October 22, 2014

Being Careful Not to Overstate Rothbard’s Empiricism

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

In my previous post, I commented that Natural Law as distinct from Positive Law is agreeable inasmuch as this natural law is the “moral law of God written on our hearts” and also inasmuch as it is discovered via the propositions in the Bible.  I made sure that this understanding of natural law was distinct from the natural law that rests on empirical foundations and man’s reason apart from a justifiable presupposition, namely scripture.  While praising Rothbard’s commitment to natural law over against consequentialism and relativism, I also distanced myself from the discovery process that Rothbard relies upon, which is the empirically grounded starting point that man has ownership in himself.  I do agree that man has ownership in himself (vis a vis other humans, see this post for a comment of the word “own.”) but I disagree that the foundational starting point for this is an empirical observation.

Now, in the spirit of being accurate and upholding the Rothbardian vision that the social sciences are deductive and rational, I should follow up my previous post by warning the reader not to assume that Rothbard is an empiricist in a complete sense.  For although the starting point of natural law ethics for Rothbard is empirical, it is also true that Rothbard rests on deduction and rationalism from this point forward.  Even to the point that his own follower Hans Hoppe, who is even more rationalistic (aprioristic) than Rothbard himself, categorized Rothbard’s political ethic as rationalistic in nature.  The starting point for Rothbard was a empirically discovered, but Rothbard is better than Thomas Aquinas in that whatever else follows is built on logic and deductively reached. While I may have a different starting point than Rothbard does, being a Christian rationalist (Clarkian) myself, it cannot be denied that Rothbard is no run of the mill empiricist, and to think of him as such is simply inaccurate.

It is important to note that not only does Rothbard criticize the use of induction in the social sciences, but he also claims that one cannot investigate these matters without some sort of presuppositional starting point.  He may be a Thomist on a technical level as distinct from Mises’ neo-Kantianism, but his overall philosophical thrust is quite rationalistic and deductive, rather than empirical and inductive.  And more than this, he was adamantly opposed to the empiricism-on-steroids of logical positivism, which he considered to be utterly absurd and necessarily leading to skepticism.  Consider then Hoppe’s comments on Rothbard:

[The ethics of] political philosophy, is the second pillar of the Rothbardian system, strictly separated from economics [which is the first pillar], but equally grounded in the nature of man and complementing it to form a unified system of rationalist social philosophy. The Ethics Liberty, originally published in 1982, is Rothbard’s second magnum opus. In it, he explains the integration of economics and ethics via the joint concept of property; and based on the concept of property, and in conjunction with a few general empirical (biological and physical) observations or assumptions, Rothbard deduces the corpus of libertarian law, from the law of appropriation to that of contracts and punishment.

In commenting on the political thought of Rothbard, the entirety of his system and political vision can be abused and misrepresented by overstating the use of empirical statements in his thought. One should not make more of it than it actually was.

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