Bryan Caplan  

EconLog Book Club Round-up: Ask Me Any Question About For a New Liberty

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We've finished the chapter-by-chapter of Murray Rothbard's For a New Liberty.  Now I'd like to wrap things up by answering most or all of your questions about the book.  Please limit yourself to questions, not statements, phrase them succinctly, and avoid compound questions.

I'll do separate posts on my favorite questions, and try to answer the others directly in the comments.  If there's overlap, I may just answer one version, and leave the rest to your imagination.

P.S. For your convenience, I'm putting links to the whole prior discussion below the fold.

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CATEGORIES: Book Club
Twitter: Bryan Caplan @bryan_caplan



COMMENTS (12 to date)
Kevin writes:

I'm a long-time lover of FANL, and I have the same attitude about the book as you do - full of wonderful, powerful ideas, but there are still lots of things to disagree with.

Let me get to a question at the heart of the book: Do you think the self-ownership thesis is true? What do you think self-ownership comes to? What does it mean to own yourself?

At one level, this question may seem absurdly simple. But I often worry that when one zooms in on the concept 'self-ownership' that it decomposes into a vast array of rights that only appear to be tied together.

In fact, these rights probably *are* tied together, but the relationship between these rights is not one of essential, conceptual unity, as Rothbard appears to believe.

For this reason, I think that the self-ownership thesis cannot be justified by natural law or ethical intuitionism, but instead must be understood as a generalization about a whole set of intuitions or specifications of the natural law (as a contractualist, I think it must be justified as a rough generalization of a wide array of justificatory relationships).

So, I ask you: do you think the self-ownership thesis is simply obviously true? Or do you think it is instead a mere generalization of a series of rights that we have against others? Let me know why.

Tom M writes:

What do you think is the most original argument made by Rothbard in this book?

What is the most tenuous?

Jayson Virissimo writes:

(1) How heavily does Rothbard's political philosophy depend on natural law?

(2) In Rothbard's utopia, who (or what) would decide on the limits of property rights (I am assuming that people who exhale aren't aggressors)? Judges? A democratic decision making process? Experts in law and economics? Tradition?

Jayson Virissimo writes:

P.S. Please cover Machinery of Freedom for your next Econlog Book Club. The internet is waiting...

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Who is the audience and what is its purpose? Does Rothbard want a revolution brought about by a libertarian faithful? Or are incremental retreats from big government acceptable?

The book contains all the usual easy-to-demagogue libertarian "nuttiness" such as free drugs/sexuality/lifestyle, no free education, privatized courts.

I happen to agree with most of these positions - but not with the libertarian argument. So, for instance, I think government schools are bad, but abolishing government education seems a bridge too far. I would accept any reform that reduced federal power and moved it to state and local control.

This makes me a weak-minded half-hearted non-libertarian - but does Rothbard want my support or not?

Scott Beaulier writes:

Also posted at The Economic Way of Thinking blog: www.ewot.typepad.com...

"Bryan, what in your work do you think of as being consistent with the research project Rothbard is developing in FANL? If possible, let's talk about your Myth of the Rational Voter versus FANL. The policy implication often taken from MRV is an elitist one: the world needs constraints from the mob through franchise restrictions, etc.... Given that it was such an influential book on you, I'm just wondering if Rothbard's influence is showing up at all in MRV?" [From http://ewot.typepad.com/the_economic_way_of_think/2009/05/ask-bryan.html]

I'm with Jayson V: Machinery of Freedom would be a nice book to follow up on FANL.

[Comment elided and permanent link added. Please post original content to EconLog. Do not paste to EconLog the entirety of material that you've already posted elsewhere.--Econlib Ed.]

Bryan Caplan writes:

Answers to the first batch of questions:

Kevin writes:

So, I ask you: do you think the self-ownership thesis is simply obviously true? Or do you think it is instead a mere generalization of a series of rights that we have against others? Let me know why.

I think it's obviously true that it is normally wrong to physically attack people or take their stuff without their consent. Rothbard's absolutist position, however, is open to simple counter-examples. See my opening statement in my debate with Robin for more explanation.


Tom M writes:

What do you think is the most original argument made by Rothbard in this book?
What is the most tenuous?

The most original argument: Free-market anarchism will work if tried. The most tenuous: The U.S. is the real imperialist in the world, so there's little reason to fear the Soviets.

Bryan Caplan writes:

Jayson Virissimo writes:

(1) How heavily does Rothbard's political philosophy depend on natural law?
(2) In Rothbard's utopia, who (or what) would decide on the limits of property rights (I am assuming that people who exhale aren't aggressors)? Judges? A democratic decision making process? Experts in law and economics? Tradition?

For (1), the answer is "almost entirely." He's explicit about it. The consequentialist arguments are there to assuage doubts.

For (2), the proximate answer is "judges," but the fundamental answer is the market process itself, because judges rely on patronage to survive. Rothbard always reserves the philosopher's veto if the judges err; however, the only enforcement mechanism seems to be persuasion or revolution.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Who is the audience and what is its purpose? Does Rothbard want a revolution brought about by a libertarian faithful? Or are incremental retreats from big government acceptable?
[...]
...I would accept any reform that reduced federal power and moved it to state and local control.
This makes me a weak-minded half-hearted non-libertarian - but does Rothbard want my support or not?

Fair question. I see this as an evangelical book - he wants to convert you to his full view. He probably figured that most readers would start with some libertarian sympathies - but his goal is to radicalize you.

Does Rothbard want your support even if you're not a convert? Officially, he'd probably welcome it. But he had a long history of lashing out at people like Milton Friedman who weren't pure enough for him. In practice, his rule seemed to be, "Outreach to the moderate rank-and-file libertarians, hostility to moderate elite libertarians."

Rothbard explicitly embraces "incremental retreats," but with a lot of provisos mentioned in my chapter 15 analysis.

Morey writes:

For (2), the proximate answer is "judges," but the fundamental answer is the market process itself, because judges rely on patronage to survive. Rothbard always reserves the philosopher's veto if the judges err; however, the only enforcement mechanism seems to be persuasion or revolution.

I think you had it right in the first sentence. Market competition would ensure that judgments reflected community standards.

My own thoughts: communities, in this context, may be non-geographical; a concept that becomes more practical when all property is privately owned. Levels of adherence to natural law and general permissiveness would undoubtedly vary among these communities, and providers would cater to each of them. Networks would allow passage between them. Where rules between justice agencies are irreconcilable, customers of the more permissive agency may have to procure a 'guest pass' or some other sort of waiver agreement in order to patronize a property covered by the more restrictive agency.

Zac Gochenour writes:

Bryan-

(1) It seems clear that FANL is among the most famous treatments of anarcho-capitalism, deservedly so, despite its flaws.

In your opinion, where does FANL rank among other famous treatments of anarcho-capitalism in terms of the convincingness of the text?

(2) Suppose I am a book publisher and a fan of Bryan Caplan's writing (only one of those is actually true). At great expense, I commission you to write For an Even Newer Liberty, a libertarian (market anarchist) manifesto for our time. You have now finished the book: in what ways is this book similar to Rothbard's? In what ways is it different?

Bryan Caplan writes:
Zac Gochenour writes:
In your opinion, where does FANL rank among other famous treatments of anarcho-capitalism in terms of the convincingness of the text?

With apologies to David Friedman, I think FANL is the best overall. It has a great combination of moral fervor, economics, common sense, and beautiful sentences.

At great expense, I commission you to write For an Even Newer Liberty, a libertarian (market anarchist) manifesto for our time. You have now finished the book: in what ways is this book similar to Rothbard's? In what ways is it different?

Alas, the writing quality is lower, because I'm not in the same league. In terms of substance: I drop the overblown absolute rights with a sound Huemerian ethical foundation. I offer more intermediate options without soft-selling the radical stuff. The foreign policy chapter gets completely re-written. The book won't make as many hard-core converts. But nothing inside is obviously false, and it doesn't alienate sympathizers or friendly critics.

Bob Murphy writes:

Q: If you and I think FANL is so great, why don't others? Do they reject the predictions of social outcomes, or do they basically just not care that much about "liberty" in the way Rothbard uses the term?

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