Rothbard on Immoral Choices

In a section of Power and Market called “The Problem of Immoral Choices,” Murray Rothbard considers an important objection to the free market, and I’d like in this week’s column to consider some of the points he raises.

To understand where he is “coming from,” we have to situate his discussion within the book. Rothbard aims in the book at a value-free science of economics. He will make no appeal to value judgments, not because he thinks that all such judgments are purely subjective—quite the contrary—but because they don’t have a place in science. What he is trying to do, then, is something that might at first sight seem impossible. He wants to consider the argument that the free market can be criticized because it permits people to make immoral choices. In the free market, people are free to engage in activities that are immoral, or are at any rate believed by some people to be immoral, so long as these activities don’t violate other people’s rights. Rothbard wants to show that this argument fails from the point of view of objective science.

If Rothbard brought in his own ethical system, it would be easy to respond to the objection. He would appeal to the distinction between vices and crimes. Only what violates the rights of others can be prohibited. You cannot use force against others, even if they are engaging in behavior that is objectively immoral. But Rothbard doesn’t want to go that route here. How can he show that the objection is wrong without appealing to an ethical system?

Before he presents his solution, he criticizes a popular alternative approach. According to this view, there are no objectively true value judgments. Thus, to attack the free market because it allows immoral choices is just to say that the market is bad because it allows things that you don’t like. It’s wrong for you to try to impose your subjective preferences on others. Rothbard states the objection in this way:

The utilitarian position—that government dictation is bad because no rational ethics exists, and therefore no person has a right to impose his arbitrary values on someone else—is, we believe, an inadequate one. In the first place, it will not convince those who believe in a rational ethics, who believe that there is a scientific basis for moral judgments and that they are not pure whim. And furthermore, the position involves a hidden moral assumption of its own—that A has no right to impose any arbitrary values on B. But if ends are arbitrary, is not the end “that arbitrary whims not be imposed by coercion” just as arbitrary? And suppose, further, that ranking high on A’s value scale is the arbitrary whim of imposing his other values on B. Then the utilitarians cannot object and must abandon their attempt to defend individual liberty in a value-free manner. In fact, the utilitarians are helpless against the man who wants to impose his values by coercion and who persists in doing so even after the various economic consequences are pointed out to him.

In his comment, Rothbard is using “utilitarian” in a nonstandard way, to mean the view that all ethical judgments are subjective. In standard philosophical usage, utilitarianism is a type of objective ethics, in one of its variants saying, roughly, that it is objectively good to satisfy people’s subjective preferences, but so long as you take notice of Rothbard’s usage, his argument is clear enough.

Now we’re in a position to see the difficulty Rothbard has set himself. If someone says that the market is bad because it permits immoral choices, and you want to appeal neither to objective ethics nor ethical subjectivism, how can criticism of this argument proceed? How can the argument be refuted without bringing in any value judgments at all?

Rothbard’s response is that it is self-contradictory to restrict people’s choices on the grounds that they are immoral. In order for something to be a moral choice, you must be free to do it or refrain from it. But if the government requires you to do something, it is taking away your freedom of choice, and your choice does not count as either moral or immoral. Rothbard says,

The would-be dictator can be logically refuted in a completely different way, even while remaining within Wertfrei praxeological bounds. For what is the complaint of the would-be dictator against free individuals? That they act immorally in various ways. The dictator’s aim, therefore, is to advance morality and combat immorality. Let us grant, for the sake of argument that an objective morality can be arrived at. The question that must be faced, then, is: Can force advance morality? Suppose we arrive at the demonstrable conclusion that actions A, B, and C are immoral, and actions X, Y, and Z are moral. And suppose we find that Mr. Jones shows a distressing propensity to value A, B, and C highly and adopts these courses of action time and again. We are interested in transforming Mr. Jones from being an immoral person to being a moral person. How can we go about it? The statists answer: by force. We must prohibit at gunpoint Mr. Jones from doing A, B, and C. Then, at last, he will be moral. But will he? Is Jones moral because he chooses X when he is forcibly deprived of the opportunity to choose A? When Smith is confined to a prison, is he being moral because he doesn’t spend his time in saloons getting drunk?

There is no sense to any concept of morality, regardless of the particular moral action one favors, if a man is not free to do the immoral as well as the moral thing. If a man is not free to choose, if he is compelled by force to do the moral thing, then, on the contrary, he is being deprived of the opportunity of being moral. He has not been permitted to weigh the alternatives, to arrive at his own conclusions, and to take his stand. If he is deprived of free choice, he is acting under the dictator’s will rather than his own. (Of course, he could choose to be shot, but this is hardly an intelligible conception of free choice of alternatives. In fact, he then has only one free choice: the hegemonic one—to be shot or to obey the dictator in all things.)

This is a characteristically ingenious argument, and I’d like to conclude by considering an objection a supporter of the view that the market is bad for allowing immoral choices might offer to it. He might say that even if Rothbard is right that you can’t compel people to be moral, people nevertheless make immoral choices. This is an unsatisfactory state of affairs, even if you can’t use force to alleviate it. But this objection doesn’t work. It merely amounts to saying that human beings are imperfect, and that is hardly news.