In this edition of Mondays with Murray, we pick up where we left off last week towards the tail end of Murray Rothbard’s speech on the six stages of libertarianism. If you haven’t read our full breakdown of the six stages from last week, check it out now. Don’t worry, we’ll be patient…
Towards the end of Rothbard’s speech he details the five key questions that libertarians need to settle among themselves in order to have a successful movement. This part of the speech starts around the 49 minute mark for those following at home.
It’s certainly not necessary for libertarians to agree on every tiny little detail of what exactly defines libertarianism. Today there are debates between libertarians on topics ranging from abortion to the legitimacy of intellectual property, an issue that we will examine later this week following the upcoming debate between Stephen Kinsella and Robert Wenzel.
While these debates are important in order to help libertarians further define their views and arguments, it is not necessary that libertarians reach broad agreement on the finer details of every issue. However, Rothbard believed that there were five key issues that libertarians should reach broad consensus on.
- The Morality of Political Action – Many libertarians
believe that any political action – voting, running for office, etc. – is immoral since it legitimizes the State. Rothbard sees no reason not to use this tool that the State has given us, however ineffective it may often prove to be. But since the State isn’t going away any time soon, we may as well use these tools to our advantage.It is important to remember however, Lord Acton’s warning that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Politics should be used both to spread the message of liberty and to roll back the State when it can be, but it’s very important to remain vigilant of all politicians, particularly those running under the banner of liberty.
- Moral vs. Utility-Based Arguments – This is the debate over whether libertarians should make arguments based on natural rights – the right to self-ownership and the non-aggression principle – or simply use “cost vs. benefit” utilitarian arguments. I’ve always held that if you have a double barrel shotgun there is no reason to only fire out of one barrel, and the same approach should be taken to libertarian arguments. If we feel we have the right ideas morally, and the right ideas practically, why not make both arguments?Rothbard believed that it is important to maintain emphasis on the moral argument. He states:
We are for liberty not only or mainly even because liberty will bring us more soap and more bathtubs, as much as we like soap and bathtubs. We are for liberty and against oppression because we believe strongly and passionately in the morality and justice of liberty and the immorality and criminality of statism.
He goes on to discuss how very few people will devote themselves to a life of promoting liberty, against very large odds, simply to get “20% more soap and bathtubs”. I certainly agree with Rothbard in that my passion for promoting liberty comes not simply from a desire for more economic efficiency in the world, but from the moral repugnance I feel towards the State’s coercive monopoly on violence. A morality-based libertarian makes no special exceptions and is able to more consistently advocate for liberty positions. While both barrels of the liberty shotgun should be used, it’s important to maintain moral consistency while doing so.
- Anarchism vs. Minarchism – This refers to the debate over whether a belief in liberty should lead one to advocate for minarchy – a very small, limited government that only handles police, military and legal structures – or anarchy or anarcho-capitalsm – which advocates for abolishing government all together and having the private sector handle even those areas seen as “vital” State functions.Rothbard – a pure anarchist in his beliefs – doesn’t rank this highly as an important issue among libertarians, because after all ” we agree on 99% of stuff.” Considering the current big government state of affairs, anarchists and minarchists shouldn’t have any trouble getting on the same page. While I feel it is important to make arguments for anarcho-capitalism for the purpose of maintaining a moral consistency and to prove the practicality of the ideas, neither I nor (I suspect) many other anarcho-capitalists would claim to expect the State to disappear in our lifetimes. So while we advocate for anarcho-capitalism all day long, the day that my biggest problem is that we “only” have a minarchist State would certainly be a day to celebrate. For this reason, minarchists and anarchist have largely come together in the libertarian movement and should have no problem doing so going forward.
- Abolitionists vs. Mandatory Gradualists – This refers to the debate over what policies libertarians should advocate for. The “abolitionists” are the “button pushers’, as Rothbard often refers to them. These are those who, if given a magic button that would abolish the State overnight (or abolish 99% of it for those that fall into the “minarchist” category), would not hesitate in pushing that button. Rothbard considers himself to be a “button pusher”.The mandatory gradualists are those that believe that even if we had the magic button, it shouldn’t be pushed as the result of eliminating all of the State’s programs overnight would result in some sort of chaos. Instead, they believe we should policies that gradually reduce the size of the State, say calling for lower taxes, but not arguing for their abolition all together. This is seen by many as a more “practical” route to take politically.This may be true if one sees the goal of politics as “winning office”. Practically speaking it is likely easier to win office on a less “radical” platform.The problem that arises with the gradualist position is that one starts out from a position of compromise. In any negotiation, one should start by demanding the full extent of what one wants, even if they do not expect to get it. One does not begin the negotiation by asking for the compromise he hopes he may eventually get. As Rothbard puts it, taking the abolitionist position means “you hold nothing higher than liberty” as a political objective.Rothbard references one of his heroes William Lloyd Garrison, a 19th Century abolitionist and libertarian. Garrison was in favor of the immediate abolition of slavery even though he believed that in practice abolition would be gradual. But he felt it was important to take the full abolitionist position in order to be morally consistent and have the strongest base for advocating the political position of abolition. I believe this analogy fits will well with the modern day libertarian movement.Sure, none of us may think we are going to see the IRS abolished any time soon, but you’re darn right we are going to advocate against the existence of the income tax. If this eventually leads to simply lowering the tax, well that would be a political victory, and one that would help strengthen the argument to even further lowering and hopefully the eventually abolition of the IRS. Simply because one believes a goal to be unachievable in the short term, does not mean one shouldn’t advocate for that goal. Does anyone recall Martin Luther King marching for “some” equality for African Americans?
- War and Peace – This is something that doesn’t seem to be much of an issue nowadays, as libertarians seem to be largely anti-war across the board. Even many Republicans – long known as the “Pro-War” Party- are taking largely non-interventionist positions thank to libertarian influx resulting from the Ron Paul Revolution. But during Rothbard’s time in politics many libertarians often took pro-war stances. They would advocate for libertarian policies at home, but support foreign interventions abroad in the name of “national defense”.Even at the time of this speech Rothbard felt this question had largely been worked out and that libertarians were generally anti-war. I would say that, thanks largely to Ron Paul, the same holds true today. Rothbard felt this was so important that he made foreign policy his #1 issue in politics, even endorsing Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1962 on the basis that Goldwater was basically advocating a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
This section of Rothbard’s speech was fascinating to me in that every single one of these issues have been hot topics of debate at some point throughout my libertarian journey. The most encouraging sign to me is that, as Rothbard was even noticing at the time of this speech, the anti-war issue is one that is hardly argued among libertarians at all anymore. In fact I believe it is one issue that provides libertarians the greatest opportunity to make new friends, allies and converts from not only the anti-war left, but the anti-war Everyday American. Recent polls suggest that most Americans today are largely against our interventions overseas.
And if f we do our jobs right, one day we may be debating with one of these average anti-war Americans about whether or not we would “push the button” !
Check out our past installments of Mondays with Murray:
- 3/11/13 - Rothbard on Lysander Spooner
- 3/4/13 – Rothbard on Statism
- 2/25/13 – Rothbard on John Bolton and Ann Coulter
- 2/18/13 – Rothbard vs. Krugman on $9 Minimum Wage
- 2/11/13 – Time To Hoard Nickels
- 2/4/13 - The Death of Keynesian Economics
- 1/28/13 – Competition and Monopoly
- 1/21/13 – Rothbard Down The Memory Hole?
- 1/14/13 – We Are Not The Government
- 1//7/13 – Why Does Someone Become A Statist?
- 12/10/12 – Rothbard on Conspiracy Theory
- 12/3/12 – Rothbard on Secession
- 11/26/12 – Rothbard on the Drug War
- 11/19/12 – Rothbard on the Euro Crisis
- 11/12/12 – Rothbard on the Lions of Liberty
- 11/5/12 – Rothbard on Voting and Gas Lines
- 10/29/12 – Mythbusting the “Free Market Cartel”
- 10/22/12 – Rothbard on the Two Party Charade
- 10/15/12 – Rothbard on Private Roads
- 10/8/12 – Rothbard on Private Law
- 10/1/12 – Rothbard on Ron Paul
- 9/24/12 – Rothbard on QE