On Winning the Rothbard Medal of Freedom
by Walter Block
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.
March 7, 2005
Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans.
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