A Tribute to Murray Rothbard: The Father of Libertarianism
By Ian Tartt
This article is a response to a hit piece that does its best to eviscerate the reputation of one Murray Rothbard. Rothbard was primarily an economist, although his writings also extended to history, natural rights, ethics, anarchism, strategy, and several other areas. The following excerpt from an article by libertarian thinker Wendy McElroy provides a brief overview of Rothbard’s contributions to libertarianism:
“In forty-five years of scholarship and activism, Rothbard produced over two dozen books and thousands of articles that made sense of the world from a radical individualist perspective. In doing so, it is no exaggeration to say that Rothbard created the modern libertarian movement. Specifically, he refined and fused together:
-natural law theory, using a basic Aristotelian or Randian approach;
-the radical civil libertarianism of 19th century individualist-anarchists, especially Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker;
-the free market philosophy of Austrian economists, in particular Ludwig von Mises, into which he incorporated sweeping economic histories; and,
-the foreign policy of the American Old Right – that is, isolationism.”
Yet the hit piece on Rothbard acts as if he never accomplished anything with his life. Early on, it talks about some of the accomplishments of Milton Friedman, another influential libertarian economist. But while Friedman certainly received more attention during his lifetime, that in no way diminishes or negates Rothbard’s accomplishments. Further, Friedman took several positions that, even amongst moderate libertarians, would be considered at odds with libertarianism. Examples of this include the negative income tax (that is, anyone below a certain level of income would be guaranteed a certain minimum income), the withholding tax (he was an early proponent of the withholding tax as a way to get money more quickly to the government during WWII), annual inflation of the money supply, and support for an interventionist foreign policy earlier in his career (which, to his credit, he later softened). It’s easy now to see why Friedman received attention and opportunities to work alongside presidents while Rothbard, with his more unorthodox and radical positions, was and still is mostly ignored by the general public.
The article then goes on to point out several incidents that are supposed to prove that Rothbard was a “total moron” when it came to politics. I cannot in good conscience defend his endorsement of segregationist Strom Thurmond for president in 1948. But the other main points are hardly damning. Rothbard’s support of Robert Taft in his several presidential runs was primarily due to his understanding of just how devastating war is; Taft being a stanch non-interventionist would therefore make him an easy candidate for Rothbard to support, despite his criticisms of Taft’s support of some New Deal-type domestic programs such as public housing.
Similarly, Rothbard’s alliances with some leftist groups in the 1960s came about due to their shared opposition to the Vietnam War, and his opposition to 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater (who was very similar domestically to Ron Paul) was based on Goldwater’s support of a foreign policy that he believed would lead to nuclear war (I personally don’t think Goldwater would have gone down that path, but Rothbard did, and that’s more relevant here than my thoughts on the subject).
The article also criticizes Rothbard’s alleged hostility to the 1983 Ed Clark/David Koch campaign, which apparently resulted in the Koch Brothers leaving the Libertarian Party for the Republican Party. I don’t know why exactly Rothbard criticized Ed Clark (and the article doesn’t state or even suggest a reason), but with the Koch Brothers, he likely saw them as many people see them today: self-interested opportunists who go wherever they think will give them the best chance to serve themselves. Their regular contributions to the Republican Party, with the party continually expanding the size and power of the state while hiding behind small government-rhetoric, is very telling of their character, and makes Rothbard’s criticisms all the more significant. As far as Rothbard’s support of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, the article condemns both while offering no reason or speculation as to why he endorsed those candidates. It specifically mentions Buchanan’s isolationism (or, more accurately, non-interventionism) as if it’s a bad thing, in addition to calling him a racist without, guess what, offering any evidence to back up that assertion.
Perhaps the most laughable claim in that paragraph is Rothbard’s “lack of contributions to economics”. Two of Rothbard’s major economic works that come to mind are “The Panic of 1819”, based upon his doctoral dissertation and still considered to be the definitive treatise on the subject; and “Man, Economy, and State”, which is considered to be his magnum opus, an improvement upon his mentor Ludwig Von Mises’s own magnum opus “Human Action”, and the work that singlehandedly saved the Austrian School of Economics.
In addition to these magnanimous works, as well as the accomplishments quoted above from Wendy McElroy’s article, Walter Block has given several speeches in which he discusses both Rothbard’s accomplishments and personal anecdotes from his own experience with the man. One common thread of Block’s speeches about Rothbard is Rothbard’s productivity. He would reportedly get up around two in the afternoon, read the newspaper until three, and then work from three in the afternoon until four or five in the morning, churning out an incredible eight pages per hour. Keep in mind that Rothbard did most of his work before home computers were commonplace, meaning that for decades he worked with a typewriter. The fact that he was able to create original work so quickly despite the typewriter’s awkwardness and difficulty in correcting mistakes is simply astounding and speaks to his intelligence as well as his dexterity.
In the next paragraph, the article further criticizes Rothbard’s support of certain political candidates despite their protectionist views on trade. The first sentence describes Ron Paul as the author’s “mega superhero”. If the author knows of Rothbard’s support of and influence on Paul before, during, and after his first presidential run in 1988 (here, Paul talks about how Rothbard changed his views on the cause of the Great Depression), he certainly doesn’t mention it. Although Rothbard influenced and inspired many other prominent figures in the liberty movement, including Wendy McElroy, Walter Block, Jeffrey Tucker, and Tom Woods, his impact on Ron Paul, who has probably done more than any single individual in the modern age to present the libertarian message to the masses, cannot be overlooked.
Drawing on previously mentioned subjects such as Strom Thurmond, the next round of criticisms are aimed at Rothbard’s alleged racism. I have read other articles that bring that up, but, much like this article, they offer little to no evidence to support their claims. This article talks a bit about Rothbard’s falling out with Ayn Rand and how Rand believed that racism was primitive and collectivist, but fails to mention Rand’s thoughts on the treatment of Native Americans by European settlers and the idea of primitive cultures being inferior to more advanced cultures.
When dealing with the Civil Rights Act, there is a split in the liberty movement on how to feel. As mentioned in the article, there are actually several Civil Rights Acts, with the oldest going back to before the twentieth century. Two from the late 1950s and early 1960s generally receive few to no complaints amongst libertarians. The 1964 Civil Rights Act is sometimes criticized for banning private discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Overall, practically no libertarian supports the government being able to discriminate based on those characteristics, but some libertarians also oppose private businesses being able to discriminate along those lines.
Those that oppose legislation to prevent private discrimination, even if they personally abhor such action and would protest any business that follows suit, are often considered to be racist. Many libertarians believe that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should only have repealed the laws that mandated discrimination instead of creating laws that prohibited private discrimination. Without spending too much time on this subject, I will say that freedom of association is an essential component of freedom itself, and the freedom to associate also includes the freedom to not associate; because of this, private discrimination should not be punished. So opposing legislation that prohibits private discrimination is no indication that someone is racist.
For some reason, the author says a brief bit about trade bills; how this connects to race is never explained. Getting back on topic, he then says that “Rothbard never made any serious motions to promote immigration and instead explained how he believed anarchy could fight immigration better.” Given that Democrats have been bringing in people from the third world, aka regions without a history of or respect for individual rights and limited government, since the late 1960s specifically so that they’ll vote for big government policies, as well as the fairly common saying “you can’t have open borders and a welfare state”, a less-than-stellar attitude toward immigration is understandable.
Furthermore, an anarchic or stateless society would be neither open borders nor closed borders. Instead, all land in use would be privately owned, meaning that whoever owned a given plot of land would get to decide who could cross it and who couldn’t. If that land happened to be on the site of a former border, and all owners of such land wanted to prevent foreigners from crossing it, that would be perfectly consistent with property rights, which are another essential component of libertarianism. If what the author then says about Rothbard speaking well of the Confederacy and its support of slavery is true, then I cannot defend that. The last bit in that section talks about the infamous Ron Paul newsletters and essentially assigns the blame for those articles to Lew Rockwell, who worked alongside Rothbard for much of his later life. Considering that Ron Paul himself has said repeatedly over many years that he did not write them and does not know who did, this appears to be just one of many cases in which the attempt to find the culprit ends without getting any closer to the truth.
The next section is titled “Rothbard Made Libertarians Total Losers”. The author reiterates some of Milton Friedman’s good points and none of his bad points while ignoring two of Rothbard’s major academic accomplishments mentioned earlier in this article, avoids mentioning any reason Rothbard would have in opposing Barry Goldwater, and reminds us of how the Koch Brothers left the Libertarian Party for the Republican Party, yet doesn’t see how their support of standard Republican policies could be at odds with the goals of libertarians. Rothbard is blamed for the departure of the Koch Brothers, as well as the perceived loss of interest in the Ron Paul Revolution and the Libertarian Party’s lack of success.
Never mind the fact that Ron Paul was just one point of liberty in a sea of statism, and thus could only do so much to push back against the establishment, even with strong grassroots support. Never mind the fact that the Libertarian Party has been around for forty-five years and has only a handful of small victories to show for it, or the fact that it’s been trying to make top-down change instead of gradually building itself up. Never mind the damaging effects Ronald Reagan had on the growing libertarian sentiment after a series of unpopular presidents (which Rothbard himself wrote about in this article). And never mind the fact that getting libertarians to work together is like trying to herd cats, and that the loss in both momentum and principle in the Libertarian Party can be blamed to a large extent on the loss of the Dallas Accord in the Portland Massacre (discussed in this article from Reason).
According to the author, everything mentioned above is the fault of one man who didn’t accomplish anything in his life, yet somehow brought the liberty movement to its knees. And with that, I will leave you with a short video showcasing Murray Rothbard’s delightful laugh. In peace, love, and liberty.