Friday, May 23, 2014

Was Murray Rothbard a Thick Libertarian? Part 2

The exchange that started here: Was Murray Rothbard a Thick Libertarian?, continues.

Response to Walter Block:
Thank you, this is helpful.

For what it's worth, I gather that Rothbard is a borderline case. His guiding star was unequivocally the NAP, but he had episodes of thickness.

Much of the issue depends on our definition of thickness. If Rothbard's class theory is thin, then so is much of self-described thick libertarianism (e.g., on the FDA/contraception issue). And if Rothbard's Austrian economics is to be separated from his libertarianism, then so should Roderick Long's feminism be separated from his libertarianism. Likewise, if the Friedman episode is not evidence of Rothbard's thickness because his tangential disagreement with Friedman did not cause him to question Friedman's libertarianism, then the same can be said for all thick-v-thin debates, wherein no thick libertarian (to my knowledge) expunges thin libertarians from libertarianism.

We are faced, I think, with a continuum: how interlaced must non-libertarian commitments be with libertarianism before thinness turns into thickness?

Egalitarianism is illustrative. I am sure you're right that Rothbard would say noncoercive egalitarianism is no problem. But Rothbard did not make that distinction in the essay. His point was that egalitarianism was impossible, anti-human, and evil. At the time, therefore, he was defending the ideal of inequality, and he did so in the context of combating radical leftism, including communism. Like Hoppe defends conservatism, this is a thick position because his stance on inequality and on libertarianism are intimately connected. Yet if you had noted the possibility of noncoercive egalitarianism (like you might challenge his position on copyright or on licensure), I am sure Rothbard would have changed his mind in accordance with a more consistent NAP, and would likely have added a clarifying paragraph, separating his libertarianism from his non-egalitarianism. This would be a thin position.

If you grant that thin-v-thick is a continuum, then it is not really our place to decide whether Rothbard was thin or thick on these issues. It is his place. But since he is not around to settle the issue for us, the best we can do is to describe him as we do on IP: though he favored copyright, he did so before Kinsella was around to change his mind. Thus: though Rothbard had episodes of thickness, he would likely distinguish them all with a thin commitment to the NAP, had this debate been around to clarify his position.

And Prof. Block responds:
Here’s my substantive reply:

You may well be right. If we comb through everything Murray ever wrote or spoke about, publicly or privately, we might come up with some few cases of thickness in his libertarianism. Who knows? He wrote so much, he might conceivably have erred in this regard a few times; hey, no one is perfect. However, the burden of proof rests with those, such as you, who claim he was a thick libertarian, and so far you have not laid a single glove on him.

Lookit, Roderick Long’s support of feminism, anti bossism, anti racism, etc., is problematic, thickish, because he claimed these were part of libertarianism, and they are not. Certainly, feminism, for example, stands for principles incompatible with pure or correct libertarianism. In very sharp contrast, Murray Rothbard’s support for Austrianism has nothing whatever to do with libertarianism. The former lies in the positive realm the latter within the normative, and these are very different.  See this as a clarification of that point:

Block, Walter E. and Peter Cappelli. 2013. “Debate over the normative positive distinction in economics.” Economics, Management, and Financial Markets 8(1), pp. 11-19;

Of course Murray didn’t discuss the wild-eyed idea that full free enterprise could lead to perfect egalitarianism. The entire idea is silly, given human beings as we know them. Lookit, his point there made the not so heroic assumption of human heterogeneity. Is he to be allowed no implicit assumptions upon pain of being characterized as a thick libertarian.

I appreciate your point about continuums. I make that same point here:

Block, Walter and William Barnett II. 2008. “Continuums” Journal Etica e Politica / Ethics & Politics, Vol. 1, pp. 151-166, June; ;

Let me concede, arguendo, that Murray wrote in a way that could be interpreted as thick libertarian, oh, 3 times in his entire professional life; remember, this is arguendo, since not one case in point has so far been shown.  Given our agreed upon point of continuums, we could not fairly characterize Murray as a thickster. In contrast, Roderick Long is a very thick libertarian. He positively revels in this fallacy.

I agree with you that Hoppe, in his defense of conservatism, takes on a thick position. I made that point here:

Block, Walter E. 2010. “Libertarianism is unique; it belongs neither to the right nor the left: a critique of the views of Long, Holcombe, and Baden on the left, Hoppe, Feser and Paul on the right.” Journal of Libertarian Studies; Vol. 22: 127–70;;

However, he does so very rarely. He is not at all in the same camp as Long who does this a lot, given our agreement on continuums.

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