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Beyond the NAP: Rothbard’s Full Case for Liberty

“All of my work has revolved around the central question of human liberty.”

So writes Murray Rothbard as the first sentence of the preface of The Ethics of Liberty. Rothbard has written and spoken on many topics, much broader than libertarianism, yet his work revolved around this central question. As Hans Hoppe puts it, in addition to being a great economist: “[Rothbard] was also a great philosopher, sociologist, and historian, and as such became the creator of a grand, integrated intellectual system.”

Let’s examine that system. Human liberty is a much broader topic than the nonaggression principle (NAP). Liberty is impotent when all that we consider is the political theory of the NAP; Rothbard did not and could not limit himself to this in his quest. Libertarianism is thin; the question of human liberty is not.

Rothbard wrote a report to the Volker Fund in 1960 on their Symposium on Relativism. This report addressed a paper that Ludwig von Mises delivered that symposium. Rothbard offered the following:

What I have been trying to say is that Mises’s utilitarian, relativist approach to ethics is not nearly enough to establish a full case for liberty. It must be supplemented by an absolutist ethic—an ethic of liberty, as well as of other values needed for the health and development of the individual—grounded on natural law, i.e., discovery of the laws of man’s nature.

Rothbard is after a full case for liberty grounded in natural law, not merely a theory of libertarianism as the term is thinly understood. He is pointing to an ethic of liberty as well as other values needed to establish this full case—values that focus on the health and development of the individual.

The nonaggression principle is completely neutral on such topics. It says nothing of the relative merits of eating spinach vs. snorting cocaine or reading Shakespeare vs. watching porn—yet who can deny that such choices speak directly to the health and development of the individual.

I will offer extensive quotes from Rothbard; after all, it is his case that I am developing. I will also offer a brief survey of natural law philosophy stretching from Plato to C.S. Lewis. My intention with this lecture and discussion is to reintroduce what seems to be a relatively neglected aspect of Rothbard’s work.

Natural law means many things to many people; it is not my intent here to resolve all such issues, although I will do a good amount of nudging along the way. Further, it is easy to pick and choose snippets from any author or source to make any case one wishes; so, let’s first see how seriously Rothbard takes this matter:

Philosophically, I believe that libertarianism—and the wider creed of sound individualism of which libertarianism is a part—must rest on absolutism and deny relativism.

It is clear from the context of the Volker Fund report that Rothbard is after more than the absolutism of the NAP. As we have seen, he has indicated that the natural law and other values are needed if one is to make a full case for liberty. In “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty,” he writes:

only forms of natural or higher law theory can provide a radical base outside of the existing system from which to challenge the status quo.

Yes, Rothbard said “only.” Further,

the natural law provides the only sure ground for a continuing critique of governmental laws and decrees. (For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto)

There, he said it again. I would say that Rothbard is pretty serious about this idea of natural law and liberty.

All other means of critiquing or challenging the government leave us playing the game by their rules: politics and policy, beltway think tanks, a meaningless vote every four years. As C. Jay Engel has pointed out, politics has consumed society, and the libertarian movement, such as it is, has been sucked into the same black hole.

Where is one to find this natural law ethic? Rothbard answers the question:

The absolutist believes that man’s mind, employing reason (which according to some absolutists is divinely inspired, according to others is given by nature), is capable of discovering and knowing truth: including the truth about reality, and the truth about what is best for man and best for himself as an individual. (Excerpted report, “On Mises’s Ethical Relativism”)

As Rothbard notes, this truth is to be discovered. To discover is “to see, get knowledge of, learn of, find, or find out; gain sight or knowledge of (something previously unseen or unknown).”

This as opposed to create: “to cause to come into being, as something unique that would not naturally evolve or that is not made by ordinary processes; to evolve from one’s own thought or imagination, as a work of art or an invention.”

Or invent: “to originate or create as a product of one’s own ingenuity, experimentation, or contrivance; to produce or create with the imagination; to make up or fabricate (something fictitious or false).”

Natural law is to be discovered—it is something that exists; it is not something that comes out of our imagination, something for us to make up or fabricate. Natural law is to legislation as gold is to fiat currency: we discover natural law and gold; we create or invent legislation and fiat currencies. I think the analogy is actually quite appropriate, and for all of the same ethical and liberty-supporting reasons.

Continuing with Rothbard:

In natural-law philosophy, then, reason is not bound, as it is in modern post-Humean philosophy, to be a mere slave to the passions, confined to cranking out the discovery of the means to arbitrarily chosen ends. (The Ethics of Liberty)

Per Rothbard, we do not get to arbitrarily choose our ends. The ends are inherent in our nature, for us to discover. “Anything peaceful,” as one can describe the thinnest of libertarianism, makes for fertile ground for Hume’s “slavery to the passions.” This does not conform to reason in ends, as Rothbard suggests. If the ends are not to be arbitrarily chosen, on what basis—or to what standard—are we to choose them? In The Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard offers:

For the ends themselves are selected by the use of reason; and “right reason” dictates to man his proper ends as well as the means for their attainment.

What is “right reason”? From Cicero:

True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions…It is a sin to try to alter this law, nor is it allowable to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely.

Right reason is reason in agreement with our nature, resulting in discovery of true law. This right reason summons us to duty. We use right reason to discover proper ends, as Rothbard notes; ends are not arbitrarily chosen. Ends are not something to be selected from a universe of “anything peaceful.” We are, of course, also not free to choose any means to achieve our proper ends. All of this accords with right reason and is in agreement with our nature.

But why must we be so bound regarding our ends? After all, for many libertarians and for much of the modern West this sure doesn’t sound much like liberty! Rothbard answers:

if apples and stones and roses each have their specific natures, is man the only entity, the only being, that cannot have one? (The Ethics of Liberty)

Are we really to believe that the most complex creature on earth is the one being that does not have a specific nature, with ends to be defined by its nature? That the only being on earth that has the ability to consider the possibility that life might have meaning or purpose is also the only being that has no inherent meaning or purpose—no telos?

Not likely. And this must be expanded. For this Rothbard points to the foundational philosopher of natural law Thomas Aquinas:

For the Thomist or natural-law theorist, the general law of morality for man is a special case of the system of natural law governing all entities of the world, each with its own nature and its own ends. (The Ethics of Liberty)

Rothbard leans on Thomas Aquinas—as one must when one is introducing natural law. Aquinas plays a central role in any moral theory of natural law. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

If any moral theory is a theory of natural law, it is Aquinas’s. (Every introductory ethics anthology that includes material on natural law theory includes material by or about Aquinas; every encyclopedia article on natural law thought refers to Aquinas.) It would seem sensible, then, to take Aquinas’s natural law theory as the central case of a natural law position.

As Rothbard notes, these laws are open to us whether we consider them divinely inspired or given to us by nature—a point that makes such a construct perfectly functional for believers and nonbelievers alike.

It isn’t a Christian thing or a Catholic thing or a God thing. It is a natural law thing. One cannot discuss natural law without leaning on Aquinas.

So, let’s not get hung up on any “God” or “divine” stuff. After all, many of the Christian scholars of natural law did not. Per Rothbard, many pointed to the necessity and validity of natural law even without leaning on Christianity.

What of the specifics of natural law? What are some details of the ethic? We will intentionally not get an answer from Rothbard:

It is not the intention of this book to expound or defend at length the philosophy of natural law, or to elaborate a natural-law ethic for the personal morality of man. (The Ethics of Liberty)

Rothbard offers that the case is well developed by others. So, it may not have been his intention to elaborate a natural law ethic, but I will not go away so quietly. Rothbard opened the door, and I intend to walk through it. I offer a brief survey of the history of natural law for the purpose of adding some depth to the ethical theory advocated by Rothbard.

From Plato we learn that the good for a thing is determined by its essence or form. It has nothing to do with what we might desire; the good is entirely objective. This is as true for human beings as it is for triangles.

Aristotle places the form in the substance—it is not disembodied, as Plato would have it. Aristotle identified the four causes: the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause. Of these, the important cause in the context of this discussion is the final cause—the end or telos, the purpose for which a thing or being exists.

Aquinas adds to Aristotle in order to make Aristotle compatible to Christianity. He adds Augustine’s exemplarism: the view that forms are exemplars or archetypes in the mind of the logos.

Aquinas identifies several basic goods. These can be considered in the context of Aristotle’s ends, or purposes, of man. These goods come with both a prohibition and a positive obligation: a “do not”—which sounds fine for libertarians—and a “do”—which is a problem if one believes an entire ethical system can be based on a thin theory of violence. According to Aquinas, these basic goods can be known and investigated even by those without the Christian faith.

Every being has its own nature; every being has its own telos or ends. Natural law for Aquinas is teleological—ends based, ends derived. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Thomas argues that there is one single end for all human beings, and that it is happiness….There is one single ultimate human good that provides an ordering of all other human goods as partial in relation to it, namely, happiness or better in the Latin beatitudo.

Now, some clarification is in order. Happiness doesn’t mean a Lamborghini in the driveway or a good drink on a Friday night. Dr. William H. Marshner offers that the best translation we have to describe beatitudo is not happiness, but fulfillment. But how is one to understand fulfillment—the best ideal to pursue? He sees this through enlightened fulfillment, and the enlightened live a life of virtue—the four natural (cardinal) virtues and the three theological virtues.

Professor Jennifer Frey offers further clarification regarding what Aquinas means by happiness:

It is common to you given your human nature; it is not a competitive good, it is non-rivalrous; finally, it is never the sole possession of an individual, it is a participatory good—it is shared in common with others and can only be brought about in common with others.

She sees the last feature as the most important—involvement with others. This can be best identified and realized, just as Marshner sees it, by living a life of virtue. Aquinas would concur:

Happiness is secured through virtue; it is a good attained by man’s own will.

But what is at the core? What is the common concept for all of these virtues? Aquinas ties all of this together under the rubric of love, as Arthur Holmes of Wheaton College explains it. While it isn’t necessary for all possible good ends, one characteristic that is common to the necessary virtues behind fulfillment, or beatitudo, is love: other-regarding action. From Aquinas:

No man truly has joy unless he lives in love.

Even setting aside the three theological virtues, it is difficult to see how one can achieve the ideal good of the four natural virtues (prudence or wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice) without considering other-regarding action. Across the four, it is the one common characteristic of well-developed virtue.

We certainly understand the benefit of “other-regarding action” when it comes to economics, entrepreneurship, and the market. Ludwig von Mises had no difficulty with this concept of serving others; from The Causes of the Economic Crisis:

The market processes give meaning to the capitalistic economy. They place entrepreneurs and capitalists in the service of satisfying the wants of consumers.

Of course, the “good” being sought by any one given entrepreneur might not be serving others—it might be found instead in the “virtue of selfishness,” so to speak. Yet this doesn’t discount the reality that he is, in fact, serving others. Just as we don’t run from other-regarding action when it comes to liberty in the economic market, perhaps we should not cringe so quickly at other-regarding action when it comes to liberty more broadly considered.

So, what, then, of free will? Aquinas sees free will in the context of final causes—these final causes pull us in a direction. Human beings are end oriented, just as is all of nature—each according to its kind. Free will is exercised and freedom is found in gladly pursuing the proper end or telos.

The second table of the Decalogue gives us the norms that follow from our essential nature: family and parental authority, protection of human life, the person in the sense of husband and wife, property, honor, the forbidding of illicit longing for goods and covetousness. This is a good start.

The Late Scholastics: Spaniards such as Francisco de Vitoria, Francisco Suárez, and Gabriel Vásquez; the School of Salamanca. They were not only foundational for many economic concepts that we hold dear, but also would work to overcome Occam’s moral positivism, which placed the will higher than reason and intellect.

C.S. Lewis: perhaps the most powerful short book on this subject of natural law (and the consequences of running from it) is Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. It is all of three chapters and an appendix. Yet every line on every page can be underlined; one can read it ten times and each time uncover something not noticed or understood before. So, forgive my extensive cites. From Lewis:

This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained.

This sounds like Rothbard. But why can’t we exercise our liberty to pick and choose? Well, this leaves someone to decide the value system…and it won’t be you doing the deciding! Continuing with Lewis:

Either we are a rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into any new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own “natural” impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike.

This could also be from Rothbard. It is similar to how law was understood during much of the medieval period: neither church nor king were sovereign; if anything was “sovereign,” it was the law. Lewis expands on this point:

A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.

Rothbard could easily have written this sentence as well. Lewis continues:

Unless you accept these without question as being to the world of action what axioms are to the world of theory, you can have no practical principles whatever. You cannot reach them as conclusions; they are premises….If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved. Similarly, if nothing is obligatory for its own sake, nothing is obligatory at all.

Lewis is rather objective and uncompromising on this point: this source of all value judgements must come from outside of human reach—these are premises, to be discovered. If we do not take the law as coming from our nature, then the law is free to come from any basis whatsoever. Which option provides for a better possibility of liberty? Rothbard certainly knew the answer.

Unless we accept these premises and the resultant objective values without question, we are like clay to be molded in the hands of what Lewis calls the conditioners—those who will make the law for you, to condition you into whatever formless and causeless blob they desire; this is just as Rothbard saw it as well.

As Lewis notes, many of both the rulers and ruled, of course, are satisfied with such a state:

It is not that [the rulers] are bad men. They are not men at all….Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proven to be the abolition of man.

If a man is no longer to aim at what he ought to be, we need not consider him human any longer, as he does not even bother to consider himself as such. We need not concern ourselves with human liberty if we are not considering human beings as human.

Enough of the survey. What if this is all true—as these writers, including Rothbard, all suggest—that it is in our nature to aim at given ends, and to act in a certain manner when working toward those ends? That this is the only means by which to keep the state—or the conditioners—at bay?

And what if that nature and the necessary virtues lead us to beatitudo—fulfillment, including other-regarding action? If this is from our nature, can we describe our condition as living in liberty by freeing ourselves from this nature? Would we describe a lion freed from living according to its nature to be in liberty?

To ask the question is to answer it; for the lion freed from living according to his nature, we call such a condition a zoo. Sure, its material needs are fully met. But is it still a lion? Does it enjoy “lion liberty”?

As to humans, Lewis has answered the question—we are no longer men at all. He offers:

We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings to be fruitful.

It doesn’t sound like the material from which liberty will spring forth.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn would call the zoo for the lion a gulag for man. From “A World Split Apart,” his 1978 Harvard University commencement address:

A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities.

Can you think of a better definition of liberty than that which allows for human beings to reach their highest level of human possibilities—and a law and objective value regime that is supportive of this?

So now, returning to Rothbard—to demonstrate that I have not gone too far afield:

Value in the sense of valuation or utility is purely subjective, and decided by each individual. This procedure is perfectly proper for the formal science of praxeology, or economic theory, but not necessarily elsewhere. (The Ethics of Liberty)

Note what Rothbard has just done: for those who equate liberty with the economic efficiency of free markets, Rothbard has rained on your parade. Values for markets are subjective; other values necessary for liberty are objective. Perhaps solely using economic justifications and economic efficiency to defend and define liberty is logically faulty.

Putting an exclamation point on the necessity for objective values in ethics, Rothbard offers:

For in natural-law ethics, ends are demonstrated to be good or bad for man in varying degrees; value here is objective—determined by the natural law of man’s being, and here “happiness” for man is considered in the commonsensical, contentual sense. (The Ethics of Liberty)

By this, of course, Rothbard is not suggesting anything about punishment. To relieve you of any concern that Rothbard was (or I am) interested in establishing a theocracy, he suggests:

the great failing of natural-law theory—from Plato and Aristotle to the Thomists and down to Leo Strauss and his followers in the present day—is to have been profoundly statist rather than individualist. This “classical” natural-law theory placed the locus of the good and of virtuous action in the State, with individuals strictly subordinated to State action. (The Ethics of Liberty)

Rothbard has been criticized for not advocating some laws that would turn what we call victimless crimes into actual crimes—contrary to libertarian theory, and, in my opinion, contrary to proper morality, as I do not believe physical punishment for nonviolent acts is moral. This criticism does not demonstrate a shortcoming in Rothbard, but rather a shortcoming in the one offering the criticism.

From Rothbard:

Political judgements are necessarily value judgments, political philosophy is therefore necessarily ethical, and hence a positive ethical system must be set forth to establish the case for individual liberty. (The Ethics of Liberty)

Rothbard is writing of a positive ethical system, not a positive legal system. This is a perfectly reasonable distinction, as the two concepts are logically independent; one need not make the two identical. From The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

As an empirical matter, many natural law moral theorists are also natural law legal theorists, but the two theories, strictly speaking, are logically independent. One can deny natural law theory of law but hold a natural law theory of morality.

It seems to me that one must do this if one is after a meaningful and sustainable liberty. First of all, Rothbard is presenting an ethical system beyond the non-aggression principle—the non-aggression principle, by itself, is not an ethical system sufficient for liberty. Second, he is not proposing a legal system—he is not suggesting a legal system where all violations of the natural law justify violence in response or are deserving of physical punishment.

As I noted in my lecture here last year, Hans Hoppe made a similar point during his Property and Freedom Society conference in 2018. Walter Block has also recently offered:

A more sophisticated understanding of libertarianism does not say, with the NAP: “Thou shalt not murder, initiate violence against innocent persons or their legitimate possessions.” Rather, it states, that if you do, you will be punished in accordance with libertarian punishment theory.

What I take from Rothbard, Hoppe, and Block seems to me a perfectly reasonable approach. Separating the concepts of proper ethical behavior for liberty and concepts for when punishment is justified deserves to be further developed, just as Rothbard’s views on natural law and liberty must be. But this is for another day.

All of this is not to suggest that I find Rothbard infallible on this topic. But I do not want to sidetrack this conversation—such disagreements are best worked out on the foundation built here by Rothbard.

For now, my intent is merely to restart this conversation that Rothbard started sixty years ago. It is in natural law that the only firm foundation will be found to challenge the aggression of the state and to build a community not of libertarian theoreticians, but a community of human beings living in liberty.


From Rothbard, in The Ethics of Liberty:

I at no time believed that value-free analysis or economics or utilitarianism (the standard social philosophy of economists) can ever suffice to establish the case for liberty.

The nonaggression principle comes as close to a value-free analysis in a political, ethical, economic, and legal theory as conceivably possible. “Anything peaceful” is about as value-free a concept of human action as can be conceived. It was insufficient for Rothbard, because he rightly found it insufficient for liberty.

It has been sixty years since Rothbard wrote his paper addressing Mises’s utilitarian, relativist approach to ethics. Libertarianism has spun off in every imaginable direction since then, such that the idea of a libertarian movement has lost all meaning—and, if it means anything to the larger population, it has a farcical meaning.

It is because the movement has no foundation in natural law, as Rothbard knew was required. If liberty is to have a future, Rothbard believed that it must be built on this foundation. If we are after liberty, let’s follow Rothbard’s lead: integrate an understanding of natural law with the nonaggression principle in order to come to a full case for liberty.

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