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Rothbard's Bad Scholarship on Godwin and Popper

I know some bad things about Murray Rothbard (like his view that abortion is justified by the property rights of the mother against a trespasser, his belief that children are property and that parents are not obligated to feed their children, his attack on Objectivism, and his anti-semitism). But I've seen some merit in his work on economics, and I've begun reading his book An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought. I mostly like it so far, but one must be careful not to trust everything. A particularly interesting part, to me, was the discussion of Aristotle, which I thought was good. It was a lot like what Objectivists say about Aristotle. I don't know how much this is because of Rothbard's knowledge of Objectivism, and how much it's a standard non-Objectivist view. Reading about Aristotle on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or Wikipedia is rather different than the Objectivist or Rothbardian interpretation. I tried to google for material on Aristotle similar to the Objectivist view, and found this page ... but I checked and the authors are Objectivists.

Here are some new Rothbard errors I've discovered (italics in quotes are added by me, unless noted):

The continual progress, onward-and-upward approach was demolished for me, and should have been for everyone, by Thomas Kuhn's famed Structure of Scientific Revolutions.[5] [italics in original]

See the replies to Kuhn by Karl Popper and by David Deutsch. (Deutsch's writing on this subject is more accessible and more general, so it's what I'd recommend first if you're interested.)

Related to Kuhn (a critic of Popper) is Rothbard's completely false hostility to Popper in The Present State of Austrian Economics:

For my purposes, I am ignoring the allegedly wide gulf between the earlier positivists with their “verifiability” criterion and the Popperites and their emphasis on “falsifiability.” For those far outside the logical empiricist camp, this dispute has more of the appearance of a family feud than of a fundamental split in epistemology. The only point of interest here is that the Popperites are more nihilistic and therefore even less satisfactory than the original positivists, who at least are allowed to “verify” rather than merely “not falsify.”

Popper is not a positivist, nor similar to one. This is totally ignorant, yet he writes about it professionally (rather than being aware of his ignorance and leaving this matter to others).

Going back to An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, I searched it for discussion of Godwin and Burke, who are thinkers where I could readily judge the quality of Rothbard's work, offhand, from my own expertise. Burke isn't mentioned at all, which is an error in a detailed book which gives attention to many lesser known figures. (Burke is fairly well known in general, but not for his comments on economics, even though he made many of them.) Rothbard did very extensive research for this book, but somehow omitted Burke. An example of Burke's relevance, from an 1800 biography of Burke, which has been quoted in many more recent books:

[Adam] Smith, [Burke] said, told him, after they had conversed on subjects of political economy, that he was the only man, who, without communication, thought on these topics exactly as he did.

Adam Smith is a major focus of Rothbard's attention, so Burke was worth discussing at least a little.

Rothbard's treatment of Godwin was much worse. He brings up Godwin briefly in relation to Malthus and makes egregious errors:

In his Utopian belief in the perfectibility of man

The "perfectibility" of man is not a Utopian belief, it means that man can be improved without limit (without reaching an end to progress), not that man can or will reach perfection. The improvement includes both improvement of ideas and of technology. This is a major theme of Deutsch's The Beginning of Infinity, which is titled for this theme and includes Godwin in the bibliography.

William Godwin, on the other hand, was the world's first anarcho-communist, or rather, voluntary anarcho-communist. For Godwin, while a bitter critic of the coercive state, was an equally hostile critic of private property.

That's just not what Godwin says in his material on property in Political Justice.

Godwin believed, not that private property should be expropriated by force, but that individuals, fully using their reason, should voluntarily and altruistically divest themselves of all private property to any passer-by.

Rothbard doesn't provide any quote or citation for this false claim. I will, nevertheless, offer some quotes from Political Justice to refute it, from book 8 (of 8), Of Property.

Of property there are three degrees.

The first and simplest degree is that of my permanent right in those things the use of which being attributed to me, a greater sum of benefit or pleasure will result than could have arisen from their being otherwise appropriated. It is of no consequence, in this case, how I came into possession of them, the only necessary conditions being their superior usefulness to me, and that my title to them is such as is generally acquiesced in by the community in which I live. Every man is unjust who conducts himself in such a manner respecting these things as to infringe, in any degree, upon my power of using them, at the time when the using them will be of real importance to me.

It has already appeared[1] that one of the most essential of the rights of man is my right to the forbearance of others; not merely that they shall refrain from every thing that may, by direct consequence, affect my life, or the possession of my powers, but that they shall refrain from usurping upon my understanding, and shall leave me a certain equal sphere for the exercise of my private judgement. This is necessary because it is possible for them to be wrong, as well as for me to be so, because the exercise of the understanding is essential to the improvement of man, and because the pain and interruption I suffer are as real, when they infringe, in my conception only, upon what is of importance to me, as if the infringement had been, in the utmost degree, palpable. Hence it follows that no man may, in ordinary cases, make use of my apartment, furniture or garments, or of my food, in the way of barter or loan, without having first obtained my consent.

The second degree of property is the empire to which every man is entitled over the produce of his own industry, even that part of it the use of which ought not to be appropriated to himself.

Godwin didn't think people should give away their property to random people, he thought they should have property rights but sometimes, due to rational argument, give some property, as a gift, to someone who had a better use for it. I think trade should be emphasized over gifts and that Godwin wasn't a great economist, but Godwin did support private property and the free market, and was an individualist.

It is not easy to say whether misery or absurdity would be most conspicuous in a plan which should invite every man to seize upon everything he conceived himself to want.... We have already shown,[3] and shall have occasion to show more at large,[4] how pernicious the consequences would be if government were to take the whole permanently into their hands, and dispense to every man his daily bread.

Note the anti-communism.

The idea of property, or permanent empire, in those things which ought to be applied to our personal use, and still more in the produce of our industry, unavoidably suggests the idea of some species of law or practice by which it is guaranteed. Without this, property could not exist. Yet we have endeavoured to show that the maintenance of these two kinds of property is highly beneficial.

Godwin supports the protection of property.

For, let it be observed that, not only no well informed community will interfere with the quantity of any man's industry, or the disposal of its produce, but the members of every such well informed community will exert themselves to turn aside the purpose of any man who shall be inclined, to dictate to, or restrain, his neighbour in this respect.

No one should interfere with anyone's property rights, and people who try to should be stopped.

The most destructive of all excesses is that where one man shall dictate to another, or undertake to compel him to do, or refrain from doing, anything (except, as was before stated, in cases of the most indispensable urgency) otherwise than with his own consent. Hence it follows that the distribution of wealth in every community must be left to depend upon the sentiments of the individuals of that community.

What more does Rothbard want from property rights than that men use their minds in order to use their property in the way they see fit? If Godwin had his way, the result would be a capitalist dream, not a communist society.

But, if reason prove insufficient for this fundamental purpose, other means must doubtless be employed.[9] It is better that one man should suffer than that the community should be destroyed. General security is one of those indispensable preliminaries without which nothing, good or excellent can be accomplished. It is therefore right that property, with all its inequalities, such as it is sanctioned by the general sense of the members of any state, and so long as that sanction continues unvaried should be defended, if need be, by means of coercion.

Godwin, an early anarchist of sorts, who hated violence, was still willing to recommend that the government use violence in defense of property rights, even for unjust types of property that were in existence at the time (think of feudalism and serfdom kinda stuff), let alone for property rights to the product of one's industry.

The arguments however that may be offered, in favour of the protection given to inheritance and testamentary bequest, are more forcible than might at first be imagined.

Godwin defends inheritance of property, too.

The first idea of property then is a deduction from the right of private judgement; the first object of government is the preservation of this right. Without permitting to every man, to a considerable degree, the exercise of his own discretion, there can be no independence, no improvement, no virtue and no happiness. This is a privilege in the highest degree sacred; for its maintenance, no exertions and sacrifices can be too great. Thus deep is the foundation of the doctrine of property. It is, in the last resort, the palladium of all that ought to be dear to us, and must never be approached but with awe and veneration.

The view of property as being implied from the right of private judgment is the best and most correct view of the matter. Godwin is a great liberal thinker, who Rothbard doesn't appreciate. Godwin is, in this respect, more (classical) liberal than Rothbard, and closer to Objectivism which also emphasizes reason in its defense of man's rights. (Objectivism says men have one fundamental right, the right to life, and this implies "the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being". Property rights are the implementation of this.)

And let me repeat what that last sentence says, in more modern words (palladium means source of protection, safety or preservation): Property rights should always be approached with awe and veneration, because property rights are what protect everything good. Rothbard majorly failed at scholarship.

[Godwin] was, after all, not a scholar of population theory, and he had no immediately effective reply. It took Godwin all of two decades to study the problem thoroughly and come to an effective refutation of his nemesis. In On Population (1820), Godwin came to the cogent and sensible conclusion that population growth is not a bogey, because over the decades the food supply would increase and the birth rate would fall. Science and technology, along with rational limitation of birth, would solve the problem. ["On Population" is in italics in the original]

This falsehood about Godwin needing 20 years to figure out a reply to Malthus is refuted in Godwin's book, Of Population (Rothbard got the title wrong), in the preface:

I believed, that the Essay on Population, like other erroneous and exaggerated representations of things, would soon find its own level.

In this I have been hitherto disappointed. ... Finding therefore, that whatever arguments have been produced against it by others, it still holds on its prosperous career, and has not long since appeared in the impressive array of a Fifth Edition, I cannot be contented to go out of the world, without attempting to put into a permanent form what has occurred to me on the subject. I was sometimes idle enough to suppose, that I had done my part, in producing the book that had given occasion to Mr. Malthus's Essay, and that I might safely leave the comparatively easy task, as it seemed, of demolishing the "Principle of Population," to some one of the men who have risen to maturity since I produced my most considerable performance. But I can refrain no longer. "I will also answer my part; I likewise will shew my opinion: for I am full of matter; and the spirit within me constraineth me."

Godwin didn't reply immediately because he thought he'd done enough by writing Political Justice, and that someone else could handle the much easier task of refuting Malthus' bad ideas. This had nothing to do with Godwin needing 20 years of thought or research. Godwin underestimated how influential Malthus would turn out to be, and overestimated the ability of other thinkers to address the issue.


I will keep reading Rothbard anyway. I don't think there's a superior alternative, and I do think he's better about other thinkers that he researched more, especially when their focus is more on economics (Rothbard doesn't adquately understand Godwin's thinking about reason).


Elliot Temple on October 5, 2018

Comments (1)

Rothbard in *An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought*:

> While Aristotle was critical of money-making, he still opposed any limitation – such as Plato had advocated – on an individual's accumulation of private property. Instead, education should teach people voluntarily to curb their rampant desires and thus lead them to limit their own accumulations of wealth.

> Despite his cogent defence of private property and opposition to coerced limits on wealth, the aristocrat Aristotle was fully as scornful of labour and trade as his predecessors.

Rothbard is a hypocrite. Aristotle on property is kinda similar to Godwin, but worse, and Rothbard calls that a "cogent defence of private property". Rothbard also praises some early Chinese laissez-faire and anarchist ideas, but fails to give Godwin much credit for similar ideas.


curi at 12:12 PM on October 6, 2018 | #11278 | reply | quote

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