Rothbard vs. LeFevre

The Complete Libertarian Forum (CLF) is a massive work, and by not hurrying I'm making some slow but satisfying progress. I'm up to October 1973, and at Kindle location 25370 there are some remarks by Murray Rothbard about Robert LeFevre.

Apparently this libertarian scholar and apologist wasn't quite to Murray's liking, for I'd seen him take a few shots at LeFevre earlier; but in this essay he marshals his concerns. First, a bit of background on his target.

His Wikipedia bio names LeFevre as a businessman, broadcaster and “theorist of autarchism,” which term he preferred to “anarchism.” Evidently he'd been a hot-button conservative who gradually and wisely gravitated to the logic of complete liberty, and in 1956 he founded in Colorado Springs the Freedom School, where he taught until 1973. I understand the courses lasted several days and that students paid fees.

His graduates included Roy Childs, of whom Rothbard thought so highly as to call him for example a “brilliant young libertarian,” and Charles Koch, who later provided huge financial support for the fledgling libertarian movement and founded the Cato Institute. Charles and David later moved Cato towards the mainstream so as to gain access to the MSM, and of course Murray was having none of that, but even today the world with Cato is a good deal better than it would be without Cato. The Kochs have been a positive influence for freedom.

From his modest school, therefore, LeFevre helped some very significant figures grasp the importance of individual liberty. He deserves an honored place in the Libertarian Pantheon.

Rothbard begins his CLF piece by writing that LeFevre sees violence as immoral whether used in offence or defense, and says that the “entire LeFevrian political philosophy is a logical derivation from this basic moral axiom. But I submit that this axiom is simply balderdash . . . .” - and on that point I have to agree with him (except that I think it was a premise, not an axiom). The self-ownership axiom requires no aggression, but it does not require no defense. Defensive force is a fundamental right. That doesn't imply an obligation to use defensive force, but it does say defensive force is not immoral. We may admire the pacifist or not, but do not have to emulate him.

So Rothbard says LeFevre “allows one only 'protection', a most attenuated concept which boils down to installing 'a good bolt lock' on one’s door” and then lays in to that concept with, “If a stout lock is OK for LeFevre. I presume that a fence would be too. But what about an electrified fence? Our precious criminal, trying to get over such a fence, is going to have his 'boundaries' very much violated. Or, if a mildly electrified fence is OK with LeFevre, how about a severely electrified fence, which might well send our criminal to Kingdom Come?”

However, when LeFevre considers types of defense that go beyond his “bolt,” in my view he has a stronger position than Rothbard allows. As well as protection, the former sees defense as having as components “retaliation and punishment . . . all condemned by LeFevre as the immoral use of violence . . . .” Rothbard, as I noted in the STRticle Punishment, had no problem with either. I have severe problems with both. Justice is about restitution, not vengeance, and in that respect LeFevre was exactly right. Retaliation is never morally justified.

So far, then, IMHO honors are about equal: Murray 1, Robert 1.

Then Rothbard scores again with his “In his anxiety to attack all defensive violence from whatever source, LeFevre goes so far as to make common cause with the statists in denying the workability of anarcho-capitalism,” alleging that competing justice companies could not work together in the market. Rothbard refers him to proofs to the contrary, written by himself, Wollstein, Perkins and (David) Friedman. “Unfortunately, LeFevre writes as if none of this has been written or thought about.”

He presses further, by criticizing LeFevre's opposition to all political action, but there throws away his advantage; for to vote is certainly immoral, as amply demonstrated by the rich resource of articles now in STR's Non-Voting archive. Of course that wasn't around in 1973, but Rothbard had plunged irrevocably into the political cesspool, so I doubt he would have paid attention anyway. So, the score so far: Murray 2, Robert 2.

Rothbard comes then to what I see as the nub of the matter: “LeFevre has no real strategy for the recovery of liberty and for the liquidation or even the whittling away of statism. Violent revolution, political action, anything that smacks of defensive force in any sense is equally condemned. All that leaves us with is to persuade the mugger, to persuade the State to resign and liquidate itself en masse. The rest of us can only wish LeFevre luck . . . .” (my italics.)

That is an astounding and completely unjustified accusation.

It is Rothbard who, as I showed in Murray's Missing Plan, is the one who had no real strategy for the establishment of liberty. He led his eager followers right into political action and, while hesitating to join the LP at its formation, did so later and became its leader; and political action is no such strategy at all, as the LP's subsequent history has proven.

Robert LeFevre, on the other hand, nearly hit the nail right on the head, 58 years ago. He accurately saw education as the method needed, and so he founded the Freedom School and got down to teaching.

I don't mean to belittle the huge contribution Murray Rothbard also made to educating people about freedom through his books and speeches, to LP affiliates all over the country. They probably exceeded LeFevre's in overall effect. But he failed to grasp that education is the only thing that matters and that messing around with politics is a distraction at best. In contrast, LeFevre focused correctly.

He did not, of course, expect the State to “resign and liquidate itself en masse,” that is a caricature. He set about the in-depth, systematic education of people he hoped would become opinion leaders, and who would eventually help turn the population away from its absurd faith in the government myth. Exactly how he saw that going down, I don't know. Possibly, he didn't try to plan that far ahead.

So far, then, we have a score of Robert 3, Murray 2; and I'll leave the scoreboard there and continue by noting where LeFevre fell short. It was, as I see it, in that very failure; to plan far enough ahead – any further than Rothbard did.

While I've been unable to find anything explicit to show this, what Robert LeFevre did seems enough to indicate that his aim was to educate in liberty just opinion leaders, rather like that fine facility on the Hudson, the Foundation for Economic Education; whose mission is also to "inspire, educate, and connect future leaders with the principles of a free society." The scope and emphasis he placed may have been more radical, but that was his target market. Even with his background in broadcasting, he didn't set out to educate everyone; I haven't heard tell of a LeFevre correspondence school of some kind such as What Might Have Been describes, and still less an early version of the replicative TOLFA model.

This “opinion leader” strategy I think to be mistaken. Here's why.

First, it assumes that when fully successful, a cadre of well-educated “leaders” will somehow “lead” the rest of the population, presumably passive and ignorant, to live free of government direction and support – both. In my opinion, such a leadership task is hopeless.

Already and for many years, that passive and ignorant population has been conditioned to depend on government for both direction and support. Direction, because people do not, by and large, know how to conduct themselves as sovereign individuals, responsible for making and honoring contracts with each other. They were once; that was the norm for much of 19th Century America, and it is the source of the unprecedented prosperity which later governments have been so busy squandering; but today, such skills are rare. Not for nothing is the population now known as “sheeple.” Decision-taking responsibility and independent, rational thinking have been bred out of them, by seven generations of government schooling.

Similarly, the population depends on government for support, or does so in large part. For the past four generations or more, the majority has been maintained at the expense of the more productive minority, courtesy of government transfers. They know how to vote; they do not know how to innovate and produce wealth. So by and large and fortunately with many brilliant exceptions, Americans are directionless and helpless. When government is taken away in some manner by these “opinion leaders,” the population will have no idea which way to turn, nor which way is up. Even if somehow the leaders do cause government to vanish, the result will more likely be chaos, than anarchy; and as we know, the two are polar opposites.

Secondly, the “manner” in which these presumed opinion leaders will actually dispose of government is nowhere explained. Given the enormous brute power of the established order, however dull it is intellectually, how will it be caused to dissolve? I've been watching the case of Irwin Schiff, the illegal-tax expert. He has totally wiped the floor with government lawyers and bureau-rats; they have no coherent rebuttal to hand him. But they have the key to his cage, and will keep him there. They are unreasoning savages, but they do have the power, and that particular “opinion leader” can do nothing about it.

And thirdly, it seems to me that there is something profoundly dangerous and unhealthy in having a libertarian élite of “opinion leaders” calling the shots after government has vanished, should they somehow cause that to happen. The situation would be fully ripe for that élite to form some kind of new, replacement government – just as has happened with every other revolution in history. Or even if that disaster is avoided, the élite would be ideally situated to take over the major functions of society's infrastructure, and so become a new kind of super-rich aristocracy, a bit like happened in Russia after the collapse of Communism. Don't know about you, but I'm not in this libertarian game to smooth the path for a new set of plutocrats.

So, while Robert LeFevre began to educate folk, I doubt whether he thought through an overall strategy for bringing about a free society any more than Rothbard did. It's a great shame; for when one considers the question “What has to happen for government to vanish?” the answer leaps out: its employees have to quit. And what will cause them to quit? When they understand its true nature, and how much better freedom is, they will be disgusted, and leave. And how will they learn that true nature? When they are re-educated. All of them. So the task is not just to educate opinion leaders, but to educate everyone – including those who might otherwise replace them. Everyone will then be well prepared to manage for themselves, with neither direction nor support from government.

A huge task, obviously, and its size may be what persuaded these two pioneers of liberty to give up the search for a method. But again, when one seriously asks “How could it be done?”, the answer is not hard. As for how and when it will take place, my prediction is described in Transition to Liberty. No doubt details will differ, but that outline is about right.

Meanwhile, I'm keeping one of LeFevre's insights as the sig-block under my name on emails – and on some of my T-shirts, for use in that season which currently seems so distant:

"Government is a disease, masquerading as its own cure."

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