Short blurb on Murray Rothbard

Murray Rothbard (1926-1995) was an economist at UNLV and is considered to be one of the most important figures of the post-war libertarian movement. Rothbard earned his BA and PhD from Columbia (his dissertation on the banking panic of 1819 is still cited by economic historians), so it’s not like he was some hack with an unwarranted vendetta against the government. His contributions to a more libertarian world can be felt in numerous ways, from think tanks to economics graduate programs to the presidential campaigns of Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012. His daring foray into anarchy is, of course, his most important contribution to the scholarly world. However, I don’t see why this man has such a cult classic following within the libertarian movement. Could somebody explain this to me?

My best guess is that Rothbard’s strategy of appealing to the intelligent layman with well-disguised fallacies instead of discussing his research with the scholarly community has something to do with it, but this is only a guess.

His work just has “Cold War” written all over it. For instance, the first book of Rothbard’s that I cracked open, Conceived in Liberty Volume 1, read like a 1970s Marxist diatribe on economic development (by the way: see Dr Delacroix’s “The Export of Raw Materials and Economic Growth: A Cross-National Study” in the American Sociological Review for an excellent rebuttal of Marxist development theory). Again, I think part of this can be blamed on the time period he was writing in (mid-1970s), but even though it must have really sucked to be a scholar during the Cold War era there is really no good excuse for Rothbard’s present-day status as a saint within libertarian circles.

Not only has his scholarship become a stepping stone rather than a shrine (as all scholarship inevitably becomes), but the cult-like attitudes of some of his fans makes me cringe as a libertarian. At any rate, I’d really like to know why he has such a devoted following, and why his followers seem to think that their devotion to him is a good thing for the movement.

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12 thoughts on “Short blurb on Murray Rothbard

  1. What “well-disguised fallacies” are you talking about, Brandon? Can you give a couple of examples? Rothbard did in fact get published in the American Economic Review early on but as his radical views became known I think he didn’t want to bother trying to publish in the mainstream journals, and went his own way.

    Rothbard’s main work was his “Man, Economy and State,” an attempt to present Mises’ praxeological approach to economics in a way that contemporary audiences would understand better. Many of the arguments in that book are unmatched for clarity, originality and forcefulness. In a couple of places he runs off the rails, and the results, given that he was going 100 mph, were messy. But the book is well worth studying even 50 years after its publication.

    I find his arguments for anarchy not nearly as persuasive as those of David Friedman. I understand why those arguments appeal to young people in particular, who perhaps aren’t as well aware of the messiness of the real world as some of us older folk.

    • Thank you for the thoughtful response Dr Gibson. I have no qualms about Rothbard eschewing a more traditional scholarly approach for the pragmatic and populist route that he took. It obviously paid off in spades. Here are two important, well-disguised fallacies designed to captivate the intelligent layman that come to mind:

      1. The immorality of fractional reserve banking and the necessity of a 100% gold standard. The libertarian inclination to oppose centralized power structures, coupled with Rothbard’s fallacious account of fractional reserve banking, basically created the new populist agitation against the Federal Reserve regulatory apparatus in the United States. As you are no doubt aware, judging by your own eloquent scholarship on this topic, Rothbard could have eschewed the fallacy he employed in favor of a more careful consideration of what is now known as free banking. Free banking, of course, would not have garnered the same amount of fans as an indignant opposition to the Fed coupled with an alternative that hearkened back to a mythological golden age.
      2. The absolutist nature of private property rights as the logical outcome of the non-aggression principle. I’ll outsource to Caplan’s succinct critique. I think we would agree that non-aggression and private property rights are integral to a free society, but the dogmatism of absolute rights is fallacious and, I think, does a marvelous job of – again – capturing the contrarian impulse of libertarians while simultaneously providing a luscious layer of fog with which the intelligent layman can fall back on when confronted with the messiness of the real world.

      Rothbard’s demolition of the New Socialist Man was also unrivaled in scope and in predictive power.

      Yet does this demolition not serve to bolster my argument that Rothbard’s work has “Cold War” written all over it? For instance, a lot of my readings lately have consisted of Marxist theoreticians and their attempts to come to terms with the collapse of the Soviet Union and, by implication, socialism as a viable alternative to liberalism (the years of 1991-1996 bear especially good fruit). These works are both illuminating and entertaining, as I get to see how ideologues and anti-capitalists grasp the collapse of their system before their eyes and try to make sense out of why they were wrong and why liberalism has been so successful.

      The responses of these defeated ideologues have been startling: Instead of acknowledging the basic insights of economics, socialist theorists have instead devised new ways to attack regimes based on private property rights. One ingenuous scholar, Immanuel Wallerstein, even goes so far as to suggest the collapse of socialism actually represents the collapse of liberalism! These new attacks on freedom are far more vulgar than the attacks Rothbard demolished. These new attacks take into account socialism’s failings and then proceed to attack liberalism. They are internationalists who are forced to be nationalists due to their obstinance in acknowledging the basic insights of economics.

      These are blind attacks based on ambiguous and stubborn prejudices, ones that can do no damage to the philosophical insights of liberalism, but may become the new rallying cry for factions that become dispossessed by the consequences of this-or-that rent-capturing scheme. No longer do Leftists advocate forced collectivization or state monopolization of industry. Leftists today have no alternative, and have thus attacked liberalism’s success with more vitriol and more falsehoods than ever before. In our circumstances, Rothbard’s lucid scholarship simply doesn’t offer much help to the scholars of today and tomorrow.

      Does this make sense? Do the purported supporters of Rothbard today not bother you?

  2. Conceived in liberty is not really where you want to start with Rothbard even I think it is pretty bland but I hardly see evidence of any Marxist diatribe. The Ethics of Liberty or, my personal favorite, America’s Great Depression are much more important to libertarianism than even MES w/Power and Market (in my opinion).

    Then again, if you reject natural rights libertarianism as I think you do I suppose you would find things you consider to be “well disguised fallacies” but I’ve read nearly everything Rothbard has written and the only argument he ever made that I find to be even remotely inconsistent is his stance on nuclear weapons.

    You are going to have to be more specific Brandon.

    Also here: http://library.mises.org/books/Murray%20N%20Rothbard/Conceived%20in%20Liberty_Vol_2.pdf

    Is a PDF of conceived in liberty. As An-cap authors don’t acknowledge Intellectual Property as property you can find nearly all of Rothbard’s works here: https://mises.org/Literature/Author/299/Murray-N-Rothbard

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Adam. I really do value them (as do others who may be lurking in the ‘comments’ section). I think your response helps to prove my point, albeit in a halfhearted way. My argument is that Rothbard’s time has come and gone, and that the devoted following he has today does libertarianism absolutely no good.

      Recommending books to start with by the great polymath is a great example. I came across Conceived in Liberty purely by accident. I was researching 18th century Dutch and American constitutional thought for a paper (a paper that turned into an analysis of Dutch imperialism, but I digress) I was working on when I came across CiL. I thought to myself “Rothbard?! No way!” and proceeding to neglect my schoolwork in favor of perusing through the first volume. The book was long on beautiful rhetoric and ingeniously selective anecdotes and short on empirical evidence.

      This lack of hard evidence, coupled with the flowery and quite inspirational prose, is what made it read like a 1970s Marxist diatribe on economic development. Libertarianism needs more scholars, not more gurus and saints.

      Rothbard’s inconsistency is another matter entirely for me. I don’t really judge scholars on their inconsistency. To do so would severely handicap my ability to be a decent scholar. FA Hayek, for example, started out as a Fabian socialist. Should I take off points because he was inconsistent? Similarly, Rothbard was a conservative long before he was a libertarian, although the fact that you can only find one inconsistency in all of Rothbard’s prodigious output is odd. I’ve barely read anything by Rothbard and have found a half-dozen inconsistencies (his eulogy of the human butcher Che Guevara comes to mind). I would be suspicious if I were you.

      Additionally, many of the scholars we blog with have changed their minds. You should ask Dr Gibson about his ideological life path sometime. It’s pretty interesting. Delacroix’s ideological path is always worth a read, too.

      All of this is excellent dialogue in my mind, but I am still missing an answer as to why Rothbard has such a cult classic status among large swathes of libertarians today. Am I missing something? Was my original intuition basically correct?

      • “This lack of hard evidence, coupled with the flowery and quite inspirational prose, is what made it read like a 1970s Marxist diatribe on economic development. Libertarianism needs more scholars, not more gurus and saints.”

        The need for fewer gurus and more scholars extends far beyond libertarianism.

  3. Given all of the recent hit pieces on Libertarianism, there is a grossly disproportionate response to a movement that received 1% of the vote.

    • Libertarianism is an ideological movement not a political one. Percentage of vote is quite irrelevant when a large proportion of libertarians don’t vote.

  4. I don’t think you realize that “Conceieved in Liberty” is not nor was it intended to be, a book on the economics of the Colonies. It is a history book, not an economics text. You would expect an economics book to scientific in its approach and you would expect a history book to be filled with the interpretations of the author. Which is exactly what you get.

    • Thanks Desmond, this is a really interesting critique.

      As a thought experiment: Suppose I did realize that Conceived in Liberty is everything you want it to be. Does it add to our understanding of what life was like in the late 18th and early 19th centuries?

      Or does it, as I argue, merely use existing scholarship and evidence to support an ideological position? If it’s the former, then you might be right. If it’s the latter, then my hunch is probably correct.

      How many people – libertarian or otherwise – have used CiL in their scholarly work since it was first published in the late seventies? The answer is “not many.” Like the Marxist works Rothbard was pitted against in the Cold War, CiL is simply beautiful prose coupled with ingeniously selected anecdotes.

      Your charge that I had no idea about the difference between history and economics is useful, I think, in bolstering my argument that Rothbard’s status as a guru is a problem for the movement. It also helps to further my argument that Rothbard was a Cold War scholar, and while he did us all a great service by directly confronting Marxists there is simply not much we can gain from his scholarship in 2014.

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