Posted by: erichosemann | February 6, 2010

Rothbard versus Hayek

I won’t go on at length about what the differences between Murray Rothbard and Friedrich von Hayek. I don’t think what I think about them matters all that much right now. That’s not self-deprecation; I just haven’t read enough of their output to hold forth like a sage.

I did get to thinking on both of ’em after reading Brian Doherty’s piece on a recent collection of Rothbard’s unpublished memos and letters called Rothbard vs. The Philosophers.

Doherty spends some ink contrasting the “fallibilist, utilitarian” approach of libertarian thinkers like Hayek and the “Randian, Aristotelian” approach of Rothbard.  This sounds about right, based on what little I have read by the two men.  I take the characterization of Hayek to mean a sort of empirical, utilitarian approach to rights, i.e. let’s see what works best; let’s not dismiss policies that might require the power of the state to bring about  human well-being.  The characterization of Rothbard I take to mean: rights are something real, something discoverable through reason, something along the lines of Plato’s forms, i.e. human rights do not need the power of the state to exist.

I enjoyed Doherty’s article but a paragraph close to the end seemed to contradict the apparent divide between the two approaches that Doherty describes.  Doherty mentions Rothbard’s support of Pat Buchanan in the 1992 presidential election–yikes!–as an apparent turn towards cultural conservatism:

Rothbard never took the tack that many younger libertarians influence by him did, of rejecting politics altogether. He always thought, and talked about, better and worse choices in the political environment we were faced with.

Thinking about better and worse choices is utilitarianism, plain and simple. I think this paragraph is key and I wish the people most concerned about the “libertarian divide” would realize that Rothbard was a human being with an ordinal scale of choices available to him. When the s**t hit the fan, he used that scale to choose a horse named Pat. That’s weird to me but not surprising.


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