Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Search for Liberty; Chapter Thirteen: Libertarian Natural Rights

NB: All previous chapters can be found here.

I am continuing with Murray Rothbard’s Introduction to Natural Rights.  Here, Rothbard develops libertarian natural rights from Thomistic natural law.  He begins this by introducing John Locke:

It was, in contrast, the Levellers and particularly John Locke in seventeenth-century England who transformed classical natural law into a theory grounded on methodological and hence political individualism.

It is the individual who thinks, chooses and acts, hence natural law in politics establishes the natural rights of each individual.  From Locke’s Second Treatise:

[E]very man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

This concept is foundational to the non-aggression principle: don’t hit first, don’t take my stuff.  I know that theologically some will argue with this idea that man owns himself, but for political purposes – laws governing proper use of violence – it seems to me unassailable.

Rothbard notes what many have come to see regarding Locke’s work: it is “riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies.”  And here Rothbard adds:

After all, the pioneers of any discipline, any science, are bound to suffer from inconsistencies and lacunae that will be corrected by those that come after them.

Rothbard points to those who came after Locke and built on his work, to include Herbert Spencer and Lysander Spooner. 

The myriad of post-Locke and post-Leveller natural-rights theorists made clear their view that these rights stem from the nature of man and of the world around him.

Francis Lieber, William Ellery Channing, and Theodore Woolsey are examples of just such theorists.  The quote offered from Woolsey is valuable:

…natural rights are those "which, by fair deduction from the present physical, moral, social, religious characteristics of man, he must be invested with … in order to fulfill the ends to which his nature calls him."

This seems a far broader field than one limited to natural rights in property; let’s see how this plays out.

If, as we have seen, natural law is essentially a revolutionary theory, then so a fortiori is its individualist, natural-rights branch.

It is interesting that Rothbard uses the word “branch.”  I cannot help but recall Lewis, who offered:

The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves.

Up to this point, Rothbard is offering to build on only a portion of natural law – a branch.  When it comes to finding liberty, we must consider the possibility that Lewis is right; it should not be forgotten that Rothbard also understood this very well – there is much more to finding liberty than the thin libertarianism of property rights.

It is certainly true that from natural law one can derive a natural right to property, to the fruits of one’s labor (albeit on the edges, this might not be an absolute right – but this detail is secondary at the moment).  But one can derive much more from natural law than this.  Man’s ends or purposes reach much farther than the accumulation of property.

What is meant by “rights” in the context presented by Rothbard?  It is that man has a right to use his property, and any attempt to prevent this via physical force would be immoral; at the same time, not every use of property is necessarily moral.  Forgive the lengthy cite, but this is a critical point that Rothbard is making:

[This] definition highlights the crucial distinction we shall make throughout this work between a man's right and the morality or immorality of his exercise of that right. We will contend that it is a man's right to do whatever he wishes with his person; it is his right not to be molested or interfered with by violence from exercising that right. But what may be the moral or immoral ways of exercising that right is a question of personal ethics rather than of political philosophy — which is concerned solely with matters of right, and of the proper or improper exercise of physical violence in human relations. The importance of this crucial distinction cannot be overemphasized.

With this, I am in agreement.  When it comes to using physical violence (call it punishment for violating another’s natural right), this must be limited to circumstances when physical force was initiated – cases of aggression.  Acts deemed immoral, but not aggressive toward another, must be dealt in a way that also does not introduce aggression.

Still, we are still looking at a very narrow slice of natural rights derived from natural law – just one branch, as Rothbard describes it.  But is this sufficient for liberty?  Again, from Lewis:

A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.

This objective value refers to far more than property rights.  If one were to present this idea of rights in property to Aristotle or Aquinas, they would not recognize it as complete natural law – nor does Rothbard present it as such.  Natural law speaks to so much more; Rothbard recognizes this, as he is not describing a complete moral code, or even an entire philosophy for liberty – he is describing merely a legal code.

A dogmatic belief in the entirety of natural law is necessary to avoid tyranny or slavery; this has implications for our search for liberty.  Rothbard perfectly describes libertarianism; but does this lead us to liberty?  Even Rothbard is not making such a claim. 

I will only summarize here, as this was developed in some detail in earlier chapters: man’s natural end, or purpose, is happiness – but not the superficial word we know today; in the Latin, the word was beatitudo.  To summarize, think of it as the Golden Rule.  There is much more here than property rights.  It is an entire view of life – outward as well as inward, acting with concern of others as well as one’s self, considering family and community and not merely the individual.


It is not the intention of this book to expound or defend at length the philosophy of natural law, or to elaborate a natural-law ethic for the personal morality of man. The intention is to set forth a social ethic of liberty i.e., to elaborate that subset of the natural law that develops the concept of natural rights, and that deals with the proper sphere of "politics," i.e., with violence and non-violence as modes of interpersonal relations. In short, to set forth a political philosophy of liberty.

Rothbard is exactly right: the question of justified physical force is one thing; the issue of moral behavior is quite another.  Rothbard is setting forth a political philosophy of justified physical force.  But if we are after liberty, aren’t both questions – that of physical force on the one hand and morality on the other hand – important?  Rothbard certainly thought so.

Rothbard is clear that he is not addressing the second point in this essay.  We can, for this, look to Hans Hoppe, who offered just such a conclusion in introducing the Ten Commandments – the portion that deals with man’s relationship to his fellow man:

…the full six mentioned commandments can be recognized as even an improvement over a strict and rigid libertarianism – given the common, shared goal of social perfection: of a stable, just and peaceful social order.

An improvement over libertarianism!  Blasphemy to some; the sound of liberty to others.  Hoppe makes clear: punishment for physical violations is one thing; liberty is quite another.  If we are building liberty on natural law, there is no option other than to improve on “a strict and rigid libertarianism.”  It is not a strange idea to Rothbard.

Perhaps we can consider natural law grounded in a Christian ethic, with libertarianism used to identify actions deserving of physical punishment.


Where do we go from here?  Well, what happens when the thin libertarianism of property rights butts-up against natural law as offered in the Aristotelian-Thomistic framework? 


  1. The thing most striking to me about Rothbard is that he saw himself first and foremost as 'The Enemy of the State'. When he speaks of 'natural law' it is for the purpose of opposing it to 'positivist law', law created by a ruling political elite. For Hayek, law is natural in the sense that it is discovered naturally in the course of people's pursuit of economic gain. American settlers spontaneously developed 'natural law' as they moved westward developing the ad hoc law of 'corn rights' - the homesteader of a crop owned the land by virtue of putting it to use - and 'cabin rights' and 'tomahawk rights' which similarly conferred ownership. Law can be likened to a technology which facilitates productivity by preventing and peaceably resolving disputes. Furthermore natural law for Hayek only concerns those directly involved in a local market. Law for that local market arises spontaneously and locally. In a nearby market the law may be slightly different as conditions are slightly different. Just as no central planning committee can possibly have full access to the changing information unique to local economic situations, let alone correctly interpret them, let alone correctly decide what course of action the locals should follow, so it is with law. What one specifically seeks to avoid is the centralized political project of positivist law, centrally legislated law imposing itself on as many disparate places and people as possible by force. In that sense Brexit is a perfect alloy of Rothbard and Hayek. When one studies instances of spontaneously arising law it is no doubt tempting to ascribe to them some universal underlying principle - but it seems to me to be just as likely that natural law is in fact 'author-less', devised neither by any specific individual nor deriving from any pre-existing system of philosophy.

    1. "For Hayek, law is natural in the sense that it is discovered naturally in the course of people's pursuit of economic gain."

      If economic gain is the north star of natural law, it is both a thin and week reed.

  2. "Rothbard is setting forth a political philosophy of justified physical force. But if we are after liberty, aren’t both questions – that of physical force on the one hand and morality on the other hand – important? Rothbard certainly thought so." - BM

    So did the others at the John Randolph Society as Rothbard reported in his 1992 RRR essay "Kulturkampf":

    "At the final morning panel of the January 1992 meeting of the John Randolph Club, top political scientist Claes Ryn asked a thoughtful question about government and culture. To the effect: “we have talked about politics and government this weekend, but shouldn’t we be concentrating not on politics but on the culture?’’ It was a cogent question from an important traditionalist scholar, to which, a brilliant reply was delivered by the eminent paleoconservative historian and literary critic, M.E. Bradford. ‘Yes,“ said Mel Bradford, ”but if we can get control of the executive branch, we can put a stop to the enormous amount of poison that the government
    keeps injecting into our culture.”

    From this small passage we see that Rothbard felt the question posed by Claes Ryn was an important one, and by his affirmation of M.E. Bradford's reply, we can tell that Rothbard felt that government interference was the main reason for our modern cultural decay.

    In other words, get the government out of the cultural sphere and we'll see a return of the "Old Culture", i.e. the natural law. And Rothbard goes on in the next paragraph to explicitly associate this culture with the natural law.

    "Furthermore, I, along with other paleos, am convinced that the Old Culture, the culture pervading America from the 1920s through the 1950s, yes the culture of the much derided Ozzie and Harriet and the Waltons, that that culture was in tune not only with the American spirit but with natural law. And further, that the nihilistic, hedonistic, ultra-feminist, egalitarian ”alternative” culture that has been foisted upon us by left-liberalism is not only not in tune with, but deeply violates the essence of that human nature that developed, not only in America before the 1960s, but throughout the Western world and Western civilization."


    In agreement with both Mel and Murray (that's good company!), I think the correct answer to Claes' question is an emphatic 'yes'. We should be concentrating on the cultural elements of liberty, and kudos to you Bionic for seeing that earlier than most and taking this task head on.

  3. Ever since Chapter 11 of this series was posted, I have been struggling with the seeming contradiction of Rothbard's known positions. On the one hand, he comes down squarely on the side of ethical absolutism, an objective moral code which all men can search for and know. On the other, he has been vigorous in his insistence that women have the 'right' to abort their unborn children.

    I posted an article on my blog in which I expressed the opinion that he became so enamored of the idea of property rights that he forgot the principle of absolute ethics and morality. In other words, he couldn't see the forest for looking at the trees. One specific tree in particular. I'm not satisfied with this, however, and may have found some answers here.

    Victor says above, "Rothbard...saw himself first and foremost as 'The Enemy of the State'. When he speaks of 'natural law' it is for the purpose of opposing it to 'positivist law', law created by a ruling political elite." If this is true, did Rothbard take up the cause of 'woman's right to abortion', not because it stems from natural law, but due to his enmity for positivist law--the outlawing and forbidding of abortion? If this is true, doesn't that show a willingness on his part to compromise his beliefs so that a desired outcome could be reached? Was he, in fact, pragmatic instead of principled? How would this square with the quote by C.S. Lewis above about "A dogmatic belief in objective value...?"

    Rothbard may have only been promoting a political philosophy of freedom, but I wonder how much better off we would be today if he had argued as forcefully that absolute morality was at least as important--and dogmatically stuck with it.

    As it is, women's rights (property rights) have been dominant for decades and millions of unborn children have paid the price. We have all paid the price.

    I understand that many people view Rothbard in the same light as the ancient Greeks did Hercules--a demi-god, so to speak, but the fact remains that he was only human and thus fallible. It is my contention that he was wrong (or at least inconsistent)on this issue.

    Bionic Mosquito, I am one of those who have argued with the idea that man owns himself. In fact, I wrote an article on my blog trying to refute something which Michael Rozeff said some months ago on this very issue. What is your position here on the posting of links to personal blogs? I can't always say everything I wish to as a comment, but I am extremely cautious about promoting myself and do not wish to run afoul of any protocol you might have. I prefer to maintain a good relationship.

    Thank you.

    1. Roger! Great comment.

      Your last paragraph really is devastating towards common Ancap and Propertarian theory. It is often assumed that man owned himself. But is this true? For example: in a materialist worldview, man is "owned" by cause and effect; in a Christian worldview, man is owned by God. That's a clunky way of putting it, but the implications for private property (vs. stewardship), libertarianism, and what constitutes "aggression" are profound.

    2. Roger,

      Rothbard explains his position on abortion in its entirety in the chapter 'Children and Rights' in his book "The Ethics of Liberty".

      The short of it is that Rothbard considers birth "the proper line of demarcation" for the "beginning of a live human being possessing natural rights".

      To my knowledge he never changed his reasoning from this chapter in "The Ethics...".

      The subject of Rothbard's analysis of natural rights as they relate to abortion is the exemplar par excellence of the point 'Dr. Mosquito' has been making for the past 5 (?) years or so, namely that reason alone just ain't enough to get us to liberty, let alone anything resembling our natural end as human beings: beatitude (or eudaimonia for all you kind hearted atheists and agnostics out there).

      Rothbard was the paragon of disciplined reason, and yet, with only reason in his toolkit, he wound up 'justifying' abortion. Those who follow him today with a similarly barren toolkit persist in his error (apart from perhaps Hoppe - I don't actually know where he stands on this).

      "...not because it stems from natural law, but due to his enmity for positivist law--the outlawing and forbidding of abortion?" - Roger

      I also think that Rothbard had an end in mind (stateless liberty) as he was devising his positions on the various issues, and that this may have clouded his judgement on those issues regarding children (postnatal and prenatal). Rothbard hated the state (as we all should), and so his focus was always to get the state out of the lives of peaceful people. This focus on our Example of Evil, even if oppositional, without a balancing focus on our Example of the Good, I believe, led his reasoning astray.

      “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill.” - J.R.R. Tolkien

      (And yes BM, I've just granted your alter ego an honorary doctoral degree from my very prestigious, if imaginary, university! You certainly make more sense than most real Ph.D.s I know of. What do I know? Maybe you actually have one.)

    3. Roger, first: please feel free to provide links to anything you have written that is on topic to the discussion. I, and I am sure others, will find this valuable.

      I, too, struggle with the inconsistency between natural law and abortion; it also seems to me that the issues arise because property is given a higher priority than life. Then again, the pandora's box opened when life is given a higher priority than property is also an issue.

      But it seems quite clear to me that natural law would preclude the idea of abortion.

      Perhaps the issue on abortion comes from the concern about enforcement & punishment - I am extremely sympathetic to this concern, as I have noted in earlier discussions on the topic.

      I do not know the right answer regarding enforcement / punishment. But I have chosen to separate this from the idea of the act of abortion itself - to me, these are two different issues. Until abortion is seen as aggression, no one can work to resolve the numerous issues that arise as a result.

    4. ATL, no doctor on this side of the screen.

    5. Thank you, gentlemen.

      I have made my point and see no reason to go further with it. I do not intend to steer Bionic's post down a rabbit trail, so will only make one more general comment on this.

      As I understand it, people of all stripes everywhere see or hear of some aspect of libertarianism and recoil in horror. This issue (the justification of abortion) is only one of them, but there are enough that libertarianism will remain an outlier on the fringes of society, simply because it does not have a consistent ethic as its foundation. I believe this is what Bionic Mosquito has been driving at and I support him wholeheartedly. Good work!

      My goal in life is to become more and more consistent with my philosophy, which is, "...Ever learning and ALWAYS coming closer to the truth."-- 2 Timothy 3:7, radically paraphrased.

      In other words, make mistakes, admit it when you make mistakes, learn from your mistakes, change your ways so that you don't repeat your mistakes, and move on. Life just keeps getting better and better.

    6. "I also think that Rothbard had an end in mind (stateless liberty) as he was devising his positions on the various issues, and that this may have clouded his judgement" - Me

      If I may clarify my thoughts from yesterday a bit, I should have said that Rothbard had an incomplete end (natural law divorced from its 'suprapolitical' components) in mind when he was formulating his political positions and this did not cloud his judgement, it erroneously restricted it, since it wasn't the inclusion of unnecessary or bad ideas that led him into error but rather the exclusion of good and necessary ones.

      It's much easier to stay on the path toward a logical and just conclusion when you are allowed your full field of view. The more you restrict it, the more you're bound to get off the path at some point.

      On the other hand, maybe Rothbard's defense of legal abortion was simply the result of an innate or unanalyzed cultural leaning. Jews (both male and female) support abortion at much higher rates than other demographics in America, and Rothbard of course was of Jewish ancestry. In a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2012, 93% of the Jews participating condoned the legality of abortion in most cases and only 1 percent opposed it in all cases.

      Why is abortion a Jewish thing now? According to Rodney Stark in "The Triumph of Christianity", the early Christians took their stance against abortion (and 'exposing' unwanted infants) from their Jewish heritage. Jews were the original anti-abortionists. It was the Roman pagans who didn't see a problem with it. So why the switch? Have 93% of Jews lost their faith?

  4. Bionic, I want to post one link concerning absolute ownership.

    I have to confess I made a mistake. In the post above, I said that I wrote this to refute Michael Rozeff, but it was Walter Block that I was aiming at. Incidentally, I included a quote from Rozeff in the article which basically says the same thing you have been teaching--that libertarianism based solely on property rights is not sufficient. He claims, as you do, that we need something else as the foundation of our liberty.

    Thank you.

  5. "Rothbard is exactly right: the question of justified physical force is one thing; the issue of moral behavior is quite another."

    What you are saying is,
    1. NAP determines the question of justified physical force.
    2. Natural law grounded in a Christian ethic determines moral behavior.

    Please consider the following,
    #2 MUST include commitment to #1. Wherever #2 violates #1 it is corrupted.

    There can be several different versions of #2. There are, after all, several different versions of Christianity.

    #2 can also be non-Christian. It could be humanism or Hindu/Jewish/Islamic/Buddhist etc.

    However, all versions of #2 must include a commitment to #1 and purge from itself any historical interpretations that violate #1.

    1. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Which is more important, the NAP which determines the use of justified physical force or natural law (absolute ethic) which determines right and wrong? How can you know when and how to use physical force justifiably unless you also know why it is proper to use it in the first place?

      What you appear to be saying is,
      1. Natural law grounded in a Christian ethic must submit to and follow the NAP, and,
      2. When the NAP has determined that physical force is justified, then #1 has nothing more to say about it. If this is true, then the abortion issue has been settled, according to some NAP advocates, and Christian morality really ought to go home and shut up.

      Isn't it more likely that the objective, absolute, ethical morality which applies everywhere, at all times, would inform the punishment of ANY aggression by the use of justified physical force? And, any objective, absolute ethic would have to be wholly consistent with the NAP, everywhere and at all times, or it would have no moral authority to stand on.

      Isn't this rather like a father speaking to his son explaining that he is being punished FOR his wrong actions and, at the same time, explaining WHY the punishment is being applied? Don't we have to know why an action is wrong before we can act to correct it? Doesn't the 'rightness' have to be set absolutely before the 'wrongness' can be sanctioned justifiably?

    2. Krash, what I am saying is that for liberty to survive and thrive, natural law based on Christian ethics must be the foundation.

      You seem to think that the NAP offers a black and white boundary; that the definitions and meanings of the terms "aggression," "property," are so obvious to everyone that there need be no foundation under these; that the non-aggression principle can defend itself without a larger and more meaningful value system supporting it.

      Go for it.

  6. "A society’s first line of defense is not the law or the criminal justice system but customs, traditions and moral values. These behavioral norms, mostly imparted by example, word-of-mouth and religious teachings, represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error. Police and laws can never replace these restraints on personal conduct. At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society."

    1. I agree. This is putting the horse before the cart, as it should be.

  7. "what I am saying is that for liberty to survive and thrive, natural law based on Christian ethics must be the foundation"

    I am not disagreeing with this at all.

    I am just making 2 additional points which extend/clarify this.

    1. Why only Christian ethics? Can natural law based on other religious/non-religious ethic also be consistent with NAP and promote liberty?

    2.Hoppe derives NAP from argumentation ethics. It is self evident. Terms like aggression and property are not derived from Christian ethics or any other religion. They follow from self-evident axioms. However, what is not self-evident is why do the right thing in the first place. That is where the Christian ethic comes in. But why just Christian? Why not also the other world religions?

    Also, Christian or any ethic that accepts NAP cannot then go ahead and include anything that violates it.

    1. crash

      1) The Golden Rule, or some version thereof, is found in many traditions. The stumbling block - certainly for me: in no other tradition that I have found has it been developed in a manner that properly respected the individual in a manner that resulted in something approaching healthy individual freedom.

      I think it might have to do with the belief that we are created in the image of God; this places some teeth in an otherwise toothless Golden Rule.

      2) Terms like aggression and property are not derived from anything other then the meanings given these by the culture and tradition of society; these can mean different things in different places and in different times.

      As to your last standalone sentence... what you seem to be suggesting is that there can be no other ethic more than or beyond the NAP. The NAP is not a complete ethical system.

  8. NAP is not a stand-alone ethical system that is sufficient for liberty or a moral life.
    But, it is a pre-requisite that must be included in every ethical system. Without, it no ethical system is fully consistent.

    1. The pre-requisite is the culture and tradition - this is what I have spent years discovering and it is why I ordered the chapters of the book as I have.

  9. Bionic: "I do not know the right answer regarding enforcement / punishment. But I have chosen to separate this from the idea of the act of abortion itself - to me, these are two different issues. Until abortion is seen as aggression, no one can work to resolve the numerous issues that arise as a result."

    Peg: I really appreciate this statement above because I also find the question of enforcement/punishment vexing. I’ve failed to come to a conclusion so far, but separating the act itself from its possible consequences is a positive step for me. Thank you Bionic, as always. Peg in Oregon

  10. I agree that a stand-alone commitment to NAP is not possible. A commitment to NAP must spring from a commitment to religious values.

    Religion is, by definition, man's ultimate concern. Hence, his commitment to his religious value system has to be his primary commitment in life.

    All I am saying is that every religious commitment must always include as a necessary subset a commitment to NAP (objectively defined) because that is what enables a truly free commitment to be possible in the first place.

    It's like a zero-th law that makes a commitment to all laws possible.

    1. krash, let's see if my next chapter in this series doesn't help clear things up between us - we may be on the same page, I just can't tell for sure.