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Rothbard Loved to Hate the State


The anarcho-capitalism that Murray Rothbard favored differed entirely from the American system of government, and he saw the State as a gang of robbers. It by no means followed from this, though, that he was uninterested in politics. Quite to the contrary, he was passionately absorbed in it.

I have never known anyone with as great an ability to amass and retain information as Murray Rothbard. He not only followed presidential campaigns, but he had a detailed knowledge of Congressional races as well. He could take any Congressional district in the United States and tell you who was running and what the main issues in the district were.

This mirrored his approach to history. Like his mentor Joseph Dorfman, he studied historical movements by learning as much as he could about all the people, both major and minor, involved in events. He agreed with Harold Lasswell that politics is about “who gets what, when, how.”

In assessing political developments, he sharply distinguished between libertarians and non-libertarians.  He judged the former by a strict standard. Libertarians should never lose sight of the goal, a fully libertarian society. He excoriated those professed libertarians who did so, most notably in his denunciation of the low tax liberalism promoted by Ed Clark during the presidential campaign of 1980. This earned him the undying enmity of the Koch brothers, who had financed and sponsored Clark’s campaign.

To non-libertarians, he was much more indulgent. Here his principal concern was the extent to which a politician favored goals that moved in a libertarian direction. One issue in particular dominated his thought: war and peace. He vigorously opposed the Cold War and defended the non-interventionist Old Right. He worked as a speechwriter and researcher for the Old Right stalwart Congressman Ralph Gwinn of New York, and he knew and admired Howard Buffett, the father of the famous investor.

Owing to his opposition to the Cold War, he was a strong supporter of Robert Taft over Eisenhower in 1952. He favored Adlai Stevenson over Eisenhower, again on foreign policy grounds, and in contrast to many on the right, he would have nothing to do with the 1964 campaign of Barry Goldwater. This ardent Cold Warrior was not the sort of limited government conservative he wanted.

Rothbard did not deduce his political commitments from a theory but rather used his best judgment, and this led to alliances that could vary greatly from time to time. This was particularly in evidence where the Libertarian Party was concerned. During the many years he was involved with the party, he displayed his usual keen interest in every factional dispute, and he sometimes shifted sides rapidly. I recall one case in which I was on a panel with him in Chicago at the American Political Science Association annual meeting. An LP convention was going on at the same time; and he was transmitting his instructions to his supporters over the telephone, all the while joining in the discussion about the academic papers.

The LP attracted many odd characters, and of course Rothbard had detailed information about nearly all of them. He would often regale his friends with hilarious stories about their adventures. In this he was joined by his wife Joey, who shared his interest in what everybody was doing. During the 1979 LP convention at the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, he gave a talk at a local libertarian supper club. Joey said to me about the leader of the club, “Do you know what she paid Murray for the talk? Zip!”

He despised rule by a self-proclaimed elite consisting of “court intellectuals”; to them, he much preferred the common sense of the ordinary American, though he was certainly not a majority-rule democrat. He defended Joe McCarthy and supported the presidential campaigns of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, though he was by no means an uncritical defender of any of these.

One person involved in politics he did admire without reserve, and this was of course his great friend and fellow libertarian Ron Paul. He and Ron Paul worked together in defense of the gold standard, opposition to the Fed, and advocacy of a non-interventionist policy. In these endeavors, they were joined by Burt Blumert and Lew Rockwell; and it is in his activities with these friends that one finds the essence of Rothbard’s political commitments.

Naturally enough, Rothbard had strong likes and dislikes. He loathed Bill Clinton, and Joey told me that when he was watching Clinton speak on television, she had to restrain him from rushing to the TV set and kicking in the screen. One can only imagine what he would be now saying about Hillary.


Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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