On Winning the Rothbard Medal of Freedom

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I
was given a signal honor at the Mises
Institute’s Austrian Economics and Financial Markets
conference
on February
18–19, 2005, held in The Venetian Hotel Resort Casino; Las
Vegas. I was awarded the Rothbard
Medal of Freedom
. In having this
honor bestowed upon me, I joined a
small and very select group of people
.

I
would like to take this opportunity to reflect upon the life of Murray
N. Rothbard. Not his professional life, which will live forever through
his many, many, many publications, taped speeches, etc. Instead, I
would like to discuss his more personal side, through my own
recollections of my almost 30-year friendship with him. It is my
thought that as the years go on, there will be fewer and fewer people
alive, such as myself, who had the good fortune to actually interact
with this giant of liberty. Here are some of my reminiscences of
Murray, my mentor, my guru, my leading light, and most important, my
friend.

I first met Professor Murray N. Rothbard in 1966 (or, in any case,
somewhere around that time; I’m no historian, so my
recollection of dates may be a bit off). I was introduced to him by
Jerry Woloz and Larry Moss. I was initially reluctant to meet Murray
because he was described, very accurately it turned out, as an
anarcho-libertarian. I was at that time an advocate of limited
government and thought that the anarchist wing of our movement was
weird and ridiculous. But my misgivings were overcome by Moss and Woloz
(the former was a fellow graduate student with me at Columbia, the
latter was his roommate).

When
I finally met him, it took Murray about fifteen minutes to turn me
around 180 degrees on the issue of the state. (I tried to address him
as Professor or Dr. Rothbard, but he would have none of it, insisting
that I call him by his first name, a practice I have followed with my
own students after they are no longer undergraduates – much
to the consternation of many of them. I find I pattern my life and
practices after his in many ways, some of them large, some of them
small, as in this case.) All Murray did was use “my” own arguments
against me. As a minarchist, I know full well the reason why we had
reasonably good cars, carrots, and clothing. Those entrepreneurs who
could not satisfy customers were weeded out by the process of
competition. Why should this model not work for armies, courts, or
police? That was the first minute. The next fourteen were spent batting
away my feeble claims that these latter “public goods” were somehow
intrinsically different from the more ordinary goods and services.

In
sharp contrast, it took several years of reading and arguing with
Murray and others of his group before I shifted from my neo-classical
allegiance to Austrian economics. I guess I had too much of a vested
interest in what I had been learning at Columbia (and Austrianism was
always more complicated for me than libertarianism) to convert more
quickly to the one true faith in the dismal science.

Any
words I might write cannot possibly do justice to the exhilaration I
felt by being included as a member of the “living room” crowd at
Murray’s apartment. Those were very heady days for me. A
typical evening would start at 6pm and end, literally, some 12 hours
later. It would be filled with discussion of economics, history,
politics, sociology, ethics, social science, biology, gossip, and much,
much more. But my strongest impression, decades later, was leaving
Murray’s house in the very early morning with a stomachache.
From laughter, practically nonstop for the entire duration. Murray and
his merry band had us sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally,
rolling on the floor with laughter. Even Bill Buckley, no friend,
described Murray as a “joyous libertarian.” I will never forget our
raucous games of Risk, with Murray cackling about his immanent takeover
of the world.

These
were the very people my parents warned me against. They stayed up late.
They overate (when it was suggested to Murray that he eat less he
responded, “Every calorie says ‘Yea’ to life.”)
They drank, gulp!, alcohol. They had weird views on practically every
subject known to man and on some completely unknown.

In
those days Murray knew, and shared with us, the identity of virtually
all libertarians and Austrians in the world. If I didn’t know
(of) you, chances were you weren’t an Austro-libertarian.
Thanks largely to his efforts, directly through his writings and
speeches and indirectly through those of his followers, there are now
entire organizations
dedicated to these goals that are unknown to me. When the Godfather
died in the movie of the same name, one of his mafia family said that
their power was cut by 50%. I think that with the untimely passing of
Murray in 1995, something similar occurred to us. That is only one of
the reasons why it is important for those of us who follow the path he
blazed to dedicate ourselves to working on these projects as hard and
as smart as we can.

Let
me share with you some disconnected memories I have of my years with
Murray.

When
asked what was the source of his prodigious scholarly and popular
output, he would reply: “Hatred is my muse.” He would read something,
say by a Marxist, Keynesian, or Chicagoite, become infused with
disgust, and swear a mighty oath that this particular bit of idiocy
would no longer stand, at least without a reaction from him.

I
always wondered when Murray wrote, since he seemed to be partying all
the time. Let me tell you a story that explains this mystery. In the
early years of my own writing career, I would keep track of the number
of pages I wrote per day. On some days it was just two or three pages,
try as hard as I might (double spaced type written, 300 words per page,
or some 600–900 words). Other days, more. For me, if I did at
least 5 pages in 24 hours, my Jewish guilt complex was satisfied at
least for the moment. On rare occasions I was much more productive.
Sometimes I did 10 and even 15 pages, but this was rare. One day,
however, I got up really early in the morning (it must have been on an
occasion that I didn’t spend the previous evening at
Murray’s) worked hard and productively all day, and by the
time I went to sleep at around 1am the next morning I had done 23 pages.

The
next day, full of myself as only a young man can be, I called Murray
and asked him how many pages of material he wrote on a typical day, and
on his best day. I wouldn’t have had the audacity, then or
ever, to try to compare with him on quality; just quantity.

His response? “M’rech, m’rech. Who keeps count of
how much he writes in a day? Only a nut.” (“M’rech,
m’rech” is Murray-speak. It sounds half like Donald Duck
talking, half an other-worldly grunt, and the third half the ineffable
Murray. He is most likely to reply in this manner to the question:
“Murray, what do you think of the State?”). But I insisted that he
answer my query. (Murray was always very kind to me. Once, in the early
days, before Austrianism took hold in me, I remonstrated with him for
having a picture of Ludwig von Mises on his wall. After all, Mises
wasn’t an anarchist. Murray just smiled at me and said that
one day I’d understand. While I’m bragging about
famous people I met, I might as well get in one more: I’m
probably one of the few people still living who actually met Ludwig von
Mises. Murray dragged a bunch of us to the last seminar given by Mises
at NYU. He was very old, soft-spoken, hard of hearing; I really
didn’t get much, substantively, from that seminar. But this
is a memory I shall always treasure.) After nagging and pushing (I
don’t like to brag, well, too much anyway, but I am nothing
if not a world-class nudge) Murray finally answered my query about
daily productivity: “Eight pages per hour.”

Eight pages per hour? Eight pages per hour? Most reasonably good
typists could copy material at only a slightly greater rate of speed.
Here he was, creating some of the most stupendous analysis the world
has ever known, in practically final draft format (he rarely revised
anything) at such an astonishing rate. Probably, the government should
have instituted a speed limit for writing that would have applied only
to Murray. My most productive day, toiling for about 18 hours, was
equal (in quantity only) to slightly less than three of his average
hours. Well, at least I finally grasped the secret of his amazing
output.

Speaking of the enormous gentleness with which he always treated me
(and which I strive mightily if less successfully to incorporate in my
own dealings with my students), another story. I was perhaps 25 years
old, an insignificant twerp in my own mind, and by day I was deeply
immersed in reading Man, Economy and State. Later that night I would
actually see Murray and the gang. I felt so unworthy to even be in his
presence. That he actually liked me, and wanted to be my friend, was
something that never occurred to me until many years later. Had it
occurred to me then, I would have dismissed it as preposterous. How,
then, could I make myself worthy of being invited to his home, or, at
least slightly more worthy in any case? I hit upon a plan that was just
about 180 degrees off course: I would be hypercritical. I would bug him
about every page and even sentence of Man, Economy and State (or
whatever of his I happened to be reading at the time). But Murray just
wanted to party on these occasions. He had plenty of debate in his
life. In retrospect, it is amazing to me that he didn’t
refuse to have anything to do with me, such a pain in the rear end I
must have been to him at the outset of our relationship. Instead, the
very opposite.

During this time I was dating my girlfriend, Marybeth (later and still
my wife). Naturally, while I could of course speak of other topics, I
was so smitten with Murray that it was hard for me to shut up about him
in her presence. Exasperated, she once asked me, if she and Murray were
drowning and I could only save one of them, which one would I save? I
should have ducked the question. I should have said, “You, dear.” But,
I tell you, I was insufferable at that age (some say this persists to
the present day, but that’s another story). In the event, I
told her the truth. I’m lucky she didn’t break up
with me right there and then.

There are several similarities between Murray and me. We were both born
in New York City, and spent the earliest years of our lives there.
Then, we both went west, him to UNLV (that great bastion of academic
freedom) and me to the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, British Columbia.
We were both non-practicing Jews who married Christian girls. We both
received PhDs in economics from Columbia University, he in 1956 and me
in 1972, and both had difficulty in doing so. We both favored laissez
faire capitalism, free markets, anarchism, private property rights,
Austrian economics, revisionist history, peace and prosperity,
isolationist foreign policy. (Murray of course made original
contributions to all these fields; I, at least, kept up with them in my
reading.) One of the highest compliments I have received about my
public speaking, and this more than once, is that my style of delivery
(the Jewish schtick, the sense of humor, the radical perspective) is
reminiscent of his.

Let me end with one more recollection of Murray. He once said, “We kept
looking around for the ‘in crowd.’ We searched high and low. Until
finally we realized that we were it.” No truer words were ever said.
Yes, there are other “in crowds.” The Hollywood glitterati, the coastal
liberal literati, the professional athletes, rock stars, rap musicians
and their groupies, the movers and shakers in Washington DC, and many
others. But I’d rather be in our in crowd than in all of
these put together. No less than the future of western civilization,
nay, the very survival of our species, depends upon peace, freedom,
private property rights, economic liberty, libertarian law, and we are
the only ones who clearly see this.

It
is my hope and expectation that thanks to the Herculean efforts of Lew
Rockwell and the Mises Institute, there will be many more winners of
the Rothbard Medal of Freedom, each doing their bit to promote
Murray’s vision. (Thanks also to the late George W. Connell,
who established the medal.) I am honored to now be included in their
company. For me, there can be no greater honor.

Dr.
Block [send him mail]
is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans.

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