Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Limits of Charles Murray Radicalism

By Robert Wenzel

Charles Murray, last night in San Francisco
On Sunday, I commented on a new book by Charles Murray,  By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission. In the book, Murray writes that he believes things are so rotten in government, that they can no longer be fixed from within the political system. 

A blurb for the book states that he calls for civil disobedience and that he is starting a fund, The Madison Fund, to provide financing for those who violate regulations. The fund would pay for lawyers and fines for those who commit acts of civil disobedience. 

His goal is to clog up the regulatory system of government

In my comment, I noted the one concern I had with regard to Murray's plan and that was the support it had from the less than radical beltarian organizations, the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. It seemed to me to be an odd position for these groups to be promoting. since they generally view even the consistent logical thinking, classical liberal, old-world gentleman Ludwig von Mises, as too radical in his advocacy of liberty. Beltarian views tend to stop on the side of more government advocacy than even Friedrich Hayek, who in The Constitution of Liberty, slipped from a principled advocacy of liberty at least 43 times.

It just so happened that after writing up the post, I learned that Murray was to speak on Monday evening here in San Francisco at the Commonwealth Club. It was my chance to learn first hand what degree of radical civil disobedience Murray was calling for.

And, indeed, Murray appears to be more radical than in his earlier days, Last evening. at one point, he correctly stated that "Ronald Reagan didn't do much of anything to roll back the regulatory state." Certainly a radical view, most often expressed by another Murray, Murray Rothbard, whose name is never mentioned in the corridors of Cato or AEI and rarely placed as even a footnote in papers from these institutions.

But there are, shall we say, limitations to the Charles Murray radicalism and limitations to his advocacy of civil disobedience.

Throughout his talk, he tended to give the impression that libertarianism, began and ended, with a limited government view. He talked as though he had never heard the term anarcho-capitalism. I submitted a question for the Q & A period to ask Murray what he thought of anarcho-capitalism, but the moderator, David Davenport of the Hoover Institution, apparently did not think much of the question. Instead, he did spend some time asking Murray, with genuine concern, such things as what would happen to the poor people if water was priced based on market prices.

But there was an opportunity to ask Murray questions unfiltered at a pre-speech gathering. I did not attend but the hard-core libertarian Michael Edelstein did. Edelstein asked Murray two questions that clarified just how radical Murray and his fund would be.

He asked Murray if his fund would support those who exercised civil disobedience by not paying taxes. Murray said "No." He said that the Constitution allowed for taxation.

Edelstein than asked if the fund would provide support to war protesters. Murray said that the fund would only get involved with "domestic issues."

And, thus, we begin to see the limitations of Charles Murray radicalism and why the beltarians applaud.

During his speech, Murray made a number of points that showed other limitations to his radicalism. He said that he was not against all regulation. He used coal mine safety regulations as an example of the type of regulation he supported.

Davenport, during the Q & A, asked him about regulation of the financial sector. Murray responded by saying, "Yes, some" regulation was needed in that sector.

He also told the crowd that the people in Washington D.C. are not evil. He said he lives there and that even when regulators are trampling on individuals, they are not evil. They are "just exercising the enormous power given to them to tell others what to do."

He said that what he was looking for was a regulatory state where regulators "acted like state troopers." He explained that state troopers generally allow drivers to drive a few miles over the speed limit and that he wanted regulators to act along these lines and give people some leeway when it comes to regulations.

So what type of civil disobedience would Murray finance through his fund in his severely restricted idea of radicalism? He said that an overriding qualification would be that an act of civil disobedience that would be financed by his fund would have to have "the overwhelming majority of people in favor of the disobedience."

He used as an example an individual he knows in the construction business who stores beach sand in a shed and who was being harassed by regulators because sand was considered by the regulators a poison and the shed did not have a poison sign on it.

And thus, we see that the support Murray will give to for civil disobedience is far from radical civil disobedience, but something that the operators of the state would have limited objections to. Poison sand beach signs are just the types of issues they would welcome battle over. War and taxes not so much. And thus the answer to why the beltarians can support "Radical" Charles.

In truth, Charles is not advocating radical, principled advocacy of liberty. He is advocating liberty for hand picked secondary issues and it is never clear exactly where the limitations might fall. Each act would seemingly have to be debated on a case-by-case basis, rather than on hardcore libertarian non-aggression principles.

One might say that the advancement of liberty via Murray's fund will not be along principled black and white lines.

Robert Wenzel is Editor & Publisher at EconomicPolicyJournal.com and at Target Liberty. He is also author of The Fed Flunks: My Speech at the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Follow him on twitter:@wenzeleconomics


  1. I don't see how you can have law and courts with authority to enforce that law and still call that "anarchism." Mises' minarchism is not that easy to discard.

    1. Anarchism does not mean no law, courts, or penalties. It means private law. It means consent is always explicitly given by an individual to abide by private law, abide by decisions of private courts, and suffer prearranged penalties for violations. The authority to enforce that private law on the individual comes directly from the advance consent of the individual himself.

      Yes, this is anarchism, because no one is claiming any right to rule anyone else, just hold a man to his voluntary agreements he made before entering the private property on which the private law applies.

      Mises himself admitted secession down to the level of an individual was morally unassailable. He just, mistakenly, thought it was an unreachable ideal in practice. As if some utilitarian notion of practicality could trump property rights and morality. Rothbard fortunately saw right through that bit of inconsistency and also showed how readily practical it was to boot.

  2. Wow. Some BS civil disobedience program this is. What a joke.

    Still think the idea is good. Wish someone Rothbardian would take it up.

  3. Great detective and follow-up work, Bob. Thank you!

  4. Murray has his own biases. There are plenty of strategic reasons for not funding tax protesters - never winning is one reason. We can take Murray's general idea and make our own fund.

    1. I wonder if Lew would let us create a "M Rothbard Civil Disobedience Group" to help people who do things like this.

    2. Civil disobedience has nothing to do with winning any court cases. It has to do with selecting private and public disobedient actions that inspire the same defiance among ever greater numbers of followers while also evoking sympathetic sentiments in the rest of the population.

      Gandhi chose the British salt tax law to break because philosophically it constituted a perfect poster child for all the cronyist laws imposed by the British. Breaking that law privately and publicly could be easily done by every person including the most humble in a physically engaging, spiritually fulfilling, and ideologically principled way. Plus pictures of the enforcers cracking the skulls of people for the crime of saltmaking splashed around the papers evoked widespread anti-government sentiment.

      Check out a recent youtube video of what happened when some undercover NYPD cops arbitrarily elected to physically harass a 14-year old girl on the street. An outraged crowd quickly forms and verbally and physically close in on the cops intimidating _them_ into backing down. Civil disobedience in action; spontaneous in this case, but freaking inspirational.

  5. I disagree with Bob’s opinion piece.
    1.Bob did not know of a more radical example Murray gave at a Cato talk: An employer hires legal immigrants. To do this he has massive Govt paperwork to fill out. Then his business is regularly visited by Govt agents fining him for all manner of picky violations unrelated to his hires. Murray concludes he would have been better off hiring the illegals and staying under the Govt’s radar.
    2. I agree Murray’s talk indicated he’s still lukewarm about libertarianism. Yes, as Bob says there are limitations to his radicalism. Yet his project itself is radical, apart from his rhetoric. It attempts in a new, courageous way to roll back the state. Publicly calling for civil disobedience even in much smaller ways than Thoreau or Gandhi have is a net positive. Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the ok.
    3. Bob says: “One might say that the advancement of liberty via Murray’s fund will not be along principled black and white lines.” I’ll take the advancement of liberty for all the wrong reasons and even in small doses, although I passionately prefer tax rebellion and war protests.
    4. Here’s is a summary of the book. Sounds radical to me:
    American freedom is being gutted. Whether we are trying to run a business, practice a vocation, raise our families, cooperate with our neighbors, or follow our religious beliefs, we run afoul of the government—not because we are doing anything wrong but because the government has decided it knows better. When we object, that government can and does tell us, “Try to fight this, and we’ll ruin you.”

    In this provocative book, acclaimed social scientist and bestselling author Charles Murray shows us why we can no longer hope to roll back the power of the federal government through the normal political process. The Constitution is broken in ways that cannot be fixed even by a sympathetic Supreme Court. Our legal system is increasingly lawless, unmoored from traditional ideas of “the rule of law.” The legislative process has become systemically corrupt, no matter which party is in control.

    But there’s good news beyond the Beltway. Technology is siphoning power from sclerotic government agencies and putting it in the hands of individuals and communities. The rediversification of American culture is making local freedom attractive to liberals as well as conservatives. People across the political spectrum are increasingly alienated from a regulatory state that nakedly serves its own interests rather than those of ordinary Americans.

    Warm regards,


    1. You make a compelling case. Charles Murray certainly expresses some of the right sentiments. And yes, we can rally behind even small matters like defying the school crossing guard because the approach represents a courageous, desperately needed, fresh method of rolling back the state.

      The problem RW may be reacting to is Charles Murray's platform seems to be not so narrowly defined as "We promote defying school crossing guards and take no position on the rest." It's "We promote defying school crossing guards and also promote full compliance with all non-trivial laws such as tax, conscription, labor, etc. which we hold to be legitimate." Woah. Associating with such a program now becomes problematic. The ok does become the enemy of the good.