Murray N. Rothbard wrote this in 1954 as "In Defense of Demagogues"
for Faith & Freedom, a libertarian magazine, which turned
many years now, demagogues have been in great disfavor. They are
not sober, they are not respectable, they are not "gentlemen." And
yet there is a great and growing need for their services. What,
exactly, have been the charges leveled against the demagogues? They
are roughly three in number.
the first place, they are disruptive forces in the body politic.
They stir things up. Second, they supposedly fail to play the game
in appealing to the base emotions, rather than to cool reason. From
this stems the third charge: that they appeal to the unwashed masses
with emotional, extreme, and, therefore, unsound views. Add to this
the vice of ungentlemanly enthusiasm, and we have about catalogued
the sins of the species demagogue.
charge of emotionalism is surely an irrelevant one. The problem
of an ideology is not whether it is put forth in an emotional,a
matter-of-fact, or a dull manner. The question is whether or not
the ideology is correct. Almost always, the demagogue is a man who
finds that his ideas are held by only a small minority of people,
a minority that is apt to be particularly small among the sober
and respectable. Convinced of the truth and the importance of his
ideas, he sees that the heavy weight of public opinion, and particularly
of the respectable molders of this opinion, is either hostile or
indifferent to this truth. Is it any wonder that such a situation
will make a man emotional?
demagogues are ideological nonconformists and therefore are bound
to be emotional about the general and respectable rejection of what
they consider to be vital truth. But not all ideological nonconformists
become demagogues. The difference is that the demagogue possesses
that quality of mass attraction that permits him to use emotion
to stir up the masses. In going to the masses, he is going over
the heads of the respectable intellectuals who ordinarily guide
mass opinion. It is this electric, short-cut appeal direct to the
masses that gives the demagogue his vital significance and that
makes him such a menace to the dominant orthodoxy.
demagogue is frequently accused by his enemies of being an insincere
opportunist, a man who cynically uses certain ideas and emotions
in order to gain popularity and power. It is almost impossible,
however, to judge a person's motives, particularly in political
life, unless one is a close friend. We have seen that the sincere
demagogue is very likely to be emotional himself, while stirring
others to emotion. Finally, if a man is really an opportunist, the
easiest way to acclaim and power is to play ball with the ruling
orthodoxy, and not the opposite. The way of the demagogue is the
riskiest and has the least chance of success.
is the fashionable belief that an idea is wrong in proportion to
its "extremism" and right in proportion as it is a chaotic muddle
of contradictory doctrines. To the professional middle-of-the-roader,
a species that is always found in abundance, the demagogue invariably
comes as a nasty shock. For it is one of the most admirable qualities
of the demagogue that he forces men to think, some for the first
time in their lives. Out of the muddle of current ideas, both fashionable
and unfashionable, he extracts some and pushes them to their logical
conclusions, i.e. "to extremes." He thereby forces people either
to reject their loosely held views as unsound, or to find them sound
and to pursue them to their logical consequences. Far from being
an irrational force, then, the silliest of demagogues is a great
servant of Reason, even when he is mostly in the wrong.
typical example is the inflationist demagogue: the "monetary crank."
The vast majority of respectable economists have always scoffed
at the crank without realizing that they are not really able to
answer his arguments. For what the crank has done is to take the
inflationism that lies at the core of fashionable economics and
push it to its logical conclusion. He asks; "If it is good to have
an inflation of money of 10 percent per year, why isn't at still
better to double the money supply every year?" Only a few economists
have realized that in order to answer the crank reasonably instead
of by ridicule, it is necessary to purge fashionable economics of
its inflationist foundations.
probably first fell into disrepute in the 19th century, when most
of them were socialists. But their conservative opposition, as is
typical of conservatives in every age, never came to grips with
the logic of the demagogues’ position. Instead, they contented themselves
with attacking the emotionalism and extremism of the upstarts. Their
logic unassailed, the socialist demagogues triumphed, as argument
always will conquer pure prejudice in the long run. For it seemed
as if the socialists had reason on their side.
socialism is the fashionable and respectable ideology. The old passionate
arguments of the soap box have become the tired cliches of the cocktail
party and the classroom. Any demagogy, any disruption of the apple
cart, would almost certainly come from the individualist opposition.
Furthermore, the State is now in command, and whenever this conditions
prevails, the State is anxious to prevent disruption and ideological
turmoil. In their wake, demagogues would bring "disunity," and people
might be stirred to think for themselves instead of falling into
a universal goose-step behind their anointed leaders. Furthermore,
individualist demagogues would be more dangerous than ever, because
they could now be equipped with rational arguments to refute the
socialist cliches. The respectable statist Left, then, fears and
hates the demagogue, and more than ever before, he is the object
is true that, in the long run, we will never be free until the intellectuals--the
natural molders of public opinions--have been converted to the side
of freedom. In the short run, however, the only route to liberty
is by an appeal to the masses over the heads of the State and its
intellectual bodyguard. And this appeal can be made most effectively
by the demagogue--the rough, unpolished man of the people, who can
present the truth in simple, effective, yes emotional, language.
The intellectuals see this clearly, and this is why they constantly
attack every indication of libertarian demagoguery as part of a
"rising tide of anti-intellectualism." Of course, it is not anti-intellectualism;
it is the saving of mankind from those intellectuals who have betrayed
the intellect itself.
N. Rothbard (1926-1995), the founder of modern libertarianism and
the dean of the Austrian School of economics, was the author of
Ethics of Liberty and For
a New Liberty and many
other books and articles. He was also academic vice president
of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Center for Libertarian
Studies, and the editor with Lew Rockwell of The
© 2002 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute
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