In Defense of Rothbard
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.
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
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
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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See also The Rothbard Bibliography.
All his book are available through Mises.org's Online Catalog.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.