It took over a month, but I finally finished reading a 432-page PDF copy of Murray Rothbard’s classic book For a New Liberty. I recommend buying an actual copy of the book. There’s no reason to suffer through a PDF like I did. I’m not going to again unless there are no hard copies of a work available.
Since For a New Liberty is such a well-known book, I’ll just mention a few quotes from the book that I found interesting. First, I added the following quote to the “How to Achieve a Free Society” section of my Quotes page (if you read the other quotes in the section you’ll notice an interesting theme):
If states have everywhere been run by an oligarchic group of predators, how have they been able to maintain their rule over the mass of the population? The answer, as the philosopher David Hume pointed out over two centuries ago, is that in the long run every government, no matter how dictatorial, rests on the support of the majority of its subjects. [page 66]
Rothbard makes another similar statement regarding the support that governments require to survive:
Whereas the existence of every government from absolute monarchy to military dictatorship rests on the consent of the majority of the public, a democratic government must engineer such consent on a more immediate, day-by-day basis. [page 24]
It is interesting that both times Rothbard says that the state requires the support of a majority of its subjects. David Friedman too says “government as a whole exists because most people believe it is necessary” (italics added for emphasis) (The Machinery of Freedom, page 83).
Of course there is nothing magical about 50% and it is doubtful that either Rothbard or Friedman literally meant that states need the support of exactly half of their subjects to survive. While it is possible that some states may indeed require the support of 50% of the public, in most cases the number is probably something different. But what is that number? 70%? 30%?
And also, the kind of support of course matters a lot. One can actively cheer a government on or even directly participate in its aggressive activities or one can merely passively support it. Opinion polls often show that much more than 50% of people are unsatisfied with the government that rules them, however of course many of those people still support the governments they are unsatisfied with in numerous ways.
What does someone have to do to not support the state at all? Can one unintentionally passively support the state just by sitting by quietly and not speaking out about it? Does one have to actively campaign against the state as an activist in order to completely withdraw one’s support and cooperation with the government?
Further, how many of these absolute non-supporters would be needed for a government to be brought down? For example, if the Free State Project was able to bring enough liberty activists to New Hampshire to make it so that 20% of people in New Hampshire were absolute non-supporters of government, would that be sufficient to render government powerless over those 20% of people even if the remaining 80% of people were as statist as the average person today?
Is that even how government’s fall? Would the government still maintain a lot of its power if the remaining 80% of people were obstinate statists?
Perhaps there is a tipping point. Perhaps once a certain portion of the population understood that the state is just a “bandit gang writ large” then many more people would soon understand too. Perhaps at one point 50% of people would understand and the next year 95% of people would understand and the state would be dismantled. I have not read Murray Rothbard’s book The Ethics of Liberty, but upon doing a Google search of his well-known phrase “bandit gang writ large,” (also, commonly quoted as “gang of thieves write large”) I found that he used this phrase in the context of what I am pondering now:
[The state] always rests, in essence, on the support of the majority of the public. This support obtains whether the State is a “democracy,” a dictatorship, or an absolute monarchy. For the support rests in the willingness of the majority (not, to repeat, of every individual) to go along with the system: to pay the taxes, to go without much complaint to fight the State’s wars, to obey the State’s rules and decrees. This support need not be active enthusiasm to be effective; it can just as well be passive resignation. But support there must be. For if the bulk of the public were really convinced of the illegitimacy of the State, if it were convinced that the State is nothing more nor less than a bandit gang writ large, then the State would soon collapse to take on no more status or breadth of existence than another Mafia gang. [The Ethics of Liberty, page 169]
I believe that Rothbard is completely correct when he uses the term “bulk” above. The question is, what is the bulk? Is it exactly a majority? More? Less? Is there a smaller bulk that is a tipping point and a larger bulk that must be reached after the tipping point in order for the state to completely fall apart?
I’ll leave this discussion at just these questions for now.
UPDATE: I remembered another quote from For a New Liberty related to what I discussed above:
Is Education Enough?
All libertarians, of whatever faction or persuasion, lay great stress on education, on convincing an ever-larger number of people to become libertarians, and hopefully, highly dedicated ones. The problem, however, is that the great bulk of libertarians hold a very simplistic view of the role and scope of such education. They do not, in short, even attempt to answer the question: After education, what? What then? What happens after X number of people are convinced? And how many need to be convinced to press on to the next stage? Everyone? A majority? Many people? [pages 386-387]
Justice: Natural Rights or Consequentialism?
The second issue I will briefly discuss from For a New Liberty is related to the the question of which of the two main ways of looking at justice is better: principled rights-based justice or consequentialist, often utilitarian, justice?
The founder of modern utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, called natural law and natural rights “nonsense upon stilts.” I agree with him. I believe that natural rights don’t exist (or at least there isn’t any evidence or reason to suggest they do exist, sort of like deities). However, my current views on justice are still rights-based. Tomasz Kaye, well-known because of his popular YouTube Channel bitbutter, once called himself a “virtual Rothbardian” to describe his position, which I believe is the same as mine.
I might elaborate on the virtual natural rights position that I hold later, but for now I would just like to say that there is a similar problem for utilitarianism as there is for the natural rights position. Rothbard’s question in For a New liberty illuminates this problem:
[T]here are many problems in confining ourselves to a utilitarian ethic. For one thing, utilitarianism assumes that we can weigh alternatives, and decide upon policies, on the basis of their good or bad consequences. But if it is legitimate to apply value judgments to the consequences of X, why is it not equally legitimate to apply such judgments to X itself? May there not be something about an act itself which, in its very nature, can be considered good or evil? [page 31]
I do not know of any evidence or reason to suggest that consequences or acts are inherently “good” or “bad.” I am a moral nihilist like Tomasz Kaye. While I could choose to be a “virtual utilitarian” and form my opinions on what things are just and which things are unjust by examining consequences, I think my “virtual natural rights” views definitely seem more just to me than any consequentialist views on justice. Perhaps I am an emotivist by Rothbard’s description:
The emotivists assert that they take liberty or nonaggression as their premise purely on subjective, emotional grounds. While their own intense emotion might seem a valid basis for their own political philosophy, this can scarcely serve to convince anyone else. By ultimately taking themselves outside the realm of rational discourse, the emotivists thereby insure the lack of general success of their own cherished doctrine. [pages 30-31]
I disagree with Rothbard that the emotivists necessarily “insure the lack of general success” by adopting such a view on ethics, but I do agree with the view that being able to prove that one’s ethical views are correct would almost definitely help insure success. If only it were possible….
Popular libertarian anarchist Stefan Molyneux (who actually helped get me interested in anarchism) had a desire to do this with his Universally Preferable Behavior, but unfortunately I of course think his attempt to come up with “a rational proof of secular ethics” failed.
Libertarian anarchist theorist Hans-Hermann Hoppe is well-known for his argumentation ethics which libertarian anarchist Stephan Kinsella endorses. Kinsella also is know for estoppel justification of individual rights. Again, I have not been persuaded that either argumentation ethics or the estoppel argument succeed.
I remain a moral nihilist and I don’t believe that natural rights exist. Instead I seem to be an emotivist, by Rothbard’s description. I choose to subscribe to the libertarian rights-based framework of justice founded on the axioms of self-ownership and non-aggression for some intuitive emotional reason. The system seems more just to me than any other system of justice. As for those who disagree with me, maybe I’ll think of some other ways to persuade them to adopt the rights-based system that system-builder Murray Rothbard first popularized. There may be many ways to accomplish this persuasion without proving that the ethical views are correct, a task which the emotivists say is impossible.
David Friedman, in his book The Machinery of Freedom, gives multiple reasons for why he supports utilitarian positions over natural rights positions on justice in some extreme scenarios (Note: I forget the particular scenarios he mentioned off the top of my head; if or when I get the time I will hopefully update this post with some quotes from his book regarding his criticisms of the principled rights-based positions in these extreme scenarios). Personally I am not nearly as worried about the few extreme scenarios that Friedman brought up as I am about the general desire of utilitarians to support aggression against people through the state in many situations. I tend to agree with Rothbard:
There were two critically important changes in the philosophy and ideology of classical liberalism which both exemplified and contributed to its decay as a vital, progressive, and radical force in the Western world. The first, and most important, occurring in the early to mid-nineteenth century, was the abandonment of the philosophy of natural rights, and its replacement by technocratic utilitarianism. Instead of liberty grounded on the imperative morality of each individual’s right to person and property, that is, instead of liberty being sought primarily on the basis of right and justice, utilitarianism preferred liberty as generally the best way to achieve a vaguely defined general welfare or common good. There were two grave consequences of this shift from natural rights to utilitarianism. First, the purity of the goal, the consistency of the principle, was inevitably shattered. For whereas the natural rights libertarian seeking morality and justice cleaves militantly to pure principle, the utilitarian only values liberty as an ad hoc expedient. And since expediency can and does shift with the wind, it will become easy for the utilitarian in his cool calculus of cost and benefit to plump for statism in ad hoc case after case, and thus to give principle away. Indeed, this is precisely what happened to the Benthamite utilitarians in England: beginning with ad hoc libertarianism and laissez-faire, they found it ever easier to slide further and further into statism. An example was the drive for an “efficient” and therefore strong civil service and executive power, an efficiency that took precedence, indeed replaced, any concept of justice or right. [pages 18-19]
And a few pages later:
Another problem with the utilitarian is that he will rarely adopt a principle as an absolute and consistent yardstick to apply to the varied concrete situations of the real world. He will only use a principle, at best, as a vague guideline or aspiration, as a tendency which he may choose to override at any time. This was the major defect of the nineteenth-century English Radicals, who had adopted the laissez-faire view of the eighteenth-century liberals but had substituted a supposedly “scientific” utilitarianism for the supposedly “mystical” concept of natural rights as the groundwork for that philosophy. Hence the nineteenth-century laissez-faire liberals came to use laissez-faire as a vague tendency rather than as an unblemished yardstick, and therefore increasingly and fatally compromised the libertarian creed. To say that a utilitarian cannot be “trusted” to maintain libertarian principle in every specific application may sound harsh, but it puts the case fairly. A notable contemporary example is the free-market economist Professor Milton Friedman who, like his classical economist forebears, holds to freedom as against State intervention as a general tendency, but in practice allows a myriad of damaging exceptions, exceptions which serve to vitiate the principle almost completely, notably in the fields of police and military affairs, education, taxation, welfare, “neighborhood effects,” antitrust laws, and money and banking.
Let us consider a stark example: Suppose a society which fervently considers all redheads to be agents of the Devil and therefore to be executed whenever found. Let us further assume that only a small number of redheads exist in any generation—so few as to be statistically insignificant. The utilitarian-libertarian might well reason: “While the murder of isolated redheads is deplorable, the executions are small in number; the vast majority of the public, as non-redheads, achieves enormous psychic satisfaction from the public execution of redheads. The social cost is negligible, the social, psychic benefit to the rest of society is great; therefore, it is right and proper for society to execute the redheads.” The natural-rights libertarian, overwhelmingly concerned as he is for the justice of the act, will react in horror and staunchly and unequivocally oppose the executions as totally unjustified murder and aggression upon nonaggressive persons. The consequence of stopping the murders—depriving the bulk of society of great psychic pleasure—would not influence such a libertarian, the “absolutist” libertarian, in the slightest. Dedicated to justice and to logical consistency, the natural-rights libertarian cheerfully admits to being “doctrinaire,” to being, in short, an unabashed follower of his own doctrines. [bold added for emphasis] [pages 31-32]
I read David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom only a short while before reading For a New Liberty and the topic I wrote about in my blog post on Friedman’s book was mainly that Friedman gave in to consequences over principles:
What will I do if, when all other functions of our government have been abolished, I conclude that there is no effective way to defend against aggressive foreign governments save by national defense financed by taxes—financed, in other words, by money taken by force from the taxpayers?
In such a situation I would not try to abolish that last vestige of government. I do not like paying taxes, but I would rather pay them to Washington than to Moscow—the rates are lower. I would still regard the government as a criminal organization, but one which was, by a freak of fate, temporarily useful. [The Machinery of Freedom, page 75]
While Friedman says he would still agree with the principled position that the government is still an unjust criminal organization, there is still a sense in which he comes across as untrusted utilitarian that Rothbard mention in the statement I highlighted in bold above: “To say that a utilitarian cannot be ‘trusted’ to maintain libertarian principle in every specific application may sound harsh, but it puts the case fairly.” Specifically, Friedman said that he would not try to abolish the last vestige of government if that government appeared to be the only way to defend against an aggressive foreign government. Would Rothbard still seek to abolish it out of principle? Of course (I would think)! I would think that the a large majority of the natural rights principled libertarians would.
This utilitarian crippling of libertarianism is still with us. [page 32]
While there are many libertarian utilitarians who in practice allow many greater exceptions than Friedman’s very minor concession, I can’t help but think that Rothbard had Friedman’s position in mind when wrote this. Of course, both books were originally published in 1973, so maybe this definitely isn’t the case. Friedman’s position on the issue could have been known to Rothbard prior to the publication of Friedman’s book–I don’t know. In any case, I if not Rothbard, am not too pleased with even David Friedman’s minor exception to libertarian principle. If the government is unjust, then abolish it. This is a shameful excuse: “I do not like paying taxes, but I would rather pay them to Washington than to Moscow—the rates are lower.”
Also, I should mention that David Friedman is not completely a utilitarian. While he does make many utilitarian arguments, he also explicitly rejects certain utilitarian positions:
Utilitarianism is a possible moral rule, but it is not one that I am willing to accept. Why? For the same reason that I reject all simple statements of libertarianism—because I can construct hypothetical situations in which it seems clear to me that the rule gives the wrong answer.
You are the sheriff of a small town plagued by a series of particularly brutal murders. Fortunately, the murderer has left town. Unfortunately, the townspeople do not believe that the murderer has left, and will regard your assertion that he has as an attempt to justify your own incompetence in failing to catch him.
Feeling is running high. If no murderer is produced, three or four innocent suspects will get lynched. There is an alternative. You can manufacture evidence to frame someone. Once he has been convicted and hung, the problem will
be gone. Should you do it?
On utilitarian grounds, it seems clear that the answer is yes. You are killing one innocent person but saving several—and you have no reason to believe that the one you kill values life any more than the ones you save. You yourself may receive disutility from knowing that you have framed an innocent man—but if it gets bad enough you can always kill yourself, leaving a profit of at least one life’s worth of utility.
I am not willing to accept the conclusion. In an earlier hypothetical, I said that I would steal; in this one, I would not frame. To save a million lives, perhaps, but for a net profit of one or two, no. It follows that I am not a utilitarian. Although I reject utilitarianism as the ultimate standard for what should or should not happen, I believe that utilitarian arguments are usually the best way to defend libertarian views. While most people do not believe that maximizing human happiness is the only thing that matters, most do believe that human happiness is important. Libertarians are not the only ones who avoid conflicts by believing that the system they favor works both morally and practically. To the extent that I can show that a particular libertarian proposal—abolition of heroin laws, or minimum wage laws, or all government—produces attractive results, I have an argument which will have some weight in convincing almost anyone to support it. [The Machinery of Freedom, pages 92-93]
Lastly, having now read both Rothbard’s and Friedman’s book, I can say which I recommend more highly to non-libertarians. I think that that Murray Rothbard’s book For a New Liberty is definitely better, however, I know some people who would probably benefit more from reading David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom so which book I recommend would depend on who I am talking to.