An Interview With Lew Rockwell

Email Print

Mr. Rockwell, as head of the Mises Institute, could you tell us more about its history and beginnings? What were its original aims?

The Mises Institute was founded in 1982 because Misesian ideas needed a home and didn’t have one. There were very few Misesians teaching in universities in those days. The name Mises was unrecognized in any aspect of the public intellectual culture. The Austrian School existed but it was largely Hayekian rather than Misesian — which is understandable given that Hayek received the Nobel Prize. At the same time, Mises was being actively buried by some people who believed that the best way to promote the free market is to abandon its identification with its most passionate advocates. So I was concerned that the contribution of Mises was going to be overlooked. The academic costs of this were high, but there was also the real danger that the purest ideals of a free society were going to be overlooked in public life as well. Murray Rothbard had the same concerns, so he joined the effort.

We had several goals: provide funding for Misesian graduate students in economics, publish free-market commentary, fund research, publish books, develop a serious research library, and sponsor workshops. I also had my private goal of providing a megaphone for Rothbard and the Rothbardians, some institutionalized means for them to have students and to gain a voice. We were doing all of this within the first year, even though we had no financial backing to speak of.

The point was never to become a "policy" organization that gives advice to government and thereby courts the powers-that-be and pleads with them to listen. Anyone who believes that the rulers in a democratic regime are amenable to intellectual persuasion has completely misunderstood the nature of the modern state. No, our goals were and are broad, rigorous, and radical: to spur an intellectual revolution by working in the world of ideas. We take Mises seriously when he says that the ideas held by intellectuals and the public are the key to social and political change.

Have these aims been fulfilled? To what extent?

The Mises Institute has put many thousands of students from all over the country and world through its teaching programs. We have 250 faculty members working with us on one or more academic projects. We have held more than 500 teaching conferences, including the Mises University, and seminars on subjects from monetary policy to the history of war, as well as international and interdisciplinary Austrian Scholars Conferences.

From these programs, the Institute has generated many hundreds of scholarly papers, in addition to many books, and thousands of published popular articles on economic and historical issues. We publish six periodicals. Our website receives 3.5 million hits per month. Our library contains 24,000 volumes, the complete archives of Rothbard and Mises, and thereby attracts a constant stream of visitors from all over. Our professional meeting cannot be missed. The name of Mises is known the world over, and the influence of the Mises Institute is felt in all disciplines of the social sciences, and even in the humanities. So, yes, I would say it has been a success.

What is the origin of the term "libertarianism"?

Charles Spading wrote a book published in 1913 called Liberty and the Great Libertarians. The word wasn’t common then, but, at the same time, it is not exactly a new term. It has generally been used to describe the hard-core intellectual opponents of all forms of slavery and socialism.

Could we, at least in general, identify libertarianism with classical liberalism? Or are there significant differences?

Informally, people use the terms interchangeably, and there’s nothing wrong with that. More formally, classical liberalism refers to a broad tradition that seeks dramatic curbs on the state so that society can flourish, while libertarianism tends to refer to those who seek a world without a state. Also, in common usage, classical liberalism refers to a tradition of thought, while libertarianism typically refers to a political program.

Why, do you think, is the lure of statism so irresistible to people in general? Somehow, one understands that the elderly are in a stage of life when they feel particularly vulnerable and, perhaps, seek the "protecting hand" of the state. Such a feeling may well be deemed "psychological." But what about the younger generation? Why are people in their twenties increasingly anti-market, anti-capitalism and, in effect, anti-freedom? Is it just the "natural rebelliousness" of the young, or is it, especially today, due to something different?

I’m not certain you are correct in observing that young people are increasingly anti-market. In my experience, it is the opposite: they are far less wedded to the old statist orthodoxies than their grandparents, who were so profoundly affected by the depression/New Deal and its fulfillment in World War II. The "greatest generation," so called, is really the statist generation.

From a political point of view, the problem of statism is a problem of special interests allied with the state, who conspire to steal through legislation. The man on the street, however, tends to favor capitalism and have suspicions toward the government. For that reason, there is nothing wrong with being both libertarian and populist. There is one major exception to this rule: the man on the street also tends toward nationalism. This is a huge problem for the advocates of liberty. In a war, the state usually has the upper hand against its enemies.

Tocqueville wrote in his Democracy in America that (very loosely quoted) people are always more eager to fight for equality than freedom. What is your opinion about equality? In America, this concept seems to loom large these days (in affirmative action politics, for example). At what point is equality the enemy of freedom?

Philosopher Roderick Long recently gave a paper at the Mises Institute in which he argued that Jefferson had a special meaning for the phrase "all men are born equal." Jefferson, like Locke, meant that we are equal in authority. That is to say, no man has the natural right to lord it over his fellows. That is the only sense in which the word equality has any place in politics: to restrain the state. Otherwise, it is an instrument of despotism.

Rothbard argued that inequality — in the sense of the absence of homogeneity among people — is something to celebrate because it is the very foundation of exchange and the division of labor. If equality instead of diversity were the defining characteristic of mankind, the advantages of social cooperation would vanish and society as we know it would cease to exist.

How do you view the Marxist branch of feminism, which is prevalent these days and not only in the United States?

This branch turns the class conflict into gender conflict but otherwise its program is typically socialistic. Mises once wrote that the feminist movement ceased to be a force for liberty sometime around the year 1900. That seems right to me. The only time feminism becomes a force for good these days is when it is attacking the warfare state, but even there, it is never for the right reasons. For the most part, it is a species of socialism that favors state power over voluntary relations; feminists today are pro-choice on only one issue.

What is your opinion of individualist feminism, represented by such women as Wendy McElroy?

I admire her work, and her fundamental point is undeniably true: women as much as men have an interest in securing for themselves all rights and liberties against the attempt by the state to restrict and eliminate them. This is true for every group in society, no matter how you subdivide the population.

I would suggest that you are one of the last traditionalists. Would you accept such a "label"? What does tradition mean to you?

I would gladly accept it in the same sense that Albert Jay Nock did: he was both a traditionalist and an anarchist. G.K. Chesterton, Frank Chodorov, and H.L Mencken were of the same type. They didn’t believe in tradition for its own sake, but they had nothing but disdain for the attempt by the state to gut tradition in the attempt to reconstruct the natural social and economic order.

I believe in civilization and oppose its enemy, the state. I believe in liberty, and oppose its enemy, the state. I see no conflict between these two positions. It is possible to be a bourgeois radical, even a revolutionary aristocrat. The Magna Carta and the American Revolution were brought about by such people. The Austrian intellectual movement itself, replete with "vons," was borne of an ennobled class.

In the 1990s, it became fashionable to say that libertarians are in favor of "dynamism" and against "stasis." This kind of analysis gets us nowhere. It completely overlooks the fact that the cry for "progress" has been the driving force behind social engineering and warmongering for at least a century and half. The people and movements who have resisted this in favor of strict enforcement of property rights and the autonomous rights of institutions like the family and church have likewise been decried as "reactionary" and "traditionalist."

The natural order of liberty can be as static in its social component as it is dynamic in its economic component. Both are essential to preserving liberty and security, and fostering social development. The key here is not to impose a blueprint on society but rather to permit society to develop on its own without bullying, prodding, and looting by the state.

Is there any tradition which might justify the libertarian vision of society — a tradition which libertarians could refer to, saying: "This particular society in the past was largely free"? Or do you consider the libertarian society only a thing of the future?

By today’s standards, almost all of history looks libertarian. The state has never been so vast and intrusive. For a historical ideal, I might point to the Colonial Period in US history. There was no central government. What government there was, was largely invisible, even at the state level. All social authority was private and thereby manageable. You could vote with your feet to get away from anything that smelled of despotism.

The point is not to recreate the past. That is impossible. Even if we could, no one but the environmentalists want to return to the abysmal living standards of previous centuries. But we can and should look to the political institutions of the past as a way of imagining a brighter future of freedom.

You have been accused of being too close to the religious right. To me, religion is not in opposition to classical liberalism, but, for example, the followers of objectivism would not agree. What does a libertarian like you see in religion? Is it only a "private realm," or is it a source of thought sympathetic to liberty, for example, the Scholastic tradition?

The Western religious tradition provides a solid foundation for natural rights, and a wonderful intellectual tradition for understanding the history of liberty. There is no excuse for remaining ignorant of it. And, no, I don’t think we would be a freer society if everyone stopped believing in God. In any case, it is a moot point: no society has been without a foundation in some religious tradition.

You frequently face the accusation of being a "utopian activist." How do you react to such a charge? How does your "utopia" (for want of a better word) differ from those of the left?

Murray Rothbard used to be asked this question. He responded by saying that he favored a society without murder or theft, all the while knowing that there will always be murderers and thieves. The prevalence of unethical conduct should make us no less favorable toward ethical conduct. The ubiquity of statism should make us no less passionate in opposing it. In fact, the opposite should be true. When society is run by murderers and thieves, there is all the more reason to denounce them and oppose their reign of terror.

How can we (if at all) fight the forces of statism? What can we do about the temptation to exchange freedom for false feelings of security, for example?

We need libertarian scholars to turn their attention toward the problem of the provision of security in a free market. Very few have done work on this topic. Gustave de Molinari did in the 19th century. Hans-Hermann Hoppe does today. But others need to follow their example. We must leave no hole in the case for liberty, because sure as we do, the state will find that hole and use it to advance itself.

In view of current tragic events in the US, what is the future of freedom? You say frequently (and rightly) that the state grows in times of crisis. My opinion is that, even though some of the steps that strengthen the state in crisis might be justifiable (often at least emotionally), it is hard to persuade the state to give up these mandates when the crisis is over. This time, the crisis will probably be a long-term one, with no clearly identifiable end. What can citizens do to keep the state somewhat limited?

The view that the state grows in crisis is an observation about history, but it is not set in stone as a perfect predictor of the future. If the existence of crisis itself can be pinned on the social and political managers, it can provide the impetus for change toward liberty — as it was in the latter days of the Soviet Union. For the first time in many years, the current crisis is causing the American people to reexamine indefensible US foreign policies. Indeed, everything about our political system is going to be rethought in the coming days. That provides an opportunity for us. But whether we win or lose this one, there will be many other battles ahead. The Misesian movement, the liberal movement, is here to stay.

Thank you.

Lew Rockwell Archives

Email Print