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.