Rothbard vs. LeFevre

Column by Jim Davies.

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The Complete Libertarian Forum (CLF) is a massive work, and by not hurrying I'm making some slow but satisfying progress. I'm up to October 1973, and at Kindle location 25370 there are some remarks by Murray Rothbard about Robert LeFevre.

Apparently this libertarian scholar and apologist wasn't quite to Murray's liking, for I'd seen him take a few shots at LeFevre earlier; but in this essay he marshals his concerns. First, a bit of background on his target.

His Wikipedia bio names LeFevre as a businessman, broadcaster and “theorist of autarchism,” which term he preferred to “anarchism.” Evidently he'd been a hot-button conservative who gradually and wisely gravitated to the logic of complete liberty, and in 1956 he founded in Colorado Springs the Freedom School, where he taught until 1973. I understand the courses lasted several days and that students paid fees.

His graduates included Roy Childs, of whom Rothbard thought so highly as to call him for example a “brilliant young libertarian,” and Charles Koch, who later provided huge financial support for the fledgling libertarian movement and founded the Cato Institute. Charles and David later moved Cato towards the mainstream so as to gain access to the MSM, and of course Murray was having none of that, but even today the world with Cato is a good deal better than it would be without Cato. The Kochs have been a positive influence for freedom.

From his modest school, therefore, LeFevre helped some very significant figures grasp the importance of individual liberty. He deserves an honored place in the Libertarian Pantheon.

Rothbard begins his CLF piece by writing that LeFevre sees violence as immoral whether used in offence or defense, and says that the “entire LeFevrian political philosophy is a logical derivation from this basic moral axiom. But I submit that this axiom is simply balderdash . . . .” - and on that point I have to agree with him (except that I think it was a premise, not an axiom). The self-ownership axiom requires no aggression, but it does not require no defense. Defensive force is a fundamental right. That doesn't imply an obligation to use defensive force, but it does say defensive force is not immoral. We may admire the pacifist or not, but do not have to emulate him.

So Rothbard says LeFevre “allows one only 'protection', a most attenuated concept which boils down to installing 'a good bolt lock' on one’s door” and then lays in to that concept with, “If a stout lock is OK for LeFevre. I presume that a fence would be too. But what about an electrified fence? Our precious criminal, trying to get over such a fence, is going to have his 'boundaries' very much violated. Or, if a mildly electrified fence is OK with LeFevre, how about a severely electrified fence, which might well send our criminal to Kingdom Come?”

However, when LeFevre considers types of defense that go beyond his “bolt,” in my view he has a stronger position than Rothbard allows. As well as protection, the former sees defense as having as components “retaliation and punishment . . . all condemned by LeFevre as the immoral use of violence . . . .” Rothbard, as I noted in the STRticle Punishment, had no problem with either. I have severe problems with both. Justice is about restitution, not vengeance, and in that respect LeFevre was exactly right. Retaliation is never morally justified.

So far, then, IMHO honors are about equal: Murray 1, Robert 1.

Then Rothbard scores again with his “In his anxiety to attack all defensive violence from whatever source, LeFevre goes so far as to make common cause with the statists in denying the workability of anarcho-capitalism,” alleging that competing justice companies could not work together in the market. Rothbard refers him to proofs to the contrary, written by himself, Wollstein, Perkins and (David) Friedman. “Unfortunately, LeFevre writes as if none of this has been written or thought about.”

He presses further, by criticizing LeFevre's opposition to all political action, but there throws away his advantage; for to vote is certainly immoral, as amply demonstrated by the rich resource of articles now in STR's Non-Voting archive. Of course that wasn't around in 1973, but Rothbard had plunged irrevocably into the political cesspool, so I doubt he would have paid attention anyway. So, the score so far: Murray 2, Robert 2.

Rothbard comes then to what I see as the nub of the matter: “LeFevre has no real strategy for the recovery of liberty and for the liquidation or even the whittling away of statism. Violent revolution, political action, anything that smacks of defensive force in any sense is equally condemned. All that leaves us with is to persuade the mugger, to persuade the State to resign and liquidate itself en masse. The rest of us can only wish LeFevre luck . . . .” (my italics.)

That is an astounding and completely unjustified accusation.

It is Rothbard who, as I showed in Murray's Missing Plan, is the one who had no real strategy for the establishment of liberty. He led his eager followers right into political action and, while hesitating to join the LP at its formation, did so later and became its leader; and political action is no such strategy at all, as the LP's subsequent history has proven.

Robert LeFevre, on the other hand, nearly hit the nail right on the head, 58 years ago. He accurately saw education as the method needed, and so he founded the Freedom School and got down to teaching.

I don't mean to belittle the huge contribution Murray Rothbard also made to educating people about freedom through his books and speeches, to LP affiliates all over the country. They probably exceeded LeFevre's in overall effect. But he failed to grasp that education is the only thing that matters and that messing around with politics is a distraction at best. In contrast, LeFevre focused correctly.

He did not, of course, expect the State to “resign and liquidate itself en masse,” that is a caricature. He set about the in-depth, systematic education of people he hoped would become opinion leaders, and who would eventually help turn the population away from its absurd faith in the government myth. Exactly how he saw that going down, I don't know. Possibly, he didn't try to plan that far ahead.

So far, then, we have a score of Robert 3, Murray 2; and I'll leave the scoreboard there and continue by noting where LeFevre fell short. It was, as I see it, in that very failure; to plan far enough ahead – any further than Rothbard did.

While I've been unable to find anything explicit to show this, what Robert LeFevre did seems enough to indicate that his aim was to educate in liberty just opinion leaders, rather like that fine facility on the Hudson, the Foundation for Economic Education; whose mission is also to "inspire, educate, and connect future leaders with the principles of a free society." The scope and emphasis he placed may have been more radical, but that was his target market. Even with his background in broadcasting, he didn't set out to educate everyone; I haven't heard tell of a LeFevre correspondence school of some kind such as What Might Have Been describes, and still less an early version of the replicative TOLFA model.

This “opinion leader” strategy I think to be mistaken. Here's why.

First, it assumes that when fully successful, a cadre of well-educated “leaders” will somehow “lead” the rest of the population, presumably passive and ignorant, to live free of government direction and support – both. In my opinion, such a leadership task is hopeless.

Already and for many years, that passive and ignorant population has been conditioned to depend on government for both direction and support. Direction, because people do not, by and large, know how to conduct themselves as sovereign individuals, responsible for making and honoring contracts with each other. They were once; that was the norm for much of 19th Century America, and it is the source of the unprecedented prosperity which later governments have been so busy squandering; but today, such skills are rare. Not for nothing is the population now known as “sheeple.” Decision-taking responsibility and independent, rational thinking have been bred out of them, by seven generations of government schooling.

Similarly, the population depends on government for support, or does so in large part. For the past four generations or more, the majority has been maintained at the expense of the more productive minority, courtesy of government transfers. They know how to vote; they do not know how to innovate and produce wealth. So by and large and fortunately with many brilliant exceptions, Americans are directionless and helpless. When government is taken away in some manner by these “opinion leaders,” the population will have no idea which way to turn, nor which way is up. Even if somehow the leaders do cause government to vanish, the result will more likely be chaos, than anarchy; and as we know, the two are polar opposites.

Secondly, the “manner” in which these presumed opinion leaders will actually dispose of government is nowhere explained. Given the enormous brute power of the established order, however dull it is intellectually, how will it be caused to dissolve? I've been watching the case of Irwin Schiff, the illegal-tax expert. He has totally wiped the floor with government lawyers and bureau-rats; they have no coherent rebuttal to hand him. But they have the key to his cage, and will keep him there. They are unreasoning savages, but they do have the power, and that particular “opinion leader” can do nothing about it.

And thirdly, it seems to me that there is something profoundly dangerous and unhealthy in having a libertarian élite of “opinion leaders” calling the shots after government has vanished, should they somehow cause that to happen. The situation would be fully ripe for that élite to form some kind of new, replacement government – just as has happened with every other revolution in history. Or even if that disaster is avoided, the élite would be ideally situated to take over the major functions of society's infrastructure, and so become a new kind of super-rich aristocracy, a bit like happened in Russia after the collapse of Communism. Don't know about you, but I'm not in this libertarian game to smooth the path for a new set of plutocrats.

So, while Robert LeFevre began to educate folk, I doubt whether he thought through an overall strategy for bringing about a free society any more than Rothbard did. It's a great shame; for when one considers the question “What has to happen for government to vanish?” the answer leaps out: its employees have to quit. And what will cause them to quit? When they understand its true nature, and how much better freedom is, they will be disgusted, and leave. And how will they learn that true nature? When they are re-educated. All of them. So the task is not just to educate opinion leaders, but to educate everyone – including those who might otherwise replace them. Everyone will then be well prepared to manage for themselves, with neither direction nor support from government.

A huge task, obviously, and its size may be what persuaded these two pioneers of liberty to give up the search for a method. But again, when one seriously asks “How could it be done?”, the answer is not hard. As for how and when it will take place, my prediction is described in Transition to Liberty. No doubt details will differ, but that outline is about right.

Meanwhile, I'm keeping one of LeFevre's insights as the sig-block under my name on emails – and on some of my T-shirts, for use in that season which currently seems so distant:

"Government is a disease, masquerading as its own cure."

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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?"


mhstahl's picture

Interesting article. It seems we are both in disagreement with both Rothbard and LeFevre, for different reasons. Perhaps a deeper conversation would be productive?
Just curious, without retaliation-or the threat of or risk of retaliation-what exists to compel restitution?
And, who's going to stop retaliation?
Seems to me that retaliation a virtual necessity, both pratically and morally-it exists in every non-religious non-governmental society that I'm aware of, which means that to envision a society without it one needs to not only expect people to live other than they do now, but also other than they ever have. The only exception I can think of would be very limited religious societies of pacifists such as the Amish...but they are not libertarian, and I'm, at least, not a pacifist. The Amish even retaliate at times, after a fashion.
I really do not think there is a compelling reason to re-invent the wheel here, and good grounds to let society organize with a balance of power as it generally does once we remove government from the equasion. Particularly when one asks, "who shall decide?"
For instance, while you can try to rely upon "shunning"-who really has the authority to decree such a thing? And even then, why should everyone else be caught up in a dispute between two people? Would it be my responsibility to determine just who is "shunned" before I do business with them? How would I, and, honestly, why would I care? Am I to be shunned as well, then? For what, defiance? Of whom? Why must I forgo potential profit because of someone elses' dispute to which I'm not a party? Sounds like none of my business, frankly. Or do I "owe" something to society? Perhaps I misunderstand your "punishment" article?
Nevermind that shunning is itself a "punishment" that by its very nature precludes the possibility of restitution.
Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that one of the more insidious acts the state does is punish retaliation.

Jim Davies's picture

Actually, Mike, I'd put it the other way round - for myself. I'm in warm and extensive agreement with both Rothbard and LeFevre. Without the brilliant insights of the former especially, I can't imagine how I could have got my head reasonably straight.
Occasionally they fell short as I perceive it, so I say so. That's all.
On retaliation etc, I have no hope of justice until government evaporates. After then, see my Justice.

Jim Davies's picture

A bit more on retaliation: I've heard it's something practised by small children and great states.
This is hornbook stuff, Mike. On the first page of his magnificent "I Must Speak Out", for example, Carl Watner writes of the roots of libertarian thought as including "personal integrity, honesty, productive work, fulfilment of one's promises and the practice of non-retaliation."
In 1998 I somehow got caught up in a e-discussion among Conservative Republicans, and wrote up this account of it for the local paper. Had you been involved, what view might you have expressed, and why?

mhstahl's picture

That is an interesting question, Jim. In 1998 I'd have likely answered much as you did (though likely without the non-aggression basis-I really did not know much about that back then.)
Today, I have a much different view. One that is a bit more complex, but to me more satisfying.
First, I would point out that retaliation is not aggression: it is not an initiation of force, it is, by definition, a response to force. So I don't think that there is a moral issue with retaliation: I have no issue, morally, with a woman killing her rapist-immediatly afterwords, or months or years later. Or her husband, or brother, or sister for that matter. That doesn't mean it would be always advisable. This is where the necessity of retaliation comes into play, and why it can be such a powerful means to reduce violence in a society. It does not rely on amorphous morality to moderate actions, it relies on something much more basic: self-preservation.
In the case of rape, why would'nt a woman kill her rapist now, in today's world? I submit that it is not out of moral scruples, but rather because of the dire consequences of such an act. The state, in effect, becomes the rapists "protector" and will exact a terrible vengence should she execute her rapist. She has no force to counter the state at all, its capacity for violence is overwhelming-when they come for her, it is simple suicide to fight back.
This is why the state's ban on retaliation is so insideous-it protects the violent and permits them to act with impunity with only predictable risk.
Now, if she truly were able to recover her faculties and shoot the man while still "in the heat of the moment" I daresay few juries would convict her-but even so, the case itself would no doubt ruin her. So the rapist lives another day, perhaps he is "punished" by the "system", and perhaps not. But he knows, and knew before the rape that the response to his aggression would be both predictable and survivable. He would not be castrated, he would not be himself violated(except perhaps in prison), he would not starve. At worst, he would spend a number of years in prison-only if caught and proven guilty....there is a good possibility that nothing will happen at all, but he knows what will not happen. 
Now, let's imagine that overwhelming force of the state is removed. Suddenly there is no "system", there is no cushy predictability in the response to aggression. The rapist has no Earhly clue what will happen in the aftermath of the rape. Nothing might happen. Or he might be killed outright immediately afterword, or he might live minus a few interesting parts of his anatomy, which likely tasted odd...
Not only does he have to worry about the response, but he faces the problem of finding a woman vulnerable to rape in the first place. Without the false security of the state's overwhelming force, people would-as they once did not so very long ago-be preoccupied with generating true security for themselves. Families would be tighter, better armed, and larger with networks of friends that exist not simply to provide a social outlet, but to stand with the group in times of trouble and add to its ability to bring force as needed. So, the rapist would not simply be attacking an individual, but a large and powerful group. A group whose purpose is to protect its members from aggression-part of the way they do that is simply stength in numbers-providing a strong defense. But another part, a crucial part, is to respond to acts of aggression.
In this situation, an attack upon another group is a very serious matter for the attacker. Violence threatens the entire group, and an individual actor risks being cast from thier protective group. In the case of the rapist, he would be left at the hands of his victim, and her entire family who would face no consequences whatsoever for anything that they might do to him. Anything. At. All.
The woman, though, is in much the same boat. Since any sort of confrontation and violence puts the group at risk, there would be a poweful impetus for individuals to not allow themselves to be vulnerable to attack, AND to be very careful in thier response to such an attack. In the case of rape with no witnesses or other evidence, a woman would have to be very careful in her response-she would want to know that her protectors were behind her first, and convinced that the rape took place. Otherwise she faces the same unpredictability as the rapist. Will she shoot her rapist? Maybe, but it is a very risky proposition. A calculating woman might even commit true murder in this way, by falsly claiming rape....and perhaps get away with it. She better not try it twice. Indeed, even self-defense is risky, therefore it is far better to avoid situations where it might be needed.
In the end, what results is a society that, without any centralized authority or overwhelming force, maintains stability and internal peace in part because of the very real threat of retaliation. People have a very serious responsibility to protect themselves, and any sort of violence is incredibly dangerous....not just for the aggressor, but for everyone.
Anthropolgists have a term for this sort of society, "Peace in the Feud", and it is a system that tends to develop anywhere government is not present, or ineffectual. Large parts of rural Africa (not just Somalia) live this way today-and it is remarkably similar to quasi-anarchic and anarchic historical societies in Europe and elsewhere. This is despite wild variation in other customs and morality.
It winds up superficially very similar to many libertarian models-Rothbard's especially-but for very different reasons. To me it is what freedom looks like. There is no need for a program to get from here to there, it will happen on its own when the current power structure falls apart and is not replaced by another-as it will, eventually.
So, that's how I would answer: morally, blow his brains out, but, practically, be reserved.
Anyway, there be my thoughts. As I wrote, an interesting topic.

Jim Davies's picture

No problem, Mike, with a woman killing someone "in the heat of" raping her, if she can. Even though it's overkill (literally) it's justified self-defense because she can reasonably assume that after having had his way, he will kill her to silence her.
But "I have no issue, morally, with a woman killing her rapist... months or years later" goes well beyond self-defense. That's retaliatory murder; revenge, not justice. It seems very clear to me that it stands well outside the libertarian moral standard of non-aggression. Should the rapist's family file suit against her and I was part of the court, I would find her liable for damages - and if she should refuse to pay, that fact would be published. So few would then trust her as to make life intolerably difficult.

Glock27's picture

mhsthl: I think your point is well taken, but people will be people. As human beings they are subject to many things and this I see as a problem, man is equivocates, even under the most well intention'ed reason man can flip on a dime--there are always two sides to a coin and who can truely say which side is the right side. When a man flips on a time did he do so for the correct reasons or were they the wrong reasons, only the cause and effect will determine this, while in come cases one side of the coin is always determined to be the right reason and the government seems to be controlling the coin

Thunderbolt's picture

Lysander Spooner argued that one should treat the armed tax collector as he would any other armed bandit. Jim Bell thought to take advantage of the new internet's anonymity to promote elimination of state actors via a for-profit system he called Assassination Politics. His idea was to make it too dangerous to be an employee of any government, presuming that the plaintiff had been molested immorally by taxation, and by extension, that each employee is, by definition, directly a member of the armed bandit gang. Someone called Sanjuro in the dark web has implemented his idea recently, using a crowd-funding strategy. Assuming that this strategy might be effective in making people afraid to join this gang of marauders, is it immoral? Opinions, please. Nice article, Jim.

Jim Davies's picture

T-bolt, I think LeFevre's point about violence being wrong even in defense comes into play after sufficient force has been used to deter the attack. Anything more is surplus; the defender becomes the aggressor. Granted, in a "hot" situation the defender cannot quickly tell how much force is needed so will be fully justified in overdoing it a bit for safety, but from what you say this is not a hot spot, but a coolly-calculated plan. So I do see a moral problem.
Add to that the question of whether the "dark web" is safe. Apparently so; but that's what Ross Ulbricht of the Silk Road thought. If the enemy hires enough hackers, they may be able to bust it.
And to top it off, does our friend Sanjuro maintain that his plan will actually reduce the State to zero? - or merely make it smaller and more respectful? Unless he does, I favor the TOLFA way. Nobody gets killed, nobody even breaks a sweat, and government vanishes 100%.