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Economics and the Story of Freedom

October 5, 2005

The story of freedom can't be told without economics. What a beautiful science it is, especially when it is explained by Murray Rothbard. He was one of the most brilliant historians of economic thought. He knew how capitalism was essential to the rise of modern civilization, and he told the whole story in two towering volumes called An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought.

At the Mises Institute we are so excited to be making these books available again. They were the monumental achievement of a lifetime of writing. Soon, with your help, they will again be available to students, professors, or anyone, at a good price.


If you can help us publish these volumes and make them affordable, consider the following gifts:

When these volumes first appeared, they were celebrated in Barron's and by top scholars around the world. They succeeded in changing the way people think about economic doctrine: the beginnings (not Adam Smith, but the Spanish theologians), the dead ends (Marx), the great triumphs (Bastiat, for example), and the truly great minds (Turgot and many others he rescued from near obscurity).

Rothbard read deeply in thinkers dating back hundreds and thousands of years, and spotted every promising line of thought — and every unfortunate one. He knew when an idea would lead to prosperity, and when it would lead to calamity. He could spot a proto-Keynesian or proto-Marxist idea in the middle ages, just as he could find free-market lines of thought in ancient manuscripts.

Did you know that Aristotle had refuted Plato's proto-socialist views? Or that Marx's economics were based on a crazy religious heresy? Or that Adam Smith set back the progress of economic theory? Or that many of Mises's insights had been anticipated in a little book written by the French finance minister before the revolution?

Rothbard spent a lifetime tracing the ups and downs of free-market thought, and the results appeared in these splendid volumes after his death. What a resource they have been — for those lucky enough to own copies.

Right now, however, you can hardly get them. The shortage began years ago, and now they are only intermittantly available in the used market, at prices that keep rising. But that tragedy is about to be rectified.

After ten years of struggle, the Mises Institute has finally acquired permission to print and distribute Rothbard's last masterwork. It will be an historic publishing event.

Would you consider helping? Your generous donation would assist us in printing, binding, and distributing these books, and in getting the word out about them.

Maybe you have tried to find copies of these books. When they came out ten years ago, they were offered only at the shocking price of $250.

That wasn't our idea, of course. It went along with the increasingly common strategy of selling only a few books to European institutions that don't care about the bottom line.

The Mises Institute, on the other hand, is devoted to getting the word out. Rothbard didn't live to see the books published. So we have always felt a special obligation to see to their wide distribution.

When we saw the price, we worried. And yet the interest was huge and intense. The set was reviewed by top journals. It inspired dozens of articles. It had a profound effect on historians of ideas. It showed a breadth and range that stunned even his biggest fans.

But then a terrible thing happened. Even at $250, the work became almost completely unavailable. We couldn't get copies. What copies we could get, we sold. But then availability would dry up again.

We kept having to remove the books from our catalog. Then the prices on the used market kept rising and rising. Even today, one of the volumes is impossible to find. The other can be had for close to $200 — used. In fact, the books have been more widely distributed in the Spanish translation than the English original!

That's where matters have stood until just recently. We have successfully negotiated a deal with the publisher — a costly deal for us, to be sure. But it is too important a project for us to pass up. We must get this book into the hands of students, faculty, and everyone interested in the history of ideas.

Many scholars believe this was his most important work. The irony is that it is not the work it was supposed to be, and thank goodness. He was asked to do a short overview of the modern era. He ended up writing more than 1,000 pages of original ideas that remade the whole of intellectual history up through the late 19th century.

Once Rothbard got into the project, he found that most all historians have made the same error: they have believed that the history of thought was a long history of progress. He found that sound ideas ebb and flow in history. So he set out to rescue the great ideas from the past and compare them with the bad ideas of the "new economics."

"It all began, as usual, with the Greeks," writes Rothbard in the first sentence of chapter one. He loves Aristotle and Democritus, for example, but loathes Plato and Diogenes. He is kind toward Tao and Stoicism. He is no fan of Tertullian but very much likes St. Jerome, who defended the merchant class. Now, that little summary takes us only to page 33, just the beginning of a wild ride through the middle ages and renaissance and modern times through 1870.

In the course of this, Rothbard heralds the contributions of economists who are little known today, such as Juan de Mariana, A.R.J. Turgot, and Richard Cantillon. His demolition of Karl Marx is more complete and in depth than any ever published. His reconstruction of 19th-century banking debates has provided enough new ideas for a dozen dissertations, and contemporary real-money reform. His surprising evisceration of John Stuart Mill is cause to rethink the whole history of classical liberalism.

Most famously, Rothbard demonstrated that Adam Smith's economic theories were, in many ways, a comedown from his predecessors in France and Spain. For example, Smith puzzled over the source of value and finally tagged labor as the source (a mistake Marx built on). But for centuries prior, the earliest economists knew that value came from within the human mind. It was a human estimation, not an objective construct.

Rothbard was a pioneer in incorporating the sociology of religion into the history of economic ideas. He saw that the advent of Christianity had a huge impact on the theory of the state. He observed the rise of absolutism and theory of nationalism that came with the reformation. He traced the changes in the Western view toward lending and interest payments over the course of a thousand years.

The number of insights in these volumes are countless. Every page, every paragraph, bursts with intellectual energy and the author's fiery passion to tell the reader the remarkable story of economics. Many reviewers have remarked that Rothbard's accomplishment seems super-human. He seems to have read everything. His originality is overwhelming. His passion for liberty and integrity in science is evident. His disdain toward those who sell out to the state is manifest as well.

Rothbard worked on these volumes in the ten years before his death. He also gave a series of lectures on his ongoing research. As a result, we all had very high expectations. But nothing could have prepared us for what eventually appeared.

There is one other exciting piece of news. On the same day that we acquired the rights to print this work in an affordable edition, we discovered the audio recordings made 20 years ago when Rothbard was researching these books. They are seven full hours of Rothbard lecturing on the history of economic thought. In these, he covers the material that was to be part of volume three.

We plan to distribute these audio files with the books, to make a complete package.

Can you join us in this exciting venture? Thanks to two very generous donors, we were able to pay the costs associated with the license fees and other preliminary work. But we must raise more, to do the job these books require, and deserve. Please join us in this effort. Your contribution of $500, $250, $100, $50, $25, or any amount would be wonderful. Donors of $1,000 or more will be thanked in the volumes themselves.

Rothbard's last great gift to the world is finally going to see the full light of day! Won't you help make that happen?

$5000 gift (patrons' page) | $2500 gift (patrons' page) | $1000 gift (patrons' page)

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