Why Rothbard Stayed Away from Berlin
This year is the fortieth anniversary of Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty, and although many topics in it have attracted attention, several of them have been neglected. I’m going to discuss one of these in this week’s article. Isaiah Berlin was one of the most influential and important political philosophers in the years after World War II, and in his famous essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” he distinguishes between negative and positive freedom in a way that leads some people to think that his “negative freedom” is roughly equivalent to Rothbard’s nonaggression principle, which states that “we may define anyone who aggresses against the person or other produced property of another as a criminal. A criminal is anyone who initiates violence against another man and his property: anyone who uses the coercive ‘political means’ for the acquisition of goods and services” (Ethics of Liberty, p. 51). Rothbard argues that they aren’t equivalent.
Berlin’s basic distinction is between freedom in the sense of doing what you want to do, unobstructed by the interference of other people, and freedom in the sense of self-mastery. In the latter sense, you count as free only if you are acting autonomously. It’s difficult to characterize exactly what this means, but in essence it involves a distinction between what you in your flesh-and-blood existence say you want and what your “real self” wants. “And what is the real self?” you will of course ask, and answering this is not simple, but this example may help. Suppose you are a heavy smoker. You know that smoking damages your lungs, but you continue to smoke anyway. Because it would be irrational to want to damage your lungs, your real self doesn’t want to smoke, and your smoking violates your positive freedom, even though you are doing what you want to do. To be clear, this claim doesn’t rest on the assumption that when you smoke, you feel a desire not to do so and struggle without success to overcome your desire. Even if, thinking about your desires as carefully as you can, you are perfectly happy with your desire to smoke, you still are not acting in accord with the require
Article from Mises Wire