Gene Epstein: Murray Rothbard's Mixed Legacy


"The last thing government should be involved in is money," says Gene Epstein, who writes about economics for Barron's. He's also the author of Econospinning, a searing, book-length critique of media coverage of markets.

Epstein spoke with Reason's Nick Gillespie about why he's a devotee of the renegade Austrian School economist, Murray RothbardEpstein says Rothbard made him understand how government is an actor in the economy, not an objective overseer, but an entity with its own interests.

He also talked about how Rothbard's combative personality made him ill-suited for the political arena, and lamented Rothbard's late 1980s infatuation with Southern populism, Pat Buchanan, and even Klansman-turned-Republican David Duke.

Even with this baggage, Epstein believes Rothbard's legacy is redeemed by the intellectual stature of his writing and prolific output of books and articles, especially For a New Liberty and Man, Economy, and State.

The interview took place at this summer's Freedom Fest. Held each July in Las Vegas, Freedom Fest is attended by around 2,000 limited-government enthusiasts and libertarians. ReasonTV spoke with over two dozen speakers and attendees and will be releasing interviews over the coming weeks.

About 6 minutes. 

Produced by Anthony L. Fisher. Camera by Paul Detrick and Tracy Oppenheimer.

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  1. Government isn’t the economic “philosopher king” but instead an independent and self-interested actor in the economy? That sounds like blasphemy.

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  2. DD was a Democrat too now.

    I’d say his flirtations with the Paleos has been much more successful than his prior strategies, such as with the New Left, but only mildly. And it’s certainly debatable.

  3. Rothbard on Duke:

    Well, they finally got David Duke. But he sure scared the bejesus out of them. It took a massive campaign of hysteria, of fear and hate, orchestrated by all wings of the Ruling Elite, from Official right to left, from President Bush and the official Republican Party through the New York-Washington-run national media through the local elites and down to local left-wing activists. It took a massive scare campaign, not only invoking the old bogey images of the Klan and Hitler, but also, more concretely, a virtual threat to boycott Louisiana, to pull out tourists and conventions, to lose jobs by businesses leaving the state. It took a campaign of slander that resorted to questioning the sincerity of Duke’s conversion to Christianity ? even challenging him to name his “official church.” Even my old friend Doug Bandow participated in this cabal in the Wall Street Journal, which virtually flipped its wig in anti-Duke hysteria, to the extent of attacking Duke for being governed by self-interest(!) ? presumably in contrast to all other politicians motivated by deep devotion to the public weal? … But logic went out the window: for the entire Establishment, the ruling elite, was at stake, and in that sort of battle, all supposedly clashing wings of the Establishment weld together as one unit and fight with any weapons that might be at hand.

  4. and

    They said in the 60s, when they gently chided the violent left: “stop using violence, work within the system.” And sure enough it worked, as the former New Left now leads the respectable intellectual classes. So why wasn’t the Establishment willing to forgive and forget when a right-wing radical like David Duke stopped advocating violence, took off the Klan robes, and started working within the system? If it was OK to be a Commie, or a Weatherman, or whatever in your wild youth, why isn’t it OK to have been Klansmen? Or to put it more precisely, if it was OK for the revered Justice Hugo Black, or for the lion of the Senate, Robert Byrd, to have been a Klansman, why not David Duke? The answer is obvious: Black and Byrd became members of the liberal elite, of the Establishment, whereas Duke continued to be a right-wing populist, and therefore anti-Establishment, this time even more dangerous because “within the system.”

    The Byrd comparison is the most telling. Duke ran as a Democrat in the 1988 primaries, switched and won the nomination of the Populist Party for the general election, then switched again to the GOP when he started in with the Louisiana state senate. When he ran for governor and started getting headlines, the media and much of the GOP freaked, as everyone rightly viewed him as a massive creep.

    The difference was that this massive creep was against big government and didn’t have a (D) behind his name anymore.

    1. I get the point, and I’m not trying to defend Byrd or the left on stuff like this, because they do hold a double standard, but Duke, despite renouncing his affiliation with the KKK, has always continued to be openly racist and has made that the fundamental foundation to who he is and what he wants to do. A better comparison to Byrd would be Strom Thurmond.

      Also, is David Duke actually anti-big government, or just anti-big government when it’s tailored to blacks or Jews? I strongly suspect it’s the latter

      1. Agreed on all points, and though I love Rothbard, he became crankier, more sarcastic, and increasingly shrill as he got older. The same thing has been going on with Chomsky for about 40 years now, so let that be a lesson to everyone who invests too much emotionally in a political game that’s best suited to stoics and sociopaths.

        Duke identifies as a white nationalist according to wikipedia, which puts him in some category removed from your standard ancap/minarchist schools or Grover Norquist conservatism. The fact that DD spent his youth marching around campus in a Nazi uniform makes me think that his purported small government tendencies are somewhat less than honest or that he’s just a lifelong jackass who will say whatever he needs to get his hands on a little bit of power.

        Though Rothbard was playing at the margins by equating Duke’s situation to Byrd’s, who by that time had been playing the mainstream political game for the right team for a long while, there’s no doubt that Byrd was a racist of massive proportions all his life. You don’t go on national news and call someone a “white nigger” twice without being far out of the loop of what is socially permissible. The Duke affair gave Rothbard a wonderful opportunity to repeat taxation talking points while sticking his thumb in the eye of the standard pundit who wouldn’t spit on Duke if he were on fire, but welcomed Byrd into the (D) fold with open arms.

  5. What baggage? What mixed legacy? Rothbard will be remembered for being one of the few who spelled out clearly what government really is (a gang of robbers, killers and thieves writ large). If we ever get past this primitive form of human association (violent domination by power mad elites), Rothbard will be remembered as a hero, not for any fleeting associations with unsavory characters.

    1. Reason, Cato, and the Kochs are not noted for their love of Rothbard, so this sort of sniping (“infatuation”?) is to be expected.

      Thankfully we have the commentariat here to mend fences and build 21st-century coalitions between the Rothbardians, Randians, and Jacketarians. Of course, those dirty Nozickians can just go to hell.

  6. The answer is obvious: Black and Byrd became members of the liberal elite, of the Establishment, whereas Duke continued to be a right-wing populist, and therefore anti-Establishment, this time even more dangerous because “within the system.”

    This is the gist of Rothbard’s argument. He clearly had no love for David Duke; instead, he was calling out the liberal Beltway establishment on their hypocrisy.

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  11. releasing interviews over the coming weeks.

  12. Rothbard’s combative personality made him

  13. economy, not an objective

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