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In Defense of Rothbard

Mises Daily: Friday, July 28, 2000 by

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Not a news event passes when anyone who knew him doesn't wonder: what would Rothbard say about this? It's a fun game to play, because Murray provided the outstanding example of how adherence to principles, and strategic application of principles, work themselves out in the real world. Reading or hearing his take on the passing scene was always a radicalizing experience. His turn of mind smashed through conventional categories of thought, made us acutely aware of injustice, and inspired us to throw ourselves into the intellectual battle.

Rothbard's principles were, of course, consistent from the time he put pen to paper, and they made him a lightning rod for controversy and the standard by which all pro-liberty thought is measured to this day. But it was often the application of the principles, as much as the principles themselves, that earned him passionate detractors and defenders. His enemies were also driven crazy by his unfailing good humor: he was completely unflappable, always found joy in smashing evil, and somehow always won in the end.

The Clearest Picture Yet

Rothbard was, as the title of Justin Raimondo's new biography says: An Enemy of the State (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2000). He was also the architect of the body of thought known around the world as libertarianism. This radically anti-state political philosophy unites free-market economics of the Austrian School, a no-exceptions attachment to private property rights, a profound concern for human liberty, and a love of peace, with the conclusion that society should be completely free to develop absent any interference from the state, which can and should be eliminated.

Rothbard worked his entire life to shore up this ideological apparatus, in economic theory, historical studies, political ethics, cultural criticism, and movement organizing. As Raimondo says, no biography can be complete without coming to terms with the simultaneous occurrence of all these professional contributions-a tough job when you are dealing with a legacy that includes 25 books and tens of thousands of articles. This is the first account of his life that valiantly struggles to treat them all between two covers, though in the end even Raimondo too must specialize, in this case on Rothbard the cultural-political commentator and organizer.

Appearing five years after the death of the most compelling public intellectual in the latter half of the 20th century, this volume presents the clearest picture we have yet of the man whose life and work is today the subject of new scholarly and popular attention. The book does more than present biographical details and assess his intellectual contributions. Raimondo recognizes that Rothbard was the subject of enormous controversy in his life, controversy that has continued and even escalated since his death.

"If ever the antipode of the Court Intellectual existed," Raimondo writes, "then surely his name was Murray Newton Rothbard." True indeed. Even today, radical thinkers are tolerated insofar as they stick to high theory. But this was not Rothbard's way. He never remained aloof from the passing scene: I've seen 30-page private memos from Murray written weeks before elections evaluating candidates in even the smallest House races (this was at a time when politics mattered more than it does now). It was in his application that he instructed us not only in the ideals we should seek, but also in the all-important area of how we might go about achieving them, and do so without compromising ideals.

Applied Radicalism

In 1952, for example, Rothbard (at the age of 28) was very concerned about what was happening to the American Right. The old isolationist, libertarian, anti-New Deal forces were being shoved aside in favor of a new breed of Cold Warriors agitating to use the state against Russia, our ally in war only a few years earlier. How could conservatives champion small government and also call for vastly expanded nuclear weapons and a US global empire? He kept asking the question but not getting satisfactory answers. Barely beginning his career as an economist and public intellectual, he flew into the opposition mode.

"What we really have to combat is all statism, and not just the Communist brand," Rothbard wrote in a column appearing in the periodical Faith and Freedom. "Taking up arms against one set of socialists is not the way to stop socialism-indeed it is bound to increase socialism as all modern wars have done" (p. 72). China should be recognized. Nuclear weapons should be dismantled. Not one dime should be spent building the US empire. As for the "captive nations" problem, Rothbard suggested that the US free its own: Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico!

The election of 1956 pitted Dwight Eisenhower against Adlai Stevenson, both of whom offered statist domestic policies. But Stevenson was against conscription and less pro-war, and thus garnered Rothbard's support, the moral priority being the prevention of another massacre of young men. Rothbard even worked the phones from the Stevenson campaign headquarters in Manhattan. His turn against the Republicans got him tossed off the Faith and Freedom masthead, led him to appeal leftward for allies, and sparked a lifelong war with William Buckley and the mainstream of the conservative movement.

Very little changed throughout his life. He was radically in favor of free markets and radically opposed to war, a wholly consistent opponent of the welfare-warfare state. But in the intellectual-political history of 1952-1989, there was no place for such a person. Official opinion required philosophical inconsistency, and the segmentation of intellectual camps followed the same course.

Idealist and Strategist

So Rothbard often had to make political decisions by weighing the foreign-policy question against a candidate's domestic program. For example, let's fast forward forty years to the presidential elections of the 1990s. Pat Buchanan challenged George Bush for the Republican nomination, saying that Bush had made two unforgivable errors: he waged an unjust war against Iraq and he raised taxes. Did Rothbard support Buchanan? You bet. And he worked overtime trying to get Buchanan up to speed on broader economic issues while defending him against the ridiculous charges of the left.

But Buchanan lost the nomination, and refused to pursue a third-party option. Rothbard then turned to Perot as the candidate worth rooting for, and on the same grounds: Perot blasted Bush's war and his taxes. Then Perot suddenly pulled out. That left Bush and Clinton, whose foreign policy was no different from Bush's but whose domestic policy was worse.

Rothbard then supported Bush against Clinton. His very controversial column appeared in the Los Angeles Times, and it garnered more hate mail than Rothbard had received in his life. Many libertarians (not famous for strategic acumen or catching the subtleties of such matters) were shocked by his non-interest in the LP nominee. But by that time, Rothbard was convinced that the LP was running a presidential campaign in name only, that it was a clique devoted not to politics but to lifestyle.

Had Rothbard become a Republican? Far from it: two years later he blasted Newt Gingrich in the Washington Post even before the new Republican Congress under Newt's leadership had assembled. Had he become a Buchananite? Take a look at his 1995 piece, reprinted in The Irrepressible Rothbard, in which he predicts that in 1996 Pat would concentrate on protectionism to the exclusion of every other important subject. He was getting trapped into "becoming just another variety of 'Lane Kirkland Republican'." That article sent the Buchananites through the roof. But it foreshadowed the fall of yet another promising political force.

The point that few people could fully grasp about Rothbard was his complete independence of mind. He had one party to which he was unfailingly loyal: the party of liberty. All institutions, candidates, and intellectuals were measured by their adherence to that standard and their ability to promote it. Neither did he make (as the old conservative cliché has it) the "perfect the enemy of the good," as his argument for Bush over Clinton demonstrates. He was always eager to prevent the greater evil in the course of advancing human liberty.

Indeed, Rothbard was a tough-as-nails strategist and thinker, one who was breathtakingly creative as an intellectual force but refused blind devotion to conventional wisdom or any institution or individual that promoted it.

Liberty from the Beginning

Raimondo produces letters and articles from Rothbard's earliest writings showing that he had mapped out most of his life's work. That goes for his attachment to Austro-free-market theory, his anarcho-capitalism, his devotion to natural rights, his love of the Old Right political paradigm, his optimistic outlook for liberty, his hatred of war, his essential Americanism, and even his reactionary cultural outlook. The ideas were all developed throughout the course of his life, but the seeds seemed to be there from the beginning. The attacks were too. Ralph Lord Roy's 1953 book Apostles of Discord blasted some early Rothbard articles as dangerously supporting "unregulated laissez-faire capitalism." Exactly. He learned, he developed, he elaborated, but he never made a fundamental shift.

Rothbard never claimed complete originality. His economic theories came from the work of Ludwig von Mises, his political ethical views from the Jeffersonian-Thomist tradition, his foreign policy from the American Old Right, his anarchism from the Tucker-Nock American tradition of political radicalism. What Rothbard did was draw them together into a complete and coherent apparatus, and anchor them, as had never been done before, to a complete theory of private property. This is his unique contribution, and Raimondo demonstrates it. Austrian economics and libertarian theory might not have survived into the 21st century but for Rothbard's work. And that doesn't count his hundreds of micro-discoveries along the way.

And though libertarianism is the idea for which he is most well known, Rothbard wrote volumes and volumes of economic history and economic theory having nothing expressly to do with libertarian theory, or political advocacy, except to the extent that they dovetailed with the rest of his research program. For example, even as he was engaged in political polemics in the 1950s and early 1960s against the Buckley takeover of the Right, he was writing Man, Economy, and State, as well as long scholarly pieces for the economic journals. He was accused of pamphleteering early on, but his scholarship kept pace with his journalism, as if there were two or three Rothbards working continuously.

An Active Intellectual

It's been said that Rothbard would have had more influence had he stuck to high theory. But like Mises, Rothbard believed in waging a multi-front battle. But Rothbard himself granted that his course was not wise, if what he sought was professional advancement. As he explained in a letter to Robert Kephart:

"Bob, old and wiser...heads have been giving me similar advice all my life, and I'm sure all that advice was right....When I was a young libertarian starting out, I was advised by Leonard Read: 'Only be critical of bad measures, not of the people advocating them.' It's OK to criticize government regulation, but not the people advocating them. One big trouble with that is that then people remain ignorant of the ruling class, and the fact that Business often pushes regulatory measures to cartelize the system, so I went ahead and named names....

"Then, when I became an anarchist, I was advised, similarly: 'Forget this anarchist stuff. It will injure your career, and ruin your scholarly image as a laissez-faire Austrian.' I of course didn't follow that perfectly accurate advice. Then, come the late 1950s, I was advised by friends: 'For god's-sakes, forget this peace crap. Stick to economics, that's your scholarly area anyway. Everybody is against this peace stuff, and it will kill your scholarly image, and ruin you with the conservative movement.' Which of course is exactly what happened. And then: 'Don't attack Friedman directly. Just push Austrianism.' And 'don't push Austrianism too hard, so you can be part of one big free-market economics family.'

"So you see, Bob, my deviation from proper attention to my career image is lifelong, and it is too late to correct at this point. I'm sure that if, in Ralph [Raico]'s phrase, I had been 'careful,' and followed wise advice, I would now be basking in lots of money, prestige, and ambiance.... Why did I take the wrong course?... If there had been lots of libertarians who were anarchists, lots who were antiwar, lots who named names of the ruling elite, lots attacking Hoover, Friedman, etc., I might not have made all these choices, figuring that these important tasks were being well taken care of anyway, so I may as well concentrate on my own 'positioning.' But at each step I looked around and saw indeed that nobody else was doing it. So then it was up to me" (p. 241-43).

At the same time, his scientific work never lagged. After Man, Economy, and State and America's Great Depression in early 1960s, a careful examination of his 100-page bibliography reveals that he wrote for the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences in 1968, and his articles "Lange, Mises, and Praxeology," "Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor," and "Ludwig von Mises: Paradigm for our Age" appeared in 1971, and, in 1972, he had chapters in several scholarly books on World War I, Herbert Hoover, and economic method. So it goes in 1973, the year he wrote a long piece on method for a volume devoted to phenomenology (oh, yes, he also came out with For a New Liberty that year), and several more articles for economic journals.

And in 1975, the first and second volumes of Conceived in Liberty came out-a detailed narrative history of the Colonial period. A year later, fully eight long scholarly pieces appeared, as well as another volume of Conceived. On and on it goes throughout his career (including his studies of Fetter's interest rate theory in 1977, his three seminal pieces on Austrian theory for the first post-Mises books on Austrian theory, his introduction to Mises's Theory of Money and Credit in 1981, his eight large scholarly pieces on economic theory in 1987 (including his many entries in the Palgrave, etc. etc.), culminating in his two-volume History of Economic Thought, which Raimondo regards as his crowning achievement.

Simultaneously, Rothbard kept plugging away on extending the libertarian framework, with pieces throughout the 1970s (one on punishment is cited and extended in Randy Barnett's new book on libertarian legal theory). "Society Without a State" appeared in 1978, "Quest for the Historical Mises" appeared in 1981, and, most importantly, The Ethics of Liberty appeared in 1982. "World War I as Fulfillment"--one of his most radical pieces ever--appeared in 1989, and, of course, throughout the 1980s, he was blasting away at Ronald Reagan's foreign and domestic policy (a time when many ex-libertarians were cozying up to the government).

It's also said that he allowed Libertarian Party activities to distract him from scholarship. But even during the worst of the battles (1979-1983), he wrote and published The Mystery of Banking and The Ethics of Liberty "in addition to several major scholarly articles, and was simultaneously researching a book on the Progressive era in American history" (manuscript in the archives of the Mises Institute). "How he managed this level of productivity while engaged in this increasingly acrimonious dispute is a testament to the scale of his intellectual gifts," Raimondo writes.

Raimondo's book also puts in perspective his "New Left Period." It was an attempt to seek soldiers for the libertarian cause within the ranks of the Left because it was here you found the anti-statism of the day: the complaints about federal police, the anti-draft protests, the anti-war sentiment, war revisionism, the praise of civil disobedience, and all the rest. Murray worked to find the best parts of the New Left and steer its leadership to a pure position. It didn't work, though it didn't entirely fail either. In any case, it was the best hope he had at the time.

After 1989, Rothbard saw that the opening to his ideas rested with the rise of middle class populism, as the popular writings from the 1990s, as collected in The Irrepressible Rothbard, show. Many of them consist of attacks on the mainstream of right-wing organizations, particularly the welfare-warfarism of the neoconservatives. He saw that the Left was becoming committed to "humanitarian imperialism" after the destruction of the Soviet Union, while the grass-roots Right was becoming isolationist on foreign policy. He sought to encourage this trend. In the meantime, a dozen articles in mainstream venues have taken notice of the very rise of isolationist sentiment that Rothbard noted earlier than anyone else. To a surprising degree, he was responsible for turning a trend into a movement, especially among a new generation of scholars and political activists who had no intellectual investment in Cold-War political opinion.

Raimondo demonstrates the acuity of his strategic thinking even in some of his most controversial moves to reach out to the Left and reach out to the Right. In its time, each move made sense and fit with the overall strategic plan. In fact, one of Rothbard's seminal contributions was developing libertarian strategy (a point neglected on the Right). Moreover, Raimondo also shows that his detractors, who were always anxious to sell out to the powers-that-be, invariably flamed out.

Rothbardianism: Still Growing

Throughout his life, Murray read voraciously and never stopped learning from the good scholarship of those working in many fields. He was always on the cutting edge of the newest valuable literature, drawing the attention of libertarian scholars toward recent discoveries in historical scholarship, economic theory, and philosophical reflection. He also acquired knowledge during his forays with diverse ideological groups: from the Left he came to fully appreciate the power of protest and from the paleoconservatives he came to fully appreciate the political implications of cultural institutions as well as the moral necessity of decentralized politics. Moreover, he was ever-anxious to credit those around him for insights, as a quick glance at his footnotes indicates.

Meanwhile, the scholarly branch of Rothbardianism is so huge, interdisciplinary and international, I can no longer keep up with it. Not a week goes by when new translations of his work do not appear. And his books keep coming out, selling well, and staying in print. As you read Raimondo, you are struck by how far and wide this man's influence extended (and extends!) in the world-wide classical liberal movement. He was the founder of the Cato Institute and the Center for Libertarian Studies, the editor of the Journal of Libertarian Studies, the founder of the first Austrian School economics journal, the inspiration behind the Mises Institute, the muse at the New Individualist Review, the leader of the split in YAF, the motivator behind the whole libertarian movement, the recruiter for Mises's seminar, and much more. His speeches appeared in amazing places, from Joe McCarthy rallies to the floor of Congress. His "Circle Bastiat" provided the intellectual infrastructure for decades of growth in the movement.

Enemy of the State goes way beyond documenting the life and work of Rothbard. Raimondo argues for Murray's strategic judgement in a huge range of political and ideological controversies. He also explains why Rothbard was so hated and attacked during his lifetime: he was the victim of envious and unprincipled types who couldn't stand his willingness to speak truth to power. And yet Rothbard always maintained his cheerfulness, productivity, and optimistic outlook. Raimondo rightly gives much credit for this to Murray's wife of almost 40 years, JoAnn. He called her, in a dedication, "the indispensable framework," and indeed she was.

On a personal note, I knew Murray very well during his life, and no biography, not even this one, can fully capture all the reasons I had such profound respect and love for this man. And yet, Raimondo worked very hard to make this book fair and comprehensive, an authentic reflection of the man. There will be other biographies forthcoming, but the success of this one will endure in many, many areas: it is energetic, well-researched, factual (the few mistakes have no bearing on the thesis), and achieves something of a balance between advocacy and pure biography.

Reading it, you can't help but thrill at how this book will affect a new generation of readers, giving them a fresh perspective on post-war intellectual and political history and also inspiring them to radical thinking in defense of human liberty. Even if you have never heard of Murray Rothbard, you will be drawn to his life, his mind, his spirit. To understand his times and ours, you must have this book.

As Raimondo concludes: "Whether it is exercised upon the minds of this generation, or the next, the liberating force of Rothbard's ideas is gathering momentum. He built a monument to liberty, a mighty edifice that towers over the horizon and cannot be ignored-a challenge and a reproach to the guardians of the status quo, and an inspiration to the revolutionaries of tomorrow."

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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of LewRockwell.com. Send him MAIL.

See also The Rothbard Bibliography.

All his book are available through Mises.org's Online Catalog.