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Home | Mises Library | Rothbard Battles the Mainstream

Rothbard Battles the Mainstream

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09/25/2003Benjamin PowellEdward Stringham

In order to publish in mainstream academic journals, must Austrians "water down" or soft pedal our ideas so that they will not seem "too radical"?  Murray Rothbard, thankfully, never followed that strategy, but it still did not preclude him from publishing in a number of highly ranked journals. In Rothbard's early years as an economist, his writings for professional journals in the 1950s are some of the most radically and explicitly Austrian that those journals probably ever published.

The 1949 publication of Human Action, by Yale University Press, brought some professional attention to the Austrian school. The American Economic Review published a particularly harsh criticism of it in 1951. This prompted Rothbard, who had yet to earn his Ph.D., to come to the defense of Mises and the Austrian method. He twice published short articles in the American Economic Review in 1951 responding to G. J. Schuller's review of Human Action.

In "Mises's "Human Action": Comment," Rothbard offers a convincing and amusing point-by-point refutation of Schuller's criticisms. Rothbard addresses everything from the nature of praxeology, to telling Schuller that Mises's book is not too long but too short!  Probably the most valuable part of the comment is Rothbard's clear explanation of how to distinguish "incorrect versus 'correct praxeological reasoning.'"  Rothbard explains that there are fundamental axioms and propositions successively deduced from them. One can either dispute the axiom, or show a flaw in the chain of deduction, to refute a theory. The axioms should be open to the test of observation, in the sense that once stated it should be obvious to all. Once an axiom is established, a proposition deduced is then tested according to the universally accepted laws of logic.

Much of Rothbard's comment consists of explaining the nature of a deductive science, and how it can be related to history and other real world events. Never one to miss a chance to advocate liberty though, Rothbard manages to tell Schuller that all elected Governors are "Fuhrers" and that to the extent they exercise coercive powers they are a "dictator" rather than a mandatory and that "The "electoral mandate" is rather a choice between two sets of aspirants to such a dictatorship."

Schuller published a rejoinder to Rothbard that further misunderstood the relationship between real world events and praxeolgical deductions. Rothbard responded with "Praxeology: Reply to Mr. Schuller."  Instead of a point by point refutation the article is a clarification of praxeology, the epistemological status of the action axiom and deductions from it, and an outline of the relationship between theory and history. Rothbard is quite clear that when applying praxeological truths to the real world it is only illustrative of the theory: not a test. Rothbard could not resist addressing the topic of government again though. Schuller suggested that Mises's logic of interventionism should apply to government provision of defense for citizens. Rothbard basically agreed that the Jeffersonian method of constraining government was a failure and wrote that perhaps "some other means may have to be found."

A few years later Rothbard again engaged the profession on methodology with the publication of "In Defense of 'Extreme Apriorism'" in the Southern Economic Journal. Rothbard entered a debate between Fritz Machlup and Terence Hutchison, defending praxeology and the deductive method of economics against positivist charges. He clearly outlines the action axiom, the subsidiary assumptions and the nature of their a priori status. In this article Rothbard distinguishes his view from Mises's, by explaining that Mises based the a priori status of economics in the neo-Kantian tradition: considering the action axiom a law of thought and therefore a categorical truth a priori to all experience. Rothbard instead draws on Aristotle and St.Thomas, and considers the axiom a law of reality that is empirical rather than a priori.

Rothbard is clear though that it is empirical only in the sense that it is self evidently true once stated and it is not empirically falsifiable in the positivist sense. He even states that his view is so out of step with the empiricism of the profession that his own position can be interpreted as a priori as well. In this article Rothbard manages to provide a strong defense of the validity and value freedom of the Misesian framework, and at the same time, reveal his own epistemological differences with Mises.

Rothbard's first work in the area of history of thought was published in 1957. "A Note on Burke's Vindication of Natural Society" appeared in the respected Journal of the History of Ideas. This early work exemplifies Rothbard's approach to doing history of thought that he continued to use up through the last major work of his life, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought. Rothbard did not merely repeat and summarize what others said. His note on Burke was a thoroughly revisionist piece in history of thought, correcting the standard interpretation others had. Not only was it revisionist, but it was bold and libertarian.

Rothbard shows that Burke, the "father of the new conservatism," was not a conservative at all; he was an anarchist!  Rothbard examines the claim made by Burke, that Vindication was really a satire of rationalist Deists, that Burke biographers have uncritically accepted. Rothbard finds little evidence of satire in Vindication, and instead demonstrates that it is a strong attack on any and all government. While Burke's anarchism in Vindication is a critique of government and does not outline his own view of an ideal society, Rothbard finds no hostility to private property in Vindication. That puts the champion of conservatism squarely in the ranks of individualist anarchism.

How does Rothbard explain Burke's claim that the work was satire?  Political Expediency. Vindication was published anonymously and it was only discovered that Burke was the author nine years later when Burke was beginning his Parliamentary career. It would have been politically disastrous for his career if people believed Burke ever held those views. This early article by Rothbard is an ideal example of how to do history of thought; it is both revisionist and radical. The reader learns something new, and that knowledge has relevant implications.   

Rothbard wrote to the mainstream of the economics profession again in 1960 when he published "The Politics of the Political Economists" in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. He addressed Stigler's article that claimed few empirical economists have become outright socialists. Rothbard argues that collecting economic statistics tends to promote government intervention in the market. Rothbard is concerned with the difference between mixed economy interventionists and radical free market advocates.

He makes it quite clear by writing, "I think we can conclude that the nub of the difference between Stigler and myself is this: to him a radical or nonconservative is essentially a socialist or a communist. To me, a nonconservative is someone who advocates intervention rather than laissez-faire."  Although empiricists are less likely full-scale socialists, Rothbard argues that they will generally "drift toward intervention" instead of the free market.

Although Rothbard would later publish a handful of reviews in professional journals such as the Journal of Economic Literature, and the Journal of Economic History, he did not focus as much attention on writing for established venues as he did in the 1950s. He eventually came to establish journals that focused exclusively on Austrian and libertarian issues, writing books, as well as writing for popular venues. He sought not only to enter the debate but change the terms of the debate.

Rothbard himself wrote,"Civilization and human existence are at stake, and to preserve and expand it, high theory and scholarship, though important, are not enough…Especially in an age of galloping statism, the classical liberal, the advocate of the free market, has an obligation to carry the struggle to all levels of society."

Rothbard's work from the 1950s is perhaps the best example of how to carry on the struggle at all levels of society. Rothbard wrote the above scholarly articles while writing book chapters such as his classic "Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics," and writing dozens of pieces in non-professional journals such as Analysis, Faith & Freedom, Freeman, and National Review. All of these articles were written in addition to finishing his dissertation, which was accepted in 1956 and published as The Panic of 1819 in 1962, writing his nineteen hundred-page manuscript Man, Economy & State which was published in 1962, and writing America's Great Depression which was published in 1963.

Rothbard's early years serve as a great model for all Austrian economists to aspire to. He was relevant and active in the popular press, he undertook major scholarly research projects that became books, and he published in mainstream professional journals without abandoning or watering down his views.


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