L.A. Rollins’ case against natural rights

Nine-Banded Books has done the world a great favor in publishing a new edition of L.A. Rollins’ The Myth of Natural Rights. Although one could argue that in one sense it is a mixed blessing because it indicates that there is still a need for such a book. While the idea of natural rights seems to be in decline in contemporary libertarian  philosophy, mainstream political culture is more infected with “rights-talk” than ever. In ordinary discourse the word “right” has become a substitute for “whatever I want for myself” or “whatever I want for others,” and if such demands are heeded, just another term to characterize the outcome of political power. But why not  just call a spade a spade and, for example, just demand that the rich hand over their money to the poor? Perhaps this would not be as effective; whereas power is associated with irrationality and aggression, rights convey the image of reason and peace. But what if all this talk about natural (or human) rights is “nonsense on stilts.” That is where L.A. Rollins’ book comes into play.

Although Rollins’ book can be read as a general argument against natural rights, he is mainly concerned with Objectivist and libertarian authors such as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. Broadly speaking, Rollins presses the argument that the case for existence of natural rights is neither empirical nor logical.

As of writing, Arthur Guyton’s Textbook of Medical Physiology is now in its 11th edition with more than 1100 pages, but so far no evidence for the existence of natural rights has been found in humans. So perhaps the case for natural rights needs to be found in man’s capacity for reason, or his “need” to use reason without coercion. But as Rollins argues, from a need to be free from coercion does not  logically follow a natural right to be free from coercion, let alone an argument for others to refrain from coercion.  Not only that, Rollins recognizes the flexibility in arguments from “need.” It should not be surprising then, that arguments derived from “needs” have been used to claim rights to virtually everything under the sun, from access to health care to a 36 hour work week.

According to Murray Rothbard natural rights “are embedded in a greater structure of “natural law.” But what is the status of such “law?” How does it differ from laws that are discovered by science?  Scientific laws,  such as the laws of physics, cannot be altered by human action. They describe how things are. Natural law does not describe how things are but how things should be. But what “nature” requires or dictates is in the eye of the beholder. Almost any conceivable form of morality (or public policy) has been defended by appeals to natural law. Adolf Hitler is reported to have said:

“The Earth continues to go around, whether it’s the man who kills the tiger or the tiger who eats the man. The stronger asserts his will, it’s the law of nature. The world doesn’t change; its laws are eternal.”

In the case of Ayn Rand, Rollins highlights a number of flaws in her derivation of rights such as the futile attempt to derive an ought from an is (which is a persistent error in natural rights thinking), the problem of using different meanings of the same word (such as “right”), and the unintended implications of her reasoning. For example, Rollins argues that Rand’s derivation of rights from the requirement of survival would not only give rights to humans but to animals as well, something that she would not likely approve of.

Murray Rothbard does not fair better in Rollins’ book. Although Ludwig von Mises is generally perceived to be a utilitarian of sorts, most contemporary Austrian economists reject utilitarianism as either methodologically confused or collectivist in nature (or both). As a consequence, Rothbard felt pressed to look for the source of libertarian rights in natural law and logic. Although these writings have been illuminating in some respects, the whole approach of deriving rights from man’s nature has been less than persuasive as can be seen in Rollins’ treatment of Rothbard’s argument. More recent attempts to derive self-ownership and private property from the requirements of argumentation (Hans-Hermann Hoppe) have met with great skepticism as well.

Perhaps the Austrian economists are on the wrong track in assuming the burden of proof for liberty and property. As Austrians like Rothbard and Walter Block have not failed to point out, one major problem in social contract defenses of the state is that hypothetical agreement is treated as actual agreement. So why do these Austrians not stick to a strict interpretation of contractarianism as an alternative? One argument could be that the custom of contract requires a “moral” framework to function. But this can be questioned. As argued by Anthony de Jasay in Social Contract, Free Ride, most contracts are self-enforcing (or have a  high probability to be self-enforcing) because they are mutually advantageous. And for contracts that are at risk of defection (for example, contracts where there is a time difference for the parties to deliver), private enforcement and/or mechanisms of social exclusion in case of defection will be an option.

So where exactly does this urge to find an ultimate moral justification for libertarian rights come from? As the political philosopher Anthony de Jasay often argues in his writings, such attempts at justification confuse the difference between a liberty and a right and (unintentionally) encourages a way of thinking (and political climate) in which one has to demonstrate a “right” to do something to lift it out of the universe of prohibitions. Instead, de Jasay argues that logic and epistemology dictate that liberty should be presumed and that that the burden of proof is on those that advocate interference with a liberty.

This does not mean that there is no role for moral or political philosophy at all. If anything, the most credible moral and political philosophy, and of which Rollin’s book is a good example, have been  exercises in demonstrating that most justifications for moral and political obligation are flawed. As TGGP points out in his excellent introduction, if there is any prospect for a positive theory of morality it  may be found in authors that subscribe to some form of moral contractarianism such as advocated by the late Benjamin Tucker or David Gauthier. Academic philosophers may argue that such an approach to morals is too minimal, “incomplete,” and at best could “only” justify (or perhaps we should say, explain) conventions (not necessarily laws)  against killing, stealing or cheating. But is is hard to see why this should be a concern to libertarians! As a matter of fact, one libertarian philosopher, Jan Narveson, has exactly drawn such conclusions. Such a position would not constitute a “justification” of libertarianism; libertarianism either follows from practical reason or it does not.

In his 2008 afterword to The Myth of Natural Rights Rollins asks “why does everyone have to play the moral game?” striking at the heart of not only natural rights philosophy but moral philosophy itself. A similar point has been raised by David Gauthier when he characterized the tendency of philosophers to assume that people need to justify their actions to others in a moral framework as “the secularized residue of the doctrine that persons seek to justify their actions before God. But once that residue is being recognized for what it is, it surely loses all credibility.” If there is a persuasive reason why amoral egoists would benefit from playing “the moral game” it may be found in Gauthier’s work (or others who work in this tradition). Barring the success of such efforts, Rollins’ book is a fatal blow to libertarian philosophy.

The new edition of The Myth of Natural Rights also includes an updated version of Lucifer’s Lexicon, styled after Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, but with great emphasize on ridiculing self-styled libertarians (of all sorts) and, in its updated version, the doublespeak in contemporary political discourse. Some examples:

Agnostic,n. A Godfearing atheist.

Budget Cut,n. Formerly, a decrease in government spending. Now, a decrease in the rate of increase in government spending.

Social Security, n. Subsidized senility.

And there is a  definition of a certain Ayn Rand novel that is too naughty to publish here.

L.A. Rollins is drawn towards controversial topics as evidenced by his writings on holocaust revisionism and his “Open Letter to Allah,” which begins with, “Dear Allah, I’ve been reading your book, The Holy Qur’an. What a crock of sh#t!” As it turns out, Allah knows less about the solar system than we would expect considering his wisdom.

The Myth of Natural Rights is not just obligatory reading for libertarians with philosophical tendencies, but for anyone who believes in “rights,” from “liberal” activists to members of human rights organizations.  “Rights-talk” has been a major obstacle in clear thinking about human interaction and an inexhaustible source for imposing obligation without agreement and entitlement without a title.

Let’s hope Nine-Banded Books keeps delivering the goods.