Murray Rothbard's Favorite Books
by David Gordon
by David Gordon
Few scholars approach Murray Rothbard's immense learning in economics, history, politics, and philosophy. From all the books he read, Rothbard singled out a few that had most influenced him. His list, together with brief comments, is contained in a letter, dated January 24, 1994, with the heading "Books That Formed Me." The list tells us much about this remarkable mind.
As all readers of Rothbard know, he wrote in a sparkling, punchy style, ever alert to take the battle to the enemy. Here his model was H. L. Mencken, who he calls "my favorite single writer as a writer." He mentions in particular the collection A Mencken Chrestomathy, which he terms "a hilarious blockbuster." Mencken combined "social wit and libertarian social analysis," and this is just what Rothbard aimed at in his own work. Mencken wrote with clarity and force, in contrast with the woolly circumlocutions of most mainstream "social scientists." One of the worst offenders in this regard was Thorstein Veblen; and Rothbard found Mencken's mordant demolition of Veblen, both as thinker and stylist, to be "one of the funniest and most perceptive essays on social science ever written."
Mencken wrote from an explicitly libertarian point of view, a fact that figured strongly in Rothbard's admiration for him. He called attention to "Mencken's marvelous essay on ‘The Nature of Liberty' in one of the Prejudices, a very funny story dissecting how the courts have weakened the right of free speech and personal liberty. (And this in the 1920s!)"
Another writer rivaled Mencken in wit. Rothbard rated S.J. Perelman "an incomparable humorist. . . . No one was as funny a linguist and as masterly in twisting and inverting clichés. See, in particular, in The Best of S. J., the parodies of Odets (‘Waiting for Santy'), of Dostoevsky, of Maugham, of tough-guy detective stories, and of science fiction."
Given his liking for witty dialogue, it is no surprise that he thought Oscar Wilde's The Importance of being Earnest "the perfect play." He also liked George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara and In Good King Charles's Olden Days.
Rothbard says that his "major interest in fiction is espionage fiction" He recommended John Buchan's The 39 Steps and Greenmantle; these "pioneered, and are still among the best of the genre." But his taste in fiction ranged more widely, and he liked Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, a "scintillating satire attacking egalitarianism"; Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint; and John Dos Passos's The Grand Design, "a bitter anti-New Deal novel from Dos Passos's right-wing period." In poetry, he "blushed to say" that there was only one item on his list: "e.e. cummings, ‘i sing of olaf,' a powerful libertarian indictment of the State's oppression of an anti-war individualist."
Of course Rothbard was not primarily a literary critic, and he concentrated his recommendations on works of economics, political theory, and American history. In economics, he confines himself to one name: Ludwig von Mises. He describes Human Action as "a monumental work; in economic theory and in political economy, it had the greatest single influence on me." Mises's Theory of Money and Credit is a "superb work of monetary and banking theory." Rothbard's great work Man, Economy, and State was the foremost product of Mises's influence on him; it developed and extended the economics of Human Action.
Rothbard's thought combined, in an original way, Austrian economics with individualist anarchism; and in his recommendations on libertarian thought, the nineteenth-century anarchists occupy the foremost place. Lysander Spooner's No Treason, Number 6: The Constitution of No Authority is "arguably the greatest case for anarchist political philosophy ever written." When one thinks of Spooner, his colleague Benjamin Tucker at once comes to mind. Rothbard called Tucker's Instead of a Book "a classic of individualist anarchism by an ‘unterrified Jeffersonian democrat.'"
Individualist anarchism is hardly a mainstream position, and Rothbard approached it gradually. He was first influenced by William Graham Sumner's What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, "the first libertarian work I read." Here Sumner introduced the "forgotten man," the person who is compelled to pay for the "humanitarian" schemes of social reformers. Rothbard calls Sumner's discussion of the forgotten man a "brief and magnificent essay." Sumner's views closely followed Herbert Spencer, and Rothbard accordingly recommends Spencer's Social Statics.
For individualists of Rothbard's stripe, the State stands foremost as an obstacle to liberty. How has it arisen? Far from being a social necessity, the State is "born in oppression and the creator of ‘class conflict'." The foremost academic defense of this view of the State was the great German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer's The State. Oppenheimer "provided the groundwork" for a classic of twentieth-century libertarianism, Albert Jay Nock's Our Enemy the State, which Rothbard calls "scintillating." He also mentions Nock's "culturally conservative" Memoirs of a Superfluous Man."
Nock was a disciple of Oppenheimer; and Nock in turn had a follower, Frank Chodorov, who was a close friend of Rothbard's. His essay Taxation is Robbery "had a strong influence on me"; also important is his Don't Buy Bonds.
However important the individualist anarchists, political theory did not begin with them. The anarchist view develops strands in the thought of John Locke, whose Second Treatise on Government is "the classic." Rothbard calls Spooner an "anarcho-Lockean."
If the State is as malignant an institution as Rothbard believes, why do most people obey its commands? Rothbard finds the answer in Étienne de la Boétie's Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. This work argued that the power of the State rests on voluntary popular obedience, based on illusory beliefs. Rothbard says that "this samizdat essay by the mid-16th-century Frenchman was perhaps the first work of libertarian political philosophy ever written."
But if obedience rests on false beliefs, a further question arises. How have these false beliefs been inculcated in the popular imagination? Here Rothbard ascribes prime significance to the intellectuals, who have for the most part acted as pliant defenders of State power. He recommends Bertrand de Jouvenel's On Power; this shows "how State intellectuals have twisted every concept designed to checking the State, turning it into an instrument of state aggrandizement." Isabel Paterson described this mentality with great force in her essay "The Humanitarian With the Guillotine," and Rothbard recommends her The God of the Machine, which contains this essay, among much else.
Much of Rothbard's work applied his insights in economic and political theory to American history. His great series Conceived in Liberty stresses the libertarian nature of the American Revolution. Of principal importance to the revolutionaries was Cato's Letters, "radical libertarian Lockean newspaper articles in the 1720s in London that deeply influenced America and the American revolutionaries." Rothbard recommended David Jacobsen, ed., The English Libertarian Heritage, which contains selections from these Letters. (Ronald Hamowy, a close friend of Rothbard, has edited a full scholarly edition of the Letters.) Bernard Bailyn has been principally responsible for bringing the importance of the radical Whigs for the American Revolution to the attention of American historians, and Rothbard recommended his The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.
Unfortunately, the promise of the American Revolution was not fulfilled in subsequent American history. The Jeffersonians, who supported the radical libertarian principles of the revolution, encountered much opposition from those who sought a powerful centralized government. Joseph Dorfman, Rothbard's dissertation adviser, wrote a "seminal essay" on Jefferson in the first volume of his The Economic Mind in American Civilization. Rothbard calls the whole work "an erudite compilation" and says that Volumes One to Three are "especially important." One of the foremost nineteenth-century works defending a Jeffersonian view of American government was John C. Calhoun's A Disquisition on Government. Rothbard calls it "a brilliant work of both libertarian theory and defense of the South and of really ‘strict construction' of the Constitution."
For nineteenth century American history, a key to Rothbard's interpretation was the struggle between postmillennial Pietists and their liberty-loving opponents. He found in the former group the ancestors of the Progressives, with the desire to mold people in their image. He thought highly of Paul Kleppner's The Cross of Culture, "among the first, and the most lucid, of the ‘ethnoreligious' interpretation of the American political party struggles of the nineteenth century."
Probably the foremost blow to the American tradition of freedom in the twentieth century was Woodrow Wilson's decision to enter World War I. "The definitive work on how and why the United States entered World War I" is America Goes to War, by the great diplomatic historian Charles Callan Tansill. Another vital book on this topic is Edwin M. Borchard and William P. Lage, Neutrality for the United States. Borchard, "a distinguished Yale international lawyer" showed that "Britain was far more disruptive to American shipping and America's ‘neutrals rights' than was Germany in World War I."
Rothbard's interests ranged even more widely. He disclosed, "one of my passions is eighteenth-century Baroque (strictly Rococo) churches in southern Germany and environs. The most accessible book for non-experts is the enthusiastic work by John Bourke, Baroque Churches of Central Europe."
March 3, 2007
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