Power & Market

Memories of Murray

[Mr. Grant studied under Mises at NYU in the early 1960s and became a friend of Rothbard’s some years thereafter.]

If you were to ask me, many years after I last spoke with Murray Rothbard, what was the first thing that comes to mind when I think about Murray now—I’m skipping for the moment the extraordinary brainpower, the powerful books and essays, and the infectious personality—then it would be his cackle. It was not the timbre of the cackle, nor its loudness, nor its length; indeed, it was not a particularly unusual cackle at all. What made Murray’s cackle noteworthy to me was its frequency. Predicting precisely when Murray would cackle was not necessarily easy; what was easy, though, was predicting that it would surely emerge from him very often.

When I think about Murray’s cackle, I am reminded of the title of a long essay he wrote about one of our mutual heroes, the journalist H.L. Mencken. The headline for Murray’s piece called Mencken a “joyous libertarian.” Anyone who spent time with Murray and had frequent exposure to his cackle realized pretty quickly that the mantle “joyous libertarian” had switched easily from Mencken to Murray. (When I attended the Mises seminar in the early Sixties, by contrast, I found Mises anything but joyous. He appeared extremely dour. Of course, this may have something to do with the fact that I was still a teenager, while Mises was over 80; such an age difference can be quite intimidating!)

But back to Murray. How did I first meet him? I became interested in the conservative movement after, as a high school student, I heard a speech by an unknown Senator named Barry Goldwater (l can even now hear Murray shouting “fascist!” at the mere mention of Goldwater’s name) at Hunter College in May of 1960; he was introduced by Bill Buckley, by the way. I was piqued enough by Goldwater’s passionate speech to buy Conscience of a Conservative.

This was also the time when I was thinking about college. Just about when I first encountered Goldwater, and I was trying to figure out what to major in, an uncle of mine suggested economics; as a journalist, my instinct was to major in English, but my uncle told me that economics might be more practical for me.

That decision, and my natural curiosity about economics matters, gradually led me to the names of Mises, Hazlitt and Hayek.

My childhood friend Larry Moss and I started to attend the Mises seminar at New York University. At some point around that time, someone mentioned the name Murray Rothbard to me. I don’t think I had ever heard of him. I remember well that he was described to me as—I am not joking!—”an anarchist dwarf.” And so, of course, I thought that this guy Rothbard must be some kind of wacko, and I hardly gave him another thought. (Once I got to know Murray, of course, I discounted the noun—but not the word preceding it.)

As I delved more and more into Austrian economics, I began to wonder about this fellow Rothbard. At some point someone (l cannot recall who) suggested a meeting with him. And so Larry and I trudged to 215 West 88th Street (sometimes the memory is good; even now, decades later, I still recall the phone number at his apartment: SC-4-1606) for what turned out to be the first of many memorable evenings.

Often those evenings stretched to 3 a.m.; in those days (the early Sixties), New Yorkers did not worry about taking the “A” train back to Queens at such forbidden hours. Larry and I met many memorable people at Murray’s and (his wife) Joey’s apartment, including Edith Efron and Leonard Liggio.

But, of course, it was the anarchist dwarf himself who was the engine, the soul and the heart of those evenings. He seemed to love being a host and observing the give-and-take of his guests. Nor was he ever shy; if he ever lacked an opinion about anything, I certainly can’t recall such a moment!

One of the most (of many) notable things about Murray was his reaction when you asked him a question or raised a topic for discussion. His attitude always seemed open and, charmingly, quizzical—I say ‘’charmingly” because Murray was of course quite fixed in his opinions, and yet he didn’t always seem so.

This was quite unlike Mises, from whom Larry and I learned the word ‘’apodictic”; Mises not only loved (and used) that word, but he lived that word himself. But not Murray. Let me make up an example, because I can only recall the general phenomenon, rather than a particular instance: I say to Murray something that 99% of Americans would accept, such as “Well, of course, we had to get into World War II.” Murray cocks his head, looks puzzled (NOT angry, not upset, not a hint that he might even slightly disagree) and says, good-naturedly, ‘’Really? Why do you say, that?” It was exactly as if I had said something completely uncontroversial and of little importance that was rarely discussed in one’s living room, such as, “Well, of course, Washington is the capital of the United States,” or if l said my eyes are brown or Frank Sinatra had recorded “All The Way.”

In other words, one could say things in the presence of Murray with which (in retrospect) he furiously (and apodictically!) disagreed, and yet often his reaction would be the kind of mild response your grandmother might give you if you asked her what kind of flowers she liked.

In contrast, Murray could excoriate like few others. One of his favorite nouns was surely “fascist” and he used it very liberally indeed. Forget about Hitler; Murray lambasted as ‘’fascist” people from Barry Goldwater to a dear friend of mine—a libertarian who is active in Cato, mind you!—who had had the temerity to disagree with Murray on some minor doctrinal point.

Typically the evenings at Murray’s and Joey’s apartment were long (l don’t recall his ever asking me and Larry to leave, and the conversations were lively). The talk was almost always fascinating, with much back-and-forth debating and a great deal of humor and, of course, many cackles.

Joey, Murray’s wife, was a charming hostess. She seemed so sweet that I found it difficult to believe it when a mutual acquaintance told me after Joey died in the late 90s that she was in fact much tougher and meaner than Murray. I don’t recall that side of her.

My chief recollection of the apartment itself was the seemingly never-ending array of bookcases—row upon row upon row of bookcases that seemed 40 feet high and topped off mere inches from the ceiling.

In addition to those enjoyable evenings with Murray and Joey, I have of course spent countless hours immersed in his books and articles. The first one I read was probably Man, Economy, and State; I have read it 2 1/2 times altogether.

While often provocative, Murray’s opinions were indeed apodictic. This is most obvious, of course, in his theoretical tomes. In some cases, such as The Ethics of Liberty, I find him frequently unpersuasive. Even in such cases, however, he rarely fails to provoke; consider, for example, his distinction between copyright and patent (with which Mises disagreed) and his thoughts on what he called “Kid Lib.” And of course he could be delightfully un–politically correct, such as when speaking of certain feminists.

Clearly, a lot of research went into his non-theoretical works, such as America’s Great Depression and his delightful two-volume history of economic thought. Someone wrote somewhere that Murray seemed to have read EVERYTHING ever published about EVERYTHING; as one picks through his extensive footnotes, one can believe it.

Generally speaking, I find Murray’s rebuttal of Keynesian and other fallacies much more thorough and convincing than Mises’s. Firstly, Mises rarely addressed Keynes’s arguments directly (in class at NYU, he pronounced the adjective Kuh-NAY-zee-un). Secondly, Mises’s references to Keynes and others with whom he disagreed were all too often mere castigations. (By the way, I named my public relations firm after Mises; the firm is called “LVM Group,” and our clients—3M, Channel 13, the Empire State Building, and others—have no idea what the name stands for.)

As a former journalist myself, I do not agree with many of the kind words others have said about Murray’s writing. While there is no denying that he was an extraordinarily passionate and knowledgeable writer, I thought his writing too often pedestrian, cliché-ridden and uninspired. Someone once compared Murray’s writing to our hero Mencken’s, but Mencken was a WRITER; Murray was a writer, and not a great one. By contrast, while many have lambasted Mises for what they considered his dry writing, I have always found it well thought out, lucid, un-cliché-ish [I grant you that’s not a word] and [I confess] often dry. But Murray did exhibit at least one good trait lacking in Mises; Murray’s writing is lively.

Both in person and in his writings, Murray was one of the most exciting and inspiring people I ever met in my life. I’m glad I had the chance to know him.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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