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The Unstoppable Rothbard

01/07/2005Jeffrey A. Tucker

When Murray N. Rothbard (born 1926) died on January 7, 1995, ten years ago this day, he merited a headlined obituary in the New York Times, and many other tributes in that first sad and shocking week. Later a book appeared, and also special issues of journals and tributes of every sort. His memorial service in New York brought together people who had their lives and minds touched by his brilliance and generosity over the last half-century. We sang the great old hymn, which was his favorite:

Once to every man and nation,
comes a moment to decide;
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
for the good or evil side.

Rothbard chose the good, and never wavered. While he lived, many students and followers rightly saw in his thought the culmination of everything magnificent about the liberal intellectual tradition. He improved the tradition by attaching it firmly to private property and systematically showing that society can thrive without ever compromising that principle. He further eliminated the last vestiges of "social contract" theory from the liberal idea—among a hundred other enduring contributions.

After his death, however, the question of his legacy was not only on the minds of his friends but also of his enemies. Rothbard's position in favor of universal rights, free trade, private property, peace, and decentralized legal institutions is consistent (once you have thought about it and understood it) but it still cuts across the state-supported grain of American political life, in which you are permitted to reject one form of statism only insofar and as you are willing to embrace another.

And thus did his detractors on the left and right regard him as a dangerous corruptor of youth and a destabilizer of established political tradition. Even beyond his political influence, debates raged about his economic theories, his historiographic reconstructions, his philosophical innovations, and his political strategizing. Moderate classical liberals accused Rothbard of the same error of which Mises was accused: discrediting the principle of liberty by being so uncompromising and consistent in its application.

Rothbard's enemies on all sides had hoped that his name and work would slip away into the darkness of the past, and the new generation would be spared what conservatives have long considered to be his anarchist poison, what left-liberals have considered his reactionary pro-capitalist fulminations, and what moderate liberals considered to be his baneful extremism.

A recent academic paper, for example, grants that most "leaders of the modern libertarian movement" were once Rothbardians, but then claims, without a shred of evidence, that "Rothbard’s influence declined during his lifetime and after his death."

As with painting, literature, and music, of course, it takes time to sort out the passing fads in intellectual life from the enduring classics. What would happen to Rothbard, also known in his lifetime as "The State's Greatest Living Enemy" and "Mr. Libertarian"? Would his intellectual legacy be mainly in the area of politics, and his demonstration of the moral and practical merits of the stateless society? Or would it be his economic contributions—his elucidation and extension of the Misesian paradigm—that would survive?

Might he be mainly known as a historian of the Colonial period, an area in which specialists have long considered his four-volume history to be a masterful narrative treatment? Or was his reputation so closely connected to his famous personality—fiery and fierce as an intellectual yet warm and joyful as a man—that his name would fade after his death?

After ten years, we have enough of a picture to say that Rothbard's influence lives and thrives not only as it did during his lifetime but ever more so. Those who hoped Rothbardianism would wane should be sorely disappointed, while those who have always appreciated his contributions should celebrate. What's more, that legacy covers every field in which he worked: economic theory and policy, American history, philosophy, and even political strategy or organizing.

Everyone who has written about him ends up writing lists of research areas, book titles, subjects covered, contributions made. It is, as David Gordon once remarked, like writing about four or five of the greatest minds you have ever encountered except that they are all rolled into one person. And each of these scholars all wrapped up in one man has received vast discussion and notoriety since his death.

Right now, the New York Timesbestseller list features a book on American history by Thomas Woods, whose studies on the Colonial Period, the Progressive Era, and the Great Depression, are based almost entirely on Rothbard's own. This book that has created such an intellectual storm is Rothbardian through and through. The same can be said of Thomas DiLorenzo's bestselling works. Among books from the academic world, the ten years since Rothbard's death has seen many new studies of his thought and works of history and economics based on his thought: Chris Sciabarra's Total Freedom, Hans Hoppe's Democracy: The God that Failed, Hunt Tooley's The Western Front, Robert Higgs's Against Leviathan, William Watkins' Reclaiming the American Revolution, among many others in print and in process.

His books have taken on new life. Ethics of Liberty has come out in a new English edition and been translated into Spanish, Italian, German, French, Czech, and Chinese. Man, Economy, and State has appeared in Spanish and Chinese. His History of Economic Thought has appeared in Spanish. Just last week a beautiful Polish edition of For A New Liberty appeared in our offices. His articles appear in collections in French, Italian, and Russian. His Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature has been reprinted and widely distributed, as has America's Great Depression (with a new introduction by Paul Johnson). By our rough count, a dozen new dissertations dealing with his thought have been written, and six additional ones based on his historical investigations.

 The Mises Institute put together A History of Money and Banking in the United States, which was built from articles obscure and unpublished. It now serves as an Austrian alternative to the Friedman monetary history. The Irrepressible Rothbard (ed. Rockwell) has appeared. Justin Raimondo has written a biography (Enemy of the State) that dispenses with many myths surrounding his life and work.

The Scholars Edition of Man, Economy, and State is out, with its wonderful integration of Power and Market (which has been separately published in many languages) which had been excised from the original edition. The book has sold several times as many copies since his death as sold in the 30 years after its initial publication. It is now used in classrooms (graduate and undergraduate) around the world, including in China, where the translation (along with another of America's Great Depression) are good sellers. We have commissioned Study Guides on Man, Economy, and State, and organized and maintained a huge archive of material. We have worked to make available his work online in two archives, one at Mises.org and another at LewRockwell.com

Our offices daily receive requests for reprint and translation rights to such works as "What Has Government Done to Our Money?" and such articles as "Anatomy of the State" and "Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty." Mises.org cannot keep up with the requests to put his work online, and every new piece that appears generates new citations, requests for reprints, and ever more discussions. His essays on methodology (such as "The Mantle of Science") and his critiques of central planning (such as "The Fallacy of the Public Sector") have achieved all new levels of attention.

Never-before published pieces, such as his critique of Karl Polanyi, have drawn the attention of Polanyi experts, who are amazed to discover such a penetrating analysis. His memo on Catholic social teaching, never before published, stunned experts within this field for its insight. Within some sectors of the left, he is known mainly as the expert on the political thought of Etienne de La Boetie, and among Burke scholars, Rothbard is known as the leading advocate of the literal interpretation of Burke's "Vindication of the Natural Society" (a piece still in play, though written in 1958!).

Even short memos on particular topics are finding new publications outlets. Given how the blogosphere works, when Rothbard articles appear on this site, commentators treat them as if they were written yesterday, and react to them hotly and emotionally.

Rothbard died just as his huge History of Economic Thought appeared. As a major reconstruction of the history of ideas, many aspects of his ideas have been debated and cited, including his revision of Adam Smith's contribution, his elucidation of Marxian theory, his revision of the British banking controversies, and his extended treatment of the preclassicals. The volumes were huge sellers even at the publisher's outrageously high price of $125 per volume (the Mises Institute is working toward a low-priced reprint). Agree or disagree with his interpretation, not one reviewer has suggested that his treatment of this subject is anything less than magisterial.

Or consider scholarly citations. Given how such citations are used for academic logrolling and faculty placement, it is difficult to maintain a steady supply of such citations after a scholar has died. And there are certainly no academic points to be won by citing a radical thinker such as Rothbard in the mainstream journals. And yet, as measured by the Social Science Citation Index, Rothbard's number has not only not fallen; it has actually risen in the ten years following his death to be higher than in the last ten years of his life. (Most recent journals include Public Administration and Development, Zeitschrift Fur Soziologie, Papers in Regional Science, Georgetown Law Review, Journal of the Early Republic, Canadian Journal of Economics, Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Economic Inquiry, History of Political Economy, etc. )

The same is true within JSTOR, Google Scholar, or any other index you can name. And who can even begin to sort through the 83,500 references to Murray Rothbard generated by a plain Google web search? Even a quick Google News generates a citation from Bloomberg and a denunciation at FrontPageMag, which is fitting because Rothbard wrote for the newspapers from his earliest student years until his death (his last article was an attack on Newt Gingrich as a statist sellout).

This doesn't include the daily commentary on Mises.org (the #1 institutional economics site in the world) or LewRockwell.com (the #1 libertarian site in the world), both of which deal with Rothbardian thought nearly every day, or the many spinoff sites around the web. Then there are the teaching programs, such as the Mises University, for which there are far more qualified applications than can be accepted. It is essentially a Misesian-Rothbardian program of intensive education in all aspects of economic science. And there is the Austrian Scholars Conference, which features more than 60 new papers in a program format based entirely on a model pioneered by Rothbard.

The Mises Institute has every incentive to work toward assuring Rothbard's place in the history of ideas. The journals he founded continue to break new ground, and his many students are hard at work defending and extending the Rothbardian paradigm. Even his strategic insights assist us daily in navigating complicated political terrain in which the main enemy shifts from leftist egalitarianism to rightist militarism and back again. He showed how to support liberty without compromise, whether it means opposing welfare or warfare, or defending the right not to be taxed or drafted.  

But the task of forging a legacy cannot be accomplished through publishing, commissioning, and promoting alone. A body of ideas must engage the minds of students and teachers, and intellectually curious people of all sorts. Promotional efforts cannot substitute for the compelling power of truth itself, as discerned by individual readers. For that reason, we knew that our job should consist not in promotion as such but merely using every means we had to make his thought available. The rest would take care of itself. That's how we looked at it, and we have not been disappointed.

So much of our work, 'ours' in the broadest sense of the global Austro-libertarian movement, presupposes the corpus of Rothbard's work. And yet we have so much yet to do. Our Rothbard archive includes more letters than seem humanly possible to write in a lifetime. We have unpublished manuscripts. Many essays have fallen out of print and need to be brought back. As it is, we can barely keep up the publication schedule. We have put up many audio files, including short clips and long speeches, but there are many more that need to be uploaded.

Students in the Rothbardian tradition need support. We need funds for training and for establishing an endowment and for providing research chairs. We won't accept government money, we won't work on contract for any special interest, and we cannot count on large corporate backing. Whatever success the Rothbardian perspective enjoys in the future will not be due to subsidies but to the power of truth.

But what are the prospects for success? Let Rothbard speak:

In the broadest and longest-run sense, libertarianism will win eventually because it and only it is compatible with the nature of man and of the world. Only liberty can achieve man's prosperity, fulfillment, and happiness. In short, libertarianism will win because it is true, because it is the correct policy for mankind, and truth will eventually out. . . . We now have that systematic theory; we come, fully armed with our knowledge, prepared to bring our message and to capture the imagination of all groups and strands in the population. All other theories and systems have clearly failed: socialism is in retreat everywhere . . . ; liberalism has bogged us down in a host of insoluble problems; conservatism has nothing to offer but sterile defense of the status quo. Liberty has never been fully tried in the modern world; libertarians now propose to fulfill the American dream and the world dream of liberty and prosperity for all mankind.

And so, to dear Murray, our friend and mentor, the vice president of the Mises Institute, the scholar who gave us guidance and the gentleman who showed us how to find joy in confronting the enemy and advancing truth, the staff and scholars of the Institute offer this tribute, alongside the millions who have been drawn to his ideas. May his works always be available to all who care to learn about liberty and do their part to fight for the cornerstone of civilization itself. May his legacy endure forever and may we all become happy warriors for the cause of liberty.  


Contact Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is the founder of the Brownstone Institute and an independent editorial consultant.