Monday, October 7, 2019

The Goal is Liberty

All of my work has revolved around the central question of human liberty.

-          Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty

In recent years I have come to find that purifying libertarian theory and finding liberty are two different – and, in some important ways, contradictory – objectives.  Libertarian theory is not sufficient for liberty.  There are those who offer some version of “well, if everyone just followed the non-aggression principle, you would have liberty.”  It is a statement that ignores all reality of human nature.

Further, it is nothing more than a simplistic truism: a community that lives by the non-aggression principle lives in liberty.  It is libertarianism for children.  It offers nothing about how to achieve a condition of liberty and how to keep it once found.

The Mises Institute offers a Mission Statement, built on a foundation of a small handful of key works by Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard.  This book, The Ethics of Liberty, appears on that list.  And in the opening line of Rothbard’s Preface (cited above), he offers that all of his work has been on the question of liberty – not libertarianism, but liberty.  Rothbard continues:

…it has been my conviction that, while each discipline has its own autonomy and integrity, in the final analysis all sciences and disciplines of human action are interrelated, and can be integrated into a “science” or discipline of individual liberty.

Rothbard – in quest of his life’s work toward human liberty – sees the necessity to incorporate multiple disciplines, and not merely a theory regarding property rights and violence.  Limiting the quest for liberty to the subjects of property rights and violence leaves libertarians impotent to the forces that shape society and, therefore, shape societal behavior.

Rothbard recognizes that his earlier works, Man, Economy, and State and its sequel Power and Market offered value-free analysis regarding a free market economy.  But he knew this would not be sufficient for liberty:

[These] did not attempt a positive ethical theory of individual liberty. Yet, I was conscious that the latter task needed almost desperately to be done, for, as will be seen further in this work, I at no time believed that value-free analysis or economics or utilitarianism (the standard social philosophy of economists) can ever suffice to establish the case for liberty.

The task of a positive ethical theory was necessary if one’s objective was liberty.

Political judgments are necessarily value judgments, political philosophy is therefore necessarily ethical, and hence a positive ethical system must be set forth to establish the case for individual liberty.

It is in this book where Rothbard works to fill in the void between libertarianism and liberty.  While he builds his foundation on Natural Law, he “does not try to prove or establish the ethics or ontology of natural law”; many have already developed this.  In this book he will build on this foundation.

I have worked through my own path, from a dogmatic libertarianism through to a realization that much more was need in the way of a foundation for liberty.  Why do I go through this today, an expansion of material that I have previously covered in Chapter Eleven of my book, The Search for Liberty?  C. Jay Engel has written an editorial, From Austro Libertarian to Bastion Magazine.  He starts with a bang:

We’re making a bold move in anticipation of further libertarian deterioration. We’re going all in on a bet that five-ten years down the road, the socio-political coalition will have been completely redrawn.

You get a hint of how Engel’s mission tracks with Rothbard’s views from almost four decades ago – the task is social, not merely political (as it cannot be only political in any case).  It also says something about how wildly much of the libertarian movement has strayed from the objective of achieving liberty.

Engel is clear: through his work and his magazine, he is not abandoning the political tradition of Rothbard and Hoppe, or the economic inquiry of Menger, Bohm-Bawerk and Mises:

Far from softening on them, we rather want to explore their place in a broader understanding of the world and publish just as much on history, current affairs, literary criticism, political movements, sociology, culture, and the shifting nature of our post-modern world.

Rothbard wrote extensively on all of these same topics.  Why?  After all, just in the field of economics or the field of political philosophy (libertarianism) he was already one of the most prolific writers of his (or any) generation.  The answer to the question is clear: Rothbard saw the need to integrate these disciplines into a fabric that would provide the foundation for liberty.

Engel points to what he labels “libertarianism’s identity crisis.”  He points to the fact that outside of the Mises Institute circle, almost no libertarians keep the term libertarianism to a strict definition of coercion toward body and property. 

Libertarianism today is identified with almost all of the kookiest politics, lifestyles and immoralities one can imagine.  It is absolutely clear that the Libertarian Party doesn’t care a whit for liberty.  The term – in the eyes of the broader public – has lost all meaning, except perhaps the worst of its meanings.

No one likes libertarians, including libertarians (be honest with yourself!). So often, the libertarian is a reinforcing self-parody. Empty and ineffective with a remarkably deficient understanding of history and human affairs. For those principled Austro-libertarians who read the site: is this not your honest experience?

I think I will take the fifth on this one.

Engel further views that for liberty to thrive, we must look beyond the state – and into the social decay of the society around us:

There really is a culture war, or rather a civilizational war— and the state thrives on, even fuels, the chaos and strife created by agitating the far left and what it deems to be an “extremist right.”

Libertarianism cannot stand as the singular issue if one is after liberty.  Such a view is certainly not necessary, and absolutely not sufficient:

It’s not necessary because there’s great resources and perspective to be found in non-libertarian advocates of liberty (such as, say, Roger Scruton or Richard Weaver) and it’s not sufficient because there are libertarian advocates of social leftism, libertinism, and an agitating spirit of war against social institutions (such as, say Steve Horwitz or Kevin Carson). Must we really think of the future resting on a coalition with the latter at the expense of the former?

I won’t take the fifth here, as I have answered this question many times before – I would rather live in a neighborhood with Pat Buchanan and Thomas Sowell than I would with what passes for “libertarian” outside of Auburn, Alabama.

Finally, on the idea that we can build a society committed to liberty purely on libertarian ideas:

No actual societies in history (from the Germanic tribes to the Celtic clans and onward over the centuries to the nineteenth century) formulated themselves based preeminently on ideas. Culture, language, heritage, common interests and memories and habits and custom created societies.

The broader libertarian movement (such as it is) does not think of society this way – in fact, you are considered a fascist by this broader group if you think of society this way.


Which brings me back to Murray Rothbard, from a paper he wrote for the Volker Fund, entitled On Mises's Ethical Relativism:

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.

In the vast world that can be broadly defined as libertarian today, the number of prominent libertarians who have clearly grasped Rothbard’s meaning can be counted on one hand.  I will offer two: Hans Hoppe has offered a clear and strong voice regarding the necessary cultural foundation for liberty, and Lew Rockwell has founded and built the two most prominent institutions in support of such an endeavor.

Here is to hoping that Engel finds equal success in his endeavor in the coming years.


Engel isn’t abandoning libertarianism; he is just working to place it in its proper role – and to not expect more from it than it can deliver.  It offers nothing more than a theory of when physical violence is justified.  It has a clear role in a society dedicated to liberty.


  1. Thank you for this article, Bionic. I've downloaded the "Ethics of Liberty" ebook and plan to start reading it today.

    Ethics of Liberty:

    1. ... and here is logical support from Mr. Hoppe's introduction to "Ethics of Liberty" which supports your tenant that the old traditions should not be lightly ignored:

      "... Newly discovered non-hypothetical truths, even if not impossible, should be expected to be rare intellectual events and, the newer they are, the more suspect they are. It must be expected that most non-hypothetical truths already have been discovered and learned long ago and merely need to be rediscovered and relearned by every successive generation. And it also should be expected that scientific progress in ethics and economics, as in other disciplines concerned with non-hypothetical propositions and relations such as philosophy; logic; and mathematics, will usually be extremely slow and painstaking. The danger is NOT that a new generation of intellectuals cannot add anything new or better to the stock of knowledge inherited from the past but rather THAT IT WILL NOT, OR ONLY INCOMPLETELY, RELEARN WHATEVER KNOWLEDGE ALREADY EXISTS AND WILL FALL INTO OLD ERRORS INSTEAD ..."

      -- Hans-Herman Hoppe, "The Ethics of Liberty", Introduction, pg xvii, emphasis added.


    2. That's wonderful! I think you'll enjoy it, but I'm sure that you'll take issue with chapter 14 "Children and Rights". Just try to keep in mind that Rothbard didn't have any kids and got almost everything else right.

    3. I believe that Rothbard was a highly intelligent man and a genius by any standard. But geniuses have been known to be dead wrong and not infrequently. No matter how smart you may be, garbage in / garbage out is always true.

    4. Oh! Here's another tidbit from Hoppe's intro (it's a VERY long intro):

      "... from the 1950's ... until the end of his life, Rothbard did not waver on fundamental matters of economic or political theory. Yet ... a different thematic emphasis became apparent in his later writings, most noticeably in the several hundred articles contributed during the last years of his life. Apart from economic and political concerns, Rothbard increasingly focused his attention on and STRESSED THE IMPORTANCE OF CULTURE as a SOCIOLOGICAL PREREQUISITE OF LIBERTARIANISM."

      --Hans-Herman Hoppe "Ethics of Liberty" pg xxxviii, emphasis added.

      It seems that Rothbard (near the end of his life) noticed that western culture was no longer conducive to liberty and was making an effort, either to stem the tide (unlikely, given his lack of real influence) or to warn about and document those aspects of culture that he saw as conducive to liberty.

    5. There's more in Hoppe's preface but you'll just have to read it yourself.

    6. Liberty-loving patriots that understand the difference are tirelessly working on this as we speak. We must win the culture war and using the free market to do it is just a fantastic bonus:

  2. Very thought provoking! And true. Rigid adherence to praxeology, any natural rights basis of ordering society from private property and the non aggression principle, utilitarianism, etc. all far short by themselves to get at all the essentials of human nature. Hayek at his non-prescriptive best offers a defense of liberty that ties negative liberty's survival on understanding how particular strands of Western civilization in law, religion, custom, aspects of science, spontaneously came together, without the knowledge or understanding of any one group much less individual to produce the seeds and preconditions for liberty to develop. Not to mention his emphasis on the knowledge problem as being the fatal flaw with with any attempt to rely on socialist economic calculation to form a more just social order. It just cant work and no quantum computer will ever change that.

    1. Apparently experts in artificial intelligence are figuring out that figuring out how to solve a problem in the real world by a human being - dealing with the combinatorially explosive possible choices and factors - is nigh impossible for a machine, yet it is what humans do.

      Relevance realization is difficult to program. And of course, the age-old problem: that which is important can't be measured, and that which can be measured is not important.

  3. There's only one way for us to attain it as individuals (John 8:32,36, 2 Corinthians 3:17, etc.) and only way for us to attain it as a society (Psalm 19:7-11, 119:7-11, James 2:12, etc.) That said, liberty is *not* the goal.

    Nationally, liberty was officially lost in America when the 18th-century Enlightenment founders made liberty a goal (almost a god) instead of a corollary of implementing Yahweh's perfect law of liberty (Psalm 19:7-11, 119:44-45, James 2:12) as the supreme law of the land.

    "[B]ecause they have ... trespassed against my law ... they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind...." (Hosea 8:1, 7)

    Today's America is reaping the inevitable ever-intensifying whirlwind resulting from the wind sown by the constitutional framers and fanned by hoodwinked Christians and patriots who have been bamboozled into believing today's whirlwind can be dissipated by appealing to the wind responsible for spawning the whirlwind.

    For more, see online Chapter 3 "The Preamble: WE THE PEOPLE vs. YAHWEH" of "Bible Law vs, the United States Constitution: The Christian Perspective" at

  4. BM, I believe I commented on this before but the libertarian "movement" is almost certainly too broad to end up as anything but dysfunctional.
    People like Cathy Reisenwitz or Bryan Caplan are called and self-identify as "libertarians" despite their ideological beef with the current system essentially being that it isn't radical enough.
    I expect large parts of this libertarian "movement" to be absorbed by woked neoliberalism as an ideological adjunct, if it hasn't happend already.

    Part of this dysfunctionality stems from faulty ideologems which are at odds with observable reality but influence thought processes e.g.

    1. The belief that there are easily delineated public and private spheres with the former being bad and the latter being good.

    2. The belief that power and coercion only exist as functions of violence i.e. that power solely grows from the barrel of a gun.

    3. A tendency to discuss and decide real world behaviour and strategy on the basis of thought experiments under idealized circumstances (Robinson Crusoe except with politics)

    4. The belief that social policing is unacceptable (unless it involves leftist standards apparently) leading both to libertarianism being filled with weirdos who must be indulged as long as they profess a adherence to minimum standards 8but what if the child consents tho?) and an over reliance on the concept of the "marketplace of ideas" (which is bs for a lot of reasons).

    1. paid shill,

      I appreciate your observations. I would add one - which may also explain the others (but I might be reaching a bit here): the belief that I am sovereign; the disdain for the idea that there might be someone / something sovereign over me.

    2. BM, I don't think you're reaching there.
      Libertarianism has a nature that can be quite contradictory on the first look: On one hand is the emphasis on specialisation and division of labor as one of the bedrocks of civilisation, on the other hand these is an autonomist current both on the right side (frontier mentality - "Specialisation is for insects") and on the left side (unrestrained hedonism "Be Who You Are Love Who You Want").

      Oh and here is another of what i'd call "widespread, unjustified beliefs among libertarians":

      5. The belief that top-down, widespread behaviourial modification is impossible or will inevitably fail aka "The Soviets couldn't beed the New Man therefore social engineering is impossible".

  5. I think you are conflating Liberty with Fulfillment.

    Non-aggression gives you liberty. Thomistic Natural law gives you fulfillment.

    Libertarians want to secure liberty for all. That is ALL.
    Libertarianism does not tell you WHAT to do with that liberty.
    It does not tell you how to find fulfillment.

    Some may become libertines and lead empty lives.
    Others may seek fulfillment through Thomistic natural law or something else. Both sides may condemn each other's choices non-violently. May even separate from each other.
    But,they are all libertarians if they support non-aggression.

    No one is JUST a libertarian because libertarianism is not a philosophy of life. It is just a philosophy of politics (i.e. use of force).

    A religion is a philosophy of life. It shows you how to seek fulfillment.

    Libertarianism just seeks that everyone should be free to pursue fulfillment.

    1. Non-aggression gives you liberty, if you could find a population that could live together based solely on this one principle and not fight about everything else in life (which is so much more meaningful to everyone) so much that eventually that one unifying principle is tossed out the window, at which point they wind up under a state again wherein all fight with each other to gain control of the reins so that they can implement and enforce their vision of 'everything else' on everybody else (if only to prevent someone else from doing the same).

      Apart from fighting about 'everything else', a society devoid of any common understanding of moral fulfillment would develop large areas of moral degeneration (drugs, porn, prostitution, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, open marriages, gender fluidity, etc.) which would spread like a sort of social cancer. Eventually the social irresponsibility and resultant chaos of these areas would succumb to the statist mindset and freedom would disintegrate under the birth of a new state.

      "Truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny.” - Frank Meyer

      The non-aggression principle is important, but it is not sufficient alone to bring about or maintain a condition of liberty.

    2. "Libertarians want to secure liberty for all."

      Not me, brother. Not if my "want" takes effort. Not if my "want" will afford liberty for lawn sex orgies.

      I am not going to spend one minute of effort to provide liberty for socially destructive lifestyles. Of course, I am also not going to advocate aggression to stop these.

    3. krash

      I assure you, I am not interested in spending a minute on securing liberty for this:

    4. But, would you suppress it by force or just isolate it out of sight?

    5. "Of course, I am also not going to advocate aggression to stop these."

      Would you not also oppose if someone else used aggression to stop these?

    6. krash, I do not believe that aggression is the answer to such issues.

    7. Krash, I have to disagree with you. Non-aggression alone does not give you liberty.

      Consider the Amish. They practice non-aggression and in their own little world, it may work, but they are not free. Once they start interacting with the "English", they can't sell raw, unpasteurized milk. Nor can they travel on public roads with their horses and buggies unless they have a flashing "fanny flag" on the rear of the buggy. Not to mention all the rules, codes, and coercion which are utilized to keep everyone in their place.

      Consider the Hindus. There are multitudes who are so extreme in their non-aggression that they won't even kill a mosquito or a cockroach out of fear that they might be jeopardizing someone else's chance of re-incarnation. Or perhaps their own. And any form of aggression, including self defense, toward those who are above their caste?
      Not a chance.

      Consider the Buddhist. Millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, live a life of (perceived) non-aggression in the hope that they will find nirvana as Buddha supposedly did--finding inner peace in spite of the troubles of the physical world around them. Are those in places like Myanmar or Cambodia living in liberty as we know it? I don't think so.

      These three groups are pacifist in nature, but they do not exist in a state of liberty in today's world. Put them in a situation with someone who doesn't mind using force and they will wind up on the bottom every time. I don't consider that liberty.

      Funny thing--all of these are religions seeking fulfillment. They practice non-aggression as part of their religion, but they do not find liberty, except perhaps in a spiritual sense, completely divorced from the world around them.

      Non-aggression by itself will not do the trick. There must be more.

    8. Roger,

      Though I agree with your conclusion that "non-aggression by itself will not do the trick", I see that in your argument you are confusing non-aggression with non-violence. This is a common yet unfounded attack on libertarianism.

      The man whose actions are guided solely by the NAP (if that's even possible) is no pacifist. He believes in the just use of (I would say proportional) violence in self-defense, in defense of others, and in defense of justly acquired property. I'm convinced, with Hans Hoppe and Murray Rothbard, that this is the correct and natural rule of the use of violence in any society and that it is essential to an order of liberty.

      Though it is not sufficient alone.

      My argument is that if you could get a population with without a common moral and/or religious framework to abide by the NAP, liberty would result, but that this is highly unlikely given the enormous potential of confusion, conflict and chaos in such a society.

      The prevalence of undisciplined minds leads to both moral degeneracy (whatever feels good) and to intellectual and political degeneracy (egalitarianism, democracy, socialism, communism, Nazism) and this will lead to crying out for tolerance and inclusion of offensive minority cultures, the redistribution of wealth, and who knows what else. Furthermore, disciplined minds honed on radically different cultural whet stones will most likely (if not inevitably) clash. All this clashing and crying will most certainly result in the formation of a State (as in 'monopoly provider of governance') and the eradication of a state (as in 'condition') of natural liberty.

    9. ATL,

      I concede the point about the confusion between non-aggression and non-violence, but I have to admit that I don't understand your statement that this is an unfounded attack on libertarianism. Please explain. Thank you.

    10. Roger,

      No problem. What I meant is that statist conservatives (mainly) will use this argument to demonstrate the supposed naivete of libertarians and the Utopian nature of our preferred method of governance in order to disparage our ethical code of non-aggression (and to justify their own endorsement of aggression by the state). I don't think you were employing it this way, and perhaps I should have been clear on that; I just wanted to point out that this line of reasoning unjustly weakens the libertarian argument.

      Some libertarians are indeed pacifists, but not all. We all should prefer peace, but I don't think I'm alone among libertarians in my recognition of the validity of defensive violence.

      My basic stance is that the NAP is the lowest bar of ethics, but that other higher bars (Decalogue, Sermon on the Mount) are required for the fulfillment of one's life and for the attainment and preservation of a society which can consistently make it over the lowest one, but in striving toward these higher bars of ethics we should not violate the lowest.

      I should have also been clear that I think the point you were making was sound: that the pacifist mindset will never lead to freedom, because there will always be those willing to aggress upon such people.

      Also, reading my prior comment, I realized I made an error. The sentence should read:

      "My argument is that if you could get a population *without a common..."

      Not "...with without...".

    11. ATL,

      Thanks for the explanation. I tend to agree with you on the 'ethical bars', but would add at least one higher bar, namely,

      "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart...AND you shall love your neighbor as yourself."--Jesus the Christ, slightly paraphrased. The Apostle Paul boils this down one more step by stating that in loving your neighbor, you are showing your love for God. Now if we could just learn HOW to love our neighbor, which, of course, is what the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount are all about.

      If society and culture were to grasp this concept and practice it, there would be no need for the NAP, laws, or the State. We would have indeed found liberty. But we're not there yet so we muddle on.

      I noticed this in your answer. "...but in striving toward these higher bars of ethics we should not violate the lowest." This sounds remarkably like the point that Krash has tried to make numerous times, as can be seen in the note below.

      "...But, that 'more' can't be anything that violates NAP..."--Krash

      As far as I can see, the only difference here is in the order of hierarchy which both of you place on this. Your ethical bar of non-aggression is the lowest. Krash's ethical bar of non-aggression is apparently the highest. Is that correct? Krash, feel free to jump in.

      As far as your mistake goes, I figured it out, but I'm glad you noticed it. Grammatical errors annoy the heck out of me. BTW, my father had a saying: "I don't know what you meant, I only know what you said." I trot that out from time to time.

  6. What all of you are saying is that multiple communities that do not share common values regarding consensual acts will not be able to live together in peace even if all of them passionately support NAP.

    One of the reasons that is so in practice is because everyone is living under a non-libertarian state. So, wherever there are multiple communities with differing values, they end up in "culture wars" to get control of the state. Losing communities risk getting their culture trampled on. Would that happen in a minimal state committed to non-aggression?

    Also, if a society is formed that respects NAP and starts out as culturally united, it is inevitable that it will evolve into multiple communities with competing values. As differences arise over generations, they will not be crushed with violence and eventually you will have communities with differing values living side by side and interacting to the degree that is mutually desired.

    Decentralization is a natural outcome of NAP. Having a common set of values requires a degree of centralization that may not be possible with NAP

    (of course you always need more than NAP. But, that 'more' can't be anything that violates NAP)

    1. krash: "(of course you always need more than NAP. But, that 'more' can't be anything that violates NAP)"

      It may not violate the NAP of those within each individual community, but it may violate the hell out of the NAP of those from neighboring communities.

      A community living within the NAP will never look like it to those outside of this community.

      What binds a community will never be the NAP. It will always be something else.