For Rothbard week, we asked some of our writers and scholars to talk about why Rothbard is worth remembering. Here's what they had to say.
March 2 marks the birth of Murray Rothbard. Given his importance to the cause of liberty, that makes it a date worth recalling the man and his work. In fact, I have done that in the past, recalling some of what I find are some of his most inspiring words.
But not long ago, my research led me to something that made me think of another way to remember Rothbard. When working on an article about Frank Chodorov, I came across a couple of quotes about him from Rothbard, whom he greatly influenced. He said, “I shall never forget the profound thrill—a thrill of intellectual liberation—that ran through me when I first encountered the name of Frank Chodorov,” and called his analysis as “one of the best, though undoubtedly the most neglected, of the ‘little magazines’ that has ever been published in the United States.”
That’s when it struck me that when most are insufficiently aware of the libertarian influences of the past, it might be worth honoring Rothbard by connecting him to those who influenced him. Perhaps that would send more people in those directions as well.
So who, other than Frank Chodorov, would go on that list? According to Justin Raimondo, that list included Albert Jay Nock, Garet Garrett, Isabel Paterson, H.L. Mencken, and Ludwig von Mises. In fact, Rothbard was so influenced by Mises’s Human Action that the Volker Fund hired Rothbard to write a textbook explaining it in a form usable for introducing college students to Mises’ views, which ultimately became Man, Economy, and State in 1962, which Mises lauded.
When Murray Rothbard died, his New York Times obituary characterized him as “an economist and social philosopher who fiercely defended individual freedom against government intervention.” On his birthday, it is worth remembering him, the power of his ideas, and the influence he has had. It is also worth reading what inspired him, because it can inspire us as well.
Rothbard has been a true polymath, a renaissance man. His writing spanned, always with cogency and crystal-clear clarity, several branches of human knowledge—economics, ethics, epistemology, history, political theory, etc. Very concisely, I believe Rothbard’s main intellectual contributions have been the following. First, he rearranged (e.g., business cycle theory) and improved on (e.g., monopoly theory) Mises’s praxeological approach to economics; as Gene Epstein once put it, “I think of Rothbard as having been Plato to Mises’s Socrates.” Second, he used the action axiom and praxeology not only to deduce economic theory, but also to enquire into a natural ethics of liberty—thus improving on Mises’s utilitarian minarchism and setting forth the philosophical groundwork for rational anarcho-capitalism. Third, he outlined the economic case for anarcho-capitalism, showing both the damages governments bring on the economy—business cycles, inefficient monopolies and cartels, shortages, etc.—and the inconsistency of “standard economic theory” arguments—public goods, coinage, lawmaking and enforcement, etc.—upholding governments’ existence. If you are tired of lefty liberal “common sense” and/or don’t buy into neoclassical economics, I hope Rothbard’s ninety-fifth birthday will prompt you to delve into his writings!
Robert P. Murphy
Murray Rothbard is hands-down the biggest influence on how I try to write as an economist when communicating with the public. I vividly remember an essay from his collection Making Economic Sense in which Rothbard explained the connection between government budget deficits and inflation. The way Rothbard explained the nuanced situation—namely, that deficits contributed to inflation only insofar as they were financed by the printing press, but not if the Treasury simply sold bonds to the public without the Fed getting involved--was elegant and crystal clear. Unlike his opponents John Maynard Keynes and Paul Samuelson, Rothbard never "showed off" with his prose to impress upon the reader how smart he was. Instead, Rothbard's mission was to teach people economics.
Murray Rothbard remains irrepressible more than a quarter century after his death, not just for his ideas but also for his ability to strategize and organize for their popular adoption.
Rothbard's fun and immersive writing style makes learning economics, history, and philosophy a remarkable experience for anyone at any level. Still, he knew that having the right ideas (and spreading them) simply wasn't going to be enough to bring a free society within reach.
Whether it was the political, cultural, or educational arena, Rothbard never underestimated the terrain. His work on right-wing populism in particular is still relevant in 2021. Above all, Rothbard reminds us that there is always hope and that there is always work to be done.
Murray Rothbard never ceases to amaze me. I was recently asked to be an outside reviewer for a master's thesis in economics. I was reading the thesis and was pleased to read that the student was using the contributions of Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, and Murray Rothbard as the foundation of the arguments presented. Then to my surprise comes a sizzling quote from Rothbard that I was unfamiliar with and that was previously unpublished, only to come to light more than a decade ago!