Rothbard vs. Strauss: Libertarianism, Rights and Reason
33 Pages Posted: 11 Mar 2010
Date Written: March 9, 2010
This paper undertakes to make some comparative observations on the thought of Murray N. Rothbard and Leo Strauss. It hinges around Rothbard and Strauss’s different views on such subjects as the philosophy of Hobbes, Locke and Hume, the meaning of natural law, natural rights, and natural equality, the roots of liberalism, conservatism and totalitarianism, and la querelle entre les anciens et les moderns. While sharing a common commitment to reason and its power to explain our world and a common rejection of modern relativism, subjectivism, scepticism, nihilism and “postmodernism,” Strauss and Rothbard part company on a series of vital questions. The nub of their disagreement is to do with the compatibility of the doctrine of modern, “Lockean” natural rights with the pre-modern tradition of natural law and its claim that there are natural obligations or duties of equal or higher importance than natural rights. While himself not being a natural law thinker Strauss nevertheless insists against those who take the “Rothbardian” view that the doctrines of modern natural rights and pre-modern natural law, to say nothing of classical natural right, are incompatible. This difference on the history of western philosophy is reflected in the political disagreement between Rothbard and Strauss on the nature and meaning of modern liberal democracy. While Strauss is only a qualified supporter of modern liberalism given its premise of the absolute priority of the “self” or the Cartesian ego in more technical terms, Rothbard is a vigorous supporter of modern liberalism precisely because it accords absolute superiority to the “self” or ego. For Rothbard liberal democracy is estimable to the very extent to which it is prepared to push hard for the sovereignty of the “Lockean” absolute “self” and less so to the extent it does not. But for Strauss, this commitment to the primary and radical detachment of the individual from all social or political connection is exceedingly problematic precisely because it is a political reflection of the radical subjectivism of modern philosophy which radical subjectivism he takes to be at the root of liberal democracy’s most evident evils. In short, Rothbard pits the radically free and unencumbered self against the Leviathan state while Strauss pits classical vision of man as a naturally political or social animal against them both. While Strauss sees a necessary connection between “metaphysics” or “natural theology” and the good society, Rothbard sees any such connection as a implicitly representing an authoritarian or even totalitarian threat to “Lockean” rights and individual freedom, which rights and freedom he takes to be man’s highest achievement.
Keywords: Strauss, Rothbard, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Natural Law, Rights, Liberty, Equality, Ethics
JEL Classification: B25, B31, B53, P48, Z10, Z12
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation