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

Rothbard vs. Everyone

Diritto, natura e ragione: Scritti inediti versus Hayek, Mises, Strauss e Polanyi (Right, Nature and Reason: Unpublished Writings against Hayek, Mises, Strauss and Polanyi)
Murray  N. Rothbard
Roberta A. Modugno, trans., ed.
Rubbettino, 2005
172 pgs.

Roberta Modugno has placed all those interested in the thought of Murray Rothbard doubly in her debt. From the late 1940s to the 1960s, Rothbard wrote a large number of reviews and reports for the Foundation for Economic Education, the William Volker Fund, and the National Book Foundation. As Modugno notes, "Rothbard had the opportunity to read, with incredible rapidity, innumerable books by a wide variety of authors" (p. 5, translation mine). His reports on these books were "sometimes written in an informal style" and showed the "biting irony . . . typical of Rothbardian prose" (p. 6).

These reports are much more than displays of Rothbard’s virtuosity: they frequently offer fuller discussions of vital points in his thought than are available in his books and articles. Unfortunately, they have hitherto remained unpublished. Modugno, in a veritable triumph of Rothbardian scholarship, has made available to the public for the first time a selection of the most important of these reports. She has accompanied her translations of them with a learned and illuminating analysis of Rothbard’s thought.

 Rothbard firmly believed in an objective ethics; and in this stance he found himself in the unfamiliar position of agreement with Leo Strauss. Commenting on Strauss’s paper "Relativism," Rothbard writes: "Strauss has one good point, and one alone: that there exists an absolute ethics for man, discoverable by reason, in accordance with [the] natural law of human nature" (p. 137; my quotations are from the English originals of Rothbard’s reports).

Why should we believe in an objective ethics of this kind? As Modugno notes, both Rothbard and Strauss found persuasive an appeal to ordinary language. The signature tune of David Hume and his many successors, the "fact-value dichotomy," is an artificial construction. Suppose, e.g., that someone pushes you aside while you are waiting in line for a movie. Has he not acted rudely? The judgment that he is rude is not a matter for subjective decision but is governed by objective criteria. But surely "rude" is a value-term: what then has happened to the alleged dichotomy between fact and value? In the view favored by Rothbard and Strauss, value judgments are factual. If so, is it not also true—though this is much more controversial—that if human beings need certain things in order to flourish, this is at once a factual statement and a value judgment? So Rothbard maintained; Modugno points out that the influential English philosopher Philippa Foot has also defended this position (p. 19).

Though Rothbard and Strauss were here allied, they soon diverged. Strauss contrasted natural and medieval natural law with "modern" natural law, culminating in the thought of John Locke, to the distinct disadvantage of the latter. As Strauss saw matters, Machiavelli and Hobbes abandoned the classical pursuit of virtue. Instead, they founded political philosophy on passion and self-interest. Locke, despite his professed adherence to natural law, was a secret Hobbesian; he perverted true natural law. Strauss’s antipathy to individualism, by the way, should not surprise us. As was often the case, Strauss followed the thought of his much-admired friend, the English socialist historian R.H. Tawney.1

Rothbard left no doubt about his view of this interpretation: "Strauss, while favoring what he considers to be the classical and Christian concepts of natural law, is bitterly opposed to the 17th and 18th century conceptions of Locke and the rationalists, particularly to their ‘abstract,’ ‘deductive,’ championing of the natural rights of the individual: liberty, property, etc. In this reading, Hobbes and Locke are the great villains in the alleged perversion of natural law. To my mind, this ‘perversion’ was a healthy sharpening and developing of the concept" (p. 114).

Modugno shows that Rothbard has the better of the argument. She calls attention to the major study of Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights (William B. Eerdmans, 2001). "Tierney has decisively brought into question the idea of Strauss and [Michel] Villey of an antithesis between an ancient Aristotelian doctrine of natural law and a modern theory of subjective natural rights" (p. 15).

Tierney, one of the world’s foremost authorities on medieval canon law, finds numerous uses of the language of individual rights in the writings of twelfth-century Decretists such as Rufinus and the "greatest of them all, Huguccio"2 (Tierney, p. 64). "Many canonists included in their lists of meanings a subjective one that explained ius naturale as a faculty or power inherent in human nature . . . from the beginning, the subjective idea of natural right was not derived from Christian revelation or from some all-embracing natural-law theory of cosmic harmony but from an understanding of human nature itself as rational, self-aware, and morally responsible" (Tierney, p. 76).

 Contrary to Strauss, Locke did not pervert natural law: he developed further a common medieval understanding, exactly as Rothbard maintained. True enough, Thomas Aquinas, the foremost thinker of the Middle Ages, made no use of subjective rights. But the great sixteenth-century Salamancan scholastic Francisco de Vitoria found it an easy task to devise a natural rights theory on a Thomistic basis. Once more, Strauss is confuted.

As all readers of Rothbard know, the key principle of his ethics is the axiom of self-ownership; and this too has medieval antecedents. Tierney finds that "one of the most illustrious masters of the University of Paris in the latter part of the thirteenth century," Henry of Ghent, had a firm grasp of this principle (Tierney, p. 83). Henry asked whether a criminal condemned to death had the right to flee and argued that he did: "Only the criminal himself has a property right in his own body or, as Henry put it, ‘only the soul under God has property in the substance of the body’" (Tierney, p. 86).

Though Rothbard’s view of natural law firmly rested on an Aristotelian and Thomist framework, by no means do all contemporary defenders of natural law adopt a libertarian view. In particular, Rothbard’s friend Henry Veatch, a major twentieth-century American Aristotelian, did not. Modugno incisively shows that the difference between the two thinkers lies in their contrasting conceptions of the common good. Veatch, unlike Rothbard, defends a common good that exists apart from the plans of individuals in society. The state plays an essential role in promoting this common good, in complete contrast to Rothbard’s individualism. Veatch in turn rejected libertarianism as a form of ethical egoism, making it, as he saw matters, not a moral theory at all. Rothbard cites Veatch several times in The Ethics of Liberty; but given this "profound difference" (p. 23), Veatch cannot be considered a major influence on Rothbard’s thought.

In defending his view of libertarian natural law, Rothbard confronted a challenge posed by Friedrich Hayek. Is not the attempt to deduce from self-evident principles the precepts of law an example of the "constructivist rationalism" that, according to Hayek, has been a principal enemy of liberty? Rothbard vigorously disagreed: Hayek in his view was an irrationalist. In a review, written in 1958, of the manuscript of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, Rothbard expressed alarm. It is "surprisingly and distressingly, an extremely bad, and I would even say evil, book." (p. 77). For Rothbard, intellectual opponents often inhabited a dark landscape. He could apply to himself the words of Dante: "Per me si va ne la città dolente." ("Through me is the way to the sorrowful city." Inferno, 3, 1.)

Hayek’s account of natural law and reason lay at the heart of Rothbard’s critique: "Tied up with his dismissal of natural law is Hayek’s continuous, and all-pervasive, attack on reason. Reason is his bête noire, and time and time again, from numerous and even contradictory standpoints, he opposes it. The true rationalist theory was, and is, that reason can discover the natural law of man, and from this can discover the natural rights of liberty. Since Hayek dismisses this even from historical consideration, he is left with only two choices for the formation of a political ethic: either blind adherence to custom and the traditions of the ‘social organism,’ or the coercive force of government edict" (p. 80, emphasis in original). To Rothbard, Hayek’s rejection of reason led to muddleheaded and unlibertarian views. Besides the very long list of such measures that Rothbard cites in a later review (pp. 108–12), Modugno also notes that Hayek was prepared to support conscription, if needed to defend against an external enemy (p. 44).

Modugno, sympathetic to the fallibilist view of reason of Karl Popper, is not prepared fully to endorse Rothbard’s charges against Hayek. She views Hayek not as an enemy of reason but rather of "the abuse of reason" (p. 32). But from her own position of critical sympathy with Hayek, she makes a point that Rothbardians will find congenial.

Hayek, in his historical account of the rule of law, placed great stress on the development of the common law in England. The common law judges did not follow a conscious plan, but the unintended results of their decisions led to the ordered growth of liberty. Modugno argues that even if Hayek is right, this does not at all justify his neglect of natural law in his historical account of liberty. Rothbard was perfectly correct to condemn Hayek’s "brusque and cavalier dismissal of the whole theory of natural law" (p. 79).

Her key point is this: whether or not natural law is a correct metaphysical theory, the great common law judges whom Hayek cites, such as Edward Coke and Matthew Hale, accepted natural law. Thus an accurate historical analysis of the growth of liberty must take account of natural law: one cannot, as Hayek wishes, cast aside the theory as "intellectually indefensible." With great insight, Modugno sees here a point of rapprochement between Rothbard and Hayek. Following the Italian historian of political thought Nicola Matteucci, she suggests that it is "possible to conceive a Hayekian position that is not in strong opposition to natural law" (p. 29). If natural law is viewed as the product of historical reason, why cannot a Hayekian in good standing accept it for its value in promoting liberty? He can acknowledge its good results, even while rejecting its theoretical basis.

Modugno here resumes and carries further a line of thought suggested in her earlier book MurrayN. Rothbarde l’anarco-capitalismo americano (1998). 3 There, faced with Rothbard’s arguments for anarcho-capitalism, she asked: why not take Rothbard’s system as a regulative idea, in Kant’s sense? Let us see experimentally how far it is possible to do without the state. Popperians and Hayekians can thus, if she is right, adopt in considerable measure Rothbard’s views: doing so commits them to no philosophical doctrines that they reject. I hope her most valuable proposal attracts the attention it deserves.

1See Simon J.D. Green, "The Tawney-Strauss Connection: On Historicism and Values in the History of Political Ideas," Journal of Modern History 67 (June 1995), pp. 255–77.

2The Decretists were commentators on the major compilation of canon law, the Decretum Gratiani.

3See my review in the Mises Review, Winter 1999.


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