The Posthumous Rothbard
In an eloquent tribute to Murray Rothbard at the Mises event organized in his honor on October 6 and 7, Joe Salerno observed that his subject is still producing books twenty years after his death. Contrary to the misconception that Murray turned away from scholarship toward political advocacy in his later life, Murray, we are assured, wrote serious works in economics and history up until the end of his life—and then furnished even more food for thought after his death. Murray’s latest posthumous treatise The Progressive Era, which is well over 500 pages, testifies to the truth of Salerno’s observation and to the indefatigability of our deceased friend as a research scholar. And while the highly competent editor Patrick Newman, who is himself an economist and historian, integrates two of Murray’s already published works into the text, the result is nonetheless a very coherent volume. The added chapters which I recall reading in the 1990s, on World War One collectivism and on World War One as the fulfillment of the dreams of Progressive intellectuals, fit well into the rest of the study. They are also the historical studies by Murray that deeply influenced my own historical writings.
Although The Progressive Era cites to good effect other scholars, some of them on the far Left, like Gabriel Kolko and James Weinstein, as well as historians of American political movements, like Paul Kleppner and Richard Jensen, the resulting synthetic study is entirely original. It brings together all the causal strains that contributed to the Progressive movement which dominated American politics in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Among the varied developments that The Progressive Era examines in connection with American Progressivism are the cartelization of industries and transportation, the construction of national economic policy, the transformation of postmillennial Protestantism into a religion of social progress and statism, and the gradual abandonment of free enterprise ideas by the Democratic Party under the influence of William Jennings Bryan and the populists.
Murray manages to address all these variables in offering what is intended to be a comprehensive picture of a complicated historical phenomenon. To whatever extent he manages to achieve this ambitious goal, we may attribute his success to two factors. Murray is an unusually lucid writer, even when dealing with complicated economic subjects. He had a natural gift as a writer and produced clearly expressed, high-quality scholarship with what seemed to me while observing his work rate minimal effort. Let us remember that this volume, which Professor Newman put together out of a collection of papers found in Murray’s apartment, was not something the author was writing under contract. They were just pages he was working on and left behind after his unexpected death.
My own favorite part of the work as an intellectual historian is what may appear to some economic historians as its most eccentric aspect. Quite a lot of space is devoted to American Pietists and Low Church Protestants as the carriers of the Progressive bacteria. Murray argues that in contrast to the “Liturgicals,” Catholics, traditional Lutherans and conservative Calvinists, the more Pietist Protestant sects, particularly the postmillennialists among them, contributed to the culture that produced the Progressives. Those who believed that true Christians were required to create the Thousand Year Kingdom in preparation for the return of Christ, eventually came to view the state as the tool by which earthly moral progress would be advanced. Murray painstakingly goes through the family histories of leading Progressive activists and demonstrates a connection between their backgrounds and upbringings in postmillennialist households. This nexus is already well-known in the cases of Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Jane Addams, Newton Baker, Richard Ely, Elihu Root, and John Dewey. But Murray also locates a similar connection among less well-known advocates of Progressive politics, who came from homes stressing the role of the state as a vehicle for Christian moral improvement.
This intended improvement, which inevitably led in the direction of centralized public administration, moved along more than one path. Uptight Prohibitionists sometimes landed up in the company of lesbians or Jewish radical socialists in working to promote centralized state power. Although this Progressive society of true believers became increasingly heterogeneous, a liberal Protestant mindset was glaringly apparent among its leaders and reflected in their writings and speeches. This became especially the case, as the Progressives drew the US into World War One and then helped manage the bloody adventure they abetted. This struggle provided not only the occasion for mobilizing a crusade for democracy but an opportunity to do the Lord’s work at home by bringing state-enforced virtue to the American people.
The Progressive Era shows how temperance and female suffrage became joined together in a campaign for public displays of virtue and against foreign German influence once the war was underway. Most American historians I’ve encountered treat this war adventure (into which the government plunged despite the fact that American security was in no way threatened by what was going on in Europe) with remarkable casualness. Among its effects was the imposition of a Progressive tyranny at home as well as the shameful, unnecessary loss of almost one-hundred and seventeen thousand American livesabroad. Richard Gamble demonstrates in his work The War for Righteousness, which was published, by the way, after Murray wrote his manuscript, to what extent postmillennialist Christian themes were interwoven into pro-interventionist propaganda and later, into calls for warring down the absolute evil of the German and Austrian Empires.
The Progressive Era may elicit criticism for treating skeptically reforms associated with the Progressives, for example, state measures that were supposedly designed to ameliorate work conditions, prevent the unsanitary production of food and medicine, and provide social services to the indigent. But Murray is looking at a much larger picture. He is tracing the early stages of the process by which centralized administrative power took hold in the US. One might ask whether this development was necessary to keep Americans from eating contaminated food or preventing quacks from practicing medicine. At the very least Murray challenges the idea that the modern “democratic” state was really needed to make certain reforms possible. And he doesn’t let us forget that the American state’s power grabs hardly started the day before yesterday.
Murray also investigates in a highly original way those eugenic plans and calls for limiting immigration that the Progressives produced. He notes that their hostility was directed mostly against other white groups who were viewed as insufficiently enlightened, for example, ethnic Catholics who opposed extending the suffrage to women and German Lutherans who frowned on the temperance movement and frequented beer gardens. He places this confrontation in the context of the longtime struggle between communitarian ethnics and liberal Protestant do-gooders. Nowhere does Murray deny that some Progressives (although probably not a majority) were racial segregationists. But he does suggest that the birth-control advocates and immigration-restrictionists among the Progressives were concerned primarily with recalcitrant white groups that stood in the way of their programs for governmentally-supervised human improvement.
The Progressive Era departs in another way from conventional discussions of Progressive social reformers. The book rarely gives its subjects the benefit of the doubt in discussing their intentions. Just as the railroad magnates who built cartels with political help are subject to sharp rebuke, so too are the reformers, who called on the state to make others conform to their social and moral blueprints. Although some may find these judgments to be overly caustic, from my perspective they may not go far enough. I can’t imagine why an historian who values liberty and constitutionally limited government should accept uncritically the origins of our runaway administrative regime. I also see no reason that one shouldn’t attribute a lust for power to those who helped create it.
Murray was, moreover, aware that there were alternatives for dealing with some of the problem that public administration claims to be addressing. Most of these grievances could have been dealt with in the private sector or if absolutely necessary, by local government accountable to its voters. There was no necessary moral reason to erect the highly centralized public administration under which we now labor. This of course is precisely what the Progressives wanted to do; and we continue to suffer from the consequences of their plans. One might welcome Murray’s masterpiece on many grounds. One of them for me is that it affords a corrective to the dreary lectures I once attended as a college student on the merits of the Progressive Era. One truth that came out this experience was recognition that the Progressive Era was a prelude to our present regime. The Progressive Era makes that abundantly clear.