Rand v. Rothbard

Jim Peron's recent attempt to demolish the reputation of the late Murray N. Rothbard ["Is Objectivism a Cult? Part 2: Rothbard Unmasked," Laissez Faire City Times] is lengthy, polemical and quite unconvincing. Endless accusations decorate his essay, all of them laughably implausible to anyone who knew Rothbard or knows his work. Here I wish only to deal with the old Objectivist canard, raised now for the umpteenth time, that Murray Rothbard's essay "The Mantle of Science" was plagiarized from Ayn Rand and Barbara Branden [Murray N. Rothbard, "The Mantle of Science" in Helmut Schoeck and James W. Wiggins, eds., Scientism and Values (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1960), pp. 159-180].

The whole thing is silly on the face of it – and always was. Many Objectivists have very odd ideas about intellectual history and the nature and growth of systems of thought. One is that an idea, once put into circulation by Rand or one of her Top Certified Acolytes, cannot be elaborated or improved upon by any later thinker, but can only be repeated endlessly in its original form, presumably with copious footnotes to the Great Source. Some Marxist and Freudian sects operate along the same lines, but I won't call them "cults," as I have sworn to leave the cult question to one side. Another assumption is that any commonplace uttered by Rand and Cadre is decked in primal originality. If Rand ever noted that rain is wet, such Objectivists would ask us to believe that no earlier thinker had ever made that connection.

Rand's originality is held to be so cosmic that anyone living in the 1950s could only have learned of the possibility of rational ethics, realistic philosophy in the tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, and the ideas of natural law and natural rights from Rand or her immediate subordinates. That someone could have learned of these ideas from contemporary Thomistic philosophers, who were flourishing at the time, from some conversancy with Western intellectual history, from 18th-century political debates (especially those during the American Revolution), and even from the Old Right movement of the 1940s and early '50s, which sought to reinvigorate American classical liberalism, is dismissed out of hand.

It is fair to say that the "right-wing" intellectual movement in New York City in the 1950s was so small that all its members eventually knew one another. Rothbard's search for like-minded thinkers in the classical liberal and free-market tradition inevitably brought him into contact with Rand. These discussions from 1954-1958 may have sharpened his interest in rational ethics and natural law, but Rothbard had misgivings about the Randian enterprise from the start. In any case, there was no need to learn these things from the One Great Source.

Rothbard's main work in the 1950s was as an analyst for the William Volker Fund. He had a sort of roving commission to find and review current books and journal articles which had any bearing on the task of promoting liberty. His numerous memos summarize works in economics, history, politics, and philosophy. One must doubt that a brilliant young scholar who read widely anyway, and whose work required such reading, really needed much Randian input to discover the classical and medieval heritage of Western philosophy and the existence of thinkers who believed that an objectively true science of ethics was possible.

Thus, for example, recommending G. P. Grant's essay on "Plato and Popper," Rothbard writes that Grant sees Plato, despite his bad politics, as a founder of the tradition of rational ethics. This was important because Popper's lumping of Plato, Hegel, and Marx as "totalitarians" obscured the fact that Popper himself had no program beyond muddling through in the usual mushy piece-meal socialist, pragmatic, and democratic fashion. [Rothbard to Richard C. Cornuelle, June 25, 1954, in Rothbard Papers. Grant's essay was in the Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science," May 1954, pp. 185-194.]

Rothbard was also very much interested in a lecture given by Livio C. Stecchini in March 1952 at the University of Chicago. Stecchini stated that, "in my opinion, the demands of morality are nothing but the demand of reality itself…." Further: "Given the vital question: what is man's nature? what are man's ends? how can man best fulfill his natural inclinations? one can arrive at the answer by natural reason." Thus, "ethics consists of knowing the nature of things and of using them according to their ends." Criticizing cultural relativists and the modern descendants of the Greek thinker Diogenes, founder of Cynicism, Stecchini says that as a result of such doctrines "a vacuum has been created by the doctrine of ethical neutrality, and this vacuum has been occupied by the neo-Freudians, first in the field of literature and now also gradually within the Universities." [Livio C. Stecchini, "The St. Thomas Aquinas Lecture," University of Chicago, March 7, 1952. Copy in Rothbard Papers.]

In an April, 1952 memo, Rothbard mentions "the Stecchini project " but suggests "checking with some experts in the fields of ethics and cultural anthropology, however, before going all-out to support Stecchini's endeavors." Stecchini's neo-Thomist position "does offer research in a field which nowadays is completely neglected: a philosophy of ethics." He goes on to make a distinction, characteristic of his later work, between wertfrei economic theory and ethics as a separate field of study. [April 23, 1952, Rothbard papers, emphasis in original.]

In a draft article dated March 1954, Rothbard writes that while economics (praxeology) can build out the pure logic of the ends/means relationship, only a "philosophy of ethics" can show us whether particular ends are in fact rational. "Certain general rules for the achievement of happiness," he says, "can be laid down on a scientific basis, i.e. our scientific knowledge of the nature of man. On the basis of what is best for man, we can elaborate general criteria of ends." ["The Concepts u2018Rational' and u2018Irrational,'" p. 4, Rothbard Papers.]

In a long letter in August 1954, Rothbard writes of Rand: "the great fascination of her philosophical position stems from the void that Utilitarianism, Positivism, and Pragmatism have left in the intellectual world." Further: "All three of these positions hide their face from the important problems of philosophy — ethics, ontology, esthetics, etc., and for us the important gap is ethics." In such a climate, one who encounters Rand, "finds that there are great truths that we have literally never heard in the classroom." Further study, however, leads to the conclusion that "the good stuff in Ayn's system is not Ayn's original contribution at all — that there is an underlying, but as I've written you, growing philosophic position beginning with Aristotle where it is set forth — the ideas of a rational ethics based on the nature of man and found by reason…. Once one begins to read this material, he finds that Ayn is not the sole source and owner of the rational tradition, nor even the sole heir to Aristotle." Even worse, "Ayn takes the Aristotelian rationalist tradition, and goes off on her own variant which I am convinced is a horrible perversion of a sound system." [Rothbard to Richard C. Cornuelle, August 11, 1954, Rothbard Papers.]

In September, Rothbard notes another new work, "John Wild, Plato's Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1953." This was similar to Grant's article. "Wild is a Professor of Philosophy at Harvard," Rothbard observes, "and champion of the u2018naïve realist' philosophy of Aristotle." [Rothbard to Cornuelle, September 9, 1954, Rothbard Papers.]

"In Defense of Extreme Apriorism," published in January 1957, Rothbard writes that his understanding of Ludwig von Mises' notion of the a priori — foundational to Austrian economic theory — rests "on Aristotle and St. Thomas rather than Kant…. I would consider the axiom [human action] a law of reality rather than a law of thought…." He refers to Father Toohey and Father Copleston as having differing views regarding how to classify "self-evident propositions." [Southern Economic Journal, 23, 3 (January 1957), p. 318.]

A year later, Rothbard's "A Note on Burke's Vindication of Natural Society" appeared. This piece tried to show that Burke, early in his career, had believed in rationalism, natural law, and natural rights. The scholarly community did not welcome this "revisionist" interpretation of what was believed to have been a satirical work of Burke's. The correctness of Rothbard's claim is beside the present point. [Journal of the History of Ideas, 19 (January 1958), pp. 114-118.]

So what is the point of all these citations? It is simply that Rothbard's letters, draft essays, and publications of the period in question show a detailed awareness of the larger body of realist philosophy, natural law, and natural rights out of which he and the Randians alike were working. Some of these points will sound "Randian" to those unaware of the common ground and common sources involved.

The chronological point is that Rothbard was working on "The Mantle of Science" at the same time he was writing the letters and essays quoted here. The letters indeed are earlier. Why he should suddenly feel so adrift in dealing with realistic philosophy as to need to "plagiarize" from the Randian circle for a symposium on scientism — the mistaken view that the human sciences should ape the methods of physics? The short answer is that he did not.

A number of reasons have been given for the "break," "expulsion," or whatever, of mid-1958. One involves the religious views of JoAnn Rothbard. Another is the crisis over Rothbard's essay. There may be others and, indeed, several reasons could co-exist and be equally true. The Rothbard-Rand break seems "overdetermined," if anything ever was. [See Murray Rothbard, "My Expulsion from the Ayn Rand Cult," Liberty, 3, 1 (September 1989), pp. 27-32.]

Well, what had Rothbard proposed to do with his draft of "The Mantle of Science"? He proposed to read it to the Randian assemblage at an upcoming meeting. This is why Branden had a copy over which he could become incensed. It would be strange behavior indeed for a "plagiarist" to throw his "stolen" thesis in the faces of his alleged victims.

I think the truth of the matter is somewhat different. Rothbard believed, or wanted to believe, that an interchange of ideas was possible with these people; that discussion of real-world issues about which they supposedly shared common ground could take place. He was obviously wrong.

Now, the "Mantle of Science" is a good essay. (I took the precaution of reading the 1960 printing of "The Mantle of Science" just in case Rothbardian secret agents Stalinistically altered the text in later editions; as far as I can tell, they have not.) It sketches out an alternative vision of the human sciences to that of the behaviorists and other determinists enamored of the methods of the natural sciences. Part of that alternative vision was a restatement of some essential points in the Aristotelian/Thomist tradition. Rothbard had a right to assume that his audience had heard of these matters. It is significant that neither the editor of the symposium, Helmut Schoeck, or Rothbard's mentor, Ludwig von Mises, took the Rand-Branden accusations seriously.

The Randians portray Rothbard as desperately scurrying around libraries, cobbling together extra footnotes to "The Mantle of Science" to cover his crime. Actually, Rothbard wanted to show conclusively that the disputed points were part and parcel of an existing and known realist philosophy. His knowledge of that tradition is obvious from his contemporary writings. So why footnote matters of general knowledge in a paper prepared for a scholarly audience? Only to turn back Randians blinded by their leader's claim of perfect originality.

If Rothbard seemed upset or frantic in those weeks in 1958 it was because the Randian inner circle had sought to browbeat him into total acceptance of their party line. His independence of thought offended them. Hence, the contrived accusations against him – which were unsettling enough – backed up by Branden's threats of a lawsuit against Rothbard. The threats proved to be idle, but Rothbard took them seriously enough to consult his own lawyer. As it was, the fracas cost Rothbard the friendship of two associates, who were forced to choose sides by the Randian cadre.

As for a related accusation made by Mr. Peron – Rothbard's alleged "plagiarism" in a piece on religion written in the 1970s — its only role seems to be to shore up his non-existent "proofs" of the 1958 affair. On his own account, his secret intuitive powers, along with a few "mistakes" Rothbard allegedly made regarding fine points of evangelical Protestant doctrine, are all that make out the "case" here. In this, he is his own one-man hermeneutical community. Very post-modern, I guess, but beneath serious consideration.

Anyone who knows anything about Rothbard knows that he had an abiding interest in religions and doctrinal history. He came to view Marxism as a secularized Christian heresy and American Progressivism as secularized post-millennial Protestantism. Rothbard was an able, productive, and original scholar. If he made any mistakes in his treatment of these matters, they are his own. If the reigning witch doctors and Attilas of Objectivism don't understand that, so much the worse for them.

July 28, 2000

Joseph R. Stromberg is a frequent contribution to LewRockwell.com, a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com, and is the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.