Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty: The New Republic

I’ve been waiting to read the fifth volume of Murray Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty for over 30 years.  Now my former student Patrick Newman, professor at Florida Southern College, has miraculously undeleted this “lost work.”  Patrick’s quasi-archaeological efforts are nothing short of amazing, but how does the actual book hold up?

In the first four volumes of Conceived in Liberty, Rothbard tells the story of the American colonies’ rise, rebellion, and victory over the British.  In this final volume, he tells the story of America’s brief time under the Articles of the Confederation – abruptly  (and illegally!) ended by the revolution/coup/counterrevolution that we now know as the United States Constitution.  Rothbard, a vociferous detractor of the Constitution, could easily have subtitled this last book in his series “The Revolution Betrayed.”

Under the Articles of the Confederation, government was much more decentralized – and therefore much better:

Overall, it should be evident that the Constitution was a counterrevolutionary reaction to the libertarianism and decentralization embodied in the American Revolution. The Antifederalists, supporting states’ rights and critical of a strong national government, were decisively beaten by the Federalists, who wanted such a polity under the guise of democracy in order to enhance their own interests and institute a British-style mercantilism over the country.

Rothbard’s main focus, however, is not in persuading the reader that the Articles were superior, but simply chronicling the details of their demise.  As a result, the book is disappointing.  I expected to watch Rothbard debunk the standard civics case for the Constitution – to insist that the Articles fostered rapid economic growth, high individual liberty, and peace both between the U.S. states and between the U.S. and the world.  I expected him to enthusiastically defend the repudiation of war debt.  And I expected him to at least consider reconsidering his earlier support for the American Revolution and its many slave-holding philosophers of freedom.  Instead, Rothbard glosses over the Big Questions in favor of detailed multi-stage Constitutional vote analysis.

Admittedly, quantitatively comparing growth, freedom, and peace under the two colonial regimes would be difficult due to data limitations.  But there’s no excuse for ignoring the implications for revolutionary change.  In his engaging introduction, Newman depicts Rothbard as a dedicated supporter of the American Revolution:

Although the Revolution was enormously costly and resulted in the near destruction of the economy (through hyperinflation, military confiscation of goods, British pillaging of infrastructure and supplies, and the flight of British loyalists), the war was worth it since it led to the achievement of highly libertarian goals of inestimable value. Rothbard explains that the American Revolution was radical and led to the restriction of slavery in many areas, the end of feudalism, the emergence of religious freedom, democratic constitutions with increased suffrage, and revolutions in European nations.

Here’s the rub: How can the war (including the “near destruction of the economy”!) be “worth it” if the libertarian revolution gets cancelled a few short years later?  This is an astronomical price to pay for such a transient gain.  Sure, you could reply, “Well, the war would have been worth it if the Articles had endured.”  But that immediately raises a deeper question: Was the American Revolution even a prudent gamble?  The probability of victory aside, what is the probability of winning the war but losing the peace?  If your answer isn’t, “Very high,” I question your knowledge of the history of violent revolution.

Perhaps Rothbard would insist, “The Constitution was only a partial counterrevolution.  Many of the libertarian gains of the American Revolution endured.”  Then he could point to all the items in the preceding list: “the restriction of slavery in many areas, the end of feudalism, the emergence of religious freedom, democratic constitutions with increased suffrage, and revolutions in European nations.”  Given the hellish history of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, I’d say the latter “achievement” outweighs all the others.  In any case, Rothbard barely grapples with the counterfactuals.  How do we know slavery wouldn’t have been restricted anyway?  What’s the probability that the British would have restricted slavery earlier and more peacefully?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Rothbard also fails to grapple with the complex interaction between decentralization and mobility.  As I’ve explained before:

[D]oes decentralization alone really promote liberty or prosperity?  The mechanism is elusive at best. Imagine a world with a thousand sovereign countries of equal size.  This is far more decentralized than the status quo, right?  Suppose further, however, that there is zero mobility between these countries.  Labor can’t move; capital can’t move.  In this scenario, each country seems perfectly able to pursue its policies free of competitive pressure.  Why should we expect such policies to promote liberty, prosperity, or anything else?

The story would change, of course, if you combine decentralization with resource mobility.  In that case, each country’s government has to compete to retain labor and capital at home.  If you don’t make the customer happy, somebody else proverbially will.  But without this “universalist” mobility rule, decentralization leaves everyone under the rule of a preordained local monopolist.

Standard civics classes claim that under the Articles of the Confederation, interstate tariffs were a serious problem; they offered decentralized politics without free trade.  Rothbard only response is to downplay the severity of the regulation:

While Connecticut taxed imports from Massachusetts, and New York in 1787 moved to tax foreign goods imported from neighboring states, the specter of disunity and disrupting interstate tariff s was more of a bogey to sell the idea of a powerful national government than a real factor in the economy of the day.

Perhaps Rothbard’s right, but remember: interstate tariffs only had a few years to get online.  What would have happened to interstate tariffs in the long run if the Articles endured?  And doesn’t the question illustrate the critical insight that decentralization without resource mobility is no recipe for liberty?

To be clear, I enjoyed reading the final volume of Conceived in Liberty.  And to be fair, Rothbard probably would have greatly improved it before publication.  As it stands, though, Rothbard’s lost book dodges the fundamental questions that Mr. Libertarian famously relished.  If you want to read one of his posthumous works, you’d be better off with The Progressive Era – also beautifully edited and annotated by Patrick Newman.

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Politics Reason Behind a Lot of Anger

Why is there so much anger in the world?

People fight over statues; over differing opinions on gender, race, and policing. Over masks and whether to end the shutdown or keep society imprisoned until everyone is perfectly safe — which can never be.

Activists are even protesting to abolish the Fourth of July … without mentioning Independence Day. I guess if they are successful, future calendars will skip from the third to the fifth … unless the activists are confused.

What causes anger over such issues? Politics — where every win comes at someone’s expense.

Politics forces everyone along the same path. Legislation dictates things only our ethics and morals should determine. To understand the anger, notice how politics makes a difference of opinion into a life and death struggle. An unnecessary one.

It’s odd that something imagined to be a hallmark of civilized society is instead the root of most antisocial behavior. Trying to form a society around politics is like trying to form a pearl around a pellet of nuclear waste.

If you want to play politics, go ahead, but any results should only apply to you. You shouldn’t expect others to be bound by your results. They shouldn’t be expected to fund your political institutions or agencies. If you want it, you fund it. I have better uses for my money.

Just as there is no “one-size-fits-all” church, you shouldn’t be able to force everyone to participate in the same political system based on location. Or any political system at all. If you force everyone to play your game by your rules, or else, your game is toxic. Society would be better off without it.

Just imagine if no one were forced to fund a park or a statue. If your group builds a park, good for you. If you want to put a statue in the park to honor Willie Nelson, people can choose to visit your park or not. As long as they aren’t forced to subsidize it, they aren’t harmed.

If, however, you force people to chip in for the park and pay for statues and monuments to things they dislike, it’s no wonder people get angry. I do, too.

The way these things are currently done causes strife. It’s long past time to give it up and try something better. Something voluntary, based on unanimous consent. If you want to chip in, go ahead. If you’d rather not, go your own way. It’s the only civilized way to organize a society.

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Monsters, Equal Rights, Gun Policy Costs, & Politics (26m) – Episode 315

Episode 315 has Skyler giving his commentary on the following topics: behind every monster is a victim of childhood trauma; equal rights movements ignore individual rights; the costs of liberal gun policy cannot be negative uses of guns; why politics is so divisive; and more.

Listen to Episode 315 (26m, mp3, 64kbps)

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Immigration vs. Social Desirability Bias

Consider the following specimens of Social Desirability Bias.

1. This is my country, I would never want to live anywhere else.

2. Patriotism matters more than money!

3. I couldn’t bear the thought of my children not growing up as citizens of [my country of birth].

4. This is the greatest country in the world.

5. Nothing is more important than keeping our whole family together.

6. We’re nothing without our traditions.

7. Our identity matters more than gold.

8. We’ve got to solve our country’s problems our own way.

9. We don’t need foreign help to build a better country.

10. My country, right or wrong.

Claims like these are popular all over the world.  No matter how awful their country is, people love to proclaim their undying devotion to folk and land.  Why then have hundreds of millions of people left their countries of birth?  Because the migrants don’t literally believe this flowery talk.  Though almost everyone voices these sentiments, actions speak louder than words.  The act of migration says something like:

1. My country is subpar, I want to live somewhere better.

2. Money matters more than patriotism.

3. I can bear the thought of my children not growing up as [citizens of my country of birth].

4. This is not the greatest country in the world.  Not even close.

5. Enjoying a higher standard of living is more important than keeping our extended family together.

6. We’re going to dilute our traditions and adopt some foreign ones.

7. I would like more gold and less identity.

8. Our country isn’t going to solve its problems “its own way,” so I’m moving to another country that has its act together.

9. I need foreign help to build a better life.

10. My country is a major disappointment to me.

Quite a list of heresies!  You could demur, “This may be what migrants say with their actions.  All the people who don’t move, however, are saying the opposite.”  But this overlooks the glaring reality of draconian immigration restrictions.  At least a billion people would migrate if it were legal.  And since migration is a drastic step, belief in these heresies must be widespread indeed.

My point: Immigrants do what people aren’t supposed to say.  They are the living embodiment of the fact that nationalism and identity politics are mostly doth-protest-too-much rhetoric rather than earnest devotion.  As I’ve explained before:

[Note] the stark contrast between how much people say they care about community, and how lackadaisically they try to fulfill their announced desire.  I’ve long been shocked by the fraction of people who call themselves “religious” who can’t even bother to attend a weekly ceremony or speak a daily prayer.  But religious devotion is fervent compared to secular communitarian devotion.  How many self-styled communitarians have the energy to attend a weekly patriotic or ethnic meeting?  To spend a few hours a week watching patriotic or ethnically-themed television and movies?  To utter a daily toast to their nation or people?

The main reason people resent immigration is probably just xenophobia.  But a secondary reason, plausibly, is that every immigrant is a tiny beacon of unwelcome candor.  The act of immigration says, “Trying to fix my country of birth is a fool’s errand.  The people I grew up with are hopeless.  Instead, I’m going to personally fix my own life by moving to a new county that works.  It won’t be perfect, but I’m willing to suffer for years to make the switch.”

As an iconoclast myself, I love what the act of immigration says.  Most people, however, hear the implied heresy and recoil.

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Politics Fears (or Hates) Reality

Reality seems to offend the noisiest people these days. It’s not just that they don’t like it, they want to deny it even exists. And they demand you go along with them.

Especially when it contradicts their political agenda.

To this way of hallucinating, science isn’t real to them because it has too much “western, white male” influence. It doesn’t lead where they want to go. Nor (the belief goes) can you expect others to behave ethically when that’s not a path that their culture created.

And on and on and on.

Reality is reality even if you don’t like it. Even if it goes against your desire to force other people to pretend otherwise while facing the guns of government or the censorship of corporations. Or the wrath of the W0ke.

Maybe humans can’t really know reality in its deepest sense. It’s possible that’s how it is. I can still recognize non-reality when I encounter it. And some reality isn’t that hard to figure out.

One reality is that every human being has equal and identical rights. Every last one of us. It can’t be logically otherwise. No one can have the right or imaginary “authority” to violate those rights for any reason. No one has special rights just because they choose to see themselves as a victim or are otherwise mentally ill. You aren’t obligated to act as though someone’s mental issue dictates reality for the external world. Anyone who attempts to use force to achieve this goal is committing archation.

I get it: Sometimes reality sucks. I want to be able to time travel and change the past. I want a Firefly-Class spaceship and a real lightsaber and a collection of sci-fi guns of various kinds. And to easily accomplish something that earns me a billion dollars. But I’m not going to attack you just because reality is what it is and doesn’t hand me everything I want. That would be stupid. That would be politics.

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No, We’re Not All Antifa Now; But We Should Be

“I’ve occasionally encountered mass hysteria in other countries,” Nicholas Kristof writes at the New York Times. “In rural Indonesia, I once reported on a mob that was beheading people believed to be sorcerers, then carrying their heads on pikes. But I never imagined that the United States could plunge into such delirium.”

Kristof’s writing about panic over suspected “antifa activity” in the Pacific northwest, but I think he’s selling America short. We’re a nation built on mass hysteria. From the Know-Nothingism of the 1850s, to the Palmer Raids of a century ago, to the McCarthyism of the 1950s, to the New Red Scare (“Russiagate”) of the last four years, mass hysteria has been the perennial bread and butter of mainstream American politics.

I personally find the current freak-out over “antifa” — short for anti-fascist —  revealing.

With respect to fascism, there are three possible orientations: Fascist, anti-fascist, and politically neutral. If the whole idea of antifa has you up in arms, you’re clearly neither of the last two. Kind of narrows things down, doesn’t it?

Fascism isn’t an historical echo or a distant danger. It’s the default position of all wings of the existing American political establishment, from the “nationalist right” to the “progressive left.”

Those warring political camps are increasingly identity-based rather than ideological. They’re more interested in seizing the levers of power for the “correct” groupings — racial, sex/gender/orientation, economic, partisan, etc. — than they are in the nature of, and inherent dangers in, that power.

It’s that kind of vacuum of ideas that Lord Acton probably had in mind when he warned us that power tends to corrupt. And it’s certainly that kind of vacuum of ideas which the ideology pioneered, named, and described — “all within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state” — by Italy’s Benito Mussolini most easily fills.

Yes, many of those advertising themselves as “antifa” are just as much authoritarian statists — in a word, fascists — as their most bitter opponents.

And yes, both wings of the American political mainstream are  actively attempting to co-opt the term for their own uses at the moment — the “left” as a term of fake resistance to be channeled into business as usual voting, the “right” as an object of fear to be likewise channeled.

But false advertising, panic-mongering, and hostile takeoverism don’t negate the existence of the genuine article. If you’re not “antifa,” you’re “fa” or “fugue.” Pick a side.

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