To clarify, and no doubt to the annoyance of every left anarchist ever, I here mean Libertarian in the sense of the American right. Ron Paul 20XX and so on. Sorry.
Libertarianism is a weird ideology. One reason for its weirdness is the fact that people in intellectual circles are generally keen to stay as far away from it as possible. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t seek to attack Libertarianism on the grounds of some kind of reverse argument from authority. However, of the big three Libertarian intellectuals- Rand*, Rothbard and Nozick- it’s generally advisable to only out yourself as a fan of Nozick lest you be deemed some kind of sociopath. Despite Nozick’s seniority, and as much sympathy as I have with him, anyone who’s attempted to read his work will recognise that it’s essentially a catalogue of slightly rambling intellectual musings. Bemusingly, we have someone unwilling to address many of the sticking points of his philosophy, significantly a refusal to justify his foundational natural rights premise, who receives plaudits such as “free-form” and “ecumenical” because he does so openly and unashamedly. I appreciate that good Libertarian thinkers are in short supply, and that the presence of a brain in Nozick’s head leads people to parade him about as some kind of messiah. Yet, however intelligent he may be, Nozick does not and has never professed to provide enough meat to base an entire political philosophy on. His work is rather one which critiques socialism and speculates about the merits of a minarchist state, without claiming to justify such a state from simple premises. Let’s also not forget that time he seemed to publically renounce his Libertarian beliefs.
There is also Ayn Rand. Where do you even start with Ayn Rand? In this case nowhere, because I don’t really have much to say about her that hasn’t already been said. All I can say is that she is Stirner if Stirner adopted a stupid and contradictory conception of property rights. She wants to have her self-serving egoist cake whilst also eating her “Pls no one take all my stuff which I can’t justify keeping” cake. That’s still a bad comparison, because she is worse than Stirner in every conceivable other way too. Anyway, and more excitingly, I want to talk about…
Murray Rothbard. The granddaddy of deontological Libertariansim. Full disclaimer here, I unironically love Rothbard. In that classic question about “Which 10 historical figures would you invite to a dinner party?” Rothbard is my number one. He’s a funny guy, a real character, and someone undoubtedly devoted to human freedom. Unfortunately, he’s also an example of good intentions gone awry, and the consequences of blind committment to unnuanced ethical laws. In his famous reductio ad absurdum of himself:
“Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive”
Yes, yes it’s a cheap shot to bring up Rothbard’s child starving. It’s been done before. The fact remains though that this is an unavoidable implication of the non-aggression principle as formulated by him, i.e.:
“No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.”
As this is the same formulation that provides the cornerstone of the political beliefs of many modern Libertarians, it cannot be taken lightly. As an ethical law it is too crude, too unnuanced. Certainly it gets at what I believe is a very pertinent point, with some of the trappings of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, but it is unserviceable in this form. What the NAP wants to get at is the idea that no person should have other people’s burdens forced upon them. In Kantian terms one might rephrase this as “a person has a right not to be forcibly used as a means by another”. This I have sympathy with. But quite obviously by consciously bringing a child into the world the parents have taken some sort of burden upon themselves. What Rothbard endorses is an attitude of “You mind your business, I’ll mind mine”, but he misses the fact that bringing a human being into the world in a state of intense vulnerability is quite the opposite of minding your own business. Going back to Kant, we must acknowledge the fact that the only reason the infant needs to use its parents purely as a means is because those parents have created it in a form where it cannot do anything else. In a very real sense, the parents are being used as a means as a direct result of their own will. One cannot complain that one is using oneself as merely a means and not an end. On the other hand, it is difficult to justify that you are using a being as an ends when you force that being into a situation where it must suffer without your assistance, before refusing such assistance. Looking at the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative, it will not take much argument to explain why the maxim of “I shouldn’t bother to feed my children” cannot be willed to be a universal law.
Moving away from Kant, the objective of the NAP is essentially to create a rule under which every man can live his life without unsolicited impedence from anyone else. This is a goal which I think, on some level, almost everyone has sympathy with. On the basis of this, Rothbard thinks that legislating for parents to feed children constitutes those children unsolicitedly impeding their parents lives. What’s false here is the unsolicited part. Take for instance, a pilot flying a plane with 200 passengers on board. If the pilot decided he’d had enough and wanted to jump out, Rothbard would likely have to say that the pilot had done nothing wrong, and what’s more any attempt by the passengers to stop him would constitute an act of aggression by them. The ticket is a contract between the passenger and the airline company. The pilot is free to quit his employment contract at any point and, having no personal contract with the passengers, is not aggressing against them. The 200 would have to plummet to their deaths. Maybe their families could sue the airline, but the pilot must walk free. This is clearly not right. By choosing to fly those people, the pilot has accepted responsibility for their safety, even if no formal agreement has been reached. It is ludicrous to say that the pilot didn’t ask to have this burden placed upon him, and certainly no one has forced him into the situation. In this instance, as with the case of the baby, the actions of one party A (the parents and the pilot) have placed the other party B in a state of some vulnerability. A in both instances is directly responsible for B’s position of jeopardy, and is the only party who can ensure they do not fall ill to it. Likewise in both instances, A abandoning B is equivalent to A allowing B to die in a trap of A’s making. Unlike in the passenger’s case, the baby hasn’t even agreed to be put in such a precarious position. Essentially, a human agent has been ejected into the world in a broken and weak form, without consultation, and is being abandoned to a slow death by the very people who dragged it there. This is, quite clearly, not the sentiment which the NAP wants to express. This does not stop people from mindlessly adhering to it. It provides a textbook case of the folly of mindlessly parroting the statements of someone you initially agree with. It also lends some clues as to the way in which, from seemingly innocuous premises, modern Libertarianism arrives at some extremely alarming political conclusions**.
My plea to Libertarians is this. The works of Murray Rothbard et al are not gospel truth. Do not treat them as such. They may sometimes cast light in the direction of ideas that have real merit, but this does not mean that they are the sole embodiment of such ideas.
*I am well aware that arch-contrarian Rand despised the Libertarian movement and especially anarchists. I still count her because, well, ask your average Libertarian what they think of “Atlas Shrugged”. Also, her moaning aside, what she proposes is essentially indistinguishable from most minarchists.
**See literally anything written by Hans “physically remove the gays and communists” Hoppe. In the kind of magnificent self-reductio which seems to be the domain of Libertarians, he manages to use standard private property rights to justify enforced “scientific” racism, draconian free speech laws, banishment of “deviants” from society and monarchism over democracy, all without violating the NAP.