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Tuesday, December 1, 1998

The Ethics of Liberty

For Rothbard, Liberty Was a Single Gem with Many Facets

The late Murray Rothbard was a libertarian scholar and advocate with an incredibly wide range of interests. His books covered technical economics in the Austrian tradition (Man, Economy, and State; Power and Market), economic history (America’s Great Depression, The Panic of 1819), the history of economic thought (Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, Classical Economics), history (the multivolume Conceived in Liberty), and political philosophy, or what he called political ethics.

What underlay all his work was a passion for liberty and a fervor for building a unified science dedicated to its study. Rothbard took obvious delight in exploring the foundations and ramifications of liberty across disciplines. For him, individual liberty was a single gem with many facets: economic, historical, sociological, political-ethical. A scholar can set his sights on one or another facet, but for Rothbard, something is lost if one neglects the whole gem.

The Ethics of Liberty, first published in 1982, is the summation of Rothbard’s political philosophy. We are fortunate it has been rescued from the limbo of out-of-print books by New York University Press. The book is unchanged, except for the addition of a new introduction by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, a protégé of Rothbard’s.

In his search for the purest political philosophy based on “self-ownership,” Rothbard was nothing if not provocative. His ideas about liberty, property, and the state, grounded in reason and Thomistic natural law, led him to advocate “anarcho-capitalism,” for he could not square a coercive, monopoly government with the individual’s natural right to liberty and legitimately acquired property. Even readers who are left unpersuaded by Rothbard’s position on this or other matters will find the journey challenging.

Rothbard’s scope is breathtaking. He examines the nature of exchange and aggression, the state, war, children’s rights, free speech, lifeboat situations, animal rights, contracts, utilitarian free-market economics, and the political philosophies of Isaiah Berlin, F. A. Hayek, and Robert Nozick. In each chapter, something will make you stop and think hard before moving on.

Here is a sampling of some of the more provocative fare:

On punishment for criminals: “Retribution is in bad repute among philosophers, who generally dismiss the concept quickly as ‘primitive’ or ‘barbaric’. . . . But simply to dismiss a concept as ‘barbaric’ can hardly suffice; after all, it is possible that in this case, the ‘barbarians’ hit on a concept that was superior to the more modern creeds.”

On children’s rights: “But when can we say that this parental trustee jurisdiction over children shall come to an end? . . . The clue to the solution of this thorny question lies in the parental property rights in their home. For the child has his full rights of self-ownership when he demonstrates that he has them in nature—in short, when he leaves or ‘runs away’ from home. Regardless of his age, we must grant to every child the absolute right to run away, and to find new foster parents who will voluntarily adopt him, or to try to exist on his own.” (Emphasis in the original.)

On defamation and the property right in one’s reputation: “Jones’s ‘reputation’ is purely a function of the subjective values and beliefs about him contained in the minds of other people. But since these are beliefs in the minds of others, Jones can in no way legitimately own or control them. Jones can have no property right in the beliefs and minds of other people.” (Emphasis in the original.)

On war: “War, then, even a just defensive war, is only proper when the exercise of violence is rigorously limited to the individual criminals themselves. We may judge for ourselves how many wars or conflicts in history have met this criterion.”

A brief review cannot do justice to a work so brimming with insights about the fundamentals of a free society. Now that The Ethics of Liberty is again available, students of freedom will want to get their teeth into it.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.