Matt Forney
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The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays by L.A. Rollins

myth-of-natural-rightsNOTE: This is yet another book review from In Mala Fide, originally published on February 15, 2010.

For all my busting of libertarians’ balls, I was more sympathetic towards libertarianism when I was younger. While in high school and searching for an ideological pier to tether my boat to, I happened upon my mom’s collection of dog-eared paperbacks by the world’s most famous female autist, Ayn Rand. Her philosophy and its ethos of capitalism, logic and reason was a refreshing change from the soft, squishy socialism that permeated the teachings of the Catholic school I attended. I glommed onto her worldview like a barnacle on an oil tanker, quickly devouring her four novels and her countless essay collections. I even cited Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness in an essay in my religion class on how to create a world free of war and violence. I was just a kid then; I didn’t notice Rand’s repetitious, Aspergery writing style, her turgid prose, the massive logical holes in her arguments, her complete lack of humor (actual Rand quote from The Philosophy of Objectivism: “The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.”), and the fact that her writing actually got WORSE as time went on. Once I started tearing into the likes of Hayek, Mises, and Kirk, I was done with Rand for good. Objectivism is only a credible philosophy to the young and pliable of mind.

The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays, by L.A. Rollins, is the kind of book I wish I had had during my teenage years, as it would have saved me a whole lot of winding through bad writing. Rollins’ tract takes the foundation of modern libertarianism–the concept of natural rights–and not only smashes it into teeny-tiny pieces, he makes libertarian icons like Rand, Murray Rothbard, and others look like complete and utter morons in the process. As such, it’s a must-own book for anyone interested in political theory.

As Chip Smith, whose Nine-Banded Books has republished The Myth along with a collection of Rollins’ other work, writes:

Originally published by Loompanics Unlimited in 1983, the central monograph is a two-fisted display of lib-targeted philosophical shit-stirring that holds up well after 25 years. In its previous incarnation, The Myth provoked a fair amount of measured praise along with entertaining fits of blustery outrage among libertarian stalwarts and natural law votaries, with much of the tooth-gnashing playing out in the pages of the Sam Konkin’s old New Libertarian magazine. Rollins’ thesis also famously prompted movement luminary Murray Rothbard to pen a delightfully truculent head-in-the-sand essay enjoining “The Duty of Natural Outlaws to Shut Up,” and it inspired Robert Anton Wilson to publish a lively book-length companion essay entitled Natural Law: Or Don’t Put a Rubber on Your Willy.

The central argument of The Myth of Natural Rights is that the concept of natural rights, as formulated by Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and serving as the foundation of libertarian theory, is a fiction, a religious idea that has zero relevance in the real, secular world. As blogger TGGP of Entitled to an Opinion writes in his introduction:

Without giving the game away, it is perhaps better to start out by saying what natural rights are not than what they are. If one were to begin a sentence with the phrase “natural rights are,” that sentence would already be false. Natural rights are not. That they do not exist is the blunt thesis of The Myth. Natural rights are the tooth-fairies of political philosophy, claiming no more substance than the epiphenomenal gremlins inhabiting Daniel Dennett’s car engine. Despite the carefully parsed semantic rigging, a “natural right” is to be found nowhere in nature, and unlike an actual legal or customary right, it confers no protection upon its claimant.

Rollins’ monograph is less polemic than carefully researched academic argument, albeit written with a snarky undertone, free of filler (the primary text of The Myth clocks in at less than seventy pages), and absent the panicked defensiveness that characterizes academic writing. In the opening chapters, Rollins draws a distinction between natural rights, which are “fake or metaphorical rights,” and “real rights” or “positive rights,” describing the latter as “those rights that are actually conferred and enforced by the laws of a State or the customs of a social group.” Contrasting the two groups, Rollins reduces natural rights to little more than wishful thinking on the part of libertarians, mocking them as “bleeding heart libertarians” who conjure up bogus rights out of thin air.

My biggest complaint with The Myth is that the bulk of it is focused not on proving the phoniness of natural rights but on making mincemeat of noted libertarians who base their arguments on the theory. To be sure, Rollins accomplishes his goal with aplomb, tearing Rand, Rothbard, Tibor Machan, and others to shreds, exposing the gaping holes, paradoxes, and pretzel-like mutilations of logic in their writings. In particular, his chapter on Rand rips apart her rationalist, atheist facade to reveal a deeply religious, irrational woman, amusingly dubbing her “Mrs. Illogic.” By spending most of his time picking fights with other intellectuals instead of making an independent argument, Rollins limits The Myth’s effectiveness as a standalone work. Nonetheless, for those who are looking for an airtight reason to disavow mainstream libertarianism once and for all, or those who’re looking for a book on ideology that is unlike anything else out there, The Myth of Natural Rights is a text you should read ASAP.

Reviewing this book without mentioning the “other essays” in the title would be dumb, considering that those “other essays” make up two-thirds of The Myth’s pages. The middle third of the book is a trio of essays on Holocaust revisionism which displays Rollins’ penchant for misanthropic iconoclasm. (DISCLAIMER FOR THE SLOW: While I support the rights of Holocaust revisionists and deniers to speak their minds, I am not a revisionist or denier myself.) In “The Holocaust as Sacred Cow,” he lays into “Holocaustorians” who perpetuate falsehoods about the Holocaust and who refuse to debate the subject, comparing them to religious fanatics. On the subject of the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, he writes:

For many people, the six million figure is not a fact, although they call it that; rather it is an article of faith, believed in not because of compelling evidence in its support, but because of compelling psychological reasons. For such people, the Six Million figure is a Sacred Truth, not to be doubted and, if necessary, to be defended with dogmatism, mysticism, illogic, fantasy or even downright lies.

The second essay, “Revising Holocaust Revisionism,” is by far the most interesting of the bunch, because in it Rollins turns his guns on revisionists for pushing falsehoods and lies, accusing them of having hidden agendas beyond “set[ting] the record straight”. At the end of the paper, he declares himself to be “skeptical of both sides”, stating that “[n]either side in the Holocaust controversy claims a monopoly on falsehood.” The final essay, “Deifying Dogma,” is the most boring, as it’s nothing more than a point-by-point refutation of the anti-revisionist tract Denying History by Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman, who made the fatal error of smearing Rollins in its pages. Remind me to never get on this guy’s bad side, as it makes for poor writing on his part.

The remainder of The Myth is devoted to L.A. Rollins’ satirical writings, serving as the cherry on this ice cream sundae of idol destruction. “Lucifer’s Lexicon: An Updated Abridgment” is a Samuel Johnson-esque collection of witty, laugh-out-loud definitions (ex: “Blowjob, n. A nice job, if you can get it.”) that deserve to be re-published on their own. On the other hand, “An Open Letter to Allah” is simply awful, tenth-rate anti-religious invective delivered in the voice of a Rand-drunk teenager who keeps a copy of The God Delusion under his pillow. “An Ode to Emperor Bush” is a moderately entertaining bit of doggerel, but it lacks the spark that makes “Lucifer’s Lexicon” such a wicked read. The book would have been improved if both of these diversions had been taken out.

Aside from its few flaws, The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays is a great read, a well-crafted collection of works by a sadly-forgotten writer. Whether you’re interested in shibboleth-skewering essays or satirical shots at sacred cows, you ought to pick this one up.

Click here to buy The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays.

Read Next: Some Thoughts on Hitler and Other Essays by Irmin Vinson

  • Praxiomatic

    David Gordon had a great response to this Rollin’s’s tract called “In Defense of Rights.” You can find it in “Man, Economy, and Liberty: Essays in Honor of Murray N. Rothbard.”
    http://mises.org/document/3073/

    Furthermore, given this came out in 1983, it does not even touch Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s theoretical and rational defense of libertarianism through argumentation ethics. His approach is meta-normative and while it is not incompatible with natural rights, it is also not dependent on them. You can learn about argumentation ethics in “A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism” and “the Economics and Ethics of Private Property.” I think you would also very much enjoy “Democracy: The God That Failed.”

    Not only did Rothbard leave Rollins’s grip unscathed, but his legacy lives on in even greater defenses of human liberty.

  • One of the best examples of “Holocaust as Faith”, in my opinion, is the 7 million Ukrainians starved to death by the Russians during peace time, in the 30s. I’m sure you can imagine the effect of bringing up this inconvenient fact to somebody who’s been through the standard education system: while the goal isn’t to defend the holocaust (who could defend something like that?) it really ought to be put into perspective.

    Just imagine if French historians lambasted medieval Britain for using some form of torture, while ignoring the fact that their own country used a *different* form of torture. Perspective.

    Mention the crimes of Communism, however – far more horrific and evil than the Nazi regime at their worst (losing a war and starving, as Russians invade from the East literally raping and pillaging wherever they go) – and you’ll receive eyes askance, with the unspoken question of whether you secretly hate the Jews or some such nonsense.

  • While the idea that if one presumes atheism that there really is no morality is true, I personally don’t find it to be terribly useful, other than using it as a point to defeat evangelical atheists who would illogically deny this fact. But if one believes that morality is just a tool for controlling the gullible, my response would be: so what? In such a worldview there is no rational basis for saying that being gullible and controlled is any better or any worse than being shrewd and uncontrollable. No states are better or worse, they simply are.

    It’s much like the case that faith in logic is illogical, which while entirely true, is also entirely useless.

    If I were an atheist (which I am not), I believe that I would put the idea of morality and natural rights in a mental category reserved for things that, while entirely illogical, seem to exist. There are other examples of this, such as imaginary numbers, which logically cannot exist, yet are accepted due to the fact that if they are accepted and used, they work.

  • Gustavo

    L.A Rollins was instrumental in my passage to the ‘Dark Side’. I wrote about why I left Libertarianism here: http://wp.me/p4n7vv-5P

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