Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Murray Rothbard’s Critique of Utilitarianism

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 10, 2011

Murray Rothbard, a 20th-century economist and prominent Libertarian, offered the following critique of Utilitarianism:

The first, and most important [change], occurring in the early to mid-nineteenth century, was the abandonment of the philosophy of natural rights, and its replacement by technocratic utilitarianism. Instead of liberty grounded on the imperative morality of each individual’s right to person and property, that is, instead of liberty being sought primarily on the basis of right and justice, utilitarianism preferred liberty as generally the best way to achieve a vaguely defined general welfare or common good. There were two grave consequences of this shift from natural rights to utilitarianism. First, the purity of the goal, the consistency of the principle, was inevitably shattered. For whereas the natural-rights libertarian seeking morality and justice cleaves militantly to pure principle, the utilitarian only values liberty as an ad hoc expedient. And since expediency can and does shift with the wind, it will become easy for the utilitarian in his cool calculus of cost and benefit to plump for statism in ad hoc case after case, and thus to give principle away. Indeed, this is precisely what happened to the Benthamite utilitarians in England: beginning with ad hoc libertarianism and laissez-faire, they found it ever easier to slide further and further into statism. An example was the drive for an “efficient” and therefore strong civil service and executive power, an efficiency that took precedence, indeed replaced, any concept of justice or right.

Second, and equally important, it is rare indeed ever to find a utilitarian who is also radical, who burns for immediate abolition of evil and coercion. Utilitarians, with their devotion to expediency, almost inevitably oppose any sort of upsetting or radical change. There have been no utilitarian revolutionaries. Hence, utilitarians are never immediate abolitionists. The abolitionist is such because he wishes to eliminate wrong and injustice as rapidly as possible. In choosing this goal, there is no room for cool, ad hoc weighing of cost and benefit. Hence, the classical liberal utilitarians abandoned radicalism and became mere gradualist reformers. But in becoming reformers, they also put themselves inevitably into the position of advisers and efficiency experts to the State. In other words, they inevitably came to abandon libertarian principle as well as a principled libertarian strategy. The utilitarians wound up as apologists for the existing order, for the status quo, and hence were all too open to the charge by socialists and progressive corporatists that they were mere narrow-minded and conservative opponents of any and all change. Thus, starting as radicals and revolutionaries, as the polar opposites of conservatives, the classical liberals wound up as the image of the thing they had fought.

This utilitarian crippling of libertarianism is still with us. Thus, in the early days of economic thought, utilitarianism captured free-market economics with the influence of Bentham and Ricardo, and this influence is today fully as strong as ever. Current free-market economics is all too rife with appeals to gradualism; with scorn for ethics, justice, and consistent principle; and with a willingness to abandon free-market principles at the drop of a cost-benefit hat. Hence, current free-market economics is generally envisioned by intellectuals as merely apologetics for a slightly modified status quo, and all too often such charges are correct. [/source]

His first paragraph argues, in short, that Utilitarians value liberty only when it is expedient, which allows room for the government to slowly reduce liberty over time. Rothbard points out how this leads to statism, which he clearly believes is a bad thing. For the sake of argument, let us assume that Rothbard is correct in his belief.

Rothbard argues that the Utilitarian drive towards “efficiency” led to statism and replaced “any concept of justice or right.” It is apparent from the quoted text that he supports justice and rights because they increase the well-being of society. If the reader questions this claim, the following argument should clear up any doubt.

There are two possible reasons why he could object to statism.

The first possible reason is that rights (i.e. individual liberties) are valuable in themselves, in which case “bad” is defined as “restricting individual liberties.” By this premise, Utilitarianism is by default inferior to Libertarianism and there is no use trying to argue against it. If this were Rothbard’s premise, his argument–which states that statism restricts personal liberties, therefore it is bad—would be reduced to “statism restricts personal liberties, therefore it restricts personal liberties.” This is a tautology. There is no use in making such an argument, so he would not make it.

The second possible reason is that rights are valuable because they increase the welfare of society. Rothbard must be using this second reason as his premise; it is the only way he could justify the claim that statism is bad without resorting to tautologies.**

This seems to be a case of using Utilitarianism to argue against Utilitarianism. To argue that compromising personal liberty leads to statism, and statism is harmful to a nation’s general welfare, is to argue that compromising personal liberty decreases utility. Rothbard’s objection to Utilitarianism, then, is that it decreases utility.

He does not object to Utilitarianism itself, but rather to a short-sighted attempt at Utilitarianism. If Rothbard is correct that statism is harmful and that short-sighted Utilitarianism leads to statism, the enlightened Utilitarian should more fiercely protect personal liberty and be less willing to compromise principle for the sake of expediency.

Rothbard’s second paragraph once again uses Utilitarianism to attempt to refute Utilitarianism. He seems to be arguing against a particular group of Utilitarians rather than against Utilitarianism itself; his criticisms against this group are legitimate, but do not hold against the whole of the Utilitarian theory.

It probably does not even need to be said that radical changes very often increase utility. Gandhi’s radicalism alleviated a great amount of suffering for the people of India; labor strikes during the 19th century vastly improved the working conditions for laborers; etc.

Unfortunately, Rothbard does not make it totally clear why abandoning radicalism is a poor decision; the most obvious answer is that radicalism can increase utility. I acknowledge that if he has some reason other than utility then this creates a hole in my argument; however, I cannot think of what other reason he might have.

Rothbard’s objections to Utilitarianism only make a case against the short-sighted application of Utilitarian principles. His argument, which explains that personal liberty is the best means of maximizing the well-being of society, actually supports the Utilitarian perspective.

The fact that Rothbard is arguing in favor of Utilitarianism in no way weakens his case for personal liberty and laissez-faire capitalism. He is simply arguing that personal liberty is the best way to increase utility, and it is important to acknowledge this unstated premise. His points in favor of individual liberty may or may not be legitimate, but either way, Murray Rothbard is a Utilitarian.

** It is not quite true that an appeal to the well-being of society is the only way to justify the claim; but it is the only way that a large audience will accept. One might invent an ethical system in which the sole purpose of all morality is to avoid words that rhyme with “platism,” or something along those lines. But I think we can safely disregard such ethical systems. It is also possible that Rothbard adheres to Kantian Deontology or Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, but there is no evidence that he supports either of these and they are both somewhat unusual among non-philosophers.


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