Monday, July 01, 2013
Murray Rothbard's "For a New Liberty" revisited
The good first: Rothbard's book is a classic of libertarian thought, and anyone with a serious interest in libertarian ideas should read this at some point. It is well- written in that it is quite readable, very interesting, and in many respects nicely argued. Whether you agree with him or not, Rothbard has very interesting perspectives on many issues and lays out what is a mostly self-consistent system of addressing problems using the free market instead of government. In short, he identifies serious problems with government action in various spheres, and proposes alternative free market/nonstate solutions. His defense of individual liberty is important reading. He takes on supposedly difficult cases for the market, such as provision of education, roads, and police and judicial services. Some of these are quite thought-provoking, and whether one finds them convincing or not, they are certainly worth reading. Rothbard essentially concludes that a stateless society based on anarcho-capitalism would be far superior to any state. This is crucial reading for anyone interested in understanding the anarcho-capitalism variant of libertarianism.
The bad: In some places Rothbard's analysis is quite shallow, so much so as to almost make him seem silly. He basically ignores the public goods problem in economics, essentially by denying it exists. This is a bad error, since the primary argument for having government at all is based on this. His analysis is entirely inadequate and unconvincing. Similarly, in his discussion of private police and defensive agencies (his solution to replace the state) he responds to the challenge that such agencies would fight among themselves like mafias -- his response is to simply assert that they would find it too costly to fight. Well, that's a nonsensical response. One might as easily make the same argument about states to "prove" that wars never occur. If a profit-maximizing private defensive agency in stateless society decided it could make more by killing off its competitors and stealing their assets, why wouldn't it? It's a legitimate and obvious question, and Rothbard has no answer at all.
It gets worse...the ugly: By the time he gets to foreign policy, Rothbard has been on such a jihad against the state, and the U.S. government in particular, that he goes berserk and accuses the United States of being the bad guys in the (then ongoing) Cold War. In the First Edition (1973) he went so far as to attribute to Stalin a libertarian foreign policy, alleging the USSR practiced non-interventionism. When it was pointed out to him that the USSR invaded Finland, Rothbard added to his Second Edition a defense of Stalin's attack, arguing that Stalin only wanted to reclaim traditionally Russian Karelia and liberate all the Russians supposedly living there. All of that is a-historical nonsense and Rothbard simply invented it. The Soviets planned to capture all of Finland and had even assembled a new Marxist government they hoped to install in Helsinki. The areas Stalin invaded are not "traditionally Russian." But even if Rothbard's interpretation were true, how can Rothbard justify on libertarian grounds the bloodiest dictatorship in history attacking a free country in an effort to get "its" land and people back? It makes no sense, but Rothbard's only concern is to defend his indefensible claim that the United States surpasses the rest of the world in doing evil. Unfortunately for Rothbard, long before the First Edition came out there was ample evidence that the Stalin and other Soviet leaders engaged in interventionism all around the world, often quite bloodily (Katyn Forest anyone?) Rothbard's "libertarian" defense of Stalin is despicable and intellectually dishonest -- and that's the real problem with this book. Rothbard pretends that he's doing careful analysis and finds the state wanting while showing that his own anarcho-capitalist system shines. But in fact, no argument is so bad, no intellectual sleight-of-hand too dishonest, if it will get Rothbard to his pre-chosen conclusion.
I appreciate Rothbard's fierce devotion to individual liberty in this book and there are many interesting ideas, but his willingness to make bad and even dishonest arguments in its defense lead me to conclude two stars. Frederic Bastiat argued "The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended," so by that standard I'm letting Rothbard off easy.
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