A Tale of Two Libertarianisms

A new book of unpublished critiques by Murray Rothbard reveals a divide in the larger libertarian project

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.”

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  • Morris||

    If you give a flying fuck what either of these fanatics had to say, you're part of the cult.

  • T||

    Insightful as always, Morris. What would we do without you around to class up the joint?

  • Paul||

    Without Rothbard and Hayek, Morris would be making his pederasty support group meetings more regularly instead of posting here.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    By coming here to vent, Morris does get away from the day-to-day drudgery of supporting statism. Maybe his shrink told him it was a good idea.

  • Barry Loberfeld||

  • ||

    "the modern libertarian movement would have nowhere near its current size and influence."


    If liberardianism were any smaller, it would become the political equivalent of negative energy.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    If we're so unimportant, why do you waste your time coming here?

  • ||

    My answer, oopy-pasted from a previous thread:

    I'm on a humanitarian mission, trying to save you sad, pathetic souls on the wrong side of history from a philosophy of capitalist impotence and misguided dissidence.

    Consider me a freelance social worker, working tirelessly amongst you, the intellectually feeble, trying to salvage the few of you from hallucinating your life away.

    Your dreams about this pitiful, incoherent, and cowardly utopia of petty fascism you call libertarian society will never come true, but that doesn't mean that you have to endure being history's saddest joke.

    There's still hope for you.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Thirty years ago, I was proud to describe myself as a communist.

    Bush v. Dukakis snapped me out of being a Republican.

    I made the only sensible choice - neither Democrat nor Republican.

    Which poor choice are you, crayon?

  • ||

    I am Andrew Ryan, and I am here to ask you a question: Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow?
    No, says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor.
    No, says the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God.
    No, says the man in Moscow. It belongs to everyone.
    I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose...
    A city where the artist would not fear the censors.
    Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality.
    Where the great would not be constrained by the small.
    With the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city, as well.

  • zoltan||

    This guy just quoted the video game "Bioshock".

  • ||

    Wow, is there anything more annoying than a "freelance social worker"?

  • Sam Grove||

    or more useless?

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Or an armchair psychiatrist?

    In both cases, crayon failure is the result.

  • qwerty||

    yes, a "community organizer"

  • ||

    You're a blithering idiot

  • whtthe||

    How often does it happen that people are swayed to an opposite worldview from intellectual or moral midgets like crayon?

  • ||

    Usually when they grow up.

  • wheat||

    hmm, interesting anti-logic: when people mature, they become susceptible to immature and unintelligent arguments.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    Thanks crayon. It worked, I'm saved.

  • ||

    And to answer your question, pal:
    why am I here?
    I came here because Mitch and Murray asked me to, they asked me for a favor.
    I said, the real favor, follow my advice and fire your fucking ass because a loser is a loser.

  • I thought that was funny too||


  • Meow Meow Meow Meow..||

    Fuck off and die, Morris.

  • Not To Be A Dick, But||

    If you give a flying fuck what Morris thinks you...

    Oh, wait, that's right. Nobody give a flying fuck what Morris thinks.

  • .||

    But they feed him anyway.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    It IS fun to watch Morris attempt to type semi-coherent* sentences in defense of his big-government liberal God-figures...

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    * I was being extremely charitable here in describing Morris as being semi-coherent. It's my little way of spreading the Christmas cheer.

  • ||

    You've never entertained the notion that the government as well as the free market are failures and that we need to find something better?

    Laissez-faire doesn't work and neither does dirigisme.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Wow. I'm impressed.

    Not that you made a coherent point... but that you managed to put together a sentence with big words.

  • ||

    Well, at least you're condescending.

  • Pot||

    kettle you be black

  • heller||

    You speak of the failures of the free market as if it exists...

  • ||

    Where did the free market fail?

  • SIV||

    I had to look up fallibilistic.That's what I get for going to State U,smoking weed for breakfast, and skipping >75% of my classes.

  • Paul||

    It was a spell-checker error. He meant 'superfragilistic'

  • Russ 2000||

    Rothbard was a superb researcher. as a philosopher, he left a lot to be desired. The main problem with his philosophy is that an "individualist movement" is a contradiction in terms that he never understood. For there to be a successful libertarian movement, there can't be a purity test so strong as to exclude all but one. That is ultimately Rothbard's failing - to be so exclusive as to be counter-productive to political change.

  • Geotpf||

    Sounds like the current Libertarian Party. Or, frankly, the current Republican Party. Only the Democratic Party strikes me as currently open to lots of different views, which has it's own negatives (the phrase "herding cats" comes to mind).

  • skr||

    The Dems have a similar purity test. You have to have a silly 19th century belief that government can solve the world's social problems.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    And, to boot, the only areas of personal liberty Dems care about are homosexuality and abortion. Property rights, gun rights, personal income, how we raise and educate our own children, what kinds of cars we can drive/food we can eat/what can be said 30 days before an election/what we hear on radio or see on TV or read on the internets... are all frowned upon by the left, and are a filibuster-proof majority away from being taken from us.

  • ||

    I used to say they're pelvic libertarians, but they're against the freedom to buy a hip replacement without government approval. so I'm not sure what to call them now.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    No name seems adequate, Tulpa.

  • ||

    Recto-vaginal libertarians?

  • liberaltarian||

    Actually, the dems, at least the elected ones, are pretty wishy-washy when it comes to homosexual rights as well

  • ||

    Unlike RON PAUL who knows that homosexuals don't exist because they aren't mentioned in the Constitution nor can they be traded for gold!

  • ||

    Ron Paul believes homosexuals should have exactly the same rights as every other individual, and has stated so many times.

  • Joe||

    Bullshit. Democrats represent those with an axe-to-grind, i.e., someone did them wrong and he needs to paid! It's full of a bunch of whiny little bitches who won't rest until someone else is punished for something. Democrats are the party of grievances. Fuck em'

  • liberal||

    But, but, I was told that we had a right to seek redress of our grievances!!@#

  • Tim||

    The Democratic party doesn't even have a coherent set of ideas anymore other than winning elections, it's more of a coalition between balanced budget conservatives/social moderates with a few socially conservative beliefs on things like guns and abortions and far left progressives. Pretty much anyone will be accepted that can carry his/her district.

    The problem with the GOP is it's focus on social issues that drives away many people who would agree with them economically, at least with the GOPers smart enough to understand free market economics and honest enough to implement them; along with being way too interventionist on foreign policy.

  • CatoTheElder||

    The modern Democrat party is nothing more nor less than a coalition of special interests.

  • Paul||

    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.

    Be still my beating heart. We wouldn't be posting snarky comments on the internet, meeting for beers at finer dive-bars everywhere, and waving our copies of alt-2600 and High Times at medical marijuana rallies?

  • ||

    You laugh, but after the plague, only the geeky libertarians survive.

  • Geotpf||

    Yeah, but after the zombie apocalypse, many of those geeks wished they went to the firing range occasionally.

  • Paul||

    As an unofficial member of a radical sect, heretofore known as "individualists", I can only dream.

  • ||

    You need to build a genetically enhanced libertarian in order for your quest to succeed.
    You need an army of labratarians!

  • ||

    You need to get a life. What exactly is your political preference, by the way?

  • ||

    I was kidding. We're totally screwed. Once someone finally realizes that there's nothing to stop him from seizing power here, then the third or fourth thing he'll do is have us all rounded up.

  • Gene Berkman||

    It is ahistorical to refer to Murray Rothbard as uncompromising, let alone as an uncompromising opponent of the state.

    I have read too many editorials and columns in "Left & Right" "The Libertarian Forum" and the "Rothbard-Rockwell Report" in which Rothbard applauds some statist who opposes US Imperialism or whatever.

    Seriously, when the Baath Party took control of Iraq & Syria in 1967, "Left & Right" ran an editorial applauding the new "anti-imperialist" governments in those countries. And "Che Guevara. Rest in Peace" has to be read to be disbelieved.

    Other libertarians have also compromised in the search for allies, only to be criticized by the Rothbardian "purists."

    Oh well, back to the drawing board.

  • ||

    Please cite the issue date and number. Otherwise, shut up Gene. You're lying.

  • ||


    Could not find the Baath editorial though. Gene, do you have a link to back that up?

  • Gene Berkman||

    In Left & Right Vol # #3, (Spring-Autumn 1967) there is an unsigned editorial on "War Guilt in the Middle Eas" @ http://mises.org/journals/lar/pdfs/3_3/3_3_4.pdf

    On the 8th screen of the PDF there is this: "Syria has been under the control of
    the most militantly anti-imperialist government that the Middle East has seen in years."

    This is embedded in a long attack on Israel, partly justified by the facts, and partly based on some kind of extreme anti-Zionist pose that Rothbard took.

  • ||

    The reason is very simple really. When you ally with the opposite ideology on certain issues, there is no danger of them hijacking the ideology.

    Ron Paul does the same thing. he allies with Kucinich and the like criticizing US imperialism and there is no way this alliance would cause anyone to mistakenly think, it is Kucinich who represent libertarianism.

    This way you can maybe reach a couple of policy goals by keeping the principles pure.

    Also Rothbard knew that classical liberalism is the orginal left, and after liberalism won against the ancien regime, socialism hijacked the left position. Also the left has legitimate concerns but they fail to identify the reasons thus advocate wrong policies.

  • PicassoIII||

    This in a way is nothing that new. Spooner supported the South's secession. Radicals point the ultimate direction, minarchists simply don't want to go 'all the way'.

  • skr||

    Oh dear FSM not the deontology/teleology war again. Ow my tooth hurts.

  • PicassoIII||

    Ideolog meet consequentialist...

  • ||

    Will Wilkinson, Hayekian libertarian - hah, hah, hah.

  • Lowdog||

    Gene - people are people, go figure.

    I agree, though. I wish I could say that I was uncompromising, but as you point out, I've said or done things that go against "my position" many times. That doesn't mean, however, that "my position" is necessarily wrong or that I should abandon it and embrace the kinds of behaviours that I think go against "my position".

    For my part, I think my rural background and only-child-ness brought me to libertarianism through the "individualist" door, so I like a lot of what I've read from Rothbard.

    I wish there were more infighting with the two main parties, but then that would kind of defeat their purpose, eh?

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    As someone on the minarchist side, I have never-ending squabbles with my anarchist fellows. Makes for some interesting local and state-level LP meetings... and yet, we still have common goals - personal and economic liberty (which just irritates the hell out of big-gov Dems and Repubs, but screw 'em, eh?)...

  • ||

    Oh, how many times have I witnessed this raging brawl between the perfect and the very, very good. Meanwhile we are governed by liars, fools and incompetents.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    It is indeed a conundrum.

  • ||

    People just don't want to drink your Kool-aid of insanity, because they know that you only offer suffering and death.

    Sorry, people are just smarter than that.

  • darjen||

    suffering and death? seriously? that is exactly what the united states government provides.

  • ||

    The best part of libertarianism is that it doesn't "offer" anything. You, and only you, have the responsbility to live your life. Does the idea of living without someone watching over your shoulder all the time scare you, crayon? Maybe it's time to grow up and leave your parents' basement behind.

  • ||

    If libertarianism is so great, then how comes there's no such thing as a libertarian nation/state?

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    My own take: libertarian societies are not very good at waging war. Quite a lot of permanent loss of liberties are (were) rooted in the fact that a previously free nation got to war, and, in order to survive, the citizens adapted to the high-taxation-huge-government-power pattern.

    Obviously, there are some interesting exceptions, so the theory is far from complete.

  • ||

    So the free market choose a better solution than the libertarian model?


  • ||

    There is no irony here, you blind fool. There was never any "free market" that chose the coercive state. The fact that the state uses coercive force to further itself means that there never was any free choice between models. No citizens "adapted to the high-taxation-huge-government-power pattern." It was forced upon them by those who wanted power. Your naivety astounds me.

  • ||

    Because of the widespread use and acceptance of coercive force throughout history. The first governments were marauders who demanded tithes from anarchic village-groups. The marauders realized that it was much easier and more profitable to tithe the villages continuously rather than pillaging and destroying them. The marauders created the illusion that they were "protecting" the villages from being destroyed. Thus, coercive force became commonplace; its victims even believe it to be necessary for civilization. These ideas were carried throughout history into the modern state.

  • ||

    There have been more libertarian states, as the US used to be but the problem is the powerful need a mechanism to protect their power.

    It's information and access asymmetry. Non power seekers tend not to be the first to gaining access to government force. Policies thus tend over time to benefit vested interests.

    In short, while they are being left alone most people do not act. However the people wanting power are constantly acting. Over time this results in increasing loss of liberty. To correct this they sell the idea of more government as the solution.

    In the US it doesn't help we have morons believing the two parties ever accomplish anything different.

  • ||

    Libertarianism is a worthless idea that's not even not worth fighting and/or dying for.

  • ||

    Do tell? The founding fathers thought differently.

  • ||

    That's revisionism at its worst.
    The founding fathers were not libertarians.

  • ||

    So Jefferson, Paine, Madison, Franklin, et al were big statists do you think? Hated freedom? Thought the bigger the government the better?

    The Constitution was an attempt to have the smallest and most constrained government possible that could protect the people.

    That's libertarian. They didn't have that word then, liberal then meant libertarian before the prostatists hijacked the word, but their philosophy was libertarian and libertarians today are a product of that philosophy.

    I know liberals and conservatives hate to hear it or acknowledge it but that's the fact.

    There were some like Hamilton and to a lesser extent Adams who did indeed want to basically recreate a monarchy, but they didn't get their way.

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    Murray Rothbard—Austrian school economist, anarchist political philosopher, early American popular historian, and inveterate libertarian organizational gadfly

    Well, maybe Brian, but I have my doubts that Rothbard necessarily made things better. The problem is found in the keyword "anarchist".

    Come whatever else may, the libertarian movement is going nowhere so long as the anarchist fringe hangs out there. Because anarchism will never sell on the national stage.

    Which may have something to do with the fact that anarchist theory is a fantasy dream world that bears one clear similarity with Marxism: they're both worlds that do not, never have, and never will exist.

    As sympathetic as I am to what anarchists would like to achieve, their dreams are simply incompatible with the way the real world works. The State exists because, for all it's down sides, it does solve some very real and ugly problems that plagued mankind, right up until the advent of the modern State.

    The State will not wither away until somebody comes up with a better solution to the problems that the State does in fact solve. Hint hint, banishing the State doesn't do it.

    Hard to say what the libertarian movement might have become without this influence. Somewhere better, worse, or extinct? Who knows. I just don't put much stock in the "achievements" of a movement that was clearly still-born.

    Then again, in the long run maybe Rothbard inspires something of a better idea, that does go on to survive.

  • anarchist||

    Wait, when exactly did we implement anarchism? The Spaniards implemented Anarcho-Syndicalism for a few years near Barcelona back in the 30's, but that was crushed by the Communists.

    We've never had an anarcho-capitalist "state", AFAIK, so your argument is a strawman.

  • Ecolibertarian||


  • anarchist||

    Somalia is a better example of a failed socialist state, rather than an anarchist one. Although the thought of the pirates as private self-defense forces is an appealing one.

  • Ecolibertarian||

    No, Somalia was completely stateless from 1991-2005, excepting the north ("Somaliland" and "Puntland"). The parts of Somalia that developed minimal states ended up being much more peaceful and prosperous than the part of Somalia that remained anarcho-capitalist. Somalia is as close as you can get to a natural experiment to test Rothbard's hypothesis that if you pushed a button and made the state go away, a) it would stay away, and b) people would be more prosperous.

  • ||

    Don't bother.
    Libertarians will always claim that Somalia isn't really an anarcho-capitalist state.

    Just like communists will always claim that the Soviet Union wasn't really a communist state.

    Keep on denying, you crazy diamonds.

  • Ecolibertarian||

    A minority of libertarians are anarcho-capitalists. Leftists have their own denialist tendencies, such as their disbelief in the entire discipline of economics.

  • ||

    "Leftists" or centrists as most people will call them don't deny the discipline of economics.
    They just don't want it as its sole Lord and master.

  • ||

    Libertarians will always claim that Somalia isn't really an anarcho-capitalist state.

    Just like communists will always claim that the Soviet Union wasn't really a communist state.

    Near lucidity from crayon.

    The difference is that Somalia was never anarcho-capitalist nor was it intended to be. There is no basis at all for making the claim it is.

    The USSR however was intended to be.

    Maoisists also claim the Cultural Revolution didn't create communism.

    Your critique however is valid if it's target it not. The results of collectivist regimes is always merely crony capitalism or a debased form of Fascism. The rhetoric always remains about "the people" but the actuality is market fiefdoms.

    Collectivism of whichever form devolves into market feudalism.

  • ||

    No part of Somalia was ever anarcho-capitalist. Anarchist, yes. Anarcho-capitalist, no. Parts of Somalia could be called anarcho-feudalist, others anarcho-agrarian. But without certain institutions you cannot have capitalism, anarcho- or otherwise. Legally you need strong property rights and enforcements of contracts. Culturally you need individualism. I don't see evidence that anarchist Somalia had any of those.

  • qwerty||

    but you can't enforce contracts or property rights without a state. That is why anarcho-capitalism won't work

  • ||

    Whoever's got the biggest gun gets to enforce contracts or property rights.

  • Tim||

    Ignoring economic laws though is like ignoring the laws of gravity, if you debase the currency you will get asset bubbles.

    If you impose price controls you will get shortages.

    If you tax wealth creation you will get less wealth, granted since I'm not an anarcho-capitalist I'm okay with taxes funding the military and the police to enforce property rights against enemies foreign and domestic. I support some government involvement in public goods for example, but recognize for things like wealth redistribution declining returns to scale kick in fast because money is fungible and the positive externalities of things like education or health care are easily bundled in with the internalized benefits of being healthier and more employable. People who can afford to get educated will, and offsetting the cost for such people to get educated doesn't contribute anything to providing that socially optimal level of education but merely allows such people to go out and buy other goods that the public does not benefit from them having at the public's expense.

    The point being there is a vast difference between providing true public goods and regulating against other market failures that don't have public goods solutions, of which a minimal social safety net could be argued to be one, and rampant regulation to pay off special interest groups, such as middle class entitlements, or to subvert the democratic process which would clearly reject outright wealth redistribution were, say, a general tax levied on everyone above the poverty line to fund subsidies for sick people with pre existing conditions rather than funding it through an individual mandate. Or other regulatory schemes designed to hide wealth redistribution and special interest payoffs behind rhetoric about market failures and fairness. Such as how all poor people must pay higher prices for goods so a few low skilled workers can have their jobs shielded from foreign competition. Or how many low skilled poor and often young workers are priced out of the job market by the minimum wage.

  • ||

    the part of Somalia that remained anarcho-capitalist

    You don't know what anarcho-capitalist means. No part of Somalia was anarcho-capitlaist.

    A real argument against anarcho-capitalism is that it may not be possible for it to exist.

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    No, my argument is not a strawman. Your argument, however, is straw-like in nature, because it basically says "Because Ice Cream Utopia has never existed, you cannot argue that Ice Cream Utopia can't work."

    Al Gore doesn't even have to be close to right, for me to know that a world made out of ice cream is impossible.

    And as Jesse Walker his very own self once told me on a past Reason thread, Medieval Europe wasn't too far from the anarcho-capitalist ideal. Which is valid -- but unfortunately it only serves to prove one of my points.

    One thing the State is really good at, is field great big mean armies, and keeping them in the field for long periods of time. Anarcho-capitalist conditions are not so very good at doing this.

    However, Medieval Europe in its anarcho-capitalist Happy Days, was protected from the big mean Ottomans by -- the Byzantines. Who had a big mean Nation-State that was able to field enough of an army to hold the Ottomans at bay.

    But the time Constantinople finally fell, and the Ottomans had gotten to Vienna, Europe itself had evolved nation-states that were able to field big mean armies, and those in turn were able to keep the Ottomans out of the heart of Europe.

    Needless to say, a Muslim conquest of Europe would have changed the entire course of western history. And it is highly probably the Ottomans (with their nation-state) would have succeeded, had they not been stopped by other nation-states.

  • anarchist||

    you have to explain in more detail how feudalism in medieval europe was equivalent to anarcho-capitalism.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Ebeneezer Scrooge,

    As sympathetic as I am to what anarchists would like to achieve, their dreams are simply incompatible with the way the real world works. The State exists because, for all it's down sides, it does solve some very real and ugly problems that plagued mankind, right up until the advent of the modern State.

    Anarcho-capitalists like Rothbard would contend that the State creates more problems that is purported to "solve". Second, everybody lives under an anarchist system in many instances - I bet that you did not ask permission to a bureaucrat to choose a friend nor did the State chose for you; neither did the State choose a partner for you, or the toys you received on Christmas. Those decisions were made by YOU, and the deals YOU made with others to obtained what YOU wanted were under an entirely VOLUNTARY system, the State not being involved at all. Just because the State is *there* does not mean it is omnipotent

  • Old Mexican||

    OMG... nor did the State choose for you... the deals you made with others to obtain what you wanted... I need to use that "PREVIEW" button more often!

  • Memo to State||

    Mandate review-button use.

  • Memo to State||

    Uh, preview.

    Now what was that about creating more problems than it solves?

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    Old Mexican,

    I'm quite aware of what Murry and other anarcho-capitalists have tried to argue. But I've read entirely too much history to buy into their theory.

  • Sam Grove||

    The State exists because, for all it's down sides, it does solve some very real and ugly problems that plagued mankind, right up until the advent of the modern State.

    That's not why the state persists. The state exists because power hierarchies are self perpetuating legacies upheld by the common instinct to maximize gain with minimum expenditure and those that wield power find it expedient to minimize their expenditure by increasing the expenditure of others.

  • Ecolibertarian||

    So even if anarchism were "better" for people, it would be impossible?

  • ||

    Probably so. Anarchism is not a stable state of affairs.

    Even anarcho-capitalism requires some order (or else there is no capitalism part) even if that order is non-compulsory in theory. And that order carries the seeds of corruption and is liable to become the new coercive state.

    I'd be interested to see it tried. It works in very small and simple economies. But we also note they always devolve to a state when they get large. More members means more people from whom one may develop avarice for power by force.

  • ||

    Brilliant article Brian. In a way I hope this article may begin a detente between the Mises Institute and the folks at Reason, and perhaps - less likely - the folks at Cato.

  • ||

    Cato and Reason are funded by the same people, so don't hold your breath.

    That said, it is nice.

  • marlok||

    "But when Rothbard died in 1995, his old pal William Buckley took pen in hand to piss on his grave."

    Is there supposed to be an "is" after "pen" in the above sentence?

    Also, what's wrong with gravepissing? You learn more about a person from spirited negative obits than from bland positive ones.

  • Joe||

    Agreed and they are much, much more entertaining.

  • Ecolibertarian||

    Rothbard was in the final analysis a fruitcake, but he very often happened to be right. For a New Liberty remains a classic of lib-lit and was quite influential on me personally.

  • Classical Liberal||

    Rothbard is an insane delusional lunatic.

    This isn't a surprise at all.

  • Old Mexican||

    Rothbard is an insane delusional lunatic.

    Since he's dead, the proper way to say it is by saying "he WAS". Which, by the way, he wasn't a delusional lunatic - you are.

  • Inkblots||

    Microcosm, right here. Well done, men.

  • Classical Liberal||

    How the fuck do you know what I am?

  • Tim Starr||

    Not only is it ahistorical to call Rothbard an uncompromising opponent of the state, it's ahistorical to call him an opponent of "The State" as a universal principle, when he was quite supportive of particular states in practice - so long as they were opposed to either the American or British states. The list of foreign invasions Rothbard defended by blaming them on their victims is rather lengthy:

    1) Germany's invasion of Poland
    2) Russia's invasion of Finland
    3) North Korea's invasion of South Korea
    4) The Six Day War (attempted invasion of Israel)
    5) North Vietnam's invasion of South Vietnam
    6) Argentina's invasion of the Falklands

    What do these all have in common? They were all wars of aggression by totalitarian dictatorships against freer regimes - and, in every case, Rothbard sided with the aggressors.

  • kirt||

    one quibble. S. Vietnam was only slightly freer than the North - marshall law was declared a number of times (also if you were suspect in any way - whether innocent or not - and if you were a Buddhist, torture and death were likely to await you).

  • Sam Grove||

    Please, it's "martial" law.

  • pup||

    I'm not sure that North Vietnam was even more tyrannical than the South, considering the widespread persecution in the South. They didn't even have more girly bars during one stretch.

  • Old Mexican||

    Tim, he didn't side with any of those aggressors. What he held was the notion that the interventions by the busybody states like America and Britain made things a lot worse, especially Britain, which originated WWII by intervening on the side of a country that was ALSO governed by tyrants - Poland.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    So, Hitler wouldn't have invaded Poland if Great Britain hadn't meddled?

    I find that difficult to believe.

  • Sam Grove||

    You may suppose that because one side is well known as the "bad guy" that the other side is a "good guy", but life isn't necessarily so simple.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    I'm aware of that. I'm also saying Hitler didn't need to be poked with a sharp object to do what he did - he was going to invade other countries no matter what.

  • Matt||

    Poland "ALSO governed by tyrants"?

  • ||

    His "support" of those states was theater designed to underline the commonalities between the states we call rogue and the states we call free.

    Also, he never sided with the state he actually lived in, so as to make it clear that he wasn't submitting willingly to his rule. I fault Rothbard for many things, but not for this.

  • PicassoIII||

    And again, Spooner supported the South. It's important to note the 'why' of their positions.

  • Gene Berkman||

    Thanks Tim for backing up my point.

    In the premier issue of "Left & Right" Leonard Liggio had an essay titled "Why the Futile Crusade" in which he defends the Hitler/Stalin Pact:
    Germany, in cooperation with the Soviet Union, substi-tuted nationalist governments for the imperialists' client regimes
    in Eastern Europe. As indicated by the liberalanalysis of the world situation, the alliance of Germany and the Soviet Union was neither an accident nor a great betrayal by one or the other. Rather this
    alliance was the necessary and natural development of the struggle between the forces of world imperialism defendlng the status quo and the revolutionary forces of national liberation and anti-imperialism."

    Source: http://mises.org/journals/lar/pdfs/1_1/1_1_3.pdf (scroll down to screen 8 of the PDF)

  • ||

    Brian commits a bit of a very common fallacy: dividing up the libertarian movement into Rothbardian anarchististic types and Hayekian classical liberal types. While it's hard to find too many Rothbardian minarchists, there are plenty of Hayekian anarchists around.

    One can take Hayek's arguments about spontaneous order and the like farther than he did himself and make the case for a stateless society out of it. I'd argue that many of the Austrian economists associated with George Mason fit this profile. I sure do anyway.

    Legend has it that in the 1970s Hayek spent some time with the more anarchist leaning young Austrians of that day. While he rejected their anarachism, he said "look, I'm an old man brought up in a different time. But if I were young like you today, I'd probably be an anarchist too."

    Probably more legend than truth, but full of truthiness given how many younger Hayek-oriented Austrians are anarchists these days.

  • Ecolibertarian||

    Sure... And where do Kantian/Nozickian libertarians fit into all this? They tend toward minarchism, by and large, but their moral reasoning has more in common with Rothbard than Mises.

  • SIV||


    When you say:

    If freedom produced poverty, strife, and conflict, I would be in favor of something else.

    What is this anti-freedom "something else" Plan-B you consequentialists favor?

  • Slap the Enlightened!||

    The same as plan A. Like Ireland ratifying the Lisbon Treaty, we're free to choose - and we'll damn well keep choosing until we make the right choice, dammit!

    If the day ever arrives that I have to fight for my freedom, the first ones I'm shooting are the libertarians.

  • ||

    Your idealism is preventing you from understanding consequentialism. There's nothing to 'favor'.

    I don't favor anything else because nothing else works.

    One thing that annoys me about nonconsequentialists is they never seem to act. They just complain. If it's not going to be 'perfect' in their eyes, or their allies are not motivated for the 'right reasons' they tend not to want anything to do with it.

    So don't worry as much as many of you despise us, we despise many of you for being pathetic and ineffectual.

    The difference is we will hold our nose and work with you and even hide our pragmatism to get you to work with us;p

  • Murray||

    And Steven's more detailed blog post.

  • Doc Merlin||

    David D. Friedman is an example of a Hayekian anarchist.

  • Ken Silber||

    If Murray Rothbard—Austrian school economist, anarchist political philosopher, early American popular historian, and inveterate libertarian organizational gadfly—was so important, why does he need such a lengthy description after his name?

  • ||

    Maybe because "influence" and "notoriety" aren't perfect synonyms?

  • Tyler||

    I'd fight Hayek.....but not
    Rothbard. Pretty sure he'd pull something dirty.

  • bart||

    "They were great economists and understood marginalism." What is "marginalism"?

  • ||

    Pretty important. To cite two examples:
    When apples increase in price, not everyone stops buying them, only those who bought apples at the 'margins' of their budgets.
    When government destroys jobs through regulation, it doesn't happen all over; the jobs are lost from companies at the 'margins' of their abilities to both comply with the new regulations and be profitable.
    Both of which move the 'margins' to new locations, meaning the next change affects larger numbers of people.
    Markets auto-correct from this (who wants to sell fewer apples?), governments don't. They add more regulations in the hopes of doing so.

  • michael||

    Ron Paul is a joke. Him being a psuedo-Rothbardian is the ultimate fail.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    And Obama or McCain weren't jokes?

  • ||

    RON PAUL isn't mentioned in the Constitution!

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    You're not in the Constitution either.

  • ||

    I think I have seen him after morning constitutionals though.

  • PicassoIII||

    Or Clinton II, or Guiliani, or Huckabee, or Edwards, or Bush II, or, or...

  • GOP troll||

    Ron Paul takes votes away from Sarah Palin, therefore we must all shun him and stand behind her. God Bless America! Drill baby Drill!

  • PicassoIII||

    Ptttht, of course he's by no means a 'perfect' libertarian. They never get elected.
    But, read his writings a bit, and you'll realize that he's come a long way from a pretty religious family. Yes, he still has some baggage. But, he also has a bully pulpit in DC, the highest name recognition and street cred of ANY 'very good' libertarian.

  • ||

    Steven Horwitz,

    Brian commits a bit of a very common fallacy by even caring about libertarianism. Honestly, if you were to debate the relative merits of two rival dentists of some obscure suburb, you would find a greater percentage of the nation's population actually giving a damn.

    I only post because I have a masochistic fetish of sorts for obscure political ideologies. You guys and the Birchers are my faves. Keep the faith!

  • hiccup||

    There's probably about a half million to a million libertarians in the U.S. (an even smaller number if we're only talking about party members of the LP, but actually quite a bit larger number if we're including libertarianish types influenced by Hayek and Friedman). So, this must be an extremely large suburb you're talking about - perhaps you mean a large city or state in the union.

    But thanks for the encouragement; now get back to coercing someone or apologizing for it.

  • ||

    They should all move to a state and try to influence that state and turn it into a libertarian paradise.
    How's that working out for ya, sparky?

  • hiccup||

    You'd sound more articulate if you removed the straw from your teeth.

  • Ecolibertarian||

    So far so good, really!

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    It's not a "paradidse", you twit. That's not the point of the project.

  • ||

    Whatever happened to the Free State Project?
    Reason ought to write an article about that.

  • Tim||

    There are many people who generally like to describe themselves as fiscal conservatives and social liberals, while not perfect libertarians it's not like everyone is either a far left progressive statist or a neo con. Many people also vote strategically, siding with the left in the name of things like gay rights or with the right in the name of economics because those are the issues important to them. It's also important to note that our electoral system favors two parties, and many people see those two as the only alternatives while lamenting the fact that they have to tolerate the socialists and social cons respectively to advance the issues most important to them.

  • michael||


  • Inkblots||

    Good job!

  • Mike Laursen||

    If Murray Rothbard—had never lived, the modern libertarian movement would have nowhere near its current size and influence.

    Totally agree. If he had never lived the libertarian movement would be much larger and influential.

  • ||

    2 points; 1, Poland was ruled by a "reluctant dictator", who took over because the gov. was a mess; 2, it seems as though Libertarianism- as with the far left and far right- is too busy with infighting and philosphical argumentsto make a real inroad into the political center. I consider myself a Libertarian, so this saddens me.

  • Drew||

    What Rothbardians can't deny is Rothbard was perfectly willing to make alliances with Pat Buchanan and the paleoconservative group in the 1990s, a group far more "statist" then Hayek ever was and Rothbard had no probelm with that.


  • I Heart Capitalisms||

    I think that it's pretty telling that, outside of the US, Rothbard's main pro-market rivals (Hayek, Friedman, and Rand) are loved and loathed by significant numbers of politically tuned in people while hardly anyone is interested in Rothbard himself. In the big picture, Hayek and Friedman advanced classical liberalism through their scholarship, while Rand made it more romantically appealing through her novels. Rothbard seems to have gone for something in between with his polemics and I don't think that it worked. His support for competing private law enforcement (civil war) didn't help either.

  • hlm||

    Murray was a scholar who drew conclusions first and they searched for the evidence later. His findings always served his political agenda and as such he was not totally reliable and often just wrong. He could be funny. He could be charming but he was just as often vindictive and malicious and dishonest. He once bragged that the libertarian movement once could fit in his living room. He then spent much of his life trying to get back to that ideal by driving out anyone who differed with him. Of course he most strenuously objected to similar traits in Rand -- much the way Christian moralists condemn the sex lives of others while hiding their own escapades as best they can.

    On many of the major issues I would agree with Rothbard more than Hayek but not always. Yet I wouldn't use Murray as a reliable source for anything. Hayek at least understood the nature of scholarship, not Murray who was a polemicists more than a scholar. And I personally think he did a lot of harm to libertarianism which today is being carried on by some of his heirs in Alabama.

  • ||

    I knew Buckley was a prick, but I wasn't aware of this particular example of his churlish behavior.


  • PicassoIII||

    Tis true, Buckley could be a true pissant.
    As for weird alliances, lets not forget Raimondo who supported Buchanan and had good things to say about Nader.

  • ||

    Every family should have a “go to” person who can give answers to political and issue concerns, as suggested by Rush Limbaugh. Learning how means starting at the roots, the beginnings and differences between two sides of the same coin, which is all there is. One side is long established, where the few rule the many, irrespective of their labels. The other side is the newest, that of individual freedom and limited government. Why do many follow each side, and why the conflict between them? What side do current issues come from, such as health care, cap and trade as well as amnesty for illegal immigrants? What side of the coin most impacts the lives of your family, to whom you provide the answers? Call up claysamerica.com for the roots of both sides and improve your understanding of the issues so you have the answers. Claysamerica.com

  • Tim Starr||

    South Vietnam was vastly freer than North Vietnam. If martial law was declared a few times in the South, it was _constant_ in the North. The South Vietnamese Buddhists were infiltrated by Hanoi's agents, thus leading to their hostile treatment by the South Vietnamese government. North Vietnam was a one-party state, while South Vietnam had opposition party members in its legislature. About a million North Vietnamese voted with their feet by moving to South Vietnam in the 1950s, and a similar number fled from Vietnam entirely in 1975, as if the commie invaders were flesh-eating zombies.

    Rothbard went a whole lot further than simply saying the US ought to stay out of foreign wars. The US had nothing to do with the German invasion of Poland or the Russian invasion of Finland, but he not only defended both, he even fabricated Russians in Finnish Karelia for Stalin to have supposedly been trying to bring back into the fold of the Soviet Motherland.

    In the Falklands War, both Rothbard and the US took the same side: Argentina. Rothbard also claimed that the IRA's terrorist attacks were OK because the IRA supposedly tried not to kill civilians.

    In every case, Rothbard sided with the Marxist/Fascist totalitarian mass-murdering aggressors, and against the victims, who were almost always capitalist democracies. In the few cases where the victims were authoritarian dictatorships, they were allied with capitalist democracies (Poland, South Korea, South Vietnam). Rothbard clearly hated democracy more than totalitarianism, as further evidenced by his preference for strategic Leninism (a.k.a., "democratic centralism"). IOW, he favored leadership by an ideologically unified minority which would act as the vanguard of those whose interests it was ostensibly serving, hijack a mass movement, and drag everyone kicking and screaming into the proper form of political system, whether they liked it or not. He spent most of his life trying to thus hijack one mass movement or another, first with the New Left (neo-commies), then later with the Paleocons (neo-fascists).

  • magilson||

    I don't see the moral difficulty. And I especially don't see it with the tresspasser argument. As a libertarian I see the land on which my house sits as no different a property than my own body. If a person trespasses on that property they have showed agression toward me and I have the right to respond as I see appropriate. That's coercion, but it needs no grand explanation that things like taxation or slavery require.

    It's my belief that libertarians have a pretty clear definition of where coersion is appropriate so long as you stop walking around thinking the libertarian movement of thought ended with Rothbard or Mises. There's been quite a bit of good work since then!

  • ||

    I've been a longtime libertarian activist - have even chaired a few county LP organizations over the years. It has always been the case that a large part of the most energetic, articulate, and knowledgeable activists were anarchist - but we were always put down as "impractical."

    In reality, it is statists who are impractical, believing that some magic pixie dust will transform ordinary mortals into superhumans who put aside their personal greed and act "for the greater good," who use the unrestricted power of coercion "for the common welfare", and so forth.

    Ron Paul activists today are much more uncompromisingly anarcho-libertarian, by and large, than the past generation, and this is something to applaud.

    What libertarian successes can we point to, in the past few decades? Two of the biggest are that home schooling has risen sharply, and that conceal carry weapons have become much more widely accepted. Both are cases where individuals take responsibility for providing services which were previously left to the State. Meanwhile, private security forces are also growing rapidly. Without much encouragement from big-L Libertarians, people have been taking steps to supplant the powers of the State. That's something worth celebrating. That's where today's youthful anarcho-activists seem to be coming from.

    One of the most compelling ideas of the Ron Paul movement, which will bring students to chant and wave burning dollar bills, is "End the Fed" -- how radical is that?

  • ||

    If Ron Paul is the end result of Rothbard's thinking you can have him.

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