A Tale of Two Libertarianisms

The conflict between Murray Rothbard and F.A. Hayek highlights an enduring division in the libertarian world.


Rothbard vs. the Philosophers, by Murray Rothbard, edited by Roberta A. Modugno, Ludwig von Mises Institute, 168 pages, $14.

If Murray Rothbard—free-market economist, anarchist philosopher, American historian, and inveterate activist—had never lived, the modern libertarian movement would have nowhere near its current size and influence. He inspired and educated generations of influential intellectuals and activists, from Leonard Liggio to Roy Childs to Randy Barnett. He helped form and/or shape the mission of such institutions as the Institute for Humane Studies, the Cato Institute, the Libertarian Party, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute (and wrote a regular column for Reason for more than a decade). His initially unique combination of a Randian/Aristotelian natural rights ethic, Austrian economics, anarcho-capitalism, fervent opposition to war, and a populist distrust of "power elites" both public and private have injected modern libertarianism with a distinct flavor distinguishing it from other brands of pro-market thought. It was a differentiation intensified by Rothbard's bombthrowing polemical style.

Put it this way: When the likes of F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman died, the conservative flagship National Review could and did praise the Nobel Prize–winning economists unreservedly. But when Rothbard died in 1995, his old pal William Buckley pissed 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 Rothbard's influence, though it's unlikely anyone at National Review will note it—except maybe in the context of yet another attack on Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). The rise of Paul and his young and enthusiastic fan base, which Buckley could not have foreseen, contradicts the contention that Rothbard's divisive radical intransigence doomed him to irrelevance.

The Paul phenomena, the largest popular movement in the postwar period to be motivated by distinctly libertarian ideas about war, money, and the role of government, has been influenced far more heavily by Rothbard than by the beliefs or style of any other prominent libertarian intellectual. The Paul movement is the sort of mass anti-war, anti-state, anti-Fed agitation that Rothbard dreamed about his entire adult life.

Rothbard was an influence on his friend Ron Paul, and central to the Paul Internet community are the very Rothbardian websites LewRockwell.com and Mises.org. The latter is run by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, which has just issued an interesting collection of unpublished Rothbard writings, edited by the Italian political scientist Roberta Modugno and titled Rothbard vs. the Philosophers.

The pieces collected here are essays, letters, and memos written in the 1940s and '50s to advise various libertarian financing groups (mostly the Volker Fund) on whether specific works or authors were worthy vessels for promoting libertarian messages. Because of this practical purpose, Rothbard's writing here highlights an important faultline in the larger libertarian project, both as an intellectual operation and as an effort to sell ideas.

Rothbard was an intellectual with a populist mission. He learned much from Marx and 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." Modugno's introductory essay spells out the specifics of this project: "the axiom of nonaggression" is "the true cornerstone of the Rothbardian system," and thus Rothbard "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 was very concerned, in judging the value of other intellectuals, with assessing those thinkers' efficacy in swaying the world toward the cause of total freedom. His critiques here often feature language along the lines of this comment, about his beloved mentor Mises: "Mises' utilitarian, relativist approach to ethics is not nearly enough to establish a full case for liberty."

That spirit of maximizing libertarian advantage, sometimes at the critical expense of fellow libertarians, dominates this book. Rothbard is the most entertaining of the major libertarian thinkers: sharp, witty, mean, funny, at times abrasive, almost always colloquial. Those qualities shine through these advisements on whether a foundation would want to support or distribute the works under discussion.

His flayings of Leo Strauss and Karl Polanyi here thus should not be read as nuanced and charitable philosopher-to-philosopher engagements. Rothbard is writing as an ideological polemicist about what thinkers are good for the team. This aspect of the philosopher, evident not only in these previously private memos but in much of his journalistic criticism of other thinkers and activists, is sometimes used to attack him as an unserious thinker, but the criticism isn't fair to the purpose of this sort of polemic. If Rothbard doesn't capture the full nuances of Karl Polanyi's history or analysis in The Great Transformation, he is nonetheless 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.

Portions of this book show Rothbard presciently lining up on sides of intralibertarian arguments whose significance wouldn't become obvious until much later. Ayn Rand's theories of the "virtue of selfishness" and her tonal elevation of the rights of the great over helping the downtrodden became highly influential in libertarianism from the 1960s on, laying the groundwork for the now-common notion that this uncharitable aspect of Rand is "bad for the brand" of libertarianism. In a 1948 entry here, attacking an essay in praise of "rugged individualism" by Colgate University President George B. Cutten, Rothbard was already arguing that stressing the "ruggedness" of individualism (especially linked to a pop-Darwinianism that sees moral and absolute value in the survival results of blind evolution) would be a bad road for libertarians to take. "I consider it a tribute to the moral qualities of an individualist society," he wrote, "that private charity and philanthropy helps the unfortunate people in our midst."

And while praising Leo Strauss, later credited as philosophical godfather to the neoconservatives, for agreeing that there are ethical absolutes discoverable by reason, Rothbard points out some amusing curiosities in Straussian thinking, mostly focusing on his 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."

The most interesting part of Rothbard vs. the Philosophers, and most important to libertarian intellectual history, is a memo Rothbard wrote in 1958 regarding F.A. Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty. That book, which eventually came out in 1960, is Hayek's extended explanation and defense of what he called "the ideal of freedom which inspired modern Western civilization." In Rothbard's memo, unpublished until now but discussed for years in shocked whispers among libertarians who had seen or heard of it, he advised the Volker Fund that the book should not be supported—indeed, that it should be vehemently attacked upon publication.

Accidents of intellectual and institutional history have linked as "libertarian" a set of thinkers with deep disagreements on important questions of both the preferred role for government and the intellectual justification for their political and ethical beliefs. All of them were bound by opposition to the post–New Deal Keynesian consensus of government spending and planning; all were linked in a community of affinity and intellectual engagement, through organizations such as the Volker Fund, the Mont Pelerin Society, and the Foundation for Economic Education. But as Rothbard makes abundantly clear here, very important differences exist between the fallibilistic, utilitarian, limited-government thinking of Hayek (and Friedman, and to a great degree Mises) and the natural rights–based anarchism of Rothbard. (Rothbard, along with Hayek and Mises, did believe that a free society would be the richest and most option-filled of arrangements, and thus defendable on pragmatic grounds. But he also believed, like Rand, that there was an objective moral order discoverable by reason that made human liberty right, whether or not in any particular case it would tend to work out for the best in some practical sense.)

In words that he never intended to make public in his lifetime, Rothbard calls Hayek's most monumental statement of beliefs and recommendations about liberty and political order "surprisingly and distressingly, an extremely bad, and, I would even say, evil book." The "evil" part comes from the blow Rothbard thinks the text will inflict on the libertarian movement. Hayek, then as now seen as one of libertarianism's most respectable and brilliant exponents, chose in his writings to endorse liberty only for instrumental reasons ("if we want to convince those who do not already share our moral suppositions," he explained, "we must not simply take them for granted"), and he did not take his opposition to the state nearly as far as Rothbard did. Rothbard thus felt the book would create a rhetorical "Even Hayek admits…" problem for more radical libertarians. (To an extent, this fear has proven true.) 

Rothbard's arguments against Hayek are not in themselves strictly pragmatic; he maintains that Hayek misunderstands the rational arguments for liberty and misstates the importance of rights arguments in classical liberal history. In a later, more conciliatory but still negative memo, he lists at many pages' length the concessions Hayek makes to state power that Rothbard finds illegitimate, from subsidies for public goods to compulsory unemployment insurance to minimum income guarantees.

The uneasy relationship between Rothbard and Hayek is echoed to this day, with modern Hayekians such as Will Wilkinson and former Reason editor Virginia Postrel publicly lamenting the conflation of their worldview with Rothbard-style beliefs. Writing on his blog, Wilkinson has complained that when he defends "something like the arguments for an economic safety net [Hayek and other] giants of libertarian thought actually set forth, lots of libertarians accuse me of not really being libertarian at all. And many liberals act surprised, as if I'm being saucily iconoclastic by wandering so far off the reservation." Postrel once wrote in Cato Unbound that "to an outsider, official libertarianism…does indeed look like a doctrinaire sect with a well-rehearsed catechism.…Everything flows from a single principle: self-ownership or non-aggression. It's political philosophy as simple algebra." She then notes that such a definition of libertarianism leaves no room for the Hayekian style she embraces, since its advocates do not "adhere to the deductive reasoning promoted by Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard. They aren't 'principled' or 'hard core.'?" All sorts of intra-libertarian internecine squabbles follow along the same rough lines of the split between the hardcore, no-compromise, anti-statist Rothbardian and the more classical liberal, utilitarian, fallibilist, and prudential Hayekian.

Those are ideal types, and a variety of distinct arguments and feelings shadow the battleground between the tribes—especially when Rothbard the contentious and controversial person, as opposed to Rothbardianism the philosophy, is in the mix. For example, Rothbard's late in life turn toward cultural conservatism, including support for Pat Buchanan in the 1992 presidential campaign (on the grounds that he was the most populist, anti-establishment, and antiwar candidate in the running), make it hard for many libertarians to accept the idea that Rothbard resolutely refused to compromise with statism. Rothbard never took the tack that many younger libertarians influenced by him did, of rejecting electoral politics altogether. He always thought, and talked about, better and worse choices in the political environment we were faced with. From the New Left in the 1960s to the Buchananite Right in the 1990s, he tended to throw his weight behind the most prominent political force against war.

The differences in ultimate political ends are often reflected in differences in tone and willingness to engage, as opposed to railing against, the standard bastions of mainstream power and influence. The sort of outsider anger that can attach to Rothbard-style argumentation, apparent in parts of the Ron Paul movement today, strikes others in the libertarian orbit as conducive to a cultish circling of the intellectual wagons that makes it harder for radical ideas to pierce the arenas of real political and social power. For Rothbard and his successors, meanwhile, "the arenas of real political and social power" are an enemy to be fought, not a potential source of allies.

"Rothbard's intention is to make his own argumentation in support of freedom more persuasive," Modugno notes. As it happens, despite Rothbard's dire warnings to the Volker Fund, Hayek's work clearly was persuasive, and it was mostly persuasive about the areas where Rothbard and Hayek were in agreement. Hayek is so successfully remembered for his critique of central planning, his defense of a free-market price system, and his demolition of the concept of "social justice" that many people familiar with him more as icon than as a thinker are surprised to learn that he believed the things Rothbard slams him for here. 

Both Hayek and Rothbard were more than intellectuals; they were advocates. And while what they ultimately advocated was different, in the context of today's ever-growing government, the rest of the world isn't too wrong in lumping them together for practical purposes. In many ways, though Rothbard certainly didn't think so when contemplating the unpublished Constitution of Liberty, their approaches were complementary rather than competitive. In a world of different minds, different sorts of arguments are going to appeal to different people for different reasons. It's the kind of intellectual division of labor that economists such as Rothbard and Hayek should both be able to appreciate.

If Hayek and Rothbard were (unbeknownst to Hayek) at war, it's a war that both won and neither won. That the two tendencies survive is all for the best both for libertarian ideas and the general shape of human intellectual and political history.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty (bdoherty@reason.com) is author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (Public-Affairs).