Mises Wire

Murray Rothbard Understood the Importance of Self-Ownership

In Aristotle’s well-known Ethics, he poses an age-old question: Can reasoning guide action, and should it direct our way of living? Unfortunately, this question loses its relevancy when put in the context of coercive governments, not unlike our own twenty-first-century American government which is hypervigilant and ever present in many aspects of our lives, including our education. What autonomy are people left with for the formation of reasoning when their beliefs and actions have already been decided for them through indoctrination and regulation? Our current economic and political institutions have left our use of speculative and practical reasoning handicapped, and I would argue that a range of autonomy, as defined through Murray Rothbard’s theory of self-ownership, provides a solution to the reintroduction of the lost concepts of self-informed speculative and practical reasoning.

But first, what is practical and speculative reasoning, and why is it so inhibited in our current political state? Practical reasoning is concerned primarily with action and dealing with the problems or issues of our reality, while speculative reasoning is concerned with the theory and principles which we use as a foundation to guide these actions. Thus, the practical mind directs doing, while the speculative mind directs knowing. Both forms of reasoning are imperative to the human mind; however, they also can pose a threat to coercive and controlling regimes.

Speculative reasoning is the part of the intellect that, when properly developed, allows us to make deductions and inquiries regarding our reality and to form moral ideals independently and cohesively in connection to the truths we perceive functioning in the world around us. Those in possession of such a function are a danger to regimes that wish to breed complacency in its citizens—strong and independent freethinkers jeopardize the system.

American elites do not wish to create an educational system or political society that supports diversity of opinion and competitiveness in the market of ideas, which speculative reasoning encourages. Much to our detriment, the American educational system isolates practical reasoning, inhibiting the formation of independent and autonomous individuals. Through our standardized governmental public education, self-assessment is kept at a minimum, and we are taught to accept the knowledge fed to us at face value and to regurgitate it in our actions as citizens in support of our country.

This objective can be seen in part in the US Department of Education’s fiscal budget summary for 2025, where their “Raise the Bar: Lead the World” agenda “means providing tools, resources, and assistance to states, districts, and schools to promote academic excellence and wellness for every learner and better prepare our nation for global competitiveness.” The nation’s true objective with education is made more apparent in the way in which self-interest is demonized, minority opinions are ostracized, and countercultural forms of education or resources are oppressed to maintain the echo chamber. By eliminating speculative reasoning as a function of intellect from our earliest education, the government maintains the reality it wishes to present.

This separation of speculative and practical knowledge distorts the human intellect and leaves us poorly prepared to truly formulate our own beliefs or identity, thus hindering Rothbard’s idea of self-ownership and his prioritization of individual autonomy. A laissez-faire approach and the elimination of governmental interference, particularly into educational matters, allows for the autonomy necessary for people to be able to partake in speculative knowledge, as the authority on morality and ends are no longer tied to governmental restrictions and policies but to themselves. Self-ownership for Rothbard sees man as having the sole authority of his body and life, with certain inherent rights and dignity by virtue of personhood and discoverable through natural law. In his work Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard writes,

It is a man’s right to do whatever he wishes with his person; it is his right not to be molested or interfered with by violence from exercising that right. But what may be the moral or immoral ways of exercising that right is a question of personal ethics rather than of political philosophy—which is concerned solely with matters of right, and of the proper or improper exercise of physical violence in human relations.

Here it is obvious that the American government has not only coercively restricted our own autonomy but also inflicted upon us constraints that disconnect us from full use of speculative reasoning, as it has decided our personal ethics for us to better direct our actions as they see fit. Through the government’s overprioritization of practical knowledge and elimination of speculative knowledge in our educational systems and society, we the people are left ignorant and divorced from our own free will.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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