Rothbard at the Christian Scholars Conference

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Many readers
of can probably relate "war stories" of
times when they presented libertarian ideas in a public forum and
met with skepticism or outright hostility from the audience. Recently
I had such an experience that helped to bring into sharp relief
for me some of the obstacles standing in the way of a general acceptance
of the libertarian vision of peaceful social cooperation.

On June 4,
2010, I presented a paper titled "Murray Rothbard and the Nonaggression
Axiom as the Foundation of Justice" to a group of academics
at the Christian Scholars Conference,
hosted by Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN. The annual Christian
Scholars Conference (CSC) is the largest academic event geared towards
Church of Christ scholars, and many representatives from other groups
such as Baptists, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics also take part
in it. Although the Church of Christ throughout the twentieth century
was known for its theological and political conservatism (see, for
example, the series of animated
on economics produced by George Benson, who served at
different times as administrators of several Church of Christ colleges),
in recent years it seems to have drifted Leftwards along with the
evangelical world in general. In fact, in 2008 one of the plenary
speakers at the CSC was none other than Jim
, whose pronouncements have received a
bit of attention
from LRC

The audience
to whom I presented my paper was Left-leaning as well. I was on
a panel exploring different concepts of justice and their compatibility
or lack thereof with Christianity. I had been asked to present a
libertarian theory of justice, and I decided that instead of beating
around the bush with Cato-style "low-tax
," I would discuss the full-blown anarchocapitalist
vision as laid out in For
a New Liberty
and The
Ethics of Liberty
. The other main paper, delivered by an
old college friend of mine, was a promotion of John
's egalitarian philosophy. We had also brought in respondents
to critique each of the main papers. I'm glad to say that the panel
discussion and audience Q&A proceeded in a fairly courteous
manner despite our disagreements. Nevertheless, there were still
moments of tension stemming either from the audience's misconceptions
about Rothbardianism or prior philosophical commitments that prevented
them from seeing the potential of libertarian ideas to address contemporary
social problems.

I devoted about
half of my talk to the philosophical foundations of the nonaggression
axiom in natural law and the rest to the implications for society
if this principle were applied consistently to the State. I stressed
Rothbard's view, later amplified by Hans-Hermann
, that a traditional, bourgeois society could best deal
in a nonviolent way with social problems that the State currently
addresses through aggression. So far, so good.

The first and
most obvious problem that became evident during the responses and
the audience Q&A was that despite the successes of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute and its affiliated scholars, to say nothing
of Ron Paul, in educating people about Austrian economics and libertarian
politics, Murray Rothbard is still largely unknown among mainstream
academics. My respondent, a political science professor who
seemed knowledgeable about politics in general, apparently had had
no prior contact with Rothbard's writings. At best, he was conversant
with Cato-tarianism, and in his response to my paper he trotted
out several criticisms that I thought were completely beside the
point. (In his defense, I must point out that he only received my
paper a week before the conference, and it would have been unreasonable
to expect him to go out and read all my source material in that
time frame. Even so, much of his response did not directly engage
my paper's arguments.) The audience was even more unfamiliar with
Rothbard; I received no indication that anyone had ever heard of
him before, even though one audience member told me that his father
was a libertarian. Keep in mind that these folks were all intensely
interested in the subject matter of the panel, which was just one
of about a dozen choices in that time slot at the CSC, so their
ignorance of Rothbard was even more disappointing. Not surprisingly,
their questions more often than not contained false premises and
other misconceptions.

A second major
problem I noted is that these educated and sophisticated people
seemed extremely reluctant to confront the reality of the State
as a perpetrator of violence. They had obviously been conditioned
to view the State as a tool to accomplish any and all laudable social
goals without regard for the coercive means by which it must operate.
Apart from a question about settlers taking the American Indians'
land, the only challenge I got about the nature of lawful property
claims came from my respondent, who quite accurately pointed out
that according to the Bible, God is the owner of everything, and
that we are merely stewards of His creation. Fine, I answered, but
unless you are a Hegelian, to move from that proposition to the
assertion that the State can morally distribute the property in
the society as it sees fit is a non sequitur. It seems to
me that "Thou shalt not steal" is a better rule to fall
back on. My respondent also said (I am paraphrasing) that libertarianism
is not Christian because it's all about atomistic individualism
and self-interest (an ironic criticism, given that John Rawls appeals
to self-interest of individuals behind a "veil
of ignorance
" to establish his rules of justice). No, I
said, it's all about restricting the accepted use of violence
in society.

However, members
of the audience were not satisfied with this. They immediately shifted
their questions away from the issue of coercion to various imaginary
scenarios that would result in an unhappy outcome for a woman, a
Hispanic person, etc., in a property-based, State-less society.
One young man constructed such an unrealistic scenario in which
a single propertyless black family was surrounded by bigoted whites
in a closed society, that I jokingly asked him whether there was
a magic wall around this place to prevent the family from leaving.
On reflection, it probably would have been more effective to ask
him to play by his own rules: What are the odds that such a hypothetical
society would adopt any system of justice he would find acceptable?
It's hardly fair to fault Rothbard for not providing a happy ending
to extreme counter-factual cases of this sort. I did take the opportunity
afforded by his question to point out to the audience the silliness
of expecting to find political solutions for all social and economic
problems. If they wanted to believe that, I said, they would have
to blame President Obama for the persistent oil leak in the Gulf
of Mexico (surprisingly, none of them wanted to do this).

This pragmatic
and consequentialist approach to using the State to right all perceived
naughtiness is tied to another problem libertarians face when confronting
academics. There seemed to be little interest among audience
members in whether the ideas I had presented were true, only in
whether their application would bring about results they liked.
Murray Rothbard deduced his political positions from first principles
he held to be objectively true, and he had the intellectual honesty
to follow his reasoning wherever his rational understanding led
him. I had expected a Christian audience to have some respect for
this procedure, but the only ideas that were expressed audibly were
more typical of postmodern reductionism: "Naïve. . . .
This is sexist. . . . Only a white property-owning male could believe
this," etc. Is this what passes for critical engagement with
challenging ideas among academics these days? Have even Christian
scholars become so hypnotized by the race/class/gender analysis
they imbibed in graduate school that deconstructing the speaker
takes precedence over getting at the truth of things?

No wonder the
audience seemed more receptive to Rawlsianism; Rawls famously made
a point of defining his original
in such a way that he would inevitably get the egalitarian
results he wanted through "reflective equilibrium." This
has always seemed to me to be an illegitimate procedure, Rawls's
objections to the contrary notwithstanding, but it is naturally
very attractive to the legions of academics who have rejected the
notion of objective truth. They are ideologically committed to State-enforced
multicultural egalitarianism, come hell or high water, and will
dismiss out of hand an alternative system without bothering to refute
its reasoning. I don't know whether any of the audience members
fell into this category, but any who did are certainly out of step
with millennia of Christian teaching on the nature of truth and
the use of reason. I am reminded of the debate in which the great
Christian apologist Greg
, in response to his atheist opponent's statement that
the notion of God offended his sensibilities, said that this argument
was on the same level as the boy who sticks his fingers in his ears
and chants nonsense to avoid hearing what his mother is telling
him. The point is that if a proposition is true, whether it be the
existence of God, the homesteading principle, or the nonaggression
axiom, it doesn't matter whether you like it or not; you have an
obligation to act in accordance with that reality.

My CSC experience
showed me that libertarians still have a long way to go to get a
fair hearing in academia, and an even longer way to win the battle
of ideas. The task is not fruitless; some audience members thanked
me after the session for clearing up some of their misconceptions
about libertarian theory and for suggesting further reading to them.
Those are the times when the huge library of online resources at and the wisdom of the Mises Institute's emphasis on educational
efforts instead of policy bickering really loom large in my mind.
Maybe someday soon we'll get to the point where the mainstream actually
tries to frame on-topic rebuttals to Mises, Rothbard, and the rest
instead of mischaracterizing their arguments or simply ignoring
them. On that day, there will be a lot of people in Auburn to thank.

17, 2010

Jason Jewell [send him mail]
is an Adjunct Scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the
chairman of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University
in Montgomery, Alabama.

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