Murray Rothbard’s Memory

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I received my Ph.D. in history. My specialty was colonial America. Yet when I pull down a copy of one of Murray Rothbard’s four-volume history of colonial America, Conceived in Liberty, to do a little "light" reading, I am always astonished. Page after page will relate incidents I have never heard of.

Now it’s in one fat volume.

Rothbard wrote this book as a side venture. He was an economist by training, with a mathematics minor as an undergraduate. He had zero formal training as a colonial American historian.

How did he do it? Prof. Richard Ebeling provides insights. This is from a May 1, 2012 email.

Roy Childs told me that once when he was visiting and staying with Murray and Joey in their New York apartment, Murray and he were in the living room, each reading a book.

Roy noticed that Murray seemed to be rapidly scanning and turning the pages of the book in his hands. He asked Murray how he could understand and remember anything going through a book that quickly?

Murray threw the book over to him and said, "Roy-chik, pick any page and I’ll tell you what’s on it." Roy opened the book, began reading out loud, and Murray stopped him, and picked up where Roy had left off summarizing the rest of the argument in that part of the book.

Roy told me he said, "Well, you were just looking at the book and you just happen to have read that part."

Murray then waved at the ceiling-high bookcase behind where Roy was sitting and said, "Roy-chik, pick any book, any book from that bookcase, and open it to any page."

Roy reached up to one of the upper shelves, pulled down a book on aesthetics that had a thin layer of dust on it, and which clearly had not been looked at in a long time.

Roy randomly began to read from the book. After two or three sentences, Murray said, "OK, that’s enough."

Murray proceeded to summarize the rest of the author’s argument, and explain why the author was wrong because he had clearly not read books "X," "Y," and "Z," in which those authors explained such-and-such.

Roy said Murray could do that with virtually every book in his massive library that filled the rooms and hallways of his apartment.

Rothbard, unlike other men who have comparable memories, did not let his enormous supply of recalled facts and opinions paralyze him. He had an interpretive framework – Austrian economics – so he was able to integrate this material.

Here is another example. This is from Prof. Robert Higgs, who has established a cottage industry with his books on the connection between war and centralized government. His first book on this topic, Crisis and Leviathan, was published by Oxford University Press, a major accomplishment for any academician. More astounding, it remains in print over a quarter century later.

In the book, In Memorium (1995), Higgs offered this recollection.

My closest encounter with Rothbard the economic historian, however, came off the record. Early in 1985 I submitted to the Pacific Research Institute a manuscript that, after several more revisions and some additions, was eventually published as Crisis and Leviathan by Oxford University Press in 1987. Pacific asked several eminent scholars, including Murray, to review my manuscript. Murray’s review went far beyond what one might have expected, taking the form of a letter to Pacific’s Greg Christainsen, dated May 27, 1985. It runs 26 single-spaced pages, probably over 12,000 words. Over the years, I have seen a lot of reports by referees and reviewers, but never anything that came close to this remarkable epistle.

The letter began with two pages of praise for my manuscript. Murray liked my general approach. "Perhaps without realizing," he wrote, "Professor Higgs approaches history from the Misesian praxeological viewpoint, knowing and applying the truths and laws of economics, but also realizing that ideological and other factors are also of crucial importance." He appreciated what he described as my "critiques of Chicagoite cliometrics and public choice history-both of which try to sum up all of history with a few equations, or with a one-dimensional simplistic approach." Murray lauded my work for not being value-free." We have suffered for too long," he wrote, "from a dichotomy in which essayists and pamphleteers, who are unscholarly, are hard-hitting and value-laden whereas scholars are evasive, garbled writers who hide behind a careful cloak of value-freedom." He delighted that I was "calling a spade a spade and not a ‘triangular implement for digging.’"

He declared that "Higgs’s values are my values," applauding my realization that war and militarism are "the major cause and embodiment of intervention" in the market and the suppression of liberty and free enterprise. My hostility to conscription and my natural-rights objection to it – as opposed to a neoclassical efficiency objection – pleased him mightily. My comments on the gold standard garnered his approval, too.

Had I stopped reading after the first two pages, I might have considered myself a certified damned fine scholar. Any such temptation, however, was decisively punctured by the next 24 pages.

These contained a minutely detailed yet broad-ranging critique, along with scores of suggestions for what needed to be added to my text and what additional books, articles, and dissertations I needed to read to correct my misapprehensions and flesh out my knowledge.

At several points, Murray prefaced his criticism by noting, "Professor Higgs is nodding here."

I can still recall the deflated feeling I had after finishing the letter. I knew that I did not have sufficient life expectancy to accomplish what Murray had indicated needed to be done. Sad to say, I couldn’t read that much in a decade, even if I did nothing else, much less incorporate all of it into a coherent book. Never before had I been shown my inadequacies as a scholar in such a well-documented way – after all, even the pathetic manuscript Murray was flogging had taken me five years to draft and rested to some extent on twenty years of study and research.

We are not all destined for greatness. I made a number of revisions of my text and my footnotes along the lines suggested in Murray’s letter. Needless to say, I was not able to follow up on the great majority of his suggestions, and I have no doubt that my book was the worse for that inability. All I can say in my own defense is that the book, such as it is, did get finished and published in my lifetime. And my luck held. When Murray reviewed the book for Liberty magazine in 1987, he praised it extravagantly, breathing not a word about the shortcomings he had spent 24 pages detailing in a private communication written mainly for my benefit.

We are not all destined for greatness. Indeed! Rothbard was. He took his skills and put them to productive use. He had great skills. He was very productive.

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com. He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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