“If men were like ants, there would be no interest in human freedom,” writes Murray Rothbard in this masterpiece of exposition. “If individual men, like ants, were uniform, interchangeable, devoid of specific personality traits of their own, then who would care whether they were free or not? Who, indeed, would care if they lived or died? The glory of the human race is the uniqueness of each individual, the fact that every person, though similar in many ways to others, possesses a completely individuated personality of his own.”
Thus begins Rothbard’s celebration of human freedom and the inequality that is its real glory. And yet in our time, political life celebrates equality above every other virtue — not just equality under the law but equality of opportunity (impossible!) and equality of result (a terrifying ideal!). We come to depend on each other in society because we need each other to accomplish our goals, and we depend on each other because we all have different skills and personal attributes.
This is where the division of labor comes in. It underscores that we can get more accomplished by cooperating than by fighting. We need this beautiful feature of life in order to achieve the great goal of overcoming the cruelness of the state of nature, which, contrary to the longings of primitivists, is not all about peace and plenty. Nature provides us virtually nothing and dooms us to short, miserable lives of toil. To escape that condition, and to sustain and build civilization, requires that we work together in exchange relationships.
There is a place for everyone in this great task. But there are certain preliminaries. We must have self-ownership, private property, the absence of aggression, and we must be tolerant to the accumulation of capital and the appearance of inequality in our midst. We must also keep authority of all kinds at bay — forces in life that would presume that they know better what’s good for us than we know ourselves and are prepared to force that result.
This is the great problem with socialist/leftism in our time. It doesn’t acknowledge the misery of life in the absence of the private-property order and the market economy. It doesn’t see that the cooperative social order they seek is achievable only through the complex trading relationships that are part of the market order. It doesn’t recognize that the hunter-gatherer mode of life is what we would all experience in absence of the creativity that genuine freedom unleashes. Above all else, it doesn’t recognize that capital accumulation is a normal and natural party of the growth of civilization and the basis for a better life.
These are all points that Murray Rothbard makes in this wonderful and sweeping book, It explains so much, and permanently inoculates readers from a vast number of intellectual errors. It is especially important to absorb the lessons in our time, now that government policy seems solely directed toward promoting misery and suffering rather than development and improvement. Government policy is driving us back and back whereas private enterprise pushes us ever forward.
Murray Rothbard frames up the essential lessons better than anyone.