Murray Rothbard: Society, Freedom, & Inequality
Posted by Orrin Woodward on July 19, 2013
I finished reading David Gordon’s book The Essential Rothbard several days ago and I am simply blown away. I have read and enjoyed at least ten Murray Rothbard books, but his depth, range, and insights keep me coming back for more. Indeed, there are few authors who have read as much on diverse subjects such as economics, sociology, history, politics, and law among others! Nonetheless, to me, what’s more amazing, is his ability to tie it all together in a comprehendible and systematic framework.
In fact, outside of his agnosticism, Rothbard’s research has led him down a similar path on society, freedom, and man, as my research and leadership has led me. And, even in the Christian area, Rothbard’s Thomistic philosophy centered around natural law is about as close to a Christian mindset as a person can go without the work of God’s grace. Simply put, Rothbard is a genius of the highest magnitude.
Unfortunately, in today’s society, true genius is rarely welcomed or recognized. Let me provide just one example of Rothbard’s insights from his penetrating book Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism and the Division of Labor. Imagine if enough people in LIFE Leadership understand these principles and apply them in their daily lives. I truly believe a LeaderShift would result.
On the other hand, the more despotic the society, the more restrictions on the freedom of the individual, the more uniformity there will be among men and the less the diversity, and the less developed will be the unique personality of each and every man. In a profound sense, then, a despotic society prevents its members from being fully human.
If freedom is a necessary condition for the full development of the individual, it is by no means the only requirement. Society itself must be sufficiently developed. No one, for example, can become a creative physicist on a desert island or in a primitive society. For, as an economy grows, the range of choice open to the producer and to the consumer proceeds to multiply greatly. Furthermore, only a society with a standard of living considerably higher than subsistence can afford to devote much of its resources to improving knowledge and to developing a myriad of goods and services above the level of brute subsistence. But there is another reason that full development of the creative powers of each individual cannot occur in a primitive or undeveloped society, and that is the necessity for a wide-ranging division of labor.
“The freer the society, then, the greater will be the variety and the diversity among men, for the more fully developed will be every man’s uniquely individual personality.”
No one can fully develop his powers in any direction without engaging in specialization. The primitive tribesman or peasant, bound to an endless round of different tasks in order to maintain himself, could have no time or resources available to pursue any particular interest to the full. He had no room to specialize, to develop whatever field he was best at or in which he was most interested. Two hundred years ago, Adam Smith pointed out that the developing division of labor is a key to the advance of any economy above the most primitive level. A necessary condition for any sort of developed economy, the division of labor is also requisite to the development of any sort of civilized society. The philosopher, the scientist, the builder, the merchant — none could develop these skills or functions if he had had no scope for specialization. Furthermore, no individual who does not live in a society enjoying a wide range of division of labor can possibly employ his powers to the fullest. He cannot concentrate his powers in a field or discipline and advance that discipline and his own mental faculties. Without the opportunity to specialize in whatever he can do best, no person can develop his powers to the full; no man, then, could be fully human.
While a continuing and advancing division of labor is needed for a developed economy and society, the extent of such development at any given time limits the degree of specialization that any given economy can have. There is, therefore, no room for a physicist or a computer engineer on a primitive island; these skills would be premature within the context of that existing economy. As Adam Smith put it, “the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market.” Economic and social development is therefore a mutually reinforcing process: the development of the market permits a wider division of labor, which in turn enables of further extension of the market.
If the scope of the market and the extent of the division of labor are mutually reinforcing, so too are the division of labor and the diversity of individual interests and abilities among men. For just as an ever-greater division of labor is needed to give full scope to the abilities and powers of each individual, so does the existence of that very division depend upon the innate diversity of men. For there would be no scope at all for a division of labor if every person were uniform and interchangeable. (A further condition of the emergence of a division of labor is the variety of natural resources; specific land areas on the earth are also not interchangeable.) Furthermore, it soon became evident in the history of man that the market economy based on a division of labor was profoundly cooperative, and that such division enormously multiplied the productivity and hence the wealth of every person participating in the society. The economist Ludwig von Mises put the matter very clearly:
Historically division of labor originates in two facts of nature: the inequality of human abilities and the variety of the external conditions of human life on the earth. These two facts are really one: the diversity of Nature, which does not repeat itself but creates the universe in infinite, inexhaustible variety….
These two conditions … are indeed such as almost to force the division of labor on mankind. Old and young, men and women cooperate by making appropriate use of their various abilities. Here also is the germ of the geographical division of labor; man goes to the hunt and woman to the spring to fetch water. Had the strength and abilities of all individuals and the external conditions of production been everywhere equal the idea of division of labor could never have arisen … No social life could have arisen among men of equal natural capacity in a world which was geographically uniform….
Once labor has been divided, the division itself exercises a differentiating influence. The fact that labor is divided makes possible further cultivation of individual talent and thus cooperation becomes more and more productive. Through cooperation men are able to achieve what would have been beyond them as individuals….
The greater productivity of work under the division of labor is a unifying influence. It leads men to regard each other as comrades in a joint struggle for welfare, rather than as competitors in a struggle for existence.
Freedom, then, is needed for the development of the individual, and such development also depends upon the extent of the division of labor and the height of the standard of living. The developed economy makes room for, and encourages, an enormously greater specialization and flowering of the powers of the individual than can a primitive economy, and the greater the degree of such development, the greater the scope for each individual.
“No one can fully develop his powers in any direction without engaging in specialization.”
If freedom and the growth of the market are each important for the development of each individual and, therefore, to the flowering of diversity and individual differences, then so is there a casual connection between freedom and economic growth. For it is precisely freedom, the absence or limitation of interpersonal restrictions or interference, that sets the stage for economic growth and hence of the market economy and the developed division of labor.