This timeless article first appeared on June 12, 2000
sheer amount of writing done by the late Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995)
continues to astound. The quality of his work accounts for the
impact it has had, and the attention it now draws, but its volume
cannot have hurt, either. Rothbard spread the word about Austrian
School economic theory, furthered those ideas, and helped build
a new generation of Austrian theorists – work he continued, in
his last years, at the Ludwig von
Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.
was, of course, just the jumping-off point. Rothbard’s readers
quickly learned that he was a gifted historian, philosopher, political
thinker, and applied ethicist as well. One result was the creation
of quite a few "Rothbardians," who began adding to the
synthesis under way.
was after a unified science of human liberty –
"science" meaning a discipline built upon
theory and methods suited to understanding human action.
This view was strongly opposed to "scientism,"
the notion that the methods of physics were appropriate
anywhere and everywhere. Rothbard’s libertarian synthesis
grounded itself on classical liberalism, Austrian
economics (especially along the lines developed by
Ludwig von Mises), individualist anarchism, revisionist
history, anti-imperialism, a critical sociology of
the state, and Natural Law and Natural Rights grounded
– for Rothbard – on an Aristotelian ontology.
LIBERAL STARTING POINT
attending Columbia University Rothbard became a member
of what he would later refer to as the Old Right.
Gathered together mainly in the right wing of the
Republican party, the Old Right was a loose coalition
which opposed the policies of FDR’s New Deal, at home
and abroad. Their chief spokesman was Senator Robert
A. Taft of Ohio, who was – as Rothbard saw things
– too prone to compromise. Congressman Howard
Buffett (R., Nebr.) and writers such as Frank Chodorov,
John T. Flynn, Isabel Paterson, and Felix Morley were
considerably more "hard-core." Their "line,"
so to speak, reflected a strictly American combination
of classical liberalism and republicanism.
Right ideology proclaimed that government is best
when strictly limited, that society "goes of
itself" and should be left to function, and that
free markets and free trade are keys to liberty and
prosperity. Old Rightists therefore espoused so-called
"isolationism" in order to avoid state-enhancing
wars, and genuine federalism, including strict construction
of the Constitution and "states rights."
They stood against centralized bureaucratic economic
management and "planning" and all forms
of social engineering. Their heroes included Thomas
Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Cobden, and John
THEORY AND ANTI-STATIST POLICY CONCLUSIONS
"right-wing libertarian" leanings took on
theoretical stature when he learned of Austrian theory
and studied with the great Ludwig von Mises. Mises,
to the annoyance of social democrats in and out of
the economics profession, stood uncompromisingly for
laissez faire capitalism. Without attempting
to justify Austrian theory here, let me just say that
if the free market is a "natural order"
which can tackle the wants and needs of real human
beings, it follows logically that states can add little
or nothing to human welfare. In the main, they worsen
things through their exactions on society and market,
not to mention their frequent attacks on liberty and
property. Rothbard took to these insights and deepened
them in his Man,
Economy, and State (1962) and Power
and Market (1970). The last-named laid out
in particular detail the damage done by any and all
forms of state economic interference.
that market-based society is both rational and practicable,
Rothbard went beyond Mises and asked whether states
claiming a geographical monopoly on force are the
best means, or even necessary, for providing law and
judicial services. This question seemed the logical
result of taking Austrian welfare analysis seriously.
He soon found 19th-century anticipations
of his position in the writings of American individualist
anarchists like Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker
and Belgian laissez faire liberal economist
Gustave de Molinari. The latter had asserted in 1849
that markets could supply security and defense.
WARS, AND BROAD REVISIONISM
shall not ask all my readers to accept this last proposition,
if they are not ready for it. I bring it up mainly
because it explains why Rothbard would naturally be
skeptical about the state’s favorite, and biggest,
operation – war. A rapidly growing literature1
underscores the role of war in enhancing state power,
everywhere, and it is surprising that so many alleged
conservative enemies of state planning and social
reconstruction managed to miss this obvious connection
during the late Cold War.
Austrian grounds, Rothbard denied the existence of
directional "laws" of history. Sound theory
could assist the historian to establish what
happened in the past. His own America’s
Great Depression (1963) illustrates the interplay
of theory and history. After that book, no historian
need find that laissez faire was the main ill
of the 1920s, the which ill was then cured by Franklin
Roosevelt’s sonorous radio talks and the New Deal’s
many statist nostrums. The point was that actual human
beings made certain decisions about money and banking.
The disastrous outcome of those decisions allowed
other actual human beings to make further decisions,
which had certain results, including a further strengthening
of state at the expense of society.
state-fiddling of the money supply was a problem,
government’s overseas activities were an even greater
source of state-aggrandizement and social damage.
As an heir of the Old Right, Rothbard believed foreign
relations – war and peace – to be the crucial
research field for understanding our situation and
our prospects for liberty and prosperity. War was
health and hallmark of the state, its ancient origin,
and the certain cause of new assaults on liberty and
gains for state power. Rejection of nationalistic
legends and systematic "revision" of the
historical record concerning war origins was the key
to a realistic understanding of where we stand.
most of his conservative and classical liberal contemporaries,
Rothbard came to doubt the official justifications
of every war fought by the United States in its history
– with the exception of two "just" wars:
the American Revolution and the War for Southern Independence,
as viewed from the Confederate side. As was common
on the Old Right, Rothbard took a skeptical view of
US entry into the two World Wars. New Left writers
reinforced his critical view of the Cold War and the
War in Indo-China. Rothbard’s "broad revisionism"
owed something to Charles Beard and Harry Elmer Barnes,
as well as to New Left diplomatic historian William
writings on wars were many. He could bring economic
theory to bear in a fashion unavailable to most historians.
His "The New Deal and the International Monetary
a discussion of international currency issues (already
anticipated in America’s Great Depression)
with the New Left’s stress on the importance –
for US policy makers – of the neo-mercantilist
Open Door program on the eve of World War II. Left
to the average writer of history, such an essay would
lead to nowhere but boredom. In Rothbard’s hands,
it tells us something new and meaningful.
SOCIOLOGY OF STATES AND ANTI-IMPERIALISM
non-interventionism, learned on the Old Right, grew
into a thorough critique of the rising American Empire.
The Empire demanded war to sustain itself and expand
its global control. Opponents of empire and the increased
statism connected with it, needed to understand and
reject government and press campaigns aimed at getting
us new wars to fight. A thorough knowledge of how
we had been seduced into earlier wars was therefore
an important tool.
critical sociology of the state would look at the
state at home and abroad. At home, its subject was
the ongoing low-intensity "war" of the state
against those long-since conquered; abroad, its subject
was periodic wars waged against foreign governments
and, mostly, foreign civilians. In two outstanding
two great essays, "War, Peace, and the State"
and "The Anatomy of the State," Rothbard
sketched out an approach based on the insights of
the elite theorists Pareto, Mosca, and Michels to
build a believable model of the state’s personnel
and their goals and ideology.3
an Austrian thinker, Rothbard looked at states from
the standpoint of methodological individualism. Since
only individuals act, it is only the detailed investigation
of historical actors can yield an understanding of
who did what (and to whom). This frees us from those
deterministic social theories which set up holistic
aggregates and "social forces" as the drive-works
of history. For Rothbard, the state was "the
organization of the political means to wealth"
– that is, plunder – and was, therefore, inherently
opposed to private property and free markets, which
together make up the "economic means to wealth."
personnel and those allied with them made the most
of the political means to wealth. This did not exhaust
their motives, which might include power, glory, and
ideology, but nine times out of ten "crude"
economic motives explained a given "reform"
measure or war scare far better than alternative theories.
See, for example, Rothbard’s penetrating essays on
the origins of civil service reform, the Progressive
Movement, and Progressivism and World War I.4
tied Rothbard’s work together was, I think, its grounding
on the Natural Law tradition and Aristotelian ontology.
Ethics of Liberty .) His synthesis worked
because of Rothbard’s deep-running commitment to human
liberty and individual rights, values he saw as central
to Western, Christian civilization. It worked, as
well, because the constituent elements reinforce one
another in a systematic, intellectually coherent fashion.
I have had time only to introduce the broad outlines
and some of the applications. I mean to return to
the specifics of Rothbard’s analysis of foreign policy
and war in another column.