All of my work has revolved around the central question of human liberty.
This is the opening line to the Preface of The Ethics of Liberty, by Murray Rothbard. I have been giving a lot of thought to this line and this book lately. While I admittedly am not familiar with everyone doing any work along the lines that Rothbard describes in this work, I am not familiar with any meaningful individual, group, or institution that is carrying it out.
Wait. I will correct that last statement. If there is one individual, it is Hans Hoppe. He has carried it out through his writing, his talks, and through his Property and Freedom Society, including its annual conference. As it is, Hoppe wrote the introduction to this present volume of Rothbard’s work; I will reference it along with another work of his during this examination.
With this exception noted (and I will not repeat it, but it applies every time I make this absolute statement), Hans Hoppe is only one individual – granted, a giant among men in Rothbard-adjacent circles, but one man. And it is for this reason that I ask the question posed in the title. But to get at this further, more from Rothbard’s work:
For 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 continues by commenting that his earlier, comprehensive work on economics was value-free – as economics properly theorized must be. But for liberty, this focus on value-free economics alone is not enough; a positive ethical theory was required:
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.
Rothbard wrote these words in 1980, but this was no recent revelation for him. In 1960, he would write:
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.
To establish this full case, Rothbard would continue, requires an absolutist ethic “grounded on natural law…”. This would be the focus of this book by Rothbard. Actually, the first several chapters are dedicated to natural law; the bulk of the work thereafter is focused on the natural rights to be derived when the theory of natural law is properly applied to human relationships. While I disagree with a couple of his applications, on the whole the conclusions are solid.
Returning to the book, Rothbard writes:
It was furthermore clear to me that no one was engaged in trying to fill this crying need.
Which, forty years later, seems to still be the case.
As mentioned, Hoppe wrote the introduction to this edition. In it, he raises some key and complimentary points:
In an age of intellectual hyper-specialization, Murray N. Rothbard was a grand system builder.
He was not merely an economist. Hoppe notes the practice of separating economics from ethics – yet these two had to be combined if one was to speak of liberty:
Rothbard's unique contribution is the rediscovery of property and property rights as the common foundation of both economics and political philosophy, and the systematic reconstruction and conceptual integration of modern, marginalist economics and natural-law political philosophy into a unified moral science: libertarianism.
I will go a step further: Rothbard’s integration extended far beyond even that which is found in this work (but in much of his other work). It included revisionist (or realistic, honest) history, an examination of the modern state as presenting everything that is antithetical to liberty, an appreciation of the western civilization in which the idea of a healthy individual liberty blossomed, and an appreciation of the role of the entrepreneur (as opposed to the rent-seeker) in providing for the economic flourishing of man.
All of these were areas of focus for Rothbard, and nowhere do I find anyone doing the work necessary to further develop and integrate these into a whole. In other words, nowhere do I see this integration continuing. And this is to the detriment of liberty and in some ways a repudiation of Rothbard’s accomplishments.
Hoppe addressed this shortcoming, at least to a great part, in a talk he gave at the Property and Freedom Society Conference in 2018, The Libertarian Quest for a Grand Historical Narrative:
.... the greatest challenge for libertarians is to develop a grand historical narrative that is to counter and correct the so-called Whig theory of history….
While he agrees with one aspect of this theory – that economic progress has been substantial – his main objection to this theory is that it claims that we live in the freest societies ever to be found on earth.
Hoppe integrates Austrian Economics, libertarian political philosophy, natural law, and historical revisionism into this one presentation. It is, in fact, a summary and extension of the work of Rothbard – not in detail, but in its breadth.
Returning to the Preface of Rothbard’s book, from Hoppe:
Much of Rothbard's later writings, with their increased emphasis on cultural matters, were designed to correct this development and to explain the error in the idea of a leftist multi-counter-cultural libertarianism, of libertarianism as a variant of libertinism.
In this, Rothbard foresaw the current crisis in the West. While I don’t know if he ever labeled it as such, it is the meaning crisis in which western man is drowning. It goes hand in hand with our loss of liberty. No purpose, no aim, no focus; suffering, depression, suicide. His humanity so completely beaten out of him that he would not only obey but also advocate for (insert all of the abuses just seen since 2020). No liberty and no meaning in life.
In other words, one cannot separate cultural analysis from liberty or from the economic theories necessary to move toward liberty. Rothbard recognized this. It isn’t clear that any subsequent Rothbardians embrace this.
I am one person, and clearly am not aware of every endeavor that might fit the lines I have outlined above. I would welcome any feedback that could fill in my gaps.
In the meantime, I offer some of my meager efforts at continuing and extending this work, here, here, and here. If anyone has written or spoken more on these matters than I have, I would welcome feedback on this as well.
I will write a subsequent post addressing any feedback along these lines.