Monday, July 15, 2019

The Libertarian Movement II

I will meander a bit.  I think there is a common thread throughout this post, but I probably won’t spend too much time to try and tie it all together.  In some fashion, an idea buried in here might end up being a chapter in the book; perhaps your feedback will trigger something in me that will point to how and why.


…this vicious attack on Dr. Paul from Nicholas Sarwark is really awful. Read it and weep for our movement.

-          Walter Block

My interest is not in Sarwark’s attack.  I haven’t bothered reading this most recent attack from Sarwark, as I have dealt with him in the past (here, then here); nothing surprises me here.  My interest is in Walter’s comment regarding “our movement.”  I have addressed this issue once before, but given the path I have walked since then I feel it is worth addressing again.

I will summarize my earlier comments: left-libertarians have more in common with the left generally than they do with conservative libertarians; conservative libertarians have more in common with other conservatives than they do left-libertarians.  In other words, the value we hold in our “libertarianishness” is small relative to the other values we hold.

On what basis would I want to form a movement with abortion-approving, LGBTQ+++ supporting, open-borders, universalist libertarians?  On what basis would libertarians who support such issues want to form a movement with me?

C. Jay Engel captures this well in his essay entitled “Libertarianism’s Place In Society”:

Libertarianism as a unifying spirit is only conceivable because we operate in a world that has experienced the imposition of a political society.

I have commented on his piece here:

Libertarians are connected to each other in their (varying levels of) anti-statism.  But this only means that libertarians see the problem only one way, through one lens, and with only one tool available to deal with it – and it is the state that has defined the way, the lens, and the tool that many libertarians choose to use.

How does one get a “movement” out of that?

(Engel continues his examination of these ideas here, looking at “… the differences between rightism and leftism and how libertarianism relates to these distinct frameworks of social interpretation.”)

If we think that liberty will be found at the end of the road called “libertarianism,” we are sorely mistaken.


I must admit, I remain tremendously struck by Murray Rothbard’s comments on ethical absolutism (yes, he is in favor); citing Rothbard:

What I have been trying to say is that Mises's utilitarian, relativist approach to ethics is not nearly enough to establish a full case for liberty. It must be supplemented by an absolutist ethic — an ethic of liberty, as well as of other values needed for the health and development of the individual — grounded on natural law, i.e., discovery of the laws of man's nature.

“A full case for liberty” will be found on the road that includes “other values…grounded on [discovered] natural law.”

This really got me to thinking…how much have others – even his supporters – misrepresented Rothbard when it comes to libertarianism and liberty?  Or am I the only one that found Rothbard’s statement on what is necessary for “a full case for liberty” inconsistent with what some of his supporters (and many of his detractors) characterize as Rothbard’s views?

Libertarians inherently accept an absolute ethic regarding certain values: do not hit first, do not steal my stuff.  What makes these acceptable?  Why are these absolute?  Why do we accept these?  If these are absolute and acceptable, why do libertarians believe that these are the ONLY absolute and acceptable values for humans?  Why do libertarians not concede that there are other absolute and objective values for humans – and for human liberty?

Why, when some libertarians point out the necessity of other values – if liberty is the objective – are they the ones labeled “thick”?


When it comes to finding liberty, Rothbard certainly does not believe that these are the only absolute and acceptable values.  As is true for almost everything else I have written, I come to find that Rothbard already wrote the book.


I know that I have read this work from Rothbard before, long ago.  I think I must not have been mature enough to understand it.


  1. Thank you for today’s post (July 15, 2019, The Libertarian Movement II). This isn’t the first time I’ve read Walter Block make a similar statement, and admittedly it made my hackles rise yet again. I doubt a concept such as veneration of individual liberty could ever belong to a select or anointed group. It may be only a semantic error on his part because I likewise doubt Block thinks that. Peg in Oregon

  2. Ayn Rand would have agreed with you on the necessity of a philosophical basis for human liberty, though I suspect you would have disagreed on based on your respective philosophies. So 'thick' libertarianism has existed for some time, but there is where the disagreements and disunity originates. The common denominator seems to be down the philosophical road a bit, where all parties align on 'don't hurt people or take their stuff.'

  3. You have clearly read more Rothbard than I have so I ask sincerely: does he assert that the NAP is the only absolute? I thought he took the position that it is the first and all else is derivative of the NAP. Whereas the “thicker” the libertarian the more exceptions to the NAP are accepted. That seems to be the continuum along which the lines are drawn assuming there is a libertarian movement.

    1. I take from Rothbard's comments quoted above and more fully developed in the linked post that he finds other ethical values as absolute: in other words, objective, to be discovered.

  4. I'm all for absolutist ethics but there will inevitably be disagreements as to what precisely those ethics should be.

    That's not a statement born of moral relativism, but rather of the realization that our models of the world necessarily fall well short of the real thing, so any ethics/worldview must make a number of assumptions and approximations.

    Small wonder, then, that the most popular worldviews for "mass consumption" have been those with a substantial amount of leeway for interpretation (like, say, Marxism), leading to the common criticism that those systems are constantly flip-flopping in the face of reality.

    In that sense I must agree with the (leftist?) sentiment that some degree of tolerance between opposing worldviews is necessary. But then that is rather obvious. If every tiny disagreement were a reason to start shooting then mankind wouldn't have had a very long run. Yet the leftists make of "tolerance" an end in itself when it is really just a practical concession to our limitations in finding and adhering to what is correct.

    That's the issue I identify with most "well meaning" leftists (i.e.: useful idiots) today, they assume that the business of living will magically take care of itself and the only thing we need to worry about is not getting in each other's way.

    1. There will be disagreements, and as long as boundaries (borders) are accepted, these disagreements can co-exist on the same planet.

      For my purposes, I look to Jesus for the example. We can never hit a target unless we have one at which to aim. In this case, we will never be precise; but we have a target.

  5. Hi Bionic,

    Thanks for the post. I have thought along similar lines myself. To take the conversation further, do you think we need a metaphysical absolute to arrive an the ethical absolute? It seems to me that we need to understand human nature if we are going to talk about natural law, and we need to understand metaphysics if we are going to talk about human nature. For example, if we assume metaphysical naturalism (i.e., material monism) as our metaphysic, I don’t see how we can arrive at view of human nature that justifies a natural law or ethical absolutism. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    Zack W.

    1. Zack, this is way above me; I have greatly simplified my analysis, as follows:

      "I don’t see how we can arrive at view of human nature that justifies a natural law or ethical absolutism."

      Jesus gave us the target. He is Plato's Form of the Good made manifest. If you have not done so and are interested in how I have come to this, start here:

    2. Zack, in reading Woody's reply below, I thought to come back to your comment. In my opinion, we do need a metaphysical absolute to arrive at an ethical absolute. Otherwise who decides?

      If you assume material monism as your metaphysics, you have not gone far enough. It seems the more that science learns, the more it realizes that it doesn't know anything:

  6. Bionic said: "I know that I have read this work from Rothbard before, long ago. I think I must not have been mature enough to understand it."

    I find that well-written / inspired books tend to provide additional information on multiple reads. The human mind simply cannot see things from more than one viewpoint at a time. And it is our viewpoint that helps prepare us to receive insight and inspiration.

    ZW said: "To take the conversation further, do you think we need a metaphysical absolute to arrive [at] the ethical absolute?"

    Without an untouchable, authoritative source, there can be no absolute. Without a "God" - some being can know more and see farther than us - we are left to ourselves, endlessly arguing over some meaningless point with only our limited and finite understanding. Without some higher being who loves us, we have no loyalty or reason to recognize or endorse any sort of "absolute".

    I believe that Bionic has made some progress in laying a firm foundation for libertarian research into the additional, yet undiscovered natural laws which govern a free society. I look forward to reading his book.