Speech / Presentation

The Man the World (Still) Needs

Murray N. Rothbard

[Excerpt from the opening speech given at the Mises Institute’s 35th Anniversary gala in New York City, October 6, 2017.]

Thank you Ashton. Thank you all so much for making the time to be with us here on this fantastic fall weekend in New York.

We hear a lot about young people turning to socialism. Ashton is not one of them. She worked for a Texas congressman not named Ron Paul when I met her. You’d be shocked at how many young fans Murray Rothbard and the Mises Institute have in DC. There are more of them out there than you think, on Capitol Hill and agencies and think tanks.

They would come to our meetings in Ron’s office with these sheepish looks on their faces, and say “I work for senator so and so,” or the department of such and such, blah, but I’m a libertarian!” And they read Rothbard, they love the Mises Institute. I think Murray would be thrilled to hear this.

Those of you who joined us in Asheville last September, it’s been a long year. ... Now I know you all called it, and knew Trump  was going to win. But it’s such a shame we didn’t have Murray Rothbard around to give us his perspective on Clinton vs. Trump.

Imagine Murray on deplorables and missing emails and Russia Gate and California secession and “not my President.” And imagine Murray giving the stick, and sometimes the carrot, in response to the daily Trump show. THAT I would pay to read. Did you hear this statistic recently, that only a quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government? Great, isn’t it? I immediately thought Murray would say we shouldn’t let them get away with this “separation of powers” nonsense anyway.

But I’d like to talk about Murray Rothbard’s legacy.

As I mentioned Dr. Paul’s office was a frequent gathering spot for libertarians in DC. We held a series of great lectures for staff, including one with the great Dr. Walter Williams. At the time he lived on a farm in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and drove to northern Virginia during the week to teach at GMU. It was a long drive back, and he got home late. His wife would worry about him driving in the dark. So he liked to joke that he wanted enough life insurance to take care of his family if something ever happened, but not so much that his wife would secretly, deep down, start to think about all the things she might do with the proceeds...

Obviously he was joking, but his point was nobody is indispensable or so important the world can’t live without them. The best we can hope for is to leave some legacy for the future, and he pointed out how great men and women leave a legacy through their work.

This is true for Murray Rothbard, even though he died much too young. What we’re left with is Murray’s work, which is to say A LOT. We’re left with a lot.

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This is his 62-page bibliography, spanning from 1949 to his death in 1995. Thirty full-length books, 100 book chapters, 1,000 scholarly and popular articles. Imagine if he had lived another 10 or 20 years!

Professor Guido Hülsmann, who is here tonight, says it’s impossible to read everything Rothbard wrote.

Rothbard’s critics sometimes dismiss his non-academic work, and his willingness to write for lay audiences on philosophy and ethics and political theory and all kinds of areas beyond economics. We can only ask them how many academics are more widely read than ever 20 years after they’re gone? How many have 500-page manuscripts lying around to be published as “new” books 20 years after they die? Who today remembers Arthur Burns, former chairman of the Fed and Columbia professor, who tried to block Murray’s dissertation on the Panic of 1819? Whose legacy endures?

Millions of people around the world read and know Rothbard because he didn’t limit himself to academic journals. Yet there is a recurring theme in his life: if only he had tempered himself a bit, downplayed his more radical views on war and foreign policy, anarchism, banking, and especially politics, he could have secured a comfortable tenured position at a major university. He certainly had the intelligence and the resume for it, with multiple degrees from Columbia and an incredible publishing ethic.

It’s hard not to see the parallels between Murray’s career and Ludwig von Mises’s career, although they were two very different men. But both were treated shabbily by academia despite having written major treatises, both were seen as intransigent even by their ideological compatriots, and neither ever made much money. Their reward lies in their legacies.

Many of you know there was an effort to downplay the work of Mises for strategic reasons. Dr. Joe Salerno recalls this shift beginning in the late 1970s, in libertarian circles. Joe was present for some of those conversations. This was not a conspiracy or an attempt to hurt Mises personally, but a tactical decision — made not by his intellectual enemies but by his fellow travelers.

His intransigence was a problem. His memoirs were a problem. More palatable voices who could win over the mainstream were needed. And so a tacit decision was made to promote in particular the work of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan — all of course good and brilliant men with brilliant careers. Hayek and Friedman already had the cache of a Nobel prize; Buchanan would win one in 1986. But arguably none of the three approached the depth and breadth of Mises or wrote anything on the level of Human Action.

But despite all of this, despite everything Mises faced, his work was too important to be ignored. His work broke through and spoke for itself. His legacy today is secure. Even his worst critics now admit he was among the most influential economists and thinkers of the 20th century. He earned his status. Many people in this room, along with Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell, played a role in securing Mises’s legacy, in making sure he held his rightful place in the history of economics.

If we judge Mises’s influence by how vocal and highly placed his critics are, then his legacy remains intact. We know this because every six months or so the New York Times, Washington Post, Paul Krugman, etc., produce an article lamenting how libertarians have taken over everything. And they always mention Mises in these articles. That’s as good an indicator as any that you’ve made it.

These same outlets frequently attack Hayek, Friedman, and Buchanan as well — in fact the latter recently was the particular target of a very dishonest and shameful book written as a political hit job.

So maybe there’s a lesson there. Maybe intransigence is not such a vice. Maybe even small compromises will never win favor from those with a political axe to grind, those who will never support good economics or liberty. Maybe Austro-libertarian thinkers should just focus on the truth.

Rothbard took this lesson to heart, and did not hesitate to challenge even his great mentors, much less the academic orthodoxy.

But for all of his output, and all of his brilliance, his legacy is still very much in question. Murray’s place in history, as an economist and a thinker, is not secure. Like Mises, Rothbard continues to face headwinds even after his death. Many libertarians consider his work too radical, too focused on anarcho-capitalism, or insufficiently devoted to egalitarianism. They don’t like his insistence on a natural rights justification for laissez faire, or his ironclad anti-war views. Some economists don’t like his forays into political theory, despite Hayek having done so. Some don’t like his strategic overtures to both the Left and Right in different periods of his life.

But we do.

This doesn’t mean his work can’t be refuted or criticized or expanded upon. Certainly everyone here disagrees with Murray about something, because he wrote about everything. We need not lionize him. But he deserves to have his legacy made secure, to take his rightful place in the ranks of great 20th century economists and political theorists, as the rightful heir to the Austrian tradition.

We should care about Murray’s legacy not out of spite for his detractors, not because we want to prove he was “right,” and not even out of a sense of justice for a man who contributed so much.

The world, especially young people who don’t know his work, needs Murray.

  • We still need his unbelievably trenchant analysis of politics and culture. Go back and read his Rothbard-Rockwell Report articles from the early 1990s on Rwanda, or Kosovo, or the Clintons, or PC, or politics ruining sports — every word holds up today;
  • Economists, especially economics students, desperately need Rothbard and Man, Economy, and State as the bridge back to Human Action and the Austrian tradition — as they suffer through 800 level math classes and learn to force data into predictive models that don’t work;
  • Libertarians still need Rothbard for his uncompromising ethical case for laissez-faire, to prevent libertarianism from sliding into a hybrid ideology of “low-tax liberalism” that sells out principle but still doesn’t win;
  • We still need Murray to show us that progressives, far from being the champions of the poor and marginalized, represent nothing more than an unholy alliance of state interests and court intellectuals; and to remind us that conservatives are nothing more than a jobs and war program, who consolidate the gains of the Left; and
  • We need his wit, wisdom, spirit, and bravery — all of which are in short supply today.

The world needs Murray because he still matters. And it’s up to all of us to secure his legacy as one of the 20th century’s great economists and thinkers.

The world has Mises. It still needs Rothbard.

Thank you very much.

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