University Economists vs. Rothbard

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For over 40 years, I have watched university economists attack Murray Rothbard in print. They never laid a glove on him.

They had certain things in common. They never published anything comparable to his book, Man, Economy, and State (1962). They never published anything comparable to America’s Great Depression (1963). They did not publish widely in any mainstream scholarly journals. Their existence was not acknowledged by Keynesians. But they knew Rothbard was a second rater, and some of them even said so.

Why was this? I offer this theory. He published in newsletters aimed at the general public. He published easy-to-read books on numerous topics. His theoretical works did not have equations. He did not rely on statistics, although he was aware of statistical trends. He was a skilled mathematician, but he did not rely on mathematics. Most of all, he took the message of Austrian School economics to young scholars and intelligent layman. He built Mises’s reputation, and he thereby built his own reputation.

I can think of one free-market economist of no particular reputation who has referred to Rothbard as a mediocre monetary theorist. He also has said that Rothbard spent his time developing a cult of himself. This man has never written a book that has had any impact, either in the economics profession or in the general public. His books are published mostly outside the country, and mostly for over $140. He has built his curriculum vitae by being published by a publisher that rakes in money by charging outrageous prices to tax-funded American university libraries. A lot of academicians use this approach. Then they grant tenure to each other, based on the fact that an academic publisher has published their books. The academic publisher is skilled at milking the taxpayers of America by means of university libraries. A book that can be published on demand and sold at a profit for $25 is instead sold in very limited quantities for $150. This is called academic publishing, and Rothbard was never part of this scam.

If an economist really wants to get his ideas to the general public, he will publish his book in PDF for free, and create a supporting blog. If he wants to play academic games at taxpayers’ expense, he will seek out obscure, overpriced academic publishers.

These men are not major thinkers. They are at best technicians. The Keynesians ignored Rothbard, so the critics have come as camp followers to the Austrian School movement, or as camp followers to the Chicago School of economics. They don’t have their own independent reputations, and they are not part of a particular school of economics. Put simply, they have no connections, no leverage, and no legacy.

TECHNICIANS

Generally, they are technicians. This is not universally the case, but usually it is. They may have written a monograph or two. They may have published an article in some obscure academic journal. They have no influence in the economics profession. But they know all about some technical detail. They have spent their lives majoring in minors. They are still writing narrow monographs at age 50, because that is what is safe professionally. They don’t want to have happen to them what happened to Rothbard for at least 25 years, namely, to be a pariah within the profession because he was so closely connected to the Austrian School. He did not compromise in any way with the academic guild, and these people are terrified about not gaining acceptance by the guild. They are after tenure, which means they will never have to work hard again in order to receive above-market salaries. Rothbard was an affront to them. They gain their emotional self-respect by dismissing him as a theorist without the proper equations, or for not having written a sufficient number of monographs, published by academic publishers at $150 apiece.

What really galls them is the fact that the Mises Institute, by getting a tremendous presence on the World Wide Web, has made Rothbard and Mises famous. Around the world, Rothbard and Mises are getting a hearing, and the technicians, tenured or seeking tenure in their university positions, are unknown to their peers and unknown to the general public. The fact that Rothbard is well known galls them, and the fact that Rothbard is primarily responsible for having made Mises better known galls them even more.

The technicians know they have no influence, and they are envious of Rothbard because he has had such enormous influence compared to them. They dismiss him as ill-equipped in some narrow aspect of economics that they have devoted their lives to. They reject him because of his supposed unfamiliarity with some technical aspect of monetary policy or whatever. They are technicians who respect the details of their technical fields, yet they are incompetent in conveying the general principles of economics to a wider public, including their own students. You cannot find their books easily. You cannot find their materials on the World Wide Web. They do not have blog sites. They are invisible.

The nice thing about their invisibility is this: almost nobody knows what they are writing about, and if more people did know, hardly any of them would care. They are specialists in non-communication, and they have mastered this skill to a degree that professional writers can barely understand. They barely interact with the contemporary economic scene, because that would get their hands academically dirty.

As you may perceive, I don’t have a lot of respect for these people. If they simply spent their time burrowing into the long-ignored data, providing reputations of this or that Keynesian economist, I wouldn’t care. Neither would you. They would not be doing any harm to the cause of freedom. But this is not their approach. It’s not just that they have wasted their lives in narrow specialization; is that they have gone out of their way to attack Rothbard, precisely because he refused to do this.

ROTHBARD’S MODEL

I decided over 50 years ago to follow Rothbard’s model. I began reading him sometime around 1960 in newsletters, and I read all of his books in the summer of 1963. I realized that Rothbard could communicate sophisticated ideas in language accessible to anybody who had any comprehension of economic cause-and-effect. He wrote with enormous clarity from the very beginning. There is no one else like him in the history of the economics profession. Nobody else wrote that clearly — not even Hazlitt, who was not cursed with a college education. Rothbard wrote early, and he wrote until the day he died. He cranked it out, and it was always worth reading.

He wrote for us, not for academia.

To younger scholars, I recommend following Rothbard’s model. It is risky. You won’t get praise from the Keynesians. You won’t get noticed by the Chicago School. You risk being attacked by one of the Austrian camp followers. They distance themselves from Mises and especially Rothbard, because they want acceptance by the profession. I can fully understand their career self-interest, but I recommend that you ignore them. The technicians can yell and scream, but nobody is listening to them. The Keynesians are not listening. The Chicago School is not listening. The Austrian School barely knows they exist. They will leave no personal legacy. They will not re-shape the thinking of anybody, including their students.

If any man was not attempting to establish a cult, it was Murray Rothbard. He attracted people, as good writers do. He was fun to be around, in a way that few people are. He took no prisoners when he went on the attack. He left a major legacy: scholarly, clear, and uncompromising.

You should adopt this model. It is not an academic model. It is not a tenure-track model. But it is a model that at least gives you the possibility of leaving a legacy of liberty.

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