Rothbard was at one time known as “The State’s Greatest Living Enemy.” In his manifesto, “For a New Liberty,” he leaves no doubt as to why. He exposes the State as coercive and inherently evil, yielding to it no legitimate powers. His principled defense of the libertarian creed is a great inspiration to libertarians and skeptics of growing State power everywhere. I have provided a segmented review of his work to solidify my knowledge of it and yours.
Ch. 1 The Libertarian Heritage
Rothbard begins by magnifying the significance of libertarianism during the American Revolution, and indeed the French and English before it. He references the writings of Cato’s letters in the early 18th century as well as John Locke as inspiration for the revolutionaries. He goes on to give a revisionist historical perspective of what happened to the philosophy of liberty which was once at the core of the American spirit. He explains the failings of Jefferson during the War of 1812 (although he praises Jefferson for later regretting that and other failings), the split of the Jeffersonian tradition because of slavery, and the tremendous leap forward of the State during and after the Civil War.
Next, he describes the alliance between the State and the intellectual class. This process, he believes, was necessary for the “Old Order” to regain its power and the trust of the people. The intellectuals would mold public opinion and in exchange were given prestigious jobs at Universities and became the planners of the economy.
For the final modern blow to classical liberalism he cites Woodrow Wilson’s involvement in the First World War, as well the countries involvement in Spain before it. Ever since, the Democratic Party lost its legs as the party of individual rights and peace, and the snowball effect of State control was turned loose.
Ch. 2 Property and Exchange
The Libertarian Creed, as Rothbard sees it, begins with the non-aggression axiom. Simply stated, “that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else.” After a short description of how the manifestations of this ideal are at once “left wing” and “right wing” while remaining principled, Rothbard begins to explain an essential realization that libertarians make. A libertarian must hold the State to the same principles of anyone else. What is taxation, then, but theft against the will of many into the hands of the few? What is war but mass conscription and murder for the State’s selfish purpose? The State must disguise its motives by use of the aforementioned intellectual class, blind patriotism, and a misconstrued sense of the “general welfare.”
After his description of the non-aggression axiom, Rothbard turns to property rights. He says that natural law dictates that resources can either belong to just the man who finds them and “mixes his labor” with them, or to everyone, making the case, of course, that the more moral solution is that of individual ownership. He argues that nearly every problem in society can be addressed by the rights of person and property. He then takes on the daunting challenge of the solution to a man yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Many would argue for the man’s rights to free speech, but Rothbard points out the property rights of both the owner of the theatre and other patrons were violated.
One last highlight of Ch. 2 is one of, if not singularly, the most important principles of a market economy. Rothbard speaks to the concept of voluntary exchange for mutual gain. When two people exchange goods with one another, by barter or using an intermediary, both are better off. What is a complex market economy then, he says, but a “vast network” of mutually agreed upon exchanges. The only exchanges that are not agreed upon are enforced by the state through means of coercion and conscription, thus violating the non-aggression axiom.
Ch. 3 The State
Chapter 3 further summarizes the moral fallacy of holding the State above its own law. He specifically mentions taxation and the cozy relationship with the intellectuals used to curb public opinion, which is needed in a democracy. The intellectuals make the State seem “sometimes divine, and at the very least inevitable and better than any conceivable alternatives.” (pg. 67) This power is then wielded to form public policy, especially that of the New Deal following the Great Depression.