Lew Rockwell’s Problem with Freedom

Lew Rockwell is a big name in the libertarian movement. He was close to Murry Rothbard, worked for Ron Paul early on and most importantly he founded the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn Alabama of which he is still the chairman. It is probably thanks to the latter that the austrian school is enjoying a revival. So there is a lot to like about the man. And I for one thought for a long time that the Mises Institute really is the centre of the real revolutionary libertarian movement. I particularly liked the fact that after 9/11, the Mises Institute was one of the few remaining sane voices within all the statist war propaganda. That unfortunately was not the norm among libertarians, many of which seemed to had forgotten about the evils of the state and turned around to cheer for the murder machinery.

That is why LewRockwell.com, which is one of the biggest, if not the biggest libertarian blog on the internet was on my daily reading list for many years. In the last couple of years however, I found myself increasingly estranged from what is going on in this particular circle of libertarians. There have always been blog posts that made me scratch my head. But nothing so severe that it could not be tolerated. For example, there were repeatedly articles that portrayed the theory of evolution as some sort of state education conspiracy that would not have a chance on the free market of ideas. Another strange meme was that carbohydrates are not healthy and that is why the state is recommending it. One of the more dangerous ideas the side was pushing was opposition to vaccination. And all this under the banner of ‘anti-war, anti-state, pro free market’. What do these issues have to do with that?

The blog is not an open platform on which everyone can write. All articles are subject to editorial decisions. It is also not really a place for open debates in which every side of an argument is presented. To the contrary the header makes very clear what the bias of the opinions presented is. Only on a few issues one can even read a pro and a con. But even then it is usually clear which side the editor wants the reader to take. Given all that, one wonders why these strange issues are being pushed.

But whatever the reason, these things never bothered me too much for the simple reason that I consider them to be private and LewRockwell.com never really suggested that as a libertarian you have to have a certain opinion on these issues. The fact that debate is not really encouraged however, is something that I, as someone who likes ideas never really felt comfortable about. I am perfectly ok with a libertarian propaganda site. The idea that it is possible to report politics neutrally is bogus anyway. But even within libertarianism there are many issues that need to be debated. If that debate does not take place, one might end up as a dogmatic organisation that will lead its members into a wrong direction. And I think this is to a small degree happening at the Mises Institute as there seem to be a number of issues that aren’t really been discussed there.

One issue that is a little bit more important than your diet or creationism on which Lew Rockwell gets it completely wrong in my view is immigration. LewRockwell.com puts out article after article after article condemning the idea that the free movement of people should be supported by Libertarians. The arguments for this basically come from Hans Herman Hoppe and are repeated in every article that is published. The hope seems to be that since the arguments are wrong, and wrong they are indeed, repeating them will make them stick with at least some people.

Lew Rockwell himself just wrote an article in this series, that was published on 10th November on his website. The piece is called ‘‘Open Borders: A Libertarian Reappraisal’ and once again we mainly hear Hoppe’s arguments repeated. I am not going to go through all of the arguments again. I have done so in a previous article with the title ‘‘. In a nutshell the argumentation claims that supporting the state in controlling immigration is self defence. We don’t have a free market at the moment, but closed borders are closer to market result than open borders. Since immigrants have access to welfare and public spaces, they represent a threat to the property of the people inside the borders.

If that was a legitimate argument against immigration, we for example could also argue in favour of libertarian birth licensing laws. After all, as long as the welfare state exists we cannot allow people to just freely reproduce. Some of these children will grow up to become welfare recipients. Even worse, the state is subsidising certain people to become parents. Therefore, as long as we have a welfare system, libertarians cannot advocate freedom in getting children. As long as the state exists, the state needs to make sure that everyone who wants to become a parent will most likely be able to bring these kids up without becoming welfare recipients. Is that really a libertarian argument? I don’t think so. If it were, libertarianism would become useless. With the logic of this argument, pretty much any state action can be justified.

The interesting thing about Rockwell’s article however is that he is going a little bit further than Hoppe. He has this interesting idea that libertarianism is not about freedom, but about private property. To be fair, Hoppe says this too, but not quite as explicitly as Rockwell who writes:

“Some libertarians have assumed that the correct libertarian position on immigration must be “open borders,” or the completely unrestricted movement of people. Superficially, this appears correct: surely we believe in letting people go wherever they like! But hold on a minute. Think about “freedom of speech,” another principle people associate with libertarians. Do we really believe in freedom of speech as an abstract principle? That would mean I have the right to yell all during a movie, or the right to disrupt a Church service, or the right to enter your home and shout obscenities at you. What we believe in are private property rights.”

There are two major errors in this argument. Firstly, he is giving the terms “open borders” and “freedom of speech” a meaning that it does not have. “Open borders” does not mean the completely unrestricted movement of people. It usually means to open state borders. That is nothing else but to say that the demand is to get the government out of the way. The same is true for “freedom of speech”. This has always meant that there are no legal restrictions on expressing certain opinions. It has never meant to have the right to use other people’s resources to express what you have to say. But even if there were people who used it that way, libertarians definitely do not use it that way.

Second and more importantly, Rockwell basically implies that there is a clash between libertarianism and freedom. He explicitly says freedom is not the main issue of Libertarianism. Instead, according to Rockwell, it is all about private property. He argues that if there is a clash between freedom and property, Libertarians have to prefer property. Think about that. We have a leading libertarian who argues that we don’t need freedom, we need private property and presenting those two as being somehow opposed to each other. How could it come to that? Why should there be a contradiction between freedom and property?

To be fair to Rockwell, he is correct in so far as the vast majority of libertarians out there probably would agree that libertarianism is all about private property. I think this is fundamentally wrong and a big problem for this movement. Libertarianism should be about liberty. That is not to say that I am not in favour of certain forms of private property. But property is a consequence of liberty. And only property concepts that follow from liberty are libertarian. As such it is by no means clear that, as Rockwell suggests everything will be privately owned in a libertarian society.

However, to understand the connection between property and liberty one needs to first have a theory of what liberty is. And unfortunately most libertarians, including Rockwell don’t have such a theory. If libertarians don’t understand what liberty is, how are they going to explain it to others? This is a problem that I was made first aware of by libertarian philosopher Jan Lester. And I think he is correct. To explain why I think he is correct however deserves a separate article.

Despite the tremendous service Lew Rockwell and the Mises Institute have done for Libertarianism, they appear to be theoretically muddled on certain issues. That in itself is not much of a problem. No one has all the answers. I certainly do not. But in oder to make progress one needs to have an open debate on these issues. And that does not really seem to happen at the Mises Institute. Or if it happens then only behind closed doors. I cannot see it as an outsider. That is why the Institute for lack of a better word increasingly appears to me to be a little bit cultish. And that is a real pity.

  8 comments for “Lew Rockwell’s Problem with Freedom

  1. Nov 14, 2015 at 8:11 am

    By “statist war propaganda” I suspect the writer means a truthful history of such things as World War One, World War Two, Korea and so on.

    People, such as Rothbard and Rockwell, who held-hold the position that the Civil War was nothing to do with slavery (and ignore the “little” point that the Confederacy was determined to expand into the West – i.e. that the war was inevitable even if secession had been accepted), and pretend that World War One and World War Two were not the fault of German ideology, and ignore the truth about the Cold War (pretending that such things as the Berlin Airlift and the Korean War were the fault of the West) are irritating – but, in the end, not wildly dangerous.

    The stuff of Charles Beard (about the American Constitution and about the Civil War period), the stuff of Gabriel Kolko (about the Progressive period and about the Cold War) and the stuff of Harry Elmer Barnes (about the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War) is too obviously wrong to stand up (even in modern debased universities) – and if Rothbard and Rockwell choose to spread this nonsense (which Rothbard did and Rockwell does) – then they discredit themselves.

    The only real harm that, for example, Rothbard’s pushing of Harry Elmer Barnes (the pro German “historian” and Holocaust denier) did was to discredit libertarianism by association – the line of reasoning being “Rothbard is a libertarian, Rothbard pushes Charles Beard, Harry Elmer Barnes, Gabriel Kolko and so on, these “historians” push nonsense THEREFORE libertarianism is nonsense”. Someone familiar with basic logic would know that “therefore” is where this breaks down – yes Rothbard and Rockwell pushed a lot of rubbish “history”, but that does NOT mean that libertarians in general are committed to the rubbish.

    As for opening the gates of the city (or the nation) to anyone who wants to come inside – a “free migration” policy. Well given events in Paris to raise this matter might be considered in rather bad taste – however, I think the writer has a serious point (worth considering).

    The idea that just because a government does not do something does not mean it should not be done or will not be done.

    It is indeed unlikely that private property owners in Texas would allow Mexicans (and others) to come inside Texas – at least not those people (of any “race” – I must confess I am unclear as to what exactly constitutes a “race” in this context) who consider the conflict of 1836 to be unjust and holding the position that the land of Texas (most of which is privately owned) “really” belongs to Mexico and should be divided up among “the race” (the main Hispanic “rights” organisation calls itself “The Race” – for some reason the left does not denounce this racism) on the principle of “Social Justice”.

    It is even less likely that private property owners in France would allow in people who follow the doctrines of Mohammed – namely that the property (and the women – rejecting the Western idea that women are not property, that they actually own themselves) of the “infidels” should be divided up among the followers of Islam. The charming “terrorism expert” on the BBC keeps saying that the “overwhelming majority of Muslims hate this” and only a “tiny minority” support it. But Mohammed did what he did – much though the “terrorism expert” might like to pretend that Mohammed and his followers were mainly interested in gardening or whatever. Even the “Pact of Omar” is not the nice fluffy thing (offering total protection for the property of the “infidels”) that the “terrorism expert” might want to claim – not that he has claimed this (indeed the “terrorism expert” has produced no argument or evidence at all). Sufi Muslims (and some others) believe in all sorts of nice, gentle, things – but I rather doubt that Mohammed would have been wildly fond of such people.

    It could indeed be argued that if government and its (American context) “civil rights division” “got out of the way” – the gates of the city (or the nation) would be better guarded against “free migration” of enemies than they are now – which would not be difficult as, since the 1960s, the governments of the United States and France (and on and on) seem to have abandoned all serious efforts to keep out enemies.

    I must stress that I do not see this as really a matter of “race” (after all, for example, the people of Malta tend to be darker than most people in Syria), or even of historical and theological opinions – people may hold any theoretical opinion of the wars of 1836 and 1848 that they wish, and may hold any theoretical opinion on theology they wish – even holding that Mohammed was a jolly nice chap (if they want to believe that – go right ahead).

    It is the intent to turn opinion to ACTION that matters.

    Not a theoretical belief in “Social Justice” (translation “give us your land and money”) in the context of immigration in the United States – but an actual intention to take property (for example by supporting “progressive taxation to fund benefits and public services” – which is the real reason Mr Barack Obama supports unlimited Latin American immigration whom he hopes will, illegally, vote under the “Motor Voter” law he pushed as a United States Senator). Or, in a world context, followers of Islam who intend to take the teachings (and example) of Mohammed and actually DO IT.

    In a world where all land was privately owned (which, I believe, is what anarcho capitalists believe) the statement “I do not want your sort round here” would not be a “crime” to be reported to the government Civil Rights Division, it would simply be a statement from the property owner (or their representative) about keeping out people they thought of hostile intent – or kicking out people (tenants) who they believed to be of hostile intent.

    Whether private property owners would have the physical ability to defeat (in the American context) a Mexican (and other) invasion, or to defeat (in a world context) an Islamic invasion or uprising – is another question (I have my doubts).

    However, the writer of the post is NOT in fact suggesting an “open door” policy to enemies – he is simply suggesting that private property owners (and their representatives) not-the-government, take on the burden of keeping out enemies, or removing enemies that are already here.

  2. Nico Metten
    Nov 14, 2015 at 11:02 am

    My previous article was called ‘Debunking Hoppe on Immigration’ and can be found here.

    https://nico.liberty.me/debunking-hoppe-on-immigration/

    For some reason the link did not come through.

  3. Nov 15, 2015 at 11:16 am

    “Open borders” does not mean the completely unrestricted movement of people. It usually means to open state borders. That is nothing else but to say that the demand is to get the government out of the way.

    “Open borders” is merely the demand that government get “out of the way”. To what end? So that people may move without restriction across what were formerly state borders. So why doesn’t “open borders” mean “completely unrestricted movement of people”? Because keeping, say, terrorists or gangsters or gang rapists out is compatible with “open borders”? Well that would certainly be reassuring. But, then, why “open borders”? Why not simply “borders”?

    Second and more importantly, Rockwell basically implies that there is a clash between libertarianism and freedom. He explicitly says freedom is not the main issue of Libertarianism. Instead, according to Rockwell, it is all about private property. He argues that if there is a clash between freedom and property, Libertarians have to prefer property. Think about that. We have a leading libertarian who argues that we don’t need freedom, we need private property and presenting those two as being somehow opposed to each other. How could it come to that? Why should there be a contradiction between freedom and property?

    It is not clear that Lew Rockwell does imply or say or argue those things. In any case, I would bet good money that you believe that my freedom to burn down your house clashes with your right to have your house un-burned down, what with it being your private property and all. Furthermore, I feel confident that you, a libertarian (if not exactly a leading one), will not only see a “contradiction” between the two, but will explicitly say that your private property should trump my freedom. Think about that.

    On a side note: for someone who doesn’t have a problem with libertarian propaganda sites, you don’t half have a lot of problems with a libertarian propaganda site.

    • Nico Metten
      Nov 15, 2015 at 11:39 am

      “So why doesn’t “open borders” mean “completely unrestricted movement of people”?”

      Because we currently have forms of private property that restrict the movement of people. Open borders does not mean to get rid of those. It just means to get the government restrictions out of the way.

      “Because keeping, say, terrorists or gangsters or gang rapists out is compatible with “open borders”?”

      No it is not. They need to be felt with differently.

      “I would bet good money that you believe that my freedom to burn down your house clashes with your right to have your house un-burned down, what with it being your private property and all.”

      But I would not call that freedom. You burning down my house is a violation of freedom. And that is where the confusion begins. A lot of Libertarians have no explicit concept of freedom and that is why they start to use it in strange ways. And because they don’t know what freedom or liberty is, they substitute it with private property.

      “Furthermore, I feel confident that you, a libertarian (if not exactly a leading one), will not only see a “contradiction” between the two, but will explicitly say that your private property should trump my freedom.”

      No, I would say that you have no right to violate my liberty and that is why I insist in owning my house. That is the difference. Property is a consequence of liberty and not the starting point.

      “On a side note: for someone who doesn’t have a problem with libertarian propaganda sites, you don’t half have a lot of problems with a libertarian propaganda site.”

      I don’t understand that sentence.

      • Nov 15, 2015 at 3:11 pm

        “Because we currently have forms of private property that restrict the movement of people. Etc… ”

        So you agree with the Lew Rockwell quote on movement and free speech, you’re just too blinded by humanitarianism to see it.

        “No it is not. They need to be felt[sic] with differently.”

        And yet the general public stubbornly refuses to support “open borders”!

        “But I would not call that freedom. Etc etc.”

        It’s a shame you don’t have time to spell out this “theory of liberty” that you undoubtedly have and that you keep reprimanding the rest of us for not having, because to the naked eye it looks like you’re just moving words around to suit the needs of the moment.

        “I don’t understand that sentence.”

        Yeah.

        • Nico Metten
          Nov 15, 2015 at 4:59 pm

          “So you agree with the Lew Rockwell quote on movement and free speech, you’re just too blinded by humanitarianism to see it.”

          No I don’t. Rockwell suggests that property is restricting freedom itself. Therefore, Libertarians cannot be in favour of freedom but have to be in favour of property instead. But there is no clash between property and freedom. Property is a strategy to maximise freedom. At least certain types of property are. To understand why and which forms of property are libertarian you have to have a theory of freedom or liberty that does not presuppose property.

          In other words, he does not understand the connection between liberty and property. He senses that there is one, but since he cannot spell it out, he just goes with some kind of privat property itself.

          “And yet the general public stubbornly refuses to support “open borders”!”

          It is indeed a pity that the general piblic does not like or understand liberty. But even worse is that there are libertarians who don’t

          “It’s a shame you don’t have time to spell out this “theory of liberty” that you undoubtedly have and that you keep reprimanding the rest of us for not having, because to the naked eye it looks like you’re just moving words around to suit the needs of the moment.”

          As I said I am going to write an article about it. I am almost done. If you cannot wait read Jan Lester ‘Escape from Liviathan.

          • Nov 15, 2015 at 5:43 pm

            Property is a consequence of liberty.

            Property is a strategy to maximise liberty.

            Yeah, I can’t wait to read that article…

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