Friday, February 23, 2018

The Trees

There is unrest in the Forest
There is trouble with the trees
For the Maples want more sunlight
And the Oaks ignore their pleas.

-        The Trees, Rush

This book is a compilation of sixteen essays by Murray Rothbard.  The title of the book is also the opening essay: Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature.  It is this opening essay that I will examine in this post.

For well over a century, the Left has generally been conceded to have morality, justice, and “idealism” on its side; the Conservative opposition to the Left has largely been confined to the “impracticality” of its ideals.

With this, Rothbard sets the stage.  The Conservatives have ceded the moral ground; by doing so, they have created an environment where the Left can achieve gradual change – over the long run “practicality” cannot succeed against “moral” and “ethical.”

Rothbard describes the “impracticality” argument as one that holds up economic considerations against the Left’s ideals.  I find this a tremendously important point.  In how many arguments in favor of libertarian (or supposedly libertarian) ideals are the economic justifications raised, while moral and ethical considerations are deemed secondary – if even considered?

The trouble with the Maples
(And they’re quite convinced they’re right)
They say the Oaks are just too lofty
And they grab up all the light

Regarding the value judgment on behalf of “equality,” Rothbard asks:

Is there no requirement that these value judgments be in some sense valid, meaningful, cogent, true?

How is one to judge what is “valid, meaningful, cogent, true?”  From the Introduction to the First Edition, Rothbard writes:

Libertarianism is a new and emerging discipline which touches closely on many other areas of the study of human action: economics, philosophy, political theory, history, even – and not least – biology.

“True” is found in the reality of humanity.  Essentially, the student of libertarianism cannot ignore the reality of the world around him, the reality of humans as they are, the reality of the successes and failures in history and the causes of these.  The better grounded the student of libertarianism is in this reality, the better grounded his advocacy in this reality, the more seriously will his ideas be considered.

But the Oaks can’t help their feelings
If they like the way they’re made
And they wonder why the Maples
Can’t be happy in their shade?

Rothbard asks: “should equality be granted its current status as an unquestioned ethical ideal?  In response, he offers:

…we must challenge the very idea of a radical separation between something that is “true in theory” but “not valid in practice.”  If a theory is correct, then it does work in practice; if it does not work in practice, then it is a bad theory.

From the Introduction to the Second Edition, by David Gordon:

But Rothbard was no spinner of idle utopian fantasies: he always had in mind what can be done immediately to achieve his libertarian goals…. Indeed, Rothbard continually alternated between elaborations of principle and applications to particular issues.

I have struggled with this distinction – theory vs. application.  I sometimes try to clarify as to the bucket in which I am swimming when I write; more often, even I am not sure which bucket I am in.  I guess if making this distinction was not very important to Rothbard (in fact, he advises specifically not to make this distinction) I should probably get over it myself.

The common separation between theory and practice is an artificial and fallacious one.  But this is true in ethics as well as anything else.  If an ethical ideal is inherently “impractical,” that is, if it cannot work in practice, then it is a poor ideal and should be discarded forthwith.

If the goal itself violates the nature of man, then it is a poor idea to work in the direction of that goal.

There is trouble in the Forest
And the creatures all have fled
As the Maples scream ‘Oppression!’
And the Oaks, just shake their heads

Rothbard offers:

…mankind is uniquely characterized by a high degree of variety, diversity, differentiation; in short, inequality…. The age-old record of inequality seems to indicate that this variability and diversity is rooted in the biological nature of man.

When egalitarian fantasy butts up against this reality, no one gets to stand on the sideline; no one will survive unscathed.

So the Maples formed a Union
And demanded equal rights
‘The Oaks are just too greedy
We will make them give us light’

Rothbard continues by offering evidence, rooted in science, of the differences in men and women and the genetic nature of intelligence.  But it is not enough that this idea of equality is a revolt against biological reality; it is much worse:

[It is a deeper revolt} against the ontological structure of reality itself, against the “very organization of nature”; against the universe as such.  At the heart of the egalitarian left is the pathological belief that there is no structure of reality; that all the world is tabula rasa that can be changed at any moment in any desired direction by the mere exercise of human will – in short, that reality can be instantly transformed by the mere wish of whim of human beings.


Now there’s no more Oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet,
And saw…

Such egalitarian ideas can only be made manifest only via the most totalitarian of methods and can only result in the destruction of humanity.

Egalitarians do not have ethics on their side unless one can maintain that the destruction of civilization, and even of the human race itself, may be crowned with the laurel wreath of a high and laudable morality.


  1. The only input I have in Rothbard's, Rush's and your excellent observations is to distinguish between "inalienable" or "natural" and God Given "rights", which indeed are equal and mans attempt to regulate some kind of totalitarian "equality".

    As always, I enjoy your thoughts which allow me to expand my own.


  2. This is one of the essays I read early on in my post-school education. I think it is one I've kept close the surface. I quoted that line about theory and practice last week but didn't recall my own origin of the idea. I hope you provide posts on all the essays in the collection. They're great.

    1. I will certainly cover several of the essays. I can't say "all," as I won't know if I can add anything of value to each one until I read it and think about it.

    2. Rothbard says tabula rasa is of the egalitarian left- it is also a major part of Objectivism and left-libertarianism

  3. I've been reading Helmut Schoeck's "Envy: a theory of social behaviour", and he has what I feel to be the missing piece of the puzzle of conservatives' and libertarians' inability to land a resounding moral blow against egalitarianism.

    In one passage which I can't seem to find, he puts forth the rather obvious point (once he makes it) that material equality by itself is absolutely hollow as a moral imperative, if you refuse to acknowledge the validity of envy and guilt as a result of inequality per se.

    According to him, it's this modern unwillingness to confront the "envy-motive", the loss of the ability to suppress pathological resentment (envy) and ignore unwarranted guilt (fear of envy), that's eating the West from the inside. (Notice that the guy is writing BEFORE 1968!!!)

    It may sound simplistic, but he makes his case throughout the book by examining the link, which turns out to be a rather close link, between different societies' degree of success in regulating envy, and the level of coherence and prosperity that they managed to reach.

    He also establishes logical causal links (praxeologically, you could say) between unrestrained envy and social/economic dysfunction.

    A couple of gems:

    "Under a portentous misconception as to what had really happened when, in the West and for the first time in human history, envy had been successfully mastered, socialist thinkers in the nineteenth century again began to popularize concepts on the nature of inequality and, indeed, to make them morally binding. These corresponded exactly to the concepts of primitives. Since then, however, literary left-wing sentimentalists and their ideas of values have taken things to a point where even people who in no way consider themselves socialists, Marxists or ordinary progressives, among them sincere Christians genuinely concerned with ethical imperatives, no longer know how to deal with primitive emotional complexes, nor are they able to comprehend the irrationality of those complexes. Hence they grope desperately and endlessly for 'social' solutions, which in fact solve nothing."

    "[T]he twentieth century has gone further towards the liberation of the envious man, and towards raising envy to an abstract social principle, than any previous society since the primitive level, because it has taken seriously several ideologies of which envy is the source and upon which it feeds in precisely the degree to which those ideologies raise false hopes of an ultimate envy-free society. And in the twentieth century, too, for the first time, certain societies have grown rich enough to nourish the illusion that they can afford the luxury of buying the goodwill of the envious at ever steeper prices."

    I say again, this guy is writing BEFORE 1968. Doesn't sound like the underlying problem has changed much, does it? It's just (much) further along now.

    It's not light or flowing reading, as you can see from the quotes... but I highly recommend it. This is what sociology/psychology ought to look like.

    I wonder if Rothbard was aware of Schoeck. Unfortunately reading footnotes isn't a habit of mine.

    Cheers and keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks, Nilo. I have read others point to envy as a destructive factor. Far worse than jealousy: "jealous" just wants what you have, but doesn't get violent about it; "envy" will happily destroy what you have so that the two of you are even.

    2. Hoppe also acknowledges the role of envy in relation to the effects of Democracy:

      "By opening entry into government, anyone is permitted to freely express his desire for other's property. What formerly was regarded as immoral and accordingly suppressed is now considered a legitimate sentiment. Everyone may openly covet everyoe else's property in the name of democracy".

      This complements rather well Schoeck's idea, with the century of democratic expansion being associated with a dysfunction of society's mechanisms for regulating envy, leading to a dramatical expansion of State power.

      Interestingly, we can also infer that ancient societies were aware of the role private property had in civilization and the danger of envy, considering the big religions specifically highlight envy and agression to property as major sins (shalt not steal, murder, or covet)