“For a New Liberty” (1973) is a book by American economist Murray Rothbard, and one of the most important books of libertarian capitalism, and anarcho-capitalism.
About the Author: Murray Rothbard was an American economist of the Austrian School of economics.
He is one of the most important and authoritative voices of the libertarian movement, and the founder and leading theoretician of anarcho-capitalism. He is also the author of “Anatomy of the State“.
The USA Revolution Was the Peak of Libertarianism
In the first part of the book, Rothbard reviews some of the history of libertarianism.
He says that the USA is where the libertarian movement is strongest, and it’s in part because of its history, since the American Revolution.
The American revolution infused into American culture the libertarian philosophy that power is evil.
Says the author:
The belief that power is evil, a necessity perhaps but an evil necessity; that it is infinitely corrupting; and that it must be controlled, limited, restricted in every way compatible with a minimum of civil order
- Written constitutions;
- Separation of powers;
- Bills of rights;
- Limitations on executives, on legislatures, and courts;
- Restrictions on the right to coerce and wage war
All these limitations, says Rothbard, express the distrust of power that lies at the
ideological heart of the American Revolution.
A revolution that was against empire, militarism, executive power, taxation, monopolies, and regulations.
And that has remained in American culture.
Libertarian Creed: Non-Aggression Axiom
The Libertarian creed rests on one central axiom:
No man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else
Based on that basic axiom, it derives:
3 Main Rights of Libertarians
The 3 main rights the libertarian movement rests on are:
- Absolute right of every man to the ownership of his own body
- Absolute right to own and therefore to control the material resources he has found and transformed
- Absolute right to exchange or give away the ownership of such titles to whoever is willing to exchange or receive them.
Personal rights -step 1-, and property rights -step 2 and 3- are intertwined for the libertarian, and cannot be separated -as communism seeks to-.
What’s “Crime” For Libertarians
And a crime for a libertarian is only a crime insofar it’s a “violent invasion of someone or of his property”.
This also means that everyone has the absolute right of being free from any form of aggression or limitation to his liberty as long as he is not aggressing someone else.
This means that the libertarian philosophy is profoundly liberal when it comes to “civil liberties”.
The libertarian philosophy does not criminalize any “victimless crimes” that might be considered morally dubious, but which are not hurting anyone, including:
- Drug consumption
- Sexual deviation
And, of course, the freedom to speak, publish, and assemble.
EDIT: It’s “allowing”, more than “supporting”
In a previous version, I had written the libertarian “supports”. But there is a difference between making something illegal, and supporting it. The libertarian position is about “not forcing others not to do anything that would harm others.
In regards to abortion, it depends on whether the individual libertarian believes the embryo, fetus, baby inside the womb is or is not a “victim”.
Thanks to Stef for the correction!
The Libertarian is an Individualist
Albeit Rothbard doesn’t exactly state it, another crucial axiom to understand libertarianism is the “individualist creed”.
The libertarian puts the individual above society.
As a matter of fact, the libertarian doesn’t recognize “society” as an entity, but only sees individuals’ interests within different groups (more on it later).
Left-Wing On Civil Liberties, Right-Wing Laissez-Fair Capitalist on Economics
There is no contradiction, and the libertarian seems himself as the only consistent ideology.
Consistent with what?
Consistent on behalf of the liberty of every individual.
Individual’s liberty means being free to do whatever he pleases, as well as to engage in all business activities he pleases, and spend that money he earns however he pleases, without taxation (which would limit his freedom on how to spend his income).
Anything Violating Individuals’ Freedom is Coercion
It doen’t matter whether a policy or law is supported by the majority, or not.
If it invades people’s freedom, then it’s against the libertarian creed, and it’s aggression and coercion against the individual.
Regardless of popular sanction, War is Mass Murder, Conscription is Slavery, and Taxation is Robbery. The libertarian, in short, is almost completely the child in the fable, pointing out insistently that the emperor has no clothes.
And about government as a coercive entity:
If we analyze taxation, we find that, among all the persons and institutions in society, only the government acquires its revenues through coercive violence. Everyone else in society acquires income either through voluntary gift (lodge, charitable society, chess club) or through the sale of goods or services voluntarily purchased by consumers
Poignantly, Rothbard says that if anyone else but the government would seek to tax anyone else, that would be considered coercion and theft.
But since the government managed to manipulate most people into believing in its legitimacy, most people fail to see the reality.
The Government Even Forces You to Fill Your Own Tax Forms
To add insult to injury, the individual taxpayer, in filling out his tax form, is also forced by the government to work at no pay on the laborious and thankless task of reckoning how much he owes the government (…)
The government for the cost and labor expended in making out his return.
My Note: Couldn’t agree more… Since I was a kid
as a man who hates wasting time and/or to spend my time on tasks assigned to me by others, I hate filling any forms or papers because I see it as coercion.
Affirmative Actions Are Discriminatory
Affirmative action” decrees are an obvious way of compelling discrimination against males or other groups in employment, admissions, or wherever this implicit quota system is applied
I couldn’t agree more.
I remember once there was a Linkedin post by Deutsche Bank saying they committed to an X number of promotions by the end of the year, can’t remember the exact number, let’s say it was 50.
I asked them:
So if by the 29th of December you have 49 female promotions and then you have a better male candidate, are you going to pass him up just to meet your quota?
My message was soon deleted :).
Whatever the Government Offers, Private Enterprise Can Do Better
In economics policies, the right-libertarians believe that laissez-faire capitalism leads to better services, better allocation of resources, and general increased well being for everyone.
That means that whatever the government offers as a service or as a good, it offers it at lower quality and/or at a higher cost -often both- compared to what a private enterprise would do.
Utlitarianism VS Libertarianism
Utilitarians put the “collective” first, while the libertarians put the individual first.
And the utilitarian looks at the “final outcome’ in terms of value produced, while the libertarian defends the individual no matter what the ultimate “final outcome” would be.
To make an example:
Imagine people start thinking that redheads women are agents of the devil.
Since there are few redheads, then killing them all would bring little pain to them compared to the pleasure and “snese of safety and relief” that the collective would feel once all redheads are eliminated.
From a utilitarian point of view, then killing all redheads makes sense.
But from a libertarian, it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter what “society” will feel or what the collective might gain, or what the “total value of psychic contentedness” ends up at.
The rights of the individual redheads are inalienable.
Conservatives VS Libertarians
Says Rockwell in the introduction:
American conservatives may not adore the welfare state or excessive business regulation but they appreciate power exercised in the name of nationalism, warfarism, “pro-family” policies, and invasion of personal liberty and privacy
The other difference is that free-market capitalists usually are OK with a government, albeit small.
But to the libertarian this is utopian and impossible: any government, once in place, will naturally expand as it seeks to increase its power.
There Is No “Society” or “Country” As An Entity: Only Groups of Specific Individuals, With Specific Interests
Society is an abstraction that doesn’t exist.
“Society” is sometimes treated as a superior or quasi-divine figure with overriding “rights” of its own; at other times as an existing evil which can be blamed for all the ills of the world.
This doesn’t make sense to libertarian or individualist, because:
The individualist holds that only individuals exist, think, feel, choose, and act; and that “society” is not a living entity but simply a label for a set of interacting individuals.
The term “society” is also sometimes used to hide the real interest of some individuals within that “society”, and it serves to mask the real power dynamics at play:
Treating society as a thing that chooses and acts, then, serves to obscure the real forces at work
Which in turn, can be used as a manipulative tool.
Says Rothbard (I paraphrase fr brevity and ease of comprehension):
To say that “society” should own land or any other property in common, then, must mean that a group of oligarchs—in practice, government bureaucrats—should own the property, and at the expense of expropriating the individual
The Fallacy of “Nations”
Similarly, there is no such thing as nations.
And the use of a nation’s name to symbolize an action is actually hiding the interests of some, often just very few individuals, who are deciding to act a certain way for their own personal well-being.
I paraphrase Rothbard quoting Parker Moon:
When we say “Italy sent troops to conquer Greece” we impute not only unit but personality to the country.
The words we should more accurately describe the Greece expedition is this: “A few of these 40 million persons sent thirty thousand others to conquer Greece.”
This way of putting the fact immediately suggests a question, or rather a series of questions. Who were the “few”? Why did they send the thirty thousand to Grece? And why did these obey?
Empire-building is done not by “nations,” but by men.
The Government Cannot Be Controlled: It Must Go
The tendency for people in the government is to seek more and more power.
Even if you give a bit of power and limit it with constitutions, checks and balances, and divisions of power, eventually the government will, little by little, take more and more power.
the idea of binding down power with the chains of a written constitution has proved to be a noble experiment that failed. The idea of a strictly limited government has proved to be utopian; some other, more radical means must be found to prevent the growth of the aggressive State. The libertarian system would meet this problem by scrapping the entire notion of creating a government—
Involuntary Servitude: Conscription, Jury Duty, Detention
Servitude is forced labor at below free-market wages.
Hence, for the libertarian, the following are forms of enslavement:
- Military conscription: at the extreme, it includes being forced to kill and put one’s life in jeopardy
- Tax declarations: you are forced to spend time to fill your own tax forms without compensation
- Compelling testimony: the witness has committed no crime and has been indicted of no crime
- Compelling court presence: even for criminals under trial, they shouldn’t be forced to attend their own trials
- Compulsory commitment care:
When I read this I realized I was a libertarian. Since I was a kid, and unsure whether or not conscription in Italy was going to be abolished, I always felt it was pure coercion.
People saying “it’s good for kids’ education” were idiots for me, since I felt they were the ones who lacked in education.
Schooling Is a Tool of Power & Indoctrination
One of the most common uses of compulsory public schooling has been to oppress and cripple national ethnic and linguistic minorities or colonized peoples—to force them to abandon their own language and culture on behalf of the language and culture of the ruling groups
And of course, the state uses schools as a tool of indoctrination into the state itself.
Every politically controlled educational system will inculcate the doctrine of state supremacy sooner or later, whether as the divine right of kings, or the “will of the people” in “democracy.” Once that doctrine has been accepted, it becomes an almost superhuman task to break the stranglehold of the political power over the life of the citizen.
This is especially strong in the US, where children go to school alongside American flags, some even swearing allegiance to the flag (gosh!).
- Let people free to smoke
Propagandize against cigarettes as much as you want, but leave the individual free to run his own life
- Let people free to purchase guns
The author goes on to explain that widespread guns are good against crime, but I’m not convinced on this topic.
- Let people free NOT to study
Forcing people to study, in Rothbard’s opinion, is a paternalistic approach of those who value schooling, towards those who don’t necessarily value it nearly as much.
Part of the reason for this tyranny over the nation’s youth is misplaced altruism on the part of the educated middle class.
The workers, or the “lower classes,” they felt, should have the opportunity to enjoy the schooling the middle classes value so highly. And if the parents or the children of the masses should be so benighted as to balk at this glorious opportunity set before them, well, then, a little coercion must be applied—”for their own good,” of course.
- Abolish the welfare system
Rothbard’s approach is based on the idea that most people on welfare aren’t even trying to improve their lots or move forward in life.
Hence, if they are deciding to live in poverty, they also shouldn’t receive the government’s benefits to live like the middle class, without working.
The system only gets worse when they provide checks based on the number of children, thus providing an incentive to have children exactly for those who can most ill-afford to have children.
- Central banks are a tool to fabricate wealth for a few, and push the costs on the many
Ever since fiat currency, such as currency that is not backed by gold, the government can print money.
The beneficiaries are those who get the money first, while everyone else pays the price with inflation.
Government’s control of money supply is inherently inflationary, since the government has an incentive to print lots of it.
- Pollution is an act of aggression
Pollution is an act of aggression of a minority -the plant owners- against everyone else.
The case against pollution is about protecting one’s own rights and property not on the outside, but on the inside -lungs and body-.
The moment the courts decided that people couldn’t sue plant owners for pollution because “progress was good for society”, the state also sanctioned that it was OK for polluters to keep polluting, which decreased the incentive to develop non-polluting technology.
- States cannot intervene militarily to support anyone and pretend to be “in the good”
Defending someone against aggression is valid at an individual level.
But it cannot be used at a national level.
But “aggression” only makes sense on the individual Smith-Jones level, as does the very term “police action.” These terms make no sense whatever on an inter-State level. First, we have seen that governments entering a war thereby become aggressors themselves against innocent civilians; indeed, become mass murderers.
- Judges have too much power. Incarcerating before conviction, setting up bail, and, particularly, in cases of “contempt of court”, in which he’s the judge of his own case
An example of “being the judge of his own case”:
Somehow, people find this video “great”. But while the girl was being silly and slightly contemptuous, the judge had no call to double her bail just because she said “adios”. That was an abuse of power to take his little personal revenge.
- Wiretapping is an invasion of privacy and property rights, and shouldn’t be allowed
Not saying I necessarily agree with this one.
The exception for Rothband is in cases in which the investigated criminal has already committed a bigger crime than the wiretapping itself.
On the nonsense of the “majority” as legitimization (I couldn’t agree more):
Crime is crime, aggression against rights is aggression, no matter how many citizens agree to the oppression. There is nothing sacrosanct about the majority; the lynch mob, too, is the majority in its own domain.
On the nonsense idea of giving any entity the monopoly of force (paraphrased for brevity):
Suppose that we are starting from scratch. Debate begins as to how protection (police and judicial services) will be provided. Someone says: “Let’s all give all of our weapons to Joe Jones over there. And let Jones decide all disputes among us. In that way, the Joneses will be able to protect all of us from any aggression or fraud that anyone else may commit. With all the power and all the ability to make ultimate decisions on disputes in the hands of Jones, we will all be protected from one another. And then let us allow the Joneses to obtain their income from this great service by using their weapons, and by exacting as much revenue by coercion as they shall desire.” Surely in that sort of situation, no one would treat this proposal with anything but ridicule. For it would be evident that there would be no way, in that case, for any of us to protect ourselves from the aggressions, or the depredations, of the Joneses themselves. It is only because we have become accustomed over thousands of years to the existence of the State that we now give precisely this kind of absurd answer to the problem of social protection and defense.
On the abolition of standing armies:
A permanent army is a standing temptation to the State to enlarge its power, to push around other people as well as other countries, and to dominate the internal life of the nation.
On conservatives and liberals being the same, and libertarians the true philosophy of freedom:
Sometimes it seems that the beau ideal of many conservatives, as well as of many liberals, is to put everyone into a cage and coerce him into doing what the conservatives or liberals believe to be the moral thing. They would of course be differently styled cages, but they would be cages just the same.
On liberals defending unemployed folks who remain on government benefits (genius):
Gouldner’s attitude is typical of liberals and leftists in the present day: that it is shameful to try to foist, even noncoercively, “bourgeois” or “middle-class values” on the gloriously spontaneous and “natural” lower-class culture. Fair enough, perhaps; but then don’t expect—or call upon—those same hard-working bourgeoisie to be coerced into supporting and subsidizing those very parasitic values of idleness and irresponsibility which they abhor—and which are clearly dysfunctional for the survival of any society. If people wish to be “spontaneous,” let them do so on their own time and with their own resources, and let them then take the consequences of this decision, and not use State coercion to force the hardworking and “unspontaneous” to bear those consequences instead. In short, abolish the welfare system.
On the government’s manipulation of frames and names:
Just as the State arrogates to itself a monopoly power over legalized kidnapping and calls it conscription; just as it has acquired a monopoly over legalized robbery and calls it taxation; so, too, it has acquired the monopoly power to counterfeit and calls it increasing the supply of dollars
On private enterprise being more efficient:
while the long-held motto of private enterprise is that “the customer is always right,” the implicit maxim of government operation is that the customer is always to be blamed.
On foreign intervention and aid as a tool for imperialism:
The military dictator of “Bumblestan” is in danger; perhaps his subjects are tired of being exploited by him and his colleagues. The United States then becomes gravely concerned; articles by journalists friendly to the State Department or the Pentagon spread the alarm about what might happen to the “stability” of Bumblestan and its surrounding area if the dictator should be toppled. For it so happens that he is a “pro-American” or “pro-western” dictator: that is, he is one of “ours” instead of “theirs.” Millions or even billions of dollars’ worth of military and economic aid are then rushed by the United States to prop up the Bumblestani field marshal.
On “language of power”, the way the USA sometimes speak:
Our turn to keep the peace of the world.
Our turn to save civilization.
Our turn to serve mankind.
But this is the language of Empire.
The Roman Empire never doubted that it was the defender of civilization.
Its good intentions were peace, law and order. The Spanish Empire added salvation. The British Empire added the noble myth of the white man’s burden. We have added freedom and democracy.
Yet the more that may be added to it the more it is the same language still.
A language of power.
This is a wonderful book, but there are some important “buts” to be added.
For more, also see the “criticism of Anatomy of the State“.
Unluckily, I see no evidence that anarcho-capitalism -or total laissez-faire- works better
The author speaks as if free-market capitalism without a state necessarily and obviously leads to a higher standard of living for all, as well as providing all the services that the government currently provides.
He even says there is evidence:
We just know—by economic theory and by historical insight—that such a free market will do the job infinitely better than the compulsory monopoly of bureaucratic government.
I beg to disagree.
We do know, for example, that communism has failed almost everywhere it was attempted.
But I am not aware of any advanced economy that has embraced a stateless, anarchist form of free-capitalism.
Hence, for what concerns me, I cannot say for sure whether or not this system would work better since one of the 3 main pillars of knowledge is missing: we have no good first-hand experience of anarcho-capitalism working better.
And for the little data I am aware of in terms of unfettered free-market capitalism, it’s not all so positive.
For example, after financial regulations were cut by free-market enthusiast Alan Greenspan & co., we had the huge 2008 financial bubble.
That should serve as a warning against the idea that the individual, in total freedom, always does the right thing for himself (fallacy 1), and that doing the right thing for himself also translates to adding value to society (fallacy 2).
Idealization of private enterprise
Rothbard fails to see that also private enterprises can have distorted and conflicting interests that lead to poor services or goods.
Homo economicus fallacy: people can behave irrationally
The author seems to cling to the “homo economicus” model of early economics models.
That is, an individual who is fully rational, and always acts in his long-term economic interest.
And, implies the author, when people look after their self-interest in a free-market, they automatically do good things for the whole.
But to me, both assumptions are fallacious.
For example, the author says that if people were given ownership of the oceans and rivers, then the owners would naturally take care of nature and fish preservation. Prices would fall in the short term, and in the long run there will always be fish.
But the two don’t necessarily follow from private ownership.
Many men have a short-term bias, and they might want to turn fish into cash as quickly as possible, without caring about how they get that fish -for example, using explosives-, or about the future of fishes in general.
Also, men don’t live forever, so it actually makes rational sense for them to exploit a resource as much as possible, and to leave future generations on the hook.
Sometimes glosses over the fact that government officials are voted in, as well as voted out
Some of Rothbard’s lines are both hilarious and eye-opening.
Yet, they can also be misleading.
When he conflates giving all the power and weapons to a random family to govern and rule all other people, that doesn’t actually hold as a realistic comparison with the government.
A democratic government is not usually run by the same people for their whole lives.
Just look at Trump, and how he hated being booted out. That was because he had been voted out, and he was losing power.
Mixes libertarianism with laissez-faire capitalism
I love libertarianism.
And I think that equating it with the Austrian school of economics, as well as with total laissez-faire capitalism, is harmful to libertarianism itself.
Libertarianism should stand on its own, separate from economic policies, whether right-wing capitalism, or left-wing collectivism.
For example, I don’t believe that during financial crises the government should just “do nothing’.
Many economists, for example, believe that letting Lehman Brothers collapse was a mistake because the fear that ensued paralyzed the markets, and then engulfed “main street” as well.
Crises are also psychological, and simply by providing reassurance and financial backstop, the government can do a lot to help restore confidence in the markets.
Plus, government stimulus during financial crises can also be helpful.
Wow, what a book.
I found out that, minus the economic policies, I am quite close to the libertarian philosophy.
At least when it comes to:
- Victimless “crimes”
- Individual rights above collective rights
- Small governments / small armies / low taxes
- No jingoism, no military intervention, humanity above factions
Overall, “For a New Liberty” was a great read.
The Community Discusses State Coercion
Thanks to Stef for putting this book and author on my radar.
This is the discussion on this topic: