EconLog Book Club: For a New Liberty, Chapter 2
By Bryan Caplan
In this chapter (“Property and Exchange”), Rothbard introduces the “non-aggression axiom,” also often known as the “non-initiation of force axiom.” The intuition is simple enough: No one has the right to start using physical violence or the threat thereof against another person or his property.
This is one of the first moral rules we learn as children – the kid who punches first is in the wrong, and you musn’t take stuff that doesn’t belong to you. The distinctive feature of the libertarian position, Rothbard explains, is that it applies the same moral standard to government:
In contrast to all other thinkers, left, right, or in-between, the libertarian refuses to give the State the moral sanction to commit actions that almost everyone agrees would be immoral, illegal, and criminal if committed by any person or group in society. The libertarian, in short, insists on applying the general moral law to everyone, and makes no special exemp tions for any person or group. But if we look at the State naked, as it were, we see that it is universally allowed, and even encouraged, to commit all the acts which even non-libertarians concede are reprehensible crimes. The State habitually commits mass murder, which it calls “war,” or sometimes “suppression of subversion”; the State engages in enslave ment into its military forces, which it calls “conscription”; and it lives and has its being in the practice of forcible theft, which it calls “taxation.” The libertarian insists that whether or not such practices are supported by the majority of the population is not germane to their nature: that, regardless of popular sanction, War is Mass Murder, Conscription is Slavery, and Taxation is Robbery. The libertarian, in short, is almost completely the child in the fable, pointing out insistently that the emperor has no clothes.
Rothbard then discusses attempts to justify the non-aggression axiom. He quickly disposes of the utilitarian rationale, then presents his own natural rights story. Aside from some hand-waving about “the natural law of man’s needs,” he presents three alternative property theories (libertarian self-ownership, some sort of “natural slave” story, and “participatory communism”), and argues that the first is by far the most plausible.
Next, Mr Libertarian highlights the important problem of initial acquisition:
Some libertarians attempt to resolve the problem by asserting that whoever the existing government decrees has the property title should be considered the just owner of the property. At this point, we have not yet delved deeply into the nature of government, but the anomaly here should be glaring enough: it is surely odd to find a group eternally suspicious of virtually any and all functions of government suddenly leaving it to government to define and apply the precious concept of property, the base and groundwork of the entire social order.
This leads directly to a review/defense of Locke’s theory of initial acquisition, and a simple derivation of free exchange: If your own a thing, it follows that you’ve got a right to give it away, either gratis or in return for something else. The chapter ends by explaining how libertarian property rights theory can be used to put vaguer notions of “human rights” on a more solid footing. In a libertarian framework, you don’t need to balance a “right of free speech” against the “public interest.” The person who shouts “fire” in a crowded theater is guilty of trespass if he’s a customer, and fraud if he’s the owner.
As an ethical intuitionist, my main complaint about Rothbard’s defense of libertarian rights is his obscurantism about what’s “natural.”
Natural law theory rests on the insight that we live in a world of more than one–in fact, a vast number–of entities, and that each entity has distinct and specific properties, a distinct “nature,” which can be investigated by man’s reason, by his sense perception and mental faculties. Copper has a distinct nature and behaves in a certain way, and so do iron, salt, etc. The species man, therefore, has a specifiable nature, as does the world around him and the ways of interaction between them… Violent interference with a man’s learning and choices is therefore profoundly “antihuman”; it violates the natural law of man’s needs.
I object that anything that people do is ipso facto “natural,” so there’s no way you’re going to get moral precepts out of this. But in any case, all this talk violates the fundamental rule of philosophical reasoning (indeed, all reasoning): You don’t use the obscure to argue for the obvious. It’s silly to say, “Murder violates man’s nature, so murder is wrong,” when you can just say, “Murder is wrong.”
Rothbard’s at his strongest when he points out that governments habitually perform actions which almost everyone would admit were wrong if they were committed by a private individual. This, in my view, is real moral reasoning – instead of arguing for the obvious (murder is wrong because blah blah blah), he’s arguing from the obvious (murder is wrong, so it’s wrong when government does it, too). His three property rights scenarios also have some probative value, since they help clarify moral intuitions, but of course ignore an infinity of hybrid scenarios. Rothbard also deserves credit for emphasizing the need for an extra-governmental standard of just property acquisition.
One of the main highlights of this chapter, for me, is Rothbard’s take on shouting “fire” in a crowded building. It’s easy to take this reduction for granted, but it was a revelation when I first read it. The deep insight underlying this example is that property rights are, like Legos, incredibly flexible building blocks with which you can create almost any structure you can imagine: Marriages, corporations, malls, blogs, non-smoking sections, Facebook, you name it.
Finally, Rothbard’s casual use of the term “absolute” is silly. If my right of
self-ownership is “absolute,” aren’t you violating my rights merely by
breathing on me? And in any case, exceptionless rights go beyond the common sense morality that libertarianism builds upon. Yes, it’s almost always wrong to throw the first punch or take someone’s stuff, but if you can’t think of plausible counter-examples, you aren’t trying hard enough.
P.S. Since I teach Monday nights, I’m moving discussion of all future chapters to Tuesdays.