I have stumbled across a book review written by Lester Hunt. He is reviewing The Ethics of Liberty, by Murray Rothbard. The review was written in 1983, just after Rothbard’s book was published. Hunt begins by putting Rothbard’s libertarianism in context:
Though he is an economist by training, the ultimate basis for the form of anarchism Rothbard defends is not economic but moral.
Rothbard’s anarchism is based on natural law, not on some concept of economic efficiency or other basis. In this book, Rothbard connects the natural law as found in medieval philosophers/theologians such as Thomas Aquinas to his ideas of all rights being grounded in property rights.
I do not recall if Rothbard makes the distinction between natural law and natural rights in this book or elsewhere; it has been a while since I read the book cover to cover, and the last time I did, I would say that my understanding of natural law and natural rights was not very well developed. Suffice it to say, I have come to the conclusion of agreeing with Rothbard: all rights are grounded in property rights. And, as a brief aside, I will unpack this.
Natural law offers guidance as to how one should behave and act – toward himself and toward others; it is an ethical standard, not a legal standard. For example, one should be charitable toward others, but one must not be forced by law to be charitable toward others.
In distinction, natural rights offers guidance as to what one can demand from others: one cannot demand charity from others; one can merely demand that others respect his property rights – including, of course, the physical property of the body. (This distinction is further examined here.)
Returning to the review, Hunt suggests that readers will likely disagree with Rothbard’s anarchism as it is based on natural law:
Unfortunately, this doctrine, nowadays, is almost as unpopular as anarchism, and such a reader is also liable to disagree with it. And Professor Rothbard does not try to prove that this doctrine is true.
How does one offer “proof” of such a thing, other than by persuasion via logical argument. This isn’t a physical science. Perhaps one proof can be evidenced in the trajectory of Western society, and the evidence is overwhelming in the thirty-eight years since this review was written.
Libertarianism has fractured in many ways, perhaps most fundamentally on this question of a moral vs. economic basis as foundational. What we have seen in this divide is that which has also been seen in society at large: there are libertarians who hold to a moral standard that can be considered very individualistic and even libertine, and others who hold more traditional moral views. I believe this can be best understood if natural law is identified as the dividing line.
The evidence in society at large points to a continuing loss of liberty – if liberty is defined as right to my life and my property – in the intervening four decades since this review was published. The degradation in societal norms – OK if one does not hold to an ethical standard beyond the NAP, but problematic if one does – has clearly contributed to and accelerated this loss of liberty.
I, and others, have written too much about this connection for me to make it again here. I have written extensively on the Search for Liberty, ending where one must – on Natural Law. Guido Hülsmann has tackled the issue as well, for example, here (with my further thoughts here). An extensive essay on the matter can be found here, focused on Aquinas, Rothbard, and C.S. Lewis, among others.
I will close with one further example, taken from a 1985 interview of Yuri Bezmenov, a KGB agent who defected to the West in 1970:
“Marxism-Leninism ideology is being pumped into the soft heads of at least three generations of American students, without being challenged or counter-balanced by the basic values of Americanism and American patriotism … The demoralization process in the United States is basically completed already … Most of it is done by Americans to Americans thanks to lack of moral standards.”
This is Antonio Gramsci writ large. It is the moral standard of many in Western society today and of many libertarians. Certainly, one can base their libertarianism on something other than natural law and not necessary also be a moral hedonist, but without a foundation of natural law society might not follow your lead.
Just because natural law is unpopular, as Hunt claimed and as is obviously still true today, does not make it wrong. We have seen that ignoring natural law (by freeing ourselves from being bound by proper ends) has not been beneficial toward our liberty.
We require a standard that is above man’s ability to alter; this provides defense against the reason of the despot. Market exchange is insufficient as this standard. Rothbard had it right when he focused on natural law as necessary for liberty. It has certainly ushered in a meaning crisis.
Libertarianism that rests on the non-aggression principle as the sole requirement for liberty is libertarianism for juveniles. We have seen the liberty that comes forth when markets are set free without any moral underpinning, as this results in the crony-capitalism of today.
The idea of a liberty grounded in natural law is what separates the men from the boys. Otherwise, all we are left with is this.
The author points to other potential disagreements with Rothbard’s conclusions or applications, for example that parents have no obligation to feed or clothe their children. The author does not mention Rothbard’s support for abortion. Of course, I find both a violation of natural law and of the child’s (born or unborn) natural rights. But these are separate matters from the overall point of this post.