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.

Zinn and the Libertarians

I am puzzled and disturbed by the reactions of some libertarians to the work of Howard Zinn, on which a lot of attention is obviously being focused just now because of his death last week.

Zinn was an anarchist. He opposed war and imperial violence. He rejected corporate privilege. He highlighted the absurdity and injustice of telling the story of a society from the vantage point of the people atop its pyramid of power.

Libertarians should have no time for the view that history ought to be narrated from the perspective of kings and presidents and generals and their aristocratic and corporate compatriots. One need not agree with every aspect of Zinn’s reading of history to agree that those who employ “the political means” of acquiring wealth, those Comte and Dunoyer and Rothbard and Long and Konkin would all, in their different ways, have identified as the members of the power elite, are not history’s heroes, and that glorifying the American state with triumphalistic tales of its emergence and prowess is no task for lovers of freedom.

Zinn was not infallible. He seems to have exhibited some of the same naïveté about some political regimes as the great libertarian hero, Karl Hess (who was, for instance, surprisingly sanguine about Mao’s China in the mid-’70s). Despite being an anarchist, he seems to have affirmed the New Deal, which represented a dramatic increase in statism and corporatism.

But, whatever his errors, he was right about what mattered most: the destructiveness of war, the injustice of colonialism and conquest.

The threat of violence backs up all of the state’s commands. But the organized, large-scale violence of war and conquest is the worst thing the state does, the thing that makes the state far too dangerous to be tolerated.

Anyone who opposes aggression, anyone who claims to sign on to the Non-Aggression Principle, must see opposition to war and violent conquest as absolutely central to her or his political commitments. That point was thoroughly clear to Murray Rothbard, whose opposition to militarism never wavered even as his political alliances changed: to be a libertarian, to be an anarchist, was about this if it was about anything.

So I don’t know what to make of libertarians who, disagreeing with Zinn about economic theory or objecting to what they take to be his views of some illiberal regimes, ignore his commitment to the most important, the most central principle of all.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Hyper-Minimal States vs. Protective Agencies

So, consider this a continuation of the conversation I began a few months ago about the “state-anarchy continuum.”

Begin with what I'll call a “hyper-minimal state.”

  • It claims a continguous territory, but the territory for which it is responsible is very small: perhaps between 50 and 2,000 sq. km.
  • There are no restrictions on emigration or immigration.
  • Anyone whose property is contiguous with the border may secede at will.
  • The state performs only two functions: it operates a police force and a court system, with the latter responsible only for resolving property, tort, and contract disputes.
  • One of the state's courts will hear a case regarding a property, tort, or contract dispute only when the parties have already obtained a decision from a private arbitration/conciliation/mediation entity regarding the dispute and wish to appeal it.
  • The only role of any of the state's courts with respect to an appeal from a private entity's decision regarding a dispute is to determine whether the parties consented to the jurisdiction of the entity, intended that it be final, and received a clear decision from the entity consistent with the substantive and procedural rules regarding which the parties agreed when entering the dispute.
  • The only role of the state's police agency will be to prevent or end the use of force associated with the attempt to resist a judgment by a private arbitrator/mediator/conciliator or to protect someone's person or property against an attack not carried out under the color of law.
  • There is no system of taxation. The police force and the court system are operated using a combination of user fees, donations, and volunteer work.
  • There are private for-profit, not-for-profit, and volunteer security providers with whose operation the state ordinarily does not interfere.

The interesting question, I think, is, In what does this putative's state's identify as a state consist?

It's not in the limitation on the right to secede. After all, if there were nothing that qualified on other grounds as a state in operation in a given territory, it's not clear what secession would mean: there would be nothing from which to secede.

So: is this putative state a state? Would it qualify as a Randian “final arbiter”? Is it ultimately different from a protective agency and, if so, how?

I have some instincts about this, but before articulating them I'd like to know how readers react.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Anarchists and HOAs

A number of broadly libertarian thinkers, including Gordon Tullock and Spencer Heath McCallum, have suggested that private owners—condominium owners linked by interlocking agreements (Tullock) or developers leasing property to residential or commercial tenants—could regulate land-use and related matters in the absence of the state’s heavy hand.

I found myself thinking about these issues again in connection with a conversation that erupted on my Facebook page today. The focus was this article, brought to my attention by Radley Balko. One very thoughtful friend raised the question of crafting a specifically libertarian response to the problem posed by the ongoing conflict described by the article.

For me, the story serves as a very pointed reminder of why I don’t think HOAs and similar arrangements as optimal ways of organizing social relations without the state’s intervention. I wouldn’t wish the stresses associated with dealing with an HOA on anyone else. Surely anarchists can come up with more creative ways of structuring our lives together.

In any event, it strikes me that a libertarian response might include one or more of the following elements:

1. Non-Enforcement Under the Title-Transfer Theory? I’m not a particular fan of Rothbard’s title transfer theory of contract, but it occurs to me that there is perhaps an argument to be made that, on this theory (depending on whether one judges that there is any sort of title transfer in an HOA), the relevant sort of contract wouldn’t be enforceable at all (on the part of a court committed to Rothbardian principles, at any rate).


2. Money Damages Rather than Specific Performance as the Appropriate Remedy? Even if one does think the contract ought to be enforceable, I think it’s worth asking what sort of remedy ought to be available. It’s not obvious, at any rate, that the right remedy here is specific performance—perhaps it’s money damages. Certainly, I’d vote for this option over specific performance.


3. Non-Enforcement Per a Protective Agency’s Contract? It seems to me to be perfectly consistent with even a strictly Rothbardian anarchism (one different, therefore, from my own variety in a number of ways) for my own protective agency to decide in a situation like this that it wouldn’t provide enforcement services—provided its contract with users specified that its court system reserved the right to engage in the development of rules in common law fashion in the service of equity (no doubt the situation would be different if its contract specified that would it provide enforcement services in any and all cases, but [a] it seems unlikely that any credible agency would bind itself in this way and [b] “enforcement” still needn’t mean requiring specific performance, but might instead mean securing money damages).


4. Non-Violent Protest? A further libertarian response here might obviously involve non-aggressive protest, boycotting, shunning, etc. Someone engaging in this sort of response wouldn’t be arguing for a change in general legal rules related to the enforcement of contracts, but would be asking that the HOA reconsider its own rules, something any non-violent objector presumably has the right to do.


I’d be interested in readers’ reactions both to this specific story and to the broader questions it raises about the organization of social life and the resolution of conflict in a stateless society.