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Conservatism Turned Upside Down

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09/17/2007Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

It is a cliché of publishing to observe, when a book appears before the public years after it was first written, that it is more relevant now than ever. But it is difficult to think of how else The Betrayal of the American Right can be described. Murray N. Rothbard chronicles the emergence of an American right wing that gave lip service to free-market principles and "limited government," but whose first priority, for which it was willing to sacrifice anything else, was military interventionism around the world. That sounds familiar, to be sure, but as Rothbard shows, it is neither recent nor anomalous. It goes back to the very beginnings of the organized conservative movement in the 1950s.

Since this book is likely to reach beyond Rothbard's traditional audience, an initial word about the author is in order. Murray N. Rothbard was a scholar and polymath of such extraordinary productivity as almost to defy belief. His Man, Economy, and State, a 1000-page treatise on economic principles, was one of the great contributions to the so-called Austrian School of economics. For a New Liberty became the standard libertarian manifesto. In The Ethics of Liberty Rothbard set out the philosophical implications of the idea of self-ownership. He told the story of colonial America in his four-volume Conceived in Liberty. His America's Great Depression, now in a fifth edition, used the explanatory power of the Austrian theory of the business cycle to show that monetary interventionism, rather than "capitalism," was to blame for that catastrophe.

He also wrote a great many groundbreaking articles. To name just two: "Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics" laid out a distinctly Austrian approach to the contentious area of welfare economics, and "Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution" may be the best brief Austrian contribution to the study of law and economics. In addition to his 25 books and three thousand articles, which spanned several disciplines, Rothbard also taught economics, edited two academic journals and several popular periodicals, wrote movie reviews, and carried on a mountain of correspondence with a diverse array of American intellectuals.

Even this overview of Rothbard's work cannot do justice to his legendary productivity. But we learn a great deal about Murray N. Rothbard from a simple fact: more Rothbard books have appeared since his death than most college professors publish in a lifetime. Two volumes of An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, which Rothbard had been working on at the time of his death, were released in 1995. The Logic of Action (1997) consisted of a thousand pages of Rothbard's scholarly articles, now conveniently available for the general public. A History of Money and Banking in the United States (2002) brought together much of Rothbard's important work in monetary history, much of which had previously been available only in scholarly journals or as chapters in books long out of print. It may as well have been a brand new Rothbard book.

It wasn't only Rothbard's scholarly work that was assembled into handsome volumes and made available for general consumption; his popular writing began to appear in new collections as well. Making Economic Sense (1995) collected a hundred of Rothbard's shorter economic articles in a book that can instruct and entertain beginner and specialist alike. A 20,000-word article Rothbard had written for a small-circulation investment newsletter became the 1995 Center for Libertarian Studies monograph Wall Street, Banks, and American Foreign Policy. The Irrepressible Rothbard (2000) assembled some of Rothbard's contributions to the Rothbard-Rockwell Report of the 1990s, where we encounter the master at his funniest and, at times, his most scathing.

The present book, however, consists of material being made available to the public for the very first time. The manuscript was written in the 1970s, as Rothbard points out in the preface, and went through periodic edits and additions over the years as publication opportunities arose. Each time, though, unforeseen circumstances interfered with the book's release, and so it is finally appearing only now, under the Mises Institute's imprint.

To be sure, Rothbard had written published articles on the Old Right: in the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Continuum, and the Rothbard-Rockwell Report, among other venues. But here he tells the full story, from the point of view of someone who was not only a witness to these events but also an important participant.

What was this Old Right, anyway? Rothbard describes it as a diverse band of opponents of the New Deal at home and interventionism abroad. More a loose coalition than a self-conscious "movement," the Old Right drew inspiration from the likes of H.L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock, and featured such writers, thinkers, and journalists as Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, John T. Flynn, Garet Garrett, Felix Morley, and the Chicago Tribune's Colonel Robert McCormick. They did not describe or think of themselves as conservatives: they wanted to repeal and overthrow, not conserve.

A 1992 Rothbard retrospective on the Old Right drew out its principles:

If we know what the Old Right was against, what were they for? In general terms, they were for a restoration of the liberty of the Old Republic, of a government strictly limited to the defense of the rights of private property. In the concrete, as in the case of any broad coalition, there were differences of opinion within this overall framework. But we can boil down those differences to this question: how much of existing government would you repeal? How far would you roll government back?

The minimum demand which almost all Old Rightists agreed on, which virtually defined the Old Right, was total abolition of the New Deal, the whole kit and kaboodle of the welfare state, the Wagner Act, the Social Security Act, going off gold in 1933, and all the rest. Beyond that, there were charming disagreements. Some would stop at repealing the New Deal. Others would press on, to abolition of Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom, including the Federal Reserve System and especially that mighty instrument of tyranny, the income tax and the Internal Revenue Service. Still others, extremists such as myself, would not stop until we repealed the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789, and maybe even think the unthinkable and restore the good old Articles of Confederation.

In addition to being a history of the Old Right, this book is the closest thing to an autobiography of this extraordinary man that readers can expect to see. It is not just a history of the Old Right, or of the anti-interventionist tradition in America. It is the story — at least in part — of Rothbard's own political and intellectual development: the books he read, the people he met, the friends he made, the organizations he joined, and so much more.

Rothbard's discussion of his intellectual evolution begins with his days as a young boy and carries through his time in Ludwig von Mises's New York seminar (from which so many important libertarian thinkers would emerge), his early writing career and his libertarian activism, all the way through his interaction with the New Left in the 1960s. We accompany Rothbard during the moment when he discovers he can no longer be a minimal-state libertarian, or minarchist, and we learn exactly what it was that led him into anarchism. He discusses his derivation (on the basis of the non-aggression principle) of peace and nonintervention as libertarian principles, his evolving political allegiances in the 1950s in light of his resolute noninterventionism, and his attraction to the forbidden subject of Cold War revisionism.

Still, we cannot overlook or underestimate the importance of this book as a work of history. Rothbard fills a crucial gap both in the history of American foreign policy as well as in the histories of American conservatism and libertarianism. In fact, we can go even further: The Betrayal of the American Right is an important missing chapter in the received story of America. Important if long-forgotten thinkers, writers, and activists spring to life once again in these pages. Any number of topics for research papers and even full-length books might be gleaned from the issues Rothbard raises here.

It is safe to say that very few Americans, conservatives included — indeed, especially conservatives — know that some of the most consistent and outspoken opponents of Harry Truman's early Cold War measures were budget-conscious Republicans, ideologically averse to international crusades. Senator Robert A. Taft, for instance, was the most prominent, if perhaps the least consistent, of the Republican noninterventionists who greeted Harry Truman's early Cold War policies with skepticism. Taft was critical of the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO, each of which he viewed as either unnecessarily provocative or ruinously expensive. Taft, along with lesser-known figures from the House and Senate like George Bender, Howard Buffett, and Kenneth Wherry, constituted the political arm of the Old Right.

Contrary to the erroneous impression of left-liberalism as antiwar and peace loving, voices of mainstream liberalism adopted the standard interventionist line against the "isolationist" heretic: Taft, wrote the prominent liberal columnist Richard Rovere, was an unsuitable presidential candidate in 1948 since the next president "should be an executive of the human race … who will boldly champion freedom before the world and for the world … [which] Taft simply could not do." Likewise, The Nation called Taft and his allies in Congress "super-appeasers" whose policies "should set the bells ringing in the Kremlin."1

Naturally, for his efforts, Rothbard was himself red-baited from time to time by people on the Right. That his anti-Communist credentials were as bulletproof as one could ask for hardly seemed to matter: he opposed the global anti-Communist crusade, and that was what counted. Ironically, it was precisely Rothbard's contempt for Communism that persuaded him that an ongoing military campaign against it, one that would surely have terrible short- and long-term consequences for American society and government (not to mention the mischief it could cause abroad), was actually unnecessary: Ludwig von Mises had already shown the insuperable obstacles that confronted truly socialist economies; and the Soviet Union's acquisition of a string of satellites each of which was an economic basket case in need of subsidy did not seem like an especially menacing imperial strategy.

Old Right members of Congress like Howard Buffett argued, to the cheers of Rothbard, that the cause of freedom in the world was to be advanced by the force of American example rather than by the force of arms, and that American interventionism would play into the hands of Soviet propaganda that portrayed the United States as a self-interested imperialist rather than a disinterested advocate for mankind.

Here was the traditional libertarian position, drawn from the great statesmen of the nineteenth century, the era of classical liberalism. Thus Richard Cobden, the great British classical liberal, had once said,

England, by calmly directing her undivided energies to the purifying of her own internal institutions, to the emancipation of her commerce … would, by thus serving as it were for the beacon of other nations, aid more effectually the cause of political progression all over the continent than she could possibly do by plunging herself into the strife of European wars.2

Likewise, Henry Clay, not himself a classical liberal, nevertheless summed up the practically unanimous opinion of mid-nineteenth-century America:

By the policy to which we have adhered since the days of Washington … we have done more for the cause of liberty than arms could effect; we have shown to other nations the way to greatness and happiness…. Far better is it for ourselves, for Hungary, and the cause of liberty, that, adhering to our pacific system and avoiding the distant wars of Europe, we should keep our lamp burning brightly on this western shore, as a light to all nations, than to hazard its utter extinction amid the ruins of fallen and falling republics in Europe.3

This was the principle in which Rothbard continued to believe.

What we laughingly call the "conservative movement" today has little incentive to remind people of the skeptics of interventionism to be found among conservative Republicans in the Truman years. In these pages Rothbard makes a compelling case that the Right's embrace of global interventionism was not inevitable, but was instead the result of contingent factors: the deaths of key representatives of the Old Right at particularly inauspicious moments, the organizational skill of the opposition, and internal difficulties within Old Right institutions.

But it isn't just modern conservatism that is at fault for the disappearance of the Old Right down the Orwellian memory hole. Libertarians, too, must in some cases share the blame. In the late 1970s, Rothbard was personally responsible for inserting the noninterventionist plank into the Libertarian Party platform — at a time when, to his amazement, foreign policy seemed to arouse relatively little interest among libertarians. The 2003 Iraq war was justified on the basis of propaganda worthy of the old Pravda; that people calling themselves libertarians — who, after all, are supposed to have an eye for government propaganda — swallowed the government's case whole suggests that the problem has not altogether disappeared. (One can only imagine what Mencken, one of Rothbard's heroes, would have had to say about that war, its architects, and an American population that continued to believe the discredited WMD claims long after everyone, on all sides, had agreed the charges were false.)

Rothbard's cooperation with the New Left in the 1960s has aroused much interest and some criticism. With the noninterventionist Right essentially routed and no institutional or publishing arm interested in noninterventionism and laissez faire, Rothbard began to look elsewhere for allies in the fight against war, which he was coming to view as the most fundamental issue of all. ("I am getting more and more convinced that the war-peace question is the key to the whole libertarian business," Rothbard had noted privately in 1956.4) Mainstream liberalism was, naturally, out of the question, since it had long since adopted the main contours of Cold War interventionism; it was liberals, as we have seen, who condemned the conservative Taft for his skepticism of foreign intervention. At this moment of intellectual isolation, Rothbard looked with interest and sympathy upon the emergence of the New Left and the libertarian instincts he found there — particularly its interest in decentralization and free speech — that he hoped could be nurtured.

Rothbard came to appreciate the work of New Left historian William Appleman Williams, and befriended a number of his students (including Ronald Radosh, with whom Rothbard later edited A New History of Leviathan,5 an important collection of essays on the corporate state). In Williams himself Rothbard found not only congenial foreign-policy analysis, but also important hints of opposition to the central state in domestic affairs. "The core radical ideals and values of community, equality, democracy, and humaneness," Rothbard quoted Williams as saying, "simply cannot in the future be realized and sustained — nor should they be sought — through more centralization and consolidation. These radical values can most nearly be realized through decentralization and through the creation of many truly human communities. If one feels the need to go ancestor-diving in the American past and spear a tradition that is relevant to our contemporary predicament, then the prize trophy is the Articles of Confederation."6

Although themselves isolated and perhaps discouraged, there are still some voices on the Left today that bring to mind what Rothbard sought to cultivate in the New Left. Kirkpatrick Sale's words from 2006 may as well be a postscript to those of William Appleman Williams on the Articles of Confederation:

I am convinced, believe it or not, that secession — by state where the state is cohesive (the model is Vermont, where the secessionist movement is the Second Vermont Republic), or by region where that makes more sense (Southern California or Cascadia are the models here) — is the most fruitful objective for our political future. Peaceful, orderly, popular, democratic, and legal secession would enable a wide variety of governments, amenable to all shades of the anti-authoritarian spectrum, to be established within a modern political context. Such a wide variety, as I see it, that if you didn't like the place you were, you could always find a place you liked.7

For a time, Rothbard's optimism about the alliance was reciprocated. "In a strong sense, the Old Right and the New Left are morally and politically coordinate," wrote Carl Oglesby of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1967.8 What went wrong — the collapse of SDS and Rothbard's break with the whole movement — is the subject of the end of this book.

Here we encounter still another endearing aspect of The Betrayal of the American Right: Rothbard's willingness to acknowledge mistakes, or cases when things took unfortunate turns that he did not anticipate — rarities in the memoir genre. "Looking back over the experiment of alliance with the New Left," Rothbard recalled, "it also became clear that the result had in many cases been disastrous for libertarians; for, isolated and scattered as these young libertarians were, the Clarks and the Milchmans and some of the Glaser-Kansas group were soon to become leftists in fact, and in particular to abandon the very devotion to individualism, private property rights, and the free-market economy that had brought them to libertarianism, and then to the New Left alliance, in the first place." He concluded that "a cadre with no organization and with no continuing program of 'internal education' and reinforcement is bound to defect and melt away in the course of working with far stronger allies." That cadre has long since been built, of course, thanks in large part to Rothbard's own labors.

In the introduction, Rothbard speaks of a final chapter of the manuscript that brought the narrative up through the end of the Cold War and the intellectual and strategic realignments that that happy occasion made possible. That chapter, unfortunately, has not been found, and thus the story Rothbard tells here must to some degree remain incomplete. With the reappearance of a noninterventionist Right following the end of the Cold War, Rothbard's rhetoric at the time reflected an unmistakable sense of returning home. With old battle lines withering away, more opportunities than ever had begun to open up for cross-ideological cooperation among opponents of war. Questions that had not been asked in some intellectual quarters in decades — about the proper US role in the world and the moral and material dangers of foreign intervention — were once again being heard, and some of the most withering attacks on US foreign policy were coming from old-fashioned conservatives. "The Old Right is suddenly back!" a delighted Rothbard declared in 1992.

The fruits of this collaboration ultimately proved disappointing, though Rothbard forged some valuable and cherished friendships with a good many people who continue to admire and learn from him to this day. Today, formal alliances of this sort, while still strategically useful, seem much less important than they were even 15 years ago. When there is only a handful of publications and platforms sympathetic to libertarian ideas, there is a natural desire to want to forge an express alliance between libertarians and those outlets. But in the age of the Internet, when the number of outlets in which one can publish (and reach a great many people) is so high, and in which each person can have his own website and blog, libertarians can have very loud voices without erecting any formal alliance with some other group.

In a way, it may be fortuitous that The Betrayal of the American Right is appearing only now rather than 20 years ago. The folly of the Iraq war and the propaganda campaign that launched it are making even people heretofore settled in their views stop and think. Listening to Bush Administration propaganda, they can't help but wonder if that is what they themselves sounded like during the Cold War. And even if they do not share Rothbard's analysis of the Cold War, plenty of people today, anticipating with dread the endless US wars that the future appears to portend, may be willing to consider at least one important argument against Cold War interventionism: it nurtured a military-industrial complex, born in World War II, that is evidently incapable of ever being dismantled. Milton Friedman's dictum that there is nothing so permanent as a "temporary" government program has found no more striking vindication than in the American "defense" sector, which always seems to find a rationale for higher spending and more intervention.

In short, more people than ever are skeptical of the official government version of just about anything, and are open to revisiting old questions. As usual, Rothbard is prepared to ask those questions, and to follow the answers wherever they lead him.

  • 1. John Moser, "Principles Without Program: Senator Robert A. Taft and American Foreign Policy," Ohio History 108 (1999): 177–92.
  • 2. Richard Cobden, "Commerce is the Great Panacea," in The Political Writings of Richard Cobden, vol. 1, ed. F.W. Chesson (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903), p. 35.
  • 3. Ralph Raico, "American Foreign Policy — The Turning Point, 1898–1919," in The Failure of America's Foreign Wars, eds. Richard M. Ebeling and Jacob G. Hornberger (Fairfax, Va.: Future of Freedom Foundation, 1996), pp. 55–56.
  • 4. John Payne, "Rothbard's Time on the Left," Journal of Libertarian Studies 19 (Winter 2005): 9.
  • 5. Available for free download in PDF.
  • 6. Ibid., p. 14.
  • 7. Kirkpatrick Sale, roundtable contribution, The American Conservative, August 28, 2006, p. 28.
  • 8. Carl Oglesby and Richard Shaull, Containment and Change (New York: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 166–67.

Contact Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

Tom Woods, a senior fellow of the Mises Institute, is the author of a dozen books, most recently Real Dissent: A Libertarian Sets Fire to the Index Card of Allowable Opinion. Tom's articles have appeared in dozens of popular and scholarly periodicals, and his books have been translated into a dozen languages. Tom hosts the Tom Woods Show, a libertarian podcast that releases a new episode every weekday. With Bob Murphy, he co-hosts Contra Krugman, a weekly podcast that refutes Paul Krugman's New York Times column.