Posts Tagged ‘murray rothbard’

Two recent posts, by Corey Robin and Mike Konczal, have got me thinking recently on the relationship between libertarian theory and gender.  It’s a subject I, unfortunately, hadn’t given much thought to previously, having been content to note that libertarianism is typically the theory of young white men in a somewhat arrested state of emotional development.  The actual place of gender in libertarian thought, however, was something I hadn’t considered at all.  Robin’s post, however, forced me to devote some thought to the subject by linking to this essay by Susan Okin, entitled ‘Libertarianism: Matriarchy, Slavery, and Dystopia,’ which I highly recommend reading.

Okin’s argument is that political theory in general has tended to ignore women and the family, and that once they are brought into the picture, things change drastically.  In particular, libertarian theory, or at least the variant developed by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, collapses completely.  Here’s why.

Nozick’s argument is that as long as a given property arrangement was reached through entirely voluntary transactions between individuals, there is no injustice in it*. This is because people are entitled to self-ownership and the ownership of anything they create, as long as they do so with means that have been legitimately acquired.  For Nozick, redistributive taxation is a violation of justice, since it involves taking, by the threat of force, the property one person has legitimately acquired and giving it  to another.  Nozick claims there can be no ‘positive liberty,’ no right to any resources such as food, health care, etc, since all of these things have been created by people who already have a right to them.  Property rights are absolute, and any negation of them is an injustice.

Okin asks what happens when women and children are introduced into Nozick’s world.  Immediately, it appears that children must come into the world as the property of their mothers.  Children are the product of a woman’s reproductive labor, using sperm she has (almost always) acquired legitimately.  If Nozick wants to argue that redistribution is unjust because the products of human labor come into this world already attached to those who made them, there seems to be no clearer example of this than children.  And Nozick can’t evade this critique by claiming it is illegitimate to own people, since he is explicit that selling oneself into slavery must be allowed in a libertarian society.  Humans can be property, and according to his argument, children must be the property of their mothers.

A society based on Nozick’s principles would thus be, as Okin characterizes it, a combination of matriarchy and slavery, in which the everyone was owned by their mothers.  This destroys the central point of Nozick’s argument, which is that a libertarian society is necessary to respect human self-ownership.  By simply looking at the situation of women  and children, Nozick’s argument disintegrates.

This seems to me a devastating criticism, one that Nozick really can’t rebut while upholding the basic arguments of his book.  It got me curious as to how other variants of libertarianism would deal with Okin’s challenge.  So I decided to take a look at Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty, and see if it fared any better.

Rothbard’s argument is similar to Nozick’s in many ways.  Self-ownership is once again the ethical foundation, and any distribution of holdings that results from voluntary actions is a just one.  However, Rothbard differs from Nozick in his emphasis that only alienable goods may be forms of property.  Thus things like intellectual property are not legitimate forms of property, since my making a copy of your book does not affect your property.  Only goods over which ownership can be transferred, what Rothbard calls ‘title-transferable’ goods,  are legitimate forms of property.  Similarly, Rothbard denies that self-enslavement is possible, since a person’s control over their body and mind is inalienable.  Should someone sell themselves into slavery, and then later decide they do not, in fact, wish to be enslaved, this proves that they haven’t actually transferred ownership of their mind and body, and that self-owning human beings cannot transfer title to their selves.  Any contract based on such a transfer is unenforceable.

This seems to get Rothbard out from under Okin’s razor.  Where Nozick is quite clear that self-owning people may sell themselves into slavery, Rothbard holds that no one may hold title to another person who is capable of self-ownership.  I’ll return to this subject below, and ask if Rothbard’s arguments against self-enslavement in fact hold up, but for now I’m interested in simply exploring his ethics a little more from the angle suggested by Okin.

The Ethics of Liberty contains a short section on ‘Children and Rights’ that does deal with these questions.  Rothbard begins by providing what he argues is a proper libertarian defense of abortion.  He argues, following Locke, that children are best viewed as potential self-owners, not yet possessing the capability for the full exercise of their rationality.  He notes that the traditional Catholic position, that fetuses are potential people, and thus deserve rights, is quite close to the commonsense view that a newborn baby is a potential adult**, and is thus subject to the libertarian non-aggression principle.  Thus a libertarian ethics cannot justify abortion on the view that fetuses don’t have the same rights adults do.

Instead, Rothbard bases his defense of abortion on the grounds that no one is entitled to the use of another person’s body without their consent.  Just as a starving man has no right whatsoever to take a can of peas from the kitchen of a billionaires’ third home which he only visits for one weekend a year, a fetus, even if, as a potential person, it has most of the rights of a full person, has no right to use a woman’s body.  The fact that denying a potential self-owner this right means its death is of no consequence for Rothbard, since he maintains there is nothing unjust about people starving to death while others burn food that is their property in front of the faces of the starved.  Thus Rothbard argues that libertarian principles provide for a robust defense of abortion rights.

Once children are born, the situation is much the same.  Rothbard willingly accedes to what Okin argues is a consequence of entitlement theory: that children are the property of their mothers.  However, Rothbard argues that children are a special sort of property.  As potential self-owners, the non-aggression principle applies to them.  At the same time, Rothbard wants to uphold the general libertarian principle that no one may be legally compelled to undertake any action they do not desire to (providing that action is not a form of punishment for a previous violation of the NAP).  As such, he argues 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.’

Additionally, Rothbard argues that since children are the property of their parents, they should be considered title-transferable goods that can be sold.  A ‘flourishing free market in children’ is not only just, but would also be a positive good, as it would better match up families who wished to be rid of a child with families who wanted them than the current state-controlled system.

This state of affairs comes to an end when a child achieves self-ownership.  For Rothbard, this point is easily determined:

The clue to the solution of this thorny question lies in the parental property rights in their home. For the child has his full rights of self-ownership when he demonstrates that he has them in nature—in short, when he leaves or “runs away” from home. Regardless of his age, we must grant to every child the absolute right to runaway and to find new foster parents who will voluntarily adopt him, or to try to exist on his own. Parents may try to persuade the runaway child to return, but it is totally impermissible enslavement and an aggression upon his right of self-ownership for them to use force to compel him to return. The absolute right to run away is the child’s ultimate expression of his right of self-ownership, regardless of age.

Once children exercise their self-ownership, they cease to be title-transferable and their persons become unalienable in the manner Rothbard describes.

This is, in brief, Rothbard’s position on the application of justice to the family.  Children are the property of their parents, and thus salable, but because they are potential self-owners, they fall under the non-aggression principle.  Parents have no obligations to their children, and this lack of obligation is what justifies a woman’s right to an abortion.

As you will undoubtedly have noticed, Rothbard’s framework here is fraught with problems.  On the most basic level, his simultaneous justification of neglect and condemnation of murder seem to allow for a distinction in numerous situations without any real difference.  For Rothbard, it is unjust for a parent to put an infant in the freezer, but it is just to leave your child outside on a park bench to freeze to death in January.  It is unjust to run your toddler over with your car, but it’s fine to leave him in the middle of the highway.  These situations are so close to one another that labeling one just and the other unjust is absurd.  However, to hold them to a common standard would be to admit human obligations to one another into the realm of justice, an intrusion which would undermine the basic principles of Rothbard’s system of ethics.

His attempt to render children both salable and subject to the NAP creates even bigger problems.  Consider, for example, a person in Rothbard’s ideal anarcho-capitalist society whose embrace of social Darwinism is such that he buys toddlers by the truck full, and places them all in a room together with only enough food for a small number of them, because he enjoys watching the struggle for survival.  Some of the toddlers die in this process.  For  Rothbard, there is nothing unjust about such a person’s actions (though Rothbard would surely admit that it would be immoral).

The biggest problems with this combination emerge, however, not in the actions of madmen, but in the everyday conduct of normal families.  Families who acted according to Rothbard’s conception of the rights of children and parents would depart drastically from what most people think of as proper parenting.  By applying the NAP to the parent-child relationship, Rothbard limits parental sanctions to those that could be justified by the parents’ lack of obligation to support their children.  For Rothbard, a child who would rather watch television than go visit his grandparents cannot simply be marched to the car by frustrated parents.  Indeed, this would be kidnapping.  However, parents who threaten to sell their children in such a situation commit no injustice.  Grounding is similarly impermissible, as it would constitute unjust imprisonment.  Parents can only threaten consequences like refusing meals,  taking away toys, etc.  An excitable child at an amusement park can’t be restrained by his parents – they can only threaten to leave him there if he runs off.  This situation becomes especially acute with very small children, who are old enough to misbehave, but not to be negotiated with.  Given the severity of many of the sanctions available to parents under Rothbard’s concept of justice, parents are left with a choice of either threatening sanctions they certainly would rather not employ, or being terrorized by their children.

The combination of the NAP with rights derived from potential self-ownership also creates other problems for Rothbard.  But before exploring these, it is worth noting that his argument that potential self-ownership confers rights is unconvincing.  Rothbard never provides any real argument for why potential self-ownership should confer actual rights.  Instead, he suggests by way of an unstated analogy, noting that the traditional Catholic critique of abortion ‘comes disquietingly close to the general view that a newborn baby cannot be aggressed against because it is a potential adult.’  There is a lot wrong here.  First, Rothbard doesn’t provide any evidence that the general sentiment against harming babies is based on  their potential to become adults.  Indeed, I doubt matters of potentiality would come into it if you asked most people why it’s wrong to hurt babies.  More importantly, however, is the simple fact that there are clear differences between potentiality and capability.  The fact that someone has the potential to become something doesn’t mean they have some of the qualities that would accompany them fulfilling that potential.  As Joel Feinberg has argued, a five year old may have the potential to become president of the United States, but that doesn’t mean she gets a limited version of the powers available to the commander-in-chief.  Similarly, just because an entity has the potential for self-ownership doesn’t mean it should receive some of the rights conferred by such a capability.

Additionally, the argument from potential has some rather disturbing side effects.  Terminally ill and developmentally disabled children, according to Rothbard’s argument, don’t have the potential for self-ownership, and as such, don’t fall under the NAP.  Similarly, if I know a child is about to board a cruise ship with a bomb on it that will kill everyone on board in twelve hours, I can do whatever I wish to that child, since he has no potential for becoming a self-owner.

Let’s put this aside, however, and proceed as if Rothbard’s argument for the application of the NAP to potential self-owners were valid.  Considering the case for abortion, Rothbard’s argument is actually a far less robust defense of women’s rights than it appears.  There are a number of abortion procedures, after all, which do not simply remove the fetus from the uterus, but actively destroy it.  The most well-known example of this is the intact dilation and extraction procedure, more commonly known by the misleading label bestowed by pro-lifers, partial birth abortion.  Several other procedures require feticide before the fetus is extracted.  While these procedures constitute a distinct minority of all abortions performed, it is nonetheless disturbing that Rothbard’s ethics forbid medical techniques that thousands of women turn to every year.  Rothbard’s application of the NAP to fetuses creates even bigger problems when we think about future abortion techniques.  Many early abortificants are hormonal doses which cause the implanted embryo to be expelled.  But it is plausible that future abortion techniques will simply target the embryo itself, and have no direct effect on the woman’s body.  Such techniques would, hypothetically, be safer than giving women massive doses of hormones.  But according to Rothbard, these future techniques would be violations of the rights of the potential self-owner in the uterus.  Here, one is again reminded of Okin’s argument that political theorists typically do not bother expending thought on the circumstances of women’s lives.

When it comes to abortion, therefore, Rothbard’s ethics are caught on the horns of a dilemma.  To disallow the scenario of parents being allowed to eat their children, Rothbard argues that it is necessary to apply the NAP to potential self-owners, including fetuses (obviously, there are a host of other ways to justify such a position, but most of them would conflict with Rothbard’s libertarian principles).  However, this application makes his defense of abortion a rather weak one, and leads to the strange position of libertarians supporting the barbaric Partial Birth Abortions Act.  If Rothbard wants to disallow infantiphagia, he must produce a compromised defense of abortion.  If he wants a robust defense of abortion, he has no grounds on which to argue that infantophagia is unjust.

There are thus a host of problems with Rothbard’s ethical theory as it applies to the family.  It licenses any number of terrible acts, impedes the ability of parents to parent, fails to defend abortion rights robustly, and doesn’t extend any protection to the most vulnerable children.  At this point, I’d like to return to Okin’s argument, and examine just how successful Rothbard is at evading it.  As we’ve seen, his escape here depends on his contention that self-owning humans cannot transfer their future will to another person.  It is an inalienable possession.  This position is not at all obvious, however.  As Walter Block has argued, from a libertarian perspective, if people cannot sell themselves, it is difficult to see why they should be seen as possessing self-ownership.  After all, the ability to sell something seems to be an important criterion of ownership.  Block, however, fails to see the real problem with Rothbard’s argument.  Rothbard argues that one cannot alienate one’s future will through a contract, because one retains possession of that willpower despite the contract.  Thus such contracts are unenforceable.  This position would seem to render any contract based on future services unenforceable.  After all, if I pay a someone fifty dollars to water my plants, I am certainly making a claim to his future willpower – namely, his act of watering my plants.  Alternatives to this interpretation are hard to come by.  One could say I am in fact not buying any specific act by any person, I am only buying the state of my plants being watered.  After all, if he in turn pays a friend twenty dollars, and my plants end up watered all the same, I hardly have any grounds for complaint.  But even here I still have had a claim on my waterer’s willpower.  He must cause the state of my plants being watered to come into effect.  The fact that he may choose the means by which he achieves this doesn’t alter that fact.

According to Rothbard, however, future will is inalienable, and cannot be the subject of contract.  Any agreements which are premised on a claim to someone’s future willpower are mere promises, and not enforceable by law.  In one fell swoop, he has disallowed all contracts where money is exchanged up front for future services.  This may not appear to be significant – one could imagine a world in which services always come first, and payment second.  There are a host of services, however, for which this arrangement would seem to be impossible.  The most important of these is Rothbard’s means of enforcing contracts in his anarcho-capitalist society: defense agencies.  Rothbard argues that the system of justice he describes would be administered by private agencies to which consumers subscribe in return for the assurance that their agency will be responsible for securing restitution in the case of any breach of their rights.  Leaving aside the sociological problems with this system, under Rothbard’s system of justice the subscriptions paid by consumers would be unenforceable contracts, since they involve the claim to people’s future willpower.  Rothbard is explicit on this point, noting that ‘Most likely, such services would be sold on an advance subscription basis, with premiums paid regularly and services to be supplied on call.’  Under such an arrangement, consumers clearly purchase a claim on people’s future willpower – they purchase the assurance that their agencies will in fact bring their aggressors to justice.  Given that such contracts are unenforceable, however, there is no reason why anyone would ever subscribe to a defense agency, since the people on whose willpower they made a claim could always simply change their mind with no consequences.

Rothbard cannot then disallow the enslavement of adult humans on the basis of the inalienability of their will without posing grave problems for his entire system of justice.  If he cannot deny the justice of adult humans being enslaved, he has no means of escaping from Okin’s critique, and his libertarian paradise would turn into the same combination of matriarchy, slavery, and dystopia described by Okin.  As with Nozick, Rothbard’s ethics are incapable of being sustained once gender and families are seriously considered.

* In the appendix to the book, Rothbard complains about Nozick’s ‘immaculate conception of the state,’ noting that even if Nozick thinks that a state could be established justly, the existing ones certainly have not been, and therefore Nozick should be an anarcho-capitalist.  However, Rothbard fails to note that his critique applies to his own justification for the existing distribution of private property, which has rather obviously not been established through voluntary transactions .

**Here, as elsewhere, Rothbard reveals just how little he actually adheres to his methodological insistence on proceeding by reason alone.  In this instance, he allows for justice to be established by democracy, by appealing to commonsense (a particularly egregious mistake for a libertarian philosopher!).  Elsewhere, he relies on moral intuition, as in his revulsion at infantiphagia.  Personally, I think that balancing between moral intuition and rationalist approaches is the proper method for moral philosophy, and have no real problems with Rothbard doing so.  But it certainly makes a mockery of his rationalist pretensions.

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So the story of Ron Paul’s alleged racism is once more making the rounds.  First surfacing in 2008 as a result of James Kirchick’s reporting in The New Republic, its most recent iteration is an article by Jonathan Chait, a wretched corporatist Democrat whose motivation in rehashing Kirchick’s story was probably concern that Paul’s positions on the wars, drug policy and the like would embarrass Chait’s beloved commander in chief (Chait has recently written on how liberals are afraid of power, a phobia that his unrelenting sycophancy seems geared towards proving he does not possess).  Though the charges are old, their re-emergence is nonetheless a salutary development, as Paul’s star has risen in recent months with the eruption of class anger against Wall St and the perpetual implosion of the Republican primary field.  Given this (undeserved) street cred, it’s useful for people to be reminded of Paul’s entanglements with racism and other odious discourses.  The gist of the story is that Paul published a series of newsletters in the 1980s and 1990s (which ended up providing much of the seed money with which he launched his political career) that contained a whole host of rather nasty bits on pretty much every oppressed group in American society.  Chait gives us a small sample:

This “Special Issue on Racial Terrorism” was hardly the first time one of Paul’s publications had raised these topics. As early as December 1989, a section of his Investment Letter, titled “What To Expect for the 1990s,” predicted that “Racial Violence Will Fill Our Cities” because “mostly black welfare recipients will feel justified in stealing from mostly white ‘haves.’” Two months later, a newsletter warned of “The Coming Race War,” and, in November 1990, an item advised readers, “If you live in a major city, and can leave, do so. If not, but you can have a rural retreat, for investment and refuge, buy it.” In June 1991, an entry on racial disturbances in Washington, DC’s Adams Morgan neighborhood was titled, “Animals Take Over the D.C. Zoo.” “This is only the first skirmish in the race war of the 1990s,” the newsletter predicted. In an October 1992 item about urban crime, the newsletter’s author–presumably Paul–wrote, “I’ve urged everyone in my family to know how to use a gun in self defense. For the animals are coming.” That same year, a newsletter described the aftermath of a basketball game in which “blacks poured into the streets of Chicago in celebration. How to celebrate? How else? They broke the windows of stores to loot.” The newsletter inveighed against liberals who “want to keep white America from taking action against black crime and welfare,” adding, “Jury verdicts, basketball games, and even music are enough to set off black rage, it seems.”

Such views on race also inflected the newsletters’ commentary on foreign affairs. South Africa’s transition to multiracial democracy was portrayed as a “destruction of civilization” that was “the most tragic [to] ever occur on that continent, at least below the Sahara”; and, in March 1994, a month before Nelson Mandela was elected president, one item warned of an impending “South African Holocaust.” …

The newsletters were particularly obsessed with AIDS, “a politically protected disease thanks to payola and the influence of the homosexual lobby,” and used it as a rhetorical club to beat gay people in general. In 1990, one newsletter approvingly quoted “a well-known Libertarian editor” as saying, “The ACT-UP slogan, on stickers plastered all over Manhattan, is ‘Silence = Death.’ But shouldn’t it be ‘Sodomy = Death’?” Readers were warned to avoid blood transfusions because gays were trying to “poison the blood supply.” “Am I the only one sick of hearing about the ‘rights’ of AIDS carriers?” a newsletter asked in 1990. That same year, citing a Christian-right fringe publication, an item suggested that “the AIDS patient” should not be allowed to eat in restaurants and that “AIDS can be transmitted by saliva,” which is false.

Going over the material here again, I found myself wondering how Paul’s supporters attempted to defend such rank filth.  This lead me to Julian Sanchez & Dave Weigel’s article, ‘Who Wrote Ron Paul’s Newsletters?’  Weigel is a libertarian writer, but someone I nonetheless respect as he has, in the past, shown himself to be perfectly willing to confront racism in conservative ranks.  He continues that work in this piece, which treats the newsletters as the abomination that they are, but also reveals that the question of their authorship is not straightforward.  Paul maintains he has no idea who wrote the offending pieces, and has repudiated the sentiments contained therein.  The smart money appears to be on one Llewellyn Rockwell, Jr, a mainstay on the libertarian right in the US for forty years and a longtime associate of Paul’s.  As Sanchez and Weigel point out, this doesn’t exactly exonerate the candidate.  Even if Paul himself is not a racist, he was undeniably willing to profit off of the vilest sort of racial obloquy.  However, they also contend that even if Paul has failed to come clean about his past, his current conduct, such as his willingness to call out the racism of the war on drugs, evince a clear repudiation of any association with racism.  To me, this is less than convincing.  I am not the least bit interested in what Paul believes in his heart of hearts.  His political conduct reveals that he is more than willing to draw on the language of white supremacy when he thinks it will benefit his cause, and equally willing to discard it when he believes it will not.  The best one can say of Paul after reading Sanchez and Weigel’s reporting is that he is a consummate opportunist.

What interested me most about their piece, however, was not their evaluation of Paul, but rather the peek they afford into the racial politics of American liberatarianism.  Lew Rockwell, it turns out, is no minor crank.  He is the founder and chairman of the board of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a think tank that aspires to be a sort of organizing center for right-wing libertarians and the most important institution for disseminating the ideas of Austrian economics.  Reading some of Rockwell’s publications, the likelihood that he was responsible for penning the words quoted above appears high.  Rockwell has a habit of publishing openly white supremacist material, such as this gem from Samuel Francis:

In the first place, the natural differentiation of the races in intellectual capacities implies that of the two major races in the United States today, only one possesses the inherent capacity to create and sustain the level of civilization that has historically characterized its homelands in Europe and America [note: this is level of civilization of which Francis is so proud]….And secondly, the recognition of racial realities implies that most of the efforts now deployed to combat racism…are misplaced, based on a profound misconception of racial capacities…Those policies and laws are the fruit of a discredited egalitarian mythology that animates the federal leviathan’s perpetual war against civil society and debilitates white resistance to the gathering storm of racial revolution that the enemies, white and non-white, of the white race and its civilization now openly preach and prepare. (Qtd. in Jean Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment, 173)

This appeared in the Rothbard-Rockwell Report, a publication Rockwell edited with Murray Rothbard.  Rothbard is the single most important figure, after von Mises and Hayek themselves, in the strains of libertarian thought that claim adherence to Austrian principles , and is the subject of breathless adulation by his followers (the account linked to reminds me of nothing so much as the old Stalinist mythology of Lenin, in which young Ilyich, upon hearing of his brother’s execution for populist terrorism, exclaimed ‘No, we will not follow that road.  That is not the road to take,’ and, presto! Bolshevism was born).  As would befit a man with such a reputation for individualism and creativity, Rothbard didn’t merely publish the racist views of others: he penned a number himself.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rothbard and Rockwell devised a political strategy for American libertarians that hoped to inflame class and racial resentments among white Americans in the hopes of turning them against the welfare state, the Federal Reserve, and all the other bogeymen of the libertarian imagination.  The fruits of this strategy are not pretty.  Take, for example, Rothbard’s manifesto for this orientation, the 1992 essay ‘Right-Wing Populism.’  In it, he laments the ‘massive scare campaign’ mounted against David Duke, the former klansman and inveterate racist who briefly rose to prominence in Republican politics in Louisiana.

For Rothbard, Duke’s ascendency confirmed the potential of a libertarian politics fused with racial resentment:  ‘It is fascinating that there was nothing in Duke’s current program or campaign that could not also be embraced by paleoconservatives or paleo-libertarians; lower taxes, dismantling the bureaucracy, slashing the welfare system, attacking affirmative action and racial set-asides, calling for equal rights for all Americans, including whites: what’s wrong with any of that?’  (The notion that one must call for equal rights for whites, of course, implies that whites are currently oppressed, a proposition at the core of contemporary white supremacist discourse.)  Rothbard proposed that libertarians embark on a two-pronged strategy.  First, ‘build up a cadre of our own libertarians, minimal-government opinion-moulders, based on correct ideas’, and second, ‘tap the masses directly, to short-circuit the dominant media and intellectual elites, to rouse the masses of people against the elites that are looting them, and confusing them, and oppressing them, both socially and economically.’  This distinction between an esoteric and exoteric knowledge is, of course, a familiar one in conservative intellectual history.  In Rothbard’s case, the libertarian intelligentsia, imbued with the all-powerful understanding of Ludwig von Mises Thought, will use their correct ideas to shape society, while the roused masses will perform the work of tearing down the existing statist institutions.  For Rothbard, the arousal of the masses is best accomplished through appeals to racism.  Libertarians should remind the masses that ‘The reality of the current system is that it constitutes an unholy alliance of “corporate liberal” Big Business and media elites, who, through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic Underclass, who, among them all, are looting and oppressing the bulk of the middle and working classes in America.’

He goes on to propose a list of eight programmatic demands for the new populist libertarianism, which includes items such as ‘Slash Welfare. Get rid of underclass rule by abolishing the welfare system, or, short of abolition, severely cutting and restricting it.’ ; ‘Abolish Racial or Group Privileges. Abolish affirmative action, set aside racial quotas, etc., and point out that the root of such quotas is the entire “civil rights” structure, which tramples on the property rights of every American.’ ;

Rothbard's agents of liberty

‘Take Back the Streets: Crush Criminals. And by this I mean, of course, not “white collar criminals” or “inside traders” but violent street criminals – robbers, muggers, rapists, murderers. Cops must be unleashed, and allowed to administer instant punishment, subject of course to liability when they are in error.’ ; and ‘Take Back the Streets: Get Rid of the Bums. Again: unleash the cops to clear the streets of bums and vagrants. Where will they go? Who cares? Hopefully, they will disappear, that is, move from the ranks of the petted and cosseted bum class to the ranks of the productive members of society.’  As Rothbard’s fascoid rhetoric about the police reveals, he is more than happy to compromise on aspects of supposed libertarian principle to accomplish the goal of rousing the masses against the dusky statist parasites.  Appeals to tradition similarly trump libertarian theory, as Rothbard indicates a willingness to compromise on ‘such vexed problems as pornography, prostitution, or abortion. Here, pro-legalization and pro-choice libertarians should be willing to compromise on a decentralist stance; that is, to end the tyranny of the federal courts, and to leave these problems up to states and better yet, localities and neighborhoods, that is, to “community standards.”‘  Of course, as Corey Robin has argued, such private and local forms of authority have historically been the most important sources of authoritarianism in the US.

‘Right-Wing Populism’ was far from Rothbard’s only venture into race-baiting.  In the sickeningly titled ‘Their Malcolm…and Mine,’ Rothbard expostulates on Malcolm X and the legacy of Black nationalism.  Engaging in the venerable white supremacist tradition of complaining about the injustice of a holiday for Dr. King, Rothbard raises the spectre of a holiday for Malcolm and cries out in anguish, ‘Isn’t “Dr.” King for Heaven’s sake, enough?’ Later, he exalts Malcolm at King’s expense, writing ‘he was not a fraudulent intellectual with a rococo Black Baptist minister style, like “Dr.” King.’  The Tea Party’s obsession with the credentials of a certain prominent African American is, it appears, not a new phenomenon on the American right.  But even worse than Rothbard’s contempt for King is his praise for Malcolm: ‘He carried himself with great pride and dignity; his speaking style was incisive and sparkled with intelligence and sardonic wit. In short, his attraction for blacks was and is that he acted white. It is a ridiculous liberal cliché that blacks are just like whites but with a different skin color; but in Malcolm’s case, regardless of his formal ideology, it really seemed to be true.’  Rarely have more offensive words been offered as approbation.

Most peculiarly, Rothbard, who was himself Jewish, appears to have been something of an anti-semite.  His own self-description of himself was as ‘a pro-Christian Jew who thinks that everything good in Western Civilization is traceable to Christianity’ (paging Anders Breivik).  His defence of Holocaust denier Pat Buchanan contains the unpleasant assertion that ‘Rosenthal’s [one of Buchanan’s Jewish foes] proboscis tells him that Pat is an anti-Semite.’  An essay of his on Origins of the Welfare State in America evinces a disconcerting interest in the Jewishness of many of the players in the story.  An associate of Rothbard’s, who wrote a piece entitled ‘Why must Christians routinely grovel and apologize for crimes against Jews which they never committed?’, recounted that ‘It is not Christian anti-semitism, but, as Murray Rothbard used to note, Jewish goy-bashing which has become the characteristic act of tastelessness in our time.’

Rothbard’s apparent anti-semitism has provoked the expected response from his acolytes: He’s Jewish!  This is hardly a serious defense.  Anyone who believes that Jews cannot be anti-semites is obviously unacquainted with the writings of Gilad Atzmon.  More generally, Rothbard and his supporters have argued that it is impossible for him to be a racist, since racism is a ‘collectivist’ ideology, and Rothbard was a principled individualist.  This is roughly on the same level as a misogynist arguing it is impossible for him to hate women, because his mother was one.  Rothbard was undeniably willing to spread racist ideology to further his political ends, at the very least.  Moreover, even if we accept the questionable assertion that libertarianism and racism are logically incompatible, there are a multitude of ways the two can still co-exist.  Rothbard could simply be an inconsistent libertarian.  Or, he could fail to recognize his own beliefs as racist.  Regardless of its insufficiency, however, this defense at least has the virtue of raising the issue of the relation of political theory to racist canons of knowledge.  For as profoundly as the ideology of white supremacy appears to have suffused the American libertarian movement, I would at least be willing to grant that there is no necessary logical connection between libertarianism and racism.

Why, then, have the two had the relationship they have?  One answer is suggested by Rothbard’s own writings.  In his review of that infamous tome of racist pseudo-science, The Bell Curve,  Rothbard raves about how the book has scientifically established the ‘almost self-evident fact that individuals, ethnic groups, and races differ among themselves in intelligence and in many other traits, and that intelligence, as well as less controversial traits of temperament, are in large part hereditary.’  For Rothbard, this is a development to be celebrated.  Why?

Two reasons we have already mentioned; to celebrate the victory of freedom of inquiry and of truth for its own sake; and a bullet through the heart of the egalitarian-socialist project. But there is a third reason as well: as a powerful defense of the results of the free market. If and when we as populists and libertarians abolish the welfare state in all of its aspects, and property rights and the free market shall be triumphant once more, many individuals and groups will predictably not like the end result. In that case, those ethnic and other groups who might be concentrated in lower-income or less prestigious occupations, guided by their socialistic mentors, will predictably raise the cry that free-market capitalism is evil and “discriminatory” and that therefore collectivism is needed to redress the balance. In that case, the intelligence argument will become useful to defend the market economy and the free society from ignorant or self-serving attacks. In short; racialist science is properly not an act of aggression or a cover for oppression of one group over another, but, on the contrary, an operation in defense of private property against assaults by aggressors.

‘An operation in defense of private property.’  I doubt that racialist science has ever received such an honest description from one of its partisans.  Here, it seems to me, lies the crux of the affinity between libertarianism and racism.  By arguing so strenuously that markets are the most efficient and most just form of social organization, libertarians tend to be unwilling to attribute the continued racial stratification of American society to the operation of markets.  With this explanation unavailable, others must be found.  Now obviously a belief in Black inferiority is not the only other option here.  Some libertarians argue that, ironically, it is anti-poverty programs themselves that perpetuate racial stratification, as they eliminate the incentives to work hard, save, etc, and thus hurt the very people they were implemented to help.  But even this genteel version of the argument has inbuilt tendencies towards racist scapegoating, as  this sort of talk inevitably seems to descend into descriptions of a ‘culture of poverty’ and other ugly tropes.  What begins as a structural explanation slides all too easily into an argument about the deficiencies of racial minorities themselves.  As Rothbard’s example shows, however, some strains of libertarian thought embrace racism full stop, arguing that racial stratification is simply the expression of the genetic superiority of the white race.  The market simply articulates what is written in our genes.  Thus, while considered as abstract propositions, there may be no necessary relationship between libertarian thought and racism, in the historical conditions in which both exist, there does exist an elective affinity between the two.

At the same time, Rothbard’s writings also evince a deep libidinal investment in white supremacy.  His fantasies about police violence being unleashed on vagrants and muggers reveal a real sadism, a desire to see non-white bodies broken.  This emotional connection to the politics of white supremacy is connected with, but not reducible to, the elective affinity described above.  Here, Corey Robin’s recent writing about conservatism seems relevant.  Robin argues that conservatism is always a defense of threatened hierarchies.  It is ‘a meditation on–and theoretical rendition of–the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.’  For Robin, this is the unifying thread linking family values, the free market, imperialism, and racism.  Clearly not every strand of conservatism embraces all of these causes, but what links all of them are a defense of a certain hierarchy – be it in the workplace, in the family, or between nations.  Libertarianism fits in here as a defense of  the subordination of employers to bosses, but also more generally as an endorsement of a hierarchical society.  Libertarian polemics narrate a heroic tale of productive entrepreneurial ubermenschen and their parasitic antagonists.  In these stories, those at the top of society deserve everything that has come to them, as do those on the bottom.  Hierarchy is valorized a moral good.  This gesture is generalized from economic life to life in general in Rothbard’s beloved essay ‘Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature.’  Here, in the course of arguing that Leftist egalitarianism is morally abhorrent, Rothbard slips into a long excursus on the inferiority of women, arguing that the universality of women’s oppression is itself the greatest proof of male superiority.  The emotional attachment to hierarchy in libertarian polemic, though it may originally center on the workplace, seems easily extendable to other forms of hierarchy as well.

Ron Paul’s newsletters are thus not an aberration in the political tradition with which he is affiliated.  American libertarian thought has some deep entanglements with racism, a fact which is unsurprising when one considers the origins of many of the movement’s favorite tropes in the defense of the slavocracy.  Even if some strains are less enamored with white supremacy than the American Austrians (reason magazine seems quite committed to racial egalitarianism, while the CATO Institute tends instead to promote the sort of historical revisionism that counterposes Martin Luther King and the ‘good’ civil rights movement against the ‘bad’ movement for things like affirmative action), the veneration for the market that is always at the heart of libertarian thought contains real affinities with the tradition of white supremacy.  Taking a long view of American history, it does not seem too much to say they were made for each other.

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