administrations often pose moral and practical questions
for libertarians, insofar as many jobs become available in
government, whether directly employed by the White House,
or regulatory agencies, as writers and intellectuals. Is it
right or wrong to accept such jobs? And regardless of who
is in power, many free market economists face the ongoing
dilemma of working in state-funded institutions. Freedom-minded
citizens, too, face the problem of whether it is proper to
work for the public sector and in what capacity. In this article
from Liberty, Volume 1, number 3; December 1987,
pp. 23–25, Murray N. Rothbard offers his perspective.]
articles by Messrs., Waters and Wollstein [i]
(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?
seems to me that the most important concern is to avoid the
twin, and equally destructive, traps: of ultra-purist 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.
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.
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!
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.
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….
New Republic reported that libertarian philosopher Robert
Nozick had successfully appealed against his landlord to the
Cambridge Rent Control Board for a reduced rent on his apartment
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.
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 libertarian 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.
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
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
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.
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 fellow man, which means
initiating and abetting aggression and theft.
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?
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.
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 university.
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
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.
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
Wollstein, author of Society Without Coercion (Silver
Springs, Md.: Society for Individual Liberty, 1969). Ethan O.
Waters is a pseudonym of some libertarian writer.
N. Rothbard (1926–1995), the founder of modern libertarianism
and the dean of the Austrian School of economics, was the author
Ethics of Liberty and For
a New Liberty and many
other books and articles. He was also academic vice president
of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Center for Libertarian
Studies, and the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The