RE: Rothbardian “Socialism”

Are private property rights compatible with anarchism, and can they exist without statism to defend them? Rothbardians – particularly the self-proclaimed “Rothbardian Socialists” – often speak past this discussion without addressing the gap between their means and supposed ends.

On Expropriation

Murray Rothbard’s position was such that “if land titles cannot be traced back to an original act of legitimate appropriation” then “the present possessor owns his land legitimately.” 1) Aside from the state and heavily subsidized businesses, generally, whoever owns property now owns it rightfully. There are no means within the Rothbardian ethic to achieve equality for its own sake, nor to rectify the “Original Expropriation” 2) as Marx termed it – “the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production.” 3) If, prior to this process, property was based in use and/or owned in common, why should those that work the land and use capital productively accept absentee ownership? Further, why should we collectively honor deeds which we cannot or would not consent to, whether because we were unborn, or because we would not submit to such arbitrary authoritarianism on principle?

Regarding the historical evolution of the state – and the subsequent expropriation of land, resources, and productive means from their possessors in favor of the landlord and later the capitalist classes – any theory of justice in ownership that does not seek to rectify the resulting inequality of access to land and capital, nor to prevent its re-occurrence, can be considered neither free nor socialist in its nature.

“Anarcho”-capitalists are missing the point

Many are content to dogmatically repeat: In a capitalistic “free market”, capitalist domination of workers, renters, and debtors will not (can not) happen, by the nature of markets. There is no evidence to support the notion that a competitive capitalistic market will result in favorable worker conditions, nor is there any reason to believe that labor movements will not be openly suppressed by capital-maintained private security firms.

There is a constant barrage from the Rothbardian camp of attempts to conflate “big business” with what anarchists oppose, precisely. That being – depending on the individual in question – “hierarchy” or “rulers”, impediments to “equal liberty”, or other similar foundations. If big business should diminish absent government, this does not address the basis of the social and economic domination theoretically presented by free-market capitalism: absentee ownership of land and capital, and thus the structures of for-profit industry, for-profit banking, rent, the owner-boss-worker hierarchy, and more broadly, the social and economic class hierarchies associated with the owner/non-owner dichotomy.

Describing one’s self as a socialist, in and of itself, does not mean anything. Words are meaningless without action, and ends are based on means. The proposition that “free markets” founded on absolute property rights in scarce resources – beginning from a point of vast inequality (as Rothbard prescribes) to boot – will beget equality, is absurd. Further, the notion that equality should be sought not as an end for its own sake, but rather as a supposed (and theoretically unproven) byproduct of capitalism – is opposed to socialism, on its face. Socialism seeks equality; Rothbardians (along with Miseans, Randians, “anarcho”-capitalists, voluntaryists, et al) see inequality as consistent with their stated principles. As they say, the ends are the means: the capitalist ideal of (political) “freedom” is useless without an economic counterpart.

Capitalism as Statism

If there is nothing to stop the use of force by the state in the favor of the capitalist class at present, what will stop the initiation of force by market security providers in favor of the capitalist class in this so-called “free market”? If market providers of law and security exist only to protect property rights (and this is the Rothbardian position, considering their ethic is derived solely from “self-ownership” or “non-aggression”), how does this differ in nature from the former example?

If the state employs a monopoly provider of law and security, thereby employing aggression, how does this differ from the use of a market provider of law and security, if one class of people can maintain a monopoly on the use of such providers by virtue of capital accumulation? Where, within the Rothbardian ethic, can one find recourse for such situations of monopoly via concentration of capital? Market providers do not work for free. To oppose the monopoly on law while simultaneously endorsing monopolies on land and capital is quite obviously authoritarian, in addition to being out of touch with the notions of equality and egalitarianism that have always defined socialism.

Rothbardians – left, right, and center – simply repeat the broken record: Absentee ownership of land and capital are legitimate. The impediments to freedom that result from their excesses are impossible in a propertarian free market. Thought experiment: If a class of megarich tycoons did appropriate the vast majority of accessible land and productive means through “legitimate” means (in the Rothbardian sense) – homesteading in favor of absentee ownership, contract, gift, slave contract and indentured servitude (under ''consistent'' property-based ethics), pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, etc – so as to mimic the jurisdictional authority of present nation-states in the form of property-derived authority, are we still to bow down to the mythical authority of private property?

Part of the issue here relates to the fact that Rothbard defines “private property” and the “State” in identical terms. In The Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard notes that the state “arrogates to itself a monopoly of force, of ultimate decision-making power, over a given territorial area” 4), then goes on to state that “[o]bviously, in a free society, Smith has the ultimate decision-making power over his own just property, Jones over his, etc.” 5) Given this glaring contradiction, I would hope that capitalists (“Rothbardian Socialists” included) can see why anarchists oppose their ethics: The capitalist mode of production, and the usury and hierarchy that result from private property ownership, manifest themselves precisely as the state does. The authority over humans, animals and ecosystems that propertarian ownership requires and condones is irreconcilable with the notion of anarchy.

On Equality

Anarchists do not merely see equality as a favorable byproduct of proposed solutions, as do Rothbardians (not to endorse the utopian analyses which would indicate such assumptions). We see equality as a foundation of our ethics. Capitalists refuse to seek equality for its own sake, or to acknowledge the necessity of the usufruct. Until this antisocial position is rectified in terms of their proposed means to achieve a stateless society, they ought to be considered enemies of both liberty and equality. After all, what relevance has liberty, if it is not equal? What is the point of opposing the monopoly of government, while simultaneously espousing the monopolies of land and capital, among others? “Rothbardian Socialists” claim that a theory of expropriation based on equality is reactionary, ostensibly because it strips absentee owners of their “natural right” to social and economic authority over non-owners. The moral bankruptcy of this position is clear; it reminds me of a similar parallel:

“The pro-slavery men, who asserted that slavery was of God’s ordinance, that it was the natural right and duty of the stronger to enslave the weaker so they might paternally care for them, who insisted not merely that slavery ought not to be abolished where it existed, but that it ought to be extended where it did not exist, were not affected by belief in the rightfulness of compensation. That slave-owners ought to be compensated if slavery was abolished followed from their assertion that slavery was right and ought not to be abolished. It was only in the minds of those who had come to think that slavery was wrong and ought to be abolished, that the idea that slaveholders must be compensated assumed importance, and became the pivotal question. So as to land.” 6)

How can one revel in his supposed superiority over his fellow man, in his “natural rights” to that which others do not and will not possess, and still call himself a socialist?


  • D'Amato, Paul. The Meaning of Marxism. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006.
  • Gordon, David. The Essential Rothbard. Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007.
  • Mark, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, Book One: The Process of Production of Capital. Tr. Moore, Samuel and Aveling, Edward. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965.
  • Rothbard, Murray. The Ethics of Liberty as quoted by afaq
Gordon, David. The Essential Rothbard, 92.
D'Amato, Paul. The Meaning of Marxism, 44.
Mark, Karl. Capital, Volume I, 501.
4) , 5)
Rothbard, Murray. The Ethics of Liberty, 170-173 in afaq
George, Henry. A Perplexed Philosopher

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