Rothbard revisited

I called attention in a recent post to Prof. Gerard Casey’s reply to a critique of Murray Rothbard that I had posted some years ago at the old Right Reason blog. What follows is a response to Casey. (If they have not already done so, interested readers are urged to read both my original piece and Casey’s reply before proceeding, since I will not be recapitulating everything already said.)

The main point of my original piece was to show that, whatever one thinks of his writings on economics, Rothbard was a bad philosopher and therefore unjustified in the stridency with which he asserted some very extreme positions in moral and political philosophy and attacked those who disagreed with those positions. As I emphasized in that piece, the issue is not whether there might be some way or other to salvage this or that Rothbardian claim. The point is rather that Rothbard’s own arguments for his positions in ethics and political philosophy are extremely bad.

Casey begins his defense of Rothbard’s philosophical abilities by saying that “it is not all that difficult to find examples of fallacious, contentious or less-than-perfectly articulated arguments in the works of philosophers who, by general consensus, are far from being mediocre. One could instance David Hume’s treatment of infinite divisibility in A Treatise on Human Understanding, or cite J. S. Mills’ [sic] erstwhile proof of the principle of utility in Chapter IV of his Utilitarianism, or select Aquinas’s Third Way in the Summa Theologiae which, according to some critics, exhibits modal, quantifier shift, and scope fallacies!”

The comparison of Rothbard to Hume, Mill, and Aquinas might seem too risible to be worth responding to. But presumably Casey means to suggest, not that Rothbard was in their rank as a thinker, but only that these eminent philosophers vividly illustrate that an occasional lapse into fallacy does not entail that one has no talent as a philosopher. Fair enough. But I did not claim that Rothbard was a bad philosopher merely because he committed a fallacy here or there. I claimed he was a bad philosopher because his philosophical arguments were as a matter of course crude, superficial, and unoriginal even when otherwise interesting, that his most central philosophical positions maintained a crude and fallacious quality even when developed and restated over the course of several years, and that his absurd confidence in them was in any event out of all proportion to their actual merit. I focused on one of Rothbard’s key arguments in particular as an illustration, but I emphasized that the point was that the kinds of faults it exhibited could easily be found elsewhere in his writings. These faults cannot be attributed to the thinkers Casey mentions.

There are other problems with Casey’s examples in any event. The trouble with the Hume example is that it does not concern something central to Hume’s philosophy, whereas my Rothbard example concerned, again, his key argument in ethics and political philosophy. And contrary to popular belief (and as I show in my forthcoming book Aquinas) Aquinas’s Third Way in fact commits none of the fallacies Casey mentions. (This is yet another instance in which ignorance of the metaphysical assumptions underlying Aquinas’s theistic arguments has led modern commentators badly to misinterpret them.) To be sure, the Mill example is stronger, since the principle of utility is certainly central to Mill’s moral philosophy; and Casey could have added Berkeley’s “master argument” to the list too (though some would defend even Mill and Berkeley from the charge of fallacy). Still, Berkeley gave other and more interesting arguments for his immaterialism, and Mill’s body of significant philosophical work extends well beyond this one argument for utilitarianism, indeed well beyond ethics altogether. Similarly, Hume’s reputation, and Aquinas’s, are well-established apart from the arguments in question. (As my regular readers know, I do think Hume is quite overrated. But I do not deny that he was nevertheless an important philosopher.)

The trouble with Rothbard is that he has no generally recognized body of serious work in philosophy to which one could appeal, in defense of his philosophical significance, in the face of an attack on some particular argument. His handful of arguments in moral and political philosophy just are his philosophical oeuvre; if they are especially bad, his general badness as a philosopher is undeniable. (“But who ever thought Rothbard was a serious philosopher in the first place?” you ask. Well, Rothbardians think he was; indeed, they regard him as a kind of “renaissance man,” and their absurd overestimation of his significance in the history of thought is comparable to Objectivists’ overestimation of Ayn Rand’s significance.)

But let’s move on to the details of Casey’s reply. In my original piece, I set out four main lines of criticism of Rothbard, and Casey’s paper is divided into sections corresponding to each of them, which he labels “Feser’s First Criticism,” “Feser’s Second Criticism,” etc. (with some sub-sections responding to particular issues arising in the course of dealing with each line of criticism). For ease of exposition I will respond to Casey section by section, each section of what follows corresponding to one of his sections or sub-sections. Hopefully this will make our exchange easier to follow that it otherwise would be.


Casey notes that I object that the principle of self-ownership doesn’t follow from the premises Rothbard seems to adduce in support of it, and he concedes that it does not follow from them. But this is irrelevant, Casey says, because Rothbard was not trying to argue for the principle of self-ownership in the first place; he intended it instead as an axiom. Hence my objection is (Casey holds) misdirected.

Now it is true that Rothbard sometimes refers to the thesis of self-ownership as an “axiom.” Still, there are two problems with Casey’s line of defense. First of all, if Rothbard seriously intended the principle of self-ownership as an axiom, then that surely only bolsters my claim that he was a bad philosopher. For the principle of self-ownership is extremely controversial; whether or not it is true, there are many people – including intelligent, rational, and well-informed people – who do not believe that it is. It is in this respect very different from other principles often put forward as axiomatic – the principle of non-contradiction, for example – which have a “self-evident” character and which very few people have ever seriously denied. Hence it is neither at all prima facie plausible to suggest that the thesis of self-ownership be taken as axiomatic, nor wise as a strategy for convincing people to accept a political philosophy that is extremely controversial (as anarcho-capitalism is) to base it on an equally controversial first principle. Even a non-philosopher can see this. Surely a non-mediocre philosopher would have seen it too.

Secondly, in dealing with this first criticism, Casey does not quote in their entirety the relevant passages from For a New Liberty and “Justice and Property Rights.” I do quote the entire For a New Liberty passage toward the beginning of my original piece. The reader who goes back and takes a look at it will see that Rothbard does indeed clearly give an argument – let’s call it the “reductio argument,” since he tries to reduce the denial of self-ownership to absurdity – in defense of the thesis of self-ownership.

Now it is also true, as Casey says, that it is a logical solecism to argue for an axiom or first principle. But given the textual evidence, what follows from this is not that Rothbard didn’t argue for the principle, but that since he did argue for what he claimed was an “axiom,” he was even more muddleheaded than I let on in my original piece. This judgment is given further support by another passage from For a New Liberty where Rothbard asks of what he calls the “nonaggression axiom,” “how is this axiom arrived at? What is its groundwork or support?” and suggests that “there are three broad types of foundation for the libertarian axiom… the emotivist, the utilitarian, and the natural rights viewpoint” (p. 26). How can an axiom be “arrived at” or given a “foundation”? And even if there is some sense in which it can (see below) how is it even intelligible to suggest that that foundation might in theory be utilitarian or emotivist? (Obviously Rothbard himself rejected utilitarian and emotivist approaches; the point is that if some moral principle really is axiomatic, the very idea of an emotivist or utilitarian “foundation” for it cannot even arise in the first place. For if a principle is emotive in content then it is non-cognitive and therefore cannot be an axiom; and if it is supported by utilitarian considerations, then those considerations are logically prior to it and, again, it is therefore not axiomatic.)

Furthermore (and as the passage just quoted indicates) while Rothbard sometimes speaks of self-ownership as axiomatic, he also often speaks instead of the “nonaggression axiom” as what is fundamental to libertarianism, where the “nonaggression axiom” rules out the initiation of violence or the threat of violence against another person or his property. This is evidently a different principle from the self-ownership principle, though there is obviously a connection between them. Indeed, Rothbard treats the principle of self-ownership as a justification for the nonaggression principle: the reason you should not initiate violence against others is that they own themselves. But if the nonaggression principle is itself justified only by reference to the self-ownership principle, in what sense is it “axiomatic”? And if it is not axiomatic – if Rothbard’s reference to the “nonaggression axiom” is not meant seriously (given that the nonaggression principle is actually something he thinks needs to be justified by reference to some other principle) – then the fact that he sometimes refers to the principle of self-ownership as an “axiom” does not show that he really believed it to be strictly axiomatic either.

Hence, either Rothbard was not serious about treating self-ownership and/or nonaggression as axiomatic – that is, he was using “axiom” in some loose, popular sense and not a technical philosophical sense – or, again, he was serious about it, and thus was simply muddleheaded in raising the question of what “foundation” one ought to give such principles. Either way, Casey’s first line of defense fails.


Now Casey also suggests, in the next section of his article, that what I have called Rothbard’s “reductio argument” be understood, not as a direct argument for the thesis of self-ownership, but rather as an indirect defense of the sort that tries to show that anyone who denies self-ownership must be led into a performative self-contradiction. This would be an application of what is known as the method of “retortion,” and it is sometimes deployed in defense of axioms, as Aristotle deploys it in defense of the principle of non-contradiction. So, while a direct argument for an axiom would be a solecism, an indirect defense of the retortion sort is perfectly legitimate; and this, Casey claims, is what Rothbard was up to.

But there are three problems with Casey’s suggestion that the “reductio argument” was intended as an application of the method of retortion. First, while Rothbard deploys the “reductio argument” in For a New Liberty, where he makes much of the idea that libertarianism rests on an “axiom” of non-aggression or (alternatively) self-ownership, he also deploys versions of the same argument in both “Justice in Property Rights” and The Ethics of Liberty, where, interestingly, the “axiom” idea does not play a role. But if this argument was not intended as an application of the retortion strategy in the latter two works (since there is no talk there of an “axiom” of self-ownership), but rather as a direct argument for self-ownership, then we have good reason to think it was intended as a direct argument in For a New Liberty as well (where, as we have seen, Rothbard’s use of the term “axiom” is very slippery in any event).

Moreover, even if Rothbard shifted strategies between For a New Liberty and the later works – that is, even if he intended his argument as an application of the retortion strategy in the earlier work but not in the later works – that would hardly help Casey’s defense. For it would constitute a tacit admission on Rothbard’s own part that the “axiom” approach is implausible and should be abandoned. And in that case, Casey’s appeal to the “axiom” interpretation as a way of rescuing Rothbard’s arguments from my criticisms would be undermined.

Second, the retortion interpretation of what I have called Rothbard’s “reductio argument” is implausible even apart from these textual considerations. For the “reductio argument” goes well beyond the appeal to performative self-contradiction that is central to the retortion strategy, making reference as it does to various empirical economic claims.

Third, even if Rothbard really did for all that intend the “reductio argument” as an exercise in retortion, it is still a very bad argument, for all the reasons set out in my original piece. Indeed, given all the problems outlined in that piece, it is an even worse argument if interpreted as an exercise in retortion, since the whole point of retortion arguments is to provide a crisp and conclusive proof that will close off any further debate.

In my original piece, I noted that Rothbard fails to consider and respond to a number of obvious alternatives to self-ownership that a critic might put forward. Casey considers each of these in turn:

The “no one owns anybody” alternative:

Rothbard argued that “since ownership signifies range of control, [the claim that no one owns anybody, not even himself] would mean that no one would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly vanish.” In response, I pointed out that “while having ownership of something does imply having a range of control over it, having a range of control over it doesn’t imply ownership … Animals have a range of control over their environment, but since ownership is a moral category implying the having of certain rights, and animals (by Rothbard’s own admission) have no rights, it follows that they have no ownership of anything. And of course, their lack of ownership of anything hasn’t caused animals as a whole to ‘vanish,’ ‘quickly’ or otherwise.”

Casey suggests that I am interpreting Rothbard uncharitably here, and that he intended the claim that “ownership signifies range of control” not as a conditional – in which case he would be guilty of affirming the consequent (since from “If I own x, then I have a range of control over x” it doesn’t follow that “If I have a range of control over x, then I own x”) – but rather as a technical definition and thus a biconditional. In particular, for Casey, what Rothbard is saying in the passage in question is that “the term ‘own’ in the context of one’s body” entails by definition “the right to control one’s body free of coercive interference.”

One problem with this move is that it simply does not fit the textual evidence. In the passage in question, Rothbard doesn’t say that “ownership of one’s body signifies the right to a range of control over it” but rather merely that “ownership signifies range of control.” That is to say, in this particular passage Rothbard is evidently concerned with ownership in general and not merely with self-ownership; and he is not making the (normative) point that ownership entails a right, but rather the (descriptive) point that it entails certain practical abilities such as the ability to feed, clothe, and shelter oneself.

Another, related problem is that Casey’s proposal entirely strips Rothbard’s argument of whatever force it might have had. If Rothbard is saying that the rejection of self-ownership would entail the practical impossibility of doing what is necessary to stay alive, then he is making an interesting claim that, if true, would constitute very strong grounds for endorsing the thesis of self-ownership. But if he is saying only that the rejection of self-ownership would entail the rejection of a “right to control one’s body free of coercive interference,” then he is not saying anything his critic doesn’t already know. The critic can say “Yes, of course denying self-ownership entails denying such a right. But so what? Since I deny self-ownership, I’m quite happy to deny also that there is such a right. What you need to show is that denying self-ownership would also entail something that I would not want to accept – such as the extinction of the human race. And your merely definitional point does nothing at all to show that.”

The “God owns us” alternative:

In response to my point that Rothbard fails even to consider the possible objection that it is God, rather than we, who own us, Casey points out that I myself once asserted in my book On Nozick that “someone might respond that God owns us, so that we cannot own ourselves … But self-ownership is no more inconsistent with belief in God than private property is.” He then says that “Professor Feser is entirely within his rights to change his mind on the matter of self-ownership, if that is what he has in fact done, but he would surely not wish to have it held against his competence as a philosopher that he once endorsed a position that is substantially the same as that put forward by Rothbard.”

But this is weak even as an ad hominem. There is no inconsistency between what I said in On Nozick and what I said in criticism of Rothbard. For my criticism of Rothbard was not that there is no way to reconcile self-ownership with God’s ownership of us. My criticism of Rothbard was rather that he did not even address the issue in the first place, even though it is (as Casey himself acknowledges) an objection that many theists might naturally suppose (whether correctly or incorrectly) has force against the thesis of self-ownership. (Why Casey thinks Rothbard himself held “substantially the same position” as the one I took in On Nozick is something he does not tell us.) Nor is it any good to say, as Casey does, that Rothbard should not be expected to address every possible criticism, since the objection at hand is hardly an obscure one, raising as it does an issue that goes back at least to Locke. Moreover, Rothbard was famously on friendlier terms with theists than many other contemporary libertarians have been, and in other contexts more sensitive to their concerns than (say) a Rand or a Nozick would have been. There is simply no excuse for his having failed to address this issue.

Moreover, to say that self-ownership can be reconciled with God’s ownership of us does not entail that a radically libertarian conception of self-ownership can be reconciled with it. For example, Locke, who claims both that God owns us and also that there is nevertheless a sense in which we own ourselves, denies, on theological grounds, that our self-ownership rights can possibly be absolute. In particular, for Locke, they cannot be strong enough to allow either suicide or the selling of oneself into slavery. (See my book Locke for detailed discussion of this issue.) And since Casey raises the question of my current views on this matter, I should note for the record that they have indeed changed: I would now say that the standard contemporary libertarian conception of self-ownership is not compatible either with classical natural law theory or with theism. (Some of the reasons for this judgment are given here, and my current views on self-ownership are developed in my essay “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation,” forthcoming in Social Philosophy and Policy.)

The various “partial ownership of others” alternatives:

Casey’s treatment of these alternatives is brief, and can be found on page 9 of his essay. Go read it if you haven’t already, because since I’m not even clear what his argument is supposed to be, I fear I might misrepresent it if I try to summarize it.

In response to my criticism of Rothbard here, Casey says that “ownership implies the right to dispose of one’s possessions in any way one chooses, subject to the limitations of not infringing upon the rights of others. To the extent that one cannot so dispose, to that extent one is not an owner.” I can only speculate that his point is that talk of “partial ownership” in my proposed alternatives is therefore somehow suspect: one either owns something or one doesn’t. But Casey himself uses the qualifier “to that extent,” which appears implicitly to acknowledge that ownership can be partial. And that it can be partial is in any case obvious from everyday experience. For example, you and your roommate might buy a car together and come to some agreement as to who can drive it and when. True, to the extent that you can’t drive it just whenever you want, “you are not an owner,” but only to that extent; and this is just a roundabout way of saying that you and your roommate are each partial owners, rather than either being a complete owner. So, I am not clear how what Casey says is supposed to be a problem for my criticism of Rothbard.

Casey also suggests that Rothbard’s assertion of “the absurdity of ‘proclaiming that every man is entitled to own a part of everyone else, yet is not entitled to own himself’” shows that there is something inherently fishy in the very idea of everyone having partial ownership of everyone else. For that idea too entails (Casey claims) “the peculiar situation of people being able to own all or some of other people but not able to own themselves.” Again, I am not at all clear what Casey is talking about. The “partial ownership of others” scenarios in question do not involve “people being able to own all or some of other people but not able to own themselves.” Rather, they involve people who do own themselves at least partially while also having partial ownership of others. Hence the absurdity Rothbard thinks he sees in the scenario he describes is not even relevant to the cases I was describing. Casey seems to be just insisting dogmatically that ownership is all-or-nothing, when whether this is the case or not is precisely (part of) what is in question.


One of Rothbard’s claims was that to assert a right of ownership over others entails asserting that those others are subhuman. In response, I pointed out that some defenders of slavery would deny this, and insist that recognizing the full humanity of others is consistent with claiming a right to keep them as slaves. Once again, I am not clear about what Casey’s reply to this objection is supposed to be. It seems to me he does little more than simply re-assert Rothbard’s position. He does say that any claim on the part of some to have ownership rights over others would have to be “grounded in some significant difference between the two groups. Accidental differences of height or weight, or hair colour or language will obviously not suffice to ground such a right in one group of human beings as against another.” True enough. But it doesn’t follow that the difference in question would entail that the one group is less human than the other. For example, a would-be slave owner might try to argue that while he and his prospective slave are both human, the (alleged) fact that the slave has a much lower degree of intelligence shows that he is more like a human child than a human adult and thus cannot be trusted to run his life for himself. To answer such a would-be slave owner, then, one must do more than merely point out that slaves are human.

For what it is worth, classical natural law theory would absolutely rule out chattel slavery, not on the grounds of the sort of radical self-ownership Rothbard affirms, but rather on the ground that each human being has a natural end to which all other ends – including those of a would-be slave owner, but including also his own contingent ends – are subordinate. That is to say, since I am ordered by nature to certain ends, I cannot be turned away from them by some other human being, as if I were his property; but neither do I have a natural right to do just whatever I feel like doing with myself, as if I were, in some strong sense, my own property. Libertarians often claim that the only way to show that chattel slavery is wrong is to affirm (their understanding of) self-ownership. But in fact, the actual, natural law reasons why chattel slavery is wrong also entail that libertarianism is wrong. (Classical natural law theory does allow that some lesser forms of servitude – a life-long work arrangement as punishment for a crime, say, or as a way of paying off a debt – can in principle be legitimate, but in practice are too fraught with moral hazard to be justifiable.)

Here as elsewhere, though, the issue is not whether Rothbard’s position is or is not correct or defensible. The point is that Rothbard’s own arguments for his position are subject to obvious objections that he does not even consider.


Rothbard asserted that “allowing Class A to own Class B means that the former is allowed to exploit, and therefore to live parasitically, at the expense of the latter. But this parasitism itself violates the basic economic requirements for life: production and exchange.” In response, I pointed out that “animals do not engage in ‘production and exchange,’ certainly not in the laissez-faire economics sense intended by Rothbard, but they are obviously alive.”

In defense of Rothbard, Casey says: “Rothbard is clearly not saying that those who do not engage in production and exchange are not alive. If he had claimed this, there would be some point to Feser’s animal counterexample.” Well, of course Rothbard wasn’t saying that, but neither was I claiming that he was. The question isn’t whether those who don’t engage in production and exchange in Rothbard’s sense will instantly die. The question is whether life could continue over time without production and exchange. Rothbard is evidently claiming that it could not; as Casey puts it, “Rothbard’s point, if I understand it correctly, is an economic one to the effect that production and exchange are substantive human activities that are essential to human survival.” But that Rothbard is wrong is obvious from the animal example. Animals don’t ‘produce’ or ‘exchange’ things in the economic sense, and yet they are able to sustain themselves in existence. Human beings could do the same if they needed to, hunter-gatherer style. To be sure, this wouldn’t be a very satisfying way of life for us civilized people, but that’s beside the point. Rothbard is trying to show that unless you accept his conception of self-ownership, you are logically committed to a system that would make continued human life impossible. And he simply fails to come anywhere close to showing that. Indeed, it is obvious that he fails to show it – the animal counterexample is hardly that difficult to come up with – which was exactly my point. Here, as elsewhere, Rothbard makes preposterously bold claims without even bothering to address obvious possible objections.

There are also obvious difficulties with Rothbard’s claim that the “parasitism” of one group living off another is inconsistent with the system of production and exchange. One problem is that it obviously isn’t true: By Rothbard’s own anarcho-capitalist lights, the history of the human race is largely a history of “parasites” (e.g. governments) living off of the wealth generated by those who produce and exchange. If such “parasitism” is incompatible with a system of production and exchange, how has this system been able to survive so long, “parasites” and all?

Of course, Rothbard might claim that, even if this is possible as a practical matter, there is no economic principle that could justify it. But (a critic might ask) since it is practically possible, how could any economic principle that ruled it out itself be justified? Wouldn’t the centuries-long empirical, practical success of such a “parasitic” system falsify any such economic principle? Alternatively, Rothbard might hold that such parasitism is ruled out by a moral rather than economic principle. But if so, it cannot be the principle of self-ownership that rules it out, because that would make the argument in question – which is intended to establish self-ownership – a circular one.

Moreover, it has to be a moral principle strong enough to rule out, not just slavery – which, as we have seen above, there is ample moral reason to reject in any case – but all forms of “parasitism,” since Rothbard’s claim seems to be that parasitism as such is incompatible with production and exchange. But such a principle would therefore entail that children, elderly parents, the infirm, etc. – all of whom are “parasites” in Rothbard’s sense, since they live “at the expense” of others without producing or exchanging – have no right to our assistance. Some Rothbardians would no doubt try to fudge this obscene consequence by claiming that we have in many cases “consented” to help such people, so that our obligations to them are contractual and thus compatible with the system of production and exchange. This is not only ad hoc and implausible – such a libertarian reduction of all human relationships to economic ones is, for my money, as preposterous and repulsive as the Marxist version – but clearly won’t cover every case even by the Rothbardian’s own lights. Fetuses resulting from unplanned pregnancies and cripples without friends, families, marketable skills, or a nearby charity are just out of luck in a Rothbardian “society.” (Indeed, for Rothbard, unwanted unborn children must be regarded as “coercive parasites” – which, from a classical natural law theory point of view, is pretty much a reductio ad absurdum of his entire moral and political philosophy.)

Any moral principle strong enough to get Rothbard what he needs in order to salvage the argument in question would, then, be either question-begging or prima facie highly implausible. But again, whether such a principle could ultimately be defended is not what is at issue. The point is that the potential problems with Rothbard’s position should be obvious, and yet he failed even to consider them.

So, Casey’s defense of Rothbard fails. Indeed, our consideration of it has indicated that Rothbard may have been an even worse philosopher than I let on in my original post. Which is saying something.
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