Still the State's Greatest Living Enemy
The more time you spend with Austrian economists or libertarian intellectuals, the more you realize that Murray Rothbard's influence has been underestimated. No, his name is not a household word (yet) but his influence is felt in another way: those who read him experience what amounts to the intellectual challenge of their lives. Whether that means adopting his paradigmatic approach to political economy, elaborating on a feature of his system, or attempting a refutation, once read, Rothbard seems inescapable.
These pages have already documented , on the tenth anniversary of his death, the way in which his influence is increasing, and dramatically so. It is also a good time to revisit Justin Raimondo's spirited and compelling biography of Rothbard: Enemy of the State, which came out on the fifth anniversary. (You can purchase this book, and you should, from Mises.org's catalog for $35.) This neglected book reconstructs postwar intellectual history with attention to Rothbard's contribution. The author himself was a player in many of Rothbard's post-1970 ideological struggles so the reader can enjoy a box seat at some of the most exciting debates of the period.
Rothbard's principles were, of course, consistent from the time he first 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.
Rothbard was the architect of the body of thought known around the world as libertarianism. This radically anti-state political philosophy unites free-market economics, 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 an outstanding 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.
"If ever the antipode of the Court Intellectual existed," Raimondo writes, "then surely his name was Murray Newton Rothbard." 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 as it had existed between the wars. The old isolationist, classical-liberal, 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 wasn't 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." 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 (sound familiar?). 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.
So Rothbard often had to make political decisions by weighing the foreign-policy question against a candidate's domestic program. Let's fast-forward 40 years, for example, 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 cheer Buchanan? You bet. And he worked overtime trying to get Buchanan up to speed on broader economic issues while defending him against the wrong-headed 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 rooted for Bush against Clinton. His very controversial column appeared in the Los Angeles Times, and it garnered more hate mail than Rothbard had ever 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 Libertarian Party 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 real political education but to organizational maintenance.
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. Such a man is bound to make enemies. Hardly a day goes by when I don't run across some wild misunderstanding of his life and work, some outrageous calumny spread by those who know he can no longer answer them, some baseless theory claiming to be an extension of Rothbardian ethics, or, worse, a wildly distorted presentation of history that misrepresents Rothbard's role in some political affair.
It's usually best to not pay attention to these trivialists. As Raimondo points out, "he was a giant among pygmies, too large to be consumed by the struggle with his errant followers." There's no reason why today's Rothbardians should be consumed by the claims against him either. And yet, a main virtue of this book is precisely that it debunks a room-full of myths about the man, and it does so not with conjecture, but with primary documentation. Let's consider a few.
He wasn't consistent. Raimondo produces letters and articles from his 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.
He wasn't original. Rothbard never claimed complete originality, as his attackers imply. 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. Yes, he was original, and he always underestimated the originality and power of his ideas.
He was just an ideologue. 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. Raimondo also skewers the claim that Rothbard turned to non-mathematical Austrian economics because he didn't know math. Absurd! His Columbia undergraduate degree was in mathematics, with highest honors. He rejected the use of math in building economic theory on strict methodological grounds.
In any case, 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.
He had no lasting influence. 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 Center for Libertarian Studies, the founding 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, the person who named the Cato Institute, 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. The world today is populated by Rothbardians, and they are wielding surprising influence.
He should have stuck to high theory. The implication here is that Rothbard would have had greater influence had he not reached out to popular audiences. That's nonsense. 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."
He quit doing serious economics after the early 1960s. This accusation seems to credit the greatness of Man, Economy, and State and America's Great Depression from the early 1960s, but suggests that he peaked in these years and went downhill from there. This charge can only be sustained by failing to carefully examine his 100-page bibliography. 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.
He abandoned radical libertarianism after the early 1970s. This is the opposite charge from the one made above, made by people who were irritated that he did not keep writing For A New Liberty again and again. But in fact, 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).
He didn't do any serious scholarly work after the late 1970s. This is another related charge, and it is equally as absurd. Take a look at Edward Elgar's Logic of Action, a two-volume collection of his scientific writing appearing in that publisher's Economists of the Century series. Most of the pieces come from the 1980s and 1990s, when he was, if possible, more productive than he had been during any other period. Also, see above.
He allowed Libertarian activities to distract him from scholarship. This line is repeated by those who were actively involved with his struggles over the leadership of the Libertarian Party. Certainly those battles consumed his enemies. There are even times when these activities threaten to consume Raimondo! But, as he points out, during the worst of the battles (1979–1983), Rothbard 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.
Some respond: but if he hadn't been involved in these petty political struggles, how much more might he have produced! This is a fallacy. For Rothbard, activism of this sort was a habit, a means of relaxation, a source for diverting his energies in order to replenish them for the heavy lifting he had to do. It is as silly to imagine "what might have been" as it is to think what the average person could accomplish at work if he never had to sleep. By the way, Rothbard also spent countless hours reading about chess, attending classes on music and architecture, watching his beloved soap operas, and keeping up with sports. Are we to say that these "distracted" him, or should we say that they made him a well-rounded person?
He left libertarianism to become a leftist in the 1960s. Raimondo's book puts all this in perspective, at long last. The upshot: Murray never became a leftist. Again, his views never changed. His "New Left Period" had nothing to do with hippies; 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.
He departed libertarianism during his paleo period. Again, Murray never left libertarianism. He did leave the Libertarian Party and its surrounding movement (including the DC crowd trying to ingratiate itself with the state) in 1989. I was there when Murray was hooted down during a convention when he rose to speak on behalf of his candidate for party chairman. Yes, it's true: outrageously, they booed him because his candidate was too bourgeois and too middle class, despite being politically radical. Recall that 1989 was the year the Cold War ended, and a new opening appeared to achieve Rothbard's dream of bringing about a middle-class revolution against the state. He saw that the Libertarian Party was not the vehicle for doing this. Might his judgment have changed later?
In later years, he sucked up to the Right. This is a very odd claim given that most of his popular writings from the 1990s, as collected in The Irrepressible Rothbard, consist of attacks on the mainstream of right-wing individuals and organizations, particularly the welfare-warfarism of the neoconservatives. This claim also fails to understand a point that Raimondo hammers again and again: foreign policy was a top concern for Rothbard. 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. As for his Confederate sympathies, he was calling Lincoln the "butcher of the South" in the early fifties, just as John T. Flynn, Mencken, and Nock did in earlier generations.
He was a great theorist but a terrible strategist. Also absurd. 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. Moreover, Raimondo also shows that his detractors, who were always anxious to sell out to the powers-that-be, invariably flamed out. Raimondo only takes issue with one strategic judgment Rothbard made over a particularly bitter LP nomination fight, but even here he provides the reader with enough information so that you can see it from Rothbard's point of view.
He loved Khrushchev and was objectively pro-communist. This accusation circulated in the 1960s and resurfaced in Bill Buckley's bitter and malevolent obituary of his old nemesis. "Rothbard physically applauded Khrushchev in his limousine as it passed by on the street," wrote Buckley. Nonsense. What was at issue was Rothbard's refusal to join the ridiculous National Review campaign to whip up a protest against Khrushchev's visit to the US (taken, we now know, over the vociferous objections of hard-liners in the Kremlin). Raimondo quotes Rothbard noting that Buckley and Co. are always eager to extend their hand to any other "Bloody Butcher" in the world, including "Winston Churchill, Bloody Butcher of the refugees of Dresden, and countless others." Rothbard refused to join Buckley's call for "a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores" to fight the Cold War, and for that, Buckley never forgave him. (A must read: the epilogue skewering Buckley's obit point by point.)
He broke with former friends. The implication behind this attack is that Murray was a nasty guy who liked to stab people in the back. Raimondo shows that Rothbard's legendary breaks—including those with Rand, with Cato, with the LP, with the Buckleyite Right, etc.—were of two types: people stabbing him in the back or Rothbard getting fed up with a long series of despicable sellouts. There were no other kinds of breaks, and, actually, the reader will be surprised at how long-suffering Rothbard proved to be, especially considering the characters and nonsense he was confronted with.
It may seem a petty point, but Raimondo's book very ably demonstrates this long-suppressed truth. Moreover, he shows that Rothbard was often the victim of campaigns against him, whereby former associates tried to wield their influence to suppress his writings. A very special treat is the truth about the Cato-Rothbard split, in print for the first time: Rothbard couldn't take the growing conventionalism of the outfit. Obviously, Rothbard's instincts were born out by later events: he would have left anyway when Cato starting backing vouchers, new long-range bombers, forced savings, etc.
He talked Karl Hess into not paying taxes, thereby ruining his life. This charge, which first emerged in an early draft of Hess's autobiography and has otherwise circulated for years, is outrageous on the face of it. Murray cheered on every tax revolt, but he never counseled anyone to be a personal martyr. You can do very little work for liberty from jail, he used to say. Raimondo brilliantly quotes from an old book of Hess's describing the moment he became a tax protestor, and it had nothing to do with Rothbard's urgings and everything to do with Hess's penchant for making bad judgment calls out of anger.
He became a Buchananite. When Pat Buchanan criticized Bush's war and tax increases, and was smeared as an anti-Semite, Rothbard rose to his defense. He also worked to turn Buchanan into a consistent libertarian, or at least to make him into the model of what he claimed to be: an Old Right isolationist constitutionalist. Raimondo points out that Rothbard was frustrated that he did not achieve his goal.
Further, he points out that Rothbard "chided Buchanan for being a classic case of the old adage that some people (especially politicians) often concentrate on those issues in which they have the least expertise; in Buchanan's case, this is undoubtedly the realm of economics." Special credit goes to Raimondo for pointing this out, since he is personally far more favorable to Buchanan than Rothbard was from 1992 forward.
He abandoned libertarianism for the Christian Right. How tedious! Rothbard wrote for conservative Christian publications in the early 1950s and onward because he saw in Christianity a devotion to law and morality, not of state but of transcendent origin. Early memos even have Rothbard praising Catholicism for its implicit universalist anarchism as opposed to the nationalist-statist strains in Protestant history. Moreover, Rothbard showed how the demands of the rank-and-file Christian Right were mostly libertarian: keep government out of our churches, families, communities, and schools. Even today, libertarians have yet to understand the potential for strategic alliances here.
He worshiped Mises. Absurd. Raimondo quotes affectionate letters about Mises, and demonstrates that Rothbard saw Mises as the greatest living economist. But he also worked to improve Mises in many areas, including utility theory, the economics of law and intervention, public goods, and many other areas, giving rise to the claim that...
He departed from Mises. Raimondo further shows that Rothbard was far and above Mises's leading expositor and defender, in economic theory and policy. They had a warm relationship. Mises, moreover, had the greatest respect for Rothbard as a man and an economist.
He changed his view of immigration. Actually, Rothbard held the same position his whole life: there is no right to immigrate (as he writes in Ethics of Liberty) but rather immigration should be by invitation, not invasion, as consistent private-property rights economics would dictate. In the exact opposite of what a market policy would be, the state forbids invited people to immigrate, but invites millions with no invitation from property owners.
He refused to learn from others. 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 right, 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. Books, articles, dissertations, and more: Rothbard lives today as never before.
Enemy of the State goes way beyond documenting the life and work of Rothbard. Raimondo argues for Murray's strategic judgment 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.
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."
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.