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Boettke on Rothbard and Libertarianism

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07/18/2016

In a recent post on Facebook, Professor Peter Boettke of the George Mason University Department of Economics speaks in harsh terms of the view of libertarian rights held by Murray Rothbard and others, who, he thinks, were too clever for their own good. He complains, “there is a habit among libertarians to engage in what I have called ‘litmus test’ libertarianism. What I mean by that is pick a position that is most obnoxious to liberal sentiments and most outrageous to basic humanity but is consistent with some notion of the principle of self-ownership and non-aggression axiom, and then hold that up as the litmus test to show whether someone is, or is not a ‘libertarian’. This is, I argue, the route to illiberal libertarianism, and rather than being celebrated for his [sic] shock value’, should be held up as the mistake of putting cleverness above insightfulness.”

The view that upsets Boettke, one gathers, is that the state may not violate people’s property rights in order to aid the poor. He thinks that this is a shocking position because it entails that it does not matter if the poor perish, so long as libertarian property rights remain inviolate. The cleverness with which this view was defended by Rothbard may have impressed him when he was young; but it appeals to him no more. Shunning such extremism, we ought to engage in empirical inquiry to see how voluntary arrangements can aid the poor.

But when did Rothbard ever deny the need for such inquiry? Does he not engage in it himself, e.g., in For A New Liberty? When has Rothbard ever said that it does not matter what happens to the poor? Boettke gives us a Rothbard who, in Wordsworth’s phrase, “never was, on sea or land.”

In place of the appeal to rights found in Rothbard, Nozick et hoc genus omne, he suggests that libertarianism is “much better presented as a form of rule utilitarianism informed by the teachings of social science.” He gives as examples of what he has in mind in the work of David Schmidtz and Gerald Gaus. These two eminent thinkers certainly merit careful study, but it is news to me that either is a rule utilitarian. Perhaps I am too benighted a Rothbardian to understand properly the new dispensation.

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David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

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