Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Separating the Men from the Boys

I have stumbled across a book review written by Lester Hunt.  He is reviewing The Ethics of Liberty, by Murray Rothbard.  The review was written in 1983, just after Rothbard’s book was published.  Hunt begins by putting Rothbard’s libertarianism in context:

Though he is an economist by training, the ultimate basis for the form of anarchism Rothbard defends is not economic but moral.

Rothbard’s anarchism is based on natural law, not on some concept of economic efficiency or other basis.  In this book, Rothbard connects the natural law as found in medieval philosophers/theologians such as Thomas Aquinas to his ideas of all rights being grounded in property rights.

I do not recall if Rothbard makes the distinction between natural law and natural rights in this book or elsewhere; it has been a while since I read the book cover to cover, and the last time I did, I would say that my understanding of natural law and natural rights was not very well developed.  Suffice it to say, I have come to the conclusion of agreeing with Rothbard: all rights are grounded in property rights.  And, as a brief aside, I will unpack this.

Natural law offers guidance as to how one should behave and act – toward himself and toward others; it is an ethical standard, not a legal standard.  For example, one should be charitable toward others, but one must not be forced by law to be charitable toward others. 

In distinction, natural rights offers guidance as to what one can demand from others: one cannot demand charity from others; one can merely demand that others respect his property rights – including, of course, the physical property of the body. (This distinction is further examined here.)

Returning to the review, Hunt suggests that readers will likely disagree with Rothbard’s anarchism as it is based on natural law:

Unfortunately, this doctrine, nowadays, is almost as unpopular as anarchism, and such a reader is also liable to disagree with it.  And Professor Rothbard does not try to prove that this doctrine is true.

How does one offer “proof” of such a thing, other than by persuasion via logical argument.  This isn’t a physical science.  Perhaps one proof can be evidenced in the trajectory of Western society, and the evidence is overwhelming in the thirty-eight years since this review was written.

Libertarianism has fractured in many ways, perhaps most fundamentally on this question of a moral vs. economic basis as foundational.  What we have seen in this divide is that which has also been seen in society at large: there are libertarians who hold to a moral standard that can be considered very individualistic and even libertine, and others who hold more traditional moral views.  I believe this can be best understood if natural law is identified as the dividing line.

The evidence in society at large points to a continuing loss of liberty – if liberty is defined as right to my life and my property – in the intervening four decades since this review was published.  The degradation in societal norms – OK if one does not hold to an ethical standard beyond the NAP, but problematic if one does – has clearly contributed to and accelerated this loss of liberty.

I, and others, have written too much about this connection for me to make it again here.  I have written extensively on the Search for Liberty, ending where one must – on Natural Law.  Guido Hülsmann has tackled the issue as well, for example, here (with my further thoughts here).  An extensive essay on the matter can be found here, focused on Aquinas, Rothbard, and C.S. Lewis, among others.

I will close with one further example, taken from a 1985 interview of Yuri Bezmenov, a KGB agent who defected to the West in 1970:

“Marxism-Leninism ideology is being pumped into the soft heads of at least three generations of American students, without being challenged or counter-balanced by the basic values of Americanism and American patriotism … The demoralization process in the United States is basically completed already … Most of it is done by Americans to Americans thanks to lack of moral standards.”

This is Antonio Gramsci writ large.  It is the moral standard of many in Western society today and of many libertarians.  Certainly, one can base their libertarianism on something other than natural law and not necessary also be a moral hedonist, but without a foundation of natural law society might not follow your lead.


Just because natural law is unpopular, as Hunt claimed and as is obviously still true today, does not make it wrong.  We have seen that ignoring natural law (by freeing ourselves from being bound by proper ends) has not been beneficial toward our liberty.

We require a standard that is above man’s ability to alter; this provides defense against the reason of the despot.  Market exchange is insufficient as this standard.  Rothbard had it right when he focused on natural law as necessary for liberty.  It has certainly ushered in a meaning crisis.

Libertarianism that rests on the non-aggression principle as the sole requirement for liberty is libertarianism for juveniles.  We have seen the liberty that comes forth when markets are set free without any moral underpinning, as this results in the crony-capitalism of today.

The idea of a liberty grounded in natural law is what separates the men from the boys.  Otherwise, all we are left with is this.


The author points to other potential disagreements with Rothbard’s conclusions or applications, for example that parents have no obligation to feed or clothe their children.  The author does not mention Rothbard’s support for abortion.  Of course, I find both a violation of natural law and of the child’s (born or unborn) natural rights.  But these are separate matters from the overall point of this post.


  1. Living beings and moral order, can they recognize, each view is opposing, exposing, the conflict inside.

    1. Anonymous,

      This is confusing and makes no sense to me. Can you rewrite it more simply?

  2. Intellectuals and elites don't like natural law because it points to a purpose of life which doesn't focus on obeying their orders. Natural law means there is a purpose to life which is grounded in the order found in human biology and culture. Order points to one who made the order. They will have none of that. Natural law and the rights that come out of it are what sociology should be pursuing. But that would mean not just performing semi-scientific studies, it would mean studying the Bible or other religious texts in supplement.

    This is really one of the most important conversations for libertarians and Christians to be having. You need to be on the Tom Woods show or something talking about this, btw.

    1. As it removes discretionary orders from those who deem it their right to lead us, you would think libertarians, especially, would be all in.

      That most libertarians are not suggests that they value the liberty of human-destroying behavior more than the liberty to be human.

  3. re: Fratelli Tutti

    A quote:

    “[Francis] says that the right to property is now ‘secondary’ to the universal distribution [sic] of goods,” tweeted one veteran Vatican journalist on Oct. 5, the day after the encyclical’s release, describing this as a significant “development” of doctrine.

    Another quote:

    Once more, lest we see Pope Francis' teaching here as egregious, I would like to give the last word to Leo XIII, ardent defender of private property and equally ardent opponent of socialism: "When what necessity demands has been supplied, and one's standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over" ("Rerum Novarum," 22).

    Now as I read it, it does not mean you have to give everything that remains after your basic needs, but that you have to give. In that, there is no option.

    1. "In that, there is no option."

      The word used in the quote was "duty." Let's stick to that.

      There's the rub, isn't it. "Duty" at the point of a gun or "duty" regarding my relationship with my priest, my conscience, and with God?

      The former is a violation of my natural rights; the latter is not.

    2. (bold mine)

      For a variety of reasons, St. Thomas argues, people have the right to “procure and dispense” the goods of the world and hence to hold them as “property.” But in regard to the use of what they legitimately own, they must always keep the general welfare first in mind: “On this respect man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need.”

      Now, in regard to this distinction, Thomas himself was the inheritor of an older tradition, stretching back to the Church Fathers. Pope Francis quotes St. John Chrysostom as follows: “Not to share our wealth with the poor is to rob them and take away their livelihood. The riches we possess are not our own, but theirs as well.” And he cites St. Gregory the Great in the same vein: “When we provide the needy with their basic needs, we are giving them what belongs to them, not to us.”

      Pope Francis, ‘Fratelli Tutti’ and the universal destination of goods

    3. Ahmed, you haven't answered my question. Let's make it simple: is St. John Chrysostom or Pope Francis suggesting that one may use a gun to force this "giving," even if the gun is used by a government agent?

      Because if this is what they are saying, it is a violation of both natural law and natural rights.

      Please try to answer the question. Use your words.

    4. Pope Francis does not have to deal with forcing people to help the needy because the state already does that. I'm not aware of any objection on his part to the current state of affairs on that matter.

      Having said that, if you accept the premise that God has placed in our hands the property of the needy, which is theirs by right, then it can be taken by force if necessary.

      I do not see this as a violation of natural law because that deals only with our property, i.e., that portion of the property in our possession which we have a rightful claim to. In point of fact, holding on to someone else's property would make one a thief. That would be a violation of natural law and the natural rights of others, in this case the needy.

      Just to be clear, I'm talking here only about preventing poverty, not taxation for government projects, etc. Like how the government takes my wealth by force to build a sports arena even though I don't like sports. But then they say it raises more revenue than its costs, and then I'm okay with that again. Other things they spend money on I'm not. Some of that is a violation of my rights.

    5. "Having said that, if you accept the premise that God has placed in our hands the property of the needy, which is theirs by right, then it can be taken by force if necessary."

      Do you have any Biblical verses that support this statement? Not just a random verse, as using a random verse here or there is what leads to division, but a well developed, integrated Scriptural teaching?

    6. Sure, how about gleaning? Lots of Bible verses here.

      Although ancient methods of harvesting were not as efficient as today, yet Leviticus 19:9-10 instructs Israelites to make them even less so. First, they were to leave the margins of their grain fields unharvested. The width of this margin appears to be up to the owner to decide. Second, they were not to pick up whatever produce fell to the ground. This would apply when a harvester grasped a bundle of stalks and cut them with the sickle, as well as when grapes fell from a cluster just cut from the vine. Third, they were to harvest their vineyards just once, presumably taking only the ripe grapes so as to leave the later ripening ones for their poor and the immigrants living among them. These two categories of people—the poor and resident foreigners—were unified by their lack of owning land and thus were dependent on their own manual labor for food. Laws benefiting the poor were common in the ancient Near East, but only the regulations of Israel extended this treatment to the resident foreigner. This was yet another way that God’s people were to be distinct from the surrounding nations. Other texts specify the widow and the orphan as members of this category. (Other biblical references to gleaning include Exod. 22:21-27; Deut. 24:19-21; Judg. 8:2; Ruth 2:17-23; Job 24:6; Isa. 17:5-6, 24:13; Jer. 6:9, 49:9; Obad. 1:5; Mic. 7:1.)

      We might classify gleaning as an expression of compassion or justice, but according to Leviticus, allowing others to glean on our property is the fruit of holiness. We do it because God says, “I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:10). This highlights the distinction between charity and gleaning. In charity, people voluntarily give to others who are in need. This is a good and noble thing to do, but it is not what Leviticus is talking about. Gleaning is a process in which landowners have an obligation to provide poor and marginalized people access to the means of production (in Leviticus, the land) and to work it themselves. Unlike charity, it does not depend on the generosity of landowners. In this sense, it was much more like a tax than a charitable contribution.

      Here's more from Wikipedia:

      These verses additionally command that olive trees should not be beaten on multiple occasions, and whatever remains from the first set of beatings should be left. According to Leviticus, these things should be left for the poor and for strangers, and Deuteronomy commands that it should be left for widows, strangers, and paternal orphans. The Book of Ruth tells of gleaning by the widow Ruth to provide for herself and her mother-in-law, Naomi, who was also a widow.

      As for force of law:

      In many parts of Europe, including England and France, the Biblically-derived right to glean the fields was reserved for the poor; a right, enforceable by law, that continued in parts of Europe into modern times.

      In 18th century England, gleaning was a legal right for "cottagers", or landless residents. In a small village the sexton would often ring a church bell at eight o'clock in the morning and again at seven in the evening to tell the gleaners when to begin and end work. This legal right effectively ended after the Steel v Houghton decision in 1788.

    7. Who is needy? What is poor? Who decides? What are the criteria for determining these conditions? What test is necessary to determine if the criteria are met? How do we determine if or when the condition has been resolved in a satisfactory manner?

      These questions should be answered before any talk arises about taking someone's property to alleviate or abolish someone's poverty. If we are going to live in a system of "forced charity", then it is easy--just develop a bureaucratic form which can be filled in and then compare the answers to a predetermined set of bureaucratic rules. This person meets the criteria, therefore she is needy and deserving of "help". That one's income is too high, so he does not. Instead, his excess property ought to be confiscated to relieve his neighbor's "poorness".

      And, of course, the middleman gets a cut of every transaction.

      Jesus said, "...the poor, you will always have with you." (Matthew 26:11) The Bible does not lay out a program of eliminating or preventing poverty and it is impossible to square "Thou shalt not steal" with involuntary taking (theft, taxation), even if it is used for a supposedly good thing. Instead, Christianity has always taught (until recently) that a person's conscience, prompted by the Holy Spirit, is what drives one to give to someone who is seen to be in need. It is a heart-felt action, not a forced one.

      "Pope Francis does not have to deal with forcing people to help the needy because the state already does that." --Ahmed Fares

      Yes, the State already does that and thus eliminates any responsibility the Pope might have had. No wonder Francis likes the status quo.

      It used to be that popes and churches HAD to deal with alleviating poverty, but now that the State does it for them via a forced redistribution of wealth program, neither the pope nor the churches have to soil their hands and their consciences. Is there a needy person in your midst? Just shuffle her off to the nearest government office to fill out the requisite forms and, Voila! You have done your duty and can go back to filling out your own required form, that is, the tax form, and worrying about how you are going to pay the amount which shows up at the bottom line.

    8. "Having said that, if you accept the premise that God has placed in our hands the property of the needy, which is theirs by right, then it can be taken by force if necessary." --Ahmed Fares

      I do not accept the premise. The property which God has placed in my hands is mine. It does not belong to someone else. It is not theirs by right. It cannot be taken legitimately by force.

    9. “Not to share our wealth with the poor is to rob them and take away their livelihood. The riches we possess are not our own, but theirs as well.” --Ahmed Fares, quoting St. John Chrysostom

      I beg your pardon? If I have two cows and my neighbor has none, then I am robbing him and taking away his livelihood? Exactly how am I robbing him? Exactly how am I preventing him from earning a living? Is my neighbor "poor" because he does not have any cows? Am I rich because I do? If he has two cars and I have none, is he robbing me and preventing me from making my own way?

      Apparently, using guilt manipulation as a weapon to resolve social problems is not unique to our present era. St. John has employed it quite well. If I paraphrased this quote, it would read like this.

      "You are rich, your neighbor is poor. You should be ashamed of yourself because he is going to starve to death unless you divest yourself of (some of) your wealth and give it to him, thus eliminating his need. After all, what you think you own is not really yours, but is rightfully his."

      Right! And if you do not want to voluntarily give your neighbor what he deserves out of the abundance which you should not have, then we will use force to rectify the situation.

      Ahhhhh! "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite!" National mottos of both France, which is in the process of destroying its own society, and Haiti, which has already done so.

      If there is one thing which history ought to have proven true, it is that socialism makes everyone equal, that is, equally poor. Except for those few extremely wealthy persons who force everyone else into that condition--they make out quite well.

      What is really sad is that the Church has not yet learned its lesson, but is set to repeat it again. 'Groundhog Day', latest version.

    10. “When we provide the needy with their basic needs, we are giving them what belongs to them, not to us.” --Ahmed Fares, quoting St. Gregory the Great

      Ditto. See my comment just above.

      There are only a few basic "needs" of humanity.
      1. Water
      2. Food
      3. Air
      4. Shelter from the elements

      In cold climates, manufactured heat and clothing are necessary. In warm climates, they are not. Fire and furs are relative. Everything else is nice, but not necessary.

      If we provide the needy with the basic necessities, then are we also responsible for providing them with more than what they "need"? Why? If everything beyond water, food, air, and shelter (basic need) is superfluous, then what is the rationale for assuming that I am required to give from my abundance because my neighbor has a perceived lack? Why might my neighbor consider that what I have really belongs to him and it is his right to take it? Or, at a minimum to deprive me of it?

      All of these things stem from one human flaw: sin, in the form of envy (Jealousy, often equated with envy is somewhat different). Simply put, envy states that, "You are rich, I am not. This makes me angry. In order to make it right, I will work to take away and destroy your wealth, even if I do not benefit directly. At least you will not be richer than I am."

      "Wrath is cruel, and anger is outrageous; but who is able to stand before envy?" Proverbs 27:4 (King James Bible)

      'Groundhog Day', again. And again. And again. Will we never learn?

    11. Ahmed, you are good at writing many words while not answering the question. I repeat your earlier statement:

      "Having said that, if you accept the premise that God has placed in our hands the property of the needy, which is theirs by right, then it can be taken by force if necessary."

      And my response:

      "Do you have any Biblical verses that support this statement? Not just a random verse, as using a random verse here or there is what leads to division, but a well developed, integrated Scriptural teaching?"

      Nothing you have written demonstrates that Scripture has authorized force to accomplish this ends. You have given verses that state this is to be done because the Lord commands it. Which goes back to where we started, when I asked:

      "There's the rub, isn't it. "Duty" at the point of a gun or "duty" regarding my relationship with my priest, my conscience, and with God?"

      As I said, you are good at writing many words while not answering the question.

    12. Ahmed,

      Are we now supposed to take Wikipedia's "Word" as gospel in our dealings with the poor and needy? When did Wikipedia become the arbiter of biblical teaching for us? And, really, why didn't you post a link to the article from which you quoted? Neglecting to do that is unethical and unprofessional, which decreases the effectiveness of your argument.

      Or perhaps 18th century law in England? Why should we be bound because of this? Did they have a lock on "The Truth" that we have somehow lost and which has not been seen since 1788?

      Sorry, Bud, but you need to do better than this to persuade me.

    13. "It is clear that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonweal. The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property." - Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum

      A duty to give to those in need we Christians certainly have, but it is one that should be socially enforced by the Church, rather than one politically enforced by the state. This is the only method of enforcement that coheres with the rest of scripture.

      To delegate this sacred duty to the corrupt hands of the state is to make a bargain with the devil, for he is always trying to make vice out of virtue.

  4. Found another libertarian that has arrived at the idea that a type of natural law is needed to increase freedom in the world.

    Marc Victor runs the Live and Let Live organization. Heard him on Tom Wood's show episode 1817.

  5. I go with the Bible.

    "10 For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat." 2 Thessalonians 3:10, Apostle Paul

    1. RMB,

      The Bible says feed the needy not the lazy. Yours is a straw man argument.

  6. Roger,

    When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. —Deuteronomy 24:19

    I know that Christians differ on how much they are bound by the Old Testament. I'd much rather you said that you choose not to be bound by these words and leave it at that.

    1. Ahmed,

      I looked up all the verses you referenced above. In all these, I saw the word "gleaning". In none of them did I notice any legal imperative to "punish" landowners by designating them criminals and confiscating their property under the cover of law.

      In fact, the verse cited above in your comment is aimed directly at the individual as a moral command and should not be taken as an excuse to create a legal climate which landowners are afraid to transgress.

      Consider that the Lord your God will bless you in all the work of your hands IF you leave gleanings in the field for the poor and indigent. This is a matter of faith. I trust that the good I am doing will redound to my credit and well-being at some future time.

      Consider that the socialist State will curse you IF you do not volunteer to give up what is rightfully yours so that someone you do not know can be enriched at your expense. This is also faith. I trust that whatever good (increase, profit, etc.) I produce will be confiscated by an aggressive legal system for the benefit of someone I do not know and who is not deserving of my effort. Therefore, because I believe this to be true, I will scale back my production so that I will have enough to live, with nothing left to give to anyone else. This attitude leads to poverty...for everyone.

      I'd much rather that you said you are a believer in forced redistribution of wealth, a.k.a., socialism, than any number of biblical verses you copy from Wikipedia.

      Leave it at that.

  7. Found an organization using natural law explicitly as a basis for restricting law and law enforcement. Really excited about these guys. Would be fun to get involved in this kind of advocacy.