The Roots of Rothbard

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The
Irrepressible Rothbard:
The Rothbard-Rockwell Report Essays of Murray N. Rothbard
Edited by
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
Center for Libertarian Studies, 2000
xx + 431 pgs.

This
indispensable selection of articles that Murray Rothbard wrote for
the Rothbard-Rockwell Report contains the most insightful
comment on foreign policy I have ever read. In a few paragraphs,
Rothbard destroys the prevailing doctrine of twentieth-century American
foreign policy.

According
to the Accepted Picture, totalitarian powers twice threatened America
during the past sixty years. Germany, under the maniacal leadership
of Hitler, aimed at world conquest. When the United States and her
allies succeeded in halting the Nazis, a new menace demanded attention.

The
Soviet Union, a militantly expansionist state, had to be contained
during the protracted cold war. At various times throughout the
cold war, and continuing after it to the present, hostile and aggressive
dictators presented America with problems. Saddam Hussein ranks
perhaps as the most notorious of these tyrants.

The
Accepted Picture draws a lesson from all these events. An aggressive
power, almost always led by a dictator, must be dealt with as one
would handle a neighborhood bully. Only firm demands to the dictator
can stave off war.

Since
bullies generally are cowards, dictators will back down if directly
challenged. The Munich Conference, September 29-30, 1938, perfectly
illustrates how not to handle a dictator. Britain and France appeased
Hitler; the result was war one year later. Had Britain and France
acted when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936, the Nazis
could have been overthrown virtually without cost.

Rothbard
at once locates the fallacy in this oft-repeated line of thought.
“Answer me this, war hawks: when, in history when, did one State,
faced with belligerent, ultra-tough ultimatums by another, when
did that State ever give up and in effect surrender – before
any war was fought? When?” (p. 170).

Rothbard’s
rhetorical question rests upon a simple point of psychology. The
supposed “bully” cannot surrender to an ultimatum lest he be overthrown.
“No head of State with any pride or self-respect, or who wishes
to keep the respect of his citizens, will surrender to such an ultimatum”
(p. 170).

The
Gulf War perfectly illustrates Rothbard’s contention. Faced with
an overwhelming show of force, Saddam Hussein did not back down.
Rothbard’s apt generalization explains Saddam’s seemingly irrational
response.

But
have we not forgotten something? What about World War II? Does not
the failure to confront Hitler over Czechoslovakia in 1938 prove
conclusively the thesis of the anti-appeasers?

Our
author’s response illustrates his ability to counter an opposing
argument at its strongest point. “Neither was World War II in Europe
a case where toughness worked. On the contrary, Hitler disregarded
the English guarantee to Poland that brought England and France
into the German-Polish war in September 1939″ (p. 170).

A
belligerent foreign policy, then, will most likely lead to the wars
it professes to deter. But who urges us toward this course? Rothbard
arraigns the social democrats and their successors, the neoconservatives.
These he accuses of support for statism at home and war abroad.

Rothbard
tersely sums up the credo of social democracy in this way: “on all
crucial issues, social democrats stand against liberty and tradition,
and in favor of statism and Big Government. They are more dangerous
in the long run than the communists, not simply because they have
endured, but also because their program and their rhetorical appeals
are far more insidious, since they claim to combine socialism with
the appealing virtues of ‘democracy’ and freedom of inquiry” (p.
23).

For
Rothbard, the State always ranks as the principal enemy. The battle
against the “massive welfare-warfare State” to him was no mere clash
of abstractions. Quite the contrary, he aimed at particular targets
who embodied the statist doctrines he abhorred. Sidney Hook occupied
a place near the summit of his intellectual foes. A precocious communist
in the 1920s, Hook found the Soviet Union insufficiently revolutionary
and soon beat the drums for militant anticommunism, though of a
distinctly socialist cast. Throughout his long life, he called for
war, first against Nazi Germany and then against Comrade Stalin.
According to Rothbard, “one’s attitude toward Sidney Hook . . .
provides a convenient litmus test” (p. 25).

The
struggle against the State needed to be waged on many fronts. Rothbard
saw a disturbing trend among certain left-libertarians. Although
libertarianism quintessentially opposes State power, some doctrinal
deviants allowed the enemy to enter through the back door.

They
did so by holding that public agencies must observe rules of nondiscriminatory
treatment. These rules have nothing to do with the free market,
but everything to do with the slogans of the contemporary Left.
Rothbard expertly locates the central fallacy in the argument of
the libertarian heretics. Since nearly everything nowadays partakes
to a degree of the State, the new doctrine leads to total government
control.

Rothbard
states his point with characteristic panache: “But not only literal
government operations are subject to this egalitarian doctrine.
It also applies to any activities which are tarred with the public
brush, with the use, for example, of government streets, or any
acceptance of taxpayer funds . . . sometimes, libertarians fall
back on the angry argument that, nowadays, you can’t really distinguish
between public and private anyway” (p. 103).

We
have, then, an all out statist attack on liberty. How has this assault
managed to do so well? Rothbard’s answer exposes the philosophical
roots of our problem. No longer does the academic elite believe
in objective morality, grasped by right reason. Lacking a rational
basis for moral values, our supposed intellectual leaders readily
fall prey to statist fallacy.

The
beginning stage of nihilism, Rothbard maintains, occurred in art.
“First, the left-liberals preached l’art pour l’art in aesthetics,
and, as a corollary in ethics, trumpeted the new view that there
is no such thing as a revealed or objective ethics, that all ethics
are ‘subjective,’ that all of life’s choices are only personal,
emotive ‘preferences'” (p. 296).

The
denial of objective standards in the name of freedom led to death
and destruction. Rothbard maintains that ethical nihilism results
in the overthrow of the most basic human rights, including the right
not to be murdered. He has not the slightest sympathy for the rampant
pro-euthanasia movement. “No, the mask is off, and Doctor Assisted
Death and Mr. Liberal Death with Dignity, and all the rest of the
crew turn out to be Doctor or Mister Murder. Watch out Mr. And Ms.
America: liberal humanists, lay and medical, are . . . out to kill
you” (p. 303).

What
can be done to combat statism and nihilism? Rothbard views populism
with great sympathy. As so often in his work, he rethought and deepened
his position. He determined that a common libertarian strategy,
looking to the courts to enforce rights, was mistaken.

Even
in cases in which courts enforce the “correct” position, the imperatives
of local control and states rights should not be overturned. Thus,
Rothbard favored a “pro-choice” position on abortion, but he was
loath to have courts enforce abortion rights against recalcitrant
states.

“No;
libertarians should no longer be complacent about centralization
and national jurisdiction – the equivalent,” he writes, “of
foreign intervention or of reaching for global dictatorship. Kansans
henceforth should take their chances in Kansas; Nevadans in Nevada,
etc. And if women find that abortion clinics are not defended in
Kansas, they can travel to New York or Nevada” (p. 306).

Although
Rothbard found great merit in populism, he did not defend the movement
uncritically. He saw danger in leftist populism: a true populist
movement must not abandon the free market in favor of crackpot panaceas.
In one of the last articles he wrote, he warned Pat Buchanan against
this danger. “In this murky and volatile situation, the important
thing for us paleopopulists is that we find a candidate as soon
as possible who will lead and develop the cause and the movement
of right-wing populism, to raise the standard of the Old, free,
decentralized, and strictly limited Republic” (p. 141).

This
is taken from the Winter 2000 issue of the Mises
Review
.

November
6, 2000

David
Gordon
[send him mail]
is a senior fellow at the Ludwig
von Mises Institute
and editor of its Mises
Review.

See also his Books
on Liberty
.

David
Gordon Archives

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