Murray Rothbard: The Philosophical Crusader Against The State

By Victor Ji //

No matter which path you choose to walk down in life, there is one and one only social institution you are forced to deal with: the state. Rarely would we question the genuine value and very existence of the state, for it normally brand itself as “by and for the people” (normally in its constitution). Murray N. Rothbard, the intellectual founding father of the modern libertarian movement, insists that the state is an organ of oppression in practical terms and adds no concrete value to human communal life. 

Murray N. Rothbard is the intellectual descendant of the classical liberal tradition and the most infamous advocate for libertarian movement in the 20th century. Despite being an proud self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist (the word anarchism might sounds like chaos to many), upon closer inspection of some of his core thesis, we will find out that his intense vigilance against the state is not so much a result of greed for profit but more from a stance of personal political philosophy. Rothbard thinks that in order to determine what the necessary parameter we must set to limit the state’s power for the preservation of individual freedom, we must first begin from a “state of nature”, to see what exact function has the state served in its functional capacity.

If you are familiar with Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau’s work on the social contract, you must be no stranger to the ideas that we must first go from a state of nature where each man is endowed with a hypothetical set of dispositions to see how they would have interacted without an authority (the state) overseeing their actions. All three social contract theorists concluded that somehow human beings acting in individual will alone in their natural conditions will not construct an ideal condition for humanity as a whole, so we need to institute an objective overarching authority (the state) to intervene when necessary, to protect us from our own passions. 

Rothbard, being an independent thinker and a harsh dissenter, reverse engineered the social contract theorists’ conception of the state. The central methodology of Rothbard is to work from the present popularly conceived function of the state and work backwards to figure out the exact function of the state as well as how the state preserves its (in his mind illegitimate) existence.

Rothbard starts with analyzing what the state is not. The popular conception of the state, reckons Rothbard, is that it serves as a counterweight to the “private sector”, the nice big brother who uses amiable albeit sometimes inefficient means to achieve social ends. However, contends Rothbard, the state is not “us.” What does he mean by stating that the state doesn’t necessarily represent the citizenry? The modern state is built upon the premise of majoritarian rule: whatever is considered to be the principle endorsed by the majority is forced down the throats of the minorities. Therefore, Rothbard, being fiercely pro-individual rights, is against the fundamental tenet of modern state, that of majoritarian rule (mostly through representative democracy). Consider that if in every issue that the state executes upon, some fraction of the people disagree, then eventually we will find out that the state is there for no one in all the policies enacted. The only thing that the state will always seek to protect is its own existence. 

More realistically, held Rothbard, what actually distinguished the state from other forms of social institutions are two characteristics: 1) its monopoly of force and violence within a geographical area and 2) it obtains necessary revenue not by voluntary exchange but by coercion (taxation). The monopoly of violence on the state’s side is traceable back to Hobbes’ conception of the state of nature: he thought that in a state of nature, because of the scarcity of resources, man must be in a constant warfare with each other for the attainment of more resources by means of violence henceforth they must not be entrusted with the legitimate use of violence. Hobbes concluded that the state, being a supposed representative fatherly figure of all its subjects, is the proper organ in a geographical area to be entrusted with the right to wield force. The interesting second defining characteristic of the state deserves more of our attention: it is the only social institution that can legitimately use force but not production and exchange as its sustaining mechanism. The paradox of the state as a parasitic organ arises from two inherent contradictions during its inception: our dual capacity to be amiable collaborators in the marketplace and our concentrated power in a special institution to wage war and collect our money by force. In a Hobbesian state of nature, every man can use violence in every way it sees fit, but simultaneously they also (potentially) have the power to produce goods and services for their fellow man. Hobbes, being somewhat a pessimist about human nature, doesn’t think one will choose to do honest work but will instead resort to violence whenever possible. Hobbes reasons, the common citizen must surrender their right to arms yet retains the right to produce and exchange, leaving the right to arms to the state. Thus, we witness the birth of a truly peculiar entity, one with no inherent ability to produce or exchange, yet born with the natural right to violence when it sees fit. 

Now, Rothbard holds, we have arrived at the essence of the state: the systemization of the  predatory process over a given territory: the only entity with a justified political means to confiscate a citizen’s wealth without his own consent.

Now, if we would concede with Rothbard that the state provides a legal, orderly, systematic channel for the predation of private property and renders certain the lifeline of the “parasitic caste” within the society, there is one more important question to ask: how does the state, an objective entity, make sure all the subjects living under it willingly submit to its rule? By force? Or is it something more insidious?

Rothbard answers that while the monopoly in the use of force is the modus operandi of the state, for it to continue its healthy existence, it has to receive the passive endorsement of the majority of its subjects. The adjective passive is an important one, for it denotes a pre-conscious conception of the legitimacy of the state: we were told, or so we believe that the existence of the state itself is beyond the reasoning of the individuals, that it approaches the strength of the law of nature, like the law of gravity. How did such a state of affairs come to be? Rothbard indicted the intellectuals: the opinion-molders of the society. In Rothbard’s mind, intellectuals control the collective perception of the society, they can freely disseminate the ideas as they occupy such a niche in the division of labor; the remaining mass of the society would just have to end up absorbing most of what they put out. The primary motive behind such an alliance according to Rothbard is the inability of the intellectuals to thrive in the market economy. The market economy is a given in any modern society, but intellectuals produce nothing of concrete physical value in the marketplace, their work is of little immediate value to the law of supply and demand. The state, on the other hand, offers intellectuals lucrative prestige and posts to make great use of their work, henceforth incentivizing them to become the mouthpiece of the state. Through the pen-power of the intellectuals and the inevitability of the masses’ passive reception of most of what has come about in the state of divided labor, the state rejuvenates its existence indefinitely.

Murray Rothbard took on a high-profile enemy: the state. We typically see in political philosophy a lot regarding the origin of the state or the just operation (function) of the state but rarely does anyone ever try to dissect the state down to its flesh and bones and question its very existence. Rothbard’s heroic try at the State is like the tale of David and Goliath: even if you don’t agree with him, you would still marvel at his courage.

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