Raimondo on Rothbard and Rothbard on Everything

I. Justin Raimondo's An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 2000) is a successful treatment of the life, thought, and political deeds of the late economist and libertarian activist. Raimondo undertook what can only be described as a very daunting task: to summarize intelligently the career — spanning five decades — of a unique and brilliant public intellectual. Anyone who has read even a portion of Rothbard's body of work could see the hard work ahead of a writer who sought to present Rothbard's systematic defense of liberty, a defense which jumped the boundaries of several academic disciplines — economics, history, philosophy, and more — and the boundaries of political parties and movements as well.

Raimondo has done it and the book is a pleasure to read as well. He does not purport to have written the definitive biography of his subject but to have captured the essence of Rothbard's spirit and of his radical "project." In a world where every two-bit gathering seeks special privileges from the state and the coercion of others and calls this "liberation," Rothbard wished to liberate everyone by replacing "hegemonic (state) bonds" with the contractual freedoms of the pure market society.

Raimondo sees certain "inherent qualities of mind" at work, which made Rothbard a great organizer and "successful intellectual entrepreneur." Rothbard's "youthful spirit," long-run optimism, and "passion for justice" drew him into opposition to the state's favorite activity, war, and to the "Court Intellectuals," who defended the state's prerogatives (pp. 11-13). Rothbard early realized the "centrality of private property" in a free society (p. 20).

Rothbard, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Russian Poland, excelled intellectually and, therefore, hated state-run schools. His obvious misery there led to his being placed in private schools, where he found greater appreciation of his talents. His political views resembled those of his father, David Rothbard, an industrial chemist, and Raimondo believes that Rothbard's basic beliefs were fully formed by 1940, when he was 14. Rothbard enrolled in Columbia University in 1942, originally as a math major. He was judged unfit for military service and thus missed out on America's second great crusade.

Rothbard took his MA in 1946. By then, he had switched to economics and had developed a strong interest in history. He got into contact with likeminded critics of New Deal economic and foreign policy and became an active member of what he later labeled the Old Right and its culture of opposition to big government. One of his first published essays was a critique of wartime price controls prepared for a local Republican organization. He was soon writing for analysis, Frank Chodorov's individualist newsletter. Rothbard's writing included a review of Ludwig von Mises's economic treatise, Human Action, which came out in 1949. He began attending Mises' famous economics seminar in 1950.

Meanwhile Rothbard had met the woman whom he would marry – JoAnn, "the indispensable framework" of his life. He had done work for the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and in 1952 became a paid consultant for the Volker Fund, reviewing current articles and books related to the cause of liberty. Rothbard's early work convinces Raimondo that Rothbard had a "moral-political basis [for] libertarianism" and not just an economic case for it (p. 47).

Around 1954, Rothbard began writing for Faith and Freedom under the pseudonym "Aubrey Herbert." Here he upheld the Old Right "isolationist" outlook and clashed with the Cold War interventionists of the New Right. Given Mises's proof that socialist economies could not calculate rationally, Rothbard knew that communism would collapse, given enough time. Soviet Russia might limp along with a great show of "industrialization," but its command economy, with a distorted structure of production, made the USSR a rather hollow threat. He refused to sign up for a crusade against communism, which would only empower the US state in manifold new ways.

In 1958, Rothbard had his famous clash with Ayn Rand, whom Raimondo characterizes as a Nietzsche for the bourgeoisie. He does not shrink from calling the Randian circle a "cult," from whose clutches Rothbard and his friends — the Circle Bastiat – wisely removed themselves (except for two, who stayed with the Randians). His increasing discontent with right-wing Cold warriors led him to seek out allies to the left. Those who don't understand his goals read this as evidence of gross inconsistency and political dilettantism. In the early 1960s he worked with Stevenson Democrats, who seemed at that time a relative force for peace. The rise of the New Left, the student movement, and mass opposition to the War in Vietnam led to an attempted "alliance" with the Left against the war. Perhaps more importantly he and his colleagues began integrating the work of the New Left into a broad-gauged historical revisionism capable of critiquing all recent wars and relating this critique to parallel develops in domestic affairs. One result was that interesting journal Left and Right (1965-1968).

In 1962 Rothbard, who had gotten his PhD in 1956, finally obtained his first full-time academic position, at Brooklyn Polytechnic. He was surrounded by Marxists, but as Raimondo points out, this was no hardship: he had grown up surrounded by Marxists and, anyway, they had a common hatred for the liberal corporatist political center. In 1969 he began publishing the Libertarian Forum, to wean libertarians away from the New Right and build a libertarian movement. The LF became an outlet for his personal, political journalism, which only folded in 1984.

Out of this ferment was born the libertarian movement — fractious and faction-ridden from the start. Karl Hess's famous defection from Goldwater Republicanism in 1969 brought new people in. The high tide of superficial media interest came in 1971, with articles in the New York Times, the National Observer, and elsewhere. Disillusioned post-Randians came over to libertarianism, along with a handful of "converts" from the Left. Raimondo never lets the reader lose sight of the fact that while all this was going on, Rothbard was teaching and publishing major works in economics and history — Man, Economy and State (1962), Power and Market (1970), For A New Liberty (1973), and working on what became a four-volume American history from the colonial period to the end of the American Revolution. He was also writing in leftist publications such as Studies on the Left and Ramparts, and indeed in any forum that was interested in his ideas.

There is a shifting array of new allies and intellectual associates of whom Raimondo keeps track, as well as disputes and fallings-out, but he never lets the details draw him away from his narrative. By the mid-1970s, billionaire Charles Koch began funding libertarian institutions in a big way and Raimondo sketches out the early history of the Cato Institute, the role of Ed Crane, and other matters sometimes controversial in libertarian circles. Overall, his treatment seems quite reasonable to me. There are thumbnail sketches of such participants as Williamson Evers and the late Roy Childs.

In 1977 the Journal of Libertarian Studies came into being, under Rothbard's editorship, as a serious outlook for libertarian scholars. The Cato "cadre" also produced Inquiry magazine (1977-1986), in an attempt to reach a larger, educated public. At the same time, Rothbard was increasingly embroiled in the internal politics of the Libertarian Party, which he had joined in 1973. Raimondo makes it clear that Rothbard's participation in the LP was largely a "hobby" for him. A serious split came when LP presidential candidate Ed Clark began speaking of libertarianism as "low-tax liberalism" and he, Milton Mueller, Roy Childs, and others tried to turn the then-popular fear of nuclear power plants into a Libertarian campaign issue. Rothbard read them the riot act. Coming into the 1980s, Rothbard, supported by the LP's Radical Caucus — of which Raimondo was a founder — remained involved in the politics of LP nominations. One result was a split between Rothbard and the Radical Caucus.

None of this seemed to slow down Rothbard's scholarly productivity. In 1982, his long-awaited Ethics of Liberty appeared. On this work, Raimondo quotes Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who notes that Rothbard filled a gap in libertarian theory by making private property the bridge between pure economics (praxeology: the logic of human action) and ethics (p. 251). The disciplines were now gathered into in a single, consistent system of thought.

As almost had to happen, a rift developed between Rothbard and the Koch/Cato management out of their differing agendas and strategic visions. Rothbard found a new intellectual home at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, established in Auburn, Alabama, in 1982 by Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. With the support of the Mises Institute, he could mentor new Austrian economists, preside over the new Review of Austrian Economics, and pursue his scholarly work, including the monumental two-volume History of Economic Thought. In 1985, Rothbard became the S.J. Hall Professor of Economics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he was joined by a new colleague from Germany, Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

As was ever the case, Rothbard's continuing intellectual endeavors went side by side with attention to real-world events. The implosion of Soviet communism made possible an alliance with "paleoconservative" opponents of American empire — in opposition to mainstream conservatives led by neoconservatives allied to the GOP. For Rothbard, it was a reversion to his happy days in the Old Right of the 1940s and early u201850s. This led to accusations that now the "erratic Rothbard" had "moved to the Right," when in fact he was trying to find the best available allies to further the cause of liberty. By the early 1990s, working with those conservatives who opposed George Bush's Excellent Adventure in Iraq made more sense to him than trying to rally old hippies, liberal yuppies, and tunnel-vision libertarians. The new mood was captured in Rothbard's speech to the John Randolph Club, in which he exhorted his hearers to "break the clock" of the Menshevik/Social Democratic Establishment — the famous clock of progress which, by convenient definition, can never be turned back (p. 293). At the same time, Rothbard had found a new outlet for his hard-hitting personal, political journalism in the Rothbard-Rockwell Report, or "Triple R" (1990-1999).

Raimondo recounts the 1994 Mises Institute conference on the Costs of War in Atlanta, rightly terming it "the first major gathering" of the antiwar Right since the America First Committee shut down after Pearl Harbor in 1941 (p. 294). I was there and I can second his enthusiasm; and, of course, a very good book came out of those three days: John Denson, ed., The Costs of War, 2d ed. (New Brunswick, N.J. Transaction Books, 1999).

And then, on January 7, 1995, this fireball of intellect, wit, and sheer fun, was suddenly snuffed out. Fortunately, for the scholarly community he had finished two of his projected three volumes on the history of economic thought. Those who knew Rothbard personally, or through his work, mourned and vowed to continue the struggle to which he had given his life.

Raimondo's last major chapter seeks what few writers would attempt: to pull out particular sections and themes from The History of Economic Thought, explain them in layman's terms, and then link these themes to Rothbard's overall science of liberty. For my money, he is successful with this unlikely approach.

Using Thomas Kuhn's approach to the history of thought critically, rather than as a charter for hermeneutical nihilism, Rothbard saw that the "Whig Theory" of history was wrong and that later thinkers were not necessarily better. To pull economics out of the ditch into which Adam Smith had driven it, Rothbard started with the Hellenic foundations of Western thought, came forward through the Scholastics, and found a lost genealogy of superior economic thinkers in Catholic Europe — the line Cantillon-Turgot-Say-Menger, and their predecessors in Salamanca.

Raimondo believes that Emil Kauder's classic journal articles of the 1950s set Rothbard on this trail. Reversing the conventional wisdom, Kauder argued that Catholic thinkers had been friendlier to consumption and therefore discovered subjective value, while Calvinistic thinkers like Adam Smith stressed labor and production and pushed pure economics down a dead-end road for more than a century. The "axiomatic method" of Aristotle, revived by Thomists, carried over into the intellectual background of Austrian theory.

Raimondo goes on to summarize some highlights from Rothbard's History. Rothbard's treatment of mercantilist thought and policy — for one — throws much light on our contemporary system: welfare-warfare corporatism managed by faceless public/private bureaucrats. Deflating Sir Francis Bacon and his disciple Sir William Petty for their quantophrenia and energetic collection of meaningless data, Rothbard made the obvious comparison with mathematical economists and other contemporary social engineers.

In five chapters on communism and Marxism, Rothbard underscored the theological dimension — Marxism gave a very bad answer, cosmic unity with the One here on earth – to what was essentially a problem in Christian theology (that is, man's sense of estrangement from God). Soldered together with faulty Ricardian economics, Marxism gained a mighty following and did more than its share to make the 20th century one of mass-murder, state-worship, and terror.

Raimondo connects these themes in economic history with the larger texture of Rothbard's thought in very useful ways. His final chapter summarizes Rothbard's legacy. All through An Enemy of the State, Raimondo makes excellent points about Rothbard's life and work, some of which I have saved for last. One sub-theme is Rothbard's notion of an intellectual division of labor: he would supply theory but always tried to find an ally who could supplement his (Rothbard's) talents by addressing other aspects of activism and intellectual entrepreneurship.

Raimondo finds in Rothbard's essay "The Real Aggressor" (April 1954) his complete later theory of politics. His research program and his activism over four more decades were meant to work out and use the implications of that theory. With his larger "project" of systematizing, popularizing, and ultimately gaining a new liberty held in mind, we can understand the logic behind Rothbard's famous political/tactical twists and turns, which bewildered some people. The "new liberty" was of course an expansion of the old liberty.

Raimondo writes that Rothbard understood the importance of custom — that constant slogan of the official conservatives — but thought we could distinguish between those customs favorable to liberty and those which were not. He thought we could learn a lot from the past, and he once lectured his Libertarian Forum readers that Catholic moral thinkers had probably solved a few questions, especially since they had been working on them about 1900 years longer than the Randians. On the other hand, he thought we could learn a few things from the Marxists regarding strategy and tactics, since they had some experience there.

Raimondo correctly grasps Rothbard's nuanced "McCarthyism": Rothbard championed Tailgunner Joe, not because he was a libertarian, but because he had built a mass movement and was attacking the ruling elite (p. 87). Where New Conservatives posed as titled aristocrats and highborn gentry, Rothbard blamed the elites for statism and hoped to rally the masses against it, a point he made in his speech to the John Randolph Club. The task was to "identify the specific members of the ruling class" (p. 224) — this was the point of his political journalism, his abiding interest in the minutiae of electoral struggles, and broadly revisionist history. In this, he made a few enemies, a fact that left him largely undeterred, as shown by a letter he wrote to his old colleague Robert Kephart: "my deviation from proper attention to my career image is lifelong" (p. 242).

One can read this book through, front to back, without losing interest somewhere in the middle. Pretty "heroic" — to use a Rothbardianism.

II. Having read the story of Rothbard's life and career, those who crave a representative sample of his more polemical writings cannot do better than to read The Irrepressible Rothbard (Burlingame, California: Center for Libertarian Studies, 2000). The book is a selection of Rothbard's personal, political journalism, as published in The Rothbard-Rockwell Report. The late JoAnn Rothbard, Murray's wife of forty years, writes in the preface that "writing for the Triple R was the most fun he [Rothbard] could think of. For he had firm opinions on almost every topic and wrote with ease" (p. xi). Strongly held — but well-grounded — opinions and ease of writing certainly shine through in this collection.

As editor of the book, Lew Rockwell has done an excellent job of picking some real gems. His introduction sets forth Rothbard's ongoing crusade for liberty, his search for allies on the post-Cold War Right, his growing frustration over crazy new isms imposed on American society, stifling of debate by the Left, and his rising hopes for a libertarian/populist breakout. Against those who say that Rothbard moved rightward or became conservative, Rockwell shows that Rothbard was amazingly consistent for someone who traded in political ideas for five decades.

There are ten sections: "A Strategy for the Right" (with six essays), "The Political Circus" (fifteen), "War" (thirteen), "The Nationalities Question" (nine), "On Resisting Evil" (nine), "Kulturkampf" (nine), "I Hate Max Lerner" (fifteen), "Feminism and Other Victimologies" (nine), "Clintonian Ugly" (four), and "Mr. First Nighter" (four). This gives one some idea of the range of Rothbard's interests. A list of headings cannot convey the sheer fun, wit, and verve with which Rothbard pursues his themes and bashes his targets. His search for truth and justice are never hidden and, somewhere, the shades of H. L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, and Frank Chodorov must be nodding in heartfelt agreement, if they are not doubled over with laughter.

I can only address a few highlights here. Every reader will have a favorite section. Consider the opening essay, "A Strategy for the Right." Rothbard had been writing memos on this matter since the early 1950s. Too bad no one listened to him. He tells the story of the Old ("Original") Right of the 1940s and early u201850s, a broad coalition opposed to New Deal corporatism and imperialism, and its unnatural death at the hands of Cold Warriors and the National Review crowd. He treats the sociology of the intellectuals in relation to the state to show the futility of Friedrich Hayek's "educational" strategy for restoring liberty. Right-wing "Fabian" infiltration into universities and government service will always convert the would-be infiltrators into statists and is therefore worse than a waste of time. Adapting and adjusting to so-called reality is equally futile. He writes: "The left-liberal vision, then, of good conservatives is as follows: first, left-liberals, in power, make a Great Leap Forward toward collectivism; then, when, in the course of the political cycle, four or eight years later, conservatives come to power, they of course are horrified at the very idea of repealing anything; they simply slow down the rate of growth of statism, consolidating the previous gains of the left, and providing a bit of R&R for the next liberal Great Leap Forward" (p. 11).

Some heroic, principled freedom movement! as Rothbard duly notes. Reversing the typical Cold War liberal line on Joe McCarthy — "we agree with McCarthy's goals, we just disagree with his means" (p. 12) – Rothbard calls for putting McCarthy's "radical, populist means" to work for the cause of liberty, decentralization, and cultural sanity (p. 13). Such a program will never sell itself to the kennel-fed conservatives of the Beltway Right (to steal Pat Buchanan's phrase), but Rothbard just didn't give a damn about that. Actual liberty for concretely existing Americans weighed more on his scales than the career chances of respectable conservative operatives. If the Respectable Right preferred joining the Establishment, they too deserved to be driven out by an awakened public.

In this section we also find Rothbard calling for an opening to the religious Right. Despite scary stories in the media, these were ordinary Americans fed up, finally, with the militantly secularist culture being imposed by the feds as an official anti-religion. These Christians' leaders were betraying them for power and pelf, making the rank-and-file perhaps ready to come into a renewed Old Right coalition. There was nothing important in their program incompatible with an Old Right program of free markets and radical decentralization. (See pp. 26-32.) There is much more, but I must move on.

The next section, "The Political Circus," shows off Rothbard's detailed knowledge of American politics down to the grassroots level and his sense of strategy and moral outrage. I can only cite a few of his keen observations here. Thus, recounting the sad tale of Bobby Ray Inman's rejection as secretary of defense, Rothbard finds politicians and media heavies acting in concert (conspiracy?) to block Inman. Motive? While at the CIA, Inman had objected to Israeli access to virtually all US spy-satellite photographs.

The essay gives Rothbard a chance to lash out at "Big Media" as "an excessively powerful and malignant force in American political life" — a view shared by ordinary Americans to the eternal surprise of the elites. (See pp. 85-89.)

The political/media elite's near-deification of the formerly demonized Richard Nixon earned Rothbard's scorn in another piece (pp. 89-92). But "Nixon's record was as empty and as bleak in foreign affairs as in domestic." Why the apotheosis? It was part of celebrating the Office, the holy, imperial, heaven-scraping center of worldly power — the US Presidency, and thus the campaign was unalloyed statist propaganda.

The howls set off by his essay "Big-Government Libertarians" must have been loud indeed (pp. 100-115). I recommend it, but shall only quote the following gem here: "One problem with using reductio ad absurdum arguments among libertarians has always been that they are all too happy to embrace the absurdum" (p. 104). Throughout the section Rothbard's war against the neo-conservatives is on display, as is his permanent inquisition against Republican/conservative sellouts (there were many). Of Newt, he writes: "he is a total neocon, but with a wacko, futurist, technobabble, psycho-babble twist" (p. 136). Spot on!

Unlike FDR, Rothbard really did "hate war," as the next section demonstrates. He knew that wars invariably empower just the people who shouldn't run our lives and give them more power with which to meddle and dictate. Worse, it destroyed lives, property, capital structure, and reduced the level of civilization. This was not a starry-eyed, pacifist critique but a realistic and hard-edged one.

The first essay here deconstructs George Herbert Walker Bush's "case" for the Gulf War and refines the notion of a "war for oil," purging it of its lefty baggage by bringing in cartel theory and a realistic analysis of political controls in the oil market. Names are named and motives looked for (pp. 151-164). Other essays deal with renewed Wilsonian globalism in the post-Cold War world, denounce US meddling in the former Yugoslavia, and make sense of the allegedly "humanitarian" US involvement in Somalia.

But the pick of the litter is "Invade the World," a logical extrapolation from US imperialists' rhetoric and actual practice. With the advent of hypocrisy about "human rights" as a new ideological mask of US imperialism, no one was safe. With such ideological themes in place, intervention anywhere, at any time, was obviously "in the national interest" — revealing, one supposes, the essentially propagandistic role of a notion otherwise void of content. Thus, he writes: "Invade the Entire World! Sanctions are peanuts; we must invade every country in the world, perhaps softening them up beforehand with a wonderful high-tech missile bombing show courtesy of CNN" (p. 219). Faced with such an unbridled foreign policy, "the least we at Triple-R can do is accelerate the Climate of Hate in America, and hope for the best" (p. 222).

"The Nationalities Question" section displays Rothbard's fine grasp of numerous complex political/ethnic struggles, worldwide, issues of the sort normally reduced to partisan slogans by Big Media, as in: Muslims good, Serbs, bad. As a political theorist and historian, Rothbard knew better and he knew it in detail. His general approach involved recognizing that nationalisms exist, whatever one thinks of them, and attempting to accommodate realities through decentralization, partition, and secession, as his teacher Mises had also suggested. Above all, outside powers should refrain from interventions, which can only magnify the destruction arising from local conflicts. Our recent experience fighting for Greater Albania is a case Rothbard would have confronted with mordant wit.

In the section "On Resisting Evil," Rothbard's analysis of "The Menace of the Religious Left" stands out, along with the companion essay, "Saint Hillary and the Religious Left" (pp. 280-286). Rothbard zeroed in as follows: "the Clintonian movement is not u2018centrist,' or simply erratic, confused, or evasive, but… is in essence a dedicated movement of the u2018Christian' or religious left." It has "messianic overtones" which are "collectivist, egalitarian, multicultural, and u2018multi-gendered" (p. 282). Not exactly a traditional Kingdom of God on Earth, but one these people really do mean to impose.

Under "Kulturkampf," Rothbard skewers media bores, celebrities (public nuisances), and politicians. Here is his answer to Mario Cuomo, who had opined that Republicans were "Nazis" because they disliked New York: "Yes, Mario, and you also see a veritable cesspool of crime and mugging and filth and drug addiction and garbage and bums amidst the most socialistic city government in the country. How in the world could anyone criticize New York? Just look around you, Mario. Our once wonderful city has been taken over by scum, with the help of you and your buddies" (p. 298).

"Fluoridation Revisited" provides a rational explanation for the drive to make everyone drink this industrial waste produce: politically driven intervention for private profit. So the Birchers were right for the wrong reasons (pp. 311-318). As usual, names are named, pursuant to Rothbard's belief that the people should know who is looting them. There is much more, including Rothbard's observations on sports.

The section "I Hate Max Lerner" includes commentary on Bill Kristol, neo-conservatism, and liberal hysteria, as well as Lerner. As to what causes liberal hysteria: "They become hysterical when they perceive a rollback, or the threat thereof, of the Inevitable March of History" (p. 339). And, frankly, who wouldn't hate Max Lerner?

All of this has been grossly politically incorrect. Nowhere is this truer than in the section on "Feminism and Other Victimologies." The star here is "The Great Thomas & Hill Show: Stopping the Monstrous Regiment," which I leave for the reader to experience (pp. 352-366). But here is some wonderful invective: "The anti-Thomas Democrats were an odious lot. Most repellent was that gas-bag Joseph Biden, without whose blatherings the time might have been cut by one third" (p. 357). In an age of self-censorship this is engaging candor.

"Clintonian Ugly" speaks for itself. Aside from the climate of statism and progressive hectoring that came in with the Clintonistas, the most appalling thing about this administration is its style. Rothbard didn't live to see the whole thing play out. But he found it loathsome and creepy — and he wasn't alone, just much better at articulating those feelings. The final section "Mr. First Nighter" is a chance to show off some of Rothbard's sharply focused film reviews. He judged films by the standards of the old "movie-movies" — films with organization, acting, style, real acting, and some point bigger than the director's angst or ego. The reviews are great fun and show off another side of Murray Rothbard.

The sheer incorrectness, the name-calling (all of it well-earned, by the way), the praise for abrasive New York ethnics, including a few politicians, a preference for America's Old Culture, hatred for the empire, and much more may shock tender souls. Others will have the time of their lives with Rothbard unleashed.

August 2, 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.