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Introduction to the Second Edition, by David Gordon

Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature displays remarkable organic unity: the book is much more than the sum of its parts. Points made in the various essays included in the book mesh together to form a consistent worldview. The system of thought set forward in these essays, moreover, illuminates both history and the contemporary world.

In the book’s initial essay, whose title has been adopted for the whole book, Murray Rothbard raises a basic challenge to schools of economics and politics that dominate the current opinion.1 Almost everyone assumes that equality is a “good thing”: even proponents of the free market like Milton Friedman join this consensus. The dispute between conservatives and radicals centers on the terms of trade between equality and efficiency.

Rothbard utterly rejects the assumption on which this argument turns. Why assume that equality is desirable? It is not enough, he contends, to advocate it as a mere aesthetic preference. Quite the contrary, equalitarians, like everyone else, need rationally to justify their ethical mandates.

But this at once raises a deeper issue. How can ethical premises be justified? How do we get beyond bare appeals to moral intuition? Our author answers that correct ethics must be in accord with human nature.

When egalitarianism is measured by this commonsense criterion, the results are devastating. Everywhere in nature we find inequality. Attempts to remake human beings so that everyone fits the same mold lead inevitably to tyranny. “The great fact of individual difference and variability (that is, inequality) is evident from the long record of human experience; hence the general recognition of the antihuman nature of a world of coerced uniformity” (p. 9).

Rothbard broadens and extends his criticism of equality in “Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor.”2 Not only do biology and history make human beings inherently different from one another, but civilization depends on the existence of these differences. A developed economic system has as its linchpin the division of labor; and this, in turn, springs from the fact that human beings vary in their abilities.

Marx spoke of an end to “alienation” caused by the division of labor; but were his fantasies put into effect, civilized life would collapse. Why, then, do many intellectuals claim that the division of labor dehumanizes?

In large part, Rothbard argues, these intellectuals have fallen victim to a myth popular in the Romantic Era. The Romantics conjured up primitive men who, untouched by the division of labor, lived in harmony with nature. Rothbard will have none of this. In a few well-chosen words, he excoriates Karl Polanyi, an influential panegyrist of the primitive: “This worship of the primitive permeates Polanyi’s book, which at one point seriously applies the term ‘noble savage’ to the Kaffirs of South Africa” (p. 323).

In an “Introduction” dated February 1991, to a reprint of “Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor,” Rothbard refines his critique even further. He notes, following M.H. Abrams, that the Romantic myth of primitivism rests upon a yet deeper layer of myth. According to the “emanationist” view, which has influenced both neo-Platonism and gnosticism, creation is fundamentally evil. Human beings must be reabsorbed into the primitive oneness of all things. Rothbard sees this strange doctrine as “constituting a heretical and mystical underground in Western thought” (p. 297).

It is clear that Rothbard views Romanticism in decidedly negative terms, at least so far as its impact on politics is concerned. He makes clear the nefarious consequences of Romanticism in “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty.”3 The exaltation of the primitive, which characterizes the Romantics, by no means is confined to the Left. Quite the contrary, it underlies apologies for what Rothbard terms the “Old Order” of feudalism and militarism. Both European conservatism and socialism reject the free market. Accordingly, Rothbard argues, a task of lovers of liberty is to oppose both these ideologies.

In doing so, he maintains, libertarianism must adopt a revolutionary strategy. Not for Rothbard is the path of compromise: all statist ideologies must be combatted root-and-branch. He notes that Lord Acton, long before Leon Trotsky, advocated “permanent revolution” (p. 29). Rothbard reiterates his support for revolution in the short essay, “The Meaning of Revolution.”4

Society, Rothbard has argued, rests on the division of labor. Given the manifest advantages of peaceful cooperation that uses human differences in abilities to the greatest extent possible, what blocks human progress? Why has not history been an uninterrupted march of progress? Rothbard locates the chief obstacle to human betterment in his essay, “The Anatomy of the State.” Unlike voluntary exchange, which by its nature benefits those who freely choose to engage in it, the state rests on predation. Following Franz Oppenheimer and Albert J. Nock, Rothbard contends that the state cannot create wealth: it can only take from some and give to others.

But does not this account raise a new problem? Given the manifestly predatory essence of the state, how has it survived? Why have not popular rebellions put an end to the triumphant beast? Our author blames “court intellectuals.” Throughout history, a group of the literate elite has always been ready with a facile justification for the depredations of the powers-that-be.

As always in Rothbard, the parts of his thought fit together; and we now return to a theme posed at the beginning of this Introduction. Rothbard attacks egalitarians because they do not have a reasoned defense of their ethical judgments. But is Rothbard himself in a better position? How does he defend his libertarian brand of ethics? Supporters of freedom, he argues, in “Justice and Property Rights,” should not rely principally on utilitarian arguments.5 If they do so, Rothbard avers, they will quickly come to grief. Utilitarians may say that the free market wins out over less efficient rival systems; but a vital part of the case for the free market finds no place in the utilitarian system. How are we to justify an initial assignment of property rights? To this, the utilitarians have no reply. In practice, Rothbard claims, they are reduced to defending the status quo. Readers of Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty will not be surprised to see what our author puts in utilitarianism’s place. Only an ethics based on each person’s self-ownership, along with the Lockean right to acquire initially unowned property, is adequate to the task of rigorously justifying a free-market order.

Rothbard extends his criticism of utilitarian-style ethics in the brief essay “The Fallacy of the Public Sector.”6 Many economists find justification for the state in “external benefits” that the market cannot adequately manage, but Rothbard at once sees the central fallacy in this class of argument. “[S]uffice it to say here that any argument proclaiming the right and goodness of, say, three neighbors, who yearn to form a string quartet, forcing a fourth neighbor at bayonet point to learn and play the viola, is hardly deserving of sober comment” (p. 166).

If Rothbard is right, we now know the proper way to defend liberty; and we also stand in no doubt as to our main obstacle: the Leviathan state. In “War, Peace, and the State,” Rothbard narrows the target, in order to enable defenders of liberty to wage their struggle more effectively.7 One activity marks the state more than any other as the enemy of liberty, and it is here that supporters of liberty must concentrate their efforts.

The activity, of course, is waging war. Besides the death and destruction directly incident on war, nations engaging in armed conflict pay a heavy price in liberty. Accordingly, Rothbard calls for nations to engage in a strictly defensive foreign policy. Crusades to “make the world safe for democracy” stimulate our author to vigorous opposition: how can the chief agency of predation, the state, serve as a means to secure freedom?

In “National Liberation,” Rothbard refuses to extend his condemnation of war to revolution.8 Often, revolutions manifest a drive against the state and merit support. He applies his analysis to Ireland in the 1960s, with the results that deserve careful attention today.

Unfortunately for the cause of liberty, political philosophers have not rushed to embrace Rothbard’s revolutionary challenge to the foundations of their discipline. One of the characteristic objections mainstream theorists have to natural-rights libertarianism goes like this: “Even if one concedes that self-ownership applies to rational adults, what is to be done with children? Surely the rights of these dependent human beings, and our duties toward them, cannot be encompassed within the confines of Rothbard’s framework.” Our author was well aware of this objection, and in “Kid Lib,” he offers a cogent response.9 He sensitively balances the rights of children, which increase as they become capable of exercising self-ownership, with the powers of parents to set rules for those living in their home, and supported by them.

We are, it must be admitted, a long way from the day when the conclusions of “Kid Lib” can be fully applied to current legal systems. But Rothbard was no spinner of idle utopian fantasies: he always had in mind what can be done immediately to achieve his libertarian goals. In “Conservation in the Free Market” he shows that conservationists who are rationally inclined ought to rely on the market rather than the state.10 Regrettably, many in the environmentalist movement have radical goals, inconsistent with the continuation of human life on earth. But those who do not should find Rothbard’s case that, e.g., the market best conserves forests, of pressing interest.

Indeed, Rothbard continually alternated between elaborations of principle and applications to particular issues. In “The Great Women’s Liberation Issue: Setting it Straight,” Rothbard applies a principle to which we have already made frequent reference.11 People differ in their abilities, a fact, Rothbard has abundantly shown, that egalitarians neglect to their peril. But do not men and women also differ in their abilities? The unisex dreams of radical feminists contravene nature and must be rejected.

Rothbard’s own stance on the women’s movement characteristically stresses freedom. “I do not go so far as the extreme male ‘sexists’ who contend that women should confine themselves to the home and children and that any search for alternative careers is unnatural. On the other hand, I do not see much more support for the opposite contention that domestic-type women are violating their natures” (p. 187).

Rothbard, like Nock, could speak of “our enemy the state.” But it does not follow that he viewed all anarchists with sympathy. Quite the contrary, in “Anarcho-Communism” Rothbard makes evident his distaste for anarchists who seek to combine opposition to the state with communism.12 Often the advocates of this position straightforwardly embrace irrationalism. Norman O. Brown, e.g., thought that socialists should, in the face of Mises’s proof that a socialist system cannot rationally calculate, abandon calculation.

Our author viewed with much greater tolerance lapses committed by the great individualist anarchists, Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker. In “The Spooner–Tucker Doctrine: An Economist’s View,” he gently but firmly criticizes the monetary fallacies of these individualist pioneers.13

If Rothbard improved on Spooner and Tucker, his success in large part stemmed from his deft combination of individualist anarchism with Austrian economics. And of course Roth-bard’s knowledge of the Austrian School stemmed from his careful study of Ludwig von Mises’s works, and his attendance at Mises’s seminar at New York University. In “Ludwig von Mises and the Paradigm for Our Age,” Rothbard pays generous tribute to his teacher.14

After a hard-hitting summary of Mises’s main contributions to economics, Rothbard comments that “Mises, almost singlehandedly, has offered us the correct paradigm for economic theory for social science, and for the economy itself, and it is high time that this paradigm be embraced, in all of its parts” (p. 276).

Like his Marxist adversaries, Rothbard stressed the unity of theory and practice: philosophy is a guide to action. In “Why Be Libertarian?” he asks the most basic question of all.15 Why should libertarian theorizing matter to us? Why care about liberty? The answer cannot be found, he contends, in the narrow pursuit of individual advantage. Only the love of justice suffices. In that love of justice Rothbard was unmatched.

David Gordon

  • 1. The essay first appeared in Modern Age, Fall 1973, pp. 348–57.
  • 2. First published in Modern Age, Summer, 1971, pp. 226–45.
  • 3. This essay originally appeared in Left and Right, Spring, 1965, pp. 4–22.
  • 4. The essay was first published in The Libertarian Forum, vol. 1, no. 7, July 1, 1969.
  • 5. The essay originally appeared in Samuel Blumenfeld, ed., Property in a Humane Economy, Open Court Publishing, 1974, pp. 101–22.
  • 6. Originally in New Individualist Review, Summer, 1961.
  • 7. The essay first appeared in The Standard, April, 1963, pp. 2–5, 15–16.
  • 8. Libertarian Forum, vol. 1, no. 11, September 1, 1969.
  • 9. The article first appeared in Outlook, December, 1972, pp. 8–10.
  • 10. From The Individualist, February, 1970.
  • 11. From The Individualist, May, 1970.
  • 12. Libertarian Forum, vol. 2, no. 1, January 1, 1970.
  • 13. A Way Out, May–July, 1965.
  • 14. Modern Age, Fall, 1971, pp. 370–79.
  • 15. Left and Right, vol. 2, no. 3, Autumn, 1966.