EconLog Book Club: For a New Liberty, Chapter 3
Rothbard now applies the normative standards developed in chapter 2 to explain what libertarians have against government (or as Rothbard, inspired by Germanic capitalization, calls it, “the State”).
The argument is simple: If a private individual did what governments do, almost everyone would call him a criminal. If I took your money without your consent, I’d be a thief. If I forced you to work for me, I’d be slaver. If I killed you, I’d be a murderer – even if you “provoked” me by resisting my demands for your money and labor. Note further: We’d still make these judgments even if I was acting if “for your own good” or “to help the poor.” (scare quotes optional!) But somehow when government does it, we change the names and our moral evaluation:
The distinctive feature of libertarians is that they coolly and uncompromisingly apply the general moral law to people acting in their roles as members of the State apparatus. Libertarians make no exceptions. For centuries, the State (or more strictly, individuals acting in their roles as “members of the government”) has cloaked its criminal activity in high-sounding rhetoric. For centuries the State has committed mass murder and called it “war”; then ennobled the mass slaughter that “war” involves. For centuries the State has enslaved people into its armed battalions and called it “conscription” in the “national service.” For centuries the State has robbed people at bayonet point and called it “taxation.” In fact, if you wish to know how libertarians regard the State and any of its acts, simply think of the State as a criminal band, and all of the libertarian attitudes will logically fall into place.
Rothbard scoffs at the “it’s democratic” defense of seemingly wrongful state action:
The government does not in any accurate sense “represent” the majority of the people, but even if it did, even if 90% of the people decided to murder or enslave the, other 10%, this would still be murder and slavery, and would not be voluntary suicide or enslavement on the part of the oppressed minority. Crime is crime, aggression against rights is aggression, no matter how many citizens agree to the oppression. There is nothing sacrosanct about the majority; the lynch mob, too, is the majority in its own domain.
After touching on Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy, and Spooner’s blunt denunciation of all governments as gangs of criminals, The chapter turns to Hume’s take on civil obedience. If government is so bad, why does almost everyone accept it? Rothbard’s solution: They’ve been brainwashed by statist intellectuals:
[S]ince the early origins of the State, its rulers have always turned, as a necessary bolster to their rule, to an alliance with society’s class of intellectuals. The masses do not create their own abstract ideas, or indeed think through these ideas independently; they follow passively the ideas adopted and promulgated by the body of intellectuals, who become the effective “opinion moulders” in society. And since it is precisely a moulding of opinion on behalf of the rulers that the State almost desperately needs, this forms a firm basis for the age-old alliance of the intellectuals and the ruling classes of the State. The alliance is based on a quid pro quo: on the one hand, the intellectuals spread among the masses the idea that the State and its rulers are wise, good, sometimes divine, and at the very least inevitable and better than any conceivable alternatives. In return for this panoply of ideology, the State incorporates the intellectuals as part of the ruling elite, granting them power, status, prestige, and material security.
Rothbard then reviews the standard-issue intellectual toolkit of statist intellectuals, including their talent for transforming limits on state power into rationalizations for its expansion.
Twenty years after I read these words, they still strike me as a tour de force of iconoclasm. If you put aside all the propaganda, states are gangs of glorified criminals. I still remember arguing about this with an economist who was working for Clinton, and was shocked when he accepted the Rothbardian story for the vast majority of governments, past and present. But he was sure that the Western democracies were in a league of their own. But how so? Because they think they’re working for the “good of the people”? Isn’t this excuse ubiquitous in almost every dictatorship?
Emotionally, I also find it hard to resist Rothbard’s attack on statist intellectuals. But when I put emotion aside and focus on the facts, he’s really going overboard. Intellectuals are far less persuasive than Rothbard imagines. Two centuries of economic consensus in favor of free trade still hasn’t converted the man in the street; religion is still going strong, despite modern intellectuals’ secular humanism. In any case, as statist as intellectuals are, the man in the street is probably worse.
Another big problem with this chapter: In Western democracies, rulers and intellectuals rarely get rich off the public. Sure, they draw nice salaries, but if money is their goal, there are easier ways to get it. Rothbard’s “exploitation” theory fails to explain key facts about modern democracies. My alternative view is that something much more twisted predominates: Dogmatic waste.
Take organ selling. An “exploitative” government might try to monopolize the market, but it wouldn’t ban it. That would be great compared to what we’ve got – pig-headed refusal to let people who desperately need organs buy them from people who desperately need money. The same goes for immigration. An Exploitative State would happily admit guest workers who agreed to pay extra taxes and forego benefits. But the Dogmatic Waste State we live under stubbornly says, “No deal.”