Review: For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto
In this book, Murray Rothbard successfully busts the common myths about the legitimacy and necessity of the State. However, there are some points where I find that his extreme stances are weakly supported by logic.
He attempts to define all human relationships based on a single axiom: voluntary, non-violent interaction. While in the general case that’s perfectly valid, Rothbard is sometimes taking this to unhealthy extremes. For example, when discussing abortion, he puts the relationship between a mother and her unborn child on the same grounds as the relationship between two adults, which is absolutely contrary to nature’s laws. A fetus, a minor, a mentally ill or disabled person is simply not the same thing as a healthy adult human being, and therefore treating them in the same way, with the same set of rights and obligations, is wrong.
I’m not saying that we need government oversight to understand and enforce that difference. I just think that we, as human beings, instinctively know right from wrong, and while most of our values and beliefs are relative, some are absolute.
That’s the peril of trying to derive society based on one made-up axiom, instead of looking at the actual natural laws that govern us. That would be just as fictional as statist arguments like the “social contract” theory (I don’t remember signing anything!)
The book also does not elaborate much on the sustainability of Rothbard’s ideal free, libertarian world. How would such a society protect itself from the reemergence of a coercive state? For example, excessive concentration of scarce property within the hands of a small group of people might easily give rise to an unfree regime where everyone else is discriminated against. It may be argued that a truly free market would not allow such concentrations to appear at all; but instead of proposing this argument and elaborating on it, the issue is simply ignored in the book — Rothbard seems to be OK with the risk that an ideal libertarian society could easily dismantle itself and revert to an unfree state of tyranny.
The problem of information assymetries is similarly ignored by Rothbard. To properly exercise his or her free will, a human being should be able to form an informed opinion first — and distorted information damages this process. Nevertheless, under Rothbard’s paradigm, actions that willfully generate and abuse such distorted information — for example fraud, deception, libel, insider trading, etc. — should not be considered crimes at all (at least the book leaves this impression).
And finally, some unresolved issues are left by his claim that in the ideal case, libertarians should press for immediate abolition of any state involvement in private matters, and that plans for gradual and “controlled” dismantling of the State are completely undesirable. The problem is that if the State were to suddenly withdraw and disappear tomorrow, it would not leave behind a level playing field — instead, some people would gain unfair initial advantage and privilege, having accumulated wealth and influence due to their courtship with state power.
Free market institutions, like any other institution, don’t spring up overnight. They take time to develop and sudden, uncontrolled withdrawal of the state from an area of public life can potntially have devastating effects. Take the concrete example of pollution — Rothbard claims that it is a problem of poorly defined and protected property rights, and I fully agree. This lack of protected rights is partially compensated by inefficient government regulations and limits on pollution, and however imperfect they may be, they are a better case than if we had complete, unchecked rights to pollute without any protection for the victims whatsoever. That means that a fair solution would be first to introduce the libertarian institutions that protect people’s property and person from the aggression of pollution, and only then repeal the inefficient substitutes provided by the State. Doing that in the reverse order would inevitably lead to disaster. An analogical argument could be provided for many other issues.
Despite these and some other points that I find unconvincing, I would recommend this book as a good way to challenge and overcome many preconceived myths that have been fed into our heads from an early age. And since this is a fundamental book in 20th century free market anarchist thought, I’m sure that there’s other similar literature that follows it, and manages to elaborate and develop the few weak points of Rothbard’s arguments.