(Abridged excerpts from Murray Rothbard’s Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor. Murray Rothbard attacks romanticism, egalitarianism, and calls for complete equality and the abolition of the division of labor as a call for the return to a caveman-anthill existence “a world of horror fiction—a world of faceless and identical creatures, devoid of all individuality, variety, or special creativity.” )
If men were like ants, there would be no interest in human freedom. If individual men, like ants, were uniform, interchangeable, devoid of specific personality traits of their own, then who would care whether they were free or not? Who, indeed, would care if they lived or died? The glory of the human race is the uniqueness of each individual, the fact that every person, though similar in many ways to others, possesses a completely individuated personality of his own. It is the fact of each person’s uniqueness—the fact that no two people can be wholly interchangeable—that makes each and every man irreplaceable and that makes us care whether he lives or dies, whether he is happy or oppressed.[…]
The freer the society, of course, the less has been the interference with individual actions, and the greater the scope for the development of each individual. The freer the society, then, the greater will be the variety and the diversity among men, for the more fully developed will be every man’s uniquely individual personality. On the other hand, the more despotic the society, the more restrictions on the freedom of the individual, the more uniformity there will be among men and the less the diversity, and the less developed will be the unique personality of each and every man. In a profound sense, then, a despotic society prevents its members from being fully human.
If freedom is a necessary condition for the full development of the individual, it is by no means the only requirement. Society itself must be sufficiently developed. No one, for example, can become a creative physicist on a desert island or in a primitive society. For, as an economy grows, the range of choice open to the producer and to the consumer proceeds to multiply greatly. Furthermore, only a society with a standard of living considerably higher than subsistence can afford to devote much of its resources to improving knowledge and to developing a myriad of goods and services above the level of brute subsistence.[…]
The primitive tribesman or peasant, bound to an endless round of different tasks in order to maintain himself, could have no time or resources available to pursue any particular interest to the full. He had no room to specialize, to develop whatever field he was best at or in which he was most interested….A necessary condition for any sort of developed economy, the division of labor is also requisite to the development of any sort of civilized society. The philosopher, the scientist, the builder, the merchant—none could develop these skills or functions if he had had no scope for specialization…. He cannot concentrate his powers in a field or discipline and advance that discipline and his own mental faculties. Without the opportunity to specialize in whatever he can do best, no person can develop his powers to the full; no man, then, could be fully human. […]
As Adam Smith put it, “the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market.” Economic and social development is therefore a mutually reinforcing process: the development of the market permits a wider division of labor, which in turn enables a further extension of the market. […]
If the scope of the market and the extent of the division of labor are mutually reinforcing, so too are the division of labor and the diversity of individual interests and abilities among men. For just as an ever greater division of labor is needed to give full scope to the abilities and powers of each individual, so does the existence of that very division depend upon the innate diversity of men. […]
The economist Ludwig von Mises put the matter very clearly:
“Historically division of labor originates in two facts of nature: the inequality of human abilities and the variety of the external conditions of human life on the earth. These two facts are really one: the diversity of Nature, which does not repeat itself but creates the universe in infinite, inexhaustible variety. . . . These two conditions . . . are indeed such as almost to force the division of labor on mankind. Old and young, men and women cooperate by making appropriate use of their various abilities. Here also is the germ of the geographical division of labor; man goes to the hunt and woman to the spring to fetch water. . . . Once labor has been divided, the division itself exercises a differentiating influence. The fact that labor is divided makes possible further cultivation of individual talent and thus cooperation becomes more and more productive. Through cooperation men are able to achieve what would have been beyond them as individuals. . . . The greater productivity of work under the division of labor is a unifying influence. It leads men to regard each other as comrades in a joint struggle for welfare, rather than as competitors in a struggle for existence.”
Freedom, then, is needed for the development of the individual, and such development also depends upon the extent of the division of labor and the height of the standard of living.
It must give us great concern, then, that over the past two centuries mighty social movements have sprung up which have been dedicated, at their heart, to the stamping out of all human differences, of all individuality…Karl Marx was vague and cloudy in describing the communist ideal, let alone the specific path for attaining it. But one essential feature is the eradication of the division of labor….To Marx this condition was the evil result of individualism and capitalism and had to be eradicated. Friedrich Engels maintained that the emergence of the division of labor shattered the alleged classless harmony and uniformity of primitive society, and was responsible for the cleavage of society into separate and conflicting classes. To Marx the ideal communist society is one where, as Professor Gray puts it, “everyone must do everything.” […]
The concept of the commune in socialist thought takes on its central importance precisely as a means of eradicating individual differences. It is not just that the commune owns all the means of production among its members. Crucial to the communal ideal is that every man takes on every function, either all at once or in rapid rotation. Obviously, the commune has to subsist on no more than a primitive level, with only a few common tasks, for this ideal to be achieved. […]
The Communist would deny that his ideal society would suppress the personality of every man. On the contrary, freed from the confines of the division of labor, each person would fully develop all of his powers in every direction. Every man would be fully rounded in all spheres of life and work. […]
This absurd ideal—of the man “able to do everything”—is only viable if (a) everyone does everything very badly, or (b) there are only a very few things to do, or (c) everyone is miraculously transformed into a superman. Professor Mises aptly notes that the ideal communist man is the dilettante, the man who knows a little of everything and does nothing well. For how can he develop any of his powers and faculties if he is prevented from developing any one of them to any sustained extent?
Another perceptive critique of Romanticism and primitivism was written by Ludwig von Mises. He notes that “the whole tribe of romantics” have denounced specialization and the division of labor. “For them the man of the past who developed his powers ‘harmoniously’ is the ideal: an ideal which alas no longer inspires our degenerate age. They recommend retrogression in the division of labor” with the socialists surpassing their fellow Romantics in this regard. But are primitives or preindustrial men privileged to develop themselves freely and harmoniously? Mises answers:
“It is futile to look for the harmoniously developed man at the outset of economic evolution. The almost self-sufficient economic subject as we know him in the solitary peasant of remote valleys shows none of that noble, harmonious development of body, mind, and feeling which the romantics ascribe to him. Civilization is a product of leisure and the peace of mind that only the division of labor can make possible. Nothing is more false than to assume that man first appeared in history with an independent individuality and that only during the evolution [of society] . . . did he lose . . . his spiritual independence. All history, evidence and observation of the lives of primitive peoples is directly contrary to this view. Primitive man lacks all individuality in our sense. Two South Sea Islanders resemble each other far more closely than two twentieth-century Londoners. Personality was not bestowed upon man at the outset. It has been acquired in the course of evolution of society.”
The savage is supposed not only to be “noble” but also supremely happy…If we consider the supposed happiness of primitive man, we must also consider that his life was, in the famous phrase of Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.” There were few medical aids against disease; there were none against famine, for in a world cut off from interregional markets and barely above subsistence any check to the local food supply will decimate the population. Fulfilling the dreams of Romantics, the primitive tribe is a passive creature of its given environment and has no means for acting to overcome and transform it. Hence, when the local food supply within an area is depleted, the “happy-go-lucky” tribe dies en masse. […]
In sum, Ludwig von Mises’s strictures against Romanticism do not seem to be overdrawn:
“Romanticism is man’s revolt against reason, as well as against the condition under which nature has compelled him to live. The romantic is a daydreamer; he easily manages in imagination to disregard the laws of logic and nature. The thinking and rationally acting man tries to rid himself of the discomfort of unsatisfied wants by economic action and work; he produces in order to improve his position. The romantic . . . imagines the pleasures of success but he does nothing to achieve them. He does not remove the obstacles; he merely removes them in imagination. . . . He hates work, economy, and reason. The romantic takes all the gifts of a social civilization for granted and desires, in addition, everything fine and beautiful that, as he thinks, distant times and creatures had or have to offer. Surrounded by the comforts of European town life he longs to be an Indian rajah, bedouin, corsair, or troubadour. But he sees only that portion of these people’s lives which seems pleasant to him. . . . The perilous nature of their existence, the comparative poverty of their circumstances, their miseries and their toil—these things his imagination tactfully overlooks: all is transfigured by a rosy gleam. Compared with this dream ideal, reality appears arid and shallow. There are obstacles to overcome which do not exist in the dream. . . . Here there is work to do, ceaselessly, assiduously. . . . Here one must plough and sow if one wishes to reap. The romantic does not choose to admit all this. Obstinate as a child, he refuses to recognize it. He mocks and jeers; he despises and loathes the bourgeois.”
The Left, of course, does not couch its demands in terms of stamping out diversity; what it seeks to achieve sounds semantically far more pleasant: equality. It is in the name of equality that the Left seeks all manner of measures, from progressive taxation to the ultimate stage of communism.
But what, philosophically, is “equality”? The term must not be left unanalyzed and accepted at face value. Let us take three entities: A, B, and C. A, B, and C are said to be “equal” to each other (that is, A = B = C) if a particular characteristic is found in which the three entities are uniform or identical. In short, here are three individual men: A, B, and C. Each may be similar in some respects but different in others. If each of them is precisely 5 feet 10 inches in height, they are then equal to each other in height. It follows from our discussion of the concept of equality that A, B, and C can be completely “equal” to each other only if they are identical or uniform in all characteristics—in short, if all of them are, like the same size of nut or bolt, completely interchangeable. We see, then, that the ideal of human equality can only imply total uniformity and the utter stamping out of individuality….The call of “equality” is a siren song that can only mean the destruction of all that we cherish as being human.
It is ironic that the term, “equality,” brings its favorable connotation to us from a past usage that was radically different. For the concept of equality achieved its widespread popularity during the classical-liberal movements of the eighteenth century, when it meant, not uniformity of status or income, but freedom for each and every man, without exception. Thus, only the specific case of equality of liberty—the older view of human equality—is compatible with the basic nature of man. Equality of condition would reduce humanity to an anthill existence…It is evident that inequality flows inevitably out of specialization and the division of labor. Therefore, a free economy will lead not only to diversity of occupation, with one man a baker, another an actor, a third a civil engineer, etc., but specific inequalities will also emerge in monetary income and in status and scope of control within each occupation. Each person will, in the free-market economy, tend to earn a monetary income equal to the value placed upon his productive contribution in satisfying the desires and demands of the consumers.
We need only look around us at every human activity or organization, large or small, political, economic, philanthropic,or recreational, to see the universality of the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Take a bridge club of fifty members and, regardless of legal formalities, a half-dozen or so will really be running the show. Michels, in fact, discovered the Iron Law by observing the rigid, bureaucratic, oligarchic rule that pervaded the Social Democratic parties in Europe in the late nineteenth century, even though these parties were supposedly dedicated to equality and the abolition of the division of labor….It is the egalitarian attempt by the New Left to escape the Iron Law of inequality and oligarchy that accounts for its desperate efforts to end elite leadership within its own organizations.The early drive toward egalitarianism in the New Left emerged in the concept of “participatory democracy.” Instead of the members of an organization electing an elite leadership, so the theory ran, each person would participate equally in all of the organization’s decisionmaking. It was, by the way, probably this sense of direct and intense participation by each individual that accounted for the heady enthusiasm of the masses in the very early stages of the revolutionary regimes in Soviet Russia and Cuba—an enthusiasm that quickly waned as the inevitable oligarchy began to take control and mass participation to die.
It is the intense egalitarian drive of the New Left that accounts, furthermore, for its curious theory of education—a theory that has made such an enormous impact on the contemporary student movement in American universities in recent years. The theory holds that, in contrast to “old-fashioned” concepts of education, the teacher knows no more than any of his students. All, then, are “equal” in condition; one is no better in any sense than any other. Since only an imbecile would actually proclaim that the student knows as much about the content of any given discipline as his professor, this claim of equality is sustained by arguing for the abolition of content in the classroom. This content, asserts the New Left, is “irrelevant” to the student and hence not a proper part of the educational process. The only proper subject for the classroom is not a body of truths, not assigned readings or topics, but open-ended, free-floating participatory discussion of the student’s feelings, since only his feelings are truly “relevant” to the student. And since the lecture method implies, of course, that the lecturing professor knows more than the students to whom he imparts knowledge, the lecture too must go. Such is the caricature of “education” propounded by the New Left.
One question that this doctrine calls to mind, and one that the New Left has never really answered, of course, is why the students should then be in college to begin with. Why couldn’t they just as well achieve these open-ended discussions of their feelings at home or at the neighborhood candy store? Indeed, on this educational theory, the school as such has no particular function; it becomes, in effect, the local candy store, and it, too, merges with life itself. But then, again, why have a school at all? And why, in fact, should the students pay tuition and the faculty receive a salary for their nonexistent services? If all are truly equal, why is the faculty alone paid? In any case, the emphasis on feelings rather than rational content in courses again insures an egalitarian school; or rather, the school as such may disappear, but the “courses” would surely be egalitarian, for if only “feelings” are to be discussed, then surely everyone’s feelings are approximately “equal” to everyone else’s. Allow reason, intellect, and achievement full sway, and the demon of inequality will quickly raise its ugly head.
If, then, the natural inequality of ability and of interest among men must make elites inevitable, the only sensible course is to abandon the chimera of equality and accept the universal necessity of leaders and followers. The task of the Libertarian, the person dedicated to the idea of the free society, is not to inveigh against elites which, like the need for freedom, flow directly from the nature of man. The goal of the Libertarian is rather to establish a free society, a society in which each man is free to find his best level. In Jeffersonian terminology, we will discover “natural aristocracies” who will rise to prominence and leadership in every field. The point is to allow the rise of these natural aristocracies, but not the rule of “artificial aristocracies”—those who rule by means of coercion.
the libertarian writer Albert Jay Nock saw in the political conflicts between Left and Right: simply a tussle between two groups of mass-men, one large and poor, the other small and rich. . . . The object of the tussle was the material gains accruing from control of the State’s machinery. It is easier to seize wealth (from the producers) than to produce it; and as long as the State makes the seizure of wealth a matter of legalized privilege, so long will the squabble for that privilege go on.
Helmut Schoeck’s Envy makes a powerful case for the view that the modern egalitarian drive for socialism and similar doctrines is a pandering to envy of the different and the unequal, but the socialist attempt to eliminate envy through egalitarianism can never hope to succeed. For there will always be personal differences, such as looks, ability, health, and good or bad fortune, which no egalitarian program, however rigorous, can stamp out, and on which envy will be able to fasten its concerns.