Sunday, September 24, 2017

Mises and Rothbard on 'The Ends Justifying the Means'

Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard
From Murray Rothbard's unpublished paper, "Toward a Strategy for Libertarian Social Change":
If the primary in overriding goal of the libertarian movement must be the victory of liberty as rapidly as possible, then the primary task of that movement must be to employ the most efficacious means to arrive at that goal. If a critic should charge that this is adopting the immoral philosophy that "the ends justify the means" the proper reply is that of Ludwig von Mises:
What else but the end could ever justify a means? 
The whole point of the means, by definition, is to reach an end; a means is not a goal in itself. Those critics, for example, who attack Communists for being willing to kill capitalists in order to reach the goal of a proletarian dictatorship as "believing that the end justifies the means" are incorrect; the problem with the Communists is not that they believe that the purposes of means is to achieve ends, but their ends (e.g. dictatorship of the proletariat) are incorrect. For the libertarian, the desired end is a world of liberty, a world where no forces used against non-criminals, against non-invaders of person and property; the libertarian critique of Communist actions, therefore, is that the absence of murder is not an integral part of the Communist ends. In short, the libertarian criticism is against Communist goals and principles, and not against their insight into the relationship between means and ends. 
To be efficacious, to achieve the goal of liberty as quickly as possible, it should be clear the means must not contradict the ends. For if they do, the ends are being obstructed instead of pursued as efficiently as possible. For the libertarian, this means two things: (1) that he must never deny or fail to uphold the ultimate goal of libertarian victory; and (2) that he must never use or advocate the use of unibertarian means: of aggression against the persons or just property of others. Thus, the libertarian must never, for the sake of alleged expediency, deny or conceal his ultimate objective of complete liberty; and he must never aggress against others in his search for a world of non-aggression. For example, the Bolsheviks, before the revolution, financed themselves partially by armed robbery in the name of "expropriating"capitalists; clearly, any use of aggression against private property in order to finance libertarian movement, in addition being immoral by libertarian principles, would cut against those principles themselves in their ultimate attainment.


  1. “The end cannot justify the means, for the simple and obvious reason that the means employed determine the nature of the ends produced.” ― Aldous Huxley

  2. What about bordertarians who claim closed borders are necessary to achieve a libertarian society?

    Rothbard's point is beside the point. If there is no conflict between means and ends, then no debate is necessary. It's precisely because so many in the libertarian movement propose unethical means to achieve "ultimate" goals that there is any debate.

    The means *are* the ends. The way in which we bring about our desired goal *is* the goal. If we can't do it ethically, then we have failed. Regarding communists, their stated goal was a "stateless society", which would be achieved by means of a dictatorship. The same ridiculous strategy proposed by Hoppean helicopter libertarians.

  3. Rothbard's assertion that the proceeds of aggression should never be used to finance the libertarian movement is an interesting one. Armed robbery is so clearly aggression. However, what if a person travels on gov't owned roads to get to his office where he operates a libertarian website? People were aggressed against to build and maintain that road. Isn't use without protest an implicit advocacy of that aggression? What if a person is a gov't employee and uses his paycheck to pay to operate his libertarian website? Is it even possible for that person to advance liberty due to such a gross contradiction? What if a person makes his living and finances a libertarian website advising people to invest in securities clearly influenced by Federal Reserve money printing (inflationary expansion of the money supply, of which he is explicitly politically opposed)? Isn't that an implicit endorsement of the legitimacy of the profits earned by his clients and therefore, in contradiction to his stated principles, an endorsement of the legitimacy of the forum in which they were earned?

    1. Libertarianism is not a suicide pact. In a world in which the state touches, if not controls, every aspect of your life, it would not be possible both to completely abstain from action -- thereby avoiding the state and its controlled resources -- and try to promote liberty.

      Most of us cannot avoid using state-controlled roads in order to live fruitful lives, but we can advocate and agitate for a society in which all roads are privately owned. For those of us who invest our savings to try to grow our wealth, or who advise others on how to do so, we cannot avoid investments which are impacted by state action, but we can still advocate and agitate for a society in which there is no state impact on investments.

      One could perhaps draw a reasonable line at working directly for the state, or investing directly in state-issued securities such as government bonds. That said, Walter Block has argued that it is fine to work for the state if you seek to undermine its legitimacy; I'm not sure how long you'd last though, but Ed Snowden might be an illustrative case of Block's argument.

    2. Re: Hollow Daze,

      --- Is it even possible for that person to advance liberty due to such a gross contradiction? ---

      This call for absolute purity and perfection is neither new nor clever. I don't have to be free of sickness to honestly promote the goodness of health nor do I have to succumb to illness to evidence the goodness of health, so why would you think it is any different with freedom? The fact there's a tacit agreement with the state does not mean the state is right; it only means the person prefers self-preservation over martyrdom.

    3. @Francisco: I tend to agree with you here. I raised the questions because Rothbard is the one arguing for what appears to be an almost unobtainable purity. Sometimes, when my tinfoil hat gets too tight, I get suspicious that Rothbardian libertarianism might be a Rockefeller funded plot or COINTELpro op designed to keep liberty minded individuals passive and running around in intellectual hamster wheels rather than acting to be or affect the change they want to see.

  4. I think Rothbard and Mises use the word "justify" differently as wertfrei economists than how it is meant in moral discourse. That is to say, their "justify" could be read as "gives grounds/reason for X", whereas that of Sophocles or Theologians could be read as "renders X just" or "forgives the injustice of X".

    I welcome anyone's attempt to further refine this interpretation.

  5. "If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself." ---Carl Watner

  6. The fact that ancaps are unwilling and unable to use violence against statists is why Ancapistan will never exist. We have to be able to enforce private property laws, which is why we need a state.

    1. I'm pretty sure most ancaps believe that people have the right to defend themselves against the police. Whether that's a prudent course of action is another story.