The Rothbardian Way

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Here is
the introduction to the new edition of For
a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto
.

There are
many varieties of libertarianism alive in the world today, but Rothbardianism
remains the center of its intellectual gravity, its primary muse
and conscience, its strategic and moral core, and the focal point
of debate even when its name is not acknowledged. The reason is
that Murray Rothbard was the creator of modern libertarianism, a
political-ideological system that proposes a once-and-for-all escape
from the trappings of left and right and their central plans for
how state power should be used. Libertarianism is the radical alternative
that says state power is unworkable and immoral.

"Mr. Libertarian,"
Murray N. Rothbard was called, and "The State’s Greatest Living
Enemy." He remains so. Yes, he had many predecessors from whom
he drew: the whole of the classical-liberal tradition, the Austrian
economists, the American antiwar tradition, and the natural-rights
tradition. But it was he who put all these pieces together into
a unified system that seems implausible at first but inevitable
once it has been defined and defended by Rothbard. The individual
pieces of the system are straightforward (self-ownership, strict
property rights, free markets, anti-state in every conceivable respect)
but the implications are earthshaking. Once you are exposed to the
complete picture – and For a New Liberty has been the
leading means of exposure for more than a quarter of a century –
you cannot forget it. It becomes the indispensable lens through
which we can see events in the real world with the greatest possible
clarity.

This book more
than any other explains why Rothbard seems to grow in stature every
year (his influence has vastly risen since his death) and why Rothbardianism
has so many enemies on the left, right, and center. Quite simply,
the science of liberty that he brought into clear relief is as thrilling
in the hope it creates for a free world as it is unforgiving of
error. Its logical and moral consistency, together with its empirical
explanatory muscle, represents a threat to any intellectual vision
that sets out to use the state to refashion the world according
to some pre-programmed plan. And to the same extent it impresses
the reader with a hopeful vision of what might be.

Rothbard set
out to write this book soon after he got a call from Tom Mandel,
an editor at Macmillan who had seen an op-ed by Rothbard in the
New York Times that appeared in the spring of 1971. It was
the only commission Rothbard ever received from a commercial publishing
house. Looking at the original manuscript, which is so consistent
in its typeface and almost complete after its first draft, it does
seem that it was a nearly effortless joy for him to write. It is
seamless, unrelenting, and energetic.

The historical
context illustrates a point often overlooked: modern libertarianism
was born not in reaction to socialism or leftism – though it
is certainly anti-leftist (as the term is commonly understood) and
antisocialist. Rather, libertarianism in the American historical
context came into being in response to the statism of conservatism
and its selective celebration of a conservative-style central planning.
American conservatives may not adore the welfare state or excessive
business regulation but they appreciate power exercised in the name
of nationalism, warfarism, "pro-family" policies, and
invasion of personal liberty and privacy. In the post-LBJ period
of American history, it has been Republican presidents more than
Democratic ones who have been responsible for the largest expansions
of executive and judicial power. It was to defend a pure liberty
against the compromises and corruptions of conservatism – beginning
with Nixon but continuing with Reagan and the Bush presidencies
– that inspired the birth of Rothbardian political economy.

It is also
striking how Rothbard chose to pull no punches in his argument.
Other intellectuals on the receiving end of such an invitation might
have tended to water down the argument to make it more palatable.
Why, for example, make a case for statelessness or anarchism when
a case for limited government might bring more people into the movement?
Why condemn U.S. imperialism when doing so can only limit the book’s
appeal to anti-Soviet conservatives who might otherwise appreciate
the free-market bent? Why go into such depth about privatizing courts
and roads and water when doing so might risk alienating people?
Why enter into the sticky area of regulation of consumption and
of personal morality – and do it with such disorienting consistency
– when it would have surely drawn a larger audience to leave
it out? And why go into such detail about monetary affairs and central
banking and the like when a watered-down case for free enterprise
would have pleased so many Chamber-of-Commerce conservatives?

But trimming
and compromising for the sake of the times or the audience was just
not his way. He knew that he had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to
present the full package of libertarianism in all its glory, and
he was not about to pass it up. And thus do we read here: not just
a case for cutting government but eliminating it altogether, not
just an argument for assigning property rights but for deferring
to the market even on questions of contract enforcement, and not
just a case for cutting welfare but for banishing the entire welfare-warfare
state.

Whereas other
attempts to make a libertarian case, both before and after this
book, might typically call for transitional or half measures, or
be willing to concede as much as possible to statists, that is not
what we get from Murray. Not for him such schemes as school vouchers
or the privatization of government programs that should not exist
at all. Instead, he presents and follows through with the full-blown
and fully bracing vision of what liberty can be. This is why so
many other similar attempts to write the Libertarian Manifesto have
not stood the test of time, and yet this book remains in high demand.

Similarly,
there have been many books on libertarianism in the intervening
years that have covered philosophy alone, politics alone, economics
alone, or history alone. Those that have put all these subjects
together have usually been collections by various authors. Rothbard
alone had mastery in all fields that permitted him to write an integrated
manifesto – one that has never been displaced. And yet his
approach is typically self-effacing: he constantly points to other
writers and intellectuals of the past and his own generation. In
addition, some introductions of this sort are written to give the
reader an easier passage into a difficult book, but that is not
the case here. He never talks down to his readers but always with
clarity. Rothbard speaks for himself. I’ll spare the reader an enumeration
of my favorite parts, or speculations on what passages Rothbard
might have clarified if he had a chance to put out a new edition.
The reader will discover on his or her own that every page exudes
energy and passion, that the logic of his argument is impossibly
compelling, and that the intellectual fire that inspired this work
burns as bright now as it did all those years ago.

The
book is still regarded as "dangerous" precisely because,
once the exposure to Rothbardianism takes place, no other book on
politics, economics, or sociology can be read the same way again.
What was once a commercial phenomenon has truly become a classical
statement that I predict will be read for generations to come.

May
20, 2006

Llewellyn
H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him
mail
], former editorial assistant to Ludwig von Mises and congressional
chief of staff to Ron Paul, is founder and chairman of the Mises
Institute
, executor for the estate of Murray N. Rothbard, and
editor of LewRockwell.com.
See his
books
.

The
Best of Lew Rockwell

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