Big Discussion – Rothbard
Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018
Background on the author
Murray Newton Rothbard (1926-1995) was undoubtedly one of the preeminent proponents of the Austrian school of economic thought – in my estimation, second only to the great Ludwig Von Mises in terms of his economic and political analyses and insights. His contributions, which are of immeasurable value, cover economic, historical as well as political fields of study. His work is characterised by his ability to formulate complex, incisive theories and to present them in a simple but extraordinarily powerful way. He is, in my opinion, one of the most quotable economists to have ever written on the topic.
This week we will cover the topic of what the state is not as treated in Rothbard’s small but invaluable treasure, The Anatomy of the State. For those interested in the subject of economics or political science, but who are wary about engaging with some of his considerable tomes, such as Man, Economy, State or Power and Market (which together comprise over 1500 pages), this little gem of around 60 pages is the perfect introduction to the thinking of Rothbard and the aforementioned Austrian school.
The Big Discussion
Rothbard begins his enquiry by stating the various views of the state which seem to permeate society (only to later reject them all). These are the following: Some, he says, regard it as the pinnacle of society; others as a well-intentioned yet inefficient organisation for achieving social ends; finally, just about everybody, says Rothbard, believes it to be a necessary means for achieving the social ends which would otherwise have been impossible within the “private sector.”
Rothbard, having dismissed each of the assumptions mentioned above, elaborates by dismantling the notion that the state is in any way to be identified with society. Firstly, if it were the case that the state represented the collective will of society, in the sense that some may say “we are the government”, then any action performed by the government would automatically have to be deemed as voluntary on the part of the citizenry. Massive public debt, exorbitant tax burdens and even genocide via the government are not tyrannical, rather because they have public consent, one may even say that citizens are, in fact, “doing it to themselves.” The Jews in Nazi Germany were therefore not killed, but instead they committed suicide, since society is the government. Moreover, the question of government revenue also comes into play. Taxes are not, as is the case with the private sector, a form of voluntary exchange to the benefit of both parties. On the contrary, taxes are the use of compulsion, force or coercion and the threat of the jailhouse is used to force individuals to grant the government the fruits of their labour.
Rothbard presents scathing criticisms of the notion of the state. Although these and similar arguments may seem commonplace to individuals who find themselves within the sphere of libertarian or even anarcho-capitalist thought, they are nonetheless crucial in dismantling the fairy-tale surrounding the people’s understanding of the state – for as Rothbard himself writes, “the miasma of myth has lain so long over State activity that elaboration is necessary.”
Indeed, many may regard Rothbard as a radical. However, so many of his critiques are not only founded on historical proof all over the globe, they also form part of many of the basic tenets to which even statists subscribe. What is the notion of constitutionalism (flawed as it may be) if not an admission that the State must be reined in, as it will (by its very nature) encroach upon the rights of its citizens? The rule of law, similarly, attempts to place the State subordinate to a set of rules. Ineffective as these measures may be, they all confirm the notion that the State does not, in fact, represent the will of the people but rather seeks to maintain its monopoly on violence and the use of force within a territorial area.
A government that redistributes wealth from 30% of the population to the other 70% does not do so with the voluntary consent of the minority. It does not in any meaningful, or even in any vague sense, represent society or the will of the people. However, one can count on it to do whatever is necessary to perpetuate its position as the only institution that may legally employ force in order to obtain its revenue and to regulate the lives of its subjects.
At this juncture, one may wonder: “If the government is not then a body representing the will of society writ large, then what is it?” For that answer we will require another article, and I encourage the reader to follow this series.