June 14, 2013

What Should the Reformed Libertarian Think of Murray Rothbard?

By In C.Jay Engel

I could probably go on for quite a while on such a topic.  Murray Rothbard is a profoundly influential writer and among the many authors that I have read over the years, few are as influential and enjoyable as he.  I have all of his books but two.

Who is he?  For those that do not know, who have not studied the libertarian movement or delved into the grand world of Austrian economics, he was many things intellectual.  He was a historian, a world class economist, a political theorist.  He was also an essayist, a political commentator, and even a political coalition builder.  When one thinks libertarian theory, one must consider Murray “Mr. Libertarian” Rothbard.

He was also an agnostic, who based his economics on Thomist philosophy and his political theory on the so-called natural law.  He was not particularly fond of Calvinists and saw them as a roadblock to the concepts of libertarian political philosophy.  There was nothing in his economic theory, nor his political theory, which rested on the ordinances or will of God.  His entire foundation was deeply flawed primarily because of his rejection of Scripture as the root of knowledge.

So what should we think of him?  Without a single delay, I am happy to to state the fact that I consider Rothbard a personal favorite.  Economically, he was probably (with the exception of Mises) the best economist the Austrian movement ever produced.  Politically, his logic and his love for liberty were razor sharp, always and everywhere eager to learn more, write more, and pronounce the intellectual bankruptcy of the Statists.

Because we are Reformed theologically, because we believe that every single aspect of reality, justice, morality, legality, and human interaction must be based on the sovereign nature of God demonstrated through his Word, we cast out immediately the first principles that Rothbard held so dear.  The individual right to life, liberty, and property are rights precisely because, as John Robbins once put it, those rights were “imputed” to us by God, the chief owner of everything.

Wherever Rothbard was right, whenever he spoke about topics such as the nature of the State, the non aggression principle, the fundamentals of economics and human action, he was right only because he borrowed from the Christian worldview.  He borrowed without ever knowing it.  Logical consistency, ethical standards, and individual justice are concepts that are deeply rooted in Christianity.  When we read Rothbard, it is important that we recognize that where he finds his first axioms, namely that individuals have the right not to be coerced against their will, it is the Christian that can answer the question of what makes this a ethically wrong act.  For Rothbard, he cannot bridge the gap between is and ought but the Christian can.  The Christian uses Scripture to develop these axioms.

There is quite a lot in which I agree with Rothbard.  I am comfortable calling myself a Rothbardian in many senses. I am attracted to his love of “Old World Culture,” and traditional values.  I enthusiastically endorse his “rightist” libertarianism, that is, his property-rights and ethics based libertarianism.  His analysis of political happenings and societal problems were among the most enjoyable pieces of writing I have ever read.  As I sit here at my desk looking at his plethora of books lined up on my bookshelf, it is amazing the wide range of topics he was able to master and discuss.  I follow his analysis on the anatomy of the State completely through to the logical conclusion, as he does.  Even his treatise on an anarcho-capitalist society (For a New Liberty), was one of the best on the subjects.  Rothbard is a hero.  It is too bad that on those issues which determines salvation, Rothbard was dead wrong.

While Rothbard is mistaken to believe he can prop up an entire system without God, Christian libertarians must recognize his influence on the philosophy of liberty.  We can use his phrases, his words, his argumentation, and his solutions.  And yet all these things must spring forth, not from Rothbard, but from the word of God.

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