“There isn’t a capitalist or a socialist way to help the poor. There is only one way: Give money to the poor to buy the goods they need.”
What would Murray Rothbard reply to this?
Those of us who learned a great deal from the Austrian School and Rothbard himself can easily figure what Rothbard would reply. He would say something like the following:
“You, my socialist friend, propose a solution that assumes the existence of too many things. But all these things, in order to be there, will require capitalism first and foremost, before you can help the poor.
“For your solution to work, you first need the money. Someone needs to have made the money – indeed, a surplus of it – in order to have it to give it to the poor. So you need a surplus of money – a capitalist concept in itself.
“Of course, that money has no value in itself. The poor must go to the market and buy goods with it. Who will produce the goods? Someone needs to invest to build the production facilities; in the process, he is risking his own money. Someone needs to manage and organize labor. He must have sufficient incentive to take all these risks and do all the work; in other words, he needs profit. The profit must also cover his payments to other producers, who also want profit for themselves. Otherwise, why would someone bother to engage in a costly and risky process except for the return on their money? So, in order for the poor to get the goods against the money they have, you need a bunch of capitalists to produce those goods.
“But you need more than that. You need a valid context in which money really can be exchanged for the goods; in other words, you need a market. You need people who would value money more than they value the goods they have; and are willing to produce a surplus of goods to get your money. You need a universal agreement for what money would be, and mechanisms for that agreement to be worked out in practice. You need a system of prices that will tell the different producers what to produce, how much to ask for it, and whether they need to improve their efficiency or not. That system of prices must be kept in order by the voluntary decisions of millions of buyers and sellers, everyday, in every place. Without the market, and without the system of prices, the money you give to your poor will be worthless.
“And of course, you need a valid definition for ‘poor.’ But ‘poor’ is a relative term; it makes sense only in comparison to ‘wealthy.’ So before you know who is poor and deserves your help, you need to have wealthy people in your society, those that have found a way to produce the surplus and have enough of it to share with your poor.
“Therefore, my socialist friend, before you have your ‘solution,’ you need a thoroughly capitalist context in which to help your poor. In your eyes what is visible – giving money to the poor – is neither socialist nor capitalist. In reality, all the invisible prerequisites for your help are only capitalist and nothing else. Therefore, there is only one way to help the poor: the capitalist way.”
These may not be the exact words Mr. Rothbard would use, but we can imagine his answer would follow pretty much the same logic. Classical Liberalism has taught all of us to pay attention to the context not seen behind the things that are seen, and thus be informed about economic issues. That’s what made Classical Liberals such powerful and influential thinkers in the first place.
That’s why it is so unfortunate Mr. Rothbard didn’t use the same logic consistently in all his writings and opinions. While he applied it to economics, he refused to apply it to other fields, like sociology and philosophy. The example I have in mind is his article of 1990, republished again last week by LewRockwell.com: “Kingdom Come: The Politics of the Millennium.” In it Mr. Rothbard says the following:
With his usual insight, Gary North sees that the two positions are and must be at loggerheads, and hence stakes his entire case on Calvinist presuppositionalism. Unfortunately, presuppositionalism is not a position likely to gain adherents outside the hardcore Calvinist faithful, and even there I suspect he might have problems. (Is there really only a Christian chemistry, a Christian mathematics, a Christian way to fly a plane?)
Indeed, is there a Christian way to fly a plane?
The irony of this passage is that the same paragraph where Murray Rothbard tells Gary North his presuppositionalism will meet only limited acceptance, ends with the most presuppositional question he could ask. And thus, Mr. Rothbard inadvertently proves the case for presuppositionalism: All men are presuppositionalists, whether they admit it or not, whether they are aware of it or not. Everyone takes something for granted when asking questions or giving answers. It is unavoidable. It is part of the very nature of human thinking.
Gary North is presuppositionalist when he writes his books: He presupposes God and His Word.
The socialist in my example above is a presuppositionalist when he makes his statement about helping the poor: Money, goods, production, market, prices, he takes them all for granted.
Murray Rothbard is also a presuppositionalist when he asks his question: He presupposes . . . a plane! He takes it for granted that the plane just exists out of thin air, and then he asks: Is there really a Christian way to fly this thing? (And forget about how it got here, he may add, but he never does.)
But can we really take the plane for granted and answer Rothbard’s question? I don’t think so. We can’t presuppose a plane out of thin air any more than a socialist can presuppose the existence of money, goods, production, exchange, markets, etc. So, in order to answer Mr. Rothbard’s question, I need to apply in practice what I learned from him and the other Classical Liberals: Find out how that plane came to exist in the first place. Let’s see.
A plane needs some knowledge of the laws of nature. Therefore, we need to start with a person who believes nature has laws. Or, rather, a whole culture that believes it. One, single, transcendental principle of unity for all reality is basic to any system of knowledge. A culture that believes nature is a clash of benevolent and malevolent personal occult forces is unlikely to develop a “laws of nature” concept. Paganism never developed science.
We also need that person or culture to believe that the human mind is capable of reliably discovering and understanding these laws of nature. Hinduism, for example, believes all perceptions are illusory; it never developed any science. Also, a society that believes that human mind evolved randomly and is a random work of random chemical forces has no reason to believe human mind has any reliable connection with the outside world, so why trust any laws that we may “discover”?
Then we need that person or culture to believe that, conversely, the theoretical constructs and thoughts of the human mind have reliable and predictable application to the world outside of it. Dualism, with its radical separation of mind and matter, may create some rational constructs that look like “science,” but it will never develop it into technologies. The Greeks are one of many examples that come that comes to mind.
After the scientists, we need the experimenters. We need someone who believes that his mind can correctly interpret results of experimentation, and therefore believe that what is called “scientific method” is really a useful tool. Any belief in ultimate chance would be destructive to the “scientific method.”
We also need a division of labor between the experimenters; so we need a group of people that believe that ultimately there is a unifying principle behind all experimentation, irrespective of the time, geographical place, the personal background, or the size of the shoes of the experimenter. We need them to believe in the principle of replication of experiments and results.
What about the economic part of it? In order to have a plane, we need someone to believe that the profits from their bicycle shop are better used for building the first experimental plane rather than for spending it on wine, women, and song. We need someone to believe it is worthy to risk their life making the first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. We need a society that believes in intellectual as well as physical property rights to assure the discoverer that he will be rewarded for his efforts and investment of time and resources.
In general, no one builds a plane overnight. Investors must believe in the value of time and in the value of future profits over present consumption. They must believe in the predictability of the market, and they must believe that they share common values with the entrepreneurs; after all, no one is giving their money to a morally unreliable person. The society must believe in moral laws that punish evildoers.
Then again, when the plane is built, we need pilots who believe the discoveries and the experiments of other people in the past are a reliable indicator that the plane is safe; in other words, pilots need faith in a principle of unity between the past and the future. The same applies to passengers. Also, we need passengers that believe that their time is more valuable than the money they spend on a plane ticket. No one builds a plane if the society doesn’t believe in using it.
Now, look above. While enumerating only a few of the most important prerequisites for the plane to even exist, we used the words “believe” and “faith” 18 times! None of the material steps toward researching, experimenting, and building a plane would be taken unless we have people who believe all these things. A plane is not self-existent; it is the product of a belief system. And if we are going to discuss a plane in a rational way, we need to first take into consideration this belief system as the invisible reason for the existence of the plane.
So, a plane needs, at the very bottom, certain beliefs in a society about man, about law, and about time. And above all, it needs certain beliefs about the unifying principle between all these: God. Without it, a plane cannot exist.
And if Murray Rothbard wanted to start from the very beginning, he would have noticed that there is only one belief system that incorporates all these necessary beliefs: Christianity. It is no coincidence that planes, and not only planes, were first built in a Christian nation. Rothbard’s claims at the beginning of his article that “Christianity has played a central role in Western civilization and contributed an important influence on the development of classical-liberal thought” are incorrect. The correct statement would be: “Only Christianity was the force that produced the West. Every other influence has played only a deconstructive role.”
Why, even Rothbard’s natural law is unthinkable without Christianity. Had he spent the time to do research on “How natural is the natural law,” he would have discovered that the majority of the human beings in history would disagree with the “naturalness” of his natural law. The only ones who would agree would be the Christians. Why? Because he took the concept from them! And then he cut away from it the only thing that makes the natural law “natural”: The God of the Bible. But without the God of the Bible there is no natural law; and consequently only that law is natural, which is revealed in the Bible. In proclaiming some kind of natural law that doesn’t need God, Rothbard is pretty much like the terrorist in the humorous clip who brags about having studied in the “bloody American university in Cairo” while inveighing against the “infidels.”
Therefore, to answer Mr. Rothbard’s question, there is only one way to fly a plane: the Christian way. All others must borrow worldview and presuppositions from Christianity to have a plane in the first place in order to fly it. The fact that a non-Christian uses or flies a plane doesn’t make the plane less Christian; just like a socialist using money to give to the poor doesn’t make the money less capitalist. Planes are Christian, from beginning to end, and so is civilization, science, technology, and free market defense. Nothing else could produce them.