Philosophy against Misosophy


Murray N. Rothbard


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Anthony Flood

Posted July 1, 2008



Murray Rothbard: An Introduction to His Thought

Anthony Flood

 “All of my work has revolved around the central question of human liberty.”1

Reason may be man’s most distinctive attribute, but his liberty, his essential freedom (as distinct from his effective freedom) is his noblest.  For it is by his exercise of liberty that man decides either to be faithful to his rational nature or to evade its demands.  Man is by nature a knower, but how he ex­presses that nature depends on how he exercises his liberty.

Murray Newton Rothbard denied that liberty was man’s highest end and that it may excuse license. He did believe, however, that man must protect liberty above all else in his political life, the realm of legitimate interpersonal violence.  There is of course much more to life than politics.  There is, for instance, religion, philosophy, and art, not to mention the love of family and friends.  To enjoy them, however, requires liberty.  It is therefore incoherent to constrict liberty in the name of art, religion, philosophy, or love.  An attack on liberty is an attack on the great goods that presuppose it.

The guiding thread of Rothbard’s life is the understanding and defense of liberty.  The life of understanding and defending liberty was for him a life worth living.  For his fidelity to that life he paid a price, which even those who judge his life to have been a happy one must admit.  What follows is the story of that happiness and that price.

There is certainly no more enjoyable way to assess the pros and cons of libertarianism than to examine Rothbard’s case.   No one wrote more clearly on such a range of subjects than he did.   As he said of his revered mentor, Ludwig von Mises, “it is rare that people have to puzzle over what Mises ‘really meant,’” whereas what another famous economist “really meant about very many things is virtually a cottage industry for doctoral students.”2  I defy any moderately educated reader to flip through any of Murray’s volumes on economics, history, or philosophy, stop at any random page, alight on any random line and, making allowances for technical terminology, sincerely claim not to understand what Rothbard wrote.  This boon to an expositor is immeasurable, for the reader can at once move to the question, “Is Rothbard correct?” without asking, “What on earth is he talking about?”  Rothbard will not impress readers who confuse verbosity with profundity.

The rest of us, however, are in for a treat whenever we dig into an old book review or movie critique of his, a ten-line letter to the editor, or a forty-page reply to an academic critic.  My purpose here, therefore, is not to “explain” Murray, which would be an exercise in attempting to illuminate the bright by the dim.  Rather it is to order as many of Murray’s explanations as possible between covers not too far apart.  The principle of ordering his thought from philosophical foundations through ethics to politics is a judgment I have made, namely, that Murray was primarily a lover of liberty.   That is, his love of liberty ordered his study of everything else, including economics to which he made his greatest scientific contributions. 

He believed there was an interdisciplinary “science of liberty.”3  His specialized contribution to it lay in his mastery of economics.   No doubt he loved economics and delighted in imparting his insights into its many mansions, from marginal utility to the dynamics of the business cycle.  He loved economics as he loved no other field, however many others he was learned in.  It was his love of liberty, however, that not only made him the economist he was, but also limited his career as an economist.  His contributions to economics, as great and many as they were, subserved the goal of a achieving a world of diminished and controlled interpersonal violence and increased prosperity.  Other books will judge his theory of monopoly price apart from his philosophy of natural rights.  Here, however, we will try to see Murray steady and see him whole.

Murray’s lifelong fight to expand everyone’s “horizontal” liberty was an exercise of “vertical” liberty on his part.  Without those who exercise the latter for the sake of the former, the former will steadily decrease in scope.   There have to be those who do not simply enjoy their own liberty, but who also fight and sacrifice for it.  The narrative of Murray’s noble fight is currently a work-in-progress.  His system can and should be studied now, how­ever.  Understanding the system will, I hope, gener­ate interest in the story.  For Murray expressed his love of liberty primarily by thinking hard about it and writing down almost all that he thought in forcefully clear prose.  We can enter into his world now only by reading what he wrote.   What follows is my attempt to guide you through such a reading.


I. Thomistic Foundations

Although Rothbard was not a professional philoso-pher, the interest he took in the philosophical under-pinnings of his economic and political thought was of professional depth.  Throughout his writings on the methodology of social sciences, we find him ref­erencing works of technical philosophy.   His purpose is not to engage philosophers at the professional level, but to specify the ultimate foundation on which his approach to the science of liberty rests.  While praxeology, the science of human action informed all of his writings in the social sciences, it is not the ultimate science.  Why should one rationally affirm the axioms of praxeology?  That is a question for philosophy, and we will begin our showing of how Rothbard answered it with the following precept:

. . . [I]f a man cannot affirm a proposition without employing its negation, he is not only caught in an inextricable self-contradiction; he is conceding to the negation the status of an axiom.4

This is Rothbard’s justification for attributing to a proposition the status of foundations.  The precept presupposes a certain epistemology, that it, a theory of the cognitive relationship of the human mind to itself and to the rest of reality.  The precept implicitly disvalues self-contradiction and while valuing axioms as the foundations of one’s scientific investigations.  An axiom is a proposition that one must take to be true as soon as one understands what it means, even though one cannot prove its truth, for one cannot do without it whenever one is thinking, including the thinking we call proving.  The search for axioms, how­ever, itself presupposes the necessity of avoiding contradiction.  The value of doing so is intrinsically unarguable, for all argumentation presupposes it. 

. . . [S]ome propositions need only to be stated to become at once evident to the self, and the action axiom is just such a proposition. [The Action Axiom asserts “that men act, i.e., that they have some ends, and use some means to try to attain them.”]

Whether we consider the Action Axiom “a priori” or “empirical” depends on our ultimate philosophical position.  Professor [Ludwig von] Mises, in the neo-Kantian tradition, considers this axiom a law of thought and therefore a categorial truth a priori to all experience.  My own epistemological position rests on Aris­totle and St. Thomas rather than Kant, and hence I would . . . . consider the axiom a law of reality rather than a law of thought, and hence “empirical” rather than “a priori.”  But it should be obvious that this type of “empiricism” is so out of step with modern empiri­cism that I may just as well continue to call it a priori for present purposes.  For (1) it is a law of reality that is not conceivably falsifiable, and yet is empirically meaningful and true; (2) it rests on universal inner ex­perience, and not simply on external experience, i.e., its evidence is reflective rather than physical; and (3) it is clearly a priori to complex historical events.5

This passage is key for two reasons.  First, Rothbard identifies as axiomatic the undeniability of human action.  Recall that if the affirmation of a proposition “employs” its negation, the latter is an axiom.  Although it is trivially true that the affirmation of human action negates its denial, to note that the human denial of human action is itself an instance of human action is no trivial matter, for it yields an axiom.  Second, Rothbard allies himself with the Aristotelian-Thomistic line in epistemology, and therefore whatever we know about how he appropri­ated the latter we can safely impute to his thought.  Safety is assured if we follow his own footnotes.  They lead us to, among other sources, Father Copleston’s Aquinas.  There we find a passage that bears on Rothbard’s claim that all of economics can be deduced from the self-evident truth that if human beings exist then, necessarily, they act:

. . . Aquinas did not believe that the philosopher can deduce an informative philosophical system from certain innate ideas of principles.  For he did not admit any innate ideas or principles.  He did, however, admit self-evident propositions which in some sense give information about reality.  He believed, in other words, that there are propositions which are necessary and yet at the same time give information about reality; and he called them principia per se nota (self-evident principles).6

Rothbard also believe that were such things as self-evident propositions, and he built “an informative philosophical system,” namely, the entire edifice of economics, on this one: human beings have purposes and, motivated by the desire to achieve them, act in order to do so.7  We will explore that architecture soon enough.  At the moment, however, we are focusing on what Rothbard believed about the human mind’s power to know.   He pointed his readers to Father Copleston’s little book on Aquinas, from which we have just quoted.  There we find an exposition of the Angelic Doctor’s distinction between two types of self-evident principles.

In the first type, the predicate simply repeats the subject, e.g., A = A.   The second, which is of far greater scientific interest, asserts a necessary connection between the subject and the predicate.  The assertion of the proposition is not an assertion of bare identity, but of attribution: this predicate necessarily belongs to the subject.  We could not think of the subject without attributing this property to it:

. . . Aquinas looked on the principle of efficient causality . . . “everything which begins to exist begins to exist through the agency of an already existent extrinsic thing” . . . as a self-evident principle of this second type. . . . [A]nalysis of the nature of a thing which begins to be reveals its relationship to a productive agent which we call “cause.”  He would not admit that the principle of efficient causality could ever be refuted, but he certainly thought that it gives information about the nature of being which begins to exist.8

Similarly, Rothbard contends that we “could not conceive of human beings who do not act purposefully, who have no ends in view that they desire and attempt to attain.”9  “Purposeful behavior” is not, however, arrived at by “unpacking” the concept of “human being,” but rather by applying reason to the observation of human beings, oneself in the first place, to ascertain their nature. 

When he said that we couldn’t conceive of human beings who didn’t act, Rothbard was asserting a necessary connection between the subject, “human being,” and the property, “capacity to act to achieve ends.”  A property is not accidentally but necessarily related to the nature of which it is a property: for a thing to cease to have a certain property would mean for it to cease to have a certain nature.  It would therefore no longer be that thing. 

Rothbard was also implicitly asserting that the human mind could do this sort of thing, and that unless it could, science would be impossible.  Yet the notion of empirical study yielding necessary connections may strike some readers as a confusing mixture of rationalism and empiricism.  Since Rothbard’s science of liberty depends on getting this right, it is worthwhile to pursue it to the end.  We may find that it is the contemporary reader, not Aquinas or Rothbard, who is confused.  Rothbard’s affinity to Thomistic Aristotelianism does not stop at epistemology, nor could it, as the following passage at­tests:

The world, in fact, consists of a myriad number of observable things, or entities.  This is surely an observable fact.   Since the world does not consist of one harmonious thing or entity alone, it follows that each one of these different things possesses differing attributes, otherwise they would all be the same thing.  But if A, B, C, etc., have different attributes, it follows immediately that they have different natures.  It also follows that when these various things meet and interact, a specifically delimitable and definable result will occur.  In short, specific, delimitable causes will have specific, delimitable effects.  The observable behavior of each of these entities is the law of their natures, and this law includes what hap­pens as a result of the interactions.  The complex that we may build up of these laws may be termed the structure of natural law.10

Elsewhere he wrote:

The reason we say things are determined is that every existing thing must have a specific existence.  Having a specific existence, it must have certain definite, definable, delimitable attributes, i.e., everything must have a specific nature.  Every being, then, can act or behave only in accord with their [sic] specific natures, and any two beings can interact only in accord with their respective natures.  Therefore, the actions of every being are caused by, determined by, its nature.11



1 Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1982, p. v.

2 Murray N. Rothbard, “The Present State of Austrian Econom­ics,” a working paper from the Ludwig von Mises Institute [LvMI], November 1992.  Delivered at the 10th Anniversary Austrian Scholar’s Conference of the LvMI in New York City, October 9, 1992.

3 Rothbard, Ethics of Lib­erty, op. cit., p. v.

4 Murray N. Rothbard, “The Mantle of Science,” Individualism and the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 1960, pp. 6-7.

5 Murray N. Rothbard, “In Defense of ‘Extreme Apriorism,’” Southern Economic Journal, XXIII: 3, January 1957, pp. 317-18.)

6 F. C. Copleston, Aquinas, New York: Penguin Books, 1955, p. 30.

7 Murray N. Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State: A Treatise in Economic Principles, Los Angeles: Nash Publishing Co., 1962, Vol. I, pp. 1-3.

8 Copleston, Aquinas, op. cit., pp. 30-32.

9 Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State, op. cit., p. 1.

10 Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, op. cit., p. 9.

11 Rothbard, “The Mantle of Science,” op. cit., p. 5.


Undeveloped Thoughts

Liberty was Murray Rothbard’s supreme value.  It oriented his scientific pursuits.  Even the love of truth presupposes the liberty to seek it.  First come value commitments, then the search for a philosophical framework to understand them.  But it always came back to a basic insight: it is wrong to “push people around.”

Liberty is a presupposition of any moral system.  The unanswered question in his writings: How ought liberty be exercised? Toward what summum bonum ought we exercise liberty?  Is this silence a defect, or a strength? Nothing stops one from defending a concrete interpretation of the human good.

Rothbard appreciated this value before he grounded it theoretically. The proof of this is that his appreciation survived at least one change of justification strategy.  Rothbard converted to the principle of liberty before he offered any justification for it.  His theoretical edifice is therefore properly erected on its foundation, even if value if often treated after metaphysics and epistemology.

Man’s essential liberty, the freedom that pertains to man’s essence, is allied with his pure desire to know. Desire is oriented toward its satisfaction. Knowledge of being is a value for the desire to know. To pursue that value however requires liberty.  Operationally, metaphysically, liberty comes first. A philosophical system that devalues liberty undermines itself.

Rothbard’s main battles were not with philosophical determinists, i.e., deniers of man’s essential freedom, but rather with those who would restrict man’s effective freedom.  

One might view his economics as a practical vindication of liberty. That is, if effective freedom is maximized, things get better for everyone.

His studies in history train the eye on the struggle for extending the realm of man’s effective freedom.  His system moves from the individual to the social through the concept of property.  His insight into the real reference of this notion is secured by an awareness of the chaos that follows its abandonment.  If there is no real moral property, then there is only physical possession. 


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