Rockwell’s book, Speaking
of Liberty, is a compilation of his speeches. Rarely do
such compilations do justice to their topics. This book is one
of those rare exceptions.
is a different medium from a book or even a pamphlet. A speech
must present information in a less concentrated form than a printed
document. This is because listeners have to keep up with the speaker.
They cannot pause, review, make marginal notations, or think carefully
about what is being said. They have to keep up.
is an after-dinner speaker brought in either to amuse the audience
or help the sponsoring organization raise money that night, a
speaker faces the grim reality of people’s memories. Speeches
are like water flowing through a hose. Almost nothing sticks,
and even the droplets that do stick soon evaporate. Rare is a
speech that presents more than one point that any listener can
recall a week later, and this point will probably be different
for each listener.
is different. The transcribed speeches in Speaking of Liberty
are carefully crafted presentations of sophisticated concepts
of liberty, yet presented in a way that the information goes down
nicely. Somehow, a lot of the information sticks. I did not hear
any of these speeches. I don’t know how the audience received
them, nor do I know how much information the listeners retained.
But I do know that the essays in this book are content-rich, as
website jargon says.
If you were
to ask any author what the most important point or section of
his book is, he probably could not tell you. He worked too hard
on the overall project to know, unless the book is a one-trick
pony designed to persuade readers of just one thing. So, for the
author’s benefit and also yours, permit me to identify the central
passage of the book, which is the central doctrine of the author’s
life’s work. The passage appears late in the book — unfortunately.
It appears in his summary of Ludwig von Mises’s little book, Liberalism.
three elements — property, freedom, and peace — are the basis
of the liberal program. They are the core of a philosophy that
can restore our lost prosperity and social stability (p. 315).
Revolution had a slogan: “liberty, equality, fraternity.” Lenin
had a slogan, and it was a powerful one: “peace, land, bread.”
(It is a shame that there is no record that Lenin ever used it,
but not so much of a shame that historians cease quoting it.)
Lew Rockwell has inadvertently (I suspect) come up with a slogan
for libertarianism: “property, freedom, peace.”
of Liberty is loosely structured in terms of this tripartite
slogan. But, unlike the previous tripartite slogans, Rockwell’s
slogan is in fact the basis of an integrated social philosophy.
It is therefore more than a slogan. He derived these principles
from Mises, who was the first man to build an integrated system
of economics, and more broadly, of society in terms of these three
not begin with these principles. He began with the observation
that people act. He was an a priorist in his epistemology. He
deduced economic corollaries from this single principle of action.
His economic system arrived at the tripartite formula of property,
freedom, and peace — nineteenth-century liberalism’s worldview
— by means of a rigorous system of deductive reasoning.
gave speeches. He was not writing a treatise on economics. So,
we do not learn here how Mises derived these three principles
of nineteenth-century classical liberalism from his axiom of human
action. But Rockwell pursues the tripartite foundation throughout
the book: in the section on economic theory, in the section on
war, in the section on Mises, in the section on ideas and their
influence, and in the section of tributes to pioneers who preceded
FROM CHAIRMAN LEW
As a collection
of speeches, the book’s themes are repetitious. That is the book’s
whole point. This is not a symphony. It might be called “variations
on three themes” or perhaps “Austrian dances.”
even when assisted by the low-tech miracle of a yellow highlighter,
do not retain much of what we read. So, he keeps coming back to
the same three themes, not in the form of a systematic treatise,
but in the form of a series of observations and applications.
He has read so much of Mises and Rothbard that he instinctively
thinks in terms of their economic categories. As a result, his
mind keeps popping out insights that a less principle-shaped mind
would not. Here are a few examples.
the free market, we owe all our material prosperity, all leisure
time, our health and longevity, our huge and growing population,
nearly everything we call life itself. Capitalism and capitalism
alone has rescued the human race from degrading poverty, rampant
sickness, and early death (p. 29).
abroad is incompatible with small government at home. To the
extent that we cheer war, we are cheering domestic socialism
and our own eventual destruction as a civilization (p. 37).
case, as with the gold standard, it might be said that advocating
privatization is politically unrealistic and therefore a waste
of time. What’s more, we might say that by continuing to harp
on the issue, we only marginalize ourselves, proving that we
are on the fringe. Again, I submit that there is no better way
to assure that an issue will always be off the table than to
stop talking about it (p. 60).
economy has a record like no other of offering economic advancement
for everyone no matter what his station in life. However, it
does not offer equality of result or even equality of opportunity.
The free market offers not a classless society, but something
of much greater value: liberty itself (pp. 111—12).
a way of getting to the heart of the matter, so his comments
on socialized health insurance apply to our own situation. Reviewers
at the time noted his opposition and derided them as the ravings
of an extreme classical liberal. If so, I am happy to rave myself
so many rich people who have been given so much by government
demanded so much more (p. 116)
more troubling, and far more difficult to unravel, is the situation
we currently face, in which a regime knows and embraces a partisan
language of economic liberty while promoting the opposite. Though
the Republicans have been generally derided as the Stupid Party,
in fact this approach of doublespeak is far shrewder than the
approach of the other party. When Republicans promote big government
as liberty, it is intimidating to the opposition, which finds
itself robbed of its only opposition tactic, even as it is rhetorically
compelling to those generally disposed to support the ideals
of freedom (p. 131).
we have something worse than a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We
have a wolf that has also learned to b-a-a-a-h (p. 132).
free trade come to mean its opposite? As with so much
else, it was World War II that changed everything. The trust
and deference that the American people gave the government during
the war spilled over to the postwar plans for carving up the
spoils. At the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, trade came
to mean investment guarantees and global bureaucracies in statist
treaties between governments. This was central planning exalted
to new heights (p. 144).
— by which I mean the executive State — is the sum total of
American tyranny. The other branches of government, including
the presidentially appointed Supreme Court, are mere adjuncts
my favorite President is William Henry Harrison. He keeled over
shortly after his inauguration (p. 181).
how it is possible that in wartime, all the rules of civilized
life, all the lessons learned from history, all the checks on
power that have been established over the centuries, are thrown
onto the trash heap (pp. 201—2).
for Mises was that he bucked the fashionable opinions of the
time, rejected the planning mentality, and persistently and
consistently insisted the purest free market position, even
when everyone around him was caving in (pp. 216—17).
at the lowest point in his life, Mises had only one regret:
that he had not been even tougher and less compromising (p.
consists of 100,000 pressure groups trying to get their hands
on the loot (p. 261).
a student who aspires to enter the civil service these days,
and I’ll show you a failure (p. 264).
case we see stagnation, waste, vast bureaucracy, and lack of
innovation, that is, we see the hand of the State (p. 277).
of human history, philosophers have sought to find a system
of social organization that truly embodies the will of the people.
With the market economy, we have that system (p. 280).
lesson is that we cannot trust the State to do what it says
it will do (p. 325).
are political weather vanes (p. 347).
of ideas on a civilization is like waves on water. By the time
they reach the shore, no one remembers or knows for sure where
they came from. Our job is to stick to the task (p. 385).
ago, Henry Hazlitt gave a speech in which he said it is our
moral obligation to continue the battle no matter what the odds.
What he said then is still true today: we are not threatened
with bankruptcy or jail for holding the opinions we do. All
we risk is being called nasty names. Surely that is not too
high a price to pay for defending the very foundations of civilization
of Liberty is a multi-purpose book. It is a good introduction
to applied free market economics, as well as to applied liberty.
It offers a good summation of the economic theories of Ludwig
von Mises. It offers examples of economic first principles applied
to specific contemporary practices and events. Like a college
reunion, it offers old grads an opportunity to sing the old songs.
It even hands out song sheets. But, most of all, it reminds the
reader of two facts: (1) free market capitalism is the basis of
the wealth that we all enjoy, and to reject it would mean impoverishing
ourselves, or worse; (2) this social system rests on three principles,
namely, property, freedom, and peace. To attack any of these three
pillars of the free society is comparable to sawing away at the
leg of the three-legged stool you are sitting on. At best, the
stool will wobble. At worst, it will topple.
of the free market are therefore the Wile E. Coyotes of our day:
sitting on the stool in comfort, they systematically saw away
at the legs beneath them, on the absurd assumption that they will
be able to hang in the air indefinitely after their work is done.
Lew Rockwell and shouts as loud as he can: “Beep, beep.”