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How I Discovered Murray Rothbard

Tags History of the Austrian School of Economics

03/03/2021

It was 1995, and I was a young scholar, an assistant professor of history of political thought at Roma Tre University. My professor encouraged me to study the American feminist movement of the nineteenth century. As young scholars usually do, I wrote a research project and submitted it for a fellowship at the Italian Center for Research (CNR). Thanks to my professor I was invited as a visiting scholar to the Department of History at Princeton University by Professor Nell Irving Painter, who taught women’s and blacks’ history. I got the CNR scholarship, and in the spring of 1995 I left for Princeton. In the meanwhile, something new had happened in my life. I had met Professor Dario Antiseri, one of the most preeminent classical liberal Italian philosophers, and he realized that actually, maybe for my familiar cultural environment, I had a passion for classical liberalism. At this point he proposed that I join, as a research fellow, his Centro di Metodologia delle Scienze Sociali at Luiss University, my alma mater. The center was devoted to research in the Austrian school of economics. Dario Antiseri knew that I was leaving for Princeton, and just the day before my flight he called me and gave me the idea of looking for those American scholars who attended Ludwig von Mises’s seminar at New York University (after Mises migrated to the US). He suggested a book which could have been useful, Austrian Economics in America: The Migration of an Idea, by Karen Vaughn. When I arrived at Princeton, I almost immediately went to the Firestone Library, where I found the Vaughn book and for the first time saw the name of Murray N. Rothbard, beside others. I was very curious about this new and original author. When I began reading Power and Market, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, and The Ethics of Liberty, I literally discovered a new world. I was totally fascinated by the new political project proposed by Rothbard, his intrinsic consistency, and his drastically different way of interpreting the role of the state in relation to the individual and the civil society. In Rothbard’s writings I not only found something totally new to me, but I also found, explained in consistent and simple words, the reasons for the inefficiency and failure of most of the politics of my country, Italy, and of most of its institutions. When I came back to Italy, I did not write a book about the American feminist movement of the nineteenth century, but I wrote a book on Rothbard and Professor Antiseri helped me publish it. My other professor was very angry with me and threatened to ruin my academic career. I never gave up, and I persisted in studying Rothbard and libertarianism. Time gave me reason, because now I am a well-regarded Rothbardian scholar in Italy, and I am chair of history of political thought at Roma Tre University.

Unfortunately, I never met Rothbard. I tried looking for him in the summer of 1995, but he had passed away during the winter. Fortunately, I had the honor of receiving a letter from JoAnn Rothbard on October 6, 1997, in which she declared: “I was very glad … to learn about your studies. I am very anxious to see your book on the libertarian thought of my husband.”1

Now I would like to mention at least two reasons for the relevance of Rothbard’s ideas nowadays. We all know that our Western civilization is under attack: capitalism, individualism, bourgeois values, ethics of labor, meritocracy, private property rights, and traditional families. These ideas are unpopular and are shared by a minority that Albert Jay Nock called the remnant, that is to say, people who have deeply studied theory and history and who have a sincere concern for the well-being of people and for civilization. This is the reason why Rothbard’s attempt to found an ethics of liberty on rationality has a special value. Here we are not talking about the naïveté of some natural law theorists of the modern time. Rothbard’s formulation is characterized by the rehabilitation of Aristotelian Thomist metaphysics for the foundation of natural law and the consequent anchoring of natural rights. If we want to defend our values and our civilization, we need at least a certain amount of universal ethics, that is to say that we must recognize that there is a basis of human nature, common to all human beings, in all times and places.

The second issue is related to the covid-19 public health crisis. And here, too, Rothbard’s teaching can be precious. The clear failure of European central planning for the provision of anticovid vaccines resembles the failure of state intervention in socialism. Moreover, the monopoly of the state in delivering the vaccine doses created a panic not related to scarcity, but to the inefficiency of the bureaucracy in the distribution of vaccines. Why is it impossible, in Italy, to let the market do its job? Why is it impossible to pay for a vaccination? If some people could be free to choose to turn to private healthcare for vaccination, this would mean speeding up the immunization process, with an advantage for all, considering that this is a race against time and that we are very late.

  • 1. JoAnn Rothbard to Roberta Modugno, Oct. 6, 1997.
Author:

Roberta Modugno

Roberta Modugno is professor of History of Political Thought at the University of Roma TRE (Rome - Italy). A scholar of American libertarianism, she is the author of several works on Murray N. Rothbard and edited the collection of Rothbard’s papers, Rothbard versus the Philosphers: Unpublished Writings on Hayek, Mises, Strauss, and Polanyi.

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