If Murray Rothbard—Austrian school economist, anarchist political philosopher, early American popular historian, and inveterate libertarian organizational gadfly—had never lived, the modern libertarian movement would have nowhere near its current size and influence.
He inspired and educated generations of young libertarian intellectuals and activists, from Leonard Liggio to Roy Childs to Randy Barnett. He helped form and shape the mission of such libertarian institutions as the Institute for Humane Studies, the Cato Institute, and the Ludwig Von Mises Institute. His unique combination of a Randian-Aristotelian natural rights ethic, Austrian economics, anarcho-capitalism (of which he was the ur-source, within the contemporary libertarian movement), fervent anti-interventionism, and a populist distrust of “power elites” both public and private injected modern libertarianism with the distinct flavor that separates it from other brands of small-government, free-market thought.
Let’s put it this way: When the likes of F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman died, conservative flagship National Review could and did praise them pretty unreservedly. But when Rothbard died in 1995, his old pal William Buckley took pen in hand to piss on his grave. Rothbard, Buckley wrote, spent his life “huffing and puffing in the little cloister whose walls he labored so strenuously to contract, leaving him, in the end, not as the father of a swelling movement…but with about as many disciples as David Koresh had in his little redoubt in Waco. Yes, Murray Rothbard believed in freedom, and yes, David Koresh believed in God.”
Things look a little different now when it comes to Murray Rothbard’s influence, though it’s unlikely anyone at National Review will note it—except maybe in the context of an attack on Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). The rise of Paul and his loud and enthusiastic and young fan base, which Buckley could not have foreseen (I, who was writing an intellectual history of libertarianism from 1996-2006, also failed to see it coming), contradicts Buckley’s contention that Rothbard’s divisive radical intransigence doomed him to irrelevance.
The Paul movement, the largest popular movement motivated by distinctly libertarian ideas about war, money, and the role of government we’ve seen in the postwar period, is far more Rothbardian than it is directly influenced by the beliefs or style of any of the other recognized intellectual leaders or influences on American libertarianism. The Paul crowd is the sort of mass anti-war, anti-state, anti-fiat money agitation that Rothbard dreamed about his whole activist life.
The Paulites stress Rothbard’s key issues of war and money, with that populist hint of what he called “power elite analysis”—and that the uncharitable call “conspiracy theories.” Indeed, as I learned from my reporting on the movement during Paul’s primary campaign, a majority of them are pretty much learning their libertarianism directly from Paul himself, and the Internet communities surrounding Paul. But Rothbard was a friend and influence on Paul, and central to the Paul Internet community is the very Rothbardian Mises Institute website and the personal site of Mises Institute President Lew Rockwell, who was a close partner of Rothbard’s in the last decade of his life.
The Mises Institute has just issued an interesting (though regrettably brief, for this fan) collection of unpublished Rothbard writings. They are essays, letters, and memos written with a specific purpose—to advise various libertarian education and funding groups in the 1940s and ‘50s (mostly the Volker Fund, the most important supporter of libertarian intellectuals in the that era—they funded the academic berths of both Mises and Hayek, sponsored the conferences for which Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom was largely written, and kept Rothbard alive with various grants and tasks) on whether specific works or authors were worthy of promotion as good libertarian education or propaganda (in the neutral sense). Because of this practical purpose, Rothbard’s writing here highlights a still-important faultline in the larger libertarian project, both as an intellectual operation and a sales (of ideas) operation.
Rothbard vs. the Philosophers is about two-thirds Rothbard, and one-third an introductory essay by an Italian political scientist, Roberta Modugno. The essay derives so much from the Rothbard material that follows that it adds only a little to the value proposition of the book. Its contextualization of the mature Rothbard does make the book useful to more than just dedicated Rothbard fans and libertarian movement historians. (There is much, much more of this sort of Rothbard material in the Mises Institute’s archives, and I hope this is only the beginning of issuing it.)
Rothbard is an intellectual with a mission. He learned much from Marx and various Marxist movements in terms of strategies for radical politico-economic change, and he agreed with Marx that while “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.” (While talking about Rothbard with libertarians who don’t cotton to him, which I did quite a bit of in my movement history research, I detect that they often think their preferred libertarian thinkers were more scientific-interpretive, while Rothbard was more propagandistic. Actually, all the major libertarian social thinkers had social and political change, not merely the objective search for truth, as their goal.)
Modugno’s introductory essay does spell out the specifics of Rothbard’s project in a way that Rothbard himself often only implies in the writings collected here: that “the axiom of nonaggression” is “the true cornerstone of the Rothbardian system,” thus he “morally condemns all forms of statism.” States, after all, cannot function without first aggressing against someone, if only to get tax money to fund their activities.
Rothbard is very concerned—especially given the practical purpose of these writings—with what he sees as the efficacy of social and economic philosophers and thinkers in swaying the world toward the cause of total liberty. His critiques often have language along the lines of this comment on his beloved economist mentor Mises: “Mises’ utilitarian, relativist approach to ethics is not nearly enough to establish a full case for liberty.”
That spirit of seeking libertarian advantage dominates this book. Rothbard is the most entertaining of major libertarian thinkers; sharp, witty, mean, funny, and colloquial, and those virtues shine through these writings’ hortatory and practical purpose. His flayings of Leo Strauss and Karl Polanyi thus should not be approached as a nuanced and charitable philosopher-to-philosopher engagement.
Rothbard here is rather writing as an ideological polemicist about what thinkers are “good for the team,” and his critiques even beyond this book often had that spirit. This aspect of Rothbard is sometimes used to attack him as an unserious thinker, but it isn’t fair to the purpose of this sort of polemic. While, for example, he is not capturing the full nuances of Karl Polanyi’s history or analysis in his The Great Transformation, Rothbard is doing what he was asked to do—sniffing out a detectable set of beliefs about modern civilization, currency, and markets that make Polanyi an ineffective ally for radical libertarians.
Before Ayn Rand ever began influencing him, we find Rothbard providing a preliminary takedown of some of the common reasons Rand is thought “bad for the brand” of libertarianism. In a 1948 piece attacking an essay in praise of “rugged individualism,” Rothbard writes that “I consider it a tribute to the moral qualities of an individualist society that private charity and philanthropy helps the unfortunate people in our midst.”
And while praising Leo Strauss, generally credited as philosophical godfather to the neoconservatives for agreeing there are ethical absolutes discoverable by reason, Rothbard points out some amusing curiosities in Straussian thinking, mostly focusing on Strauss' famous “esoteric” readings of the likes of Machiavelli and his numerological obsessions, which Rothbard finds “really so absurd as to be almost incredible” and “excruciatingly crackpot.”