Rothbard versus Rothbard: A False Dilemma

by Joseph R. Stromberg

Scholars and critics who deal with the life work of a significant thinker tend to divide such a thinker's work into periods. Even if the thinker's ideas did not greatly change over the years, it still makes them feel better to do this. Sometimes there is a sufficient – even indecently large – reason to do this. One thinks of Friedrich Naumann, whom contemporary Germans imagine to have been their greatest "liberal", who went from Christian socialism, to Kaiser-worship, to navalism, to impatient "national-social" reformism, Central European hegemony for Germany, to New World Order internationalism. The only consistent thread is that everywhere and always Naumann was a Schwrmer for massive state intervention into everything. This great "liberal" never understood the first thing about markets, private property, and the lot. One is reminded of our own Max Lerner, whose ideological pratfalls set international standards. Our esteemed neo-conservatives have made the long march from Trotskyism through right-wing social democracy into their present eminence, whence they try to supply what "brains" there are to be found in the Republican Party's "mainstream."

By such measures, the late Murray Rothbard never changed at all. There is, however, a tendentious standard whereby Rothbard, having observed that the outer world had changed a bit between, say, 1946 and 1992, is burdened with inconsistency or – much worse – a terrible descent into "conservatism." Some fifteen or twenty years ago, one participant in such discussions – Samuel Edward Konkin III of "agorist" fame – began distinguishing between "left-Rothbardianism" (his position) and "right-Rothbardianism" (allegedly Rothbard's own position at that time). Now we have to hear about "early" versus "late" Rothbard or, even worse – from Chris Sciabarra writing in Critical Review and Liberty – the shocking "one-dimensionality" of Rothbard's synthesis – Rothbard apparently having never gone to school with Herbert Marcuse. And, of course, there was the little sally from the contrarian editor of Liberty, Mr. Bill Bradford, about historians thinking Rothbard a good economist and economists thinking him a good historian. Anyone who has actually read Murray Rothbard comes away thinking he did rather well in both fields. Compared to the boring twits in history and the dry-as-dust technicians in economics, Rothbard was attempting something very bold: the shaping of an interdisciplinary science of liberty, giving real meaning, one might add, to the largely legless New Left demand for scholarly "relevance."

Rothbard's kind of relevance was not wanted everywhere. Clearly, he was a dangerous fellow and one to be watched closely, lest he stir up the animals. Alas, we are nearing intramural ground, and most of the strident complainers about the alleged two – or more – Rothbards are to be found in what passes these days for the "libertarian movement." Many there are who are shocked – shocked – that Rothbard was, and ever remained, a cultural conservative. To use a recurrent and defining Rothbardianism, So what? Should he have taken up instead an "alternative lifestyle" and devoted himself to configuring libertarianism for a comfortable berth in an era of multicultural whining? Should he have tailored his inquiries to the hermeneutics of suspicion, which, oddly, only suspects the motives of white males? Not bloody likely. To paraphrase LBJ, Rothbard had an abiding interest in preserving "the only civilization that you've got."

Rothbard's approach to preserving civilization involved working to increase human liberty. He never bought the traditionalist conservative line that liberty leads to "license" and only line-by-line familiarity with the works of Edmund Burke can prevent that sad outcome. On the other hand, Rothbard didn't exactly disbelieve in what we might call "ordered liberty." He thought that real "law" had been discovered by applying a few obvious principles to cases (as in English common law and the evolved parts of [Roman] civil law). The philosopher Christian Bay denounced Rothbard's For A New Liberty as too "bourgeois" and a certain publication in the sunburnt southwest, The Match, attacked him as a "statist" for believing in any kind of law at all.

I shall say this much about Rothbard's "project" and "problematic" (as the theory weasels would say): Rothbard meant to create a unified science of liberty – a synthesis of classical liberalism, individualist anarchism, critical sociology of states, historical revisionism, and Austrian economics – "science" because it could be done rigorously; "unified" because each element corrected or reinforced the others. Some of us think he did a very good job, despite the high-theoretical complaints from one of those journals.

Through all his attempted "tactical alliances," participation in and secession from the Libertarian Party, struggles with the Donor, and so on, Rothbard's views remained soundly "bourgeois" and culturally conservative. It shouldn't surprise anyone that he didn't sign on for the present system of mandatory public sensitivity dictated by the Left which, as we now know, was the real winner in the Cold War. At the same time, Rothbard never praised any President who held office in his lifetime. In a movement full of quasi-Reaganites, his denunciations of Reagan and his works stood out. See his commentaries all through the eighties if you don't believe me.

Those who treat Rothbard's cultural conservatism and alleged "insensitivity" as deplorable later developments, brought on perhaps by too-frequent meetings with Thomas Fleming and Samuel Francis, ought to re-read some early Libertarian Forums. Besides, these critics aren't up to speed themselves. I mean, if they were really sensitive they would be trudging around like the depressed monks in the Monty Python film, rhythmically hitting themselves in the head with books by critical race theorists.

Some libertarians never recovered from the famous Rothbard piece on the "revolutionary" prison rebellion at Attica, New York. Now, Rothbard did not invent the state, he did not invent state prisons, and he never said a kind word for Nelson Rockefeller. On this occasion, however, he said in effect, given that there is a state prison, given that the worst murderers and thugs in New York have taken hostages, what exactly was the Governor to do? Call in a high-powered team of Canadian negotiators? Send out for tea and crumpets? I actually slogged through most of Tom Wicker's Gothic Southern Liberal crying jag on Attica, before I got Rothbard's point. (I quit around page five hundred and something, when Wicker let slip that a handful of white prisoners, who had somehow survived the "revolution" for a while, suddenly turned up dead, which fact the racially sensitive author had neither time nor need to explain.)

Setting the Way-Back Machine for 1971, we find Rothbard writing that "apart from the tendency on the Left to employ coercion, the Left seems to be constitutionally incapable of leaving people alone in the most fundamental sense; it seems incapable of refraining from a continual pestering, haranguing and harassment of everyone in sight or earshot." On such matters, Early, Middle and Late Rothbard will be found saying precisely the same things. Rothbard's infamous – in some circles – or merely premature attack on radical feminism came two years before the words just quoted. I can't recall that his position ever differed much from that of 1969. If anything, he became more caustic as feminism and the other isms became more entrenched and aggressive.

The years 1970-1972 are a gold mine for Rothbardian critiques of the Left. And why should he have taken such a line when, arguably, the Left was pursuing the good work of opposing the war in Vietnam? Precisely because the New Left displayed the traits of the Old: hooliganism, destruction of private property, contempt for ordinary life, and a pressing need to make everyone listen to "The East is Red" all day, every day.

So why did Rothbard "move right" once the Soviet Union fell? He wrote that it was like coming home to the Old Right of his youth. He had denounced conservatism war-mongering and interventionism for decades, and now some conservatives at least were moving towards a new "isolationism." Rothbard had plenty of fights with conservatives on many questions; but he knew that, in the end, they were not in general the sworn enemies of the only civilization we have. It is not possible to say that of the Left.

Rothbard always defended the "old culture" and real films, which he called "movie movies" – films which had some sort of point, continuity, and artistry and were not just vehicles to express a director's nihilism and angst. Unlike certain neo-conservatives, he did not arbitrarily pick out the high-modernist art of circa 1950, centered in Manhattan, and proclaim it the summit of human achievement. He had a real sense that before World War II there had been an American culture, one shown in old films, which will soon have to be banned lest the sheep notice the difference between the New York of the thirties and the New York produced by six decades of liberal benevolence and philanthropy.

Rothbard's rejected egalitarianism – a book of his essays, after all, bore the title Egalitarianism As a Revolt Against Nature – and was always a "paleo" because he believed there was an ontological order, a nature of things, which included human nature. His participation in the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical tradition partly explains his interest in the Roman Catholic intellectual tradition. Catholics had been around longer than Randians, he once remarked, and might be thought to have solved a problem or two in that time. Rothbard admired the rationalism he found in that tradition. G.K. Chesterton was one of his favorite writers. In addition, he understood that Western civilization without Christianity would not be Western civilization. He never signed on for the new touchy-feely civilization just over the horizon – heralded by the "classical liberal" Reason Magazine – which will all turn out for the best, just as soon as we learn to be more accepting of Others and tee-totalitarian-tolerant. (The Others, apparently, are already up to speed on these virtues.)

Rothbard was politically incorrect at the beginning and at the end of his career. In 1948, he was, he later wrote, probably the only New York Jew to support the State Rights Party ticket of Strom Thurmond. In the early fifties he denounced pending Hawaiian statehood as an affront to the continental and organic character of the American federation. In recent years, his slogan was "universal rights, locally enforced." That second part is especially wicked. It would leave nothing for NATO and the empire to do – a horrifying prospect.

Mocking the embarrassment of latter-day followers of J.M. Keynes at some of their leader's actual beliefs, Rothbard liked to say "Keynes was a Keynesian." But Keynes really believed in his own ideas. So did Rothbard. Rothbard was a Rothbardian. I can't see the harm in that.

Joseph R. Stromberg is a weekly columnist for and an adjunct scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Center for Libertarian Studies. An earlier version of this article appeared in SpinTech Magazine.