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Rothbard on the Court Intellectuals

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05/13/2022David Gordon

It’s well known that Murray Rothbard thinks that intellectuals play a crucial role in getting the public to accept the state. Why are these “court intellectuals” needed? The necessity arises from the nature of the state. Following Franz Oppenheimer and Albert Jay Nock, Rothbard maintains that the state is a predatory organization: it uses coercion to seize property from people. It consists, moreover, of a relatively small minority of people: even in states with large bureaucracies, most people are not state officials. In that circumstance, the continued existence of the state rests on public opinion. If a sufficient number of people refused to obey the state, it would be powerless to continue its coercive activities. As Rothbard says,

If states have everywhere been run by an oligarchic group of predators, how have they been able to maintain their rule over the mass of the population? The answer, as the philosopher David Hume pointed out over two centuries ago, is that in the long run every government, no matter how dictatorial, rests on the support of the majority of its subjects. Now this does not of course render these governments “voluntary,” since the very existence of the tax and other coercive powers shows how much compulsion the State must exercise. Nor does the majority support have to be eager and enthusiastic approval; it could well be mere passive acquiescence and resignation. The conjunction in the famous phrase “death and taxes” implies a passive and resigned acceptance to the assumed inevitability of the State and its taxation.

It’s the role of the intellectuals to convince people to accept what prima facie are undesirable activities that they have reason to reject: Why go along with an organization that seizes your property and can take your life? In this week’s column, I’d like to consider some of the ways intellectuals do this, according to Rothbard’s account.

One of these has to do with an important topic in the philosophy of history. Is history the result of individual, contingent actions, or brought about by impersonal deterministic forces?  Let’s look at a couple of examples. If you are studying the origins of World War I, should you mainly be concerned with what particular people—e.g., Wilhelm II, Sir Edward Grey, Raymond Poincaré—did or should your main emphasis be on impersonal forces—e.g., the clash of rival imperialist powers caused by the stage that the economic development of capitalism had reached? Similarly, in studying the origin of the Civil War, should you be looking at Lincoln’s policies or, as Charles and Mary Beard do in The Rise of American Civilization, see the war as an inevitable conflict between the industrial North and the agricultural South?  Perry Anderson, the prominent Marxist historian whom I mentioned last week, never tires of demanding a “structural explanation” for events.

Rothbard connects this topic with the question of getting people to accept the state. If history is determined by inevitable forces over which individuals have no control, it is futile to resist the state. As he puts it,

It is also particularly important for the State to make its rule seem inevitable: even if its reign is disliked, as it often is, it will then be met with the passive resignation expressed in the familiar coupling of “death and taxes.” One method is to bring to its side historical determinism: if X-State rules us, then this has been inevitably decreed for us by the Inexorable Laws of History (or the Divine Will, or the Absolute, or the Material Productive Forces), and nothing that any puny individuals may do can change the inevitable. It is also important for the State to inculcate in its subjects an aversion to any outcropping of what is now called “a conspiracy theory of history.” For a search for “conspiracies,” as misguided as the results often are, means a search for motives, and an attribution of individual responsibility for the historical misdeeds of ruling elites. If, however, any tyranny or venality or aggressive war imposed by the State was brought about not by particular State rulers but by mysterious and arcane “social forces,” or by the imperfect state of the world—or if, in some way, everyone was guilty (“We are all murderers,” proclaims a common slogan), then there is no point in anyone’s becoming indignant or rising up against such misdeeds. Furthermore, a discrediting of “conspiracy theories”—or indeed, of anything smacking of “economic determinism”—will make the subjects more likely to believe the “general welfare” reasons that are invariably put forth by the modern State for engaging in any aggressive actions.

The point Rothbard makes here is a key theme in a book that aroused a great deal of discussion when it came out last year, David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. Like Rothbard, but without reference to him, they argue that intellectuals get people to accept the state by advancing the theory that history proceeds through inevitable stages: if you don’t like the prevailing system of “state capitalism,” there’s nothing you can do about it, so the best you can do is learn to live it. Unfortunately, there are grave problems with their book, as I try to show in a characteristically mean-spirited review.

I’d like to conclude with one more tactic of the court intellectuals, especially relevant to us today. Rothbard points out that “national security managers” claim that some issues, such as war and peace, are too complicated to be left to the masses and must be decided by experts.

In recent years, we have seen the development in the United States of a profession of “national security managers,” of bureaucrats who never face electoral procedures, but who continue, through administration after administration, secretly using their supposed special expertise to plan wars, interventions, and military adventures. Only their egregious blunders in the Vietnam war have called their activities into any sort of public question; before that, they were able to ride high, wide, and handsome over the public they saw mostly as cannon fodder for their own purposes. A public debate between “isolationist” Senator Robert A. Taft and one of the leading national security intellectuals, McGeorge Bundy, was instructive in demarking both the issues at stake and the attitude of the intellectual ruling elite. Bundy attacked Taft in early 1951 for opening a public debate on the waging of the Korean war. Bundy insisted that only the executive policy leaders were equipped to manipulate diplomatic and military force in a lengthy decades-long period of limited war against the communist nations. It was important, Bundy maintained, that public opinion and public debate be excluded from promulgating any policy role in this area. For, he warned, the public was unfortunately not committed to the rigid national purposes discerned by the policy managers; it merely responded to the ad hoc realities of given situations. Bundy also maintained that there should be no recriminations or even examinations of the decisions of the policy managers, because it was important that the public accept their decisions without question…. Similarly, at a time when President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles were privately contemplating going to war in Indochina, another prominent national security manager, George F. Kennan, was advising the public that “There are times when, having elected a government, we will be best advised to let it govern and let it speak for us as it will in the councils of the nations.”

The process Rothbard describes here has in our day migrated to “public health” experts, Anthony Fauci foremost among them, who demand that we accede to their totalitarian proposals because “science” so dictates.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

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