Of Fists, Noses, Islands, Hooks, and Eyes

The following letter appeared in today’s Opelika-Auburn News:

To the Editor:

In his letter on June 19, Edzard van Santen quotes the saying that one person’s right to swing his fist ends where another person’s nose begins.

Well and good; but what puzzles me is that he cites this saying as though it’s meant to be a critique of libertarianism. On the contrary, that saying encapsulates the essence of libertarianism.

Murray N. Rothbard - Enemy of the State

In the 19th century, Herbert Spencer stated the same principle less metaphorically: Each has freedom to do all that he wills provided that he infringes not the equal freedom of any other. And in the 20th century, Murray Rothbard explained it more fully: “No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.”

Van Santen also quotes the saying that no one is an island, again as though this conflicted with libertarianism. But libertarianism is the only political philosophy that actually takes seriously the idea that no one is an island.

Other ideologies assume, explicitly or implicitly, that human beings are inherently atomistic, with naturally conflictual interests, and so that society needs to have order imposed on it by top-down authority. Libertarians, by contrast, have traditionally rejected this atomistic vision of society, emphasizing that a human being is, in Emerson’s words, “all made of hooks and eyes, and links himself naturally to his brothers.”

It’s precisely because we recognize that no one is an island – that social order arises spontaneously and organically through voluntary, nonhierarchical relations among equals – that we are libertarians in the first place.

Roderick T. Long

I’m not sure why they a) waited nearly two weeks to publish it, after van Santen had already gone a round with Leland Yeager; b) removed my quotation marks on the Spencer quote, while keeping them on the Rothbard and Emerson quotes; or c) published my letter under the title “We were libertarians in the first place,” thus tearing my closing phrase out of the context that gave it sense. But hey, it’s the OA News.


3 Responses to Of Fists, Noses, Islands, Hooks, and Eyes

  1. Kevin Carson June 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm #

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen an editorial page editor who didn’t fuck up letters to the editor.

  2. Gary Chartier June 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm #

    Really nice summation, Roderick. And turning the charge of atomism against the Hobbesians is delectably elegant.

  3. martin July 3, 2012 at 10:28 am #

    For anyone who’s interested, Van Santen’s letter:


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