Real Conservatism Means Rothbard

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The following story is part of Walter Block’s Autobiography Archive.

Libertarian in Reverse

by Daniel McCarthy

It may be a bit bold of me to submit my story for Walter Block’s libertarian autobiography series. I’m less distinguished than most of its contributors and I’m more fluent in the idiom of conservatism than that of libertarianism. But the latter really isn’t a problem: there’s little difference between a genuine American conservative and a Rothbardian libertarian. For me, there’s none at all. I’ll offer my story as proof.

As soon as I became politically aware, around the age of 13, I became a conservative. It was plain to see even at that age that the Left was crazy. More importantly, I simply didn’t subscribe to the pieties of late twentieth-century America — didn’t believe in progress, didn’t take it for granted that history always turned out for the better. I was a skeptic, and I was skeptical not of religion but of the vague concepts that nowadays stand in for religion: democracy, equality, diversity, etc.

Conservatism doesn’t mean much when you’re 13 years old. For me, it meant reading National Review, listening to talk radio (I preferred G. Gordon Liddy to Rush Limbaugh), and volunteering on the occasional Republican campaign. These activities introduced me to the Beltway brand of libertarianism. It was unobjectionable, uninspiring stuff — economic conservatism with some mental muscle. But I wasn’t interested in economics, so I wasn’t interested in libertarianism. I knew that libertarians also wanted to legalize drugs and that most, though not all, favored abortion rights, but I didn’t make the mistake of assuming that libertarians had to be libertines. Libertarianism was respectable enough, it just wasn’t for me.

My opinion of libertarianism took a turn for the worse in college, where the first libertarians I met had left a good impression — they were buttoned-down types, intelligent and easygoing — but where I soon encountered libertarians of what Murray Rothbard called the "modal" variety. These were young men — and they’re always male — with a fanatical gleam in their eyes, eager to buttonhole and evangelize, full of all the self-confidence that comes with unblinking dogmatism. They thought they had the answer to every important question in the world, when what they really had was a hormonal imbalance. What they said was not too unlike from what I’d heard before, but their attitude made all the difference. Like many a traditionalist conservative before me, seeing the intemperance in those eyes and hearing it in the pitch of their voices convinced me that libertarianism had to be as bad as Communism. These were Jacobins who would smash anything that stood in the way of creating their utopia.

An idea isn’t wrong just because it’s espoused by a few sociopaths. I knew that, but after this encounter I started to look more critically at libertarianism and at what it might imply. I found in it a lot of -isms that alarm a conservative: utilitarianism and utopianism were instantly objectionable, while rationalism and individualism could, in the wrong hands, be turned into cudgels with which to attack everything from religion to the bourgeois family. Individual libertarian policies may or may not be sensible, and the economic theory must have been largely valid, but the underlying worldview of libertarianism looked to be diabolical.

By the time I came to think such thoughts I had long since abandoned the limp conservatism of the establishment Right. I’d discovered Chronicles and "paleoconservatism," and had been won over by the case for a non-interventionist foreign policy abroad and decentralized government at home. Soon thereafter I discovered — I was already familiar with Justin Raimondo from his occasional articles in Chronicles. Raimondo and another writer, Joseph Stromberg, influenced me profoundly: they taught me more about the history of the conservative movement, and in particular the pre-WWII "Old Right," than I’d learned from years within the movement itself. Names like Nock and Mencken, or even Richard Weaver and Robert Nisbet, were cited more often on than they were in National Review. Around this same time the second edition of Robert M. Crunden’s Old Right anthology, The Superfluous Men, was published. Reading it was like discovering some long lost family tree.

Finally, in January, 2000, I found and — well, it’s a tired old clich, but it’s true — everything I thought I knew about libertarianism was wrong. Without exaggeration, that was clear the minute I set eyes on LRC. There were strongly Catholic articles, including a link to a CultureWars piece about the suicide of Lissa Roche at Hillsdale College. Hans-Hermann Hoppe had an article laying out a libertarian argument against immigration. There was no utilitarianism and no utopianism. The site had eclectic interests, which set it apart from other libertarian forums (which tended to get stale pretty quickly). It was more conservative than any major "conservative" publication; at the same time, it was still wholly libertarian. LRC was the Old Right reborn.

From LRC I learned about the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Mises himself, and Murray Rothbard. And it was either from LRC, or from researching some of the names and ideas mentioned on the site, that I started to learn about Austrian economics and praxeology. The economics I had found so boring in college and in conservative books had always been Keynesian or neoclassical. Austrian economics made a great deal more sense. Reading up on the work of Hans-Hermann Hoppe also gave me an appreciation for extreme rationalism that I had never had before. The anarchism of Hoppe and Rothbard didn’t bother me: "minarchism," the idea that the State exists to protect our rights, had never made any sense. What possible reason could there be for the State, as an institution, to limit its own power? It’s like suggesting that a company would voluntarily limit its own profits. A business exists to make money and the State exists to wield power.

I came to libertarianism in reverse, starting out as a conservative with no strong feelings about libertarianism one way or another, and then actually becoming quite hostile toward it based on what I’d seen. Ayn Rand never has appealed to me, nor has CATO-style managerial minarchism or Virginia Postrel’s techno-utopianism. It’s safe to say that without LRC, the Mises Institute, and the rest of the Rothbard legacy, I would not ever have become a libertarian, even if I would still believe most of the things that I do. There simply is no substitute — not among libertarians, not among conservatives, not anywhere — for what Rothbard and those who follow in his footsteps have done and are doing.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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