April 18, 2014

A Christian Perspective on Murray Rothbard’s “Why Be Libertarian?”

By In Articles, Society and Culture

Hands down, Murray Rothbard is the most influential libertarian of the twentieth century.  Not everyone in the libertarian movement these days is a fan of “Rothbardian” libertarianism, but I doubt one can seriously say he offered no influence.  From a personal side, Murray Rothbard is my favorite libertarian scholar.  I am about as close to being a Rothbardian that I can be without giving up my Christian foundation.  If I could think of a better way to say this I would: I stand on Scripture, not Rothbard’s natural law, to establish the necessity of life, liberty, and property.  And it is from there, these two different bedrocks (Scripture/natural law), that I largely agree with the conclusions that Rothbard reaches.  One more time:  We stand on two different grounds, but reach the same conclusions on most every issue.  

Now, I also hold that Rothbard’s conclusions do not logically stem from his foundation and that, if he wanted to find consistency and keep his conclusions, he should have accepted the revealed Word as God as his starting point.  All other ground is sinking sand.  Indeed the Holy Bible is the only standard by which justice can be defined and understood.  Justice is a divine concept unable to be rationalized without the grace of God giving us the Scriptures.

In his essay “Why be Libertarian?,” Rothbard writes:

Why be libertarian, anyway? By this we mean, what’s the point of the whole thing? Why engage in a deep and lifelong commitment to the principle and the goal of individual liberty? For such a commitment, in our largely unfree world, means inevitably a radical disagreement with, and alienation from, the status quo, an alienation which equally inevitably imposes many sacrifices in money and prestige. When life is short and the moment of victory far in the future, why go through all this?

A good inquiry to be sure.  On one hand, the question is powerful enough in itself.  On the other hand, as Christians, we must ask a tougher question: “When life is short and God has already declared victory before the foundations of the world, why go through all of this?”  Of course, the frustrations and barriers that Rothbard faced in his goal of a free world were far worse than anything I would face as a simple writer and blogger.  And this is simply because of the fact that the libertarian movement is so large and influential here in 2013.  I mean, you’ve got millions worldwide reading and studying Murray Rothbard!  That is remarkable.

But for Rothbard, there was not libertarian movement like we think of national movements today.  He had his living room circle, just a handful of men, a couple wives, crunched into an apartment in New York.

Regardless, the question still stands.  Why?  For what?  For the agnostics like Rothbard, life is short, they’ll be dead soon.  Who cares?  And for the Christians, God has already promised to fulfill His plan.  And the message of the gospel is infinitely more precious than libertarian theory and practice.  So what are we doing as part of a libertarian movement?  Truly, why in the world isn’t my blog simply “Reformed?”

Rothbard points out that there is a set of categories that can be utilized to identify the motive behind an activist.  They include:

1.   Those who find aesthetic pleasure in being part of an intellectual development.

2.   Those who anticipate a personal profit or benefit from a free market scenario

3.   The Utilitarians who wish to prove that the world will be much wealthier and peaceful without the presence of the State

The problem that Rothbard has with the first two groups is that they fail to find any incentive for producing a long-term movement.  Indeed, they fail to overcome the problem of the fact that victory is long into the future.  As for the Utilitarians, what are they but clueless Utopians?  Yes, it is true as the Austrian economists have long put forth, that the economy and productivity of a nation would be in a much better position without State interference in the activities of man.  But this argument can only be effective until the State responds: “According to our own studies, only we as central planners can produce a better world.”  Now what?  Who will the masses believe?  Human nature informs us that the people believe those who say: “Vote for me and I’ll give you free stuff.”  And what libertarian can promise such a thing?

No, Rothbard argues, the necessary motivation for being a libertarian is also the very argument that will bring the most people into its development.  And with that, he gives his answer:  “It is our view that a flourishing libertarian movement, a lifelong dedication to liberty can only be grounded on a passion for justice.”  He continues in the next paragraph with this sentence:

“It is because we see the world reeking with injustices piled one on another to the very heavens that we are impelled to do all that we can to seek a world in which these and other injustices will be eradicated.”

Thus, the so-called “argument from ethics” is what Rothbard considers to be sine qua non of the libertarian motivation.  One can now see what I mean when I put forth my admittedly rare view that Rothbard’s conclusions were fantastic but that our main complaint was his basis.  For what is justice but the satisfaction of God’s holy standards?

Justice, yes justice, based on the standards of God should be the reason why we oppose the expansion of the State, systematic theft via taxation, and murder in the name of “national security.”  How can the Christian really disagree here?  Unfortunately, Rothbard’s definition of justice was unfounded.  Conclusions, not foundations, are why we love Rothbard.

He then gives an example of “England’s centuries-long occupation and brutal oppression of the Irish people.”  How should the libertarian respond to such travesties?  By pointing out that Ireland could have a better economy without the English? Of course not!  We must oppose the occupation because it is an example of injustice!

Rothbard notes:

The genuine libertarian, then, is, in all senses of the word, an “abolitionist”; he would, if he could, abolish instantaneously all invasions of liberty, whether it be, in the original coining of the term, slavery, or whether it be the manifold other instances of State oppression.

It is too bad that Rothbard was never able to accept that Christ has put all things under his feet, that Christ sits at the right hand of God and will thus judge the nations, including the States themselves.  For if God’s Kingdom is the only legitimate victor in the end, is he not the ultimate “abolitionist” of all injustice?  Being an opponent of the State then is, in the end, completely meaningless if you oppose the justice and ethical standards of God.  This was Rothbard’s, quite literally, “fatal flaw.”  Sin is rejecting the character of God and all his nature, including his laws.  Justice without Him is a house built on sand.

Rothbard’s thought and influence means a lot to me.  It is hard to write those things.  But such is my conviction.

In the end though, it is my opinion that Rothbard never actually answered his own question.  If life is short, why be involved in the libertarian movement?  For Rothbard, the question was perhaps more profound: why create a libertarian movement in the first place?  This was largely what his academic life accomplished.  He attempted to answer the question by stating that a passion for justice was the chief motivation.  But this only pushed the question back one step.  For in a world without God, without a transcendental standard of anything, the question suddenly becomes: “why care so much about justice?”

Suddenly, for the non-Christian, the answer becomes something similar to the first three answer the Rothbard was unsatisfied with above.  Without God, where is ethics and where is morality?  There is no “right thing to do.”  And thus only the Christian can say with Rothbard’s conclusion: I am a libertarian because I have a passion for justice.  And I have a passion for justice because I serve and seek to glorify a just and holy God.  And what is the chief end of man?  “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”  (Question one, Westminster Shorter Catechism).

 

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • RA Jameson

    Thank you C.Jay for this write-up of the great Rothbard. I concur with your enthusiasm for the man’s genius.

    Allow me, if I may, to request clarity regarding the opening line, “Hands down, Murray Rothbard is the most influential libertarian of the twentieth century.” He may be the “best” or the most “profound” or the most “consistent”, but I am not sure we can call him the “most influential”. By what standard are we measuring influence? Introducing people to the philosophy? I think Milton Friedman was better with common person. Changing public policy? Again Friedman wins, especially in his being on the front lines of dissolving the draft.

    Please do not misunderstand me, Rothbard was a BETTER libertarian, but I think Friedman had him beat in influence. Of course, that is part of the problem, isn’t it? Because at the end of the day, Friedman was really a pro-state libertarian. He was an average economist, but he was a brilliant communicator. But I digress. This was a post about Rothbard, and you and I agree that he was the GREATEST libertarian of the 20th century, primarily because I think his influence has barely been understood or realized.

    I wonder if people fail to realize how readable he is because of how much he produced. His prose is nearly as engaging as good fiction, like having the world’s smarted grandpa teach you history.

    • cjayengel

      Thanks for the input brother. I agree. The phrase is too ambiguous. There are even many libertarians, broadly defined, who haven’t even read Rothbard. But I think we can both agree that the libertarian movement wouldn’t be what it is today without him. Whether that makes him the “most” influential might be too difficult a question to answer:)

      By the way, I’m very happy that you are posting at Libertarian Liquidationist. I was glad indeed to see that this morning:)

      • RA Jameson

        “But I think we can both agree that the libertarian movement wouldn’t be what it is today without him.” And we most certainly do. Prediction is such a difficult game, but for my money, Rothbard may end up being the most influential Libertarian of the 21st century, in that the we are only 14 years into it and Ron Paul has certainly introduced an nation to the works and thoughts of Rothbard. The bottom-up (very Rothbardian) movement to self-educate on the issues and the underlying philosophy of the Freedom is growing every day. You and I know that truth is never eliminated, only temporarily held down.

        Again, great write-up. I happen to be reading his “Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought” and just can’t get over how easy he is to read. He really owned the content and gave to his readers out of his abundance.

  • Averroes

    You don’t find it at all problematic as a purported Christian that Rothbard “deduced” from his Natural Law ethics the “right” to abortion, or the “right” for parents to allow their children to starve?

    • cjayengel

      Purported Christian? And no I don’t find it “problematic.” Why should I? I don’t adhere to his (Aquinas’) natural law so why should it be a problem?

      • Averroes

        Should that though call into question a lot of his other views? Does one really need to accept libertariansim to attack the state or defend private property?

        • cjayengel

          What is libertarianism? Can we define it?

  • Bobby Crenshaw

    C. Jay, I believe that Libertarianism is a working out of the Biblical principle to love our neighbors, seek the well being of our countries, and “let us do good to all men” in government. For example, Rothbard states:

    “It is our view that a flourishing libertarian movement, a lifelong dedication to liberty can only be grounded on a passion for justice.”

    A passion for justice, imo, is best exemplified in Libertarian philosophy of government.

    • reformedlibertarian

      So wait, does that mean you agree with the article or think it can be improved? Because I agree with what you said.

      • Bobby Crenshaw

        It means
        I agree 100 %! Just Amen-ing you!

        • reformedlibertarian

          That’s what I figured! Thanks brother.