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...