Monday, May 05, 2008

Rothbard contra Egalitarianism: A Quarter Century Later

Murray Rothbard was an iconoclast and, among his admirers, was considered a genius. A libertarian and disciple of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, Rothbard occupied a unique location among a more complex wing of the capitalism-socialism/state-anarchy debates: Rothbard was an eloquent pro-market, anti-statist, anti-war libertarian. Some would even call him an anarchist, and if I read his life correctly, he called himself that for some time. Throughout his life he was willing to work with those on the left in practical struggle against the excesses of the military-industrial complex. Those collaborations, however, ultimately proved incompatible, for him, with his love of markets, and utter refusal to consider their flaws.

A quarter century ago, Rothbard published what would become a minor classic of political literature, “Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature.” Young novice libertarians still read it with excitement, and old-timers smile broadly and assign it to their neophytes. It’s appealing because it purports to overturn a largely agreed-upon moral value. In that sense, it evokes the excitement of Atlas Shrugged or, more accurately, “The Virtue of Selfishness.” In whatever other ways they were at odds, the Randians and the Austrians agreed on matters of style. I think they were unconsciously preaching to their respective choirs, for whom the sound of an argument mattered more than its substance. Nothing much has changed on this point, and there are only so many ways to reassert the foundational premises of bourgeois apologetics.

Rothbard's curious choice of foils reveals that he is primarily concerned with arguing against Platonists and those who see ethics as akin to aesthetics. He is a foundationalist through and through, but also the most frustrating kind of foundationalist, one who picks and chooses various analytical representations to link to rhetorically compelling metaphysical assumptions.
If a theory is correct, then it does work in practice; if it does not work in practice, then it is a bad theory.

I'm sure this seemed like a very insightful statement in the 1960s. Now, like so many of Rothbard's points, it's trivially true, somewhat quaint, and also misleading. No self-respecting scholar would utter a sentence like “this theory is true.” A theory is never "true" to begin with and is not self-consciously constructed to be so. Political theories, in particular, can be rendered "false" in a variety of discursive or material ways. Remember, Rothbard will ultimately collapse to his own "theory" of "human nature" in order to explain the impracticality (and thus, for him, the "theoretical falsity") of egalitarianism. We are then free to point out "impracticalities" in his theory, rendering it false. All in all, a banal and dismal way to discuss political theories— and not the way we typically do so historically or practically.

This reliance on an overt metaphysical theory isn't something I'm interpreting Rothbard to say. He says it quite clearly:
To put it more precisely, if an ethical goal violates the nature of man and/or the universe and, therefore, cannot work in practice, then it is a bad ideal and should be dismissed as a goal. If the goal itself violates the nature of man, then it is also a poor idea to work in the direction of that goal.

He will spend the rest of the essay asserting a few iron laws of the nature of man and the universe (though remaining understandably vague as to their systemic justifications) and mischaracterizing the egalitarian political orientation as being devoted to an extremely absurd praxis of “equality.”

In one particularly important early section of the essay, Rothbard discusses two dystopian, anti-state stories: Hartley’s Facial Justice and Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” It is in reading this section that two things became clear to me: (1) Rothbard is a great critic of totalitarianism, and (2) Rothbard does not effectively link the critique of totalitarianism to a critique of “socialism,” or even social democracy, or any of the things he feels are horribly coercive, like taxation. In fact, and I know this to be the case, socialists can read Hartley and Vonnegut too. Hartley's distopia is one of privilege for a few and enforced scarcity for everyone else. This more resembles the dictators on the right in, say, Latin America, dictators supported by the United States as bulwarks against the communism Rothbard deplores.

The platonic "beauty" that saves the characters in Facial Justice is itself, being platonic, entrenched in a metaphysical scheme where, ironically for Hartley, and completely missed by Rothbard, transcendent beauty can only exist in contrast to enforced, mundane materiality. In the end, the normative message of individuals having the capacity to form their own identities and judgments is a vision opposed to the totalitarianisms of both corporate capitalism and chauvinistic collectivism. Rothbard would have known this if he'd bothered to read his French contemporaries, or even condescended to a sympathetic reading of Herbert Marcuse.

The same is true, perhaps to an even greater degree, for the Vonnegut work. George and Hazel Harrison were certainly rendered “mediocre” by the Handicapper General, under the rhetorical justification of “equality.” The emptiness of such equality is made obvious in the second half of the opening sentence of “Harrison Bergeron,” “and everyone was finally equal.” This is a grotesque caricature of egalitarianism, and Rothbard isn’t the only one who has misinterpreted Vonnegut in this way.

(For what it’s worth, towards the end of his life, Vonnegut became a contributor to many leftist publications and never professed any great love for capitalism. But then, alas, the far right reads Orwell incorrectly too…)

In a nutshell: Hartley and Vonnegut criticize distopian, totalitarian states where people's facial or physical features are "equalized" by force, through an appeal to an empty notion of “equality” that relieves, rather than empowers, people with the responsibility to help each other and stand in solidarity with each other. Rothbard, in turn, equates the violent, absurdly forced equalization of people's persons with taxation and income redistribution. He does this in order to apply the rhetorical force behind direct physical violence to persons and the metaphorical violence of paying taxes. That's fine, but that means such an unstated step in thinking is thoroughly criticizable itself. (Such a critique is beyond the scope of this essay, but here’s a hint: We are not, entirely, our wealth, and the generation of wealth is never, for the most part, individually achieved.)

At certain points, Rothbard's sophistry is almost embarrassing, because he begins so many arguments with hopeless mischaracterizations of that which he opposes; a kind of ad hominem and equivocation in one sweeping gesture:
What, in fact, is “equality”? The term has been much invoked but little analyzed. A and B are “equal” if they are identical to each other with respect to a given attribute. Thus, if Smith and Jones are both exactly six feet in height, then they may be said to be “equal” in height. If two sticks are identical in length, then their lengths are “equal,” etc. There is one and only one way, then, in which any two people can really be “equal” in the fullest sense: they must be identical in all of their attributes. This means, of course, that equality of all men—the egalitarian ideal—can only be achieved if all men are precisely uniform, precisely identical with respect to all of their attributes.

In short, the portrayal of an egalitarian society is horror fiction because, when the implications of such a world are fully spelled out, we recognize that such a world and such attempts are profoundly antihuman; being antihuman in the deepest sense, the egalitarian goal is, therefore, evil and any attempts in the direction of such a goal must be considered evil as well.

In other words, “equality” as an analytic concept means A and B are exactly the same. Egalitarians love equality, therefore they want to make everyone exactly the same. This mischaracterization, which eludes the eye of the sympathetic, is the basis of his appropriation of dystopian fiction, his ability to label egalitarians as pathological (see below), and his central rhetorical strategy: evoke an image so terribly unreasonable as to make the reader incredulous that anyone could believe such foolish things.

Later, Rothbard writes:
At the heart of the egalitarian left is the pathological belief that there is no structure of reality; that all the world is a tabula rasa that can be changed at any moment in any desired direction by the mere exercise of human will—in short, that reality can be instantly transformed by the mere wish or whim of human beings.

Although some post-structuralists are egalitarians, most egalitarians are not post-structuralists, nor does Rothbard convincingly argue that egalitarianism collapses into poststructuralism. He simply asserts a different set of “laws” of reality. Moreover, no egalitarian –certainly not Marx or the Marxists—has ever argued that reality can change merely through the exercise of a wish or a whim. This is the one passage where I find myself questioning my intellectual respect for Rothbard. Does he seriously believe these characterizations? Or is he guilty of felonious hyperbole?

In an effort to give credit for the points in the essay where he actually satisfied the criteria of “making an argument,” I began to catalogue Rothbard's metaphysical warrants:

1. the "Iron Law of Oligarchy" or, the tendency (unalterable for Rothbard) for people to become leaders and followers.
2. Jefferson's alleged argument about "natural aristocracy."
3. "the biological nature of man"

I’ll stop there. History, in totality, makes no judgment as to the tendency of divisions of labor to be ultimately determinative of positions of privilege. The very fact that people can think of ways to make workplaces, cities, and nations more “equal” in terms of material access (an equality that is not, in the least, of the stripe that causes gulags or Handicappers General) proves that oligarchy is not an iron law.

What about Jefferson’s “natural aristocracy?” Reading the reference in Jefferson’s original letter to Adams, it’s clear that Jefferson is criticizing a number of things that interfere with the ability of a society to choose its “natural” leaders. Among these are inequalities of wealth. Another interfering factor is the tendency of weaker-minded people to use force in place of ideas. All of these things are caused by the imposition of what, in risky modernist terms, we might call “unnatural hierarchy.” Rothbard’s libertarianism is capable of recognizing such sources of unnaturalness in governments and mobs, but not in the excessive accumulation of wealth.

As for Rothbard’s notions of the “biological nature of man,” I’ll just segue into his very weird discussion of feminism. We've been around the block so many times on this issue that Rothbard's quaintness is cute in places and irritating in others. We already know there are intimate biology-based connections between mother and child (and that those connections can be severed by unnatural "cultural" acts such as war, genocide, and extreme poverty). But we also know that fathers can find similar traits within themselves, and we've come a hell of a long way in our consciousness of how both two-parent and single-parent families function. Yawn, we know that men and women are built differently, but since we've also mastered the use of technology to overcome other "natural" barriers (strange for Rothbard to ignore this since capitalists usually love technology), we also have very nuanced ways of negotiating “biological differences.”

Other parts of Rothbard's gender analysis are borderline despicable and hopelessly out-of-date, such as his citation of "'the psychological consequences of different sexual postures and possibilities,' in particular the 'fundamental distinction between the active and passive sexual roles' as biologically determined in men and women respectively." But I will leave it to others to explain just how messed up such notions are…if others want to, that is. I mean, time is a valuable resource. But my take: One message of “feminism,” broadly speaking, is simply that biology need not be destiny, and that it should not account for varying layers of unwarranted privilege. This is one of the most important equivocations Rothbard makes, and it's the foundational equivocation of all of these seemingly erudite and dry-witted conservative essays against egalitarianism: "THERE ARE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN PEOPLE. IT'S BAD TO TRY TO MAKE EVERYONE THE SAME! CLASS PRIVILEGES ARE DIFFERENCES! RESPECT ALL DIFFERENCES!" Silliness.

Rothbard's arguments in the essay against "culture" (what we would today call "social environment") as an explanation for social inequality suffer from the same dated dichotomy. Decades of research and reflection have yielded the conclusion that one cannot tell where culture ends and nature begins, or vice versa. We know that people do change when their environment changes, and that beliefs and cultural practices tend to correspond to material and social situations. We also acknowledge the complexity that renders both old-school progressive and old-school social Darwinist claims problematic.

Rothbard’s dismissal of Trotsky’s ideal as fantasy is, again, a quaintly dated dismissal in the face of what we now know about the interaction between environment and consciousness—to say nothing of history itself. Genetics itself interacts with history. Advances in science and technology, including the self-reflective advances of a new generation of scientists seeking to avoid the arrogance of the past, cast nearly all of Rothbard’s oversimplified scientific descriptions into doubt, the categories themselves dated and unstable. If you think I am unfairly dismissing his arguments, try this thought experiment: Imagine him making entirely similar arguments in favor of our unalterable biological drive towards the social, our evolution-driven and neurological tendency towards collaboration; imagine him attributing his “division of labor” to the very necessity that work be coordinated between people. Imagine him subsequently using these aspects of our unalterable, iron nature to dismiss the arguments of those self-serving, thoughtless libertarians. In place of Stalinism, he could throw in starvation. His case would satisfy leftists’ longing for scientific validation (heck, I’d throw in with him), while being utterly unconvincing to those on the right.

In the end, there are two “critical” ways read Rothbard’s classic essay: On the one hand, Rothbard gave his readers--people who already agreed with him and were just looking for a quick, erudite-sounding justification--a delightfully circular argument: 'Rather than appealing to its external effects, we should assert that egalitarianism is categorically evil. It is categorically evil because it goes against human nature. We can discern that it goes against human nature by observing its inevitable external effects.'

On the other hand, Rothbard's ultimately circular essay demonstrates that some of the brighter pro-capitalist minds realize that their world of the powerful constantly grabbing more power is ultimately incompatible with a minimum quality of life for the world's poor, and if we're going to convince people that capitalism is a universal good (rather than being really good for some of us, kinda good for others, not so good for other, awful for others…), we'd better concentrate on abstract morality rather than material consequences. It is a strategy that has reared its head time and again, and will continue to do so as capitalist life grows more unstable for more people. Don't expect any such deployments to be any less clumsy than Rothbard's. And he was a pretty smart guy.

Ultimately, the problem with libertarianism is precisely what Rothbard claims is the problem with socialism: Libertarianism, with zero hint of irony or self-reflection, posits a metaphysical caricature in place of a theory of humanity. I will go a step further, go out on a limb, and say that the socialist picture of human nature is more nuanced, acknowledging that both freedom and determinism are true, taking into account the paradoxical relationship between them. But you don’t need to agree with me about that, and I won’t question your intelligence or your ethics if you disagree. It’s something we can discuss another time, perhaps. And I also don’t mean to imply that egalitarians –socialist and otherwise—aren’t often guilty of the same kinds of caricatures and oversimplifications. Ultimately, questions like those asked by Rothbard are thought-provoking, but nothing in this canonical Rothbard essay stripped me of confidence in the soundness of my beliefs, any of which I’m happy to debate when I have time to do so.

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