The Ethics of Liberty, by Murray N Rothbard. Adnotated. Part V (The Task of Political Philosophy)

Monday, 31 July, Year 9 d.Tr. | Author: Mircea Popescu

It is not the intention of this book to expound or defend at length the philosophy of natural law, or to elaborate a natural-law ethic for the personal morality of man. The intention is to set forth a social ethic of liberty, i.e., to elaborate that subset of the natural law that develops the concept of natural rights, and that deals with the proper sphere of "politics," i.e., with violence and non-violence as modes of interpersonal relations. In short, to set forth a political philosophy of liberty.

In our view the major task of "political science" or better, "political philosophy" is to construct the edifice of natural law pertinent to the political scene. That this task has been almost completely neglected in this century by political scientists is all too clear. Political science has either pursued a positivistic and scientistic "model building," in vain imitation of the methodology and content of the physical sciences, or it has engaged in purely empirical fact-grubbing. The contemporary political scientist believes that he can avoid the necessity of moral judgments, and that he can help frame public policy without committing himself to any ethical position. And yet as soon as anyone makes any policy suggestion, however narrow or limited, an ethical judgment -- sound or unsound -- has willy-hilly been made.i The difference between the political scientist and the political philosopher is that the "scientist's" moral judgments are covert and implicit, and therefore not subject to detailed scrutiny, and hence more likely to be unsound. Moreover, the avoidance of explicit ethical judgments leads political scientists to one overriding implicit value judgment -- that in favor of the political status quo as it happens to prevail in any given society. At the very least, his lack of a systematic political ethics precludes the political scientist from persuading anyone of the value of any change from the status quo.ii

In the meanwhile, furthermore, present-day political philosophers generally confine themselves, also in a Wertfrei manner, to antiquarian descriptions and exegeses of the views of other, long gone political philosophers. In so doing, they are evading the major task of political philosophy, in the words of Thomas Thorson, "the philosophic justification of value positions relevant to politics.iii

In order to advocate public policyiv, therefore, a system of social or political ethics must be constructed. In former centuries this was the crucial task of political philosophy. But in the contemporary world, political theory, in the name of a spurious "science," has cast out ethical philosophy, and has itself become barren as a guide to the inquiring citizen. The same course has been taken in each of the disciplines of the social sciences and of philosophy by abandoning the procedures of natural law. Let us then cast out the hobgoblins of Wertfieiheit, of positivism, of scientism. Ignoring the imperious demands of an arbitrary status quo, let us hammer out -- hackneyed cliché though it may be -- a natural-law and natural- rights standard to which the wise and honest may repair. Specifically, let us seek to establish the political philosophy of liberty and of the proper sphere of law, property rights, and the State.

  1. Cf. W. Zajdlic, "The Limitations of Social Sciences," Kyklos 9 (1956): 68-71. []
  2. These are actually very sound points, although I can scarcely see them for anything but belated, fragmentary commentarium on how and wherefore the Republican forums works in the exact manner in which it does. []
  3. Hence, as Thorson points out, political philosophy is a subdivision of the philosophy of ethics, in contrast to "political theory" as well as positivistic analytic philosophy. See Thomas Landon Thorson. "Political Values and Analytic Philosophy," Journal of Politics (November 1961): 712n. Perhaps Professor Holton is right that "the decline in political philosophy is one part of a general decline," not only in philosophy itself, but also "in the status of rationality and ideas as such." Hollon goes on to add that the two major challenges to genuine political philosophy in recent decades have come from historicism -- the view that all ideas and truths are relative to particular historical conditions -- and scientism, the imitation of the physical sciences. James Holton, "Is Political Philosophy Dead?" Western Political Quarterly (September 1961): 75ff. []
  4. Except we're not in the slightest interested in advocating public policy, in part because we don't see the state as either interesting or important ; and in greater part because we are already very powerful individually, and moreover don't even regard impersonal action as even putatively possible.

    Besides, public policy is specifically banned as such in foundational writings of the republic. []

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