Mises Daily

What Made Rothbard Great

If you don’t mind, I am going to do what men of my age do from time to time, and that is tell you war stories—usually insufferably boring for younger people, but occasionally enlightening if you find that perhaps you are going through a similar trial. I want to talk about my own situation in 1961, ’62, ’63, when I was an undergraduate.

It was a difficult time for those of us who were conservatives or libertarians, because we did not have lots of publications. We didn’t have magazines. We did not have much, and if we were on a college campus, we were pretty much alone. But there were newsletters from time to time, or there might be a tabloid newspaper from time to time, and we would find bits and pieces of intelligent material that were being produced by people who did not think that the expansion of the state was a positive aspect of our civilization.

Every once in a while, I would come across the name of Murray Rothbard—usually in a short piece of some kind, a short essay, in an obscure newsletter that I have certainly forgotten by now. Murray was generous enough to donate his time, because he rarely got any money to do it. I began to realize that there was a unique fellow out there, who spoke very clearly, very much directed to the issues of the day, on many topics: politics and economics, certainly issues of philosophy and moral philosophy.

So, I knew he was there, but I had not met him. And at that stage, I could not read much of what he had written, because it was confined mostly to a few academic journals that I was not familiar with and to newsletters to which, as an undergraduate, I did not subscribe. Then, in 1962, through the generosity of the man whose organization, the Volker Fund, funded Man, Economy, and State, an economist named F.A. Harper (known as “Baldy”—who was not bald), I was sent a copy of a brand-new two-volume work, Man, Economy, and State.

I was aware of Mises, and I was aware of Hayek, because, like most of the people who came to a libertarian position in my day, someone had handed me a copy of The Freeman, which in that era was about the only way any younger person or any average person learned about the free market economy. From The Freeman, I had learned about Mises, and I had learned about Hayek. I had bought Human Action, and I had bought Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty. I was struggling to get through them. Economics was not my major, so I did it on a part-time basis.

Then, in the summer of 1963, I got the best job I’ve ever had, and ever expect to have. I got a job where I was paid the equivalent in today’s money of $3,000 a month to sit at a desk and read Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises. I never had a job like that, and never expect to have a job like that again. So, for three months in the summer of 1963, I read. I read a lot of what Mises wrote. I read every book Rothbard had written. I read a great deal of Röpke’s material. I read a great deal of Hayek’s material. It was a wonderful, wonderful summer.

Now, understand what had happened. In 1962—early ’62—there was no book by Murray Rothbard. By the summer of ’63, there was the two-volume Man, Economy, and State. There was the 350-or-thereabouts-page monograph on America’s Great Depression. And there was his doctoral dissertation on The Panic of 1819, which was our first depression. Understand, it was within a period of approximately twelve months that this material appeared. At that point, I knew I was dealing with something certainly on the far edge of the bell-shaped curve.

What I want to talk about is not so much my personal war stories. I am going to talk about Murray Rothbard’s war stories, because the further back in time you go, the smarter and more creative you’d better be. There was no support. There was no body of literature to which you could go.

Each generation has its own responsibilities, and each generation has its own gifts and resources. The greater your resources, the greater your responsibilities. If you forget this, you will not understand why you are here. You have this tremendous ability: you can walk into any of these rooms, just of the publications of the Mises Institute, and if you bought everything on the shelves, you would be a busy beaver for the next year. Then, if you go beyond that to the Liberty Fund, and if you go beyond that to some of the better university presses, your library will cover shelf upon shelf of material defending the concept, to one degree or other, “Let us shrink the state.” There weren’t shelves upon shelves of books in 1956 when Murray Rothbard got his doctoral dissertation finished. You did not have this enormous body of literature, and if you were going to do something of a really creative nature, you had to spin it out of your own entrails—as Rothbard did.

So, let’s talk about what I see as his accomplishments.

The Rothbardian Legacy

First, conceptually—that is, his intellectual legacy that he has left us. He put Mises’ economics into a structured, organized, and readable pattern. Mises was a good writer; he was not an incompetent writer by anybody’s standards. But some men have an ability to think in a systematic fashion; and other men have an ability to communicate verbally, or at least on paper, with such great clarity that what they write sticks in your mind. Murray Rothbard had both.

He was a systematic thinker in a way that very few people of any period of time have ever been. He had the ability to communicate on a piece of paper almost better than any economist who has ever lived. Some might say Böhm-Bawerk had that ability. I would say yes, he did, but he was very narrow on the topics he addressed. Rothbard was at the other end of the spectrum. He addressed all of the issues with enormous clarity, and not just clarity, but with rhetorical skill to drive his point home into your mind where you won’t forget it. Most people do not have that skill. So, he took this body of literature—that is, the writings of Mises—and he began to put them in a format and defend them intellectually in a way much more powerful than Mises himself could defend his own positions, because Mises was not gifted rhetorically in the way that Murray Rothbard was.

You’ve got to understand, and you don’t understand, and I really didn’t understand until within the last twelve months in thinking about it, that Mises gave us this comprehensive, broad, sweeping economic theory tied to a handful of axioms and corollaries in which economics as a sweeping whole could be attained in one volume. Fat as it is, Human Action covers what needs to be covered. And, prior to Human Action, prior certainly to Mises’ writings in German, there was nothing else like it. There were textbooks: conventional textbooks, never systematically developed, never all-encompassing, never providing basic axioms that could be applied across the board. There were monographs—first-rate monographs—that were available. There were some powerful writings that economists had produced over the years, but nothing on a scale in terms of its comprehensive nature that was equal to Human Action. Rothbard took Human Action and all of the other materials that Mises had written and put them all into a format that an intelligent person who was willing to sit and read can grasp. This was an enormous skill.

Then what he did, if you look at Man, Economy, and State, was to bring the whole corpus of Mises’ writings to bear on specific aspects of economic theory. If you look to the footnotes, you find that in those footnotes that he has addressed most of the modern world of economics (except perhaps for the rigorously mathematical stuff that he knew nobody was going to read anyway—although he could, but didn’t bother). He addressed all of this material, so that in 1962, a beginning amateur in libertarian thought could, if he had the ability and access to a good enough library, pursue all of those ideas by means of the footnotes that Murray provided. If you have read Mises, you may notice that he is long on exposition and short on footnotes. Part of it was, in Mises’ own mind, he felt his own exposition was a whole lot better than the footnotes. Murray thought the same of Mises, but he did us the favor of saying, “Let me show you that there is support material here.” So, the footnotes became a kind of gold mine for any person starting out in 1962, trying to master the Austrian theory.

He was clear. He was rhetorically powerful. And he did what scholars in my generation, and even in your generation, were told you must never, ever do: he put important ideas in italics, so you could spot them. That is considered outside the realm of scholarship. And yet Murray put them in when they were needed. If you want to review something and get the idea, Murray in a very gentle, and in a very—I think—gentlemanly way put things in italics to say: “Here, dummy, review it!” And there were plenty of dummies out there who needed to review it, and of those, I was chief. So it makes reading easier.

I have, by the way, copied his style for many years, and from time to time have been accused of misusing the italics, but I found something interesting: I am attacked very often by people, and they are smart enough to attack my italics. Usually when people don’t like what I have written, they have understood what I have written. It’s a great advantage. You make it clear to them, so at least they know what they don’t like.

Now, if you have read other materials of Rothbard, you know that he integrated economic theory with the writing of history, with historiography. He wrote superb economic history, and we could tell that immediately, first of all from an academic standpoint. The only really dry thing he ever wrote was his doctoral dissertation on the panic of 1819, but it’s readable and intelligent, and it was well received by the academic community.

Then, months later, came America’s Great Depression, which was hated, panned, and rejected because it said that Herbert Hoover made the Depression worse; and then at the very end, it said what Hoover did was just getting started compared to what Roosevelt did. That made the Democrats as mad as the first part of the book made the Republicans angry. So, he killed off his audience on all sides almost immediately.

That book was ignored for literally twenty years. Finally, if not the finest historian of our generation, then the best writing historian of our generation, Paul Johnson, in his book, Modern Times, gets to the Great Depression, and relies almost exclusively on America’s Great Depression. It took twenty years for a distinguished academic to figure out that Murray was right. But of all the historians of the 20th century that I would say I want to convince, Paul Johnson is that historian—and Murray convinced him.

He wrote revisionist history. Murray was great on revisionist history. He would come against the prevailing interpretations in terms of Misesian principles of economic analysis.

He also did what all economists, including Mises, did not want to do: he began to raise the issues of ethics and its relationship to economics. That was because he called himself, I think accurately, an Aristotelian: he believed in natural rights; he believed in natural law; he believed that the state violated the principles of both natural rights and natural law. Mises and other economists (certainly the Chicago School) would never make that kind of statement. They wanted a value-free economics. Murray pursued value-free economics, but what he found again and again is that if you pursued the concept of freedom, you found over and over that this was a means of defending natural rights, which should not be violated. Mises would not have said that. Certainly, I can’t think of anybody at the University of Chicago who would base his reputation on that idea. So, he was truly a maverick.

He then challenged the critics of Austrian theory in a way that Mises could not—on issues of epistemology, on issues of interpretation. He would go into the scholarly journals in the early years, and he’d fight. He fought well. He would take on anybody. If the journal would publish the article, Murray would write the article. He was not afraid to interact with his peers, despite the fact that every time he did it, he was presenting himself as a maverick, a defender of what was regarded at the time as a dead system. To the extent that anyone remembered Austrian economics, they regarded it as a dead system. So, he was hammering down nails into his own career coffin—and he did not care. He would defend the system.

In later years, he chose not to interact in the scholarly journals because in later years they had so completely forgotten about Mises and Austrianism that he had nothing really to react against. But in the early years, in the ’50’s, in the early ’60’s, he still did. He was not afraid to mix it up. It’s a tremendous conceptual legacy that he spun almost single-handedly—almost, Mises being the giant on whose shoulders Murray stood. But there was no other comparable giant.

An Activist for Liberty

Now this gets into an area you don’t of course see in published materials, so you have to take my word for it. Organizationally, he was in one sense a lightening rod, but he was, as with any flash of light, a very bright light. There’s an old saying that bright lights attract large bugs. Murray attracted his share of large bugs—as any early movement will attract. If you read the history, for example, of the Fabian movement in England, there were some exceedingly large bugs that were attracted because it was an offbeat position, and offbeat people tended to be attracted to it.

Murray attracted young scholars. I can see one of them in the room today—I won’t point him out—but he is no longer a young scholar. But Murray attracted him. And there were others like him. He attracted beyond the personal. Very intelligent readers understood the magnitude of what he was saying, and realized in their own lives that they could not get this kind of help from anyone else, so they began to read more and more of what Murray wrote. He wrote so much, so amazingly much.

He was a one-man clearinghouse. I’ve listed three things: a clearinghouse of ideas, of footnotes, and talent. He would put people of considerable gifts into contact with each other. This was in a day before there was a Web. He would do it by the fact that bright kids were coming. He knew so many of them. He would put them in contact with each other. He would help them with their reading. He would give bibliographical information. He was just extraordinary. This man made it possible for a group of disciples to get their feet on the ground epistemologically and intellectually.

Now, Mises did the same. Mises performed that role after World War I in Vienna with the Mises Circle. Hayek was attracted. Röpke was attracted. He picked off some of the best and the brightest of his generation and pulled them out of socialism. But Murray did this, not from a strong position institutionally, but essentially no position institutionally. Mises at least had a paid position in the Austrian Chamber of Commerce. Murray was fortunate to get jobs writing book reviews, and get little grants here and there from under-funded libertarian organizations, of which there were only a handful anyway.

He created a sense of camaraderie. This I know in a later period, but I’ve had it told to me again and again by once-young men and women. That’s fun—camaraderie is a good thing. And he was an optimist. You always hear the phrase—at least in my generation you did, attached to Hubert Humphrey—the “happy warrior.” Murray was a happy warrior. He really was a happy warrior. He was always happy. He always had a good word to say. And even when he beat up on people verbally, it was (usually) always in a light-hearted manner—devastating, but light-hearted. I always appreciated that.

He was motivational. People were so impressed by what he did—and almost no one realized really how much he did, but even in what they saw of what he did—it motivated them. He was a model for them. He encouraged us to do this—a tremendous benefit for a young man starting out. We could say, “Yeah, but it’s so tough out there, Murray.” Tough, like for Murray? We were getting there in the ’60’s, when there were at least publishers for this material. He was doing this in the early ’50’s and earlier, even earlier, in the ‘40’s, before he found Mises.

Rothbard’s Liabilities

Let’s talk about the liabilities, especially in this earlier period—’56, when he got his doctorate, to ’65, when things began to change.

Intellectually, he was an Aristotelian in an age of Kant. He was a deductivist—as he showed in his writing in defending Mises—in an age of empiricism. He went to axioms of human action, and the entire profession went to statistical correlation to prove their theories. As I have said, in Mises’ phrase, Murray came, like Mises, in the name of “apodictic certainty” (a great phrase) in the middle of an era of almost complete relativism—an era in which, really, the only certainty was the speed of light, and everything else was up for grabs. He used verbal logic in presenting his case instead of mathematics. He wrote for popular journals instead of academic journals. He did all the things you are not supposed to do to advance your career with a brilliance he had for not advancing his career. I mean, he was a specialist in the division of labor in not advancing his career!

Think of the climate of opinion. He was surrounded by leftists, and I don’t mean just leftists at the university. I mean, he was surrounded by leftists among all of his relatives. Everybody he knew—except for his father—everybody he knew was debating the real issue of the 1940’s: Stalin versus Trotsky. He said that was it; that was the sweep of public opinion in the public in which he traveled. He said they would—he didn’t use the word excommunicate, but that’s what it meant—they would excommunicate each other. Yet here he was—with his father—here he was defending the idea that the state should be removed. He didn’t trust the state.

He arrives on the scene, and he goes with Human Action. Well, it’s a comprehensive treatise—and the one thing you don’t write in the modern world is a comprehensive treatise. You can write textbooks, but you don’t write a comprehensive treatise. You don’t write an Adam Smith-type book. You can’t do that because you have to know too much; you have to know too many facts; empirically, you have to make too many statistical correlations. No one can make statistical correlations outside of narrow topics suitable for detailed footnoted monographs. So, Murray walks into this and says, “I think I’m going to write Man, Economy, and State, in which I’m going to tell you about everything, with the footnotes to prove it.” Not de rigueur in academic circles in the 1950’s and ’60’s.

He was living in an age of Keynes, and he despised Keynes’ position. He was living in age of central banking. He was convinced that central banking was a gigantic cartel that was created by capitalists who were using the state to advance their personal economic position. You go try to find that even today in a standard economics textbook. Look up “Federal Reserve System.” You’re not going to find it under the chapter dealing with cartels.

He was a man who believed in non-intervention, non-coercion, non-violence in the era of the Cold War. He was a man who believed in local sovereignty, local responsibility in an era of the United Nations. And all of it was in New York, and so was Murray. So, he latches on to Ludwig von Mises, the number-one pariah of the economics community. Mises was a guy you don’t want to touch with the ten-foot pole—and Murray was sitting around there with a three-foot pole. He didn’t care—except he wanted to defend the truth.

Look at his occupational situation. Here he is in New York City. He can’t leave New York City. That’s because Murray at that stage suffered from a kind of phobia. I don’t know what you call a phobia about crossing the East River, but that’s the phobia he had. He couldn’t leave New York City. He’d get panicky. He couldn’t go up in an elevator, more than about—what?—maybe five stories at most, and he couldn’t leave New York City. He was structured in; he was pushed down; he couldn’t leave. He didn’t get a job until late, at Brooklyn Polytechnic—a bunch of engineers and no graduate school. There was no old-boy network to get him a job, because in the Austrian School, there was just one old boy!

So, there was no way to do what I call the “calling” by means of an occupation, or almost none. I define the “calling”—you can write this down—as the most important thing that you can do in which you would be most difficult to replace. That’s your calling. That’s usually not your job. Your job is how you put food on the table. But the calling is the most important thing you can do in which you would be most difficult to replace. Murray believed that his calling was to extend Austrian economic theory and the defense of the free market as an ethical idea, and extend both of those to an analysis of the whole sweep of modern civilization—history, sociology, politics (and when Murray talked politics, it wasn’t just local, it wasn’t just state, national—he could give you facts and figures on all of it).

Rothbard’s Advantages

How’d he do it? Well, he had advantages.

He was very, very smart. And he had an extraordinary memory. If you check his footnotes, you’ll see the extent to which he had an extraordinary memory.

He always had the ability to go to the central issue in a debate. It was as if he was just pushing off the extremities to get to that core issue. The only thing I’ve seen like it in sports from my generation was a defensive giant by the name of Big Daddy Lipscomb, who was a terror in professional football. They asked him once, they said, “Big Daddy, how is it that you get so many sacks against the quarterback?” He said, “It’s not so hard. I just go in and I tear off all the people around the quarterback till I get him.” That’s what Murray does with an argument. All of the defensive paraphernalia, all of the offensive lineman on the other side of the line, and he just picks it off and goes right to the quarterback and sacks him. That was his gift. Mises did not have it to that extent. Mises was smart. But Murray was a master of simply, publicly, either decapitating or disemboweling the opponent. They never liked to come back twice.

He wrote clearly. He wrote continuously. He wrote for almost anyone who would give him an opportunity to put an idea in print. That was an advantage. Because he got disciples. People came to him because he never stopped writing, and he had the option of going for tiny little newsletters and tiny little magazines for either no money or hardly any money, and he did it. He had those outlets and was able to recruit a generation of disciples. They just didn’t pay him any money—it was part of his calling, but it wasn’t part of his job.

He had Mises as an advantage. Now, that’s an advantage. That’s way up there on the list of advantages. Because Mises by then, by 1949, had Human Action in print, and he had Socialism in print, and Theory of Money and Credit was in print. So, the basics of the position Murray did have access to. And it wasn’t just that Murray read them; Murray mastered them, internalized them, brought them into the way he thought, and he applied them—a tremendous advantage. Mises was in New York City because he had fled from pre-Nazi Austria, then went to Switzerland, then fled from Switzerland, and then came here. He had the Seminar, a weekly seminar, a graduate seminar, which he would allow non-enrolled students to attend, and Murray attended. That was a tremendous advantage.

He was curious. It never stopped. Everything was grist for Murray’s mill. He would get excited about some of the strangest things that almost anybody could imagine. And yet, he’d make them interesting. And he tied them to Austrian economic principles.

He was a great conspiracy theorist. He believed in it because it was consistent with Austrianism. Basically it’s this: you start with methodological individualism, which means that individuals act to improve their situation, and therefore these great impersonal social forces are mythic. Well, that’s consistent with the Austrian position. And Murray believed that. So, he said if you want to find out why people do something, either ask them or see what they’ve written, and then follow the money. Then he looked at the state, and he perceived the state as an oppressive agency, but an oppression that could be used to feather one’s own nest. So, then he said, “All right; I’m going to see what people are doing in terms of establishing state power, and follow the money.” He followed the money. Now this, let me tell you: if you want a suicidal pill academically, you adopt conspiracy theories—unless you’re a Marxist. If you’re a Marxist, you get to do it—because you’re a Marxist. But nobody else is supposed to do it. And Murray did it—killing himself, in a sense, academically.

He would challenge anybody with the optimism and the laughter and the good-nature—all were advantages that most of us don’t have. He also had what no one talks about, but was important—the Volker Fund. The Volker Fund was the one large source of libertarian money until the mid-’60’s. He did get some money from them. He wrote book reviews, he wrote position papers—I can tell you, if you want to be systematically humiliated, all you have to do is go up to the third floor of this building and look at the file cabinets of Murray Rothbard’s letters and memoranda—whacked out on his manual typewriter and sent out in voluminous quantities to anyone and everyone, and to the Volker organization. We are talking not one filing cabinet; we are talking stacks of filing cabinets of materials that in many cases were suitable for publication. The only thing in all of it that even vaguely can cheer me up is the fact that he would use X’s to cross out stuff in his articles: XXXXX. This meant at least he didn’t get it perfect the first time. I call that the X-rated Rothbard. At least he was human enough to put those X’s in. That was about the only thing that even showed a trace of normality in his academic ability.

He married the right woman. I think that is as large a factor as one can imagine. If he hadn’t had the support of his wife, I’m not sure that he could have been equally productive.

Then, beginning in ’65, it began to change. I basically boil it down to two things: first was the Vietnam War, and the other thing was stagflation.

The Vietnam War was a trauma in American academic life, and social life generally, because it created enormous doubts in the wisdom of politicians among the brightest and best of America—the students who were coming in. They began to lose faith in the state. They began to lose faith in public pronouncements by politicians. They lost faith in the Establishment because they were being drafted to go to a war they did not believe in. They lost faith on the campus in the reigning paradigms of the age. The old liberalism did not survive two things. Two things killed it. One was the assassination of Kennedy. The can-do liberalism got shot down—literally killed. As an emblem of the old can-do liberalism, state-run liberalism died. And then, within months, you had the escalation of the war. The faith began to crack.

There was a revived interest in conspiracy theories during this period—not widespread, but much more widespread than had existed in 1963. The Kennedy movie, the JFK movie, is kind of a living testament to a conspiracy theory of the assassination. You know how many of them there are. They are truly a dime-a-dozen. There are lots of conspiracy theories. But they were never popular among the general public until the assassination of Kennedy. After that, they became popular.

And then there was stagflation of the ’70’s. When inflation, which was supposed to cut unemployment, did not cut unemployment, and the Phillips Curve got kicked way, way out to the right—in other words, the old idea that if you just inflated to five or six percent, you could reduce unemployment to four percent or five percent—we were then getting inflation—expansion of money—in double-digit figures. You had stagnation; you had a recession with Nixon; you had a recession with Ford; and then, when they began to finally tighten the money supply in 1979, it led to the beginning of the recession of 1980 and ’81. Finally, the old Keynesian paradigm began to lose adherents because all of the genius of the economists could not get prices down. They could not get unemployment down. It was the end of the Phillips Curve; it was the end of Bretton Woods: the agreement on gold. Nixon closes the gold window, prices skyrocket, the dollar begins to decline: it was all the things that the Austrians said would happen, but nobody cared. And now, people were ready to listen, more people than ever before.

Murray was ready to go—with articles, pamphlets, lectures, all of it. He had done the groundwork when everybody hated him. He had written Man, Economy, and State, he had written America’s Great Depression—the basic groundwork with supporting materials, he had personally written. And now, somebody, more and more, somebody was willing to listen. He had done his work when there was no thanks for it.

He was ready, he was prepared for intellectual combat—trained, skilled, battle-ready. Battle-ready—when the Vietnam War of the ’60’s and the stagflation of the ’70’s began to undermine people’s faith in the prevailing Keynesian world-view, and the prevailing Cold War world-view of that generation. He had done the work, he was ready for battle. He had written everything you were supposed to write. He had done the book reviews, he did the newsletters, the Triple-R (Rothbard-Rockwell Report). He did all of it. He did what you were supposed to do, win or lose. Most people won’t do it. If you don’t have the big win out there, they won’t sacrifice to do the work. He did the work.

The World Today

Now look at we’ve got. He did not live to see the Internet. He died about a year before it took off. He did not live to see LewRockwell.com, to see Mises.org. He would have loved it. And if somebody had shown him a way to get an electric typewriter to type into it, he would have participated. But he respected it. Look at the situation today. For ten dollars a month (or for real cheapskates, five dollars a month), you can put your own Website up. You’ve got something to say? You can say it. You want to do a blog? You can blog it. You’ve got articles to publish, books to publish? You can get online and Google will eventually attract people. People will find you. This in operation is what Albert J. Nock called the “Remnant” in that famous essay on Isaiah’s job. They will find you—the line of the generation that you’re more familiar with: “If we build it, they will come.”

Now, there may not be a lot of them. And you may not be good enough to attract and keep a lot of them. But if you build it, some will come. And one thing is clear—if you don’t build it, none will come. The number of journals now—academic journals—the number of publishing houses that are willing to take libertarian, anti-state, shrink-the-state books and manuscripts and publish them (if they’re good enough), the number of outlets that we have today is just extraordinary compared to what it was when Murray Rothbard was in high school and college. It’s not the same world.

The advantage that Rothbard had was that he did not have this gigantic amount of material to master. He had Mises to master. That’s certainly a good start. Even Murray couldn’t keep up with today’s output—and neither can you. But give it a try. You can’t read every article. You can’t read every free e-letter that comes down the pike, you cannot read all of the articles that are published just within LewRockwell and Mises.org—let alone other sites that give you supporting material. You can’t read all the books that are published. You can’t subscribe to all the magazines that will reinforce your position. The disadvantage is you’re always going to be behind. But the advantage is your weaponry will be much more effective, because you can find articles that you need. You can find the background material in a three billion page, free, on-line encyclopedia that the Web is and Google enables you to access.

You can find a community of people who hold to ideas. Then you can get the division of labor. And if one guy does one topic and does it well, he’ll get a few disciples, and they’ll work on that end of it. Whether it’s labor economics, whether its central banking, whether it’s the history of cartels, whether its monopoly theory—you will find people now because of the enormous effect of the Web and the enormous effect of materials that are first-rate materials that you can gain access to. You can begin to extend this work even though it’s a relatively small group. You can’t take over the world—but you can inflict damage while we’re waiting. Look, as someone told me years ago, you can’t fight city hall, but you can pee on the steps and run.

Now, you have been given this enormous advantage that Rothbard is behind you, that Mises is behind you. Seminars are available for you to come and get this stuff boiled down. This didn’t exist forty years ago. Surely it didn’t exist fifty years ago, when Rothbard was coming up. You can do a great deal even though it doesn’t seem like it. You can be part of an enormous division of labor—social division of labor, intellectual division of labor, which it was too expensive to do as recently as twenty-five years ago—and now you can do it. And that’s what I would tell you to do. Specialize in one area where you really have confidence that you’re making a difference. And if somebody wants to know something about that area, he comes to you—not because you’re loud, not because of anything except what you put online. It’s coherent, it’s meaningful, and people want to find out about it. They’ll come to your site.

Go and Do Thou Likewise

And yet, you must also do what Rothbard did. You must keep a broad picture. You can’t just specialize. You’ve got to apply these principles, not as a specialist, but as an accomplished amateur, a gifted amateur. You apply the same principles across the board. And you keep working. If nobody ever comes to ask you your opinion, that’s not your fault—because they just never came. Murray worked in that situation for years. Nobody came, nobody cared. And then things changed, and he was in a position to begin to have influence.

Each of you should look at your own situation, your own area of specialty—that thing, that calling, that most important thing in which you would be most difficult to replace—each of you has that niche somewhere. Find out where it is, and begin doing the grunt work. You must do the grunt work, but it sure is easier to do it with the Web than ever before. The tool is there; don’t walk away from the tool. Interact, read the Mises materials, read anything you can find on the Web that helps you develop two things: real knowledge of a specialty in which you will make a difference to somebody else; and, secondly, a broad sweep of information which enables you to comment at least intelligently, though not as an expert, but to comment intelligently because you’re applying these fundamental principles to specific situations.

How many people do you think are in this room? If each of you wrote three articles or five articles in the next five years and you stayed in communication with each other, just keeping up with each other in this room would keep you very busy. And it can be done at almost no cost because of the Web. So, that’s what I would tell you to do. Go and do thou likewise. You will not be as gifted as Rothbard. You will not write Man, Economy, and State. You will not write—I guarantee you—you will not write a monograph as revolutionary and yet as accurate as America’s Great Depression, even if you work real hard. And you know the great thing about it? You don’t have to. Because it got done. It’s been done. Been there, read that.

But what you can do is to go where no one else you know has gone, and hardly anybody else is interested in, and nobody really wants to focus on, and you can niche that; you can own it; you can make it yours. And if all you do is put up a site with links to all the other sites or articles or materials—if all you are is a clearinghouse on the Web—you are doing something tremendously important. You’re reducing other people’s difficulties in locating information. You are participating in the intellectual division of labor.

That’s my call to you, my challenge to you. When you go out of here, when you leave this conference, you’ve had it poured into you. Now what’s going to come out? You’ve had enormous benefits poured into you; you’ve had advantages given to you; and you have just—whether you know it or not—increased your personal level of responsibility. You can’t avoid that, because you’ve been here. It’s too late. Now, go apply it. I don’t know where you’re going to do it; I don’t know what you’re major is; I don’t know what you’re interest is. Whatever it is that you really love in which you’d be most difficult to replace—get online, get used to writing, crank the stuff out. If you need to revise it, you don’t even need the X’s—just use the delete key. Murray may not have liked modern technology, but I really believe he would have loved the delete key. We have the delete key.

It’s time for everybody in this room—not tonight; I’ll give you a week—either to be online with his own Website or participating in a joint effort by the time you graduate from whatever program you’re in. When you walk out of that program, you better have something online. If you’re an undergraduate looking for a graduate degree or your graduate fellowship, and you can say “Here’s what I’ve done, and it’s online, and you can see it”—that’s an advantage. That’s an edge in a highly competitive world. You go out to get that job, and you can say “I’ve got my own Website; you can take a look at it; you can see what I’ve done”—that is a competitive advantage.

So that’s my challenge. Go and do thou likewise.

Gary North delivered this speech upon receiving the 2004 Rothbard Medal at the Mises Institute, Auburn, Alabama, on June 10, 2004. Click here to listen to the audio.

What is the Mises Institute?

The Mises Institute is a non-profit organization that exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian School of economics, individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. 

Non-political, non-partisan, and non-PC, we advocate a radical shift in the intellectual climate, away from statism and toward a private property order. We believe that our foundational ideas are of permanent value, and oppose all efforts at compromise, sellout, and amalgamation of these ideas with fashionable political, cultural, and social doctrines inimical to their spirit.

Become a Member
Mises Institute