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Memories of Murray on His Ninety-Fifth Birthday

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Tags U.S. HistoryHistory of the Austrian School of Economics

I first met Murray Rothbard when, as treasurer of the New Jersey Libertarian Party, I invited him to give the keynote address at our inaugural convention. He graciously agreed to do it for the paltry sum of $75 plus a puny chicken dinner. Prior to his talk, I introduced myself to him, and we spoke for a while about the state of the libertarian movement before I mentioned that I was a graduate student in economics and was reading some of the books and articles that he had cited in his treatise Man, Economy, and State. I never expected his reaction to my casual remark. His eyes immediately lit up and he could barely contain his enthusiasm. He feverishly searched his pockets for a pen to no avail and, when I offered him one, he asked me for my contact information and told me that he would pass it on to some people in New Jersey who had formed an Austrian economics reading group.

The following Monday I received a call from a student member of the group who invited me to join the reading circle, which was codirected by another one of my libertarian heroes, Walter Block. Soon after, I was invited to the inner sanctum of Murray’s apartment in Manhattan for a personal meeting with him. I was escorted to his apartment by a veteran member of the reading group. I was very nervous on the way, because I was anticipating a somewhat formal interview, in which Murray would grill me and easily expose the staggering inadequacies in my knowledge of libertarianism and Austrian economics. But my apprehension instantly dissipated when Murray excitedly greeted me at the door with a merry “Joe, my boy, it’s great to see you again.”

It was a memorable evening. The other student and I sat on the living room rug while Murray regaled us from his couch with jokes, anecdotes, and his observations on current affairs. The conversation was light but interspersed with questions to me about my views on economic and political matters. At one point, the question of what methods were justified in recovering one’s property from looters came up. Murray opined that a store owner was justified in using defensive violence—including deadly force if necessary—in defending his property from looters. But he believed that if the looter had already seized the property and was running away, the owner could not employ deadly force to retrieve his stolen property and had to call the police. I timidly suggested that the store owner would be justified in using deadly force if necessary to retain control of his property whether it involved defending or recovering it. Murray thought for a moment and then said: “Ahh, now THAT’S a conversation I’m willing to have.”

I also recall discussing the question of how state-owned property should be disposed of after the libertarian revolution. Murray was lukewarm on my suggestion that it should be auctioned off and the proceeds divided up among taxpayers. He was also not keen on giving ownership of the property to the employees, that is, public schools to the teachers, railroads to the engineers and conductors, etc. These options would be too time consuming, would require a state-like entity to carry out, and could reward the wrong people. The overriding goal, he said, was to return all state property to productive use in the private sector as soon as possible. In addition, he pointed out that it was indispensable to maintain the relevant technological unit intact, which meant no piecemeal homesteading of parts of highways, water and sewer systems, airports, etc. The best solution, he said with a twinkle in his eye, is to give ownership of the entire physical asset to “the heroes of the libertarian revolution.”

Later in the evening, a surly looking attendant at a seedy parking lot directly across the street from Murray’s second-floor apartment began to loudly blow on a trumpet. Since it was a hot and steamy New York summer night, Murray’s living room windows were open, and the sound was cacophonous and distracting. Murray was becoming increasingly annoyed, and after a few minutes he could restrain himself no longer. He began to yell from his perch on the couch “SHADDUP! SHADDUP!” in perfect New Yorker slang. At this point, his wife, Joey, wisely intervened, shushed Murray, closed the windows, and brought a fan into the room. I left Murray’s apartment well after 12:00 a.m.

In the years that followed, I enjoyed increasing personal contact with Murray. I saw him countless times at conferences and seminars, and regularly met him for lunch in Manhattan during semester breaks and summers. What struck me most about Murray was not just his creative genius as an economist, social theorist, and political philosopher, but the fact that he was a “real person,” a term that he himself often used.

A real person is one who loves liberty not as an empty abstraction, but as a real social and economic system that produces the goods, institutions, and culture that are required for flesh-and-blood human beings to live their lives peacefully, prosperously, and happily. This explains why Murray cherished and celebrated American culture and society and was proud to call it his own. Murray was an unapologetic admirer of American culture, because he viewed it as the specific historical product of the relatively libertarian and individualist American capitalist system. Thus, he loved The Godfather movies and James Bond movies, late-night visits to Denny’s restaurants, and drinking martinis with his friends at the famous Algonquin Club on Forty-Fourth Street in Manhattan (where the Algonquin Round Table of famous writers, critics, and actors used to gather for lunch every day from 1919 to 1929).

A few other anecdotes about Murray the real person come to mind. Once at an Austrian economics conference in Hartford, Connecticut, Murray wanted to go to a restaurant to continue a late-night conversation he was having with me and several other graduate students. So, we all piled into my car and proceeded to search for a place to eat. We drove around for a half hour, passing numerous restaurants that had already closed. Finally, Murray could contain his frustration no longer and declared: “What’s wrong with these people! Don’t they realize that the Industrial Revolution occurred two hundred years ago and that we have electric lights now? Why do they stop serving hungry customers just because it’s dark outside?” Fortunately, just as we were about to turn back toward the conference site, I spotted a pizzeria that was open for business. Murray was overjoyed and exclaimed: “Joe, you’re a hero of the revolution!”

A few years later, I participated with Murray in a four-day conference on methodology at the US Military Academy at West Point. By the end of the second day Murray was getting bored and was eager to find entertainment outside the confines of the stodgy and somewhat oppressive atmosphere of the campus hotel. He complained to me that academics in general were too stuffy and pretentious and that we needed to “break out of the hotel and go over the wall to have fun among real people.” I asked the hotel concierge if he could recommend a club that featured music and dancing. He recommended an establishment that was fifteen miles away in Newburgh, New York. Six of us, including Murray, set out in a car on a route that took us along the dark winding roads through the mountainous terrain abutting the Hudson River. After a few minutes of driving, a thick fog set in and visibility decreased to ten or fifteen yards. We slowed down to twenty miles per hour. Several times we debated turning back, but on each occasion Murray exhorted us: “Onward troops! Press on to our destination!” We did as Murray asked and wound up having a great time, although the club was a bit of a neighborhood dive with several surly townies casting sidewise glances at our celebratory group. But Murray was just happy to sit and imbibe the atmosphere and drink while providing a hilarious running commentary on the proceedings. He was there, he told us, merely as a “sociological observer.” On the drive back, he serenaded us with the few lines he remembered from the disco song “On the Radio” by Donna Summers, which the club DJ played repeatedly that evening. Murray had a practiced musical ear and a good vocal range, and he sounded pretty good.

Perhaps Murray’s greatest virtue, however, was his genuine and abiding intellectual humility. Now, Murray did not have a trace of false modesty with respect to his own monumental intellectual achievements, and he proudly acknowledged the titles “Mr. Libertarian” and “Dean of the Modern Austrian School” bestowed on him by his admirers. Yet he always generously credited his predecessors and mentors and sought to build upon their scholarship. Thus, he always considered himself, as an economist, no more than a “student of Mises,” and saw his own prodigious contributions to economic theory as merely attempts to advance what he called the “Misesian paradigm.” For example, at the famous conference in South Royalton, Vermont, which was a catalyst for the modern revival of the Austrian school, Rothbard gave a lecture in which he ventured to criticize a position taken by Mises on making ethical value judgments based on economic theory. At the time, Rothbard was nearly fifty years old, a prolific author, and one of the most accomplished and recognized Austrian economists in the world. Yet, after his talk ended, I remember him confiding to a few of us in attendance that he was still a little “shaky” from having publicly criticized his mentor for the first time.

Another example occurred when I met Murray at his favorite Jewish deli in Manhattan. It was sometime in the early 1990s, when he was working on his monumental two-volume treatise on the history of economic thought. Over lunch, he eagerly told me about the many new discoveries he had made: the unjustly obscure economists he had dug up; how one apparently minor economist was actually a brilliant movement builder although his influence was evil; how modern psychobabble, which he generally detested, was actually useful in explaining the thought of a famous classical economist. And on and on he went in his rapid-fire New York style of speaking. He was especially gleeful when he informed me about the novel interpretations and critiques he was developing that would puncture the overblown reputations of some of the most venerable figures in the history of economic thought. While he spoke, I rarely uttered a word, because I was fascinated by what I was learning and intent on absorbing every new idea and insight. I was also stunned by the breadth and depth of his knowledge about a subject that he had not previously written on in much detail. But he must have mistaken my uncharacteristic silence as a sign of boredom, because after about an hour he suddenly stopped and sheepishly apologized for monopolizing the conversation. I assured him that I was not bored and urged him to continue, and, to my delight, he happily resumed his discourse for another two hours or so. Later, I thought to myself, How could he think that I ever would want to interrupt him, a creative genius who was giving me a private seminar on a work in progress that was destined to be a classic as soon as it was published?

Happy Birthday, Murray! I know the world will not soon see your like again.

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Contact Joseph T. Salerno

Joseph Salerno is academic vice president of the Mises Institute, professor emeritus of economics at Pace University, and editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.

 
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