Libertarianism and the Old Right
In February 1999, for research he was doing on postwar libertarianism, Brian Doherty interviewed Lew Rockwell. The interview was published in the May 12, 1999, issue of SpintechMag.com.
Doherty: How and under what circumstances did you first become interested in political philosophy/work? Was it of an individualist/libertarian orientation from the beginning?
Rockwell: I've been interested in ideological matters from the earliest age. My father was a Taft Republican, and trained me well. A good thing too, for even as a schoolboy, I argued with my teachers over the New Deal, public accommodations laws, U.S. entry into World War II, and McCarthy's questioning of the military elites (I'd still like to know who promoted Peress).
I told them that Tailgunner Joe should have been attacking the U.S. government all along, because it was the real threat to our liberties. That drove my teachers crazy. None of them would be surprised that I grew up to be a full-time gadfly against the conventional wisdom.
My influences included Taft, Garrett, Flynn, Nock, Mencken, Chodorov, Tansill, and the scholastic just-war tradition. Though a Yankee, I never subscribed to the Lincoln cult, and I admired the Southern secessionists for taking the original constitutional compact seriously.
For my twelfth birthday a friend of my father's gave me Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson. That book taught me how to think in economic terms, and I have been reading in economics ever since, with a special appreciation for the old French liberal school and the modern Austrians from Menger to Rothbard.
Once oriented, I gained reinforcement from a wide range of literature in high school and as an English major. I found property rights in German literature, skepticism against the state in English literature, and a love of liberty in American literature.
I was also taken with Cicero: his love of liberty and the old republic; his celebration of natural elites and opposition to egalitarianism; and, most of all, his fighting, indefatigable spirit. I believed that he was no less right because his principled stand did not prevail. There is virtue in the fight regardless of the outcome. The eloquence and courage of Tacitus influenced me for the same reasons.
Over time, I became aware that I was not only dissenting from the left but also from the conservative establishment, which was embroiled in the Cold War as a first principle. I grew increasingly skeptical of the official right, especially during the war on Vietnam.
Back then, the establishment meant National Review. There were some good people on the masthead, and it wasn't as neoconservative domestically as it later became, but the magazine's position on the Cold War came close to calling for a murderous first strike use of nuclear weapons. I could never understand how a person claiming to understand the merits of liberty and property, much less a person schooled in Christian ethics, could entertain such a bloody fantasy.
Goldwater to the Other McCarthy
In the 1960s, like Murray, my sympathies were with the anti-war crowd (but not the unrelated Age of Aquarius bunch). I liked the willingness to resist, the commitment to principle, the moral tone, the defiance of the power elites. I had been a reluctant Goldwaterite in 1964, but by 1968 I worked briefly for Gene McCarthy.
There were some very sophisticated antistatist writings coming out of the left at that point. This is what distinguished the New Left from the Old Left. The Old Left, at least since the Stalin-Hitler pact, had become cautiously pro-empire and unflinchingly pro-D.C. bureaucracy. To believe in any central planning, as the Old Left did, is to cease to be a radical, of course. It means to love what the bureaucracy was doing and aspired to do.
This is why the New Left was a breath of fresh air. Its orientation was anti-government. It focused on a fundamental moral issue — whether the U.S. government should be waging war on foreign peoples — and it was open to historically revisionist scholarship that demonstrated the evils of the corporate state in American history. The focus was also correct: on the war profits being garnered by the munitions manufacturers, exactly as the Old Right had done in the interwar period. If you read Mises's Liberalism, you see the same ideological disposition at work at a different time and a different place.
In some ways, there was a dovetailing of the New Left and the little that remained of the Old Right. For instance, hardly anyone remembers this, but the right was actually divided on Vietnam.
I remember when Robert Welch of the John Birch Society, harkening back to a praiseworthy Americanist impulse, criticized the war. It was then that National Review turned its guns on the JBS, citing a book Welch had written on Eisenhower some ten years earlier. It was sheer farce. Buckley tolerated dissent on a wide range of issues — even allied himself with anti-Soviet Marxists like Max Eastman and Sydney Hook — so long as he could consolidate a consensus for the buildup of the military state.
The civil-rights movement of the 1960s complicates the picture. My ideological sympathies were and are with those who resisted the federal government's attacks on the freedom of association (not to mention the federalist structure of the Constitution) in the name of racial integration. I never liked Martin Luther King, Jr. I thought he was a fraud and a tool. But when he turned his attention to the evils of the U.S. war on Vietnam, I began to like him. That's also when the establishment turned against him, and soon he was murdered.
These days, the neocons say the 1964 Civil Rights Act was an attempt to remove barriers to opportunity, and only later was distorted with quotas. That's absurd. Everyone, both proponents and opponents, knew exactly what that law was: a statist, centralizing measure that fundamentally attacked the rights of property and empowered the state as mind reader: to judge not only our actions, but our motives, and to criminalize them.
The good folks who resisted the civil-rights juggernaut were not necessarily ideologically driven. Mostly they resented horrible intrusions into their communities, the media smears, and the attacks on their fundamental freedoms that civil rights represented. The brighter lights among the resistance movement correctly forecast quotas, though few could have imagined monstrosities like the Americans With Disabilities Act. Of course, they were and continue to be viciously caricatured by the partisans of central power.
By the way, I've recently noticed that mild neoconish critics of the ADA are saying that it too was passed with the best of intentions, and only went wrong later. This is a fantasy based on an impulse to always believe the best of the state and its edicts.
In the early 1920s, Mises said that no man who has contributed to art, science, or letters has had anything good to say about the state and its laws. That is exactly right. Intellectual secession from the ruling regime is the first step to clear, creative thought.
How can all these threads in my personal history be reconciled? What was missing in those days, that the ascendance of libertarian theory in Rothbard's hands later provided, was an overarching framework to explain why war resistance, opposing forced integration, and celebrating individual enterprise were all of a piece. Liberty rooted in private property is the highest political virtue, and its enemy is the consolidated state. I have made that my lifetime credo.
But those were frustrating days and ideological confusion was everywhere. When Nixon was in power, I could not stand him (though I will admit to once having had a sneaking appreciation of Agnew). Like many later political leaders on the right, he talked a good game but expanded government power in ways the left never could have gotten away with.
Affirmative action, the EPA, the CPSC, the CFTC, destruction of the gold standard, massive inflation, welfarist ideology, huge deficits, price controls, and a host of other D.C. monstrosities were Nixon creations — not to mention the bloodiest years of the war. Nixon's carpet bombing of Cambodia, for example, destroyed the monarchy and brought the Khmer Rouge to power. Nixon, Kissinger, and the rest have the blood of millions on their hands.
In intellectual circles, you could find conservatives who would write passionate articles and give riveting speeches on the glories of free enterprise. But then the other shoe would drop. Nixon is the answer, they said, because at least he has his priorities straight: before restoring free enterprise at home, the U.S. needed to be a world empire to defeat the Russian army. The Russian army was defeated, or rather fell under its own weight, and all we're left with is another evil empire. We're still waiting for free enterprise.
Doherty: How did you get involved with Arlington House? When did Arlington House begin, who financed it, what was its philosophy, and why did it die?
Rockwell: In the early 1930s, most libertarian literature was published by mainstream houses. There wasn't much of it, but our ideas did get a hearing. Hazlitt was published in The Nation and the American Century, Garrett appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, and Nock was in the Atlantic, while the Southern Agrarians were at the height of the literary profession and Mencken had the American Mercury. American Austrian economists like Benjamin Anderson and Frank Fetter had very high profiles in academia and business. And there was Colonel McCormick's Chicago Tribune.
Losing Our Outlets
But a decade of the Depression and the New Deal killed off most mainstream outlets. Opposing the federal government became politically incorrect, and publishers didn't want to take the risk of calling down the price-control police or being accused of sedition. The generation that opposed the New Deal's welfare-warfare state did not reproduce itself on any serious scale, and those who remained couldn't get a hearing.
After Roosevelt tricked the Japanese into firing the first shot, the America First Committee, which had been a major vehicle for the resistance, shut down, and after the war, dissident, pro-liberty publishing houses survived only in a handful of places.
Our professors had mostly retired, and our journalists were reduced to the status of pamphleteers. The left enjoyed ridiculing libertarian political commentary because it was so unmainstream, and they were able to point to the existence of all these cranky pamphlets to prove it wasn't serious material. Of course, Trotskyite pamphlets were never similarly attacked.
The only real publishers out there were Caxton, Regnery, and Devin-Adair, which did heroic work, but their distribution channels were limited, and in the latter case, some of the material cranky and tainted. Think about it: it was something of a miracle that Mises's books were able to come to print at Yale University. But we should appreciate the fact that there was massive internal and external resistance to each one.
In the middle 50s, as a consequence of Russell Kirk's book The Conservative Mind, the word "conservative" came to describe anyone who was a non-socialist skeptic of federal policy. I was unhappy with the word, because I was a conscious disciple of the pre-war Nock-Mencken-libertarian school.
There was a fundamental difference between the Old and New Right of Kirk's making. Kirk's book celebrated some good writers and statesmen. But he distorted what it was that drove them, which was not the "politics of prudence" but implacable moral and philosophical conviction. The main thrust of Kirk's influence, I believe, was to turn the right against its best pre-war instincts.
In Kirk's hands, conservatism became a posture, a demeanor, a mannerism. In practice, it asked nothing more of people than to acquire a classical education, sniff at the modern world, and privately long for times past. And if there was a constant strain in Kirkian conservatism, it was opposition to ideology, a word that Kirk demonized. This allowed him to accuse Mises and Marx of the same supposed error.
In fact, ideology means nothing more than systematic social thought. Without systematic thought, the intellectual shiftiness of statist impulse gets a free ride. You can't fight the massive and organized powers of statist, centralist, and generally destructionist social forces armed only with a watch chain and an antique vocabulary. Ultimately, the question that must be asked and definitively answered in the world of ideas was posed most famously by Lenin: What is to be done?
On the answer to that question rides the fate of civilization itself. And if those of us who believe in the magnificence of the classical-liberal vision of society do not answer it definitively, we will lose. Seeing this, men like Frank Meyer — who was a libertarian on all matters but war and peace — blasted Kirk as a statist and an irrationalist. In the end, however Kirk's moderatism and escapism prevailed because it was an easier path.
Rejecting this easier path was Neil McCaffrey, an extraordinary man who later became my friend and professional mentor on many levels. He was a very close friend of Meyer's, as was Murray. Neil had founded the Conservative Book Club in 1964, and built a booming market among National Review and Human Events readers. But he soon noted that there were not enough books for people to buy.
That's why Neil founded Arlington House in 1965, and named it after Robert E. Lee's ancestral home, stolen by Lincoln for a Union cemetery. (I still hope to see it returned some day.) McCaffrey had hoped to create a major publishing house that would bring conservative classics and contemporary titles to a broad public for the first time in the post-war period.
There was a series of books forecasting the death of the gold standard and its consequences, by Bill Rickenbacker and Harry Browne, preeminently. The only bestseller Arlington ever had was Harry's How You Can Profit From the Coming Devaluation, and I worked as his editor. I also edited George Roche's books, and the works of other many conservative leaders. I was peripherally involved in the publication of Hazlitt's books.
Preeminently, I served as editor for new editions of Mises's Theory and History, Bureaucracy, and Omnipotent Government. Reading those books, I became a thoroughgoing Misesian. I was so thrilled to meet him at dinner in 1968. He was already in serious decline, but it was still wonderful. That is also when I got to know his wife, Margit, who later helped me found the Mises Institute.
Neil and I disagreed about foreign policy, and it was an uncomfortable topic. He was opposed to U.S. entry into the two world wars, and sound on the so-called civil war, but he was a complete cold warrior, like most people of his generation. However, on economics, Mises was his guide. One of his favorite topics was the moral and economic justification of charging interest. He was also a brilliant student of Catholic theology, literature, and history, and a saintly man.
Intellectually, I was a libertarian, but I stayed out of the movement, mainly because I had other interests in the publishing world, and the libertarians struck me as a strange bunch in the early 1970s. It seemed to be more a lifestyle movement than a political one, a problem that still persists. There was a very clear distinction in those days between libertarian intellectuals like Murray Rothbard, whom I admired, and the developing movement at large.
Neil had partners in the business, and he lost control, with Buckley playing a malicious role. The company was sold to Roy Disney in the mid-1970s, and eventually phased out.
By this time, I had gone to work for Hillsdale College. I had known George Roche while at Arlington, and admired the fact that he was both anti-war, having written his doctoral dissertation on 1930s war resistance on the right, and a free enterpriser with Austrian sympathies. At Hillsdale, I started Imprimis and Hillsdale College Press, set up a speakers' series, oversaw public and movement relations, and helped with fundraising.
Murray as Mises's Successor
It was clear to me at the time that Murray Rothbard was Mises's successor, and I followed his writings carefully. I first met him 1975, and knew immediately that he was a kindred spirit. Like all the other living intellectuals I respected, he was on the margins, laboring at a fraction of the salary he deserved, and excluded from conventional outlets of academic and political opinion.
I cannot remember the day that I finally came around to the position that the state is unnecessary and destructive by its nature — that it cannot improve on, and indeed only destroys, the social and economic system that grows out of property rights, exchange, and natural social authority — but I do know that it was Rothbard who finally convinced me to take this last step.
Unfortunately, I could only admire his writings at a distance. I tried to get Hillsdale to invite him to speak, but that was ruled out immediately. I was told that he might be a fine economist, but he was a loose cannon, unconnected from an organized apparatus of conservative thinking.
But what really did Murray in was not his conviction that the state was unnecessary, but his position on the Cold War. Libertarians were said to be tacit supporters of the Sovietization of the world. It was utter nonsense, but this accusation that Rothbard was a "fine economist" but nothing else would dog him until the end. I always saw this as a rationalization to justify fear of a fundamental rethinking of political philosophy and world affairs.
After Hillsdale, I turned to editing a journal of socioeconomic medicine called Private Practice. I worked to integrate the work of the Austrians and apply it to health economics and government intervention in that industry. It proved to be a fruitful mix, and in my mind demonstrated the possibilities of using the Austrian tradition to explain the way the world works in a very practical way.
Doherty: How did you end up working with Ron Paul?
Rockwell: In those days, unlike today, I had a keen interest in the affairs of Congress: the members of each committee, the legislation that was being considered, and the like. Being a Congressional aide had always been a dream of mine, as absurd as that may sound today. When Ron won his first full term, he asked me to work for him.
We never saw his office as a conventionally political one. It was a bully pulpit to get the message out. We sent out hundreds of thousands of tracts on freedom, inserted amazing articles in the Congressional Record, and drafted libertarian legislation as an educational effort.
As for his voting record, Ron had a clear standard: if it meant stealing people's money, he was against it. If it gave people back the liberty and property the government had taken, he was for it. Most of the lobbyists eventually stopped visiting our offices.
He was always respected by fellow legislators, but they thought of him as a bit off-kilter. It was Mr. Paul Goes to Washington. Politicians view their job as trading votes, getting their share of pork, expanding government, and generally playing the game. They believe they are being productive when they have helped pass more spending and regulatory legislation, and the price for their vote gets high indeed.
Ron was the opposite. He was a standing rebuke, not only to his colleagues but to the entire system. He still is.
Not many people in D.C. understood what Ron was up to. I remember once when a lobbyist came by and demanded that Ron oppose foreign aid to the Philippines on grounds that people there killed dogs for food. Ron was glad to support cutting foreign aid for any reason. He introduced the bill, and overnight he was celebrated by animal-rights activists all over the country.
Of course, the bill didn't pass. It's important to remember that ideology plays a very small role in legislative affairs except as a kind of public relations gloss. If a farming bill is passed by a Republican Congress, it is called the "Freedom To Farm Act." If it is passed by a Democratic Congress, it is called the "Family Farm Fairness Act." The text can be identical; only the coloring changes.
Watching this system up close, all my worst suspicions about government were confirmed. When I later started the Mises Institute, I swore that it would not function the way party think-tanks in Britain do: as intellectual veneer to a gruesome system of legislative exploitation.
Washington has its own version, of course, and if anyone thinks Congressmen or their aides study some group's "policy report" on this or that bill, he knows nothing about the imperial capital of the world. Its animating force is not ideas but graft, lies, and power. Those policy studies are for PR. On the other hand, there is a cost to treating the policy game as if it were some sort of intellectual club to which we all belong: it imbues the process with a moral legitimacy it does not deserve.
A scam was perfected in the early 1980s among leading politicians and the think-tanks. A group celebrates a politician's supposed achievements in exchange for which the politician pretends to be influenced by the group. It's all a public relations game. This is a major reason why Murray was never able to work within that system. He had an irrepressible urge to tell the truth regardless of the consequences. Sure, he was a loose cannon, as any cannon should be on the ship of an imperial state.
The Mises Institute
Doherty: What was the genesis of the Mises Institute? How difficult was it to get off the ground?
Rockwell: When I was in D.C., my happiest moments were receiving calls from students who wanted to know more about Ron and his ideas. He had a huge amount of support on Texas campuses. He struck students as smart, principled, and radical. But sending students speeches and pamphlets only took matters so far. I wanted to do more, but as I looked around, I didn't see any libertarian organization that focused on advancing academic scholarship specifically focused on the Austrian School.
Also, I worried that Mises had been losing status as a thinker since his death. Hayek's place was secure because of the Nobel Prize. But the rationalism of Mises, the tough-edged quality of his thinking and his prose, the conviction that economics is a logical system that can justly claim the mantle of science, seemed to be fading.
The free enterprisers were turning toward murkier thinkers, monetarists, positivists, and even institutionalists who had no interest in the grand Misesian project. This also seemed to go along with an unwillingness to consider difficult and radical questions on grounds that they were politically unviable.
There was overlap here with what was happening in politics. Since the early 1970s, the conservative movement was increasingly dominated by former members of the Old Left who had made their way over to the right. These so-called neoconservatives made the switch in opposition to George McGovern's foreign policy "isolationism," but they had not really changed their views on domestic issues.
To give them credit, the neocons always admitted that they hadn't left the Democrats; the Democrats had left them. They openly celebrated the legacies of Wilson, FDR, and Truman — mass-murdering would-be dictators all.
That position needed to be refuted and fought, but instead, a military-minded conservative movement embraced the neocons as allies on the only issue that really mattered to them, the expansion of the warfare state. There was no place for Mises, whose writings on war and statism were numerous and profound, in this new consensus.
There were few alternatives to the Reaganized right. The Beltway libertarians were drifting more and more toward policy and a generalized concern with respectability (the two go hand in hand), and away from Austrian economics and anything that smacked of idealism or a high theoretical concern. Hosting Alan Greenspan at a cocktail party became the goal.
I noticed a similar tendency among scholarship-granting institutions. They seemed interested in subsidizing only Ivy-League students of a soft classical-liberal bent, rather than promoting the concrete development and application of radical thought.
Another approach I rejected was quietism. I've never been impressed with the idea that we should sit back in complacent satisfaction that we constitute the remnant, while others eventually join us or not. Surely ideas do have consequences, but reality dictates that they need passionate scholars to advance them on every front.
An Urgent Need
Hence, Mises as a thinker, who had done so much to resuscitate old-fashioned, tough-minded liberalism, was falling by the wayside, a victim of a movement that eschewed all such unrespectable thinkers. Misesian theory and practice were fading fast. I set out to change that, and to serve a neglected generation of students. Idealism is what stirs the young heart, and the only idealism that seemed to be available to students in those days was from the left. I harkened back to my lifetime love of Mises, of his brilliance and his courage, and talked with Margit about the project. She was thrilled, made me promise to make it my lifetime work, and we got busy.
When I asked Murray to head academic affairs, he brightened up like a kid on Christmas morning. We agreed that the goal should be to provide a support system that would revive the Austrian School as a player in the world of ideas, so that statism of the left and right could be fought and defeated.
The main criticism directed against Austrian economics in those days was that it was not formal or rigorous because it rejected the use of mathematics as the tool for constructing economic theory. But this is absurd. In fact, Murray actually had two majors as an undergraduate: one in economics and the other in math. What was at stake here was not the competence of the Austrians but a fundamental methodological question: can the methods of the physical sciences be imported to the social sciences via economics? The Austrian answer was no.
At the same time, there was a grain of truth in the criticisms. American academia provided no formal setting to study economics from the Austrian perspective. Most of the then-current practitioners were self taught, so even they had a limited perspective on the possibilities of creating an alternative formal system of economics.
I wanted to make up for this deficiency by creating a shadow university setting in which students could study economics under the post-Mises generation of Austrian scholars, especially Murray.
Murray loved our programs. He would teach all afternoon and stay up until 3:00 and 4:00am talking to students about ideas. He was always accessible, laughed easily, and was never foreboding. He learned from everyone around him and rejected the "guru" persona he could have so easily adopted.
Students who came to us expecting a stern setting of judgmental theorizing were shocked to discover something closer to a salon where intellectual inquiry was free and open-ended. It had to be that way to balance out the rigor of the content. Murray's spirit still animates all our programs.
Getting Off the Ground
The funding problem was one I dealt with from the beginning. I had wanted to give Murray a platform, but I quickly discovered that old-line foundations would not help so long as he was on board. They certainly would not support an organization that argued for positions like the abolition of central banking, or funded revisionist historical scholarship and disagreed with the two-party consensus in Washington.
Corporate foundations, meanwhile are not very interested in ideas generally, particularly not ones that threatened the status quo. It's a cliche now, but I also found that big corporations are not the strongest supporters of free enterprise.
I also found that most old-line foundation and corporate money comes with strings attached. And if there is one institutional feature I desired for the Mises Institute, beyond its ideological stance, it was independence.
I did not want to get roped into supporting cranky policy projects like vouchers or enterprise zones, and I did not want to be forced into emphasizing some aspects of Misesian theory simply because they were trendy, while feeling compelled to deemphasize others. I never wanted to find myself censoring an associated scholar because some foundation bigshot didn't like what he was saying.
I wanted to see the fullness of the Austrian program funded and represented, consistently, fearlessly, and regardless of the fallout. The Mises Institute needed to do work that is deep and wide. It needed to be free to support research in areas like economic methodology, which doesn't interest corporations, or blast the newest policy gimmick, a stance that doesn't interest foundations. Finally, government money was not ever a consideration.
In the end, our support has come from individual donors and nearly exclusively so. I had a good-size Rolodex, so I started there. Ron Paul and others signed letters to their lists, which was a big help, and I had enough savings to work a few years without a salary.
We've been in business now for 17 years, and it took a long time to become viable. But we built slowly and carefully, brick by brick, and now have a solid edifice. And we still have our independence, and we still have an edge.
Doherty: I've heard intimations that Koch interests attempted to stymie the Mises Institute's development. Is this so, and if so, specifically how?
Rockwell: It wasn't exactly subtle. In the early eighties, Charles Koch monopolized the libertarian think-tank world by giving and promising millions. That's fine, but he was gradually edging away from radical thought, which included Austrian economics, and toward mainstreaming libertarian theory (as opposed to libertarianizing the mainstream) that attracted him in the first place.
I have never understood this type of thinking. If being mainstream is what you want, there are easier ways to go about it than attempting to remake an intellectual movement that is hostile to government, into a mildly dissenting subgroup within the ideological structure of the ruling class.
Murray and Charles broke at this point, and I won't go into the details. But it was clear that Koch saw their break as the beginning of a long war. Early on, I received a call from George Pearson, head of the Koch Foundation. He said that Mises was too radical and that I mustn't name the organization after him, or promote his ideas. I was told that Mises was "so extreme even Milton Friedman doesn't like him." If I insisted on going against their diktat, they would oppose me tooth and nail.
Later, I heard from other Koch men. One objected to the name of our monthly newsletter, The Free Market. The idea this time was that the word "free" was off-putting. Another said that the idea of an Austrian academic journal was wrong, since it implied we were a separate school, and mustn't be. All urged me to dump Murray and then shun him, if I expected any support.
I was taken aback by what I interpreted as pettifoggery, and I had no idea what we would yet face. I negotiated a contract with Lexington Books for an annual journal, and put together a pretty good list of editorial advisers with Murray as the editor. Soon after, what came to be called "the boycott" began. Letters and calls poured in from those associated with Koch-dominated organizations. They resigned and swore eternal enmity. We even lost some big donors. It was my baptism by fire into the world of research institutes.
It may seem absurd to talk about this as if it were some sort of conspiracy against the Mises Institute. Why would a multi-billionaire care if the Institute existed or not? I mean, we were a gnat compared to his water buffalo. It's a mystery that even today I do not entirely understand. In any case, there was blood all over the place by the time it was over.
Among threatened programs, the Review of Austrian Economics was nearly killed, but Murray persevered and the first issue came out in 1986. We went through ten volumes of that journal, and it was the key to building up the Austro-Misesian movement as we know it today. The entire collection is PDF'ed on Mises.org, and downloaded by students all over the world. And now we have the higher-profile Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.
Today, I regard all these early conflicts as water under the bridge. The Koch Foundation uses our texts in their seminars, and the old antipathies are dwindling. Koch organizations are no longer shocked to see us taking different views in areas like vouchers and trade treaties. They serve one agenda with a particular style, approach, and audience, and we serve another with a different style, approach, and audience.
One note about competition among non-profits. From time to time, well-meaning people suggest that the Mises Institute join with other like-minded groups. By pooling our resources, we would have a greater impact. But this rationale is flawed. Competition is as essential in the non-profit world as it is in enterprise generally. The early opposition spurred us on to do a better job, never to give up, and never to give in.
I still get harassed from time to time about something someone connected to us has written or said. I'm told that I should do something to shut him up, and indeed policy institutes can be very restrictive in the way they treat their scholars. If they are pursuing a political agenda, I suppose they have to be. But I don't believe in telling any of our associated scholars — and there are fully 200 of them — what to think or what to write.
That's because I founded the Mises Institute to provide a setting for unrestricted intellectual exploration in the Austrian tradition, no matter how radical the conclusions may be. There are no speech controls at our conferences. There is no fear that someone will say something that lies outside the preset boundaries of respectable opinion.
I cannot let the temptation to get along with everybody, or fit into someone else's strategic agenda, stand in the way. In the political and academic worlds, taboos are piling up by the day, but they are enemies of serious thought.
The Mises Institute has a unique place in the division of labor, and it is to make possible a radical reevaluation of the intellectual foundations of the modern statist enterprise. Our senior scholars — Walter Block, Dave Gordon, Jeff Herbener, Hans Hoppe, Guido Hülsmann, Peter Klein, Yuri Maltsev, Ralph Raico, Joe Salerno, and Mark Thornton — lead the way. Some people say our approach is reckless. I can only hope that it always remains so.
Doherty: Relate to me what you think the Mises Institute's greatest successes have been.
Rockwell: Most recently, I'm thrilled with the restored Human Action. I was astounded when I first realized how far later editions of this book had strayed from the original. I mean, the third edition has Mises endorsing conscription, which was not only not in the original, but Mises had specifically and persuasively condemned conscription in his writings.
There were other problems. Important passages on Nazi economic planning were eliminated as were whole paragraphs from the section on monopoly. By comparison, the first edition is a seamless web and I'm so pleased that it is back in print in a Scholar's Edition. It's been flying out of our offices.
By the way, what economics text of 900 pages is still a huge seller fifty years after it first appeared? I can't think of one. Facts like this tell me that Mises is here to stay. In the next century, I'm convinced he'll have a much higher profile that he did in this one. He was a prophet and a fantastic genius. Not that his work shouldn't ever be improved or criticized. We have such papers at every session of our Austrian Scholars Conferences. But we have to have the material available to learn from before it can be revised, improved, and reinterpreted.
The first book the Mises Institute printed was Mises's Theory and History, with an introduction by Murray. It is still a big seller. We have brought Murray's Ethics of Liberty back into print, along with two dozen monographs on the Austrian School that we have distributed all over the world.
Our book The Costs of War has been called the most important piece of anti-war revisionist scholarship in the second half of this century. Our book Secession, State, and Liberty is a success. We brought Man, Economy, and State back into print, as well as a dozen other books. We even have a new edition of Murray's America's Great Depression, with an introduction by Paul Johnson, and an Austrian economics text for smart high-school students, in the works.
Oddly, I never envisioned the Mises Institute as a publishing house, though it could easily be mistaken for one. We are funding the research and writing of a major intellectual biography of Mises, a massive two-volume project. We want one of Rothbard as well. And we have five regular periodicals: a newsletter on current trends, an interview publication, a literary review, a scholarly journal, and a news and information sheet on the Austrian School.
Meanwhile, our summer Mises University has put a host of PhD students in economics through a rigorous program that would otherwise be unavailable. We've trained plenty of historians, philosophers, theologians, and others too. We've also started a summer Rothbard Graduate Seminar for advanced PhD students and post-docs, and been overwhelmed by the worldwide response. There's also our weekly Austrian Economics Workshop.
We spend the bulk of our money on students and student programs. When we take on a graduate student in economics, we stick by him or her for up to six years. That's a huge investment, but look at the results. We now have professors honeycombed through academia, and they have made Austrian economics a vital part of their curricula.
Our Mises and Rothbard Fellows are in demand, and not only because more and more departments seek genuine diversity at a time of Austrian renaissance. They are among the best young economists working today. Not only can they run rings around the mainstream with the mainstream's own tools, but their praxeological grounding gives them a real leg-up in understanding actual economic events. They are also blessed with the vocation to teach, to be scholars in the classical tradition. This is no way to get rich, and it's not for everyone, but in the secular world, there is no higher calling.
Over the long term, this will be where the Mises Institute makes the biggest difference. Seventeen years ago, Austrians had a hard time finding positions, much less holding on to them, but these days, we run out of candidates long before the requests for our students stop. Demand is outstripping supply.
Hazlitt told me that he thought the great success of the Mises Institute was providing a forum for Rothbard at a time when everyone else had turned his back on him. I am indeed proud of that. I also think that the Mises Institute has helped raise up an alternative intellectual framework as freedom of thought and speech has played a smaller and smaller role in academia.
The faculty at our conferences speak of their elation at escaping the stultifying political rules of their home campuses. Our students feel it too. That kind of freedom and collegiality is what a university is supposed to be about.
But I think the key achievement of the Mises Institute is the one Murray pointed to. Before the Institute, Austrian economics was in danger of becoming a hard-money investment strategy or an anti-rationalist process analysis — ironic indeed for a school rooted in Aristotelianism. The Institute rescued the praxeologically based main trunk of the school, and restored it to prominence and fruitfulness. Thus the Austrian School of Menger, Böhm-Bawerk, Mises, and Rothbard lives and grows and has increasing influence.
Doherty: Tell me about your involvement with the Libertarian Party, and the specific reasons for your disenchantment with it.
Rockwell: I was never an LP person, though I generally like the platform, which was largely written by Murray. People say that he wasted his time in the LP. That judgment presumes that geniuses like Murray should not be allowed to have hobbies and amusements. He loved Baroque church architecture and 1920s jazz. He loved soap operas and sports. He loved chess and eighteenth-century oratorios. And he enjoyed, for many years, his activities with the LP, particularly since it was a hobby that intersected with his professional interests. It certainly didn't distract from his scholarly work, which continued unabated through this entire period.
For years, as close as we were, I largely ignored what Murray was doing in the LP. But Ron Paul decided to run for the 1988 presidential nomination, and he announced in 1986. That's when I got involved. I feared he wasn't going to get the nomination. To my astonishment, Russell Means, who didn't seem to be a libertarian at all, had a real shot at it. I swung into action, and helped orchestrate Ron's bid for the nomination. But that pretty much burned me out.
I wasn't pleased with what I saw in the party. I sensed a lack of interest in ideas and an absurd obsession with petty organizing details. There was a lot of waste of time and money. I also felt like the party was creating a false hope of successfully bringing about reform through politics. And yet, in all these ways, I suppose it was no different from any other party.
What bugged me the most, however, was a general tendency among the party types to downplay libertarian theory in a host of areas. They were generally sound on tax cuts and drug policy and the like. But there was no interest at all in foreign policy. In fact, the largest faction in the party was actually hawkish on war and strangely conventional on policy particulars. Then there was the perpetual focus on living a life of liberty. A life of liberty meant, in the first instance, never wearing a tie or a white shirt.
Murray Was Booed
The last time I had any contact with the LP was the summer of 1989 in Philadelphia. Sweet, sweet Murray, eternally optimistic and good-hearted Murray, rose to the platform to make the case for electing this chairman over that chairman. I forget the details. In any case, they hissed at him. They booed him. They shouted him down and denounced him. I thought: this is just amazing.
The greatest libertarian thinker in history, and they can't even treat him politely? Even more astounding, Murray thought nothing of it. To him, this was just life in the LP. It was then that I thought: This is it. I reemphasized to Murray my views on these people, which he had come to share, and suggested we get out. We did, and his wife Joey cheered.
Again, this is water under the bridge. I'm perfectly happy for the LP to go about its business. Harry Browne said some good things in the last election. He's generally a man after my own heart. I'm just not cut out for politics, and I don't think politics holds out much hope for the future of human liberty.
The Amazing Murray
Doherty: Tell me about your relationships with Pat Buchanan and the Randolph Club.
Rockwell: Before I do that, let me just emphasize that all these political goings-on were a mere sidelight in Murray's life. His main project in these years was the magisterial History of Economic Thought that came out just after he died. For most academics, these two volumes would be more than enough to show for an entire career. But for Murray, they were just a slight piece of a massive literary output.
His output was huge, even aside from scholarship. On a typical morning, I would find a 20-page article on politics on my fax, and a five-page article on strategy. For him, pounding out these gems was just a way to pass the time between 100-page scholarly articles and whole book manuscripts. His output was beyond human comprehension.
That's why Burt Blumert and I started the Rothbard-Rockwell Report, whose name Murray was kind enough to suggest. At the Mises Institute, we could have spent all our time marketing his material to newspapers and magazines. Instead, we needed a steady place to publish all his short pieces on political and cultural topics, and — as Joey has mentioned — it was one of the joys of his last years.
At the same time, Murray needed practical ideological recreation to make his scholarly work possible and add leaven to his life. Leaving the LP lifted a burden off Murray's shoulders, but I worried that it would also leave something of a hole in his life. A part of him loved ideological organization on a grand scale.
Our first contacts with the paleoconservatives came after their huge break with the neoconservatives, the most warlike and statist intellectuals in the country. Murray and Tom Fleming, editor of Chronicles, exchanged letters and found they agreed on the intellectual errors on the right. Some people say Murray was becoming more conservative and conventional. This is unbelievably uncomprehending.
Murray rejected what Mises called the cultural destructionism of the left because he saw it as a back-door to state building. If you attack the family by impinging on its autonomy, the family can no longer serve as a bulwark against state power. So it is with leftist rhetoric that ridicules the habits, prejudices, traditions, and institutions that form the basis of settled, middle-class community life. He saw the relentless attacks on these as paving the way for government managers to claim more territory as their own.
Moreover, it was Murray's conviction that government power was the greatest enemy that a rich cultural heritage has. It is not capitalism that wrecks the foundations of civilized life but the state. In this, he was in full agreement with Mises, Hayek, and Schumpeter. And incidentally, this line of argument, which Murray had long used, has been picked up by other libertarians in the meantime.
But the real bond between Tom and Murray was their shared hatred of the statism, centralism, and global warfarism of the conservative movement. They were both fed up with a Buckleyized conservatism, and now, at last, here was a chance to do something about it.
Together Murray and I watched as the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union dissolved, and we were intensely curious as to how the conservatives would respond. Would they return to their pre-war, anti-war roots? Or would they continue to push for the American empire? Well, we got our answer in 1990 with the beginnings of the Gulf War. It seemed obvious that this was Bush's attempt to keep the warfare state fat and thriving.
The U.S. gave permission to Iraq to annex Kuwait, and then suddenly reversed positions. The U.S. paid off countries around the world to be part of its "coalition" and waged a bloody war on Iraq, burying innocents in the sand and proclaiming victory over the aggressor.
We waited for the conservatives to denounce the war, but of course it didn't happen, although I'll always treasure Kirk's last letter to me, in which he called for hanging the "war criminal Bush" on the White House lawn. Too bad he never wrote like that in public. But the neocons were entirely in control of the right and cheered Bush to the Heavens.
These were disgusting days. Bush dragged out all his tax-funded missiles and other weapons of mass destruction and put them on the Washington, D.C., mall for the boobsoisie to admire. Yellow ribbons were everywhere.
But the paleos were a different matter. Paul Gottfried, Allan Carlson, Clyde Wilson, Fleming, and others associated with the Rockford Institute blasted the war without qualification. They openly called the U.S. an imperial power and made the argument that we had always made: that the greatest threat to our liberties was not overseas but in the District of Columbia.
Meanwhile, we were alarmed that not even the libertarians seemed prepared to go this far. Reason magazine and the Republican Liberty Caucus were for the Gulf War, and Liberty magazine, for whom Murray had written, was ambivalent on the question. In general, there was silence from the people who should have been our natural allies. To us, that merely underscored a more deeply rooted problem in libertarian circles: the strange combination of cultural alienation and political conventionality.
We began to write about the errors of the "modal" libertarians. They were soft on war, sanguine about centralization of power, and friendly towards the rise of the social-therapeutic aspects of the state inherent in civil-rights egalitarianism. They were uninterested in scholarship and unschooled in history. They were culturally fringy and politically mainstream, which is precisely the opposite of what Murray and Mises were. I couldn't imagine the old libertarian school of Nock, Chodorov, Garrett, Flynn, and Mencken at home with this.
The best of the paleoconservatives, in contrast, were old-fashioned constitutionalists who took libertarian positions on a range of issues. They wanted the troops home and the government out of people's lives. They wanted to abolish the welfare state, and had a very telling critique of it. Their critique was not based on rights, but it was serious and sophisticated.
The Center for Libertarian Studies co-founded the John Randolph Club, which I named for the aristocratic, anti-egalitarian battler of centralized power of the early nineteenth century. The word "paleolibertarian" was mine too, and the purpose was to recapture the political edge and intellectual rigor and radicalism of the pre-war libertarian right. There was no change in core ideology but a reapplication of fundamental principles in ways that corrected the obvious failures of the Reason and National Review crowd.
I remember people at the time saying: "Oh no! You're falling in bed with a bunch of religious rightists!" I would just rub my eyes in dismay. In the first place, if a person believes in liberty and also happens to be religious, what is wrong with that? Since when did atheism become a mandatory view within libertarian circles? Also, the point was not to fall in bed with anybody but to organize a new intellectual movement precisely to do battle with the statists on all sides.
Much good came out of this. We took out ads in the New York Times attacking war and we gave the neocons a run for their money. We had some very good and fun meetings, and Murray had the chance for a productive exchange of ideas with some of the smartest thinkers in the country.
But there were limits to what could be accomplished. As old-fashioned Burkeans, somewhat influenced by Kirk, they resisted ideology in principle. That meant an impatience with the rationalism of economic theory and libertarian political theory. That eventually caused us problems on issues like trade. All sides opposed Nafta, which was mercantilist, but we couldn't agree on the urgency of eliminating trade barriers. Still, the debates were fun. We agreed to cooperate where we could, and disagree where we must.
Another problem was that usual evil force in the world: politics. Nearly alone among Republicans, Pat Buchanan was a strong opponent of the war on Iraq, denouncing it up until the troops actually landed. He then began to offer a radical critique of the interventionist state in a host of areas. In 1991, he challenged Bush for the nomination, speaking out against Bush's tax increases and welfarism. In some ways, it appeared that he could become a dream candidate, uniting a passionate concern for both free enterprise and peace.
Conventional libertarians didn't like Pat, in part because he was against open immigration. But it seemed obvious that the patterns of immigration since 1965 have increased rather than decreased the government's control over the economy. And there is no obvious libertarian position on this subject: whether immigration is peaceful or invasive depends entirely on who owns the property onto which they immigrate, and whether they make their own way once here. The welfare state and public schools complicate the picture enormously.
Unfortunately for everyone, as the campaign progressed, Pat got more and more protectionist and nationalist. Murray saw that Buchanan was in danger of jettisoning all his good principles. If the state can and must plan trade to protect the nation, then why not the rest of the economy? Sure enough, by 1996, Pat's protectionist theories mutated and took over his economic thinking entirely. For example, he advocated a 100% tax on estates over $1 million. Pat still says good things on foreign policy, but the lesson for me is an old one: never hinge the hopes of a movement on a politician.
Chronicles is open to libertarians, and the Randolph Club still meets. But, for me, this chapter in the history of ideological organizing came to a close with Murray's death. With Murray, anything seemed possible. We could dabble in practical tactics and strategy, write on every topic under the sun, and keep cranking out the students and academic conferences and publications. But without Murray, I needed to concentrate on what I do best, which was and is internal development. At the same time, the Mises Institute began to develop the resources to expand its horizons as broadly as Murray had always wanted.
A New Movement?
Doherty: Do you feel you succeeded in creating the paleo movement you speculated about when you departed from the "modal" libertarian movement?
Rockwell: To some extent, I would say the present decline in the moral legitimacy of the executive state represents a paleoization, if you will, a systematic radicalization of the middle class. As Frank Rich has pointed out in the New York Times, all the real political dissidents and radicals, the people who are raising fundamental objections to the status quo of the American civil project, are on the right.
They are homeschoolers fed up with the propaganda in public schools. They are average Americans who fear and resent anyone with a federal badge and gun. The pro-lifers are pushing the boundaries of permissible civil disobedience. Anti-war rallies are as likely to be populated by old-line constitutionalists as aging New Lefties.
Meanwhile, the mainstream left is increasingly censorious. It is there that you find the book burners, the taboo enforcers, the thought police, and the apologists for federal tyranny.
On the other hand, and despite the continued growth of the state, we are seeing the flourishing of enterprise across the country and the world, an intense and renewed interest in the art of private life, and a continuing secession from establishment political institutions. Another way of putting this is that the classical ideal of liberty and private life is again gaining currency, and a major reason is the successes that an intellectual vanguard of Austrian scholars and political dissidents have had in undermining the ideological foundations of the state.
Murray anticipated all this with his outreach efforts to marginalized conservatives. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, he had an outstanding strategic sense. It's just that he was always ahead of everyone else in his thinking, and so he suffered detraction and calumny. Not that it mattered to him. Early in his career, he decided to take a certain path, inspired by the example of Mises, and he stuck with it to the end.
The Future of Liberty
Doherty: What about plans for the future?
Rockwell: These days, we have more than enough work to do in publishing, funding, and supporting Austrian and libertarian scholarship, both of which are in a boom phase. People on the left thought that the collapse of socialism would mean that anti-socialist intellectual forces would decline as well. The opposite has happened. At last, it is clear to anyone who cares about liberty that the real enemy is the ruling regime in government and academia, and that this ruling regime resides within our own borders.
The Internet has been a tremendous boost to the Austrian School and the classical liberal perspective. Since the second world war, the biggest hurdle our side has had is in getting the message out. At last, the net evens the score. Not a day goes by without hosts of people around the world discovering the world of Misesian-Rothbardian theory for the first time, just because they run across our website at Mises.org.
We're also building a Center for Libertarian Studies site at LibertarianStudies.org that will feature the back issues of the Journal of Libertarian Studies and the RRR, as well as Murray's classic Libertarian Forum and Left and Right journals. [Note: the founding of LewRockwell.com changed this; JLS (now published by the Mises Institute) and Left and Right are archived at Mises.org; we still hope to scan and upload the Libertarian Forum on LRC.] Our goal always is to provide the resources that keep people's attention on the conceptual fundamentals: liberty and property versus the state and its power.
Right now, we are faced with a historic opportunity. In academia, the old guard no longer has the same credibility among students. The left has surrendered the mantle of idealism and radicalism. The Austrian School is perfectly suited to be the new and fresh alternative. And in public affairs, we need to take advantage of the declining status and moral legitimacy of the central state to make a major push for libertarian ideas. The revolution that struck Eastern Europe a decade ago has come home in surprising ways, and we need to work to encourage these trends and direct them towards a consistent stand for liberty and property.
Many years ago, Hazlitt gave a speech in which he said it is our moral obligation to continue the battle no matter what the odds. What he said then is still true today: we are not threatened with bankruptcy or jail for holding the opinions we do. All we risk is being called nasty names. Surely that is not too high a price to pay for defending the very foundations of civilization.