Reflections and Responses #2: The Ethics of Liberty: Part I Natural Law, Chapter 4 to Part II

John Locke

I figure this will necessarily be a shorter R&R due to the fact that I’m looking at fewer parts and because Rothbard figures he’s got the “hard” part of the ethics out of the way. So he’s moving away (in some part) from what he’s been doing and to the extent that Rothbard does presume he’s proved much I disagree with him and will try to make that as clear as possible when I feel I should. But of course I’ll recognize when he makes good points too of course. Anyways…let’s get on with it!

Part 1 (Continued): Natural Law

4. Natural Law and Natural Rights

I don’t have any major problems with Rothbard criticizing Aristotle’s leap from man being a “social animal” to needing states which is a non-sequitor as Rothbard also explains here as well. Having read Aristotle’s “Politics” (which was a very dull and uninteresting book in my opinion…) I can pretty much say that Rothbard’s analysis (however too short it may be on the more exact details of Aristotle’s logic or whatever) is pretty much correct from my memory of it. And it’s a generally good thing to point out that society does not and really has never necessarily implied anything like a state.

Rothbard continues with talking about the “radicalism” of Locke and his emphasis on the individual, natural rights and the later influence it had on the “dominant tradition of political thought in the revolutionary new nation”. I must take issue with at least one thing here: Rothbard’s description of the political environment of the day. I mean, I’m not historian or anything and I know Rothbard did a four volume work on the so-called “revolutionary” period in America’s early days but even based on my minimal time in college and research on the matter I’m skeptical.

I think the reasons for any sort of skepticism about this claim of a “revolutionary new nation” (whatever that means…) should be pretty obvious but, in brief:

1. Women and the dispossessed (e.g. Natives, minorities, the poor, etc. etc.) hardly had any political power at all and especially in comparison to the business class, the political class, the friends of the leaders of the “revolution” and so on.

2. The amount of power tended to shift towards the leaders of the revolution (Washington, Hamilton and yes, even Jefferson) and ever increased as time went on (Washington putting down counter-revolts, Alien and Sedition Acts, the purchase of Louisiana, the mass robbery and slaughter of the native people there etc. etc.).

3. Any further counter-revolutions (or, hell, even minor revolts) were put down by force through Washington’s army. And these revolts were typically against big government measures (i.e. lack of transparency, giving banks undue privileges over the poor farmers, higher taxes and so on).

4. Based on all of this we can either conclude that the “libertarian” political narrative of the day was either: A. Not libertarian B. “Libertarian” by Rothbard’s definition C. Something else

I’m, of course, inclined to say it wasn’t very libertarian at all. Now was it more libertarian than a monarchy? Well…duh. But that’s like being the prettiest waiter in Denny’s, what have you really accomplished?

So if this is the tradition libertarianism is being built upon, a theory that can be so easily appropriated and re-organized and re-purposed for the elites and then actually mistakenly thought of as the same or similar or good thing by the original proponents themselves…then we may have some major problems.

Regardless, let’s address what Rothbard sees as Locke’s views on the importance of individuals and their property as I take issue with several things in it. I’ll address the first half first.

Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to.

That first sentence is really key to the whole proposition yet it’s one of the least developed and most presumed assumption in this quote. “Every man has a property in his own person” My first reaction is: What? What does this mean exactly? What would this look like? Why is this important? Why is this the case?

Locke takes this for granted and seems to think based on this that the rest of the quote follows but never really seems to explain the foundation itself so why should we believe it? It may be possible Rothbard doesn’t include Locke explaining it…but why would he do that?

But let’s take Locke at his word and suppose he’s right, let’s examine the rest,

Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to.

Even if we accept Locke’s foundational premises I’m unsure how convincing I find this particular argument for ownership. Which isn’t to say I can’t see any argument for ownership or even perhaps an argument from Locke’s premises but that, what’s given here isn’t very satisfying to me.

I’ll attempt to briefly explain why Locke’s argument doesn’t convince me.

The “joining” of the laboring hands and body is really what confuses me here. I won’t deny that the laboring body or hands belongs to the laborer, for this seems intuitively true enough for me, but where is this necessary connection between the labor and the land? And how does it make someone own something? By matter of fact it would make them possess it, their occupancy and use of it would be a matter of fact but not necessarily right which is what Locke and Rothbard are arguing for. But I’m unsure why you laboring towards external resources gives you some right to own them, much less own them indefinitely and as much of it as you want as some anarcho-capitalists seem to claim. It just doesn’t seem to follow.

Now, it’s true that by possessing an object one necessarily excludes it from the “common use” unless the laborer says otherwise but why does this mean ownership of resources? It just seems to point towards a more general and more flexible notion of possession that both gives the laborer the product of their labor as well as not unnecessarily excluding anyone in any harmful manner. And for an example of a way in which ownership can harm the common laborer look at what Locke says next about the “unquestionable” property of such a person and that “no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to.” which seems, to me, to emphasize some sort of absolutist ownership scheme.

I’d oppose such a scheme on several levels.

First off it doesn’t seem to logically follow that merely from the labor of one’s person they not only have exclusive ownership over that land forever. It seems that abandonment would need to be taken into consideration as well as reckless use of their property such that it endangers other’s lives or their property, etc.

Second, I don’t think it makes sense to be so inflexible in property schemes that we that we treat some sort of possession and use as a sort of right. It seems to me to make more sense to treat it as fact more so than any right someone would have. What’s the difference? Well treating this as a matter of right seems to me to give far too much credit to the activity of labor and homesteading. As if it gave the person in question some sort of magical powers to claim exclusive domain over said space for their own set of time and in the more extreme versions (which, while less frequent, may still be called for to this day) even past that. If we treat possessing things as fact we merely have to observe how people obtain things (through their labor or something else?), how they take care of it and what they use it for, etc. etc. If we can determine this (and people do so all of the time) we can typically deliberate among ourselves which claims are higher than others.

For instance, “The Ethics of Liberty” book I got from the library, who owns it? I’m possessing it by matter of fact, my intent in having it is clear, my use of it is clear and so on. But what about the libraries? Well thinking about where the library gets the resource to have the book to begin with is partly through stolen money or, if you prefer, tax money. So on that basis alone (since no resources I have to possess by fact are procured through theft, at least not willingly or to my knowledge) I can safely assume I have a better claim to this book by matter of fact. But of course when we’re speaking of the state and its institutions we’re typically not in matter of facts but of rights and that the library has a right to own this book “for the common good” even if that means undermining it (“it” being the common good) by relying on a mixture of stolen money and donations.

I think I’ve spoken enough on this topic. Make no mistake, I’m not setting this out as an absolute argument and I’m merely trying to incorporate some mutualist arguments I’ve heard that I feel could be useful to the property debate but am unsure of them myself. I’d very much like feedback on this issue because I totally understand that a lot of what I said probably begs way more questions than answers. I also understand my objections and answers may not have been the best but I will say I did try to give the best shot of why I feel this reasoning is misguided.

I look forward to responses on this matter.

Let’s take the second half bit by bit:

. . .

He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. Nobody can deny but the nourishment is his.

For the record, I wouldn’t deny this either.

I ask then when did they begin to be his? . . . And ‘tis plain, if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could. That labour put a distinction between them and common. That added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done: and so they become his private right.

Again, I don’t understand the leap.

We go from an individual appropriating materials for their own use for clear and direct purposes that don’t harm others or seem to be based on questionable resources backing up the fact they possess what they possess. So…what does first gathering have to do with this? Not much that I can see. Why does calling “dibs!” on something and then following up give some sort of exclusive right to something? I wouldn’t argue that this results in the possession of these materials for the given individual in this situation, not in any moral sense anyways.

What gives them such a moral defense for what he has appropriated is that his intention, means and reasoning is clear. It’s clear why he wanted what he took, why he took it and so on. I’m not suggesting, by the way that all of the facts of the situation must be known or all those who attempt to possess things should be given 20 questions before they can take another foot. But what I am saying is that the basic context and consequences of the appropriation should be known. In such an atomistic example it doesn’t seem very important but in a broader social-context it seems that this would be much more pressing.

Adding something to nature and adding distinctions between one thing and another doesn’t sound like a solid basis for owning something to me. I can (as the old example goes) piss in the ocean or dump a bunch of oil in it and thus change something to nature and make it distinct from the rest…but does this make it mine? If we admit it doesn’t we must either rule that at best Locke’s rational (and hence Rothbard’s) can only be applied when it best suits the situation and can’t be viewed as an absolute rule or if they find no values in non-absolutes (which perhaps Rothbard wouldn’t due to his admitted rigidity in liking natural law, etc.) then it should be thrown out.

And will any one say he had no right to those acorns or apples he thus appropriated, because he had not the consent of all mankind to make them his? . . . If such a consent as that was necessary, man had starved, notwithstanding the plenty God had given him. We see in commons, which remain so by compact, that ‘tis the taking part of what is common, and removing it out of the state Nature leaves it in, which begins the property; without which the common is of no use.

This seems like a false dichotomy to me. Just because I deny some sort of “right” to property merely based on “first use” doesn’t mean I must think that the common laborer need some sort of “unanimous” consent of all of the planet. I think, a way to work out community standards instead of totally atomized standards would work best for any sort of organization in a truly freed society. Whether we’re talking property or not, the broader social-context of what’s going on is important. I’d say this most immediately extends to your neighbors and more broadly speaking the community in question.

But, again, it’s not so much disputing “rights” than disputing facts of the matter and what intentions and goals you have. This should be up for discussion but not necessarily because what you labor for isn’t yours but because what you labor on can affect other people if you’re acting within a larger community. As such I think it’d just generally be a nice thing to tell your neighbors what you’re doing at plot X and what you want to do with it just so they know. It’s not so much as asking for permission as keeping in mind other people’s well being. And I for one don’t think being a good neighbor is at odds with libertarianism.

Let’s move away from the matter of property…we’ll get much more into it later I’m sure. ;)

Rothbard, to his credit (though it doesn’t take much really to recognize what he does) says after the quote that Locke was inconsistent and was eventually improved upon by Lysander Spooner and Herbert Spencer. I am unfamiliar with their arguments (though I know some of Spooner’s…) but I won’t argue for or against them here.

Next Rothbard says something quite strange,

“The myriad of post-Locke and post-Leveller natural-rights theorists made clear their view that these rights stem from the nature of man and of the world around him.”

This seems like a bizzare argument to me for if this were the case wouldn’t the far more myriad cases of statist theorists prove that those theories are stemming from some sort of “nature” of man and the world around them, right? Where’s the marked difference? Rothbard seems to be engaging in an argumentum ad populum here and not a particularly good one seeing as it can easily be turned around on him to boot.

I understand Rothbard’s point about if natural law was a revolutionary doctrine it’d be de facto a heavily individual based theory since I’ve read Spooner’s intersection of that and law and conscience. So I know where Rothbard is coming from there on this one even if I don’t completely agree.

Rothbard goes on to praise the American Revolution (again? is that necessary?) but seeing how I’ve already brought up my concerns about that I won’t re-hash them.

Finally Rothbard brings up his definition of rights via Professor Sadowsky:

When we say that one has the right to do certain things we mean this and only this, that it would be immoral for another, alone or in combination, to stop him from doing this by the use of physical force or the threat thereof. We do not mean that any use a man makes of his property within the limits set forth is necessarily a moral use

I actually think (and therefore agree with Rothbard with what he says in response) that this is a good distinction. Just because you have a right to do something doesn’t mean you necessarily should do it. Perhaps the “should factor” is what turns these matters from right to fact? I’m uncertain but that’s a possibility. Anyways, I accept the definition as I can’t think of any major problem with it and think the distinction is a good one.

One last thing, Rothbard says that political philosophy,

…[I]s concerned solely with matters of right, and of the proper or improper exercise of physical violence in human relations

While the matters of right and the exercise of human relations are important I would argue that political philosophy is a lot more thick than that. Or at least it should be if we’re gonna want to have a much more consistent and robust type of libertarianism we’re gonna have to be concerned with many more subjects besides the use of physical violence.

Now, of course, the study of physical violence is an important part of any sort of analysis of how a society is operating and how it’s doing, etc. but I don’t think it’s a study that can be reduced to that element alone or the matter of rights even if their important matters. I think any study would probably have to be more rigorous than merely an account of the rights and violence that happens in a given society.

But I’ll leave it there since Rothbard doesn’t give me too many reasons why this should be as such and so I’m merely going off of my own ideas by themselves to see what the problems may be with that.

5. The Task of Political Philosophy

Due to not only the shortness of this part but the lack of new assertions and assertions I find interesting or questionable enough to either give a response or reflect on I don’t think there’s actually too much for me to say about this one.

Rothbard merely asserts that he’s not trying to lay out a big systematic personal ethics for people but just establish a foundational base in a very rudimentary way so that we can better understand liberty better. I don’t think that base has been set up too well so I’m interested to see where it takes us as we get into the “meat” of the book: Rothbard’s political philosophy.

Overall thoughts

I don’t think really too highly of this first section or the chapters contained therein. It’s not…terrible and Rothbard certainly makes some decent points here and there (although most of them are rather obvious if you ask me…) but most of the major ones fall flat for me. I’m not really impressed by Rothbard’s ethical reasoning or his property theory and though I can’t exactly articulate what’s wrong with it or what solutions I have I just know I have some problems with and it doesn’t completely match up with my own desires.

In brief I think Rothbard’s ethical theory and any who try to act along similar lines take empiricism and science way too far and expect too much out of human beings and our faculties. It doesn’t seem like a description of “nature” is ever really given in any satisfying enough fashion or what this might mean for a political philosophy of liberty. We get some explanations here and there about some important topics but it’s never really done in any sufficient way for me personally.

I, again, don’t claim to be some sort of expert on property theory or ethics or philosophy or any of this stuff so a lot of this stuff comes from my intuition about what Rothbard is saying as well as what I’ve learned so far about philosophy, ethics and property theory, etc. I’m sure plenty of my arguments may only be half-baked or whatever but I’m hoping they suffice for the purposes of this post and given what abilities I’ve explained I have on this matter.

Hope you are all looking forward to my Reflections and Responses to Rothbard’s political philosophy part of the book. I should be taking them on two chapters sat a time given the chapters length. I don’t know when the next post will come out but hopefully before the end of next week if not sooner.

Until then I hope you’ve enjoyed my Reflections and Responses to Rothbards Ethics of Liberty, section 1!

This entry was posted on Sunday, September 9th, 2012 at 11:50 pm and is filed under Uncategorized.

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