20 Years Later: The Legacy of Murray Rothbard
Today is the 20th anniversary of the death of Murray Rothbard.
The first time I ever remember reading Rothbard (that I know of) was during an introductory political science class at the University of Colorado in 1996. We were using one of those "readers" that contained selections from a variety of political theorists. The book was the second edition of Ideals and Ideologies by Terence Ball and Richard Dagger. Rothbard's For a New Liberty was featured in the section on "libertarian anarchism" (which was correctly placed within the section on liberalism).
I don't know if Rothbard is still included in the current edition, but it doesn't really matter. Back in 1996, Rothbard was still a hard-to-find author. But today, one can find virtually all of his published works at Mises.org. Consequently, the works of Rothbard are far better known today than they ever were in his lifetime. Videos, audio lectures, and of course hundreds of articles and dozens of books can be found today and easily acquired by any interested student or independent scholar.
For evidence of his renown, just look at how frequently he is attacked by his intellectual opponents, even to this day. Moreover, people who seemed like giants in Rothbard's day, such as Russell Kirk and James Burnham are virtually forgotten today. They seem like relics of a bygone era. Rothbard, on the other hand, is more relevant than ever. His writings on business cycles, money, secession, nationalism, and international trade have lost none of their applicability to the modern world. If anything, the rise of secessionist movement in Europe bring us back to his writings on that topic, while his work on the Great Depression remain the great counterbalance to the Bernanke-Krugman consensus on that era.
The growth of the intellectual movement Rothbard founded has accelerated over the past decade. Twelve years ago, I completed my master's thesis on the foreign policy of conservatives and libertarians after World War II. Rothbard was central to that research, but twelve years ago, there were few more than a handful or so people regularly writing articles from what we might call the Rothbardian perspective in places one might actually be able to find them. And to find print articles, one still needed to visit the stacks in a dusty old library and photocopy now-forgotten magazine pieces. Today, such resources have multiplied many times over, are available seemingly everywhere online, and the Ron Paul movement, explicitly Rothbardian both in foreign policy and economics, has brought in a new generation of young scholars and activists into the fold. Meanwhile, even those new and young free-market scholars who hate him know they can't ignore him. The number of writers who go out of their way to badmouth Rothbard is telling, to say the least.
Meanwhile, Rothbard's devotion to peace, freedom, and general human decency continues to attract young people who no longer accept the once-never-questioned assumptions about the state and its alleged virtues. Rothbard's writings alone are enough to change minds, and those us us who are too young to have ever met Rothbard are drawn to his scholarship, not out of some kind of personal loyalty or as part of some cult of personality, but because the scholarship is compelling. It's well written, well researched, and doesn't make excuses for the thievery, murder, and slavery imposed by states on generations of human beings. We're not content to simply accept the status quo and declare that "we" had to conscript teenagers to fight in this war or that war; that "we" had to nuke or firebomb these civilians or those; that "we" should pay our taxes for all the wonderful things the state does. There are no political or economic sacred cows anymore, and Rothbard, perhaps more than anyone else of his generation, did his part to kill them.