Monday, October 28, 2013

Left Libertarians vs. Right Libertarians (or, the Mixed Legacy of Murray Rothbard)

There is a great series of posts at Bleeding Heart Libertarianism about the debate among right-leaning and left-leaning libertarians about the value of Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell's contributions to the movement. Jason Brennan is (rightly) critical of some of Rothbard's philosophical views, and of Rothbard's creation of an alliance between libertarians and paleo-conservatives, which resulted (inter alia) in the infamous race-baiting newsletters ghost-written by Lew Rockwell for Ron Paul.

Matt Zwolinski agrees with Brennan about the damage Rothbard did to libertarianism by forging an alliance with paleo-conservatives, but he has also written a list of seven positive contributions Rothbard made to the broader libertarian movement. I agree for the most part with Zwolinski's assessment; Rothbard's arguments for individualist anarchism are flawed, but worth taking seriously, and it was reading these arguments that helped push me toward "radical libertarianism" (for lack of a better term). Given his ill-starred later attempt to forge a strategic alliance with racists and other paleo-conservatives, I find it fascinating that Rothbard is quite clear in some of his earlier work about the potentially radical implications of old-school Lockean liberalism. Here are some quotations from Rothbard's "Confiscation and the Homestead Principle," first published in The Libertarian Forum on June 15, 1969, and now available on

What of the myriad of corporations which are integral parts of the military-industrial complex, which not only get over half or sometimes virtually all their revenue from the government but also participate in mass murder? What are their credentials to "private" property? Surely less than zero. As eager lobbyists for these contracts and subsidies, as co-founders of the garrison state, they deserve confiscation and reversion of their property to thegenuine private sector as rapidly as possible. To say that their "private" property must be respected is to say that the property stolen by the horsethief and the murdered [sic] must be "respected". 
. . . .  
And there is another consideration. Dow Chemical, for example, has been heavily criticized for making napalm for the U.S. military machine. The percentage of its sales coming from napalm is undoubtedly small, so that on a percentage basis the company may not seem very guilty; but napalm is and can only be an instrument of mass murder, and therefore Dow Chemical is heavily up to its neck in being an accessory and hence a co-partner in the mass murder in Vietnam. No percentage of sales, however small, can absolve its guilt. 
This brings us to Karl's point about slaves. One of the tragic aspects of the emancipation of the serfs in Russia in 1861 was that while the serfs gained their personal freedom, the land—their means of production and of life, their land was retained under the ownership of their feudal masters. The land should have gone to the serfs themselves, for under the homestead principle they had tilled the land and deserved its title. Furthermore, the serfs were entitled to a host of reparations from their masters for the centuries of oppression and exploitation. The fact that the land remained in the hands of the lords paved the way inexorably for the Bolshevik Revolution, since the revolution that had freed the serfs remained unfinished. 
The same is true of the abolition of slavery in the United States. The slaves gained their freedom, it is true, but the land, the plantations that they had tilled and therefore deserved to own under the homestead principle, remained in the hands of their former masters. Furthermore, no reparations were granted the slaves for their oppression out of the hides of their masters. Hence the abolition of slavery remained unfinished, and the seeds of a new revolt have remained to intensify to the present day. Hence, the great importance of the shift in Negro demands from greater welfare handouts to "reparations", reparations for the years of slavery and exploitation and for the failure to grant the Negroes their land, the failure to heed the Radical abolitionist's call for "40 acres and a mule" to the former slaves. In many cases, moreover, the old plantations and the heirs and descendants of the former slaves can be identified, and the reparations can become highly specific indeed.
You don't hear many Lockean rights based arguments for reparations for the descendants of slaves, but arguably Rothbard is right on the money, and his points about Russian serfs and war profiteers are also worth taking seriously. Some libertarians are so identified with the right wing, because of the recent history of politics in this country, that it makes it difficult for them to see the sometimes radical implications of a traditional liberal property rights regime. This was not lost on 19th century classical liberals such as John Stuart Mill, but for historical reasons (ably summarized here by Steve Horwitz) many contemporary libertarians identify more with the right than with the left, even though libertarianism is arguably an inherently liberal and progressive ideology.
Post a Comment