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Rothbard on Substitutionism

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Tags The Police StateWar and Foreign PolicyPhilosophy and Methodology


Often when we ask how to deal with an economic or political problem, some libertarians suggest that we answer in this way. First, we should ask, how would this problem be handled in a fully libertarian world, in which states do not exist? Once we have the answer to that question, we should try to come as close as possible to the fully libertarian solution as we can.

Murray Rothbard does not reject this approach outright—I don’t think he accepted it either—but he shows that there is an assumption people often make when trying to implement it that is questionable. This assumption is what he calls “substitutionism,” and this is what I would like to discuss in today’s article. Rothbard’s discussion of substitutionism arises from a controversy about foreign policy, but here I’m interested not so much in the rights and wrongs of that issue, but rather in the general assumption.

Rothbard’s discussion of substitutionism appears in the Libertarian Forum (June–July 1984). As everyone knows, Rothbard thinks that nations should follow a noninterventionist foreign policy. He isn’t a pacifist, but wars, except in defense against invasion, are almost never justified.

The philosopher Eric Mack disagrees. In his paper “Rights, Just Wars, and National Defense,” he allows for a wider range of foreign policy interventions than Rothbard does. (This article is a revised version of the article Rothbard discusses. I cite it because it is more conveniently available.) He says, for example,

It is clearly reasonable to maintain and refine distinctly counterforce weaponry as a means, consistent with just war doctrine, for deterring whichever strategic threats against the people of the United States emerge in an unstable world of nuclear proliferation.

Here is where Rothbard’s substitutionism comes in. Rothbard’s view is that Mack’s suggested policy wrongly equates what it would be reasonable for a private protection agency to do with what is permissible for the state. Rothbard says:

One critical device for Mack is what we may call “substitutionism” assimilating man to the State, and implying that if, for example, it is all right for Joe Zilch to do something in a free society, or for a Private Protection Agency to do so, then it is ipso facto all right for the State to do so. Now, Mack would agree with mainstream anarchists that the State should be abolished and all functions privatized; but, failing that he sees little wrong with the State and with what it does….if the very being of an organization—the State—rests on organized theft, then this makes the State simply an organization of thieves, a criminal institution. Unlike other robbers and criminals, the State, far from being scorned and reviled as are most other marauders, is admired and even worshipped as “sovereign.” The State is the only socially legitimate organization of criminals.

Rothbard anticipates an objection and responds to it. If the state is a criminal organization, does this mean that we should have nothing to do with it? Not necessarily, he says.

Note that I am not taking the absurd position that a person sanctions the State by walking or driving on government roads or by taking off in planes from government airports. Given the monopoly of roads or airports or postal service in the hands of government, and until they are privatized, we have no sensible alternative to using them. But this does not mean that we must blithely accept the State as an automatic proxy, or surrogate, for a firm in the private sector….Even when the State is actually performing an important service that it has seized and monopolized, it does not follow in any sense that we are warranted in calling for more government spending. For we cannot do so without adding to the burden of tax-theft in the society. In short, even in the case of valid but monopolized functions, it is always impermissible for libertarians to support an increase in tax-theft. For the State is not a private firm. If people want more roads, they should be willing to support this activity privately and voluntarily, and blocking at least any more State funding might even give them the idea of privatizing roads entirely. We cannot substitute the State for a private person or firm because it is inherently unsubstitutable. It is unsubstitutable because the nature of the State differs totally and radically, and not just marginally and technically, from all other social institutions. The State's very being rests on theft and invasion of private property, and this theft and aggression must be reduced and hacked away at every way we can. At the very least, libertarians must never justify its increase.

Rothbard again anticipates an objection, and I’m sure it is one that has occurred to many readers. Even if states shouldn’t exist, don’t people living in the United States have the right to defend themselves? So long as the United States government pursues a defensive nuclear strategy, then, don’t we have to accept this?

Rothbard again disagrees.

A crucial feature of the State is that it always coercively monopolizes the exercise of coercion over a given territorial area. A private, free market defense agency could not do so. So that when the French government takes a course of action in military or foreign policy, it willy-nilly commits all “French citizens” living in that area to that policy. If the French government attacks Spain, then all French citizens are implicated, at least in the eyes of Spain, which government will force its own citizens to retaliate….In short, it is impermissible to say with Mack that, given the unfortunate existence of the State, we should treat it as if it were a private defense agency. We must say rather that, given the unfortunate existence of the State, we must limit and reduce its power, anywhere and everywhere, and wherever possible.

Rothbard raises other problems for Mack’s argument, having to do with “innocent shields.” I won’t address these, because, as mentioned earlier, I’m interested in the general issue of “substitutionism” rather than the specific application that Rothbard gives it in his article. Regardless of what you think about this issue, we can all agree that there is no substitute for Murray Rothbard.


Contact David Gordon

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

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