Rothbard Teaches Us Never To Sacrifice the Ethics of Liberty To Make People Comfortable With the Idea

This week is Murray Rothbard’s birthday. It’s an opportunity to marvel at what a remarkable theorist he was, and in my estimation The Ethics of Liberty was his greatest contribution to the world he left behind and to the countless generations that will follow. Just as most people in the world function in distorted markets, so do they live under a tangled mess of legal codes that obstructs justice, to use the US government’s ironic term, prohibiting retribution and restorative arrangements between trespassers and their victims. Never losing sight of the fact of each individual’s sovereignty and inviolability, so holy that a noncriminal must never be harmed, Rothbard revealed humanity’s most basic legal code clearly and in the context of many different scenarios and kinds of crime. In doing so, he left a peal forever ringing in dissonance against every Leviathan’s assertion that its laws, its paid strongmen, and its kept courts alone know right and wrong. He showed how law is sown in every individual—even one who is dedicated to trying to violate others—unfolding from the instinct and the need to protect his own person and appurtenances from encroachment.

Rooted in the fundamental right of property that emanates from each person, Rothbard’s ethical analysis shows what it is that has been violated (or not) and what must therefore be restored in each major type of conflict, but he never fixes or specifies retribution beyond this. He never sets a fee schedule, so to speak, never writes law himself. The result is an exposition of natural law that is so thoroughly consistent that there is no struggle to think of it as universal. Like them or not, all kinds of cultural and religious prescriptions may be layered on top of this thinnest libertarianism without a moral dilemma so long as no force is used or implied, and it’s very clear where different coercive groups curtail people’s defensive capabilities. And all over the world, in all kinds of situations where they have been forced to assume the posture of declawed cats, natural law stirs within people. They are subjected or compelled in some way, they feel it bearing down, and they finally make their escape, against all strictures, retaliating in some way or simply taking back their sovereignty and acting on decisions that they’ve been forbidden from making over their bodies and their fruit.

In consistently hewing to individual sovereignty, Rothbard came to some conclusions for which he has been heartily criticized. This is particularly true in regard to his views on parents and children—that parents cannot be compelled to raise their children because to do so would constitute slavery and that for the same reason children must never be held against their will once they’ve decided to run away. Although some have convincingly argued that parents can’t quite leave a toddler in a park and walk away forever, likening parenthood to the contract between an air pilot and his passengers (it can’t simply be broken midtrip and the passengers “dropped off” with no parachute), Rothbard’s most important insights here are that it’s immoral to force unwilling parents to raise their offspring, iniquitous to compel people to toil for an indefinite period to feed and shelter another no matter who they are, and that a person’s nonaggressive will cannot righteously be restrained, no matter how young he is, once he becomes aware of its existence and decides to wield it.

But both of these things more or less occur under most regimes. It’s very difficult for parents to freely transfer their trusteeships over their children to someone of their choosing, and of course everywhere illegal to sell those rights to someone. Children who exercise their will to freedom find their faces printed in Have You Seen Me? ads, eerily similar to the ads for runaway slaves and indentured servants. The state forces those under an arbitrary age to live, sometimes against their wishes, with the parent it deems most fit in divorce cases, and those who have been taken from their families are also effectively barred from leaving orphanages and assigned homes until an arbitrary age. Concerned efforts to ensure that early life is danger-free, using force to remove children from homes that do not meet certain standards of comfort or exhibit the affection that a group of lawmakers and state-sponsored academics deems necessary, often simply cement unsatisfactory arrangements and limit the avenues that can be taken toward improvement.

Rothbard, with his deft but light touch, gave two marvelously broad possibilities to the problem of unwilling families from the standpoint of parents: simple abandonment and the free sale of guardianship rights in children. This approach to solutions for the world that could be—the free world—is ideal. He leaves readers with a clear sense of right and wrong, gently points toward possible solutions for those who struggle to imagine an unmediated world, and leaves open all the possibilities that the diversity of individuals and collaboration can engender.

It should go without saying that children are not animals, which don’t have natural rights, but we can come closer to understanding that the array of possibilities that could exist in a free market for guardianship rights is vast if we consider the variety of ways that you can get a pet in the United States (for now). You can buy pets or adopt them for free from individual owners in private marketplaces like Craigslist. You can buy them from breeders, either certified by private groups like the American Kennel Club or uncertified, or just from people who have a litter on their hands. You can foster indefinitely for free, adopt at a low cost, or adopt for free from all kinds of charitable organizations—small, large, secular, with a religious feelpolitically active in lobbying for intervention, or just trying to help animals find homes, etc. If you get your pet from a shelter, you often pay very little, but the organization places several conditions on how you may keep the pet—indoor, outdoor but tie-outs and the like prohibited, regular vet visits and vaccines required, must be spayed or neutered (and therefore can’t be bred), can’t be sold or given away, etc. You also often have to talk about your lifestyle, reveal where you live and work and with whom you live, and disclose whether you have experience with pets. If you don’t want to go through that, you can go to a pet store, where you will pay more, but won’t necessarily be interrogated. But there’s freedom on the selling side as well, and some pet stores and breeders also choose to ask about your lifestyle and experience. Once you get the pet, there are all kinds of options for “educating” it, from informal training by friends or part-time trainers to full-fledged training academies that charge a pretty penny. Of course, there are many groups out there that have long been agitating for the state to impose various degrees of regulation in order to limit who can breed and sell pets and to force one vision of pet ownership on all, failing to see that the problem of strays comes in large part from all the public roads and parks where pets can be abandoned without protest.

There’s no predicting the variety of arrangements that could form with a market in guardianship rights for children. They could be infinitely more varied than the many options we’ve seen with pets, since children have natural rights and their own wills. The only certainty is that wrong is wrong—that holding parents and children against their will, making their pursuit of more agreeable arrangements difficult, or outright illegal, is amoral. Full self-determination comes with all kinds of risks, foreseeable and not. A child could run away to a life of abject poverty and worse abuse; parents might sell their trusteeships and regret it for personal reasons or because the buyer wasn’t who he said he was (even if the difference doesn’t breach their contract). But even with the significant risks it entails, every minute of freedom, imperfect though it may be, is as a drop of clear water in a desert. States through time have failed spectacularly to extirpate various kinds of risk; the only thing they have made nearly sure, over and over again, is their own domination, which itself has been broken time and again in the end.

Too many thinkers in the Rothbardian tradition try to paint detailed portraits, complete with steps 1, 2, 3 … for how to live in freedom and how to make it “workable.” There’s constant talk of private insurance companies and private defense agencies, but we must be careful. The reality is that individuals act purposefully. Their actions aren’t mechanical reflexes, and they are not predictable. No one can imagine all the things that matter to different people and therefore the full range of solutions that might come to be offered in various markets. Some truths about natural rights might be uncomfortable to acknowledge for the dangers that they leave people open to, but we must not shy away from them by painting a portrait of a manicured freedom with neat options that assuage the unfaithful. To shy away from all the vicissitudes and possibilities that freedom entails, for better or worse, is to risk tripping at the finish line should people feel uncomfortable with what they might find and repeating the cycle of statism. Rothbard didn’t shy away from hard truths, and in this he continues to offer shining insight.

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