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I Only Read It for the Articles! Rothbard’s Penthouse Interview

  • G-Rated (Almost) Edit of October 1976 Cover
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In the 1970s, Penthouse magazine had a reputation for featuring the ideas of unorthodox political thinkers and movements. That’s why in October 1976 it interviewed Murray Rothbard to ask about the rapidly-growing philosophy of libertarianism. This interview is now difficult to find, but was recently excavated from the archives at the Mises Institute.

The article begins with an introduction that provides a great snapshot of both Rothbard's work and personality:

The Murray Rothbard wall poster depicts a graying professor pecking at a typewriter. His words rise magically from the machine and blend into a black flag of anarchy rippling above his head. Beneath the drawing is this caption: “Murray N. Rothbard—the greatest living enemy of the state.” The poster, like almost everything else relating to politics, causes Rothbard to laugh… If someone mentions the name of almost any establishment economist or political figure, Rothbard will respond with a nasal guffaw… Jerry Ford, John Kenneth Galbraith, Alan Greenspan, Ronald Reagan—they all receive the same response: a laugh followed by a theoretical disputation in which Rothbard employs buzz-saw logic to rip into these persons he views as enemies of liberty, prosperity, and the common good.

There are some entertaining stories as well. For instance, the interview points out that Rothbard’s criticism of conventional economics made him an unpopular choice for private consulting, which is often a lucrative line of work for economists. In Rothbard’s case though, “Only one firm—a mushroom factory—has called on him for consulting advice in the past twenty years.”

The bulk of the interview consists of Rothbard offering up his trademark analysis of economics and public policy. He tackles a long list of objections to the free society, explaining how government causes war, depression, poverty, and pollution, and how the market fixes these problems.

One of his best responses, especially relevant today, regards socialized medicine:

Penthouse: What about efforts to socialize medicine in America?

Rothbard: That would be a monstrous development. In countries with socialized medicine, for instance, Britain, the result has been a tremendous decline in the quality of the medical service and a huge burden of taxes on the public and on the economy. The usual advance estimates of how much socialized medicine would cost are always extrapolated from the current number of people going to doctors and other statistics. What most people don’t realize is that if a visit to a doctor were free, then many people would consult a doctor all the time. There would be an enormous increase in demand for medical service, most of it unnecessary, and then the doctor’s time would have to be rationed in some way and the quality of medical care would decrease. That happened in England, with the result that the people who can afford to do so avail themselves of private medical care. They have to do this in order to get decent treatment.

The current government intervention in the medical field in the United States has created most of the problems that now exist. By creating licensing requirements—state regulations restricting the number of doctors and medical schools—the government creates a medical monopoly and increases the cost of medicine. In the last decade or so, the government has created the Medicaid-Medicare program, which has enormously increased the cost of doctors and hospitals by an almost indiscriminate disbursement of money to doctors. At first everybody thought the program would be a big bonanza. “Now we’d be able to get most of our medical bills paid,” they thought. But what actually happened? Medical bills simply increased, and so we’re really no better off than we were before.

In fact, we’re worse off. Any further government intervention would compound the damage. And I advocate the elimination of licensing requirements for doctors and hospitals and the loosening of restrictions on other aspects of medicine. The cost of drugs could be cut by eliminating the requirement for prescriptions, which creates a pharmacy monopoly so that people have to go to licensed pharmacies in order to get their drugs. I don’t think there’s any real need for that.

There are plenty of other gems sure to interest fans of free-market economics. The entire interview will be published in The Rothbard Reader, forthcoming in 2015, edited by Joseph Salerno and myself. The collection will provide an introduction and overview of Rothbard’s thought, and will feature several of his lost and out-of-print writings alongside some better-known works.

Matt McCaffrey, former Mises Research Fellow, is assistant professor of enterprise at the University of Manchester.

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