Politics Don't Cut It

Murray Rothbard never pretended to be infallible, and he wasn't; but when he wrote or spoke on his specialty of economics, he was . . . close enough for government work. I had the chance to hear him speak several times, and have some of his books, and say that he was the most brilliant, prolific and consistent pro-freedom writer of the 20th Century. Sadly, he died in 1995 at age 69. He had a healthy distrust of doctors, but unhappily he took that just a bit too far; had he listened to his more carefully about his heart condition, he might be with us still.

He was above all a happy warrior for liberty. His talks and articles are laced with mischievous humor, and his laugh was famous as a “cackle.” One could not help enjoying his company. If you never heard him speak, give yourself a 2½ minute treat, right now: watch how he explained fractional reserve banking to an LP audience in Michigan. As I recall it, his voice was not as “tinny” as the audio track suggests, but otherwise that is authentic Rothbard.

Recently I bought the Kindle book that Walter Block caused to be compiled, of issues of The Libertarian Forum (TLF), from 1969 to 1984, which Rothbard edited and largely wrote. It's a huge volume, full of meaty material and a fascinating history of those crucial years of the libertarian movement portrayed as they happened. I like to read about one issue a day, and am still only up to 7% of the way through, so there may be a season's reading here--for a mere $5. That history, with Justin Raimondo's biography An Enemy of the State, combine to give me a pretty good picture of what this one-man powerhouse was up to.

He was a boy prodigy in Brooklyn in the 1930s, born into a family he described as follows:

I had two sets of aunts and uncles on both sides of the family who were in the Communist Party. The older uncle was an engineer who helped build the legendary Moscow subway; the younger one was an editor for the Communist-dominated Drug Workers Union, headed by one of the famous Foner brothers. But I hasten to add that I am not, in the current fashion, like Roseanne Barr Arnold or William F. Buckley, Jr., claiming that I was a victim of child abuse. On the contrary, my father was an individualist, and was always strongly anti-communist and anti-socialist, who turned against the New Deal in 1938 because it had failed to correct the depression—a pretty good start . . . .

So young Murray counted himself in his 20s a member of the “Old Right” and was proud of it; and then he encountered Ludwig von Mises, whom he regarded for the rest of his life as his mentor and friend. He went beyond Mises, however, in recognizing that Austrian economics logically demands a commitment to anarchism; when the state is correctly identified as the source of all disorder in an economy, clearly the state has to go. Why von Mises, like some in the Austrian school today, failed to acknowledge that remains to me a mystery.

Rothbard didn't get to that point in one leap. In the 1950s, he was intimately involved in the New Right movement led by Bill Buckley of National Review, and with Ayn Rand, by whose seminal novel Atlas Shrugged he was deeply impressed. He eventually broke with Rand when her tribunal condemned his wife JoAnne for being (irrationally) a Christian and told him to divorce her (!) and with Buckley when he recognized that the New Right was as statist as anyone else, fixated on the need to defeat Communism even if the world had to be destroyed so as to do it. He later found even more profound reasons why each was seriously wrong.

Having arrived by about 1960 at a rational, anarchist understanding of which way was up, Rothbard's published output became enormous. For a New Liberty, Man, Economy and State, and most notably Power & Market were all written between 1962 and 1973, and the Libertarian Forum records how he then set out to turn his findings into concrete results.

It shows how at that point Rothbard made, in my opinion, a critical mistake.

While repudiating of course all that he stood for and by no means planning the use of violence, Rothbard did admire the tactics Lenin used to get power in 1917. And in the late 1960s, it did look as if America – with student riots and occupations every week, old values being trashed, race relations set to explode, “sex, drugs, rock 'n roll” captivating the young--was heading for some kind of meltdown comparable to Russia then, so it seemed clear to him that the way to turn theory into practice was to form alliances with all who, in that turbulent period, were willing to oppose the state and who might join him to seek its overthrow. Observe, for example, his excitement in this opening paragraph in the December 1st 1969 issue of TLF:

October and November saw the outpouring of the most massive opposition movement in the long, black history of the government of the United States. In the October Moratorium literally millions of Americans demonstrated in Washington and San Francisco for a weekend . . . . In a country long inured to “backing the President” in any foreign crisis, this determined and ever growing mass movement against the war is a truly remarkable phenomenon. Who among us, ten, five years ago, could have predicted that millions of Americans would raise their voices and bring their persons to the point of total opposition to an American war effort?

So he deliberately courted the “New Left”--with some success. He found that it was mostly the Right which spurned his advances, notably Bill Buckley's Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), whose Rightist majority actually used physical violence against its libertarian members--causing the latter to withdraw in an historic split in 1969, and subsequently to form the LP.

Evidently, Rothbard's strategy for bringing about a zero government society was to attract power and influence and so to take over the political machinery of the country while it was vulnerable, and he just loved a political fight. After things settled down a bit later in the '70s, that was the explicit aim of the Libertarian Party: to abolish (or at least reduce) political power by first acquiring political power. I cannot blame him because I adopted that aim myself when joining it in 1980, but it was a serious error--for two reasons.

First, it didn't work. That could not be known in 1969, of course, so it's the weaker of the two reasons, but the fact is that almost at once the various alliances formed by Rothbard fractured and realigned and never came to work smoothly together; and the LP has never gained traction as a serious contender for election victory. If that were the only problem, it might still have been worth trying; but in retrospect, it was all a waste of effort--except for its incidental, though considerable, educational value.

Second and much more seriously, it was fundamentally mistaken because it depended for success on compelling non-anarchists to conform. As author of For a New Liberty, Rothbard knew perfectly well that a zero government society can function only when all or virtually all of its members understand it and want it; its justice system will be able to handle perhaps 1% or 2% who persist in trying to impose their wills on someone else, but not 30% or 40% or 49.9%. This was not a problem for Lenin and his thugs, for they were quite willing to kill those who opposed them, and did so frequently; but that's not an option for those aiming to abolish initiated force. Thus if, for example, the LP were to win an election outright and wind down the welfare-warfare state as promised, vigorous opposition from the outvoted minority would quickly render the task impossible--quite possibly with a protracted civil war.

Exactly the same applies if the “victory” is by some kind of trickle-down process, from an “intelligentsia” to the rest of society, as Rothbard probably hoped in 1969. He criticized Hayek for proposing that for academics (convince the professors and wait for the message to reach teachers and students and so, everyone else) on the grounds that it would “at best . . . take several hundred years, and some of us are a bit more impatient than that”--but by also acting to change the minds of opinion molders and voters, he hoped to shorten that delay. That too, however, would have left a very large and discontented underclass, used to getting what it wanted by force instead of voluntary exchange; fatal for a voluntary free market society. Today there are still some who see a possibility that enlightened business leaders will take over vital functions in the country after there has been a total economic meltdown, who will bring about a free market out of the ashes, as it were; in the unlikely event of that happening, exactly the same problem will remain: resistance, by at least a big minority.

So Rothbard could have paused to think, in 1969, about how best to achieve his objective. Had he put a tenth as much rational thought into the strategy for getting a free society as he had into describing why it was necessary and how it would work, he would hardly have bothered with conventions and alliances and political parties. He would have followed the rationale in 464 Lost Years and recognized that the state will disappear only when its employees walk off the job, and hence devised a strategy for universal education.

In 1969, it would have been harder to implement a program of universal education than it became after the turn of the century, with interactive PCs and CDs proliferating. By 1969, interaction with mainframes had surfaced, so that technique might have helped, but mostly it would have depended on the written and spoken word. No matter; in What Might Have Been, I showed that such a program could have been implemented in the 19th Century, never mind the late 20th. The problem was not lack of technology, but lack of rational, strategic planning.

We all make mistakes, even Murray Rothbard--but he set an indelible mark on the progress of humanity towards the freedom that our nature demands. It's tragic that he made that one error, for if he hadn't, we'd all be enjoying a free society today. That's all in the past, however, and what matters is the future. Let's honor his memory by not repeating it.

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