Lou Rollins’ attack on natural rights was published as a pamphlet 26 years ago, and sparked a lot of heated discussion among libertarians. It’s now reprinted, together with his responses to various critics, as part of a larger collection of his writings. All the pieces in this new book are caustic, unpretentious, and stimulating polemics, though thin-skinned readers will no doubt be exasperated beyond the limits of their tolerance.
Rollins’ argument involves a kind of misdirection. He seems to be criticizing and denouncing the theory of natural rights, and even just one tiny subspecies of natural rights: the Ayn Rand/Murray Rothbard variety. But really, he condemns all moral judgments, whether applied to politics or anything else, and whether the morality appealed to derives from natural rights, utilitarianism, divine authority, the social contract, or simple compas- sion. He frankly declares himself an “amoralist” (47, 95).
So reading Rollins on natural rights is like listening to someone declaim against the existence of Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster, and suddenly realizing that the speaker also denies the existence of all animal life on this planet. Evaluating Rollins’ argument requires thinking about morality, as an impetus to libertarianism, on the broadest and most basic level.
Acting on Values
If people share certain value judgments, these judgments, along with an assessment of the factual situation, can serve as a basis for common action. If I say “We’d better get out of this build- ing because it’s on fire,” I’m assuming that those who hear me would prefer not to be asphyxiated or roasted to death. I assume this because I expect that they, like me, want to stay alive and avoid excruciating pain. If I said (around 1980), “We ought to combat communism because it leads to impoverishment, mass killing, mass imprisonment, and mass torture,” I can similarly assume that people will share my preference that these horrible things be reduced wherever feasible.
Someone might not share these values. A person in the burning building might be looking forward to an imminent death by asphyxiation, or alternatively, might not care one way or the other. A person listening to my argument for opposing communism might view death, misery, and stunted lives as delightful outcomes that ought to be encouraged. Alternatively, he might not care one way or the other (or might not care enough to lift a finger). While these are entirely possible responses, and while the standpoints of these outliers cannot be refuted, they are of no practical relevance, because individuals who dissent from the most common- place value judgments are exceedingly rare.
Of course, I might be challenged on the facts. Maybe the building’s not really on fire. Maybe communism doesn’t lead to those consequences, or maybe it leads to those consequences but all the alternatives are even worse. Rollins has no objection to purely factual arguments: he engages in them with gusto. What he seems to dislike are moral arguments. Unless I have misunderstood him (and if I have, it’s not my fault), he refuses on principle ever to take the position that “X is evil and so we ought to curtail it” or lIy is good and so we ought to promote it.”
Would he also object to the recommendation that we leave the burning building? Probably not, because he seems to like self-interest, and he might consider this an appeal to self-interest. However, my making the recommendation may not be motivated by my self-interest. It may even be opposed to my self-interest, if people leaving the building block up the exits and delay my own departure. In that case, Rollins might consider me a mug for making the recommendation; but still, if he’s one of those in the building at the time, he’d be glad I was mug enough to have made it.
My recommendation to combat communism is dearly not a matter of self-interest. Looking ahead from 1980, I will be long gone before communism, if it continues to expand, reaches Chicago, where I live. And if Russian and Chinese communism are replaced with something more efficient, the gains to world output, and therefore to American real incomes, will take a few decades to make themselves felt. So again, I won’t be around to reap any personal benefit. And even if I lived to
see a major portion of the benefits materialize, any gains I could capture from the difference I can personally make in speeding up communism’s collapse will probably be less than the costs to me of the effort I would put into the anticommunist cause.
On grounds of pure self-interest, then, I should do nothing to oppose communism or any other vile political system. From a self-interested point of view, such opposition does not pay. My opposition to communism (or social- ism, or fascism, or an Islamic republic, or the welfare state) has to be motivated not primarily by self-interest but by a general concern for the wellbeing of other people, mainly people who will be alive after I have died.
The question then arises why, as Rollins seems to assume, self-interest should be privileged over other motives. People are generally self-interested, but they are also generally (though less powerfully) motivated to consider the welfare of others. If convinced of the purely factual claim that communism leads to poverty, mass killing, mass imprisonment, and mass torture, most people would consider this a good enough reason to oppose communism with at least a very modest expenditure of resources. Rollins seems to suppose that in reasoning like this they are making some kind of mistake, whereas in preferring some outcome on grounds of pure self-interest they are not making any mistake. I don’t see that this position is defensible, and Rollins gives us no defense of it.
I would completely understand it if Rollins said that he, personally, doesn’t care. Perhaps he is to humanitarian motivation as the young Dexter Morgan is to personal relationships. A few mil- lion people killed by a communist government far away – why should that concern Lou? I have a lot of sympathy for this position. As far as popular collective emotions go, I am a bit of a cold fish myself. But why then would Rollins object to other people caring, and doing something about it? And why would he think that in behaving like this they are guilty of some kind of error? He has, after all, written all this stuff attacking their positions, so he obviously thinks they are intellectually at fault in some way, and that exposing their intellectual mistakes is an urgent matter.
There’s also the odd fact that when he inveighs against moral arguments, Rollins plainly exhibits an emotional tone that sounds very much like righteous indignation. Is this inconsistent? I think Rollins’ position here might be defended. He might say, for example, that witnessing people making moral appeals offends him aesthetically, and he is self-interestedly expressing his disgust, let’s say because he gets a buzz out of a few other discerning people applauding his aesthetic judgments. But this is just a guess, as Rollins doesn’t tell us.
Where Rollins Goes Wrong
At one point Rollins attempts to clarify his position, but only manages to make it more obscure (92-93). He states that nothing is morally wrong (and presumably, then, nothing is morally right), and that no action can be morally justified. He asserts that one needs no moral justification for saying that what the state does is morally wrong (even though this is something he himself refuses to say). A little later he writes, uWhile the amoralist may not condemn the Nazi regime or think it ‘evil’ for killing six million Jews, the amoralist would not assert that others’ should not’ do so [condemn the Nazi regime]. The amoralist is also an individualist and believes ‘to each his own'” (95).
Really? If nothing’s morally wrong, then it’s a mistake to say that what the National Socialist government did was morally wrong. Why take the natural rights people to task (as Rollins repeatedly does) for making mistakes in reasoning, while not blaming others for their alleged mistake in judging that what the Nazi regime did was wrong? Further, amoralism does not imply individualism or “to each his own.” These are distinct from amoralism, and since they are moral principles, they contra- dict amoralism. You abandon amoralism as soon as you adopt the principle “to each his own.”
Although Rollins responds to some of his critics, he doesn’t reply to my published criticisms of his position (Free Life 4.4; Liberty, July 1988), so I will not dilate here on the fact that I agree entirely with most of his criticisms of the Rand-Rothbard type of natural rights argument. This specific kind of argument has much less sup- port among libertarians than it did 26 years ago. That is an improvement, and Rollins can probably take some credit for it. But I will concentrate here on where I think he goes wrong.
Rollins repeatedly asseverates that natural rights, or moral rules in general, are totally ineffective and are therefore pure fictions. Typical of many of his comments is this: “A bullet-proof vest may protect a person against being shot, but a natural right has never stopped a single slug” (96). This is quite true in precisely the same sense that standards of public hygiene have not saved a single life, or that the laws
of mechanics have never built a single machine. Standards of public hygiene have to be learned and implemented by individuals before they save lives. Laws of mechanics and electronics have to be understood by engineers and acted upon before they lead to the construction of mechanical gadgets.
The fact that standards of hygiene have been formulated makes it possible that people might act upon them. And it is because many people have acted upon them that Rollins has not died of cholera or scarlet fever, or contracted leprosy or smallpox. The fact that theories of mechanics and electronics have been formulated, and that many people have taken them as guides, means that Rollins can have useful gadgets in his home. The fact that people have theorized about rights and have then influenced legal thinking means that Rollins is less likely to be shot in the street in the United States than he would be in Rwanda. The fact that a particular type of natural rights argument became per- suasive in 17th-century England means that if the police pick Rollins up tomorrow, they have to prove he’s guilty, unlike in Italy or France, where he would have to prove his innocence.
It’s unfortunate that writers like Rothbard sometimes carelessly give the impression that merely because natural rights”exist,” whether people know about them or not, they can protect us against attacks by the state. A few writers, such as Sam Konkin, quoted by Rollins, seem actually to have believed this. Rollins is quite correct to dismiss it as absurd.
But with that out of the way, the real discussion can begin. As far as I can tell, natural rights proponents as varied as Robert Nozick, Hillel Steiner, Douglas Rasmussen, and Tibor Machan think of natural rights as concepts that can be identified by theorists and disseminated among intellectuals, and then can influence (perhaps over centuries) the drafting of laws enforced by courts and police, as well as by custom and general opinion. Most natural rights proponents would agree that natural rights do no good unless people are persuaded to make their positive legal systems con- form to natural rights. If we look at natural rights in this way, we see that Rollins’ claim that “a natural right has never stopped a single slug” is false.
Rollins agrees that positive rights rights embodied in existing law and custom – can be effective (35). He apparently accepts the idea that positive rights can stop slugs. But the positive rights prevailing at any time may often owe something to moral theories, including theories of natural rights, which have influenced jurists in the past. So natural rights might stop slugs, by influencing the judicial system. Anglo-American common law would hardly be recognizable if we removed from it all elements that have derived from natural rights doctrines.
Rollins’ only counter to this is his claim that moral rules that influence the law are promoted by individuals purely in pursuit of their self-interest: “In my view, natural law and natural rights are human inventions . .. intended to further the interests of the inventors” (35-36). But again, this is factually inaccurate. Moral ideas independent of people’s own interests have had considerable influence in the formation of laws. Hundreds of examples could be cited, but I will mention just one.
In 1807 the British government abolished the slave trade throughout its empire – about a third of the earth’s land area. In 1833 Westminster went on to outlaw slavery itself in most of the empire. These enactments were the result of a sustained campaign, lasting many years, by antislavery propagandists such as Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, who were not motivated by self-interest but by a belief that blacks were entitled to the same legal rights as whites, and that the actual practice of slavery involved unacceptable atrocities. The fate of slavery in England itself had already been sealed, in a court decision (Somersett’s Case, 1772) in which the judge’s ruling stated that slavery was “odious” and that this fact overrode the matter of “inconvenience.” Neither the judge (Lord Mansfield) nor the antislavery activists who had been bringing test cases like Somersett’s benefited personally from the ending of slavery in England. The only people whose personal self-interest was affected (apart from the slaves) were those who had acquired slaves in the colonies and brought them to England: much to their annoyance, their property could now walk away. Insofar as personal self- interest was involved (aside from that of the slaves, who didn’t have much clout), it was defeated by the superior power of moral conviction.
All societies include some system of positive rights, and we can look at different hypothetical systems of rights and decide which one we most prefer. The point of doing this, of course, is to act so as to move actual law, positive law, into conformity with our preferred system. We could call the most preferred system of rights “natural rights,” though”optimal rights” would be simpler. I have generally found that natural-rights libertarians won’t accept this line of argument as a genuine example of natural-rights theory. They want something they can spin out from ruminations on human nature and then impose on the judicial system, regardless of the actual consequences for human welfare. In this sense, I agree with Rollins that the libertarian natural rights enterprise, in the style of Rand, Rothbard, or Hans-Hermann Hoppe, is an intellectual fiasco.
Rollins’ collection includes a couple of short pieces, an “Open Letter to Allah” and an “Ode to Emperor Bush.” Unfortunately neither of these rises far above the puerile. The volume includes many entries to “Lucifer’s Lexicon,” an ongoing series of aphorisms in the form of dictionary definitions, after the model of Ambrose Bierce’s “Devil’s Dictionary,” and owing something to Thomas Szasz’s “The Untamed Tongue.”
Like all such efforts, Rollins’ aphorisms vary in quality, but on the whole they make entertaining reading. Some are genuinely witty (America: “the Great Santa”). Some are quite subtle (Egalitarian: “a morally
person”). Many are weak (Liberation Theology: “the gospel according to St. Marx”). Some have merely fleeting comic value (Draft: “an ill wind from which many a young man has caught his death”). A few have actually been around for a while (Lincoln “freed the slaves and enslaved the free”). And a few are real gems (Neoconservative: “One who believes that democratic nations should start wars to spread democracy, because democratic nations don’t start wars”).
Revising the Revisers
Rollins spent many years in the camp of Holocaust revisionism, but he became disenchanted with the revisionists as well as with the standard historical account. In the essays reprinted here, he attacks both revisionist and conventional accounts of the Holocaust with approximately equal ferocity. He finds serious errors in some of the revisionist and some of the conventional historical accounts. One essay listing a number of fairly crass errors of fact in revisionist works is followed by another essay itemizing what appear to be similarly egregious mistakes in “Denying History,” the popular critique of revisionism by Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman. It is de rigueur among revisionists, as well as professional revisionist- bashers, to call the opposite side’s mistakes “lies/, but it’s cooler to abstain from such childish vituperation.
With some of these issues I don’t know enough to determine who’s right or wrong, but where I do know enough, Rollins is usually accurate. One notable exception is where he quotes a passage from the diary of Joseph Goebbels to the effect that 60% of the Jews in central Poland will be liquidated and 40% used for forced labor (135). Rollins cites this as evidence against a Nazi policy aim- ing for total extermination. But if precisely those Jews who can’t be currently used for forced labor are to be killed as a matter of state policy, in wartime conditions when the state’s demand for slave labor is urgent, this rather suggests to me the opposite conclusion. What do we suppose might happen to the 40% when they become unable to work?
Rollins draws the conclusion that both the revisionist point of view (that there were no gas chambers) and the conventional account (that between 4 and 7 million Jews were deliberately exterminated, well over a million of them in gas chambers) are full of holes. “As of now,” he says, “I am a skep- tic regarding both the Holocaust and Holocaust revisionism” (160). He reiterates this even-handed skepticism in different words several times.
Yet what Rollins has done here is to find errors in the most notable revisionist works and in one rather scrappily compiled piece of anti-revisionist popularization – and even in the latter case, he seems to acknowledge that Shermer and Grobman, along with the factual errors he identifies, also offer other and weightier arguments. So he’s comparing the best that revisionism has to offer with the weakest parts of one lightweight anti-revisionist screed. Oddly enough, there is a deep similarity between Rollins’ writings on morality in politics and his writings on the Holocaust: he attacks both natural rights and the standard Holocaust account at their feeblest, and virtually ignores the much stronger presentations available.
It would be a more daunting task for him to pick apart the main body of Holocaust historiography that has emerged over the past 30 years or so. He seems to accept this when he names Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Jean-Claude Pressac, and Robert Jan van Pelt as people whose arguments would not be so easy to dispose of (204). The political background to the planned extermination of most of Europe’s Jews has been uncovered in well-researched and meticulously argued works by, among others, Christopher Browning and Ian Kershaw (to name the two whose books in English can easily be consulted in any American public library).
Public knowledge of the nuts and bolts of extermination – how gas chambers came to be built (and modified) and how they operated – under- went a revolution with the momentous work of Pressac (the complete text of his study is available online at www.holo- caust-history.org/auschwitz/pressac/ technique-and-operation). He began his researches into Auschwitz inclined to revisionism, but changed his mind as he examined the documentary, chemical, and engineering evidence. Much of the evidence for the reality of the Holocaust was drawn together by van Pelt, in his work on the David Irving libel suit. Van Pelt’s detailed argument (including his dissection of the revisionist Leuchter Report) is available online at www.hdot.org/en/trial/defense/van. If Rollins were to compose a critique of van Pelt, he would be picking on some- one nearer his own size.
This accumulation of historical work has two implications for Holocaust revisionism. First, we now have a coherent and quite detailed account of what happened, an account in which elements that once looked peculiar (such as the absence of a written order from the Fuehrer) fall into place quite naturally. Second, a close acquaintance with this material means that many of the stock revisionist objections can’t get started. To take a simple example: revisionists have often claimed that the use of hydrogen cyanide for mass killing of humans would be impracticable, because of hazards to the people doing the gassing (Rollins, 140-41, refers to this, though without indicating that it convinces him). Some have even claimed there would be a risk of explosion from the gas igniting. This objection evaporates once we realize that far lower concentrations are needed to kill humans than to kill lice, especially if you’re not terribly anxious to make the human deaths mercifully quick, and that hydrogen cyanide was in fact routinely used to kill lice, without any reported explosions. Smaller amounts of hydrogen cyanide, for briefer periods, also help to explain why detectable traces of chemical derivatives of hydrogen cyanide are much smaller in the walls of the gas chambers than in the walls of delousing facilities, a favorite revisionist objection to the standard Holocaust account.’
Even David Irving, the clever historical writer who was won over to the revisionist position (mainly by his too-ready acceptance of the Leuchter Report), now finds that the available evidence compels him to acknowledge that gas chambers really were used as instruments of state policy in the mass killing of Jews and others – though Irving currently maintains the theory, rejected by nearly all other historians, that the extermination program was a secret project mounted by SS boss Heinrich Himmler, who managed to keep all knowledge of it from Hitler.
Holocaust revisionism has similarities with Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory and the “9/11 Truth Movement.” All are able to find puzzles or discrepancies in the standard accounts, but they do not offer a worked- out alternative hypothesis for equally searching scrutiny. Generally, though admittedly not always, their objections vanish on closer acquaintance with the material. They frequently evince the “Murder, She Wrote” mindset: crime scenes must be perfectly tidy, so a single anomaly or loose end is sufficient to overthrow an entire body of quite well- corroborated theory. One must develop a sense of perspective: there are often little details of real-world crimes that remain not fully explicable.
The questions the dissenters raise deserve to be pursued, and the questioners should not be abused or maligned, much less prosecuted or fired from their jobs. These deviants reject conventional stories because they think for them- selves, instead of swallowing uncritically whatever the authorities tell them. While those who dissent will sometimes be right (for example, those who in early 2003 pointed to the clear evidence that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction), very often they will be seriously in error, because they will have jumped into areas where they are unfamiliar with the complexities of the evidence. Explaining why the dissidents are mistaken, about the Holocaust, about the Kennedy assassination, about 9/11, and for that matter, about Intelligent Design, should be seen as wonderful opportunities for popular education. Unfortunately, defenders of the conventional accounts often dis- credit themselves by displaying anger and maligning the motives and character of the questioners.
As we look at the evolution of the Holocaust story over the last 30 years, we see that some elements that revisionists used to find problematic have been discarded by mainstream historians. No historian now maintains that German industry manufactured soap or lampshades from corpses, that it can be proved that Dachau or Belsen had operational gas chambers (though thousands were murdered at both camps by other methods), or that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were operating at maximum capacity every day. Instead of seeing this kind of adjustment as a victory for revisionism, as Robert Faurisson did, we should see it as evidence that conventional academic history is not as rigidly dogmatic as revisionists have supposed, and that it is capable of adapting to new evidence and new analysis. In the meantime, and while some of the details remain puzzling, the balance of evidence for the fact of the Holocaust ought to be regarded as overwhelming.