of libertarianism: that it ignores virtue altogether in the pursuit of freedom (or, at least, ignores virtue insofar as it goes beyond freedom itself)?  Much of this critique rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of what libertarianism is all about.

As I have often emphasized, libertarianism is about one thing – we should not expect more from it than it is intended to deliver.

Thus, Professor John P. East speaks of the traditionalist concern about contemporary libertarianism…"of taking a valid point, in this case the importance of the individual and his rights, and elevating it to the first principle of life with all other considerations excluded"

Even Frank Meyer, uncharacteristically and in the heat of the ideological fray, identified libertarianism as a "libertine impulse [which] . . . raises the freedom of the individual . . . to the status of an absolute end."

And now we are in the context of Rothbard’s quote, cited at the top of this piece:

But this is an absurd straw-man. Only an imbecile could ever hold that freedom is the highest or indeed the only principle or end of life.

I will ask that you reflect on this statement, edited slightly:

But this is an absurd straw-man. Only an imbecile could ever hold that freedom is the highest or indeed the only principle or end of life.

Which begs the question: if one holds a higher “principle or end in life” than freedom, what does this mean for his standing in the libertarian club?  Because it seems to me that if this higher “principle or end in life” in some manner violates the non-aggression principle, the holder is no libertarian.  In other words, it seems that a libertarian must hold the NAP higher than any other principle.

Yet Rothbard suggests that only an imbecile would hold such a view.  And I doubt Rothbard is suggesting that all principled libertarians are imbeciles.

For some clarity on this point, I offer a comment from A Texas Libertarian February 26, 2018 at 8:39 AM:

Do you believe organized aggression is necessary to bring about the fulfillment of your highest ends, or are you simply willing to accept incomplete liberty to achieve your highest ends due to the prevailing political inclinations of those around you who share your highest ends? If you are the former, then I think the libertarian label may not apply, but if you are the latter I believe that it does.

I fall into the latter, but admittedly this is rather passive approach to “liberty.”   How easy it is to say “this amount of liberty is good enough for me”?  What if it takes something active to achieve and maintain liberty?  You know, something more than writing and debating arcane points of theory?  There are very uncomfortable questions that flow from this line of thinking.  I have asked these here; consider this current post a continuation of this same dialogue.

Returning to Rothbard:

Freedom is necessary to, and integral with, the achievement of any of man's ends. The libertarian agrees completely with Acton and with Meyer himself that freedom is the highest political end, not the highest end of man per se; indeed, it would be difficult to render such a position in any sense meaningful or coherent.

We are free to accept incomplete liberty in order to achieve a higher end…well…this is because life is so much more, as Rothbard offers:

The confusion here, and the basic problem with conservatives' understanding of libertarianism, is that libertarianism per se does not offer a comprehensive way of life or system of ethics, as do, say, conservatism and Marxism. This does not mean in any sense that I am personally opposed to a comprehensive ethical system; quite the contrary.

Which leaves the libertarian door open for everything from the Bible-thumping church-goer to the libertine.  Which, as I have examined far too often, opens the door to possibilities that will result in something less than a libertarian order.

Libertarianism does not talk about virtue in general (apart from the virtue of maintaining liberty), simply because it is not equipped to do so….This does not mean that individual libertarians are unconcerned with moral principles or with broader philosophical issues.

Rothbard moves on to a topic even more near and dear to my heart:

In choosing political or social positions, two alternatives have been offered: custom or tradition on the one hand, the use of reason to discern natural laws and rights on the other; in short, tradition, or the use of reason to discern abstract principles on which to stand one's ground outside the customs of time and place.

Rothbard comes down on the side of reason.  But I don’t see it as either / or (does this make me a fusionist?), at least not within the framework presented by Rothbard.  For example, why limit ourselves to the “reason” of the current?  What of the “reason” of the countless generations before us, the “reason” built into the tradition?

The libertarian, as Lord Acton stated, "wishes for what ought to be, irrespective of what is." Or, as Gertrude Himmelfarb has summed up Acton's viewpoint, "the past was allowed no authority except as it happened to conform to morality."

This, to me, is backwards: the past is authority, unless it doesn’t conform to morality.  Why dismiss the reason developed over thousands over years for the reason invented today? 

Yet, the question remains: what is “moral”?

Here again, Meyer comes down basically on the libertarian side. Arguing against the traditionalists, he points out that there are many traditions; and how but by the use of reason can we decide between them? Time can hallow evil as well as good….

From where do we get the definition of “good” and “evil”?  It can come from religion; it can also come from the countless generations of experience in developing “what works to sustain life.”  Are “good” and “evil” to be defined anew with each generation – no, even defined anew by each graduating class of sniveling snowflakes?

I also wonder about the statement “Time can hallow evil as well as good.”  Can time hallow evil?  However we define evil, I think one thing we can say is that evil is destructive to life – there is nothing really “hallow” about this.  Eventually, life discards that which is destructive to it – either that or there is no more life.  What is kept is what is conducive to sustaining and improving life – in other words, what works.

And this comes back to what we find as virtuous: shall we trust our reason or shall we trust the learned reason of countless generations toward identifying “what works”?  Which one might take priority?

Whether you believe the Biblical story of God and the tablets or 3 billion years of evolution, “what works” is handed down to us from something much bigger and far more knowledgeable than man’s “reason” of the moment.

Rothbard gives at least a nod to this reality:

We can then conclude as follows: (a) that custom must be voluntarily upheld and not enforced by coercion; and (b) that people would be well advised (although not forced) to begin with a presumption in favor of custom, other things being equal.

And this is how I see it.  I agree with “well advised (although not forced).”  But if custom is what is “well advised,” then it seems to me that the burden of proof is on “reason” to demonstrate why we should change custom.  And reason’s burden is to demonstrate that the custom is destructive to life – in other words, reason does not change custom willy-nilly.


Are there any other obeisances that libertarians may properly make to tradition? Simply to say that, in life, not all questions are matters of moral principle. There are numerous areas of life where people live by habit and custom, where the custom can neither be called moral or immoral, and where pursuit of custom eases the tensions of social life and makes for a more comfortable and harmonious society.

So…following a custom even though one doesn’t like it is an appropriate path to take if one wants to ease the tension of life and live in a more comfortable and harmonious society.  Not the worst objective in the world. 

How about an example?  Like the neighbors who have their sex orgies on the front lawn in a neighborhood of church-goers.  All that olive oil and whipped cream might not violate the NAP, but it certainly will increase the tension of social life and reduce the harmony in society.

Do you think increased social tension and reduced social harmony are conducive to maintaining both a law and behavior that is reasonably consistent with the NAP?  Sure, libertarians don’t want to use force to prevent such activities; yet such activities are virtually guaranteed to reduce liberty. 

And this is a conclusion supported both by reason and also by tradition. 

So I guess I win either way.


  1. Bionic, I feel you truly nailed it with this post. Nailed it, crushed it, owned it!

    Some thoughts to magnify your points:

    Rothbard said that "Only an imbecile could ever hold that freedom is the highest ... principle or end of life." But holding the NAP as the highest principle is not the same thing. The freedom to riot, for example, is not upheld by the NAP.

    Perhaps, instead of an end, we should look at liberty in general and the NAP in particular as a vehicle that facilitates the ends we wish to achieve - I believe that's where you are going with this post and I wholeheartedly agree.

    "Are 'good' and 'evil' to be defined anew with each generation – no, even defined anew by each graduating class of sniveling snowflakes?"
    It is evident that each generation, at least in the modern era, has had to figure out the whys and wherefores of the current morality. And each generation that was given this liberty has discarded older societal conventions and morality in favor of satisfying the baser appetites. I think in the past, when the opinions of youth were not treated so seriously, this did not occur since each generation had time to mature and accept the norms of contemporary society.

    " ... that people would be well advised (although not forced) to begin with a presumption in favor of custom, other things being equal."
    Excellent point! A religious leader of my own faith recently said the same thing when he said "Please, first doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith."

    Reason should be used to understand the whys of a given tradition - and the burden is on the side of Reason to demonstrate how a given tradition is anathema to life and happiness.

  2. "For example, why limit ourselves to the “reason” of the current? What of the “reason” of the countless generations before us, the “reason” built into the tradition?"

    I have often found myself asking similar questions when reading of antagonisms between traditionalists and those who claim reason as their guide (or God).

    One one hand, there are those who claim to be guided purely by reason, but they unreasonably overlook or fail appreciate why traditional ways of life are so successful. Nature, or God, is not unreasonable, so it should come as no surprise that there are reasons why certain species, races, or cultures of biological life are successful at promoting or improving their continued existence.

    On the other hand, the strain of conservatism, with Russell Kirk as its most notable exponent, that denigrates not only certain ideologies, but ideology in general perplexes me. Are we not to think at all? Shall we not worry about logically consistent political systems? Shall we all follow tradition blindly? Should the way we live in the future be solely governed by our inherited past? That would be an odd position to take for a Christian who must by definition believe in free will.

    A truly Rothbardian retort to these particular Kirkean conservatives would be to point out that the systematic rejection of ideology is itself an ideology, and thus the position is self-refuting. Not that an autistic traditionalist would lose any sleep over logical inconsistency. (I'm not sure if he's ever written about this, but I wouldn't be surprised if he had. If the argument has any merit, I'll go ahead and give Rothbard credit for it, since he's laid the rhetorical blueprint in the refutation of another logically challenged group, the identity of which I can't seem to remember.)

  3. Great write up, especially the last two sentences/conculsion- Kudos.

  4. Muslim man claims a "right" to honor-kill his three daughters.

    NAMBLA claims a "right" to sodomize your nine-year-old son.

    Truman claims a "right" to nuke Japanese cities.

    There must be a hundred versions of rights. By all means, scoff at my version of Sky Wizard.

  5. Let me take a different view. And I have two reasons for it, one philosophical, and one theoretical:

    Philosophical -

    Have you defined freedom? If you define freedom as omnipotence the you are at the same time taking away what freedom means. Because if one is omnipotent the meaning of freedom itself no longer present. My conclusion is that freedom is only possible in the light of constraints. And if that is the case there is no longer reason to hold freedom as the highest standard.

    Theoretical -

    NAP is a fine principle. But it cannot be used to solve lifeboat scenario's. Individuals in todays world will only seldom -if ever- encounter lifeboat scenarios. Hence the NAP is a good (if not the best) moral guideline for persons.
    But that is not true for societies as a whole. Societies (as defined by shared culture) are in a constant darwinian fight for survival. I.e. a permanent lifeboat scenario.
    But if societies cannot be held to the NAP standard, then humans -who make up society- may at time experience limitations caused by this. If however freedom must be absolute, these limitations must be negated and societies survival is undermined. Undermining the very existence of the humans in it.