I got this note from David Friedman. Because it’s a bit long, I’ll interlineate my responses:
1. Perhaps I missed it, but your blog doesn’t seem to include either a way of commenting or a link to your email, which is odd.
2. Unaccustomed as I am to defending Murray Rothbard, I think that when you claim that “the core of the Rothbardian viewpoint is moral and cultural relativism, that is to say, subjectivism. Morality is whatever a society says it is, and therefore we have no right to go outside of our society and ‘enforce’ our views (such as freedom) on others” you are wildly misrepresenting Rothbard, as judged by the views expressed in his writing. I would be interested in seeing any quotes from him that supports your claim.
Your argument seems to be “this is the assumption needed to reach his conclusion,” which is a dubious form of argument--in this case as in many others, there are multiple ways of getting to a conclusion. As evidence of which, you can find my arguments for a non-interventionist foreign policy in the chapter on the subject in the second edition of The Machinery of Freedom, none of which depend on any such position.
Can you support the claim with regard to Rothbard himself? If not, you ought to retract it. Indeed, since you are the one talking about morality, you are morally obligated to retract it.
In that post, I was trying to describe the views held by those who are closer to Rothbard than to the other well known libertarian intellectuals—views which those intellectuals themselves might not have held. This is understandable, given for example the widely known fact that Ludwig von Mises would have been deeply ashamed of the views of those calling themselves the Mises Institute. The Rothbardians are generally morally and culturally relativistic, even if Rothbard himself was not.
That said, I think Rothbard was at best equivocal on this point. In For A New Liberty, for example, he wrote that the Vietnam War was a “lengthy attempt by an imperial United States to suppress the wishes of the great bulk of the Vietnamese population….” (p. 273). As if communism could be made legitimate if it were based on the “wishes” of the majority. In The Ethics of Liberty, he explained this more in depth: in today’s world, he wrote, “[s]tates exist, and as long as they do, the libertarian attitude toward the State should be to say to it, in effect: ‘All right, you exist, but so long as you do, at least confine your activities to the area which you monopolize….’ In short, the objective of the libertarian is to confine any existing State to as small a degree of invasion of person and property as possible. And this means the total avoidance of war.... [E]ach State has a monopoly of violence, and therefore of defense, only over its territorial area. It has no such monopoly—in fact it has no power at all—over any other geographical area.” (pp. 193-94). Now, Rothbard is discussing the “second-best” alternative to the elimination of states entirely, of course, but the conclusion is the same: that what we ought to do in this world is simply to concede that “states” (which, of course, don’t exist—only individuals exist) may act without interference within their boundaries. Call it what you like, realism or whatever, but this assumption, in my view, severs the link between the rights of individuals and the rules governing the legitimacy or illegitimacy of states. That is, cultural relativism. Again, I understand that Rothbard’s views on these issues were more…shall we say, sophisticated…than I have laid out, but my point is that those I’ve chosen to roughly describe as Rothbardians do conclude that if a state wants to oppress domestically, others should not interfere.
Here I am in no way disputing that there might be—and certainly are—legitimate arguments for a “non-interventionist” foreign policy (which I suspect is a pretty useless term, given the number of variables involved).
3. “That doesn’t mean that we favor military adventurism necessarily, but it does mean that no foreign dictator, and no southern state, has a right to oppress people, and if we choose to stop them we have that right in the same way that we have the right to shoot a rapist we see raping a woman in a back alley.”
Who is “we?” There seems a distinctly collectivist tone to your oratory. To the best of my knowledge Rothbard never denied that individuals had the right to do their best to overthrow an oppressive government. Are you arguing that you have the right to tax me in order to get the money to overthrow an oppressive foreign dictator? Must one believe that in order to be a libertarian?
I detect no “collectivist tone”; by “we” I mean any individual walking down a street who sees a woman being raped has the right to intercede and use violence. For the same reason the United States has the right to use its volunteer army to rescue victims of oppression if it decides that the benefits of doing so outweigh the risks (an admittedly rare occurrence, in my view). And I certainly have no right to tax you for this or anything else.
4. “You don’t have to be an Objectivist (or a Christian or a whatever), but you do have to believe at least in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.”
Hence one cannot be both an anarchist and a libertarian, by your doctrine? Do you conclude that one cannot be a libertarian and think that the slave trade ought to have been abolished prior to 1808, something explicitly forbidden by the Constitution? How do you distinguish between the content of the documents and the “principles embodied in” the documents? Do only the principles you agree with count?
Obviously one can be an anarchist and a libertarian. There’s no reason one cannot believe in the principles of the Declaration and be an anarchist at the same time. But I do see that my reference to the Constitution was hasty. I should clarify that I mean that one cannot be a libertarian, in my view, endorse the secessionist theories of Thomas DiLorenzo, et al. Certainly one can hold that the Constitution has failed to protect individual liberty and ought to be replaced with something more libertarian, for example. But if one holds that a state has the right to secede from the union, then one is conceding power to states that no libertarian rightly so called can concede.
5. On the question of Lincoln and the Civil War, I’m curious as to your view of Jeff Hummel’s work. He’s a libertarian and a serious scholar, and although I expect he would disagree with many of the views of the people you are disagreeing with, he does view Lincoln and the Civil War as important steps towards centralization—hence the title of his book.
Yes, Hummel is a respectable scholar whose views I discussed (albeit briefly) in my paper, “How Libertarians Ought to Think About The U.S. Civil War.” Certainly the Civil War was an “important step towards centralization.” Not nearly as important as the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and other historical episodes, but an important one.
6. Elsewhere, you write: “Paul is (apparently reliably) quoted as saying that ninety-five percent of blacks in Washington D.C. ought to be presumed to be criminals.” But, as you then concede, it appears the quote is from one of the newsletters, and I gather Ron Paul has denied writing (or even, I think, reading) the more controversial passages. Hence, while it’s certainly possible that he wrote them, “apparently reliably” is not justified.
You’re quoting from a post of mine that pre-dated the New Republic article and Paul’s disavowals. At the time that I wrote that post, Paul had issued the sort of mealy-mouthed pseudo-apologies that are mentioned in this Reason post and which I, frankly, don’t believe. Nor do I see it as particularly important whether a member of the Congress of the United States himself wrote nauseating racist things or whether he repeatedly allowed his staff members to write nauseatingly racist things and sign his name to them.
7. There seems a certain inconsistency between your support for the Constitution and some of your attacks on Ron Paul, in particular his view on Lawrence. One can believe both that states don’t have the moral right to do certain things and that the Constitution doesn’t forbid them from doing those things—hence they do have the legal right to do them. Do you in fact believe that Lawrence, or for that matter Roe, was correctly decided, from a constitutional standpoint—that the meaning of the relevant constitutional provisions as understood by the people who wrote them implied those results, for the reasons offered by the court? I can imagine an argument based on the Ninth Amendment, but that wasn’t how the cases were decided.
I definitely think Lawrence was rightly decided—no serious question about it. As I’ve explained elsewhere (and as Tara Smith has explained better), I don’t think the question is properly framed as connected to the understandings of those who wrote the relevant laws. (And I agree that the decision itself left much to be desired. For more, see my article “The Wolves And The Sheep of Constitutional Law”.) The theory behind Roe troubles me somewhat more, but I do believe that abortion is a liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, and I don’t think fetuses have rights. Yes, it is true that the Constitution does not bar states from doing certain immoral things. But it does bar them from depriving a person of liberty without due process of law, as Texas was doing in Lawrence.
Furthermore, one can support a particular political structure without approving of all its consequences. My guess is that you believe both in our system of trial by jury and that an innocent man convicted under it has had his rights violated. Similarly, I think there’s much to be said for the view that we are better off if the federal government is severely restricted in what questions it can decide—even though, on some issues, that would result in states doing things I think they shouldn’t do.
I would agree with that generality—although the specifics might give us some trouble.
To put it differently, when you write “He believes the government may tell us whom we may sleep with in the privacy of our own homes (since privacy isn’t protected by the Constitution)” I think you are juggling two different meanings of rights, legal and moral. So far as I can see, the sexual freedom you are discussing is not protected by the constitution—and that ought to be a problem for you, not for me, since you are the one arguing that belief in the principles of the Constitution should be required to be a libertarian.
Well, I’m saying that I don’t think a libertarian would deny that liberty, which is explicitly protected by the Constitution, includes the right to engage in private, adult, consensual sexual acts. My mind is truly boggled by alleged libertarians who say otherwise—who contend that the content of the liberty protected by that amendment is to be based on whether other folks approve of the conduct at issue.
Reading the document, it seems clear that one of the principles of the Constitution is that most such issues are to be decided by the states. As you presumably know, the Constitution as written, including the Bill of Rights, did not in any way restrict establishment of religion by state governments, some of which had and continued to have established churches. Nor did the Constitution forbid states from restricting freedom of speech.
Which Constitution are libertarians required to support the principles of—the one that was originally written, the Constitution as currently amended, or the Constitution as interpreted by the courts? They are three quite different things.
I would think that any libertarian—that is, anyone who believes that individuals have the right to control themselves and make their own choices as to the use of their faculties without being obstructed by others (except in cases where their own rights are being violated) would admit that the Constitution was quite imperfect at the time of its ratification. Although it is more perfect now, it still has imperfections. What I was trying to get at was that one cannot simultaneously believe that states are “sovereign” in the Doughface sense, and that individuals rather than states, have rights.
8. You write “But as Lincoln pointed out, once you say that slavery—or the violation of women’s rights, or the rights of sexual privacy—can be legitimately voted on, you’ve already abandoned the principle of liberty.”
Following your link, I find Lincoln saying: “We think Slavery a great moral wrong, and while we do not claim the right to touch it where it exists”.… “To me it seems that if we were to form a government anew, in view of the actual presence of Slavery we should find it necessary to frame just such a government as our fathers did; giving to the slaveholder the entire control where the system was established, while we possessed the power to restrain it from going outside those limits. [Applause.] From the necessities of the case we should be compelled to form just such a government as our blessed fathers gave us; and, surely, if they have so made it, that adds another reason why we should let Slavery alone where it exists.”
So in fact Lincoln was taking Ron Paul’s view, not yours—accepting the “right” of slave states to remain slave states, even though he thought slavery morally wrong.
Eh, I’m not convinced. Lincoln was saying that the federal government had no constitutional authority to interfere with slavery where it already existed because the federal government was explicitly denied that power in the Constitution to which the people of the United States consented: that is to say, the people agreed by contract not to interfere with something that they had a natural right to interfere with. This is a disanalogy with foreign dictatorships, with which we have made no such compact. One might argue that a compact with rights-breaking dictators or slave-owners is necessarily invalid, but even if that were true, that’s an argument for tearing up the compact, not for reinterpreting it. So Lincoln was right that the Constitution barred the feds from interfering with slavery where it already existed. But Lincoln was also right that the people of the territories had no legitimate right to create slavery where it did not yet exist—and to say that allowing the people to “vote” on it (as in Douglas’ “popular sovereignty” theory) was to abandon the fundamental principle at issue, which was that freedom isn’t something that you can vote on.
9. On abortion, it seems clear that Ron Paul supports making it illegal. Perhaps I’ve missed it, but do you ever concede that this really is a question on which libertarians are divided, due to the problem of creating a bright line between persons with rights and non-persons without rights where in fact there is no bright line? In your definition of who we should or shouldn’t accept as part of the libertarian movement, where do you put libertarians who regard abortion as murder and so want to prohibit it? Carrying the argument in the other direction, a la Bill Bradford’s old example, does someone who objects to permitting parents to letting their infant starve to death thus prove that he isn’t a libertarian or that he is?
Quite right—there are anti-abortion libertarians, and it’s likely that I’ve been unfair to them since I so strongly disagree with them. I don’t think I was in this case because I was talking about Paul’s pseudo-federalism, not abortion per se. But just to make the point clear: while there may or may not be legitimate libertarian arguments for banning abortion, it is nevertheless the case that Ron Paul’s professions of federalism are bullshit, because he authored a bill to ban the states from allowing abortion—while at the same time arguing that states should be free to ban flag burning, consensual sex, and so forth.
Where you do have a legitimate argument is against Ron Paul’s support for federal legislation recognizing a fetus as a person with rights. On that point he follows your position—implicit in some of your other criticisms of him—not his, since he wants the federal government to forbid states from what he views as rights violations, just as you pretty clearly want the federal government or the federal court system to forbid states from what you view as rights violations. Hence his position on this issue is inconsistent with his position on other issues.
Quite. But as to his following my position on federalism, you’re right, sort of. If we assumed that fetuses have rights, abortion isn’t the violation of individual rights by states, but by individuals (i.e., the mother and the doctor). Thus it wouldn’t really be a federal matter. But my arguments against federalizing it would be prudential ones, not moral ones—assuming, again, that abortion were murder. Murder’s something rightly left to the states for the most part. Insofar as “abortion-murder” could be attributed to state action then yes, it ought to be barred by the federal government. But, again, my point was to illustrate that Paul’s federalism is a fraud.
10. “Of all of Ron Paul’s inadequacies, the severest (and one I haven’t blogged about much so far) is his suicidally insane belief that Iran presents no serious threat to the United States.”
I won’t go so far as to describe your view on that subject as insane, but it does seem to take little account of the relative economic and military power of the two nations in question. But that would be a longer argument.
Yes, which is why I didn’t get much into it, and would rather not now.
A final and more general point: much of your critique of Paul hinges on the claim by his supporters that he is a straight talker. If he is, then his web site, after attacking particular free trade agreements, should add that the proper approach is for the U.S. to unilaterally abolish all its trade restrictions. After attacking particular problems with immigration, it should add that the proper solution is free immigration combined with legal changes that make new immigrants ineligible for welfare, at least for a considerable length of time—he might even propose, as I did long ago, that the new immigrants should also be free from taxes that go to pay for welfare. Similarly on other issues.
There are two explanations for why he doesn’t do so. Yours, which is certainly possible, is that he isn’t really a libertarian. The other, which is not merely possible but pretty obviously true, is that he is a professional politician and doing that would lose him votes and money. In other words, while he may perhaps be more of a straight talker than the competition, he is considerably less of a straight talker than his supporters would like to believe.
I agree. Although I emphasize my disinclination to believe he’s a libertarian.
In any case, my thanks to you for providing the arguments and evidence in such a readily available form.