June 12, 2000
The 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.
Economics 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.
Rothbard’s 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.
While 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.
Old 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 Bright.
Rothbard’s "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.
Persuaded 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.
I 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.
On 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.
If 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.
Unlike 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 Appleman Williams.
Rothbard’s 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 System"2 links 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.
Rothbard’s 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.
A 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
As 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."
State 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
What tied Rothbard’s work together was, I think, its grounding on the Natural Law tradition and Aristotelian ontology. (See The 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.
Here 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.
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