Sunday, January 31, 2010

Rothbard and the Free Spirits

Murray Rothbard was one of the first people whose work I read, along with Hayek and Nozick and Milton Friedman and RAW, when I first began to engage with libertarian ideas as an adolescent. The creativity and range of his thought have always impressed me enormously, and it's certainly shaped my perception of what a credible libertarianism might amount to.

But I am not, for all that, a Rothbardian, and I find the growing affection for the Right that marked Rothbard’s later years unfortunate. My reaction is hardly unique among left libertarians, and will surprise no regular reader of this blog. Still, I couldn’t resist commenting on the following passage from a 1986 letter, which struck me as particularly troubling:

"It seems to me that a lot of our literature is geared to 'free spirits,' to people who don't want to push other people around, and who don't want to be pushed around themselves. In short, the bulk of Americans might well be tight-assed conformists, who want to stamp out drugs in their vicinity, kick out people with strange dress habits, etc. And, if so, we won't win if we make our pitch exclusively to a minority of free spirits whom we ourselves may culturally or esthetically agree with, and thereby lose the right-assed majority."

—Murray N. Rothbard, letter to David Bergland, June 5, 1986, qtd. Justin Raimondo,
An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus 2000) 263-4.

In this paragraph, Rothbard appears at best to be trivializing as a matter of aesthetic or cultural preference what I would regard as the moral center of libertarianism. I don't much want to be part of a movement made up of people who want to push others around. Why would he?

I don’t pose this rhetorical question to prompt a flood of responses from people who want to detail Rothbard’s strategic posture in the mid-’80s. I just want to register my own conviction that the desire to avoid being pushed around, and to avoid pushing others around, is at the heart of what it means to value freedom. Of course, what matters most is the absence of violence. But while “anything peaceful” may be (surely is) better than “anything aggressive,” aggression-free relationships can still involve a lot of pushing around. And the same concern to avoid being pushed around at gun-point rightly animates the desire not to be pushed around by HOAs and corporate bosses. The sort of counter-cultural free-spiritedness from which Rothbard wished (at least in 1986) to distance libertarians seems to me to be one of the things that matters most about the libertarian movement. I hope that, without damning Rothbard or seeking to bury him, we can opt, not to dismiss it but to nourish and celebrate it.

12 comments:

Morey said...

What are you - some kind of cosmotarian?

I kid. I'm a huge fan of his earlier writing, but by the late 80's, he had lost much of that spirited radicalism. By my reading, he was always a little put off by the 'free spirits', but kept those feelings mostly in check up until that point. Grousing about the "modals" and "luftmenschen", it seems to me, was just a manifestation of burnout.

Unfortunately, socially conservative attitude largely persists. It's still good sport among some of my favorite writers to condemn tattoos, for example.

Within the LP, there have been a couple of attempts to broaden the horizons (Libs for Art & Culture, Grassroots Libs), but most are content to keep the movement in the safety zone.

Gary Chartier said...

I'm inclined to agree re. Rothbard's cultural preferences, Morey.

Rereading Raimondo's biography, I think I conclude that the shifts in his alliances reflect considerable impatience with the lack of success of particular strategies, as well as, perhaps, a penchant for experimentation.

I'm vastly more comfortable with his alliances from the '60s than with those from the '90s, but I have no particular burden to condemn him for giving vent to his cultural prejudices. I do wish, though, that he'd seen more clearly the connection between freedom from aggressive violence and freedom from various sorts of social, cultural, and other pressure.

Stephan Kinsella said...

"I just want to register my own conviction that the desire to avoid being pushed around, and to avoid pushing others around, is at the heart of what it means to value freedom. "

I disagree, because "being pushed around" is too vague, too imprecise. Libertarianism and political freedom have to do with specific ways of harming others. NOt with just "pushing them around." Pushing around is so vague and broad that it can describe things that are legitimate and even moral; and things that are rights violations.

Gary Chartier said...

Stephan, I agree that “being pushed around” is hardly a rigorously defined category. To operationalize it morally or legally would require a good deal more work.

I still think it’s tolerably clear what Rothbard has in mind here, though, when he talks about “tight-assed conformists, who want to stamp out drugs in their vicinity, kick out people with strange dress habits, etc.”

I’m with the people who want the freedom to consume the substances they want to consume, to adopt strange dress and living habits, etc. I think it should be clear that I’m not arguing that the social pressure exerted by the “tight-assed conformists” should be resisted with violence: I favor what I call the principle of the proportionality of remedies—meet bodily force with bodily force, force against property with force against property, social pressure with social pressure. But the fact that it’s not reasonable for me to respond to social pressure with force doesn’t mean that such pressure is morally trivial.

Individual autonomy is, I think, quite a good thing. So, independently, is the diversity that is evident when autonomy isn’t repressed. So, independently, is the insight that arises from the practical experimentation embodied in the display of alternate ways of being in the world. No, then: I don’t want the tight-asses to banish the free spirits.

I certainly think that peaceful—non-violent—cooperation is a wonderful thing, even when, as is too often the case, it is distorted by manipulation and social pressure. But I’d like a social order free as much as possible from both violence and non-violent manipulation. I want to make room for the free spirits, and I’d like the tight-asses to loosen up.

I don’t think it’s silly to see concerns about non-violent power as continuous with concerns about violent power. What makes libertarianism attractive to me is certainly, in part, a vision of peacful, cooperative social interaction; but it’s also a vision of freedom from arbitrary power, and that includes the power of the tight-asses, whether or not they’re carrying guns.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Gary:

"I’m with the people who want the freedom to consume the substances they want to consume, to adopt strange dress and living habits, etc."

Me too, partly b/c I'm fairly tolerant and cosmopolitan, but I'm not so sure how intimately bound up this is with my libertarianism or rationale for being libertarian. I am a libertarian b/c I love justice and rights, not so much for "liberty" or "freedom" in the looser sense. I would want to tolerate, because of my libertarian property and justice values, a community that used its property rights in a more "tight-assed" way too, I think.

"I think it should be clear that I’m not arguing that the social pressure exerted by the “tight-assed conformists” should be resisted with violence: I favor what I call the principle of the proportionality of remedies—meet bodily force with bodily force, force against property with force against property, social pressure with social pressure."

Then we are in agreement on this.

"But the fact that it’s not reasonable for me to respond to social pressure with force doesn’t mean that such pressure is morally trivial."

I agree. I don't think it's morally trivial. I just think it's not libertarianism. It's something else (which I more or less probably share with you).

I'm very leery of "thickism" arguments.

"Individual autonomy is, I think, quite a good thing. So, independently, is the diversity that is evident when autonomy isn’t repressed."

And so are the need for social structures, institutions, mores, pressures, stigmas, customs, and so on. It's sort of the cultural equivalent of the reason firms arise, and why if they get too big there are problems. Likewise, some social institutions, hierarchies, authories, structures, and so on are probably inevatible and necessary and even good, but too much can be a problem.

"I’d like a social order free as much as possible from both violence and non-violent manipulation. I want to make room for the free spirits, and I’d like the tight-asses to loosen up."

I tend to agree, though I am not so quick as some left-libs to automatically characterize boss-employee (etc.) relationships as "bad" "pushing around".

"I don’t think it’s silly to see concerns about non-violent power as continuous with concerns about violent power."

I don't either. I just think its (a) less rigorous; (b) not quite libertarianism (not that I deny some connections to libertarian values); and (c) and I don't necessarily agree with left-libs in their particular negative assessments of some "capitalist" arrangements as being undesirable or immoral.

"What makes libertarianism attractive to me is certainly, in part, a vision of peacful, cooperative social interaction; but it’s also a vision of freedom from arbitrary power, and that includes the power of the tight-asses, whether or not they’re carrying guns."

Of course. The reasons that I'm libertarian are also (for me) reasons that I'm more cosmopolitan than conservative; more benevolent than mean. I don't deny we are whole humans, not "jsut" libertarians, but that does not mean, IMO, that thickism is anything more than an overglorified observation of connections between different strands of our life and values.

Gary Chartier said...

I’d like to tentatively frame a Law of Libertarian Blog Posts, which holds:

In any on-line exchange related to libertarian issues in which Stephan Kinsella is a participant, Kinsella will be the author of the last substantive comment.

jsabotta said...

No decent person can have any respect for someone like Rothbard, who cheered the fall of Saigon.

Anonymous said...

Professor Chartier,

This is completely off topic, but I was wondering if you had a few recommendations for articles/books that critique Rawls’ Theory of Justice (as well as his later works). I am familiar with Nozick and G.A. Cohen, I was wondering if there is anything else you would recommend. Thanks.

Gary Chartier said...

Obviously, there's a huge literature on Rawls. Among the books worth looking at: Brian Barry, The Liberal Theory of Justice (hope I've got the title right); Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice.

Gary Chartier said...

There's also Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, thanks so much, I really appreciate it. I vaguely remember coming across an anthology of critical articles, but I cant seem to locate it. Does this sound familiar?

Gary Chartier said...

There's a collection called Reading Rawls; I don't remember the title. There is also Realizing Rawls, by Thomas Pogge.