Rothbard's Case for a Libertarian Institution

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dated July 16, 1961, from Murray Rothbard to Dr. F.A. "Baldy"
Harper, William Volker Fund

Dear Baldy:

I have been
considering with a great deal of interest the ideas that you mentioned
to me a few months ago of an institute for libertarian research
and scholarly activity. For the past 15 years, I have believed
that a scholarly libertarian institute is one of the great needs
on the American scene, and I now believe that the time is particularly
ripe for such an endeavor. I am therefore enormously enthusiastic
about the idea.

There are
many reasons why such a center of libertarian thought and research
is vitally necessary. One is that no sharp transformation of social
philosophy, such as we have been trying to effect these past years,
has ever come about without such active centers.

Over the
past years, libertarian thought has been able to filiate and cross-fertilize
by informal and haphazard methods. When the "members"
of an ideological "movement" are small in number, it
is possible, for a time, to subsist and advance purely through
friendly contact and discussion. But it should be evident that
such haphazard methods can only be temporary and will be ephemeral
unless superseded by centers of research and activity. Without
such centers, there will be an inevitable and tragic tendency
for individual libertarians to fade away into the surrounding
cultural climate.

Without an
institute, in short, libertarians, particularly libertarian scholars,
remain completely isolated amidst largely hostile, or at best
indifferent, colleagues and publics. An isolated libertarian professor
is in danger of being ridiculed by his colleagues, and hence,
by the student body. Moreover, he is in danger of losing his libertarianism
by failure of steady and fruitful contact with like-minded thinkers.

research grants are of course vitally necessary to advance libertarian
research and thought. But they do not supply the need for a center
of study. In such a center, or institute, the best libertarian
scholars should meet, exchange ideas, cross-fertilize, publish
their views, and, in general, exercise a "multiplier"
or leverage effect on the advancement of libertarian ideas. In
an institute, each will stimulate the productivity of the other,
hostility or indifference will be replaced by encouragement, and
libertarians will make it their goal to become appointed to the

and especially important, a scholarly, interdisciplinary journal
published by the institute would further advance libertarian thought,
and would bring the knowledge of the existence of such a stream
of thought to college students, faculty members, and the intellectuals
generally throughout the country. A magazine of opinion is an
extremely important instrument to stimulate a school of thought,
to develop productivity, to generate a stream of ideas, etc.

libertarian scholar, for example, who might now be interested
in writing a journal article on some important but unfashionable
phase of libertarian thought is not now inclined to write it because
he knows full well that it would probably not be published. Every
person involved in this situation is the loser; all of us are
the losers because we do no receive the benefit of the article,
and therefore lose the contribution to libertarian thought which
could have been made; and he – the would-be author –
is the loser because his thinking along these lines has not been
stimulated. The Volker Fund’s establishment of its Humane Studies
Series has already taken an excellent similar step in establishing
a center for book publication; what is also needed is an open
center for publication of articles, and for personal contact.

There is
another phase of this topic, the importance of which cannot be
underestimated. It is vitally important to stimulate libertarian
ideas in young people. We all recognize this. It is similarly
vitally important to be able to find and welcome young libertarians.
There is no way now of doing this; an institute by providing a
publicized, open center of activity, would serve as a beacon of
light for young potential libertarians, and its scholarly journal
would serve as the messenger in libraries and newsstands over
the country.

This means
that an unknown libertarian student in Keokuk or professor at
Sioux City has a place where he can write and go and meet his
true intellectual colleagues. There is no place now where this
most important function can be performed. The fellowship programs
of the Fund for studies with Mises and Hayek are fine and very
important; but it is still true that a libertarian scholar who
does not happen to be interested in economics at NYU School of
Business or in the Committee of Social Thought (and, after all,
the number of fellows even if he is interested is necessarily
limited), is not able to find his way into the libertarian picture.

A libertarian
institute, then, could provide a center, a place where the best
libertarian scholars could go and exchange ideas and develop their
ideas, where budding libertarian scholars could be instructed
through personal contact and through a scholarly journal, where
the present repressive isolation of the libertarian scholar would
be ended, and a leverage effect would be produced both on the
state of libertarian thought itself and on the number of newcomers
into the fold. I can see no more important activity than this,
no better way to advance this stream of thought and its adherents.
I believe firmly that until such an institute is established,
libertarian thought in America will never be on a firm foundation.

I said before
that I thought the time particularly ripe for a libertarian institute.
There are, roughly, two reasons for this. First, there are enough
able libertarian scholars now to staff such an endeavor, something
which might not have been true 15 years ago. Second, the growth
of the "conservative" movement provides a challenge
as well as an opportunity; for there is a very great danger that
young people who are inclined in a libertarian direction, but
who have no channel for developing this direction, will get lost
in the general conservative picture, will expend their energies
picketing for Goldwater or some such ephemeral activity.

Thus, while
the present climate of opinion offers young people who are inclined
toward libertarian views, it also offers temptations to go off
on other, less important paths, which may end in such mass diversion
that the libertarian movement will be swamped altogether. So much
the more reason for launching a libertarian institute now and
offering an intellectual center for nourishing libertarian youth
and other newcomers, as well as advancing the knowledge of the
already-extant libertarians.

There are,
I believe, several critical prerequisites for a successful libertarian
institute. One, that the staff members be scholars and libertarians,
and not people who are vaguely "right wing." There are
enough Thomas
and Willmoore
in existence without deliberately creating a new
institute for them; and putting such "conservatives"
in these positions would defeat the entire purpose of establishing
an institute in the first place. This matter of selection is very
important but I think can be successfully surmounted.

Second, the
institute should be a center for research, and not a graduate
school granting degrees; the latter objective is too grandiose,
too impractical, and would not even furnish the "respectable
license" which is the major purpose of the student obtaining
the PhD degree. No, a research institute with a staff of libertarian
scholars would be simpler, cheaper, and far more suitable and
effective. I should think that the institute could function somewhat
like the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton: comprising
a permanent staff, and then also nourished by a temporary staff
of likely prospects who would be fellows for a year period, perhaps
on a postdoctoral level, although there would be no reason why
promising predoctoral students should not have fellowships as

Third, it
is most important that a scholarly journal be published by this
institute on a regular basis. Again, it is important that the
editorial staff be selected carefully, but this will be the same
point as selecting the institute staff itself. I envision the
best type of journal as being interdisciplinary, covering all
libertarian-individualist disciplines: economics, history, government,
philosophy, even science if need be. Such interdisciplinary work
would be fruitful in the highest degree, for in America today
intellectual and scholarly work is so narrowly specialized that
no one is familiar with the other man’s field. A scholarly journal
could function, in short, as a sort of permanent interdisciplinary
symposium such as the Volker Fund has been fruitfully sponsoring
in recent years.

interdisciplinary there is also no need for such a journal to
function on an ultratechnical level, such as happens to many of
the articles in the Journal of the History of Ideas, or
the American Economic Review. Much of this sort of thing
is jargon which retards rather than promotes advance, anyway.
The level I am thinking of is something like the Review of
Politics, which Notre Dame publishes, or Science and Society,
the Marxist-oriented theoretical quarterly. The individualist-libertarian
philosophy would give a unique framework to the selection of articles
which characterizes, in reverse, the latter journal.

So enthusiastic
am I about such an undertaking that I would be willing to devote
as much time as would be needed, full time if necessary, in working
for such an institute. I can think of no more important project,
no project which could, like this one, be of such potential significance
in the history of human affairs.



N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian
School, founder of modern libertarianism, and academic vice
president of the Mises Institute.
He was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his
literary executor. See
his books.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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