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The late late book review

As an aspiring student of liberty, I’ve read some books, such as Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, which sorted out complex conceptions I’d previously struggled with, and read other books, such as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which just blew my mind straight out of the water. But in my quest for classical liberal enlightenment, over the past five years, I’ve had the occasional good fortune to stumble across a few rare gems which have cracked open both nuts.

These rare and concise works of genius have crystallized my ragged thoughts and exploded them into a dagger-sharpened clarity, to achieve, for me, a double-whammy Wow effect.

You may have enjoyed some of these masterpieces, yourself, such as Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and Von Mises’ The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. I see the world through a far clearer lens, after having read these paradigm shakers, than I ever did before, through an unformed fog of Platonic statism.

Socialists, particularly, hate these books. Because to read them, and to understand them, is to reject socialism’s own evil hate-filled religion. And if we were to let these red Borg force their nauseous European super state upon us, these books would soon get jettisoned onto their mass tribal bonfire. But which one would get tossed on first, in a square, in Berlin? There can only be one. And I think I’ve just read it. But before I continue, I must state my position as a late late book reviewer.

I find that size matters. I like small books. To me, small is good; small is wonderful; small is beautiful.

Even better than that, I like small books with very small words. So don’t give me no John Stuart Mill; I just can’t hack it. Big books, big words, big turn-off.

But before I come to the main subject of this review, there is a big book, out there, which has to be dealt with first. What is this monumental blockbuster? It’s a Grand Canyon of a book, it’s a Rhodes Colossus of a book, it’s an Incredible Hulk of a book. It is Man, Economy, and State, by Murray N. Rothbard.

This near-thousand page monster just has to be seen to be believed. They had to bring it to the house in a truck; it took three men just to lift it to the door, and we had to strengthen the building’s foundations before we dared risk bringing the beast in.

And then once we’d settled it onto its bookshelf, it sat there for two long years, basking in its own gravitational mass. I’d completed a major quest to stagger up the North Face of Von Mises’ Human Action, and a wise owl had advised that Man, Economy, and State was the next book up. But I just couldn’t face it. Von Mises had worn me out, and the thought of wading through this Hummer-sized doorstopper, proved too great a challenge for one so feeble of mind and body.

However, the name Murray N. Rothbard just kept cropping up again and again. I couldn’t escape it as the next advised port of call, or the mantra that to read any Rothbard you had to start first with this Magnum Opus. So, with a weary heart, I donned the climbing gear, broke out the ice-axe, and attacked this huge book’s forbidding South Face.

But what a joy of leisured utility! Although Rothbard promises you he’s about to cover the whole of economics in one mighty swoop, it’s a breeze. You almost feel you do understand the whole of economics, in one go, as he whisks you from Robinson Crusoe’s island, all the way through to the New York Stock Exchange, via tree berries, grains of gold, and the hideous state-controlled monetary inflation system. I must warn you though; this light-headed feeling of understanding soon passes if you try to explain Rothbard’s axioms to anyone else, without holding the book open at the right page.

This effect makes the book a bit like that gold box, in Pulp Fiction, which Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta have to recover, at the start of the film. When you open it, you’re happy. When you close it, the book becomes a complete mystery again.

Which brings us to our book review goal; Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty. This fabulous book of power, clarity, and near irrefutability, has left me almost numb in admiration. Rothbard starts with a section on Natural Law, which he builds up, I thought, in a similar way to Leonard Peikoff, with Ayn Rand’s axioms of Objectivism. From there, once Rothbard has created his legal platform, he proceeds directly towards his ethics of liberty.

Rothbard works through, amongst many other things, interpersonal relationships, voluntary exchange, property ownership, self defence, children’s rights, human rights, property rights, and contracts. It’s all there. And best of all, for a man like me; it’s all nice and short.

But the best part of the book is its second half; Parts III to V. Here Rothbard explains the immorality of the state, the nature of tax as theft, the inevitable active aggression of the state towards the individual, and the nature of the aristocratic parasites using the state to feed off the rest of us (virtually all Guardian readers, here in the UK).

Rothbard especially covers how the state came into being, how it maintains itself, often by co-opting these self-regarding Guardian-reading intellectuals, and best of all, how he thinks the state can be laid low. He covers this, in the last chapter of the book, Toward a Theory of Strategy for Liberty.

And it is in this chapter he resolves a difficult issue for me personally, which Brian Micklethwait, and others, may have become slightly concerned over: the Invasion of The Conservatives.

Brian, I’d like to reassure you, and Perry, and anyone else even half-interested, that I am not now, have never been, and will never be, a Conservative, if by that term you mean a rightist statist. However, I am willing to grant you that I may have occasionally strayed into what Rothbard calls the territory of Right Opportunism, a term he neatly borrows from the Marxists.

He regards it as proper, that libertarians should call for the immediate abolition of the state, however, to achieve this goal, temporary alliances may be necessary with other groups (conservatives, civil rights people, and so on), on specific issues, such as the reduction of taxation, or a particular state regulation. But we must never lose sight of the end game, or stray in any way, along the path towards full liberty. For instance, we should not fight for a tax cutting program by agreeing that a conservative government should switch from an income tax to a sales tax. The government should just cut the income tax, full stop, and cut its spending accordingly. Rothbard also disbars the use of collectivist methods to achieve our aims, for example, by murdering successful collectivist opponents to liberty.

Right Opportunism is where you can lose sight of your long-term libertarian goals, in a pursuit of a short-term libertarian gain.

He also describes Left Sectarianism, where some may decry any link-up with any other group, which does not also call for immediate full-scale liberty. He sees this ultra-sectarianism as non-progressive and futile.

But what I like best about Rothbard is his overwhelming optimism. This book was written in 1982, and even back then he successfully predicted the imminent collapse of aggressive worldwide socialism, which occurred at the end of the 1980s, with the fall of the Berlin wall. He also postulated that a collectivist tyranny could only survive indefinitely inside an agrarian society, and due to capitalistic complexity, it could never survive indefinitely within a modern industrial society, without that society inevitably breaking down.

The collectivist state will always eat up any economic reserve, created before the collectivist rise of state power; it will then begin to collapse, as soon as it has to pay out all of its current spending needs with all of its current tax receipts. We saw this in the early part of the twentieth century. The laissez-faire nineteenth century capitalists built up an enormous reserve, which the socialists, of the early twentieth century, took several decades to work through.

Once they’d consumed it all, by the 1970s, everything started going horribly pear-shaped. Essentially, to borrow a phrase from Mr Carr, the drinks ran out.

We saw this process repeat itself, after the economic triumphs of Reagan and Thatcher. These two cold-war warriors forced the Russian communists to cannibalize themselves to destruction, through containment, and then helped western society build up another capital reserve, by rolling back some of the state. Clinton and Blair then went on to squander all of this, in two long socialist parties, one in the US, albeit tempered by Clinton’s long lame-duck status, and one over here in the UK, which kicked off in 1997.

So here, in the UK after six years of socialism, the drinks have run out again, and the inevitable hangover is starting. They can’t figure it out, as to why New Labour has hit the buffers, with nothing further to offer. But we’re down to dwindling tax receipts, and, surprise, surprise, massive government borrowing, as all the dreadful policies of monopoly public service and regulated state franchise run into the sand, like we always said they would. Oh dear. How sad. Never mind.

(Why won’t these people just accept that socialism doesn’t work? It’d be much easier in the long run, for all of us.)

All the collectivist variations have now been tried out and they’ve all failed, says Rothbard, so only true freedom is left as a valid option. Let’s all say three big cheers to that, and then thank Mr Rothbard for this magnificent work.

Reading The Ethics of Liberty seemed a bit mad, at first, as Rothbard described a way of life without an overarching state, or even a minarchist one. But the way he describes the nature of a state’s inherent evil, and its overwhelming short-termist incompetence, he has made it very hard for me to argue against him.

I shall have to run out immediately and buy his other major books, Power and Market, and For a New Liberty, to figure out how he thinks we can have competing police and judicial services, something my previous heroine Ayn Rand thought nonsensical, and something which I intuitively feel doesn’t quite make sense. But I’ve got a feeling he’ll prove it to me.

While I’m out doing that, if you haven’t got them, I thoroughly recommend you run out yourself and buy Man, Economy, and State, and The Ethics of Liberty. Okay, so this review is 21 years too late, but better late than never, especially as both of these books are worth every grain of gold, a monetary commodity which retains its value, even over two decades!

51 comments to The late late book review

  • Duncan Stewart

    Alan

    Ditto to the “aspiring student of liberty” tag and I’m glad I stumbled across samizdata a couple of weeks ago.

    I’ve just had a quick look on amazon and it looks like I’ll only be able to get “The Ethics of Liberty” and “For a New Liberty” from the .com. Unless you know of any UK bookshops which have a copy?

    regards

  • Andy,

    I have not read Rothbard, as a result of which I now feel extremely unprepared to face life. However, perhaps you can help!

    It is not clear from your post where the great man stands on collective self-identification? Group loyalty posits inter-group rivalry and competition, leading to organisation, leading to the state. The greater the competition – and the greatest is war – the more extensive and, perhaps, corrosive to individual freedom the actions of the state must be. Does Rothbard allow for this or does he circumvent the whole issue by insisting on the pacifism of zero collective self-identification?

  • “But which one would get tossed on first, in a square, in Berlin?”

    Cheap shot, Andy. Jingoism and libertarianism don’t go mix well.

    “Even better than that, I like small books with very small words. So don’t give me no John Stuart Mill; I just can’t hack it. Big books, big words, big turn-off”.

    I’m sorry about your inadequacy.

  • Before anyone gets upset about my second remark above: When I wrote that comment I was pretty upset by Andy’s gratuitous “Berlin” reference.

    Anyway, I think it makes him a legitimate target for some cheap shots of my own.

  • Lorenzo

    Apparently you’ve caused the book to sell out even on the .com part of Amazon. Got any ideas where I can get my hand on The Ethics of Liberty

  • David Duff

    “…. he has made it very hard for me to argue against him.”

    But you must!!! Or if you can’t, then read some writers who do. It is highly dangerous to swallow whole another man’s opinion. I myself was completely overwhelmed by neo-Darwinism and its apparent ability to explain everything!! But I remembered Popper’s paradox, ie, no theory is “scientific” unless it can be refuted. I then discovered David Stowe who disected the swivel-eyed Dawkins and his ilk and showed that Darwinism, like every other scientific theory, only explains so much. (Also David Stowe is the only philosopher whose books make me burst out laughing.)

    Er, I hardly dare mention this, but Duncan writing above can’t find a copy of the book. I suggest, hesitantly, the local library but alas it is a state provided service. Oh dear, a moral dilemna!

    Talking of Karl Popper, try his “The Open Society and its Enemies: Plato, Hegal and Marx”. Supreme erudition.
    David Duff

  • Rothbard is like strong drink… best sampled in moderation. He was a man whose many good ideas need to be understood with the context of having been someone who never let inconvenient facts get in the way of his thesis. The Soviet Union was never a serious threat? Sorry, there goes 90% of his ‘cred’ right out the window… geo-political flat earth theory.

    Sure, Rothbard is worth a read but rather than waste too much time on him, read Open Society and its Enemies by Karl Popper.

  • David Duff: you beat me to recommending Popper by 2 mins!!!

  • Andy Duncan

    Duncan Stewart writes:

    I’ve just had a quick look on amazon and it looks like I’ll only be able to get “The Ethics of Liberty” and “For a New Liberty” from the .com. Unless you know of any UK bookshops which have a copy?

    I got my Man, Economy, and State from Amazon.com, and a second-hand The Ethics of Liberty from a secondary Amazon reseller, here in the UK. I’m afraid you might have to try Amazon.com, as the Americans are way ahead of us stupid Europeans, on thinking.

    Or try Ebay.co.uk? I bet there’s loads of nearly-new Rothbard monsters out there! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Guessedworker writes:

    It is not clear from your post where the great man stands on collective self-identification? Group loyalty posits inter-group rivalry and competition, leading to organisation, leading to the state. The greater the competition – and the greatest is war – the more extensive and, perhaps, corrosive to individual freedom the actions of the state must be. Does Rothbard allow for this or does he circumvent the whole issue by insisting on the pacifism of zero collective self-identification?

    Come on Guessedworker, just “self-identification” by itself has seven syllables, which is more than this poor man’s brain can handle, of a Monday morning! ๐Ÿ™‚

    But let me have a go, anyway, seeing as it’s you ๐Ÿ™‚

    In Part III there are four relevant chapters, The Nature of the State, The Inner Contradictions of the State, The Moral Status of Relations to the State, and On Relations Between States. In Part IV, there is also the excellent Robert Noziak and the Immaculate Conception of the State.

    If that doesn’t whet your appetite, let me try a precis of each one.

    The Nature of the State: Here Rothbard examines what the state does for us, and what it does for itself. He talks about how it always tries to monopolize physical violence, and the crucial difference between it and every other body within society. Namely, that it retains the power to acquire its revenue through physical coercion, and achieves a compulsory monopoly of force and decision-making ability over a given territorial area. And if tax is indistinguishable from theft, it follows that the State, which subsists on taxation, is a vast criminal organisation far more formidable and successful than any “private” Mafia, in history. He also demolishes the witless argument of fools, that taxation is in some way “voluntary”, through an “I-tax-you-you-tax-me” process, and explains the basic inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the State, such that it maintains the voluntary exchange of goods, and non-coercive law of contracts, by violating both principles.

    The Inner Contradictions of the State: Here, Rothbard extends his work of the previous chapter by discussing the major contradictions inherent in even the minarchist laissez-faire state. Essentially, the impossibility of the neutrality of taxes; the ever-ratcheting process of a Supreme court, which will take any constitution, no matter how carefully framed, and make it more and more statist as time progresses, as we see in the US; and, the difficulty of deciding what constitutes a minimal state. Even if confined to the processes of protection, and retaliatory violence, does this mean each citizen must be supplied with their own tank? Or is there some objective limit? If not, it must be accepted the state will always try to grow, to furnish the ambitions of the parasites who control it.

    The Moral Status of Relations to the State: I’ll just give you the first sentence here. I’m sure you’ll be able to work out the rest! ๐Ÿ™‚

    If the State, then, is a vast engine of institutionalized crime and aggression, the “organization of the political means” to wealth, then this means that the State is a criminal organization, and that therefore its moral status is radically different from any of the just property-owners that we have been discussing in this volume.

    Fantastic! ๐Ÿ˜Ž

    On Relations Between States: A very interesting chapter, perhaps the one you will wish to check out first. As you imply, Rothbard thinks wars are the life-blood of the state. It is through these that they acquire power, wealth, control, and most importantly, territory. Rothbard condemns all wars between states, and sees it as the duty of the libertarian to diminish the power of states to commit war, all of which he sees as destructive of both the state’s foreign targets, and of the state’s own taxpayers. He particularly sees nuclear weapons, or other WMD, as heinous, being as they are untargetable, so the loss of innocent life will always occur. (It would be interesting to see what Rothbard would make of the current Iraq situation?) He also discusses how this “anarchy of warring states” is accepted by states themselves, even though they decry the anarchy of individuals.

    This chapter made me think quite a lot on the future historical claims of the fool Tony Blair. He has done nothing “successful”, except suppress the Tory party, and run various wars. Ah, but that’s caring sharing socialism for you! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Robert Noziak and the Immaculate Conception of the State: Rothbard embarks on a detailed critique of Robert Noziak’s ideas that the State emerges peacefully, from a process of history. Rothbard debunks this and makes the claim that Law remains separate from the State, particularly Common Law, and that the State will always try to monopolize law in order to legitimate itself. Intrinsically, he sees the State as evolving not as some peaceful growth of a spurious social contract (which none of us ever get to sign, anyway), but as primitive local robber barons gradually acquiring more and more coercive power, and territory, knocking each other out, until a hideous state emerges peopled by a parasitic elite.

    I hope that’s enough for you to be going on with! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Ralf Goergens writes:

    “But which one would get tossed on first, in a square, in Berlin?”
    Cheap shot, Andy. Jingoism and libertarianism don’t go mix well.

    Es tut mir leid. I don’t recall there ever being book-burning festivals in Britain, in the last 100 years, though I’m sure you’ll correct me if there were, but having walked under the non-existent lime trees, and through the squares, and the central boulevards of Berlin, a few years ago, I do remember standing on the exact spot of Hitler’s book burning pyre, along with a few American tourists, for a few poignant minutes at sunset. It was that memory which caused me to write that particular line. But you could make it Brussels, if you like, or Downing Street, or any other particular place you care to mention where idiot socialists, and their ilk, congregate. I don’t see anything particularly “German” about Hitler. He was the product of nationalism, and socialism, two of the more evil forms of collectivism, things which afflict us all, and his need for destruction descended directly from the Bismarkian hell of the Monarchist Prussian state collective. As Herr Hayek says in The Road to Serfdom, that ratcheting process of socialist totalitarianism could equally well have applied here in Britain. And nearly did, after the second world war, and would have, if it hadn’t been for books like The Road to Serfdom, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Animal Farm. Deutschland just had the misfortune to be thirty years ahead of Britain, on the advanced collectivist timeline. Some people often question why a philosophically advanced nation, such as the Greater Prussian state of Germany, home to Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and not forgetting Herr Marx of course, could have been so destructive towards the individual. But as Ayn Rand says, it is because of this very philosophical advancement, that the hell of modern socialism originated within Central Europe, particularly Hegelian Prussia. But being forced to drill down even further into my motivations, by your point, I see it as almost inevitable, following my irrational non-Popperian historicist tendencies, that the capital of the European super state will re-locate to Berlin, once the fifty year subterfuge of Brussels has played its part; you’ll notice the real power, of the gold deposits, is already located in Frankfurt. And the national imposed language of that super state will eventually be die Deutsche Lange. So on that analysis, Berlin will be where the books are burnt. But I could be wrong. We could vote in the Euro, here in England, and vote it the Euro Constitution (even if we’re given a vote). It’s unlikely, I’ll admit, but the Euro capital could even be London. But on balance, I’ll speculate, eventually, it will be Berlin. Though even if it is Berlin, there could be a Briton, such as the odious Mr Tony Blair, ordering the lighting of these bonfires, as he has done to the first drafts of his dodgy dossiers, so I really do have no nationalist axe to grind. I see humanity as all being descended from one woman, 100,000 years ago anyway, so, perhaps like you, I regard nationalism of being of the utmost stupidity, particularly as I’m a genetic mixture of Jewish, Russian, Polish, Norwegian, Scottish, Irish, English, and maybe somewhere, even a little German; I lived there, on a British Army base, for five years. Maybe a little rubbed off? Hell, all the English are Anglo-Saxons anyway, and our first book was Beowulf, a novel set in our then homeland of northern Germany. And some of my greatest heroes include Herr Hayek, Herr Von Mises, and Herr Popper. Okay, so mostly Oster-Reichians, rather than Norder-Reichians, admittedly, but Herr Hitler was an Austrian too, though not of its economic school. So who’s counting?

    “Even better than that, I like small books with very small words. So don’t give me no John Stuart Mill; I just can’t hack it. Big books, big words, big turn-off”.
    I’m sorry about your inadequacy.

    Hell, some days I can’t even spell my own name.

    Anyway, I think it makes him a legitimate target for some cheap shots of my own.

    Go for it, Ralf. There’s nothing I enjoy more than being personally abused by strangers. And across continents, too. Marvellous! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • dave from ireland

    yikes! the rhetoric is oddly familiar, don’t you think? In your defence, you do rule out killing people in the pursuit of purity. I guess.

  • dave from ireland

    yikes! the rhetoric is oddly familiar, don’t you think? In your defence, you do rule out killing people in the pursuit of purity. I guess. Oh, and Rand? Thats so 1980s lovee.

  • dave from ireland

    yikes! the rhetoric is oddly familiar, don’t you think? In your defence, you do rule out killing people in the pursuit of ideological purity. I guess.

  • Andy Duncan

    David Duff writes:

    But you must!!! Or if you can’t, then read some writers who do.

    Got any recommendations?

    BTW, I’m only a proto-Rothbardian. I’m still also a quasi-Randite and neo-Popperite. But thanks for the thought! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Perry de Havilland and David Duff write:

    read Open Society and its Enemies by Karl Popper

    Thanks, chaps. Got the Mother, fortunately, both parts. A superb read, particularly part I, though I think Herr Marx comes out a bit too well in part II, as some kind of caring sharing man ahead of his time.

    I’m still struggling mentally with Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism. Like you say, how do we cope with the Soviet Union? By telling them they’re bad men? Or with Saddam Hussein, and his … well … alleged … weapons of mass destruction? By asking him nicely to hide them in the desert?

    Is there always a power vacuum into which the robber barons come, providing a service of protection? And is Ayn Rand right, that it’s ridiculous to have two separate police forces, knocking on the same door, representing the two opposing parties? I still think she might be right. But I’ll have to work on For a New Liberty first, to give Rothbard an even chance.

    And whatever else he is, Rothbard is an intensely stimulating challenger of preconceptions, and I think his economics are immense, better even than Von Mises, though I still struggle with the DMVP (Declining Marginal Value Product … errr …, probably ๐Ÿ™‚

    He’s got to be worth reading, and refuting, if his anarchy is impossible. You may be relieved to hear I think Popper’s still the man. Though is it possible to refute his theory of falsifiability, without using his theory of falsifiability? If anyone’s got any books on that conundrum, I’d be glad to hear ’em! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I like the account of climbing the big book. Know that feeling only too well.

    I found Eric Roll’s ‘History of Economic Thought‘ surprisingly readable recently, although it’s about fifty years out of date.

    My difficulty with these natural justice arguments is that they all reach back into the mists of an imagined prehistory for their justification. Collectivists invoke the collectivism of prehistoric societies we don’t really know anything about to justify present-day collectivism. Individualists invoke the individualism of prehistoric societies we don’t really know anything about to justify present-day individualism. On one side books like Hayek’s ‘Road to Serfdom’ – on the other books like E.P.Thompson’s ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ [a little more prehistory-based than it looks at first].

    On both sides to work up an indignant this-other-lot-robbed-us-of-our-ancient-rightful-heritage mood.

    Can’t we just say what we like now and would like now and argue from there?

  • Andy Duncan

    mark writes:

    Can’t we just say what we like now and would like now and argue from there?

    I think we do need some kind of framework, though admittedly both Leonard Peikoff, with his Objectivist axioms, and Mr Rothbard, with his natural law, do present frameworks which can be challenged by the enemy.

    This is why, I think Mr Duff and Mr De Havilland are right to recommend Herr Popper. As well as the Open Society and its Enemies, I think the way Popper builds up objective knowledge, in his cunningly titled book, “Objective Knowledge”, via a process of falsifiable scientific inquiry, is such a masterstroke.

    That way we can start from here, as you say, work out the Popperian objective arguments, and then proceed forwards, from any point in history, without relying on unknown prehistoric pasts.

  • James Dudek

    Ever considered a top five recommended books from each of the Samizdata writers? I would be interested in recommendations………

  • Kodiak

    ASSESSING COMMUNISM-RELATED TOPICALITY AT SAMIZDATA

    Topics studied: “European Union”, “French Affairs” & “German Affairs”.

    Period of time covered: from 1 June 2003 to 21 July 2003.

    Gross results:
    54 threads – 1.563 posts – 29 posts per thread (ppt).

    Posting volume breakdown:
    “European Union” = 54% – “French Affairs” = 45% – “German Affairs” = 1%.

    Posting attendance:
    “European Union” = 24 ppt – “French Affairs” = 39 ppt – “German Affairs” = 13 ppt.

    Latest trends:
    1/ June was a good month for “French Affairs” (attendance was 45ppt vs 30ppt in June).
    2/ Opposite for “European Union” (27ppt in July vs 22ppt in June).
    3/ “German Affairs” seems to be of no major interest (1 thread in July vs none in June).
    4/ Overall: 27ppt (July) – 30ppt (June).

    ******

    For those 3 communism-related issues, threading & posting alike were much higher in June than in July (month to completed yet).

    POSTING INTENSITY
    1/ “European Union”: 20 posts per day (ppd) in July vs 14ppd in June.
    2/ “French Affairs”: 10ppd in July vs 16ppd in June.
    3/ “German Affairs”: figures for July & June are 0,6ppd & 0ppd respectively.
    4/ Overall: 31ppd (July) – 30ppd (June).

  • David Duff

    Yes, I agree with Andy Duncan that Popper’s methodology (or sceptisism) is useful which is why he shattered me when I first discovered his writings.

    However, one needs to remember that refutable scientific propositions are not the be all and end all. E=MC2 is PROBABLY true 99% of the time but the proposition ‘God exists’ (or God does not exist) is either absolutely true or absolutely false – the problem being that no human can falsify either statement so we can never be sure. Both are “knowledge” of a sort but obviously different sorts! That is why I am very cautious about absolutes in the political sphere, indeed any sphere.

    Incidentally, as proof that I take my own medicine, the very funny and acerbic David Stove who I mentioned in my previous comment, absolutely beats poor Popper to pulp. Also, he is, I am confident of saying, the only philosopher whoever introduced the following example of an Australian aphorism into a serious work of philosophy: “As slick as rat with a gold tooth!” I think he was referring to Dawkins at the time and anyone who takes that ‘absolutist’ down a peg or six, gets my vote.

    Do yourselves a favour and read David Stove – Roger Kimball recently published a good anthology of his writings called: Against the Idols of the Age.

    Duncan – you can get that one from Amazon but honestly it is much easier and cheaper to use a library. Go on, swallow your minimum state principles.
    David Duff

  • D Anghelone

    Rothbard may have been all the scribe but he supported some funked-up politicoes and actually campaigned for something as odious as Adlai Stevenson. Why Stevenson? Because Rothbard saw him as being less a war-monger than Eisenhower. Ridiculous.

    Rothbard’s prescription for the U.S. should it be attacked? Sue for peace. To do otherwise would be to commit some against their will and we couldn’t have any of that.

    Andy Duncan,

    Hope you stay but proto-Rothbardian. Where Christians have Satan is where anarchocapitalists have Statan. The contradictions they ascribe to their strawman, the state, are the contradictions of Man. If anarchy would be contra-contradiction then how so? So accomodating would it be to the contradictions of men that homo-sapien would become homo-pacem?

    And who was more a contradiction in self than Rothbard?

  • Andy,

    I also thoroughly enjoyed Man, Economy, and State. I think it is a much better introduction to the Austrian School than Human Action, which is more of a reference encyclopedia. The first few chapters of MES, i.e., when Rothbard defines and demonstrates the practical applications of praxeology, are simply magnificient.

    Re: Rothbard’s brand of anarchocapitalism – I found him too dogmatic in his approach. I found David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom much more illuminating, even though Friedman took a completely different approach. The tone was much more ‘open-minded’ and questioning.

  • David Duff

    Andy – quick question, I assume the “Robert Noziak” you refer to is actually Robert Nozik, author of “Anarchy, State and Utopia”

    Mea culpa, I made a similar mistake in my first comment in referring to David “Stowe” when it should have been David Stove.

    Fascinating exchange on this commentary.
    David Duff

  • Duncan Stewart

    David Duff writes:

    Duncan – you can get that one from Amazon but honestly it is much easier and cheaper to use a library. Go on, swallow your minimum state principles.

    Cheaper, perhaps, as I’ve already paid for my local library via Council Tax.
    Easier, no. Whereas I can shop for books online 24 hours a day (and get them delivered to my place of work), my local library is only open at times when I can’t get to it.

  • David Duff

    Bad luck, Duncan, my very small village library (only 2 mins walk from home!) actually opens on Sat mornings. I have already filled in my request card for Rothbard’s book. Of course, they don’t hold it but sometime in the next 2 to 8 weeks they’ll give me a ring to let me know it’s in. And for me it’s not just the cost of BUYING the books, it’s the problem of storing them. Any more and I may be forced to prove Andy wrong by providing the first example of book-burning in Britain!
    David Duff

  • Andy Duncan

    David Duff writes:

    Andy – quick question, I assume the “Robert Noziak” you refer to is actually Robert Nozik, author of “Anarchy, State and Utopia”

    Whoops, mea culpa.

    It’s even better than ‘Noziak’ or ‘Nozik’. It’s ‘Nozick’! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • David Duff

    Oh God and I’ve actually got his damned book in front of me with NOZICK writ large. It’s the gin you know!
    David Duff
    PS: Terrific book but I gather from his recent obits that he rather softened his stance as he got older – well, don’t we all!

  • Oh, alright, Andy. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    But he are really missing something if you don’t read Mill:

    http://cepa.newschool.edu/het/profiles/mill.htm

    http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/m/milljs.htm

  • Omnibus Bill

    At the risk of being a turd in the punch bowl…

    I’ve spent a bit of time in places with no government whatsoever, and take my word, the state isn’t your biggest enemy there. Fellow man is your biggest enemy.

    Color me a watered-down, weak-kneed, fancy-boy Hayekian, but I firmly believe that the state serves some purpose. At the most rudimentary level, that purpose is protecting property rights and other liberty interests — keeping Peter from robbing Paul at gunpoint. The state ought to be minimized… but taxes as theft?

    In the most democratically governed places I’ve seen, small New England towns, the town folk gather each year to vote on the budget, including the police budget. They usually vote to tax themselves, to pay for cops, in order to prevent things like theft.

    I have trouble seeing how government, by consent of the governed, which sometimes comes at a cost, is theft. At its smallest and most efficient, it’s essentially fee for services. One of my uncles was a town highway man for a small town. Robin Hood jokes notwithstanding, the several hundred folks in the town voted each year to re-employ him, along with a couple workers, who maintained the road system. There were two other town “businesses”, a small management office that oversaw minimal zoning and a for-hire garbage dump that the town ran, and a fire department. The townfolks had some opportunities to branch out into other endeavors – schools, community centers and so forth – but they usually declined, unless the revenue stream from the high-tech landfill, and from “renting out” the road crew to other towns, had the town operating at too great a profit.

    I don’t know of anybody in my uncle’s town who perceived the minimal taxes / fees as theft.

    But then again, Murry Rothbard never lived there.

  • Cobden Bright

    “m still struggling mentally with Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism. Like you say, how do we cope with the Soviet Union?”

    Presumably with paid private armies and/or a volunteer militia? I expect that regional (and other) organisations would group together into mutual defence pacts, much as states did with NATO.

    “Is there always a power vacuum into which the robber barons come, providing a service of protection?”

    There may well be if the population is insufficiently well armed and prepared against this threat. Liberty carries no guarantees, and is only as good as the people who defend it. Then again, the state carries no guarantees either – except for guaranteed lack of liberty.

    “And is Ayn Rand right, that it’s ridiculous to have two separate police forces, knocking on the same door, representing the two opposing parties? I still think she might be right.”

    No – disputes would probably be settled as they are currently in private disputes across international borders, which also have literally two (sometimes more) separate police forces and legal jurisdictions (and usually armies, navies, and air forces). If nuclear-armed USA can trade with nuclear-armed communist China and settle disputes without going to war, then I don’t see why the same can’t happen between private citizens under anarcho-capitalism.

  • Cydonia

    Andy:

    “It would be interesting to see what Rothbard would make of the current Iraq situation?”

    He would not have approved. See this article by Rothbard on the first gulf war.

    Generally I agree with you Andy. I think Rothbard was a genuis, although given his huge output, he was bound to get some things wrong.

    Be warned, though. He regarded war-making as the touchstone of Statist evil and hence those who supported war-making as libertarian apostates. It is very difficult (in fact impossible) to be a Rothbardian whilst at the same time supporting the recent Iraq war. It also means that he comes in for a lot of stick from those who would probably otherwise agree with most of the other things he wrote – yes Perry that means you ๐Ÿ™‚

    Re. Jonathan Wilde’s comments, I wholeheartedly agree that Friedman’s approach to anarcho-capitalism is well worth looking into. The Machinery of Freedom is a superb book and has the advantage that it isn’t dependent upon arguments about natural rights. And it’s short!

    Friedman has since followed up with some other very interesting books (especially “Hidden Order” and “Law’s Order”) which espouse a broadly anarcho-capitalist perspective within the wrapping of conventional textbooks. You might want to check them out.

    Finally you might take a look at Jan Lester’s Escape from Leviathan which (at the risk of gross oversimplication) charts a sort of Third Way between Friedman and Rothbard

    Have fun

    Cydonia

  • Cobden Bright

    Omnibus Bill writes –

    “I’ve spent a bit of time in places with no government whatsoever, and take my word, the state isn’t your biggest enemy there. Fellow man is your biggest enemy.”

    Something of a tautology: obviously if there is no state, then the state can’t be your enemy at all, let alone your biggest enemy.

    Also, you have to compare like with like. Are Somalia or Western Sahara (two places which are effectively pure anarchies) any more dangerous than Liberia, Rwanda, or the Congo (places where the government has a massive dominance of force)? How dangerous are the high seas, or Antarctica?

    “I firmly believe that the state serves some purpose. At the most rudimentary level, that purpose is protecting property rights and other liberty interests — keeping Peter from robbing Paul at gunpoint.”

    But how can the state protect property and liberty when its main source of funding consists of doing exactly the same robbing it is supposed to prevent?

    “They usually vote to tax themselves, to pay for cops, in order to prevent things like theft.”

    No they don’t. They vote to tax *other people* who *do not want* to be taxed, and may well not want the services they are being offered.

  • Ye Gods Andy. I wait for over twenty years to scale the shelves and re-read Man, Economy and State – finishing it last week – and now you’ve persuaded me to move The Ethics of Liberty back into the ever-expanding in pile!

  • David Duff

    I think Cobden and Andy are moving close to heresy in wishing for utopia – or, to be precise, what think will be utopia. Anyone who has lived through the 20th c. knows how such dreams end as nightmares.
    Anyway, it is all such a waste of time and effort. There never has been and never will be a stateless (or government-free) condition for mankind. Bioogy insists that a certain fairly large number of people are required to form a community in order to reproduce at a sufficient rate to keep the species going. The minute that occurs the strongest rule the weakest. Thereafter all political philosophy boils down to variations on the theme of “quis custodiet ipsos Custodes?”, who guards the guards, or to widen the point, how do we mitigate a potential but neccessary evil?

    Omnibus Bill above, describes himself rather inelegantly as “a turd in the punchbowl”. On the contrary, I think he is the very welcome muesli in an increasingly frothy souffle. Face it, fella’s, we might not love them but governments are like mothers-in-law, they are just part of the package and that’s that!

    Andy is looking for a “little book” to read on this tricky subject. He could do worse than Tom Stoppard’s script for “The Shores of Utopia”, his recent trilogy of plays based on the comparitively little-known Russian intellectual, Alexander Herzon. Poor Herzon’s reputation was swamped by the extremes of intellectual thought that swirled round Russia and Europe in the late 19th c. Yet his was a lone voice of common sense and reason and how many zillions might have enjoyed a full life span if people had followed him rather than the mad men who smashed the world to pieces on the treacherous ‘shores of Utopia’?
    David Duff

  • Andy Duncan

    David Duff writes:

    There never has been and never will be a stateless (or government-free) condition for mankind.

    Never? Oh, David, as Sean Connery said once, in a classic tautology, never say never.

    I think you might be right that there may never be a stateless condition here on Earth. We’ve just got too many parasites here, and all the wild frontiers have gone. But never for mankind? Ever?

    No, I believe one day someone will try a Rothbardian society, probably some fans of Robert Heinlein. But I don’t think it will be anywhere in this Solar System.

    I wish I could be around to see it. Right, better get back to Mr Connery in “From Russia with Love”. Gotta pack for a camping holiday in Wales tomorrow, too. Rain predicted all week. Great for our garden, while we’re away, apparently! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • David Duff

    Have a great trip and thank you for provoking such an interesting ‘conversation’. And do try Stoppard’s script. Full of gentle but profound wisdom.
    David Duff
    Don’t forget the wellies for Wales!

  • Brian

    I’ve always thought Rothbard was a loon, maybe because I grew up around American big-L Libertarians who worship him like a god as they sprint their way toward crashing failure and irrelevance.

    Do you know Harry Browne? He’s insane, a figure of fun, and also I think a good warning lesson about where Rothbardism leads.

    Read Mises instead – Liberalism; Omnipotent Government; and the much under-rated Bureacracy. Much more practical and none of the “rights” stuff. (Nonsense on stilts, said Bentham.) None of the “taxation is theft” palaver. None of the anti-war crapola.

    Short too.

  • Brian

    Actually, you know what? This is horrible. The whole appeal of Brit libertarianism for an American is that it’s based on Popper, Hayek and the like. If you start with Rothbard you’ll wind up just like us. >Shudder.< Politics shouldn't be a closed system, otherwise you'll sound like a teenager and people will laugh at you.

  • Though I haven’t burned my way through it yet and it was written with the possibility of being a high-level college text, George Reisman’s Capitalism takes full aim at collectivists and socialists with all available guns. Of course, those guns add up to just under (if you exclude the index) 1,000 pages of hardback heavyweight. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Love the various book recommendations!

  • D Anghelone

    As reported and linked by Charles Oliver, Reisman’s Capitalism is now online courtesy of the Mises Institute.

  • Dale Amon

    If one is to talk about books that lead one to libertarianism, I’d have to say I came in from Science Fiction; Pohl Anderson, Robert Hienlien, later on Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven… but above all from one book. Eric Frank Russell’s “The Great Explosion”.

    In college I’d say JS Mill’s “On Liberty” was another great whack to my thought processes. By the time I read Rothbard I’d been a card carrying Libertarian for many years.

    I must say that he was still rather awesome. My introduction was via “Toward a New Liberty”. I did find his revisionist history rather jarring, and his ideas on defense were much less to my way of thought than Robert Poole’s “Defending A Free Society”.

    One of the reason many of us here are minarchist (although border line anarchocapitalist) is a recognition that the State has evolved over the millenia of our history to be the most effective possible means of warfare. Killing people is the only thing that State’s are good at, and the ones who are most effective are the ones which last. In all out, winner take all warfar, an Anarchist area versus a State that is sufficiently amoral will lose. Full stop. An anarchist Britain in WWII would be thoroughly Nazified by now; all the liberals would have been shot… the Nazi’s did indeed have lists of people to be gotten rid of posthaste.

    So I and other Samizdacistas part from Rothbard on this issue. We need enough State to keep other State’s from killing us. Any dealing with a State is risky business, but sometimes one must weigh one risk against another.

    I don’t see being one of 10,000 dead libertarians in an unmarked trench somewhere as being very helpful to the long term cause of Liberty.

    Somalia may do well as an anarchy because there is presently no State nearby with reason or in any condition to go after it. It is indeed too tough and dangerous a nut to crack when measured againsts its’ own neighborhood. That could change… however I do wish them well and would be perfectly happy to see this experiment succeed and the Somalis become wealthy, happy and true to their anarchy.

    Too bad a rather colourful old friend of mine isn’t on line to read and argue about this. Jim Davidson (a Texan originally) lives there you know!

  • Cydonia

    Dale writes:

    “Somalia may do well as an anarchy because there is presently no State nearby with reason or in any condition to go after it. It is indeed too tough and dangerous a nut to crack when measured againsts its’ own neighborhood.”

    Arguably one of the reasons why it is such a tough nut to crack is precisely because it is an anarchy (or at least a Kritarchy) – there’s no central government to “crack” so an invading state would have to defeat all the warlords and that would be a tall order for any government.

    I’d be interested to know if anything has been written on this – i.e. the defensive advantages that anarcho-libertarianism might pose. The general assumption seems to be (as per Dale) that anarchy equates to defensive weakness in the face of State invasion, but I wonder how true this is?

    Cydonia

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Cydonia, you ask an interesting question. My short answer – I dunno. But I’d love to find out.

    I came to libertarianism eons ago, starting with Milton Friedman, then Hayek, then Nozick, and actually did not get to Rand, Rothbard and the rest until relatively late. However, unlike one or two commenters above, I am less dismissive of the “natural rights” school of libertarianism, since I think the doctrine of rights, while containing flaws, hs considerable value in giving us a reference point in deciding how human beings should and could interact with one another.

    I also think that rule-utilitarian forms of libertarianism – defended in some ways by the likes of Hayek and Henry Hazlitt, are immensely useful.

    Science fiction – yes, I agree with one comment above – this can be a great place to introduce folk to the libertarian meta-context. Heinlein (obviously!) is a great place to start. Britain’s current Peter Hamilton, by the way, is pretty good.

    Good thread of comments, nice one Andy!

  • Omnibus Bill: I have trouble seeing how government, by consent of the governed, which sometimes comes at a cost, is theft.

    Let me explain how I see it. The only legitimate role of government is the only thing it and only it can do… act as final guarantor of the rights of individuals in a nightwatchman capacity. Anything else is not legitimate and is therefore theft… proxy theft actually in a democratic system: voting yourself other people’s money. The consent you assume as axiomatic is just the product of a plurality of voters deciding how much other people are forced to pay regardless of their consent. The reason I do not vote is that I am not willing to rob other people myself, so why should I be content to have them robbed on my behalf?

    My view therefore is that most tax is theft… but that is not a very catchy slogan ๐Ÿ™‚

  • D Anghelone

    Arguably one of the reasons why it is such a tough nut to crack is precisely because it is an anarchy (or at least a Kritarchy) – there’s no central government to “crack” so an invading state would have to defeat all the warlords and that would be a tall order for any government.

    Rome – Gaul – the rest is history.

  • Cydonia,

    I’d be interested to know if anything has been written on this – i.e. the defensive advantages that anarcho-libertarianism might pose. The general assumption seems to be (as per Dale) that anarchy equates to defensive weakness in the face of State invasion, but I wonder how true this is?

    This very question was addressed in Vernor Vinge’s short story The Ungoverned, and I briefly described it on my blog here:

    link

  • Mike Holt

    Dale has it mostly right. Killing other people is the only thing states can be good at. States are mechanisms that promote war. As long as there are other states that want to kill me or take what I have I need a state to protect me. Since the state is necessary, it cannot be evil.

  • Frodo

    Popper was no more libertarian than, to say, Mary Poppins. His “Open Society” is a childish book, written by someone who did not even understand that notions such as “totalitarianism” are by all means not applicable to ancient Greece. Eric Voegelin, among others, beautifully dismissed the “arguments” Popper attempted to make. No serious scholar can now read the “Open Society” without a bit of contempt (this does not apply, I agree, on “Misery of Historicism”, which is a very valuable book, in some sense).
    He was, by the way, a socialist, and always looked for a reconciliation of socialism and (some) individual liberty (as Jeremy Shearmur demonstrated in a superb work).
    Murray Rothbard was a different kind of man, and a great scholar. His “History of Economic Thought” is a superb work of great erudition and immense scholarship, the “Ethics of Liberty” is by far the most systematic treatise in the liberal tradition of the 20th century.
    Of course, Rothbard can sound disturbing, and his uncompromising stands are not always likeable. But I don’t want political theorists to be nice: I want them to be RIGHT!

  • David Duff

    There you go, FRODO, seeking Utopia like so many before you and if a few eggs get broken, hey, there’s always omelettes! Now who said that … oh yes, another seeker after Utopia. And a lot of people reckoned he was “RIGHT” too!
    David Duff

  • Paul Coulam

    It is good to see that Andy has drunk deep from the well of Rothbard and inspired so many others to go out and buy and read Rothbard’s books. I hope that this will mean that there is much less in the way of Right Opportunism from Samizdata commentators. I fear though that Perry and David, the dark side adepts of libertaian deviationism, are inured to the attractions of Rothbardianism and will continue to make their strange sirenic war cries ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Perry is right to issue a warning though, Rothbard did make many errors and Karl Popper is indeed the superior philosopher, his methodology rather than Rothbardian essentialism is the correct way to go. For those who want to see how Popper and Libertarianism fit together, click on the link to the Libertarian Alliance in the sidebar and look at Philosophical Notes 34, Popper’s Epistemology Versus Popper’s Politics: A Libertarian Viewpoint. You will be rewarded and enlightened.

  • Bob from the USA

    I think you have to give the author of this review a break. I think his humor is both funny and self depricating. He is evidently in the top 1% of thinkers in this country as he is activly persuing truth as are most of you for even having come this far in reading. Most people in the country(usa) and for that matter the world are completly oblivious to what is going on around them. They would eat up anything the state has to sell them, and ask for more. To even question what the state has to say, puts you in the top 10% of thinkers. I have read Rothbard, Piekoff, Misses, Rand, yes I have even read from the other side, Marx, Keynes and others, and I love to see so many people actually talking about these issues. Gives me hope for the future. I just hope the Rothbards of the world take hold. Thanks for reading.

  • Frodo

    I find Popperianism disturbing and stupid, even though I’ve been a Popperist myself when I was a lot younger.
    Murray Rothbard, as a political philosopher, is much better than Popper for the very real reason that, well, Popper was no political philosopher, as he admitted himself. (Jeremy Shearmur did a very good job in explaining why there is no such thing as a political Popperianism)
    As far as “looking for Utopia”, libertarianism (Rothbardianism) is Utopian in nothing: it does not want to _change_ the _nature_ of men.
    It is, of course, radical. But being radical is the job of a (good) political philosophy – compromise is for day-by-day politics. (I’m happy with any 0,5% tax cut, but are 0.5% tax cuts an _idea_ to fight for? Give me a break!)
    Also, let me say one last thing: libertarianism, comrade, is to be radical, and uncompromising. If what you want is democracy à la Popper, you can find that even reading Anthony Giddens. No need to be libertarian.

  • Paul Coulam

    Frodo, Why don’t you look at Libertarian Alliance Philosophical Notes 34 as I recommend. You will see how libertarianism better captures the ideas of Popper than his own misguided faith in democracy. Rothbard is certainly a better _Political_ philosopher than Popper, but Popper is certainly the superior philospher, he swept away the myths of induction and justificationism.