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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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What’s In a Name?

Howdy.  My name is Cole Gentles, and I am a free market anarchist (libertarian anarchist… voluntarist… anarcho-capitalist… whatever you want to call it).

EEK! AN ANARCHIST!!!

Not so shockingly, this makes political, philosophical, and even economic discussions with most people… well… contentious, to say the least.  It doesn’t matter if it’s with someone on the left or right of the political spectrum.  It usually starts out with them making some point about how fucked up things are in, for instance, the health care system.  I usually agree with them, and we’re off to a deceptively good start.

If the discussion continues long enough, at some point the other person inevitably states that they support government intervention in the market to some degree. Whether it’s something more politically divisive, a massive intervention like a centralized, government run health care system, or something more general that seemingly every sane person agrees upon, like government regulation of medicine or state mandated licensure of doctors.

I disagree with them.  They give a bit more of a reason for their position.  I counter their reasoning.  They counter my counter. I counter their counter of my counter.  They counter my… well, you get the point. Eventually the discussion usually devolves to a point where they become exacerbated with me and ask, almost as if it’s meant to be rhetorical, if I believe in any government at all.

“No,” I reply.

Their response is usually some mixture of horror and ad hominem attacks. I’m usually called terribly naive and immature (I’m innocent of the former charge, but admittedly pretty guilty of the later), and it’s usually assumed that I have not thought very hard about the consequences of not having a government (I have, in fact. Very, very hard). In addition, a statement is pretty much always made that without rules and law and order, their would be chaos.

RULES. NOT RULERS.

Now, I very much agree with them on the last part.  Without rules and laws there would probably be chaos.  It would be a society I would most certainly not want to live in.  However, anarchy is not the absence of rules.  It is the absence of rulers. That is an extremely important distinction.  In this regard, a libertarian anarchist is simply someone who believes that, just as with any other good or service that people consider desirable, free markets are better suited at providing laws and legal systems which serve the wants and needs of consumers of those goods and services more effectively, efficiently, and responsively than centralized, bureaucratic institutions, and that those laws and legal systems would tend to be more just in every respect.

ANTI-VIOLENCE = ANTI-GOVERNMENT

All that said, the fundamental guiding principle for many, if not most, libertarian anarchists is that initiating physical aggression against otherwise peacefully acting individuals is unjust. This is based on a profound understanding of, and respect for, individual rights.  That, of course, begs the question: how am I defining individual rights?  I will attempt to lay out my general position on this over the next two or three posts in the coming weeks to provide a basis on which all of my other positions are derived, including this one: One can not be consistently, truly, anti-violence (in the sense of initiating physical coercion against peaceful individuals), while also being for government (in their current form) on any level. Being as, to the best of my knowledge, no government has ever been established by obtaining the voluntary consent of every individual in the territory it claims authority over, and has therefore always been imposed on some percentage of the population without their consent, the two positions are inherently at odds. Modern state governments are institutions that have acquired and maintained their perceived authority and pursued their ends not through persuasion, but through the threat of physical coercion.

It is my view, therefore,  that if society is ever to get to a point where there is as little violent conflict as is possible between human beings (note I didn’t say ‘no violent conflict is possible’… I am not a utopian), it must allow itself to be organized around institutions that are established through persuasion and voluntary cooperation, not institutions that have been established and maintained through physical coercion.

Seacrest out.

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Aside

But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist.” – Lysander Spooner

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2013 in Uncategorized