Murray Rothbard – One of the Greatest

Lew Rockwell is always a good read. In The Uncompromising Rothbard he writes:

There are many varieties of libertarianism alive in the world today, and they owe a great debt to the work of Ludwig von Mises. His top American student was Murray N. Rothbard, and Rothbardianism remains the center of its intellectual gravity, its primary muse and conscience, its strategic and moral core, and the focal point of debate even when its name is not acknowledged. The reason is that Rothbard forged a blend between Austrian economics and natural-rights political theory of the old liberal school to create a modern libertarianism, a political-economic-ideological system that proposes a once-and-for-all escape from the trappings of left and right and their central plans for how state power should be used. Libertarianism is the radical alternative that says state power is both unworkable and immoral.

“Mr. Libertarian,” Murray N. Rothbard was called, and “The State’s Greatest Living Enemy.” He remains so. Yes, he had many predecessors from which he drew: the whole of the classical-liberal tradition, the Austrian economists, the American antiwar tradition, and the natural-rights tradition. But it was he who put all these pieces together into a unified system that seems inevitable once it has been defined and defended. The individual pieces of the system are straightforward (self-ownership, strict property rights, free markets, antistate in every conceivable respect) but the implications are earthshaking.

Once you are exposed to the complete picture – and For A New Liberty has been the leading means of exposure for more than a quarter of a century – you cannot forget it. This book has been out of print but will appear early next year from the Mises Institute. More than any other of his works, this book explains why Rothbard seems to grow in stature every year (his influence has vastly risen since his death) and why Rothbardianism has so many enemies on the left, right, and center.

Quite simply, the science of liberty that he brought into clear relief is as brilliant in the hopes it creates for a free world as it is unforgiving of error. Its logical and moral consistency, together with its empirical-explanatory muscle, represents a threat to any intellectual vision that sets out to use the state to refashion the world according to some pre-programmed plan. And to the same extent it impresses the reader with a hopeful vision of what might be.

Rothbard set out to write this book soon after he got a call from Tom Mandel, an editor at Macmillan who had seen an op-ed by Rothbard in the New York Times in the spring of 1971. It was the only commission Rothbard ever received from a commercial publishing house. Looking at the original manuscript, which is so consistent in its typeface and nearly complete after its first draft, it does seem that it was nearly effortless joy for him to write. It is seamless, unrelenting, and energetic.

It is also striking how Rothbard chose to pull no punches in his argument. Other intellectuals on the receiving end of such an invitation might have tended to water down the argument to make it more palatable. Why, for example, make a full case for no state when a case for limited government might bring more people into the movement? Why condemn the US? Why go into such depth about privatizing courts and roads and water? Why enter into the sticky area of regulation of consumption and of personal morality? And why go into such detail about monetary affairs and central banking and the like?

Trimming and compromising for the sake of the times or the audience was just not Rothbard’s way. He knew that he had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to present the full package of libertarianism in all its glory, and he was not about to pass it up. And thus do we read here: not just a case for cutting government but eliminating it altogether, not just an argument for assigning property rights but for deferring to the market even on questions of contract enforcement, and not just a case for cutting welfare but for banishing the entire welfare-warfare state.

Whereas other attempts to make a libertarian case, both before and after this book, might typically call for transitional or half measures, or be willing to concede as much as possible to statists, that is not what we get from Murray. Not for him such schemes as school vouchers or the privatization of government programs that should not exist at all. Instead, he presents and follows through with the full-blown and fully bracing vision of what liberty can be. This is why so many other similar attempts to write the Libertarian Manifesto have not stood the test of time, and yet this book remains in high demand.

Similarly, there have been many books on libertarianism that have appeared in the intervening years that covered philosophy alone, politics alone, economics alone, or history alone. Those that have put all these subjects together have usually been collections by various authors. Rothbard alone had the mastery of all these areas to be able to write an integrated manifesto – one that has never been displaced. And yet his approach is typically self-effacing: he constantly points to other writers and intellectuals of the past and his own generation.

In addition, some introductions of this sort are written to give the reader an easier passage into a difficult book, but that is not the case here. He never talks down to his readers but always with clarity. Every page exudes energy and passion that the logic of his argument is impossibly compelling, and that the intellectual fire that inspired this work burns as bright now as it did all those years ago.

The book is still regarded as “dangerous” precisely because, once the exposure to Rothbardianism takes place, no other book on politics, economics, or sociology can be read the same way again. What was once a commercial phenomenon has truly become a classical statement that I predict will be read for generations to come.

I can only concur. For a New Liberty is, next to The Ethics of Liberty, one of the most amazing books I have ever read. I was already leaning toward libertarianism, but this book sealed it for me. Nowhere have I ever read anything so precise, uncompromising, and consistent. His approach is the mother of all out-of-the-box thinking. I promise, whoever reads it will experience one eye-opener after another.

Rothbard doesn’t shy away from bringing up controversial issues, such as the separation of government from almost anything. He always backs his proposals up with unshakable, logical, and sound reasoning. Some people may not like what he writes, but they are at a loss when trying to debunk his logic.

Ideologies change over time, and the mood may swing from one side to another again and again. But truth and scientific facts are eternal. That is why I, too, believe that Murray Rothbard’s work will be remembered for many many generations to come. Once mankind recognizes the correctness, consistency, and completeness of libertarianism, For a New Liberty may even be the manifesto to lay the foundation for a new world, a world of Freedom, Liberty, Peace, Happiness and Prosperity for everyone.


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9 thoughts on “Murray Rothbard – One of the Greatest”

  1. “Ideologies change over time, and the mood may swing from one side to another again and again. But truth and scientific facts are eternal.”

    I fully agree with this, but I’m curious as to how you arrive at property rights as a true, eternal idea. I can see how it works better than any alternative – and the fact that it works does indicate a relationship to truth – but where do you derive your axioms from?

    Just curious.

  2. As opposed to the utilitarians, he basically takes a bottom up approach. He establishes a firm set of laws that can be derived via the natural law theory as it pertains to humans and then arrives at the institution of private property as a natural necessity, the only possible form of sustainable human interaction.

    A normative ethic that is to be applicable to all humans needs to fulfill certain requirements: For example, he establishes three possible options for ownership of a good:

    1. Only one person owns all goods. (Complete Totalitarianism)
    2. All persons have a minimal, but equal share in ever single good there is. (Complete Socialism)
    3. Whoever first found a good by mixing his labor with it, owns a good, and has the right to voluntarily transfer ownership to other people. (Private Property)

    Options 1 fails the test of universal applicability, it would imply that different ethics apply to one person than to others. But we are trying to establish a set of ethics for ALL humans.

    Option 2 is completely impracticable for obvious reasons. If all humans had to cast a vote on what is to happen which each particular good, we would be doomed to immediate starvation.

    Option 3 is the only practicable one that would qualify as an all encompassing law of ownership.

    These will be highly enjoyable if you own an iPod:

    http://mises.org/media.aspx?action=category&ID=87
    http://mises.org/media.aspx?action=category&ID=95

  3. I am just curious when I read something like the above: how much formal training have you guys had in any of the following fields: (a) economic theory; (b) history of economic thought; (c) political theory; and (d) ethics [the branch of philsoophy, not what your minister may preach about]. The usual answer is “none.” I personally know that would be Lew’s answer for (b) – (d).

    So why, exactly, do you feel qualified to opine on the validity of Murray Rothbard reasoning in those fields?

    Let me put the question another way: What would you think of someone who had exactly zero training in mechanical engineering, astronomy and physics but wanted to tell you how to fly to the moon? Yes, it is the same thing, exactly the same thing.

  4. Hi Craig,

    I would be delighted to see you point out flaws in the economic theories I espouse and write about on a day to day basis.

    You may have noticed that I write about economic history once in a while as well. I would be more than happy to see you attempt to debunk my writings.

    It would be helpful for your own sake if you tried to point out what points specifically you disagree with and propose your corrections, lest your comments join the myriad pedestrian rants that hover through cyberspace, looking for relevance.

    Kind regards,
    Nima

  5. I notice you didn’t answer any of my questions. Why is that?

    I also notice that you apparently don’t know the difference between history of economic thought and economic history – not a good demonstration of your extensive knowledge of Economics.

    You want me to ask you a few specific questions. O.K., lets start with your assertions immediately above.

    How can an ethics be anything but normative? That is the point of ethics, to distinguish between good and bad, isn’t it?

    What, pray tell, can you possibly mean by characterizing natural law ethics as \bottom up?\
    Natural law ethics starts from the implicit claim that the continued existence of an organism is an unquestionable good and proceeds to make empirical assertions regarding what promotes longer existence. You can try diversions, as does Rand, in converting \longer existence\ into \the existence proper to man qua Man\ but ultimately you are reducing an \ought\ to an \is\ without admitting the \ought\ implicit premise in the deduction.

    Further, you are wrong in implying that there are only two sorts of ethics. There is at least one more, probably the one that has been most popular among ethical theorists for at least a hundred years – deonthological ethics, like that of Kant or Jesus.

    As I implied in my fist post, you obviously don’t know the first thing about Ethics but you want to comment on Murray Rothbard as an ethical theorist and cite to his brillant analysis.

    Similarly, your comments about property rights are totally uninformed. Property rights do not concern WHO owns something but what ownership implies, how title is or can be \split up,\ and what incentiives result from different \property right regimes.\ Typical questions are: Does ownership of land mean fee simple title or something less than that? If you own land, do you own just the right to use the surface of the land or are mineral rights and overflight rights included? Can these be separately deeded off and sold?

    Is there a limit to property titles? If, for instance, someone steals my grandfather’s gold watch in 1900 is the present possessor of that watch [who is not the original thief, but who gave value without notice of defect in title and in good faith] the present owner or am I the present owner if I can prove that I am the sole surviving heir of my grandfather? How do you make the decision of which of these alternative property title systems to \go with\?

    Questions like that have to do with a branch of Economics called Property Rights Economics or Neoinstituionalism. Bet you never heard of it.

    And so it goes among those who are universal geniuses in their own minds with no training in anything they want to address. I would suggest that you put some time and effort in and get that training before continuing to publically make a fool out of yourself.

  6. “I notice you didn’t answer any of my questions. Why is that?”

    – Because your questions don’t help the discussion. If my statements are wrong you are free to attack them as such. If you have to resort to attacking the messenger you reveal that you have nothing to object and thus nothing valuable to add to the discussion itself. I could tell you that I attended graduate school in Europe and in the US and that I took numerous classes on Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, Economic Policy, Monetary Policy, Managerial Economics. I could list the books I read or you can look them up in my blog. I could point out that I am editor of a blog that is among the top 100 econ blogs. But all these facts still wouldn’t make my statements right. Nor would an absence of the same make my statements wrong. My statements are right or wrong on logical grounds, not because of who I am.

    “I also notice that you apparently don’t know the difference between history of economic thought and economic history – not a good demonstration of your extensive knowledge of Economics.”

    – No I am very well aware of the fact that there is a difference between economic history and the history of economic thought. And in fact, I never claimed anything to the contrary. I do realize, however, that both disciplines overlap. The economic ideas that prevailed during The Age of Enlightenment for example, certainly had an impact on economic policies in France, Britain and arguably in the US.

    “You want me to ask you a few specific questions. O.K., lets start with your assertions immediately above.

    How can an ethics be anything but normative? That is the point of ethics, to distinguish between good and bad, isn’t it?”

    – I am referring to normative ethics as one of the branches of ethics next to meta-ethics, and descriptive ethics. Feel free to read up on it at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normative_ethics

    “What, pray tell, can you possibly mean by characterizing natural law ethics as \bottom up?\
    Natural law ethics starts from the implicit claim that the continued existence of an organism is an unquestionable good and proceeds to make empirical assertions regarding what promotes longer existence. You can try diversions, as does Rand, in converting \longer existence\ into \the existence proper to man qua Man\ but ultimately you are reducing an \ought\ to an \is\ without admitting the \ought\ implicit premise in the deduction.”

    – By bottom up I mean that Rothbard approaches his quest for what it right and wrong with very basic rules that go to the core element of society, the individual human being, as opposed to Mises’ utilitarian approach which only asks “Does means A accomplish objective B”.

    “Further, you are wrong in implying that there are only two sorts of ethics. There is at least one more, probably the one that has been most popular among ethical theorists for at least a hundred years – deonthological ethics, like that of Kant or Jesus.”

    – No, I never said or implied that there are only two types of ethics. Where are you taking that from? I could point out, however, that 2 paragraphs ago you said that there is only normative ethics, and now you suddenly distinguish 3 types, but all that is besides the point. You are fighting windmills.

    “As I implied in my fist post, you obviously don’t know the first thing about Ethics but you want to comment on Murray Rothbard as an ethical theorist and cite to his brillant analysis.”

    – I refer back to my first statement and recommend for you own sake that your time is better spent on trying to refute my statements (which so far you haven’t done) rather than making baseless claims.

    “Similarly, your comments about property rights are totally uninformed. Property rights do not concern WHO owns something but what ownership implies, how title is or can be \split up,\ and what incentiives result from different \property right regimes.\ Typical questions are: Does ownership of land mean fee simple title or something less than that? If you own land, do you own just the right to use the surface of the land or are mineral rights and overflight rights included? Can these be separately deeded off and sold?”

    – It is obvious who is uninformed here. Did you even read For a New Liberty or The Ethics of Liberty? I am reciting a small passage from it. You can look it up yourself you don’t believe me. Having said that, yes, all the things you listed above are well and long known corollary issues that accompany the issue of property rights, and I never said anything that would contradict what you outlined above.

    “Is there a limit to property titles? If, for instance, someone steals my grandfather’s gold watch in 1900 is the present possessor of that watch [who is not the original thief, but who gave value without notice of defect in title and in good faith] the present owner or am I the present owner if I can prove that I am the sole surviving heir of my grandfather? How do you make the decision of which of these alternative property title systems to \go with\?”

    – Not sure if you are really asking me here, but: You are the rightful owner if you can prove that it was your grandfather’s watch and that he wanted you to be the owner after his death. Rothbard actually covers this issue to exhaustion in Ethics of Liberty in case you are interested :)

    “Questions like that have to do with a branch of Economics called Property Rights Economics or Neoinstituionalism. Bet you never heard of it.”

    – Again I refer to my first response. I suggest you apply logic and reason rather than betting on the messenger’s background. I distinguish economics of voluntary action and economics of compulsory action as the two main branches of economics, which in turn is a subset of praxeology. I deal with ownership under economics of voluntary action.

    “And so it goes among those who are universal geniuses in their own minds with no training in anything they want to address. I would suggest that you put some time and effort in and get that training before continuing to publically make a fool out of yourself.”

    – And again I refer to my first response and look forward to your next attempt at refuting a single one of my statements.

  7. Craig’s attack is typical. I have been struggling to put my objection to the “What do you know about X, you’re not an expert!” argument into words. I dunno if you saw LRC today but this piece is quite good in articulating the insidious nature of such an approach. It is not surprising that people don’t spend time asking questions related to the *argument*, not the qualifications of the person.

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/blog/lewrw/archives/028742.html

  8. Very nice piece. Craig’s approach falls exactly into this category of helpless and tired attempts to defend turfs and to attack messengers, not messages. A state of affairs that has permeated political debate in this country and rendered it deplorable at best and despicable at worst.

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