• 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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