Murray Rothbard

For a New Liberty


FOR A NEW LIBERTY, by Murray N. Rothbard, New York: The Macmillan Co., 1973, Pp. 327., $7.95.

Writing in his preface to MAN, ECONOMY AND STATE, over a decade ago, Murray N. Rothbard had occasion to refer to Ludwig von Mises' great treatise on economics, HUMAN ACTION. "HUMAN ACTION," he wrote, "is a general treatise, but not an old-style Principles. Instead, it assumes considerable previous economic knowledge and includes within its spacious confines numerous philosophic and historical insights. In one sense, the present work [MAN, ECONOMY AND STATE} attempts to isolate the economic, fill in the interstices, and spell out the detailed implications, as I see them, of the Misesian structure."

Upon reading this work, which was to be the first two volumes in Rothbard's three-volume work on economic principles, many individuals, myself included, assumed that Rothbard nevertheless still agreed with Mises' basic "philosophic and historical insights," and that he agreed with Mises' political beliefs as well. But for the next several years, certain anomalies began to appear, as Rothbard turned increasingly from economics to political theory. It became more and more clear that whatever Rothbard was politically speaking, he was no Misesian. Indeed, during the mid-1960's, many conservatives and libertarians were heard to remark with puzzlement at Rothbard's apparent turn from a free market position to that of socialism. The occasion? His articles in RAMPARTS magazine and elsewhere, which showed that his political theory was much more radical than had been previously suspected, and that, in fact, he had almost nothing in common with the conservative ideology. For here, in these articles and in widely reported private conversations, Rothbard had indicated his basic antiwar position, his belief that the U.S. was responsible, in the main, for the genesis and maintenance of the Cold War, his support of disarmament, of aspects of the earlier New Left, and of many other apparently incomprehensible political positions. At first, rumors circulated about his apparent anarchism and what Henry Hazlitt denounced as his "extreme a priorism." Mises criticized his supposedly crackpotish legal philosophy in a review of MAN, ECONOMY AND STATE. Then there were rumors about Rothbard's belief that the U.S. was an imperialistic power, that there was no such thing as a "communist threat," and his belief in some kind of a revolution. William F. Buckley, Jr., would make statements about Rothbard's belief in free market lighthouses and in demunicipalizing garbage disposal. And stories were circulated about Rothbard's personal life: his apartment was painted black,and Rothbard often spent hours in a huge lounge chair stroking a black cat (both of which were untrue). Several years ago, I asked one prominent libertarian leader to explain Rothbard's position to me, and he replied that Rothbard favored destroying property; another time, at a class at Rampart College that I attended in 1967, Rothbard was explicitly classified as a socialist in a class session on individualist and socialist thought.

He was indeed denounced and misunderstood by all sides; Objectivists, anarcho-communists, New Leftists, Cold Warriors and conservatives alike began to treat Rothbard as taboo.

And yet, a growing number of libertarians began to question these anomalies. Was not Rothbard, after all, a man who rivaled Mises in his knowledge of economics, Hayek in the depth of his scholarship, and Ayn Rand in her devotion to the validity of reason and of system-building? Had he not indeed fathered not only a growing number of books, but dozens of articles and essays, reputedly on everything from economics to the epistemology of the social sciences, from the nature of revolution to the foreign policy of the Old Right, from the fallacies of egalitarianism to the nature of property rights, from polemics directed against current economic fallacies to an essay on the philosophy of aesthetics? The answer was unmistakable. Just what was the base of the growing fascination of young libertarians with this man and his controversial thought? Why was the subject of Roth- bard and his views treated as something to be avoided by more conventional libertarians and conservatives? Not choosing to confront Rothbard's views directly, these people chose to attempt to bury them. But they found that ideas cannot be buried; the lessons they should have learned in dealing with liberals and communists on this score can be applied to Rothbard as well. Allergic to scholarship, conservatives and libertarians have been puzzled by Rothbard's ideology. Not wishing to plow through at least three dozen articles and essays by Rothbard to grasp the meaning and nature of his world-view, they have been content to hail him as a genius in economics…but whenever he strayed outside of what they chose to narrowly define as "his field," he was ridiculed as a crackpot or worse. Rothbard the political theorist was, alas, hopelessly muddled. Never mind that these critics didn't have his grasp of economics, history, political philosophy and didn't care to exert the effort necessary to equal him; it was sufficient to spurn Rothbard's political views as silly.

ROTHBARD'S INFLUENCE But the Rothbardian system, and the movement he spawned, marched on. His influence began to grow, imperceptibly at first, but then to such an extent that no one could ignore it; his comrades of spirit began to spread throughout the country, challenging his critics and detractors with a weapon the critics often did not possess: scholarship. Almost singlehandedly, Rothbard has caused or inspired the reevaluation of limited government, of American political history, and of American foreign policy. The Rothbardian system is indeed on the move. And whatever one may think of it, or its adherents, one fact cannot be evaded: Rothbard is the author of a growing system of libertarian thought based on reason and scholarship.

In recent years, this system has increasingly begun to reach a mass market, to hit the mass media. His articles have appeared in the NEW YORK TIMES and in INTELLECTUAL DIGEST; he has appeared on numerous television and radio programs, including the TODAY show. But now, the biggest breakthrough yet has been accomplished: for the first time, Rothbard's political philosophy has been presented in book form, published by a major publishing house, The Macmillan Company. While the entire system of Rothbard is not by any means contained in this book, which is intended as a primer on libertarianism, a goodly portion of it is outlined.

If MAN, ECONOMY AND STATE was an attempt to isolate Mises' economic principles from the rest of the Misesian ideology—from Mises philosophic, historical and political positions—FOR A NEW LIBERTY is Rothbard's philosophic, historical and political "footnote" to MAN, ECONOMY AND STATE. While there are many gaps in the book, due mostly to the necessary compromise between a scholarly work and a popular "mass-market" work, here at last is the Rothbardian system whole, from the basic premises of his social philosophy to his view on foreign policy. It is a book rich with insights and solutions to problems far too numerous to mention; its footnotes alone are enough to send one off to the library stacks for a couple of years. Therefore, only the briefest overview is possible here, focusing on some of the more significant portions of the book.

The book consists of four sections: one on the nature of the libertarian movement, a section devoted to defining and deriving the basic principles of libertarianism, an application of Rothbard's political philosophy to solve current problems, and a "strategy for liberty." It is, in my view, the most scholarly, systematic and convincing book of its type.

The first section is a sprightly and lively history of the libertarian movement; Rothbard presents the major existing libertarian centers in outline form, defining their position in the movement, their strengths and weaknesses.

As good as this section is, however, it is with the second section that the book begins to pick up momentum. And let there be no mistake about it, this book has a momentum of its own. It blends that unique Rothbardian clarity, wit and passion with an excitement and optimism all its own. Many libertarians do not understand the key to Rothbard's influence; FOR A NEW LIBERTY will give them that key. For Rothbard, whatever his scholarly accomplishments, is a child at heart, in the best sense of the term. I doubt that he has ever regarded a problem as unsolvable; there is a great glee in him as he tackles a puzzle. Perhaps the Rothbardian spirit can best be captured thus: Rothbard is an epistemological optimist. There is no touch of the pathological skeptic in him; for him, the very purpose in stating a problem is to solve it. And solve problems he does, with virtuoso performances on every page. Rothbard is a problem-solver par excellance—a one-man think tank. His inventiveness, imagination, insights and powers of integration are amazing. I have never seen anyone tackle intellectual problems with his degree of skill, with that unique blend of originality, genius and, above all else, scholarship, which is the Rothbardian style.

Section two, "The Libertarian Creed," consists of two chapters: "Property and Exchange," and what is undoubtedly Rothbard's pet hate, "The State." Most of the groundwork for the rest of the book, and for Rothbard's system of liberty, is done here. In his book on THE CONSTITUTION OF LIBERTY, F.A. Hayek states that there are two basic variants in the literature of liberty, the so-called "rationalist" tradition of the French Enlightenment, and the "antirationalist" tradition of the English classical liberals, who opposed systembuilding, deduction of a set of principles from axioms, and who favored a form of traditionalism. Hayek, by these terms, is an "antirationalist" (though often a clever one), while Rothbard is a "rationalist" in the grandest way.

CORE OF ROTHBARDIAN SYSTEM The core, the leitmotif, of the Rothbardian system is justice in property titles. This provides the basis for integrating the entire libertarian philosophy. Here Rothbard is at his strongest. Criticizing the utilitarian and emotivist libertarian views, he stands foresquare in the "natural law" tradition of ethics. Working from a basically Aristotelian-Thomistic base (very similar to Objectivism), he deduces from the requirements of man's nature not only the necessity for property rights per se, but also what virtually every other libertarian intellectual has avoided: specific criteria for differentiating between just and unjust property titles; in this crucially important respect, he surpasses Rand, Mises, Hayek and Friedman. Furthermore, he shows, contrary to the claim of most of these other libertarians, that a set of concrete criteria of justice in property rights is a necessary precondition for any rational legal system. From this, he deduces the libertarian axiom of nonaggression, that no man or group of men may use aggressive violence or the threat of it against the person or property of a nonaggressor.

Then he applies this to a searching and perceptive critique of the State apparatus. This is one of the great joys of the book. He focuses on the State apparatus as the great engine of aggression, and makes several points which libertarians would expect him to make. But beyond this, there are several fascinating sections, particularly on why the State apparatus necessarily develops into oligarchic rule, on the failure of written constitutions, on the "class struggle" under Statism, and on the relationship between the State and the intellectuals. This last is a superb section, particularly relevant today in the aftermath of the Vietnam debacle the Pentagon Papers revelations, and so many other things which involve an alliance between intellectuals and the State.

After this, Rothbard presses on with his problem solving, taking up such issues as: involuntary servitude in all of its forms (including compulsory jury duty)—personal liberty—education—welfare and the welfare state—government in business—streets and roads—police, law and the courts—conservation, ecology and growth—and war and foreign policy. The greatest and most convincing of these are the chapters on personal liberty, education, conservation, ecology and growth, and war and foreign policy. The chapters on police, law and the courts (which has already been hailed as "definitive") and the foreign policy chapter will cause the most stir among libertarians. In the chapter on personal liberty, he addresses all of the common problems, everything from pornography to abortion, from free speech (solving the "crying 'fire' in a crowded theater" problem on the way) to freedom of radio and television. The exciting thing is that Rothbard does not stop with deducing the correct, libertarian, position on these issues. In many cases, such as that of radio and television, you see Rothbard showing how the problem arose historically, pinpointing those laws and court decisions which brought our communications system to its present mess. So you see the problems themselves emerging in front of you, and see how a nest of problems has emerged in a hierarchy because of mistakes or corruption. He does this in most other significant cases as well. The education chapter covers all of the most significant issues, as well as some which most libertarians might not have expected to see taken up. Specifically, Rothbard looks into the history of the "drive for public schooling and compulsory attendance in this and other countries" and finds "at the root not so much misguided altruism as a conscious scheme to coerce the mass of the population into a mould desired by the Establishment."

In the chapter on the welfare state, he takes up again most of the obvious problems, and then addresses himself to the neglected issue of whether or not, concretely, the welfare state is of benefit to the poor; he concludes that the welfare state harms the poor more than it helps them. The chapter on free market courts and police, and parts of the chapter on streets and roads, (with which readers of REASON are already familiar—excerpts appeared in REASON's March 1973 cover story) discuss protection and defense without the State apparatus.

A brilliant virtuoso section comes with "Conservation, Ecology and Growth," where Rothbard traces liberal flip-flops in their attacks on capitalism, from complaints that capitalism leads to stagnation to the modern complaints that capitalism "grows" too fast and will deplete not only our natural resources but lead to ecological disaster as well. This is probably one of the best treatments of the ecology and conservations issues ever written.

The chapter on "War and Foreign Policy" will prove to be the most controversial to libertarians—particularly Objectivists who, being allergic to scholarship, haven't the slightest desire to follow up on Roth- bard's footnotes for the full proof of his positions. And the chapter is indeed too sketchy in many ways, but even that enables him to raise so many issues and questions that anyone who is interested will end up not only with a great many things to think about, but a pile of research projects as well. Rothbard somewhat overstates his case against U.S. foreign policy here, but in the main this chapter is the single best thing ever written by a libertarian on foreign policy. Not that the chapter is a treatise unto itself, but rather the problem is that no one else has studied the issues to the extent that Rothbard has—at least no one among his opponents.

STRATEGY FOR LIBERTY With "A Strategy for Liberty," we reach the passionate conclusion for a passionate book. "And so we have it," Rothbard writes, "a body of truth, sound in theory and capable of application to our political problems—the new libertarianism. But now that we have the truth, how can we achieve victory? We face the great strategic problem of all 'radical' creeds throughout history: How can we get from here to there, from our current State- ridden and imperfect world to the great goal of liberty?" His proposals involve a blend of scholarship, education, activism and organization, again a uniquely Rothbardian vision, as will be discovered fully by those who study this book.

Is the book flawless? Certainly not, and I would not maintain that it is. For one thing, there is a tension in the book between the twin goals of scholarship and rigor on the one hand, and the requirements of a "popular" or mass-market manifesto on the other. There are many gaps where the necessary evidence js not presented, or where chains of Rothbard's sustained logical argument are missing—logical arguments not even to be found fully among his published works, since some of his most important contributions (particularly in social philosophy and history) remain unpublished and unavailable. There are also a few errors or over-statements. One of the most tragic and important is Rothbard's characterization of Rand. Not only does Rothbard not fully appreciate Rand's contributions to technical philosophy, he misrepresents her philosophical position as well, confusing her own rational (almost Aristotelian) egoism with Nietzschianism, and her Objectivist epistemology with Aristotelianism (there are significant and fundamental differences between the two). Moreover, his own case for liberty, particularly in the realm of "meta-ethics," could be immeasurably strengthened by following Rand's deduction of man's life as man's standard of value, and her reconciliation of natural rights with self-interest, by means of showing what is in fact to man's interest in a social context. Moreover, the entire first chapter is somewhat of a disappointment, since it is a journalistic history of the libertarian movement; this is a tragedy because Rothbard is uniquely qualified to write an intellectual history of libertarianism, particularly of American individualist thought. But this last is due, no doubt, to the limitations of the book itself, and because of the "introductory" purposes which it is intended to serve. The former problem—Rothbard's conflict with Rand—is a tragic consequence of the unnecessary antagonism which exists between Objectivists and Rothbardians. Each sees the other, fundamentally speaking, as an antagonist; I see both as mutually supplementary. The foreign policy chapter, too, is a bit too sketchy for my taste. Also, in the first chapter, not only does Rothbard erroneously mention the stillborn LIBERTARIAN REVIEW as the libertarian movement's major publication, but he also neglects to mention REASON magazine at all. By almost any standard, REASON must take first place among libertarian journals. But these objections are not central to the book, and do not detract from its invaluable assets.

With the publication of FOR A NEW LIBERTY we at long last have the Rothbardian world-view intact. Many of us could indeed figure out the solutions to some of these problems on our own, but to be able to learn them from such a creative mind as that of Rothbard saves us a mammoth amount of time and creative energy, and allows us to begin on his shoulders, so to speak, facing new challenges and new horizons that much further down the road to our great goal of liberty.

MAMMOTH CONTRIBUTIONS In many ways, with this book Rothbard has brought the libertarian movement up to a certain level, and this is one of his most important and lasting achievements. Just as Rand, Mises and Hayek have added significant wings to the structure of the libertarian ideal, now we have Rothbard's mammoth contributions as well. For the Rothbardian ideology allows us, as libertarians, to look at our own present condition with a sense of context, with a view of our relationship not only to the present, but to the past and future as well. He has made the libertarian movement ideologically and historically self-conscious, combining a sweeping knowledge of mankind's past with an unquenchable optimism in his attitude towards the struggles we yet face. Rothbard has given libertarians a sense of reality about themselves which is ever so important. And, finally, he gives the movement a firm sense of goal-directedness, which is necessary for the success of any movement qua movement.

This then is the Rothbardian system, the Rothbardian manifesto. One cannot say everything in one book, and Murray Rothbard doesn't pretend to have done that here. But he has said a great many things of paramount importance, and if they are ignored or evaded, we as libertarians will be the losers. It is more than a vitally important work, and more than required reading for all libertarians. It is the basic statement in defense of liberty of one of the twentieth century's great minds, a system of liberty which he has hammered out over the last quarter of a century. It may prove to be the most important ideological work to appear in years, and should help us move several steps forward toward the libertarian ideal. Even for a book filled with such passion and optimism, it is on a most passionate note indeed that Rothbard closes his blazing manifesto:

Strands and remnants of libertarian doctrines are, indeed, all around us, in large parts of our glorious past and in values and ideas in the confused present. But only libertarianism takes these strands and remnants and integrates them into a mighty, logical and consistent system. The enormous success of Karl Marx and Marxism has been due not to the validity of his ideas—all of which, indeed, are fallacious—but to the fact that he dared to weave socialist theory into a mighty system. Liberty cannot succeed without an equivalent and contrasting systematic theory; and until the last few years, despite our great heritage of economic and political thought and practice, we have not had a fully integrated and consistent theory of liberty. We now have that systematic theory; we come, fully armed with our knowledge, prepared to bring our message and to capture the imagination of all groups and strands in the population. All other theories and systems have clearly failed: socialism is in retreat everywhere, and notably in Eastern Europe; liberalism has bogged us down in a host of insoluble problems; conservatism has nothing to offer but sterile defense of the status quo. Liberty has never been fully tried in the modern world; libertarians now propose to fulfill the American dream and the world dream of liberty and prosperity for all mankind.

Ft. A. Childs is editor of BOOKS FOB LIBERTARIANS. He authored the significant two-part article, "Big Business and the Rise of American Statism: A Revisionist History," in the February and March 1971 issues of REASON, and his review of IT USUALLY BEGINS WITH AYN RAND appeared in REASON's June/July 1972 issue.