Mises Daily

Rothbard’s “Left and Right”: Forty Years Later

[Rothbard Memorial Lecture, Austrian Scholars Conference 2006]

What an honor and a privilege it is for me to be delivering the Rothbard Memorial Lecture, here in the Mises Institute, the world center of Rothbardian thought. When I was first reading Murray Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty and For a New Liberty back in my college days, and arguing the merits of Rothbard’s title-transfer theory of contract with my roommates (yeah, we were pretty geeky), I certainly didn’t foresee that I would one day have the opportunity to pay tribute to him in such a venue.

But I’m also struck, and a bit saddened, at the thought that, as far as I know, I’m the first Rothbard Memorial Lecturer never to have met Rothbard personally. That’s not only a personal regret, but also a somber reminder that the era when everyone in the libertarian movement knew Murray Rothbard is passing.

Yet “somber” hardly seems an appropriate word to use in any connection with Rothbard. Looking through the Rothbard archives I came across his fourth-grade teacher’s report from 1936. His teacher wrote: “Murray seems to be so exceedingly happy that it is sometimes difficult to control his activities in the class. He must develop a more controlled behavior in the group.” By all accounts, he never changed.

Tonight I want to talk about an essay that Rothbard wrote just over forty years ago, an essay that had an enormous impact on my own intellectual development. In 1965 Rothbard published “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty,” the keynote editorial in the first issue of a magazine he’d just founded, also called Left & Right — the forerunner of his later Libertarian Forum.1 (By the way, the complete runs of both Left & Right and Libertarian Forum are available in all their fascinating glory on Mises.org.)2 Written during the early years of the Vietnam War, as the New Left was emerging and the old coalition between libertarians and conservatives was beginning to fray, Rothbard’s article placed the libertarian movement in a historical context, tracing its past and possible future, and called on libertarians to gain a better self-understanding, and consequently to rethink their political affiliations and alliances.

Let me begin by placing Rothbard’s “Left and Right” in conversation with a piece published by the great classical liberal Herbert Spencer over eighty years earlier, titled “The New Toryism.”3 The two articles might initially seem antithetical: Spencer was warning libertarians against the Left, and opening the door to an alliance with elements on the Right, while Rothbard was warning libertarians against the Right and recommending an alliance with elements on the Left. Moreover, Rothbard explicitly names Spencer as having contributed to the ideological confusion he is complaining about. But in a wider sense one can see Rothbard’s concerns in “Left and Right” as a logical development of Spencer’s in “The New Toryism.”

Writing in 1884, Spencer maintained that “[m]ost of those who now pass as Liberals, are Tories of a new type.” To defend this claim, he undertakes to remind us “what the two political parties originally were.”

Dating back to an earlier period than their names, the two political parties at first stood respectively for two opposed types of social organization, broadly distinguishable as the militant and the industrial — types which are characterized, the one by the régime of status … and the other by the régime of contract…. [T]hese two are definable as the system of compulsory cooperation and the system of voluntary cooperation. The typical structure of the one we see in an army formed of conscripts, in which the units in their several grades have to fulfil commands under pain of death, and receive food and clothing and pay, arbitrarily apportioned; while the typical structure of the other we see in a body of producers or distributors, who severally agree to specified payments in return for specified services, and may at will, after due notice, leave the organization if they do not like it.

The Tories, then, had traditionally been the advocates of hierarchy and compulsion, while the Liberals had traditionally championed voluntary association and free exchange.

In “Left and Right,” Rothbard makes the same identification:

[T]here developed in Western Europe two great political ideologies … one was liberalism, the party of hope, of radicalism, of liberty, of the Industrial Revolution, of progress, of humanity; the other was conservatism, the party of reaction, the party that longed to restore the hierarchy, statism, theocracy, serfdom, and class exploitation of the Old Order…. Political ideologies were polarized, with liberalism on the extreme “left,” and conservatism on the extreme “right,” of the ideological spectrum.

And Rothbard is surely right in thinking that what we now call free-market libertarianism was originally a left-wing position. The great liberal economist Frédéric Bastiat sat on the left side of the French national assembly, with the anarcho-socialist Proudhon. Many of the causes we now think of as paradigmatically left-wing — feminism, antiracism, antimilitarism, the defense of laborers and consumers against big business — were traditionally embraced and promoted specifically by free-market radicals.

So what happened to the political spectrum? This is the question that Spencer and Rothbard, from their different historical vantage-points, are each trying to answer. The version of the question that Spencer is addressing is: how did the Left become associated with statism? Rothbard addresses that question as well, but his primary focus is on the question: how did free-market libertarianism become associated with the Right?

Let’s begin with Spencer’s diagnosis:

How is it that Liberalism, getting more and more into power, has grown more and more coercive in its legislation? … How are we to explain this spreading confusion of thought which has led it, in pursuit of what appears to be public good, to invert the method by which in earlier days it achieved public good? … [W]e may understand the kind of confusion in which Liberalism has lost itself: and the origin of those mistaken classings of political measures which have misled it — classings, as we shall see, by conspicuous external traits instead of by internal natures. For what, in the popular apprehension and in the apprehension of those who effected them, were the changes made by Liberals in the past? They were abolitions of grievances suffered by the people…. [T]his was the common trait they had which most impressed itself on men’s minds…. [T]he welfare of the many came to be conceived alike by Liberal statesmen and Liberal voters as the aim of Liberalism. Hence the confusion. The gaining of a popular good, being the external conspicuous trait common to Liberal measures in earlier days (then in each case gained by a relaxation of restraints), it has happened that popular good has come to be sought by Liberals, not as an end to be indirectly gained by relaxations of restraints, but as the end to be directly gained. And seeking to gain it directly, they have used methods intrinsically opposed to those originally used.

In short, Spencer’s analysis is that liberals came to conceptualize liberalism in terms of its easily identifiable effects (benefits for the masses) rather than in terms of its essential nature (laissez-faire), and so began to think that any measure aimed at the end of benefits for the masses must count as liberal, whether pursued by the traditional liberal means of laissez-faire or by its opposite, the traditional Tory means of governmental compulsion. In short, liberalism became the pursuit of liberal ends by Tory means.

In “Left and Right,” Rothbard offers a similar analysis of state socialism:

Libertarians of the present day are accustomed to think of socialism as the polar opposite of the libertarian creed. But this is a grave mistake, responsible for a severe ideological disorientation of libertarians in the present world. As we have seen, conservatism was the polar opposite of liberty; and socialism, while to the “left” of conservatism, was essentially a confused, middle-of-the-road movement. It was, and still is, middle-of-the-road because it tries to achieve liberal ends by the use of conservative means…. Socialism, like liberalism and against conservatism, accepted the industrial system and the liberal goals of freedom, reason, mobility, progress, higher living standards for the masses, and an end to theocracy and war; but it tried to achieve these ends by the use of incompatible, conservative means: statism, central planning, communitarianism, etc.

This idea that libertarians and state socialists disagree about means rather than ends is also advanced by Spencer’s contemporary Gustave de Molinari, the founder of free-market anarchism. In an 1848 “Letter to Socialists” Molinari wrote:

We are adversaries, and yet the goal which we both pursue is the same. What is the common goal of economists [i.e., classical liberals] and socialists? Is it not a society where the production of all the goods necessary to the maintenance and embellishment of life shall be as abundant as possible, and where the distribution of these same goods among those who have created them through their labor shall be as just as possible? … Only we approach this goal by different paths…. Why do you refuse to follow the path of liberty alongside us? … If you became certain that you had been mistaken as to the true cause of the evils which afflict society and the means of remedying them … you would come over to us.4

But what brought about, among those who sought liberal ends, this tendency to substitute conservative for liberal means? Is it merely, as Spencer supposes, the natural human tendency of “[u]ndeveloped intellectual vision” to classify phenomena according to “external resemblances” instead of “intrinsic structures”? Rothbard suggests an additional factor: “the abandonment of natural rights and ‘higher law’ theory for utilitarianism”; Rothbard maintains that only a theory that condemns aggression as inherently unjust, as opposed to merely inexpedient, can serve as “a radical base outside the existing system from which to challenge the status quo,” and provide “a sense of necessary immediacy to the libertarian struggle.” To this we might add that only a non-utilitarian theory can make a principled distinction between negative and positive rights, since for the utilitarian all that matters is the final result, and not whether it came about through removing constraints or adding them. Since Spencer was himself a utilitarian of sorts, it’s no surprise that he did not identify this factor.

A further fatal tendency within liberalism, Rothbard adds, was the conversion of Spencer and other like-minded liberals to a doctrine of evolutionary gradualism, whereby “thousands of years of infinitely gradual evolution” would ultimately lead to “the next supposedly inevitable stage of individualism,” a process which no agitation could accelerate. This led to the abandonment of liberalism as “a fighting, radical creed” in favor of “a weary, rear-guard action against the growing collectivism of the late nineteenth century.”

Hence those with an orientation toward activism were led to abandon the old libertarian form of liberalism for the more energetic and proactive state-socialist version, while those liberals who resisted the slide toward state-socialism found themselves drifting toward the pessimistic and reactionary outlook of traditionalist conservatism. A new political spectrum, or a new way of thinking about the political spectrum, was beginning to form: one with state-socialism on the left and conservatism on the right, with former libertarians gravitating toward one side or the other according to temperament.

For Rothbard, the things-won’t-get-better-for-a-long-while-yet gradualism of the evolutionary liberals matched all too well the things-keep-getting-worse pessimism of the conservatives; part of the motivation for the liberals’ “weary, rear-guard action” was the conviction that the trend of history, at least for the foreseeable future, lay with state socialism. But Rothbard thinks such pessimism is based on a misunderstanding of economics and of history. State socialism is doomed, because

everywhere the masses have opted for higher living standards and the promise of freedom and everywhere the various regimes of statism and collectivism cannot fulfill these goals…. [O]nly liberty, only a free market, can organize and maintain an industrial system, and the more that population expands and explodes, the more necessary is the unfettered working of such an industrial economy. Laissez-faire and the free market become more and more evidently necessary as an industrial system develops; radical deviations cause breakdowns and economic crises. This crisis of statism becomes particularly dramatic and acute in a fully socialist society; and hence the inevitable breakdown of statism has first become strikingly apparent in the countries of the socialist (that is, communist) camp. For socialism confronts its inner contradiction most starkly. Desperately, it tries to fulfill its proclaimed goals of industrial growth, higher standards of living for the masses, and eventual withering away of the State and is increasingly unable to do so with its collectivist means. Hence the inevitable breakdown of socialism…. Communist countries, therefore, are increasingly and ineradicably forced to desocialize and will, therefore, eventually reach the free market.

Yes, that’s Rothbard in 1965, predicting the fall of communism 25 years later.

Spencer ends his essay on “The New Toryism” by expressing some uncertainty about the prospects for a libertarian-conservative alliance:

A new species of Tory may arise without disappearance of the original species…. [W]hile Liberals have taken to coercive legislation, Conservatives have not abandoned it. Nevertheless, it is true that the laws made by Liberals are so greatly increasing the compulsions and restraints exercised over citizens, that among Conservatives who suffer from this aggressiveness there is growing up a tendency to resist it…. So that if the present drift of things continues, it may by and by really happen that the Tories will be defenders of liberties which the Liberals, in pursuit of what they think popular welfare, trample under foot.

Spencer himself was evidently willing to give the conservatives a try, for he joined in the activities of the Liberty and Property Defense League, a coalition of laissez-faire liberals and traditionalist conservatives. This sort of fusionism foreshadowed the way “pro-market” thinkers would view themselves throughout much of the 20th century.

But for Rothbard, “Spencer’s tired shift ‘rightward’ in strategy soon became a shift rightward in theory as well.” And many of Spencer’s libertarian contemporaries agreed. The individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker, for example, wrote:

Liberty welcomes and criticises in the same breath the series of papers by Herbert Spencer on “The New Toryism”…. They are very true, very important, and very misleading…. I begin to be a little suspicious of him. It seems as if he had forgotten the teachings of his earlier writings, and had become a champion of the capitalistic class. It will be noticed that in these later articles, amid his multitudinous illustrations … of the evils of legislation, he in every instance cites some law passed, ostensibly at least, to protect labor, alleviate suffering, or promote the people’s welfare. He demonstrates beyond dispute the lamentable failure in this direction. But never once does he call attention to the far more deadly and deep-seated evils growing out of the innumerable laws creating privilege and sustaining monopoly. You must not protect the weak against the strong, he seems to say, but freely supply all the weapons needed by the strong to oppress the weak. He is greatly shocked that the rich should be directly taxed to support the poor, but that the poor should be indirectly taxed and bled to make the rich richer does not outrage his delicate sensibilities in the least. Poverty is increased by the poor laws, says Mr. Spencer. Granted; but what about the rich laws that caused and still cause the poverty to which the poor laws add?5

Here Tucker is perhaps too harsh on Spencer, who opposed pro-business legislation to the end of his days. All the same, it is undeniably true that in his later life Spencer focused much more of his critical ire on governmental subsidies and protections for the poor, and that the amount of attention devoted to governmental subsidies and protections for the rich became progressively de-emphasized by comparison with his earlier writings. Already with Spencer, it appears, the alliance of libertarians with conservatives against state socialism was beginning to distort libertarian self-understanding in a conservative direction; the distinction between defending property rights and defending the propertied classes was beginning to blur.

For Rothbard, “Spencer’s tired shift ‘rightward’ in strategy soon became a shift rightward in theory as well.”

As Rothbard explains, this slippage would ultimately lead to libertarians’ thinking of themselves as part of the “right-wing” or conservative movement, aligned against the supposedly “left-wing” proponents of the welfare state:

[T]he libertarians, especially in their sense of where they stood in the ideological spectrum, fused with the older Conservatives who were forced to adopt libertarian phraseology (but with no real libertarian content) in opposing a Roosevelt administration that had become too collectivistic for them…. By the end of World War II, it was second nature for libertarians to consider themselves at an “extreme right-wing” pole….

Rothbard’s concern is not merely terminological. Rather, he contends that the new left-right spectrum persistently misleads libertarian-minded thinkers into viewing governmental regulation as anti-big-business; and if our opponents are anti-business, what must we libertarians be but pro-big-business, defenders of what Ayn Rand in one of her pro-big-business moods (she did have other moods) called “America’s Persecuted Minority”?6 The result is that governmental intervention on behalf of big business tends to become invisible, or at least unimportant, because our ideological blinders make it hard to take seriously. Who would want to restrict the free market on behalf of business interests? Not those left-wingers, because they’re anti-business; and not us right-wingers, because we”re pro-free-market. It’s hard to recognize the significance of pro-business legislation even when one officially sees and acknowledges it, if one has internalized a worldview that excludes such legislation from the list of major dangers.

The truth, Rothbard thinks, is quite different; the regulatory welfare state has never been fundamentally anti-business:

Every element in the New Deal program: central planning, creation of a network of compulsory cartels for industry and agriculture, inflation and credit expansion, artificial raising of wage rates and promotion of unions within the overall monopoly structure, government regulation and ownership, all this had been anticipated and adumbrated during the previous two decades. And this program, with its privileging of various big business interests at the top of the collectivist heap, was in no sense reminiscent of socialism or leftism; there was nothing smacking of the egalitarian or the proletarian here. No, the kinship of this burgeoning collectivism was not at all with socialism-communism but with fascism, or socialism-of-the-right, a kinship which many big businessmen of the twenties expressed openly in their yearning for abandonment of a quasi-laissez-faire system for a collectivism which they could control…. Both left and right have been persistently misled by the notion that intervention by the government is ipso facto leftish and antibusiness.

“The alliance of libertarians with conservatives against state socialism was beginning to distort libertarian self-understanding in a conservative direction.”

Failure to identify the true nature of programs like the New Deal is fatal, Rothbard thinks, to effective libertarian activism. For if one takes the enemy to be anti-business, one is likely to become more susceptible to pro-business legislative proposals, thus inadvertently backing into one flavor of fascism in order to combat what one fails to recognize as another flavor of fascism — the result being what Rand in another context called “poison as food, and poison as antidote.” Hence the tendency among some libertarians to become kneejerk apologists for the corporate class.

The converse holds as well; the example of Victor Yarros is an instructive one. Yarros had been a Spencerian anarchist, an associate of Tucker and a popularizer of Lysander Spooner. But by the 1930s he had abandoned free-market anarchism for social democracy, in part because he had become convinced that the democratic state was a useful tool in the struggle against economic privilege:

[W]hatever the origin of the State, it was absurd to assert that it was always and inevitably the instrument of privilege and monopoly, and must remain such under all conditions. The evidence glaringly contradicted that conception. The democratic governments have increasingly yielded to the pressure of farmers, wage workers, and middle-class reformers.
The hatred of our plutocrats and reactionaries for the New Deal is alone sufficient to dispose of the charge that the State is simply the tool of the economic oligarchy. In the past, the same interests bitterly fought Woodrow Wilson’s reform program, and fought in vain.7

This is a good example of why revisionist historical work is so important. Thanks to the work of Kolko, Rothbard, Higgs, and others,8 we know, as Yarros evidently did not, that the supposedly anti-business programs of the Wilson and Roosevelt administrations were corporatist, neomercantilist, and neofascist to the core; Yarros could not have chosen examples less suited to support his case.

Is Yarros just wrong, then, in claiming that business interests fought against Wilson’s and Roosevelt’s policies? No, not really. We might compare the alliance between government and big business to the alliance between church and state in the Middle Ages. Of course it’s in the interest of both parties to maintain the alliance — but all the same, each side would like to be the dominant partner, so it’s no surprise that the history of such alliances will often look like a history of conflict and antipathy, as each side struggles to get the upper hand. But this struggle must be read against a common background framework of cooperation to maintain the system of control.

If, as libertarians from John T. Flynn to Ayn Rand have argued,9 the dominant trend of liberal statism is closer to fascism than to state socialism, how should this affect our view of the political spectrum? If fascism belongs on the Right, what is its opposite on the Left — state socialism, or libertarianism? Karl Hess, following Rothbard, would later argue that the “overall characteristic of a right-wing regime … is that it reflects the concentration of power in the fewest practical hands.” This is the “dominant historic characteristic of what most people, in most times, have considered the political and economic right wing.” The left, then, “would logically represent the opposite tendency.”

The farthest left you can go, historically at any rate, is anarchism — the total opposition to any institutionalized power, a state of completely voluntary social organization in which people would establish their ways of life in small, consenting groups, and cooperate with others as they see fit.
The attitude on that farthest left toward law and order was summed up by an early French anarchist, Proudhon, who said that ‘order is the daughter of and not the mother of liberty.’ Let people be absolutely free, says this farthest of the far, far left (the left that Communism regularly denounces as too left; Lenin called it ‘infantile left’)….
Through a series of unfortunate but certainly understandable distortions of political terminology, the [modern] liberal position has come to be known as a left-wing position. Actually…. [l]iberals believe in concentrated power — in the hands of liberals, the supposedly educated and genteel elite. They believe in concentrating that power as heavily and effectively as possible. They believe in great size of enterprise, whether corporate or political, and have a great and profound disdain for the homely and the local.10

Now I think it’s important to distinguish terminological issues from more substantive ones here. While it’s an interesting question whether Rothbard and Hess are correct in maintaining that the terms “left” and “right” are best understood as still retaining their original 19th-century meaning, how any particular thinker prefers using those slippery labels is not the most important issue. If you want to call the free market a left-wing idea, or a right-wing idea, or a neither-left-wing-nor-right-wing idea, or a left-wing-in-sense-37-but-right-wing-in-sense-49 idea, whatever, go for it — so long as you make clear how you’re using it. I like calling the free market a left-wing idea — in fact, I like calling libertarianism the proletarian revolution — but terminology is not the fundamental issue. The crucial point is to track when one of these labels is being used in an authoritarian sense, or an anti-authoritarian sense, or a mixed sense, and not allow any particular preconceived stereotype of “left” or “right” to occlude one’s thinking as to where one’s natural allies are to be found.

“The distinction between defending property rights and defending the propertied classes was beginning to blur.”

While I’ve said I don’t want to dwell on terminological issues, I can’t resist making a point about “capitalism” and “socialism.” Rand used to identify certain terms and ideas as “anti-concepts,” that is, terms that actually function to obscure our understanding rather than facilitating it, making it harder for us to grasp other, legitimate concepts; one important category of anti-concepts is what Rand called the “package deal,” referring to any term whose meaning conceals an implicit presupposition that certain things go together that in actuality do not.11 Although Rand would not agree with the following examples, I’ve become convinced that the terms “capitalism” and “socialism” are really anti-concepts of the package-deal variety.

Libertarians sometimes debate whether the “real” or “authentic” meaning of a term like “capitalism” is (a) the free market, or (b) government favoritism toward business, or (c) the separation between labor and ownership, an arrangement neutral between the other two; Austrians tend to use the term in the first sense; individualist anarchists in the Tuckerite tradition tend to use it in the second or third.12 But in ordinary usage, I fear, it actually stands for an amalgamation of incompatible meanings.

Suppose I were to invent a new word, “zaxlebax,” and define it as “a metallic sphere, like the Washington Monument.” That’s the definition — “a metallic sphere, like the Washington Monument. “ In short, I build my ill-chosen example into the definition. Now some linguistic subgroup might start using the term “zaxlebax” as though it just meant “metallic sphere,” or as though it just meant “something of the same kind as the Washington Monument.” And that’s fine. But my definition incorporates both, and thus conceals the false assumption that the Washington Monument is a metallic sphere; any attempt to use the term “zaxlebax,” meaning what I mean by it, involves the user in this false assumption. That’s what Rand means by a package-deal term.

Now I think the word “capitalism,” if used with the meaning most people give it, is a package-deal term. By “capitalism” most people mean neither the free market simpliciter nor the prevailing neomercantilist system simpliciter. Rather, what most people mean by “capitalism” is this free-market system that currently prevails in the western world. In short, the term “capitalism” as generally used conceals an assumption that the prevailing system is a free market. And since the prevailing system is in fact one of government favoritism toward business, the ordinary use of the term carries with it the assumption that the free market is government favoritism toward business.

And similar considerations apply to the term “socialism.” Most people don’t mean by “socialism” anything so precise as state ownership of the means of production; instead they really mean something more like “the opposite of capitalism.” Then if “capitalism” is a package-deal term, so is “socialism” — it conveys opposition to the free market, and opposition to neomercantilism, as though these were one and the same.

And that, I suggest, is the function of these terms: to blur the distinction between the free market and neomercantilism. Such confusion prevails because it works to the advantage of the statist establishment: those who want to defend the free market can more easily be seduced into defending neomercantilism, and those who want to combat neomercantilism can more easily be seduced into combating the free market. Either way, the state remains secure.

I don’t mean to suggest that evil statists have deliberately conspired to corrupt our language to serve their own nefarious ends. That sometimes happens, of course, but it’s not necessary. Rather, a perverse invisible-hand process is at work: the prevailing use of the terms “capitalism” and “socialism” persists because it serves to preserve the statist system of which it is a part. Think of it as spontaneous ordure. (Sorry.)

If “capitalism” and “socialism” are such potentially confusing terms, should we be even more cautious about the loaded term “anarchism”? Actually, I don’t think so. People’s initial associations with the term may be more negative, but they’re also more superficial: people are much quicker to admit that they don’t know much about anarchism and aren’t sure what anarchists really stand for than they are to make analogous admissions about capitalism and socialism. It also highlights the distance from other views and thus makes compromises with or backslidings into such views harder to gloss over. Plus the term “anarchism” has the advantage of sounding exciting and radical, which gives it a certain appeal, especially among the young.

Back to Rothbard’s argument: if libertarians’ alliance with the conservative right was beginning to corrode libertarian principles, and if the mainstream liberal left was just a New Toryism, what of the socialist left? For Rothbard the socialist left comprises two distinct strands. One is a “right-wing, authoritarian strand,” promoting “statism, hierarchy, and collectivism”; this strand Rothbard dismisses as “a projection of conservatism trying to accept and dominate the new industrial civilization.” The other is an initially left-wing, comparatively libertarian strand, “far more interested in achieving the libertarian goals of liberalism and socialism … especially the smashing of the state apparatus.” But the left socialists, he holds, are “trapped in a crucial inner contradiction”: they criticize not only state power but private property. Yet “how is the ‘collective’ to run its property without becoming an enormous State itself”? According to Rothbard, the majority of socialists, unable to resolve this contradiction,

turned sharply rightward, completely abandoned the old libertarian goals and ideals of revolution and the withering away of the State and became cozy conservatives permanently reconciled to the State, the status quo, and the whole apparatus of neomercantilism, State monopoly capitalism, imperialism, and war…. For conservatism, too, had re-formed and regrouped to try to cope with a modern industrial system and had become a refurbished mercantilism, a regime of statism, marked by State monopoly privilege, in direct and indirect forms, to favored capitalists and to quasi-feudal landlords. The affinity between right socialism and the new conservatism became very close, the former advocating similar policies but with a demagogic populist veneer.

The result, from Rothbard’s viewpoint, was the triumph of what is now, and has for some time been, the establishment: “the permanent war economy, the full-fledged State monopoly capitalism and neomercantilism, [and] the military-industrial complex,” wherein “education has become mere mass drilling in the techniques of adjustment to the task of becoming a cog in the vast bureaucratic machine.”

There is a tendency among some libertarians to become kneejerk apologists for the corporate class.

At the time that Rothbard was writing, however, he saw a ray of hope in the re-emergence of the anti-authoritarian left. In the very next issue, for example, he followed up “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty” with “Liberty and the New Left,” contrasting the social democrats of the Old Left with the student radicals of the New:

Social Democracy gave a pseudo-progressive and idealistic tone to the state monopoly capitalism of the New Deal, comfortably assumed a large portion of power, and eagerly came to give “liberal” and socialist coloration to the Cold War and the Permanent War Economy that prevails in the United States. … [W]hile the typical Old Left goal is to move into the seats of State power, and maneuver the State into piecemeal “reforms” to be imposed upon the public from above, the New Left scorns statism and social reformism and aims to stimulate the people themselves to build “parallel institutions” outside of, and confronting, the State apparatus.13

This negative attitude toward reformism, shared by Rothbard and the antiauthoritarian left, has often been criticized as utopian, a purist all-or-nothing perfectionism that rejects any partial or intermediate steps toward liberty. This is a serious misunderstanding. From a Rothbardian perspective, any move, large or small, in the direction of liberty is to be welcomed. Of course the large moves will be welcomed more enthusiastically than the small ones, but all are improvements; no Rothbardian will ever say, “If you can’t cut government by 100%, I don’t want it cut at all.”

One root of this misreading is a failure to distinguish between endorsement of a direction of change and endorsement of the stops along the way. Suppose there’s a serial killer who murders a hundred people a year. And suppose I manage to convince him to cut it down to fifty. (Fifty’s his lucky number, say.) By all means, that’s an improvement to be welcomed, and I would even deserve some praise and gratitude for helping to make the world a little better.

But that doesn’t mean that I should start celebrating this guy’s new fifty-murders-a-year rule as a great libertarian policy, or that I should stop looking for an opportunity to cut it down to zero by bringing the killer to justice. Above all, it doesn’t mean that I should help the killer implement his fifty-murders-a-year policy. By the same principle, if taxation is theft, for example, then although we should welcome any diminution in the government’s rate of theft, we cannot actually participate in the government’s new kinder, gentler, less intense thievery without becoming thieves ourselves.

Nor should we praise these moderate improvements in such a way as to commit ourselves to criticizing more radical improvements; it’s been said that we should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good (a phrase people seem to use only when they are about to recommend something dishonorable), but letting the somewhat-good become the enemy of the even-better hardly seems preferable. Rothbard was fond of quoting the maxim of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison: “gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice.”

Another root of the Rothbard-as-utopian-perfectionist myth is the fact that Rothbardians do indeed reject many reforms that are advertised as incremental steps toward liberty; but in such cases the reforms are rejected not because they are incremental but because they do not really move in the direction of liberty.

One example is education vouchers, which as Rothbardians we find problematic not because they fall short of a free market in education but because they threaten to extend to the private schools the kind of micromanagement control that government currently exercises — thus arguably making things worse. Another is so-called “privatization,” not in the term’s original sense of a transfer of services from government provision to free-market provision, but in what has come to be the prevailing sense of a conferral of governmental privilege and patronage — subsidies, monopolies, and the like — on private contractors. To the Rothbardian, far from stripping government of some of its powers, such “privatization” simply transforms private firms into arms of the state.

Now whether a shift from a comparatively socialistic to a comparatively fascistic mode of statism is a move up or a move down is perhaps a matter of taste; but at any rate we do the libertarian cause no favor by encouraging potential converts to associate plutocratic political cronyism with the free market. (Similar criticisms apply to “deregulation” when the entities being deregulated are the beneficiaries of state privilege, as when the Reagan administration eased restrictions on Savings & Loans while keeping federal deposit insurance intact, thus giving them carte blanche to take risks with the taxpayers’ money.)

“If ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ are such potentially confusing terms, should we be even more cautious about the loaded term ‘anarchism’?”

Rothbardians’ refusal to engage in reformist politics can seem a bar to political effectiveness. If you can’t participate in the regular political process, the worry goes, doesn’t that leave you with only the decidedly unsatisfactory options of violent revolution on the one hand or defeatist, passive withdrawal on the other?

But first, once the Rothbardian position is correctly distinguished from all-or-nothing perfectionism, it’s no longer clear that Rothbardians can’t be involved in ordinary politics — voting, running for office, and so forth. Such activities might be regarded as giving impermissible sanction to the state; but if you infiltrate the Death Star in order to blow it up, does that really count as falling to the dark side? To wield political power, admittedly, is to run the risk of being corrupted; but is such corruption inevitable? It seems like a sizeable bloc of Ron Paul clones in Congress could be pretty effective in scaling back the state without sacrificing any libertarian principle.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the assumption that the only alternatives to traditional politics are violent revolution on the one hand and resignation on the other is valid only for non-libertarian political programs. If the realization of your agenda requires the command of state power, then the only alternatives to working within the system are seizing control of government in a coup d’état, and giving up on your political goals entirely. But for a libertarian, political success is less of matter of directing the state toward certain favored ends and more a matter of blocking it from wreaking more evil. Hence while withdrawal from engagement with the state would count as defeatism for statist ideologies, it need not be so for libertarians. Hence Rothbard’s enthusiasm for the sorts of strategy he saw himself as sharing with the New Left: education, building alternative institutions, and “mass civil disobedience.”

The point is not to scribble libertarian amendments into the Constitution but to make un-libertarian laws unenforceable, to make civil society ungovernable.

“We do the libertarian cause no favor by encouraging potential converts to associate plutocratic political cronyism with the free market.”

What else did Rothbard find of value in the New Left? He was of course especially impressed by the work of such revisionist New Left historians as Gabriel Kolko and William Appleman Williams, who had shown that powerful business elites were among the principal lobbyists for supposedly anti-business but actually corporatist, cartelizing legislation. But it may come as a surprise to learn that for Rothbard the New Left’s most “crucial contribution to both ends and means … is its concept of ‘participatory democracy.’” Rothbard writes:

In the broadest sense, the idea of “participatory democracy” is profoundly individualist and libertarian: for it means that each individual, even the poorest and the most humble, should have the right to full control over the decisions that affect his own life.

This may seem less surprising once one realizes that for Rothbard the free market is the fullest realization of participatory democracy. And in this he is simply following his teacher Ludwig von Mises, who wrote:

In the capitalistic society, men become rich … by serving consumers in large numbers…. The capitalistic market economy is a democracy in which every penny constitutes a vote. The wealth of the successful businessman is the result of a consumer plebiscite. Wealth, once acquired, can be preserved only by those who keep on earning it anew by satisfying the wishes of consumers. The capitalistic social order, therefore, is an economic democracy in the strictest sense of the word. In the last analysis, all decisions are dependent on the will of the people as consumers.14

Of course Mises has his tongue in his cheek when he calls the free market an “economic democracy” — a term borrowed from the socialist left. But rather than saying that Mises is giving an existing term an opposite meaning, perhaps we should say that Mises is laying bare the real commitments of an existing ideal.

The idea that markets are more democratic than political so-called democracy has also been explored by David Friedman, who writes:

You can compare 1968 Fords, Chryslers, and Volkswagens, but nobody will ever be able to compare the Nixon administration of 1968 with the Humphrey and Wallace administrations of the same year. It is as if we had only Fords from 1920 to 1928, Chryslers from 1928 to 1936, and then had to decide what firm would make a better car for the next four years…. Imagine buying cars the way we buy governments. Ten thousand people would get together and agree to vote, each for the car he preferred. Whichever car won, each of the ten thousand would have to buy it. It would not pay any of us to make any serious effort to find out which car was best; whatever I decide, my car is being picked for me by the other members of the group.15

For fans of participatory democracy, which sounds more genuinely participatory — the way we vote in the marketplace or the way we vote in the polling place?

The political appeal of participatory democracy for Rothbard was its requirement of decentralization, and its rejection of a layer of political “representatives” above the people. But Rothbard also found the idea appealing outside the narrowly political sphere. He wrote: “Participatory democracy is at the same time … a theory of politics and a theory of organization, an approach to political affairs and to the way New Left organizations (or any organizations, for that matter) should function.” And he praised “fascinating experiments in which workers are transformed into independent and equal entrepreneurs.” Traditional “socialist” goals such as workers’ control of industry, then, were apparently not anathema to Rothbard.

Indeed, he would later argue that any nominally private institution that gets more than 50% of its revenue from the government, or is heavily complicit in government crimes, or both, should be considered a government entity; since government ownership is illegitimate, the proper owners of such institutions are “the ‘homesteaders’, those who have already been using and therefore ‘mixing their labor’ with the facilities.” This entails inter alia “student and/or faculty ownership of the universities.” As for the “myriad of corporations which are integral parts of the military-industrial complex,” one solution, Rothbard says, is to “turn over ownership to the homesteading workers in the particular plants.”16 He also supported third-world land reforms considered socialistic by many conservatives, on the grounds that existing land tenure represented “continuing aggression by titleholders of land against peasants engaged in transforming the soil.”17 And here again Rothbard is following that wild-eyed leftist Ludwig von Mises, who wrote:

Nowhere and at no time has the large-scale ownership of land come into being through the working of economic forces in the market. It is the result of military and political effort. Founded by violence, it has been upheld by violence and by that alone.18

Many left-wing critics of the market, such as Elizabeth Anderson,29 would reject the idea of any serious affiliation between leftist and free-market libertarian conceptions of participatory democracy. One of Anderson’s criticisms of the market is that it privileges exit over voice — that is, it gives people the freedom to act like consumers and withdraw from situations they oppose, but allows little scope for the freedom to act like citizens and shape their social situations through shared discussion. But this is a false dichotomy; for it is precisely the right of exit that is the strongest guarantee of voice. The complaints and suggestions of an equal partner who is free to withdraw his or her productive contribution are bound to be taken more seriously than those of a subjugated partner who has no choice but to put up with whatever develops. Putting an iron curtain around a cooperative venture does not make it more cooperative. The sort of participatory democracy that anti-authoritarian leftists favor is thus more closely affiliated, more naturally allied, with Misesian market democracy than with political democracy.

“The point is not to scribble libertarian amendments into the Constitution but to make un-libertarian laws unenforceable, to make civil society ungovernable.”

Ever since libertarians and leftists went their separate ways back in the 19th century, libertarians have specialized in understanding governmental forms and mechanisms of oppression, and the benefits of competitive, for-profit forms of voluntary association; while leftists have specialized in understanding non-governmental forms and mechanisms of oppression, and the benefits of cooperative, not-for-profit forms of voluntary association.

My own view is that each side has something valuable to learn about the issues in which the other side has specialized; and Rothbard’s insight into the affinity between allegedly socialist and allegedly capitalist forms of participatory democracy might be a good place to start.

Rothbard’s enthusiasm for the Left did not last, of course. By 1970 he was writing pieces with titles like “The New Left: R.I.P.” and “Farewell to the Left.”20 In his view, after a promising beginning the anti-authoritarian left had largely disintegrated into political opportunists on the one hand and cultural irrationalists on the other. While it had once been “the most intense, the most notable, and the most far-flung anti-war movement” in American history, one that “succeeded in toppling an American President” and “forcing a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam” while managing to “radicalize countless numbers of Americans” and “reveal the imperial corporate state nature of the American system,” all that now remained of the New Left was the “final reflexive convulsions of the corpse.”

Was he right? Certainly he was in part. We’ve indeed seen all too many former 60s radicals either scrambling for the establishment political trough or embracing loopy primitivist subjectivism. And when the Students for a Democratic Society, Rothbard’s favorite leftist group, collapsed and gave way to the terrorist Weather Underground, for example, that was hardly an auspicious development for the New Left. On the other hand, I’m not convinced by all of his examples: for instance, Rothbard — along with many male leftists, it should be said — viewed the feminist movement as an example of the cultural irrationalism to which the New Left was succumbing, whereas I regard it as a crucial recovery of libertarianism’s authentic 19th-century heritage and a vital complement to any politics of liberation.21 (That’s an example of the importance to libertarians of understanding nonstate forms of domination that I mentioned earlier.)

And it’s not as though the leftist elements that Rothbard liked ever completely disappeared; the organizational infrastructure collapsed, but not the aspiration. It wasn’t just free-market libertarians, but also antiauthoritarian leftists, who were left in the lurch by the deterioration of 60s radicalism. Rather than looking around sadly for an organized movement of the antiauthoritarian left, perhaps we should have tried to become that movement.

From our present standpoint, then, what lesson should we draw from the past four decades since Rothbard first published “Left and Right”? We’ve seen one “conservative revolution” after another: Reagan, Thatcher, Bush; we’ve seen what happens when conservatives get in power and finally are in a position to scale back the state like they’ve been telling us for years they’d do if those awful liberals didn’t keep blocking them. We’ve seen the purge of libertarian elements from the Right, begun by Buckley and others during the Cold War, reach its apogee during the War on Terror. It’s becoming clear that, in Lew Rockwell’s words, “conservatism has always been messianic, militarist, nationalist, bloodthirsty, imperialist, centralist, redistributionist, and in love with the hangman state.”22

“Rothbard once said that Richard Nixon was one of the best organizers the antiwar movement ever had; Bush has a fair claim to share that august company.”

As I see it, then, Rothbard’s “Left and Right” has never been more urgently relevant than it is right now. Today we face a situation remarkably similar to the one Rothbard was facing in the 1960s, including shifting ideological alliances and an increasingly unpopular war. Rothbard writes that “modern libertarians forgot or never realized that opposition to war and militarism had always been a ‘left-wing’ tradition which had included Libertarians,” so that when the right wing revealed itself as “the great partisan of total war, the Libertarians were unprepared to understand what was happening and tailed along in the wake of their supposed conservative ‘allies.’” He was talking about Vietnam and the Cold War, but his diagnosis would apply equally well to those libertarians who have allowed themselves to be lured into support for the current administration’s military policy. But the architects of that policy have misfired: the 9/11 attacks initially appeared to have killed off the so-called “Vietnam syndrome” of aversion to war that the imperialist elite have so long bemoaned; but Bush and his cronies have flatfootedly managed to reinvigorate it, and to reawaken popular suspicion of presidential war rhetoric. Rothbard once said that Richard Nixon was one of the best organizers the antiwar movement ever had; Bush has a fair claim to share that august company.

The antiauthoritarian left is becoming newly active; even Rothbard’s beloved Students for a Democratic Society has recently been revived, and has been explicitly welcoming of libertarian participation.23 Likewise, just two days ago on the LRC blog I saw a letter from leading left-wing 24 decentralist Kirkpatrick Sale to Lew Rockwell informing him about an upcoming secessionist convention. The potential for a revival of Rothbard’s left-libertarian coalition is certainly there.

But this time we have a powerful tool that Rothbard lacked: the Internet. We are no longer confined to short-run broadsheets printed up in someone’s basement: we now have access to a worldwide audience, and can far more easily find and coordinate with like-minded people, bypassing the establishment channels of information. I don’t know what the circulation of Left & Right was in 1965; but today it’s available to potentially millions of people at the click of a button — as are literally thousands of other important libertarian works. And websites exploring cross-fertilization between free-market and left-decentralist ideas are multiplying every month.25

Let me close by quoting a passage I recently saw on Brad Spangler’s blog:

Genuine libertarianism is very much left wing. It’s revolutionary. The long and tragic alliance of libertarians with the right against the spectre of state socialism is coming to a close, as it served no purpose after the fall of the Soviet Union and so-called “conservatives” have subsequently taken to letting their true big-government-on-steroids colors fly…. [I]n the period since the demise of the Soviet Union, both the radicals and moderates among the left have been subconsciously seeking a new radical creed to orient themselves upon to replace Marxism…. I believe that radical libertarians … will be most effective when they overcome any lingering right wing cultural contamination of their libertarian views and embrace their inherent radicalism — which is most at home on the left. For as the radicals go, so do the moderates grudgingly follow in small steps…. It’s time for libertarians to stop fighting the left and take up the challenge of leading the left.26

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