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Monthly Archives: November 2013

Murray Rothbard: Troublingly Wrong on Milton Friedman

I actually had another post, the 3rd part of my series on rights, set to put out today, but after having yet another ridiculous debate last night with people making absurd statements about Milton Friedman, I felt I should post this one instead.

Before I was swayed through well reasoned logical arguments to become a free market anarchist (libertarian anarchist, anarcho capitalist, voluntaryist, whateveryouwannacallit), I was a limited-government libertarian (a minarchist).  While I was first introduced to the general realm of libertarianism via “Atlas Shrugged” (how original), it was F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman who, in my early years, really became my intellectual teachers of economics and the philosophy of liberty, so to speak.  And of the two, I became most obsessed with Friedman.

I read “Free to Choose” and “Capitalism and Freedom”, I purchased the 1980 PBS “Free To Choose” series on DVD, and a 15 DVD set of his lectures and watched them over and over, sometimes having friends over to watch them and discuss them afterwards.  I watched countless hours of his debates, interviews, and lectures online.  It was not just the substance of his arguments (great as I found them), but his clear, concise, RESPECTFUL style of debate.  He had a unique mixture of extreme confidence, humility, and openness which I have never seen before or since.

ENTER ROTHBARD

At some point along the line, I began engaging in debate on line. It wasn’t long before I was confronted with a situation that I have, sadly, been confronted with all too many times since.  During a debate, I quoted the late, great, Milton Friedman, to which someone replied “He was a statist!”.  Another replied “He was a Keynesian and a big supporter of the Fed!”.  I was completely taken aback!  Friedman was a minarchist, that much was true, but a STATIST?  That is a term that should surely be reserved for those who see a state solution for virtually every societal ill, or cry for state intervention at every sign of societal imperfection, real or perceived. And to say he was a supporter of the Fed…. where did they get this misinformation from, I inquired?  Why, the late, great, Murray Rothbard, of course!

At this point, I had never heard of Rothbard.  So, someone provided me with a couple of links, and I couldn’t believe my ears and eyes.  I could not believe the level of intellectual dishonesty that followed.

CHARACTER ASSASSINATION DISGUISED AS TRUTH

Rothbard’s attacks on Friedman essentially boiled down to this: Friedman was not worthy of being held up as the leader (or one of the leaders) of the libertarian movement because, in Rothbard’s words “…it is pretty clear that Friedman is a statist.”.  What evidence was there that Friedman was a statist?  According to Rothbard, his legislative proposals such as school vouchers and the negative income tax, as well as his 3% monetary growth rule for the Fed were all damning evidence of Friedman’s support of the state.

Could it be possible that Rothbard was taking his proposals out of context?  According to Rothbard, it did not matter.  He flat out said he did not know, and did not care to know, the context.  In his opinion, all one needed to do was know that Friedman was making these proposals to justify the charge that he was a statist.

CONTEXT IS KING

The problem with Rothbard’s reasoning here is pretty simple: context does matter.  A lot. At least it does to anyone wishing to be intellectually honest with their charges.  In every area Friedman made a legislative proposal that I can find, he made a very clear (and extremely relevant to Rothbard’s charge) caveat: ideally, he wanted government out of it entirely. He was very clear that ideally government should not be involved in education. Ideally, there should be no welfare state to speak of. Ideally, the Federal Reserve should be abolished. However, he considered all of these ends (and more) to be currently highly improbable to achieve, if not impossible, given the current political climate both at the time of the proposals, and in the foreseeable future.

His legislative proposals, by his own words, were clearly made because he saw people suffering under the weight of a highly dysfunctional bloated bureaucratic state and truly believed his proposals, though far from the ideal he wanted as a libertarian, would do far less harm to people than the status quo, and, in his opinion, be a step, however small, in the direction of liberty.

One does not have to believe that these proposals would have yielded less painful results, nor does one have to agree that this is a good way to move from a suffocating state to more liberty (personally, I think the evidence now shows it is most likely not for reasons beyond the scope of this post), to understand how, provided this context, the charges that Friedman was a statist are grossly unjustified.

YAY! A SLAVERY ANALOGY!!!

Everyone loves a good slavery analogy, so, to get a clearer view, let’s say it is 1825. Slavery in the U.S. is still going strong and any real chance of emancipation is highly improbable politically for the foreseeable future. Does that mean that those who oppose slavery shouldn’t continue with their valiant efforts to make the case for emancipation? Of course not.

But what if one of these folks, recognizing that the improbability of emancipation in the current political climate meant that many slaves would continue to suffer incredibly cruel and painful fates for many years to come, made proposals to slave owners as to different ways they could treat their slaves that would be less brutal.  Ways that would allow the slaves to possibly live somewhat more comfortable, less painful lives. Would it be justifiable to claim this person was a supporter of slavery?

Of course not.

For another example: What if one man, a very small man, witnessed a robbery.  The rather large, muscular man doing the robbing (who is holding a gun with one bullet) was about to shoot the victim in the head in order to prevent him from following, or identifying him.  The witness, horrified by the entire ordeal but acutely aware there was nothing he could do to completely save the victim from harm, decides to speak up.  He persuades the robber that he should shoot the victim in the leg instead.  That way, the victim won’t be able to follow him, but at least the robber won’t be charged with murder if he is caught.  The robber agrees, shoots the victim in the leg, and takes off.  The victim is shot.  And he is robbed.  But he is alive, which would not have been the case had the witness not made an alternative proposal to the robber.

Would it be justified to claim the witness is a supporter of robbery?  What about of shooting people?  Is this a “compromise of principle!” that should lead an intellectually honest thinker to claim “He’s a thief like all the others! He compromised with thieves!”?

Of course not.

THE NEGATIVE IMPACT ON LIBERTARIANISM

While Rothbard has no doubt contributed a great deal to libertarianism on many fronts (even in my personal growth I’ve come to be far more in line with him in many areas both philosophically and economically), I find this attempt to go beyond economic disagreement and into the realm of attempted character assassination to be very troubling for libertarianism for the very reason laid out in the anecdote of how I came across it.  From what I have witnessed then and many, many times since, there appears to be a good amount of libertarians who came to the movement through Rothbard who were presented with his attacks on Friedman and simply adopted his “statist!” conclusion without ever exploring the depths and nuances of Friedman’s work for themselves to find out if this charge was justified.  This is unfortunate not only because it prevents them from exploring a body of work that has a great deal to offer anyone interested in liberty, but also because they seem to have adopted this crass form of engaging their opponents.  Of crying “statist!” at every slight disagreement with even the most limited government minarchists, over arguing in respectful, good faith, debate… which if nothing else, they could have learned a great deal about by exploring Friedman on their own.

This disturbs me because many of these people are going out and debating and engaging in this manner on the side of libertarianism, and unfortunately, I think it hurts the movement.  As libertarians, we, of all people, should be extremely diligent in ensuring that we are not misrepresenting the positions of others.  That we are engaging in good faith, intellectually honest discourse with others.  And that we are not simply aping the views of others, but rather have a deeper understanding of the positions, and the people, we criticize.

Criticize, yes.  But do it on the grounds that those people have actually argued their positions from.

I’m all the more baffled by this being as, much like Friedman himself, Rothbard was, by all accounts I’ve read, a kind, lovable, approachable, friendly man, and no doubt a brilliant one.  But due to this, I can not take Rothbard seriously for historical accounts.  Economic fundamentals, yes.  Philosophical ideas, sure. Historical accuracy?  No.  Friggin.  Way.

NOTE: I am not saying this is true of all libertarians who have come to the movement via Rothbard. But they are out there, and from what I can tell, there are a lot of them.

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Posted by on November 5, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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