Murray Rothbard on Capital Punishment

Libertarians differ widely on the issue of capital punishment. Murray Rothbard offers his perspective here. Discussion here.

The gist of it putting punishment decisions in the hands of the victim or the victim’s representative. I like it, though one problem is the possibility of intimidation by the criminal or his allies.

One of the comments in the discussion reflect some work currently being done to image a world with restitution, but no punishment:

Rarely do I disagree with Rothbard, and this is one of those disagreements. While I do agree with Restitutional Justice, I don’t agree with the notion that an aggressor surrenders his rights when he violates the rights of others. Haven’t we all agreed to this point that these are Natural Rights, rights which are ironclad and irremovable without the consent of the person in question? From what Rothbard had argued, it all seems periously close to Vengeance than Justice, which has more to do with consoling the victim than undoing the harm that has been done.

It is possible for a murderer to be punished without violating his natural rights. Simply being marked as a murderer in the first place in public means he will likely be economically exiled, if not completely exiled. In the theoretical world of anarchistic Libertarianism, such people would have a tough time affording insurances of any sort; their life would likely become short and painful. The good news is that in such a world there are plenty of avenues to regain trust, even for crimes as monstrous as murder, although they would always be tough. In prison, or in this case capital punishment, there is no avenue to productively regain the trust of the local community.

Sure capital punishment can deter future crimes but with human beings as imperfect as they are, I don’t think its wise to let them take away lives not rightfully belonging to them. Innocents could always be caught in the crossfire, as too often they have.


  1. im glad you posted this, i read the article yesterday and was rather horrified but didnt realize there was a place to discuss.
    i just find any discussion about the death penalty that entirely leaves out any discussion about the ability of other human beings to accurately determine precisely what happened and who caused it, utterly useless. theoretically, his idea that the will or desginees of the victim can chose the punishment for murder is alright i guess (though, that sort of sucks if you get murdered by your heir/designee), but in practice, we have a pretty poor track record of being able to figure out who is actually guilty or not. being locked up for a crime you didnt commit is horrific enough but at least you can let people out and pay restitution to them if that happens, you obv cant undo death penalty.

  2. Oh man, I cannot begin to tell you how shocked and disgusted I was when first I read this article and found out that MURRAY NEWTON ROTHBARD is pro capital punishment! This is like Elvis coming out of the closet as a flaming queer or something – but a hundred times worse. Rothbard is someone who (rightfully) opposes all TAXATION on moral principles, but here he is advocating the DEATH PENALTY??? And calling it “libertarian”??? Cue the Twilight Zone music… Granted, this was written in 1978, so mayyyybe he changed his position later on? Let’s hope so. Regardless, this argument seems much too redolent of Hammrabi’s Code, ie, an “eye for an eye.” Ten grand for ten grand. Or at least it allows for such nonsense by putting “justice” in the hands of the mortal victim.

    I’m surprised that Rothbard seems to be completely ignoring the element of “time preference” here. That is to say that, individuals CHANGE over “time.” Everyone is a sinner, but we also have the ability to correct our individual spiritual flaws over the course of our lifetimes, and, furthermore, with regard to others, we have the ability to forgive. And forgiveness too can take time. What happens when a victim makes a hasty judicial decision, which permanently affects the criminal’s life, and said victim later regrets their fateful decision?…. Mind you, I fully understand that ‘human action’ is based in present time, not omnipresent time, and as a result individuals are liable to later regret their human action in the future. The difference however between an individual regretting, let’s say, their decision to purchase a KFC double-down sandwich, and an individual regretting their decision to kill another human being in the name of “justice,” is that losses resulting from poor human action in the former example are privatized; in the latter example losses are socialized. Why should person A suffer the consequences of person B’s mistakes?…

    One last thing that disturbs me here is that Rothbard’s whole argument seems to be based on the (rather statist) premise that rights are merely conditional, as opposed to unconditional and absolute, which is what I thought the natural rights otherwise championed by Rothbard in point of fact were. He’s basically saying that “yes, you do have a right to this or that…….. up until you violate the non-aggression principle that is. At which point your victim reserves the right to violate YOUR rights in a lesser or proportional manner.” It just seems like he’s doing a lot of mental gymnastics here to mask what seems like a relatively knee-jerk, capricious argument on an admittedly sensitive subject.

    I agree that economic and social exclusion, ostracism, restitution, et cetera are far better forms of “punishment” than death, and perfectly moral too since they do not violate anyone’s rights – which are UNconditional. I understand that in Scotland, a certain politician has been banned from several pubs because he helped pass legislation that made smoking in pubs unlawful. No reason why supermarkets and clothing stores can’t follow suit. Exclusion seems like a great deterrent to me, but of course, in a truly libertarian society, I think that well-armed individuals would be the best deterrent of all.

  3. The problem here is that the “a life for a life” justice concept, if you think about it, justifies the suicide murderings.

  4. Yeah, I think a lot of ethical questions need to be answered locally. Ethics can’t be universalized. I look more toward Hoppe’s ideas of voluntary exclusion.

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