Murray Rothbard's Typewriter

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There
is a debate simmering over whether the perspective of LewRockwell.com
is backward-looking or forward-looking. I will try to deal with
this question through the use of a symbol: Murray Rothbard’s typewriter.

Rothbard was a lucid writer. Few scholars have ever combined the
paraphernalia of academia — footnotes galore — with
the ability to write clearly. Rothbard added effective rhetoric;
his writing was lively, which has never been common among economists.
I once wrote that if the Nobel Prize in economics were awarded
for clarity — as John Wayne aptly put it, "that’ll be
the day" — Rothbard should win it.

He wrote on an electric typewriter that antedated the IBM Selectric.
The IBM Selectric III model had a correction ribbon that was convenient.
Rothbard would have none of it.

I first came across some of his manuscripts in the summer of 1963
when I worked as a summer intern at the Center for American Studies,
a short-lived replacement of the William Volker Fund. The Volker
Fund, like its founder William Volker, was anonymous by design.
It was an indispensable institution in the development of post-war
libertarianism. It deserves at least a Ph.D. dissertation.

In the late 1950′s, the Volker Fund had Rothbard on its payroll.
He had no academic position. The Volker Fund had employed him
to write book reviews, although it also financed the publication
of an expurgated version of Man,
Economy, and State
, which left out what later became Power
and Market
. These book reviews are among the greatest
I have ever read. The Fund also employed Rose Wilder Lane to write
book reviews, but hers were turgid affairs compared to Rothbard’s.

I noticed then a peculiarity in his manuscripts: the corrections
were not made by hand. They were in the form of X’s. Sections
of sentences were Xed out. The reader could follow everything
clearly simply by ignoring anything Xed out.

It only occurred to me as I wrote the previous paragraph what
this really meant. He must have spotted his mistakes as soon as
he typed them, before going on to the next sentence or even the
next line. Somehow, his mind recognized an infelicitous phrase
as soon as his fingers had recorded it on paper. He immediately
went back, Xed out the phrase, and typed in its replacement.

I have no other way to explain these manuscripts. The pages did
not appear to have been reinserted into the typewriter in a final
reading. The X’s were right on top of the original letters.

How could anyone have written so precisely, spotting his errors
as they appeared on paper? I have no answer. But the results,
when put into print, were invariably flawless — no grammatical errors,
no misspelled words, no confusion. As a writer, I cannot comprehend
this.

He refused to go to an IBM Selectric III. He refused even more
adamantly to go to a word processor. He told me that he would
do so only if someone introduced a typewriter that would type
directly onto paper, but which would also record the words on-screen.
The man wanted his X’s.

Does this mean that he was a technological Luddite? No; it means
that he was a skilled user of an older technology. He saw the
typewriter as a tool. His typewriter enabled him to put his thoughts
on paper almost instinctively — so instinctively that he spotted
his errors as he typed, phrase by phrase.

Rothbard was a technological maven compared to R. J. Rushdoony,
who wrote his manuscripts on yellow paper without lines, using
a steel-tipped pen and an ink well, just as he had learned in
grade school. He typed block quotations into his text by inserting
the sheet into his manual typewriter, the one his father had bought
him — used — when he went off to college in the late 1930′s. It
had been manufactured sometime around 1918. He wrote dozens of
books this way, including his classic, The
Messianic Character of American Education
. His wife then
typed the final manuscript on a pre-Selectric IBM.

I write with WordPerfect for DOS, version 5.1. To use it effectively,
I require a 1983 IBM/AT keyboard, with its snapping spring-loaded
keys and the ten function keys placed on the left-hand side of
the keyboard. I have collected half a dozen of these obsolete
keyboards, because they break occasionally, and I could not write
without one.

Am I a Luddite? No. I have mastered a word processing program
designed for professional writers, not some GUI (well-named "gooey")
Windows-based program that is kludgy because it tries to be a
typesetting program as well as a word processor. A full-time writer
who learned on DOS — WordPerfect or XyWrite or even the ancient
WordStar — is unlikely to upgrade to the "latest and
greatest" Windows product. When it comes to word processing,
technological progress ever since Windows has been retrograde.

Typesetting is even worse. Only one typesetting program offers
what WordPerfect offered back in 1985: footnotes automatically
inserted at the bottom of the page, with paragraph-splitting when
part of a paragraph flows onto the next page. The one exception
is Ventura, which hardly anyone uses, and for which professional
typesetters charge at the old pre-computer rates per page. Yet
with a home-brew macro program, I can typeset a 300-page book
with footnotes in two or three days on WordPerfect for DOS.

I was ahead of the curve on word processing. I learned on the
precursor of WordPerfect, called S.I.I. (Satellite Software International),
a program that cost $7,500 and ran on a used Data General minicomputer
that cost $20,000. The software’s manual was printed on a dot-matrix
printer and was maybe 30 single-spaced pages long. Those were
the good old days. Within two weeks of adopting it, I had doubled
my daily output. That was in late 1980. I never again wrote anything
for publication on a typewriter. I was too far ahead on the curve.
Had I waited less than one year, I could have bought the same
technological power on an IBM-PC for about $6,500, total.

Output, Not Input

The free market judges on the basis of output, not input. The
consumer does not care about the producer’s cost of production.
He cares only about personal use-value.

What does it matter to a reader if the writer used an ancient
writing implement to produce his manuscript? Think of Augustine’s
City
of God
. The issue is the content of the writing, not the
date of manufacture of the quill or pen or typewriter. I have
no idea where Rushdoony bought ink, let alone replacement steel-tipped
pens. What I do know is that his writing was relevant.

The same is true of any technology. There is no reason to adopt
the latest tool if you are a master of an older tool. Newcomers
may find that a new technology is best for them, but old-timers
should not switch merely to be up to date.

The issue of innovation has to do with the profitability of output,
not the cost of input. The innovator is an entrepreneur. He may
fail. The new technology may come a cropper. Time will tell. So
will the market. The phrase "vaporware" used to be familiar:
promised software that never appeared. Trailing-edge technology
is cheaper and safer for most people.

The Constitution is old. It is also a lot better than anything
being promoted as a replacement. Some of us feel the same way
about the Articles of Confederation vs. the power-centralizing
document that was issued by that closed-door, media-excluding
conspiracy in Philadelphia, or Con-Con-Con, as I call it.

Some of us would even object to colorizing "Casablanca."
We do not accept the technological imperative, i.e., the belief
that something should be done merely because it can be done.

I prefer the erase button on my 1983 keyboard to the correction
ribbon on my old IBM Selectric III. I wrote Unconditional
Surrender
in 12 days on a Selectric III, without an outline
or notes, in early 1980, but that was the last time. I soon saw
that electronic word processing was for me. Meanwhile, Rothbard
saw the IBM Selectric III as an opportunity to be missed.

Rothbard could spot an error in a line of text as soon as he typed
it. It takes me longer. He used the X key masterfully. I need
the erase key and, all too often, the block-and-delete function.
For me in 1980, the erase key was a stupendous innovation, and
1981′s brand-new "Alt-F4-delete" function was a near-miracle.
For Rothbard, the X key was just fine.

Conclusion

Wild Bill Hickock was a master of the Colt pistol. He wore a pair
of Colt Navy .36′s, which were cap-and-ball pistols. He wore them
long after Colts that used cartridges were available. He was not
alone. The Colt Navy .36 remained in production from 1851 until
the mid-1870′s. Hickock was no Luddite. He had learned his trade
with a weapon that was legendary for its balance. He was very
good at his trade. He saw no reason to innovate.

Progress is as progress does. The person who trumpets technological
change or social change as a way of life on autopilot is the kind
of person who would have tried to make a name for himself by challenging
Hickock to a shoot-out in 1871 because he had just bought himself
a brand-new Colt .44, whereas poor old Hickock was wearing a pair
of obsolete 1851 Colt .36′s. He would have made that mistake only
once.

May
7,
2001

Gary North [send him mail]
is the author of an eleven-volume series, An Economic Commentary
on the Bible. The latest volume is Cooperation and Dominion:
An Economic Commentary on Romans. The series can be downloaded
free of charge at www.freebooks.com.

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