Libertarians in a State-Run World

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First published
in Liberty
Magazine, Dec. 1987/Vol 1.3, pp. 23–25.

The articles
by Messrs. Waters and Wollstein (Liberty, Sept./Oct. 1987)
highlight a vitally important question for libertarians: How can
we act, and act morally, in a State-controlled and -dominated world?
It seems to me that the most important concern is to avoid the twin,
and equally destructive, traps: of ultrapurist sectarianism, where
indeed we would not permit ourselves to walk on government-owned
streets; and sellout opportunism, in which we could become supervisors
of concentration camps while still claiming we were "libertarians"
in some far off, ideal world. Opportunists are people who severely
split theory from practice; whose ideals are tucked away in some
closet or trophy room and have no bearing on their daily lives.
Sectarians, on the other hand, suffer from what the Catholics would
call the error of "scrupulosity," and are always in danger
of boxing themselves in to become hermits and virtual martyrs. All
well and good; but to avoid both pitfalls, we need some criteria
to guide us.

As Religion

For Mr. Waters
the problem is simple; instead of trying to avoid the trap, he rushes
to embrace it. For him the answer is to throw away moral principle,
which means throwing away passion, commitment, and hostility to
renegades from liberty. Instead, we are to be cool and detached
"scientists," proposing liberty on utilitarian and unemotional
grounds. Then, presumably, we wouldn’t worry about betrayal, or
about any other actions, regardless how odious, libertarians might
perform. So, bring on the concentration camp supervisor, and let
us talk to him sweetly about the pragmatic benefits of the price
system and the division of labor!

In the first
place, the fact that religious people are hostile to traitors and
apostates does not make their views incorrect. Mr. Waters adopts
an old canard by lumping in moral principles as "religious,"
thereby indicting hostility to immoral actions with the dread stamp
of “religion.” You don’t have to be religious to detest immorality
or hypocrisy, or to be angry and indignant at backstabbing by friends
or lovers. Mr. Waters’s ideal of the passionless scientist is, as
far as I am concerned, totally off the wall. I have known many scientists,
and I have never known any who were not passionately indignant against
what they considered the promotion of quackery or the betrayal of
the ideals [e.g., truth-seeking] of science. I confess also to be
annoyed at Mr. Waters invoking of my dear mentor, Ludwig von Mises,
in his argument. It is true that Mises was a utilitarian, but it
is also true that he was passionately devoted to liberty, and equally
passionately opposed to all forms of statism, and to those who purvey
it. Scientist he was; bloodless he was not.

I am getting tired of the offhanded smearing of religion that has
long been endemic to the libertarian movement. Religion is generally
dismissed as imbecilic at best, inherently evil at worst. The greatest
and most creative minds in the history of mankind have been deeply
and profoundly religious, most of them Christian. It is not necessary
to be religious to come to grips with that fact. Speaking in Mr.
Water’s pragmatic bailiwick, we libertarians will never win the
hearts and minds of Americans or of the rest of the world if we
persist in wrongly identifying libertarianism with atheism. If even
Stalin couldn’t stamp out religion, libertarians are not going to
succeed with a few Randian syllogisms.

The Nozick

Mr. Waters
says that for us moralist ("religious") libertarians,
the word for Robert Nozick is "apostasy." Rubbish. The
word for Nozick is "hypocrisy," since he has never recanted
his libertarian views. He apparently just doesn’t live by them.
Waters also says that every libertarian he knows "was upset,
angry, and outraged" at Nozick’s actions. I was not, although
I agree that was their proper reaction. As a long time Nozickologist,
his actions didn’t surprise me at all. It did not surprise me that
he held the time-honored Northeastern urban tradition of "screwing
your landlord" higher on his value-scale than the abstract
principle of liberty and non-aggression.

Even more amusing
was Water’s complaint that libertarians have gone so far as to "ostracize
[Nozick] from libertarians society." Come, come, how often
has anyone seen Nozick in "libertarian society"? Essentially,
he abandoned libertarian society himself after his one flashy role
at the LP national convention in 1975, where he was lionized soon
after Anarchy,
State, and Utopia
had hit the streets. After that, the polymathic
Nozick went on to other concerns and other books, and lost interest
in libertarian questions.

For those of
us who are passionately committed to libertarian principle, and
consider it of supreme importance [especially if we are moralist/"religious"],
such loss of interest is very difficult to understand. But that’s
the way it is. My own view of Nozick, based both on his personality
and on the way he writes his books, is that he is considerably less
interested in the content of his books than he is in the coruscating
brilliance of his own thought processes as he works his way through
them. That sort of person is surely the sort of person who loses
interest in the content of his previous books, and who would happily
screw a landlord he dislikes without giving much thought to libertarian

To get to the
screwing itself, and to the main substantive question raised by
the Waters article: is being indignant at Nozick’s screwing his
landlord equivalent to upbraiding him (or anyone else) for walking
on government-owned streets or flying from government-owned airports?

think not. Waters’s fundamental error is to confuse accepting a
situation none of your making, with actively making that situation
worse. In short, there is nothing wrong with a libertarian living
in a rent-controlled apartment, and therefore paying a rent below
the market. Nozick (or myself) is not responsible for the rent-control
law; he or we have to live within the matrix of such laws. So there
is nothing wrong with him living in a rent-controlled apartment,
just as there is nothing wrong with him walking on government streets,
flying from government airports, eating price-supported bread, etc.
None of this is of Nozick’s (or our) making. It would be therefore
foolish and martyrish for us to renounce such apartments if available,
to refuse to eat any food grown under government regulation, to
refuse to use the Post Office, etc. Our responsibility is to agitate
and work to remove this statist situation; apart from that, that
is all we can rationally do. I live in a rent-controlled apartment,
but I have also written and agitated for many years against the
rent-control system, and urged its repeal. That is not hypocrisy
or betrayal, but simply rationality and good sense.

Nozick’s moral
error [let’s call it "sin" to provoke the Waters' of this
world] was to go much further than simply living under rent control.
His immoral action was to pursue the landlord actively, to
go to the State to agitate, time and again, to get the State to
force his rent even lower. It seems to me that there is a world
of difference between these actions. One is living your life within
a State-created matrix, while trying to work against the system;
the other is actively using the State to benefit yourself and screw
your fellowman, which means initiating and abetting aggression and

For Government

The criterion
we should use in the Nozick case is, I believe, an easy one. There
are far more difficult questions. What about working as a government
employee? It is true that, other things being equal, it is far better,
on libertarian as well as pragmatic grounds, to work for a private
employer rather than government. But suppose that the government
has monopolized, or virtually monopolized, your occupation, so that
there is no practical alternative to working for the government?

Take, for example,
the Soviet Union, where the government has, in effect, nationalized
all occupations, and where there are no, or virtually no, private
employers. Are we to condemn all Russians whatsoever as "criminals"
because they are government employees? Is it the only moral act
of every Russian to commit suicide? But that would be idiotic. Surely
there are no moral systems that require people to be martyrs.

But the United
States, while scarcely as far gone as Russia, has had many occupations
virtually monopolized by the government. It is impossible to practice
medicine without becoming part of a highly regulated and cartelized
profession. If one’s vocation is university teaching, it is almost
impossible to find a university that is not owned, economically
if not legally, by the government. If one's criterion of government
ownership is the receipt of over 50% of one’s income from the government,
then there are virtually no universities, and only one or two small
colleges, that can be called "private." During the riots
of the late 1960’s, students at Columbia discovered that far more
than 50% of the income of that allegedly "private" university
came from the government. In such a situation, it is foolish and
sectarian to condemn teachers for being located in a government

There is nothing
wrong, and everything rational, then, about accepting the matrix
in one’s daily life. What’s wrong is working to aggravate, to add
to, the statist matrix. To give an example from my own career. For
many years I taught at a "private" university (although
I would not be surprised to find that more than half its income
came from the government). The university has long teetered on the
edge of bankruptcy, and years ago it tried to correct that condition
by getting itself "statized" through merging with the
State University of New York system, in those halcyon days rolling
in dough. For a while, it looked as if this merger would occur,
and there was a great deal of pressure on every member of the faculty
to show up in Albany and lobby for merger into the State system.
This I refused to do, since I believed it to be immoral to agitate
to add to the statism around me.

Does that mean
that all libertarians can cheerfully work for the government, apart
from not lobbying for statism, and forget about conscience in this
area? Certainly not. For here it is vital to distinguish between
two kinds of State activities: (a) those actions that would be perfectly
legitimate if performed by private firms on the market; and (b)
those actions that are per se immoral and criminal, and that
would be illicit in a libertarian society. The latter must not be
performed by libertarians in any circumstances. Thus, a libertarian
must not be: a concentration camp director or guard; an official
of the IRS; an official of the Selective Service System; or a controller
or regulator of society or the economy.

us take a concrete case, and see how our proffered criterion works.
An old friend of mine, an anarcholibertarian and Austrian economist,
accepted an important post as an economist in the Federal Reserve
System. Licit or illicit? Moral or immoral? Well, what are the functions
of the Fed?
It is the monopoly counterfeiter, the creator of State money; it
cartelizes, privileges and bails out banks; it regulates –
or attempts to regulate – money and credit, price levels, and
the economy itself. It should be abolished not simply because it
is governmental, but also because its functions are per se immoral.
It is not surprising, of course, that this fellow did not see the
moral problem the same way.

It seems to
me, then, that the criterion, the ground on which we must stand,
to be moral and rational in a state-run world, is to: (1) work and
agitate as best we can, in behalf of liberty; (2) while working
in the matrix of our given world, to refuse to add to its
statism; and (3) to refuse absolutely to participate in State activities
that are immoral and criminal per se.

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian
School, founder of modern libertarianism, and academic
vice president of the Mises
. He was also editor — with Lew Rockwell —
of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his
literary executor.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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