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?