A New Era of Objectivism

The Atlas Society stands for an open, benevolent, intellectually tolerant approach to Objectivism in which philosophical disagreements are dealt with through civil discussion and intellectual exchange. We adopted this approach partly in contrast to an approach that has led to many unnecessary conflicts and schisms among adherents of Ayn Rand’s philosophy over the years, as discussed in David Kelley’s book, Truth and Toleration in Objectivism (1990, 2019).

The Ayn Rand Institute recently published a long article addressing this history of schisms—the first official comment on the issue from that wing of the Objectivist movement in many years. The article rehearses selective details of some disagreements among Objectivists in an attempt to vindicate the many bridges ARI has burned over the decades. Yet along the way, it ends up embracing the key ideas The Atlas Society has been advocating all along.

First, ARI acknowledges that it is not the definitive representative or arbiter of the philosophy of Objectivism.

ARI does not regard itself as the leader of an organized Objectivist movement:

ARI…does not pretend to be a spokesman for Ayn Rand or Objectivism…. ARI seeks a “movement” only in the sense that Rand describes above: independent individuals and organizations working on the task of spreading ideas—specifically, on increasing awareness and understanding of Objectivism—who cooperate when they find it mutually beneficial to do so and who otherwise go their separate ways.

Moreover, they concede that after Ayn Rand’s death, “She was no longer there to police the use or misuse of her name or philosophy, to declare who is an authorized representative and who is not. And no one could reasonably regard any existing individual or organization as a spokesman for a person now deceased.”

As to whether this is how ARI has actually conducted itself over the years, those who have been in the movement can consult their own memories of the various past disagreements and decide for themselves. Rather than revive these debates, we choose simply to accept this implicit acknowledgement that the questions of what the philosophy of Objectivism means, what principles are essential to it, and what new ideas are consistent with it are to be evaluated by every individual Objectivist based on his own judgment. No person or organization has a central role or special authority. To which we can only say: “Amen.”

Second, ARI acknowledges that ideological disagreement within a movement, even sometimes deep and bitter disagreement, is normal and natural.

It is entirely normal for a movement that is engaged in bringing important new knowledge to the world to have leaders who disagree, often vehemently, about the meaning and application of that knowledge.

If disagreement is normal, it should be treated as such and addressed through the ordinary norms of intellectual debate, not through division into warring camps along with warnings against sanctioning each other’s sanctioners. We are glad to see that such demands have now been conspicuously dropped and ARI has nominally adopted the more benevolent approach of “going our separate ways” as and when we disagree.

That leads us to the final point of interest in this article, which is its repeated use of the phrase “other Objectivists,” including “other Objectivist intellectuals or organizations,” to describe the counter-parties of the various breaks and schisms. It is an implicit recognition that despite our disagreements, we are all advocates of the same philosophy and that there is a multiplicity of Objectivist voices.

Objectivism is and should be a movement of “independent individuals and organizations…who cooperate when they find it mutually beneficial to do.” We agree and are glad to see the Ayn Rand Institute endorsing the same idea. There is still a great deal that needs to be done to make this happen, rationally and benevolently, in practice. But we are happy to see it acknowledged in theory.

The Atlas Society has been putting these principles into practice for many years, and to the extent others choose to follow that lead, we can all move forward into a new and more productive era in the Objectivist movement.

The Atlas Institute

Ayn Rand: on Poverty

If concern for human poverty and suffering were one’s primary motive, one would seek to discover their cause. One would not fail to ask: Why did some nations develop, while others did not? Why have some nations achieved material abundance, while others have remained stagnant in subhuman misery? History and, specifically, the unprecedented prosperity-explosion of the nineteenth century, would give an immediate answer: capitalism is the only system that enables men to produce abundance—and the key to capitalism is individual freedom.

Poverty is not a mortgage on the labor of others—misfortune is not a mortgage on achievement—failure is not a mortgage on success—suffering is not a claim check, and its relief is not the goal of existence—man is not a sacrificial animal on anyone’s altar nor for anyone’s cause—life is not one huge hospital.

Mad as Hell

The core of leftism is that we are all supposed to live for others. We’re supposed to sacrifice any wealth we have for others, so things may be equal. We’re supposed to sacrifice our brains and pretend that a circle is a square and a boy is a girl so that the intellectually inferior or mentally disturbed may feel equal. We’re supposed to wear masks forever and get experimental shots from companies with no liability or cost for what happens, so that we can say, “everybody got vaccinated.” The theme is always the same with leftists: Down with the individual, up with the collective.

The thing about leftists? They subscribe to self-sacrifice — in words and theory, but never in practice. The thing they claim we all must do is what they’re never, ever prepared to do. That’s why you won’t find any of the high profile leftists wearing masks. That’s why Obama builds a home in the midst of rising seas he claims are caused by regular people using fossil fuels (fuels that he uses in abundance, by the way). That’s why leftists are suddenly jingoists when it comes to World War III, so long as all they have to do is change their Facebook or Instagram profile page to sport a picture of the Ukraine flag.

“Look at me. I’m self-sacrificial. I’m virtuous.” This is ALL leftism is. It’s about as substantive as cotton candy.

Leftists are ALL about optics and ONLY about optics. Either they don’t believe what they claim about the alleged virtue of self-sacrifice, or they don’t think what they preach applies to them. Perhaps they think they’re special, because they proclaim the glory of self-sacrifice for all … and since they’re so virtuous in doing so, they don’t have to practice it. The rest of us do.

The arrogance of all this is so incomprehensibly evil that it MUST — I repeat MUST — lead to the biggest social psychological (and perhaps literal) upheaval and/or explosion ever seen before in the history of mankind. It is not sustainable. We cannot go on like this and will positively NOT go on like this. How it all plays out nobody can predict. But it will play out. It has probably already started, and we don’t yet recognize it. Trump is merely the tip of the iceberg of what’s coming — and what SHOULD be coming.

The built-up anger, sense of injustice, feelings of powerlessness and perfectly reasonable rage many of us feel eventually have to go somewhere. And wherever that is, the leftists who so brazenly live in hypocrisy and hubris are not going to like it.

Michael J. Hurd, Daily Dose of Reason

Wisdom of Ayn Rand

Observe that the philosophical system based on the axiom of the primacy of existence (i.e., on recognizing the absolutism of reality) led to the recognition of man’s identity and rights. But the philosophical systems based on the primacy of consciousness (i.e., on the seemingly megalomaniacal notion that nature is whatever man wants it to be) lead to the view that man possesses no identity, that he is infinitely flexible, malleable, usable and disposable. Ask yourself why.

Philosophy: Who Needs It

“The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,”
Philosophy: Who Needs It, 28

They want to cheat the axiom of existence and consciousness, they want their consciousness to be an instrument not of perceiving but of creating existence, and existence to be not the object but the subject of their consciousness—they want to be that God they created in their image and likeness, who creates a universe out of a void by means of an arbitrary whim. But reality is not to be cheated. What they achieve is the opposite of their desire. They want an omnipotent power over existence; instead, they lose the power of their consciousness. By refusing to know, they condemn themselves to the horror of a perpetual unknown.

For the New Intellectual

Galt’s Speech,
For the New Intellectual, 151

Observe that the philosophical system based on the axiom of the primacy of existence (i.e., on recognizing the absolutism of reality) led to the recognition of man’s identity and rights. But the philosophical systems based on the primacy of consciousness (i.e., on the seemingly megalomaniacal notion that nature is whatever man wants it to be) lead to the view that man possesses no identity, that he is infinitely flexible, malleable, usable and disposable. Ask yourself why.

Philosophy: Who Needs It

“The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,”
Philosophy: Who Needs It, 28

They want to cheat the axiom of existence and consciousness, they want their consciousness to be an instrument not of perceiving but of creating existence, and existence to be not the object but the subject of their consciousness—they want to be that God they created in their image and likeness, who creates a universe out of a void by means of an arbitrary whim. But reality is not to be cheated. What they achieve is the opposite of their desire. They want an omnipotent power over existence; instead, they lose the power of their consciousness. By refusing to know, they condemn themselves to the horror of a perpetual unknown.

For the New Intellectual

Galt’s Speech,
For the New Intellectual, 151

ness to be an instrument not of perceiving but of creating existence, and existence to be not the object but the subject of their consciousness—they want to be that God they created in their image and likeness, who creates a universe out of a void by means of an arbitrary whim. But reality is not to be cheated. What they achieve is the opposite of their desire. They want an omnipotent power over existence; instead, they lose the power of their consciousness. By refusing to know, they condemn themselves to the horror of a perpetual unknown.

For the New Intellectual

Galt’s Speech,
For the New Intellectual, 151

It is important to observe the interrelation of these three axioms [existence, consciousness, and identity]. Existence is the first axiom. The universe exists independent of consciousness. Man is able to adapt his background to his own requirements, but “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed” (Francis Bacon). There is no mental process that can change the laws of nature or erase facts. The function of consciousness is not to create reality, but to apprehend it. “Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification.”

The philosophic source of this viewpoint and its major advocate in the history of philosophy is Aristotle. Its opponents are all the other major traditions, including Platonism, Christianity, and German idealism. Directly or indirectly, these traditions uphold the notion that consciousness is the creator of reality. The essence of this notion is the denial of the axiom that existence exists.

No !–by Ayn Rand

Then I saw what was wrong with the world, I saw what destroyed men and nations, and where the battle for life had to be fought. I saw that the enemy was an inverted morality—and that my sanction was its only power. I saw that evil was impotent—that evil was the irrational, the blind, the anti-real—and that the only weapon of its triumph was the willingness of the good to serve it. Just as the parasites around me were proclaiming their helpless dependence on my mind and were expecting me voluntarily to accept a slavery they had no power to enforce, just as they were counting on my self-immolation to provide them with the means of their plan—so throughout the world and throughout men’s history, in every version and form, from the extortions of loafing relatives to the atrocities of collectivized countries, it is the good, the able, the men of reason, who act as their own destroyers, who transfuse to evil the blood of their virtue and let evil transmit to them the poison of destruction, thus gaining for evil the power of survival, and for their own values—the impotence of death. I saw that there comes a point, in the defeat of any man of virtue, when his own consent is needed for evil to win—and that no manner of injury done to him by others can succeed if he chooses to withhold his consent. I saw that I could put an end to your outrages by pronouncing a single word in my mind. I pronounced it. The word was “No.”

— Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand: A Legacy of Liberty and Reason

version of this article was first published in 2005. Capitalism Magazine is republishing it again because its message still remains relevant today.

Born over 100 years ago in Holy Mother Russia and educated under the Soviets, Ayn Rand became the quintessential American writer and philosopher, upholding the supreme value of the individual’s life on earth. She herself led a “rags to riches” life, wrote best-selling novels that championed individualism, and developed a philosophy of reason that validates the American spirit of achievement and independence.

The story of Ayn Rand’s life is, in the words of the Oscar-nominated documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life: “a life more compelling than fiction.” Born February 2, 1905, she wrote her first fiction at age 8, when she also showed signs of being an intellectual crusader, vowing to refute a newspaper article claiming that school was the sole source of a child’s ideals. A year later she decided to become a writer: inspired by the hero of a children’s story, who embodied “intelligence directed to a practical purpose,” she had a “blinding picture” of people–not as they are but as they could be.

In high school and college, she discovered two figures whom she never ceased to admire: Victor Hugo, for “the grandeur, the heroic scale, the plot inventiveness” of his stories, and Aristotle, as “the arch-realist and the advocate of the validity of man’s mind.”

Escaping the tyranny and poverty of the U.S.S.R., she came to America in 1926, officially for a brief visit with relatives. A chance meeting with her favorite American director, Cecil B. DeMille, resulted in jobs as a movie extra and then a junior screenwriter. After periods of near-starvation, she sold her first play to Broadway and her first novel, We the Living, set in the Soviet tyranny she had escaped. With her first best-seller, The Fountainhead in 1943, she presented her ideal man, individualist architect Howard Roark. But it was, she said, “only an overture” to her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged in 1957, a mystery story about the role of the mind in man’s existence. With Atlas Shrugged her career as a fiction writer ended, but her career as a philosopher had just begun.

Her philosophy–Objectivism–upholds objective reality (as opposed to supernaturalism), reason as man’s only means of knowledge (as opposed to faith or skepticism), free will (as opposed to determinism–by biology or environment), and an ethics of rational self-interest (as opposed to the sacrifice of oneself to others or others to self). The only moral political system, she maintained, is laissez-faire capitalism (as opposed to the collectivism of socialism, fascism, or the welfare state), because it recognizes the inalienable right of an individual to act on the judgment of his own mind. Your life, she held, belongs to you and not to your country, God or your neighbors.

Ayn Rand understood that to defend the individual she must penetrate to the root: his need to use reason to survive. “I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism,” she wrote in 1971, “but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.” This radical view put her at odds with conservatives, whom she vilified for their attempts to base capitalism on faith and altruism. Advocating a government to protect the individual’s right to his property, she was not a liberal (or an anarchist). Advocating the indispensability of philosophy, she was not a libertarian.

Despite being outside the cultural mainstream, her novels became best-sellers and her books sell more today than ever before–half a million copies per year. There is a reason that Atlas Shrugged placed second in a Library of Congress survey about most influential books. There is a reason that her works are considered life-altering by so many readers. She had an exalted view of man and created inspiring fictional heroes.

sui generis philosopher, who looked at the world anew, Ayn Rand has long puzzled the intellectual establishment. Academia has usually met her views with antagonism or avoidance, unable to fathom that she was an individualist but not a subjectivist, an absolutist but not a dogmatist. And they have thus ignored her original solutions to such seemingly intractable problems as how to ground values in facts. But even in academia, her ideas are finding more acceptance, e.g., university fellowships and a subgroup within the American Philosophical Association to study Objectivism.

Ayn Rand left a legacy in defense of reason and freedom that serves as a guidepost for the American spirit–especially pertinent today when America and what it stands for are under assault.

Dr. Berliner is the senior advisor to the Ayn Rand Archives. He was the executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute from its founding to January 2000.

Values, Objectively Defined (Ayn Rand)

Values are the motivating power of man’s actions and a necessity of his survival, psychologically as well as physically.

Man’s values control his subconscious emotional mechanism that functions like a computer adding up his desires, his experiences, his fulfillments and frustrations—like a sensitive guardian watching and constantly assessing his relationship to reality. The key question which this computer is programmed to answer, is: What is possible to me?

There is a certain similarity between the issue of sensory perception and the issue of values. . . .

If severe and prolonged enough, the absence of a normal, active flow of sensory stimuli may disintegrate the complex organization and the interdependent functions of man’s consciousness.

Man’s emotional mechanism works as the barometer of the efficacy or impotence of his actions. If severe and prolonged enough, the absence of a normal, active flow of value-experiences may disintegrate and paralyze man’s consciousness—by telling him that no action is possible.

The form in which man experiences the reality of his values is pleasure.


Come and Make Me

It is your mind that they want you to surrender—all those who preach the creed of sacrifice, whatever their tags or their motives, whether they demand it for the sake of your soul or of your body, whether they promise you another life in heaven or a full stomach on this earth. Those who start by saying: “It is selfish to pursue your own wishes, you must sacrifice them to the wishes of others”—end up by saying: “It is selfish to uphold your convictions, you must sacrifice them to the convictions of others.”

— Ayn Rand, from Galt’s Speech in ATLAS SHRUGGED

Classical Natural Law and Libertarian Theory

If libertarianism wishes to give up modern political categories, it has to think about law in a different way. Murray N. Rothbard, the most important exponent of the radical libertarian school, is right when he rejects the historicism and relativism of legal realism and when—for the same reasons—he criticizes Hayek and Leoni.

But unfortunately, he does not really grasp the function of the evolution into classic natural law. Furthermore, his idea of building a libertarian code is completely inconsistent with his frequent references to the Greek and Christian legal heritage.1

In For a New Liberty, Rothbard points out that the history of a changing and evolving law can be useful in order to find just rules: “since we have a body of common law principles to draw on, however, the task of reason in correcting and amending the common law would be far easier than trying to construct a body of systematic legal principles de novo out of the thin air.”2

But the relationship between common law and natural law must be seen differently. Common law is not only an interesting tool for discovering natural law: it has its specific role. Positive law needs to interact with natural law principles, but even the latter cannot be considered as self-sufficient.

Moreover, in his defense of rationality, Rothbard does not realize that law cannot be entirely read into the praxeological framework, which is axiomatic and deductive. The division of theory and history puts some disciplines into opposition with others, but above all it makes a distinction within any single field of study.

Economics, for instance, is a theoretical science if considered as political economics, but a historical and empiric activity if it analyzes what happened in the past.3 This is also true for legal studies, because they have a theoretical part but, at the same time, include many other aspects which, on the contrary, are historical and cannot be examined using logical and a priori methods.

In his methodological writings, Rothbard distinguishes between empiricism and experience, and remarks that the refusal of the first does not imply a devaluation of the second. When he criticizes Mises for his Kantian approach, he finds in human experience exactly the main source of the axioms, the fundamental truths that are the starting point of a theory based on deductive logic.4 But before the law, Rothbard seems to minimize the contextual and nontheoretical dimension of a large part of legal controversies and especially of positive law.

Using the Thomist framework, in this essay I will emphasize the importance of the lex naturalis, at the same time highlighting a lex humana deeply rooted in the complexity of different ages and societies, related to the subjectivity and specificity of opinions which cannot be fruitfully examined by a praxeological approach. Many problems, and even some inconsistencies of Rothbardian theory, are a consequence of it.

Moreover, the way Rothbard deals with the arguments of causality and liability shows an inadequate understanding of the anthropology of the Austrian School, which moves from a study of human action (intentional and rational) and not by a simple behaviorist analysis.

In integrating Rothbardian libertarianism with positive law, an important contribution comes from Bruno Leoni, who in Freedom and the Law and other writings developed an original contribution to classical liberalism. The Italian scholar can help to improve some parts of Rothbard’s libertarian theory of law. If the author of The Ethics of Liberty is much more grounded in natural law and even less naïve before Wertfreiheit,5 Leoni can correct some limits of the Rothbardian approach and its incapacity to perceive the specificity of law: a practical and largely empirical science, historically situated and essentially oriented to finding reasonable solutions for very specific cases.

If philosophy of law has to investigate the eternal and immutable principles of justice, juridical scholarship must find the best translation of these for the specific problems of a society. For this reason, taking Leoni seriously means imagining a meeting point of natural law doctrine and the requirements of a positive law as a reality in evolution. And it implies an effort to transfer into the legal context the Misesian methodology and its radical separation of theory and history: the sphere of axiomatic and deductive studies (praxeology) and the sphere of research based on experience (history).

We have to remember that specific attention to the historical and evolving features of legal orders has been a crucial element of the Austrian School since its origins. In his Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences, Carl Menger praises the Historical School of Jurisprudence (Gustav Hugo, Friedrich Carl von Savigny, Barthold Georg Niebuhr), whose origins he dated back to Edmund Burke.

Menger also highlights the individualistic content of evolutionary law with the goal of helping the classical liberal tradition to rediscover its lost roots:

law, like language, is (at least originally) not the product in general of an activity of public authorities aimed at producing it, nor in particular is it the product of positive legislation. It is, instead, the unintended result of a higher wisdom, of the historical development of the nations.6

It is exactly in this sense that we can understand Leoni’s preference for evolutionary law (Anglo-Saxon law and Roman jus civile): a law not oriented to preserve tradition or spontaneous order per se. On the contrary, Leoni thinks that a polycentric and evolutionary order is in a better position to safeguard individual rights. Rules that emerge from the interpersonal exchange of claims are tools that can effectively protect society from the rulers.

As a student of English legal history, Leoni shows a strong interest in the common law of nature that was at the heart of Edward Coke’s perspective. In fact, in that theory law does not express an antirationalist attitude, but, on the contrary, embodies natural reason emerging in an evolutionary way. This legal culture is improved by various contributions (practical, pragmatic, professional) of many people. In this way, law is the consequence of a human activity oriented towards bettering reality using intelligence and experience.

Criticizing modern legal systems, Leoni remarks that

there is far more legislation, there are far more group decisions, far more rigid choices, and far fewer “laws written in living tables,” far fewer individual decisions, far fewer free choices in all contemporary political systems that would be necessary in order to preserve individual freedom of choice.7

Even if he never adhered to a consistent natural law theory, Leoni tried a sort of reconciliation of natural law and legal realism (positive law rightly understood), exploring the possibility of conjugating the flexibility of ancient common law and the just principles of a universal moral theory.

Leoni had a strong interest in the exploration of the libertarian potentialities of a similar perspective. In his writings, there are many elements of a radical libertarianism refusing any coercion. When some participants of the Claremont seminar about Freedom and the Law asked him who should choose the judges in a free society, he answered: “it is rather immaterial to establish in advance who will appoint the judges, for, in a sense, everybody could do so, as happens to a certain extent when people resort to private arbiters to settle their own quarrels.”8

In his opinion, the contemporary, statist system should disappear, leaving room for a competitive order of private courts. The convergence of Leoni and Rothbard is evident on many levels, because both imagine the end of the state monopoly on justice and security, with the purpose of opening the road to an institutional competition between people in charge to avoid criminal behaviors.9

It is also for this reason that Rothbardian libertarian theory can find in Leoni and, above all, in his understanding of law the way to overcome its theoretical and practical difficulties.

From Praxeology to Thymology: The Role of Positive Law

In its daily development, law refers back to principles, but at the same time it concerns modest but not negligible disputes. Legal reasoning lives essentially in this pragmatic context and it leaves the specific topics of natural law in the background.

In Mises’s thought, there is a notion that is extremely useful in helping us grasp the relationship between theory and practice in the law. In fact, in Theory and History, he opposes praxeology to thymology, which is in close relationship with history.10 Thymology is a branch of history and “derives its knowledge from historical experience.”11 It stands for that set of empirical knowledge of psychological, sociological and even factual character that we use to find our way in relationships with other people. This “literary psychology” is the condition of a rational behavior: “for lack of any better tool, we must take recourse to thymology if we want to anticipate other people’s future attitudes and actions.”12

When Leoni returns to the legal realism tradition (to the law in action that Roscoe Pound opposes to the law in books) and remarks on a correspondence between positive law and what is foreseeable (often using the formula id quod plerumque accidit),13 the highlights that the positive law is always intelligible in a thymologic perspective. In his explicit purpose of applying Misesian methodology to law, Leoni discovers a praxeological dimension (the most theoretical part, coinciding with the analysis of the individual claims and their interaction), but also another thymological dimension (entirely depending on experience, common opinions and traditions).

His idea is that positive law has a strong relationship with customs. As practical activity, law must reduce uncertainty: it is for this reason that a creditor’s claim is legal, because generally a debtor pays back what he has received, while the thief’s claim is illegal, because generally people do not steal. The probabilistic analysis is purely empirical, but it is not unreasonable. Our behavior is led very often by the rationality of our past experiences and by our prejudices.

In this sense, Leonian theory of the individual claim is at the same time praxeological and thymological.

It is praxeological because it draws in a deductive way the theoretical conditions of the exchange and the meeting of different individual claims. When, in his writings, he opposes the point of view of the legal professionals (moving from the norms) and the perspective of the philosophers (interested in the origin of the rules), his aim is to reject the positivism prevalent in legal theory.

He has the project of grasping the a priori categories—à la Reinach—subtending all legal orders. When he finds in the individual claim the starting point of a juridical relation, Leoni thinks he has understood a universal datum: his “demand and supply law.” If prices emerge from the meeting of the actions of people supplying and demanding, the norms are the effect of the interaction of different claims. This is a universal regularity and, on this ground, he also develops his theoretical (praxeological) remarks about the relationship between legislation and living law, certainty and law, and so on.

But—as in Mises—this positive evaluation of praxeology does not imply a negative opinion of history or of the competence of lawyers. On the contrary, Leoni has the ambition of describing the distinct but connected roles of every sphere.

For this reason, his theory is largely thymological when he remarks that, if it is true—as Mises says—that “thymology tells no more than that man is driven by various innate instincts, various passions, and various ideas,”14 then it is evident that norms are accepted when they satisfy the claims, the principles and the desires largely shared in a specific society; and the law professionals are exactly well-informed about this peculiar and “local” environment. When Leoni emphasizes the qualities of the jus civile and the ancient common law, he aims to highlight the role of the lawyers and of all the people engaged in the solution to specific and concrete disputes.

Positive Law and History

This is a very important point in a large part of the philosophical tradition. The main Greek and medieval thinkers were clear about the link between natural law (universal) and the contingent (historically defined and, lato sensu, subjective) dimension of situations that we can understand only in specific contexts, as result of the cross of individual preferences.

In Aristotle, for instance, it is clear that there are some universal principles judging every positive law. This passage is very outspoken in this regard:

Universal law is the law of nature. For there really is, as every one to some extent divines, a natural justice and injustice that is binding on all men, even on those who have no association or covenant with each other. It is this that Sophocles’s Antigone clearly means when she says that the burial of Polyneices was a just act in spite of the prohibition: she says that it was just by nature.

Not of to-day or yesterday it is,

But lives eternal: none can date its birth.15

At the same time, Aristotle holds the opinion that “there are two kinds of right and wrong conduct towards others, one provided for by written ordinances, the other by unwritten.” In the second group, a class “springs from exceptional goodness or badness” and it is related to honor, gratitude, friendship, and so on. But the other “makes up for the defects of a community’s written code of law. This is what we call equity.” This Aristotelian notion of equity is very important. And, at the same time, we have to perceive the relationship between this idea of equity (“the sort of justice which goes beyond the written law”) 16 and the idea of phronesis, as prudence and practical wisdom. Equity and phronesis do not destroy the universal natural law, but they give us a way to understand how it can be possible to arrange some (difficult) situations. We can build a bridge from the natural law and the positive law of our—imperfect—relationship with the others. The perception of the human limits and the complexity of the world push us to appreciate the knowledge preserved by a complex system of legal notions, as developed through centuries of legal history.

For Aristotle, it was clear that a purely deductive method would not suffice to satisfy our exigencies.

Aquinas’s lesson moves in the same direction, as is clear in his distinguishing between Natural Law (Lex naturalis) and Human Law (Lex humana). If the moral principles of natural law are unchangeable and can be rationally investigated by moving from some solid axioms, human law is the consequence of cultural and historic contingencies. As Summa Theologiae says, “the natural law contains certain universal precepts which are everlasting, whereas human law contains certain particular precepts according to various emergencies.” At the same time, “nothing can be absolutely unchangeable in things that are subject to change. And, therefore, human law cannot be altogether unchangeable.”17

Aquinas adds that “custom has the force of law, abolishes law, and is the interpreter of law.”18 He accepts customary law because it has the approval of individuals: “because, by the very fact that they tolerate it, they seem to approve of that which is introduced by custom.”19 This law that is dissolved in custom is not natural law, because Aquinas does not believe we can accept a legal order that has historically emerged if it is against justice; but historical evolution modifies positive law and even opens room for different interpretations.20

Law and Interpretation

In positive law, there is an essential function of interpretation, because there is always a distance between the norm and the cases in point. As Giorgio Agamben explains, “in the case of law, the application of a norm is no way contained within the norm and cannot be derived from it; otherwise, there would have been the need to create the grand edifice of trial law. Just as between language and world, so between the norm and its application there is no external nexus that allows one to be derived immediately from the other.”21

What’s the meaning of this? Using general rules in concrete and specific situations always implies a decision, and (at least hypothetically) an arbitrary power. The difference between the law in the books and the law in action is largely a consequence of this.

In many writings, Chaïm Perelmen remarks that legal logic is:

a very elaborated, individual case of practical reasoning, which is not a formal demonstration, but an argumentation aiming to persuade and convince those whom it addresses that such a choice, decision or attitude is preferable to concurrent choices, decisions and attitudes.

Perelman adds: “what characterizes an argumentation is its non-constraining character.”22 So, legal reasoning “is not presented as a formally valid deduction from non-temporal truths,” because “reasons considered good at one period of time or in one milieu are not in another; they are socially and culturally conditioned as are the convictions and the aspirations of the audience they must convince.”23

In spite of his disputable skepticism, Perelman is right when he points out that positive law is a “practical” activity, because it is a case-solving operation and often emerges from a transaction of different interests. To a large extent, law is not a science: it is a technique oriented to solving specific problems, because lawyers and judges do not search for the truth, but only the legal truth.

Law and Intentionality

If we analyze liability and causality in Rothbard, we have to recall the fundamental principles of the Austrian tradition.

In a recent article, Hans-Hermann Hoppe criticized his mentor and highlighted how it is contradictory to focus attention on the birth of property (with the homesteading of land) and then to exclude it, accepting a strict liability theory whose positivist and behaviorist origins are evident. Hoppe remarks that “homesteading implies intent,” a subjective element; on the contrary, Rothbard’s theory of causation and liability ignores this aspect.24Austrian School scholars emphasize the role of intentionality as a crucial element at the moment of the origin of private property and of its negation (theft, aggression, etc.).

Not all physical invasions imply liability and, to the contrary, some actions are liable even if there is no physical invasion. In economics, Rothbard was perfectly aware of this and was always very critical of economic schools with positivistic leanings. In 1985, in the preface to Theory and History by Mises, he attacks mainstream positivism, remarking that “to become truly scientific like physics and the other natural sciences, then, economics must shun such concepts as purposes, goals and learning: it must abandon man’s mind and write only of mere events.”25 But the main mistake of the American scholar is in analyzing only simple events, avoiding the problem of intentionality and subjective liability, and the consequent need to understand a specific action—made by a particular person, in that one moment and context.

Hoppe is right when he notes a contradiction in Rothbard between this theory of strict liability and the defense of homesteading, which implies another vision of ethics and a different anthropology. When Rothbard condemns as aggression the act of a man claiming and occupying a land previously “homesteaded” by other people, his arguments call for a well-defined idea of morality that it is not consistent with that oversimplified and behaviorist theory of causality and liability.

An Aristotelian-Thomist Libertarianism

For all these reasons, the Thomist distinction between natural law and human law is fundamental, especially if by lex humana we do not conceive of the state law, but our ever-imperfect translation, into norms, of our aspiration to live in a just society. As Paul Sigmund correctly remarked, “human law is the application to specific circumstances of the precepts of reason contained in the natural law.”26 This mediation is always unsatisfying, but at the same time necessary.

Rothbard and Perelman make the symmetrically opposite mistake, because neither admits the autonomy of natural law and positive law. If Perelman reduces natural law to positive law (and reason to reasonableness), Rothbard reduces positive law to natural law (and reasonableness to reason). However, we have to admit the existence of a higher and objective dimension of law (where the rational method of Rothbard is justified) and of a much more prosaic and lower level, which can obtain many advantages from the dialogical and rhetorical approach used by Perelman.

The awareness of the need to mediate between the a priori principles of natural law and a largely inductive knowledge of the legal experience is not always present in Rothbard. But that’s why the intellectual heritage of Leoni can be useful in the attempt to develop a libertarian legal theory aiming to protect the dignity and freedom of the individual.27

If, in Rothbard, there is the risk of ignoring the specificity of legal reasoning, Leoni remarks on the empirical features of the law and adopts a Misesian standpoint in putting into the right perspective human experience and the role it plays in the practical unfolding of our existence.

Leoni perceives the importance of the positive law, also in a libertarian and antistatist perspective. The vision of what is just by nature has to be rooted in a particular time, embodied in specific institutions and recognizable in many different situations. But the Italian thinker was quite aware that this proposal was a return to the old tradition of natural law. In a very interesting passage, he criticizes Kelsen, saying that sociology of law is “the modern heir of the natural law.”28 And he specifies his idea in this way: 

contemporary sociology of law schools can be considered, in a limited sense, and without the derogatory features used by Kelsen, the “modern heirs of natural law,” exactly because they are inclined to re-evaluate in “law” the element of the “persuasions” leading the action of people, instead of the “legal order” conceived as dogmatics did.29


In spite of his positivism, Leoni can help us grasp the true nature of classical natural law, because he does not prospect for a “libertarian code” like the one envisioned by Rothbard, somewhat conceived on the model of the state legal systems. On the contrary, Freedom and the Law can be the starting-point for a more “classical” understanding of libertarian natural law actually rooted in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. If we return to the classics, we can better understand the main problems.

In other words, in Leoni there is a wide scope for juridical research and for historical evolution, because of his belief in a living law in continuous and close interaction with reality. The legal order has some “essential” elements, but it changes through time, and for this reason it requires constant and challenging work to adjust rules and behavior.

Thomist rationalism moves from the awareness of reason’s limits. Sigmund highlights exactly this when he says that “Aquinas’s system of natural law is and must be incomplete. He could not admit the Aristotelian possibility that nature could provide fully for man’s fulfillment.”30 Rothbard himself is not far from this when he points out that a rational approach needs an understanding of the structural imperfection of our minds: “No man is omniscient or infallible—a law, by the way, of man’s nature.”31 But this observation has to have significant consequences.