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Are There Any Limits to Natural Rights? | Mises Institute

Posted by M. C. on February 20, 2021

Natural rights of the sort that Rothbard favors are prepolitical. In other words, these rights aren’t dependent on the state for their existence. Each person is a self-owner and may acquire property in the “state of nature,” before there are states and state-created legal systems. Indeed, in Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism, there aren’t any states: people hire private defense agencies to protect their rights.

David Gordon

I’d like to discuss today an argument that is popular among some contemporary political philosophers. If this argument is correct, it undermines the sort of natural rights found in Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty. I hope that I am not spoiling the surprise by telling you immediately that I think the argument is wrong.

Natural rights of the sort that Rothbard favors are prepolitical. In other words, these rights aren’t dependent on the state for their existence. Each person is a self-owner and may acquire property in the “state of nature,” before there are states and state-created legal systems. Indeed, in Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism, there aren’t any states: people hire private defense agencies to protect their rights.

According to the argument I wish to examine, prepolitical rights make no sense because there are no ways to define the boundaries of these rights. If each person is a self-owner, when does self-ownership begin? Are children self-owners? What about abortion—is a woman, as the owner of her body, entitled to abort a baby she doesn’t want? What are the permissible limits of self-defense? Is your right to life entirely negative, i.e., other people must not use force against you, or threaten you with force, unless you have aggressed against them, or do you in some cases have the right to the aid of other people to preserve your life? If you are accused of a crime, what (if any) rights do you have to be tried by fair procedures? The questions multiply when we reach property rights. What is the correct principle of initial acquisition? What about intellectual property?

Given the lack of clear boundaries to natural rights, it is argued, the notion is useless in practice. Instead, we must start with the notion of autonomous persons who in particular societies decide what legal rights people have, being guided in so doing by local practices. As an example, the notion of property is in this view entirely a social construct. The government in taxing you is not taking away what you rightfully have acquired, because it is the government (backed by democratic decision) that has decided what you own in the first place.

There’s an obvious objection to this argument, but the defenders of the argument have a reply to it. The objection is that proponents of natural rights don’t set clear boundaries for these rights. But if you read Ethics of Liberty, you will quickly discover that Rothbard does answer the questions about boundaries posed above. You may accept or reject what he says, but how can it be reasonably maintained that his natural rights are useless because they lack clear boundaries?

The reply that the opponents of natural rights would offer is that other supporters of natural rights often disagree with Rothbard’s answers. Rothbard, e.g., is critical of patents, but Objectivists regard intellectual property as an essential right. Given such disagreements, don’t even supporters of natural rights have to rely on social convention to decide what the proper natural rights are? If so isn’t it the agreement of people within a society that is doing the work rather than the natural rights?

This reply is very weak. People may disagree, but that doesn’t show that one opinion can’t be correct and the others wrong. That is something that needs to be settled by argument. If you think Rothbard is wrong about strict liability, for instance, it won’t do just to point out that some people accept the “reasonable man” standard at odds with it. You need to show that Rothbard’s arguments don’t settle the issue if you want to push the claim that social convention must play the primary role in settling disputed questions about rights. It’s an interesting point, I think, that showing Rothbard is mistaken doesn’t help the social conventionalist. If you did that, you would be merely eliminating one option, Rothbard’s, from consideration, not showing that the remaining options require a convention-based resolution. For the conventionalist position to remain intact, you would need to show that Rothbard’s arguments for his position aren’t dispositive and also that other arguments don’t show that he is wrong. Then, strict liability would still be in the running but not a clear winner.

But suppose that it can’t be shown that there is a correct theory of natural rights that settles all important issues and that people in a particular society must rely in part on convention to fix the boundaries of these rights. It hardly follows from this that natural rights are useless and everything important rests on the social practices of a particular society. Suppose that we don’t know the exact boundaries of the correct principle of initial acquisition. We do know, though, that people have a natural right to acquire property, so that social conventions that altogether deny people the right to own property are ruled out.

Supporters of the conventionalist view usually don’t like private property rights very much, but they support the right to free speech. The same sort of problems they raise for property rights arise also for free speech. Does free speech cover libel and slander? False advertising? Disclosure of trade secrets? The fact, if it is one, that the concept of “free speech” leaves these questions unsettled does not throw everything open to social decision. A law that prohibited political speech would violate people’s free speech rights, even granting the conventionalist point. Why are property rights subject to different treatment? Further, as Rothbard has pointed out, once property rights are settled, that resolves controversies about free speech rights. People do not have a vague and unlimited right to free speech but rather the right to set regulations for speech on their own property. If you are on someone else’s property, you must follow his rules about speech.

There is another problem with the social conventionalist view, and it is a glaring one. Even if people in a society need in part to rely on social practices to settle disputed issues, how does the state, democratic or otherwise, enter the picture? Why couldn’t those in a stateless society settle such problems through negotiation? People in the grip of the view I’m criticizing tend to assume without argument that we must accept the framework of the modern national state. Murray Rothbard shows us a different way to proceed, and that is a principal element in his greatness as a political philosopher.

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.


Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

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Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy | Mises Institute

Posted by M. C. on April 25, 2019

Good article if one is of a philsophical bent.

Me…I have to open my Wikipedia before I start.

David Gordon

Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy. Gregory Salmieri and Robert Mayhew, Eds.  University of Pittsburgh Press. Xi + 460 pages.1

This excellent book mirrors in its choice of contributors the odd relationship between Ayn Rand and libertarianism. On the one hand, her own proposals for the political organization of society are a version of minimal state libertarianism, and her novels and essays have had an enormous impact on many libertarians. On the other hand, she not only denied she was a libertarian but denounced libertarianism in characteristically fierce fashion. The anarchist position of Murray Rothbard especially aroused her opposition.

Many of the contributors to the book are members of the “official” Objectivist organization of philosophers, the Ayn Rand Society, but others, including Matt Zwolinski, Peter Boettke, and Michael Huemer, are not Objectivists. The “official” Objectivists are more inclined than was Rand herself to acknowledge the similarity between her political thought and libertarianism, but, like her, they criticize libertarianism and denounce Rothbard’s anarchism.

In what follows, I shall address the criticisms of Rothbard’s anarchism, as these are likely to be of most interest to readers of Before turning to this, though, I should like to examine the more general criticism of libertarianism raised by the Objectivists, as this has considerable philosophical value.

Given the manifest similarity between Rand’s political proposals and minimal state libertarianism, why are Objectivists so critical of libertarianism? One is tempted to ask them, “All right, you don’t like anarchism, but why isn’t support for a minimal state that has no power to tax and for laissez-faire capitalism enough for you? What more do you want?” Their answer is that non-Objectivist libertarianism lacks proper philosophical foundations. In the absence of these foundations, libertarians are unable adequately to support their political conclusions.

As an example, Darryl Wright, a philosophy professor at Harvey Mudd College and a rising star among Objectivist philosophers, criticizes Rothbard for not grounding his non-aggression principle in normative ethics. Although Rothbard accepted an ethics of natural law, he also held that political philosophy was autonomous, and this was his fatal error: “The source of the difficulties with Rothbard’s conception of aggression. . .lies in a particular way of understanding self-ownership, which in turn proceeds from Rothbard’s commitment to what I will call the autonomy of political philosophy. By this I mean the view that political philosophy should be independent of normative ethics—that is, independent of any substantive ethical theory applicable to the whole of one’s life.” (p.107). More generally, Wright says, “Since Rand’s approach to philosophy is holistic, a proper understanding of the[non-initiation of force] principle requires us to see how it grows out of her more fundamental positions in ethics and epistemology. . .” (p.16)…

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