Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Rothbard's Intellectual Power

Winter 1999

Roberta A. Modugno
Rubbettino, 1998, 207 pgs.

Roberta Modugno has analyzed the work of Murray Rothbard from the standpoint of her professional specialty, the history of political thought. (She is a student of the distinguished Italian philosopher and classical liberal Dario Antiseri, by whose thought she has been greatly influenced.) By approaching Rothbard in this way, she casts new light on a vital question. What is the true nature of classical liberalism? What are the underlying principles of this key element in European thought?

As Modugno shows, Rothbard's doctrine of anarcho-capitalism responds to these questions in a way that finds considerable support within the liberal tradition. One may at first be inclined to dismiss Rothbard as an extremist-can he really think we can do away with government altogether?-but if we are at all in sympathy with the tenets of classical liberalism, escape from Rothbard's conclusions is difficult.

Modugno shows that Rothbard's anarchism emerges by combining two main claims of classical liberalism, one methodological and one ethical.

First, classical liberals have maintained that social and political entities cannot act apart from the individuals who compose them. The state is not, as Hegel said, "the march of God in the world": it is no more than individuals who interact socially in certain ways. As our author notes: "Society, the government, the nation, are only abstract auxiliary concepts and one must be careful not to confuse abstractions with reality" (p. 122, translation mine).

Not only is methodological individualism a precept of classical liberalism, it is quite obviously true. Few indeed would today assert, with Mises's old nemesis Othmar Spann, that individuals are mere precipitates from antecedently existing social wholes. The "We" stems from a union of "I's," not, as Spann had it, the other way round.

But, granted the truth of the individualist premise, what political conclusions follow from it? Would not everyone, except for the most benighted collectivist, accept our methodological principle? No doubt; but, as Modugno abundantly shows, when this premise joins forces with another basic premise of classical liberalism, radical results ensue.

No one can deny that a basic tenet of at least one central variety of classical liberalism is self-ownership. Each person owns himself: he may accordingly acquire unowned property by mixing his labor with it. Further, if each person owns himself, it is wrong for anyone to initiate force against someone else. To do so violates the victim's right of self-ownership.

This principle, as Modugno succinctly makes clear, is no invention of Rothbard's but derives from John Locke, unquestionably a father of classical liberalism. Nevertheless, it is Rothbard's merit to have seen, more clearly than any previous writer, what follows from accepting it. As our author says, "the Lockean concept of property in oneself can be considered the keystone of the Rothbardian intellectual edifice" (p. 61).

If each person owns himself, and no one may aggress against another, no scope for involuntary government remains. Once stated, the conclusion seems obvious; but prior to the individualist anarchists of whom Rothbard is the most thoroughgoing and consistent, this conclusion had escaped notice.

An objection at once arises. Would society not be utterly impossible without a state? Would not an individualist anarchist community quickly lapse into a Hobbesian predicament where life is "nasty, brutish, and short"? Rothbard of course did not think so; and our author carefully delineates how Rothbard thought an anarchist society might provide itself with such essentials as defense and police protection.

But Rothbard's case for anarchism did not rest principally on the contention that an anarcho-capitalist society supplies these essentials better than any alternative; this claim is merely supplementary. As Modugno emphasizes, Rothbard's claim rests much more on natural law than on utility. A system of Lockean property rights, and the anarchism that goes with it, commands our acceptance because it follows from the self-ownership principle. Modugno notes that Rothbard's criticism of "the utilitarian tradition of Bentham and Hume" lies principally in his insistence on "the question of the legitimate origin of private property" (p. 64). For Hume and Bentham utility demands that property rights be stable, but the justice of the initial distribution does not matter. For Rothbard, it is of vital concern.

Given the principle of self-ownership, why need Rothbard also insist on methodological individualism? Absent the latter, his system would stand vulnerable to this objection: even if individuals own themselves, what if there also exist non-individual bearers of rights? Perhaps their rights limit the liberties of individuals to acquire property. The individualist postulate ensures that we need not worry about such chimeras; thus a potential danger to Rothbard's system is averted.

Self-ownership leads, if carried to its logical conclusion, to anarchism. But is this not a drastic step, to be avoided at almost all costs? Must we not revisit either our initial premise or the validity of our deductions from it? Rothbard, to the contrary, welcomed the radical conclusion to which his argument led. Given the view of the state in the tradition Rothbard adopted, his attitude should occasion no surprise.

In the view in question, the state is, in Albert Jay Nock's phrase, "our enemy." Far from being an indispensable means to survival, the state acts as an impediment to social cooperation. Modugno cites in this connection not only Nock, Lysander Spooner, and Benjamin Tucker, but also Thomas Paine. The great American revolutionary maintained "that the spontaneous interaction of individuals in society suffices to bring about order and harmony" (p. 10). (Unlike Spooner, Tucker, and Rothbard, Paine shrank from fullfledged anarchism.)

Here is where we stand. An intuitive plausible ethical principle, self-ownership, supports individualist anarchism, since an individual cannot be bound involuntarily to a government without his consent. Our principle receives support from a commonsense principle of method, and our conclusion seems less paradoxical when placed within an anarchist tradition of viewing the state as a predator.

Nevertheless, paradoxical it remains; and some writers, sympathetic to Rothbard's starting point, have attempted to avoid his farreaching conclusions. Foremost among these is Robert Nozick; and one of the highlights of the book is our author's brief but decisive examination of his claims.

As Nozick sees matters, individuals in a society that acknowledges self-ownership would find it both rational and moral to "back into" a minimal state. With the complicated details of Nozick's derivation, we are not here concerned. Suffice it to say that he thinks a dominant protection agency would suppress competing agencies that sought to impose risky decision procedures on its clients. As a result, the dominant agency would become, de facto, the sole effective agency exercising force-in other words, a state.

Modugno locates a crucial and eminently contestable aspect of Nozick's argument. The picture of protection agencies battling to eliminate each other hardly comports with the general respect for self-ownership that Nozick introduces as a premise. "Thus, the rationale for this prohibition [of risky decision procedures] is based on a Hobbesian conception of society" (p. 93). Would not protection agencies that truly respected Lockean principles have to seek agreement over a dispute about proper legal procedures, rather than resort to force? And in this case, would we ever arrive at a minimal state?

Our author discusses the principles of an anarcho-capitalist society in considerable detail. Owing to considerations of space, I shall confine myself to one example. Rothbard sharply distinguishes between morality and legality. Only action that involves force or fraud may be dealt with by coercion. To respond, say, to a threat of blackmail with force violates the blackmailer's right to freedom from aggression.

People must, then, on Rothbard's principles respond to non-invasive immoral actions without using force. But can immorality be adequately combated under this limitation? Our author manifests concern for certain groups who prima facie stand vulnerable to the depredations of others. Rothbard's requirement that immoral behavior, unless itself violent, be met only peacefully, she writes, "presents no small problem for those concerned with the care of the weak, especially children" (pp. 67-68).

Does the Rothbardian restriction unacceptably permit exploitation of the vulnerable? Our author does not herself offer an explicit response: she confines herself to a brief discussion by way of contrast with Rothbard, of the views of Karl Popper and Antiseri.

Rothbard would, I think, in answer to her query advert to his jaundiced view of the state. If our concern is to protect the vulnerable, can we rely on the state to enforce morality? History, he would say, gives no reason to think the state can act effectively in this area-quite the contrary. Popper and Antiseri, one gathers, size up the risks and costs of state intervention otherwise. Roberta Modugno has written a remarkably thorough and incisive account of Murray Rothbard's thought. She has shown, better than anyone else, Rothbard's place in the classical liberal tradition. And that is no small achievement.


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