Murray Rothbard's Typewriter

There is a debate simmering over whether the perspective of is backward-looking or forward-looking. I will try to deal with this question through the use of a symbol: Murray Rothbard’s typewriter.

Rothbard was a lucid writer. Few scholars have ever combined the paraphernalia of academia — footnotes galore — with the ability to write clearly. Rothbard added effective rhetoric; his writing was lively, which has never been common among economists. I once wrote that if the Nobel Prize in economics were awarded for clarity — as John Wayne aptly put it, “that’ll be the day” — Rothbard should win it.

He wrote on an electric typewriter that antedated the IBM Selectric. The IBM Selectric III model had a correction ribbon that was convenient. Rothbard would have none of it.

I first came across some of his manuscripts in the summer of 1963 when I worked as a summer intern at the Center for American Studies, a short-lived replacement of the William Volker Fund. The Volker Fund, like its founder William Volker, was anonymous by design. It was an indispensable institution in the development of post-war libertarianism. It deserves at least a Ph.D. dissertation.

In the late 1950’s, the Volker Fund had Rothbard on its payroll. He had no academic position. The Volker Fund had employed him to write book reviews, although it also financed the publication of an expurgated version of Man, Economy, and State, which left out what later became Power and Market. These book reviews are among the greatest I have ever read. The Fund also employed Rose Wilder Lane to write book reviews, but hers were turgid affairs compared to Rothbard’s.

I noticed then a peculiarity in his manuscripts: the corrections were not made by hand. They were in the form of X’s. Sections of sentences were Xed out. The reader could follow everything clearly simply by ignoring anything Xed out.

It only occurred to me as I wrote the previous paragraph what this really meant. He must have spotted his mistakes as soon as he typed them, before going on to the next sentence or even the next line. Somehow, his mind recognized an infelicitous phrase as soon as his fingers had recorded it on paper. He immediately went back, Xed out the phrase, and typed in its replacement.

I have no other way to explain these manuscripts. The pages did not appear to have been reinserted into the typewriter in a final reading. The X’s were right on top of the original letters.

How could anyone have written so precisely, spotting his errors as they appeared on paper? I have no answer. But the results, when put into print, were invariably flawless — no grammatical errors, no misspelled words, no confusion. As a writer, I cannot comprehend this.

He refused to go to an IBM Selectric III. He refused even more adamantly to go to a word processor. He told me that he would do so only if someone introduced a typewriter that would type directly onto paper, but which would also record the words on-screen. The man wanted his X’s.

Does this mean that he was a technological Luddite? No; it means that he was a skilled user of an older technology. He saw the typewriter as a tool. His typewriter enabled him to put his thoughts on paper almost instinctively — so instinctively that he spotted his errors as he typed, phrase by phrase.

Rothbard was a technological maven compared to R. J. Rushdoony, who wrote his manuscripts on yellow paper without lines, using a steel-tipped pen and an ink well, just as he had learned in grade school. He typed block quotations into his text by inserting the sheet into his manual typewriter, the one his father had bought him — used — when he went off to college in the late 1930’s. It had been manufactured sometime around 1918. He wrote dozens of books this way, including his classic, The Messianic Character of American Education. His wife then typed the final manuscript on a pre-Selectric IBM.

I write with WordPerfect for DOS, version 5.1. To use it effectively, I require a 1983 IBM/AT keyboard, with its snapping spring-loaded keys and the ten function keys placed on the left-hand side of the keyboard. I have collected half a dozen of these obsolete keyboards, because they break occasionally, and I could not write without one.

Am I a Luddite? No. I have mastered a word processing program designed for professional writers, not some GUI (well-named “gooey”) Windows-based program that is kludgy because it tries to be a typesetting program as well as a word processor. A full-time writer who learned on DOS — WordPerfect or XyWrite or even the ancient WordStar — is unlikely to upgrade to the “latest and greatest” Windows product. When it comes to word processing, technological progress ever since Windows has been retrograde.

Typesetting is even worse. Only one typesetting program offers what WordPerfect offered back in 1985: footnotes automatically inserted at the bottom of the page, with paragraph-splitting when part of a paragraph flows onto the next page. The one exception is Ventura, which hardly anyone uses, and for which professional typesetters charge at the old pre-computer rates per page. Yet with a home-brew macro program, I can typeset a 300-page book with footnotes in two or three days on WordPerfect for DOS.

I was ahead of the curve on word processing. I learned on the precursor of WordPerfect, called S.I.I. (Satellite Software International), a program that cost $7,500 and ran on a used Data General minicomputer that cost $20,000. The software’s manual was printed on a dot-matrix printer and was maybe 30 single-spaced pages long. Those were the good old days. Within two weeks of adopting it, I had doubled my daily output. That was in late 1980. I never again wrote anything for publication on a typewriter. I was too far ahead on the curve. Had I waited less than one year, I could have bought the same technological power on an IBM-PC for about $6,500, total.

Output, Not Input

The free market judges on the basis of output, not input. The consumer does not care about the producer’s cost of production. He cares only about personal use-value.

What does it matter to a reader if the writer used an ancient writing implement to produce his manuscript? Think of Augustine’s City of God. The issue is the content of the writing, not the date of manufacture of the quill or pen or typewriter. I have no idea where Rushdoony bought ink, let alone replacement steel-tipped pens. What I do know is that his writing was relevant.

The same is true of any technology. There is no reason to adopt the latest tool if you are a master of an older tool. Newcomers may find that a new technology is best for them, but old-timers should not switch merely to be up to date.

The issue of innovation has to do with the profitability of output, not the cost of input. The innovator is an entrepreneur. He may fail. The new technology may come a cropper. Time will tell. So will the market. The phrase “vaporware” used to be familiar: promised software that never appeared. Trailing-edge technology is cheaper and safer for most people.

The Constitution is old. It is also a lot better than anything being promoted as a replacement. Some of us feel the same way about the Articles of Confederation vs. the power-centralizing document that was issued by that closed-door, media-excluding conspiracy in Philadelphia, or Con-Con-Con, as I call it.

Some of us would even object to colorizing “Casablanca.” We do not accept the technological imperative, i.e., the belief that something should be done merely because it can be done.

I prefer the erase button on my 1983 keyboard to the correction ribbon on my old IBM Selectric III. I wrote Unconditional Surrender in 12 days on a Selectric III, without an outline or notes, in early 1980, but that was the last time. I soon saw that electronic word processing was for me. Meanwhile, Rothbard saw the IBM Selectric III as an opportunity to be missed.

Rothbard could spot an error in a line of text as soon as he typed it. It takes me longer. He used the X key masterfully. I need the erase key and, all too often, the block-and-delete function. For me in 1980, the erase key was a stupendous innovation, and 1981’s brand-new “Alt-F4-delete” function was a near-miracle. For Rothbard, the X key was just fine.


Wild Bill Hickock was a master of the Colt pistol. He wore a pair of Colt Navy .36’s, which were cap-and-ball pistols. He wore them long after Colts that used cartridges were available. He was not alone. The Colt Navy .36 remained in production from 1851 until the mid-1870’s. Hickock was no Luddite. He had learned his trade with a weapon that was legendary for its balance. He was very good at his trade. He saw no reason to innovate.

Progress is as progress does. The person who trumpets technological change or social change as a way of life on autopilot is the kind of person who would have tried to make a name for himself by challenging Hickock to a shoot-out in 1871 because he had just bought himself a brand-new Colt .44, whereas poor old Hickock was wearing a pair of obsolete 1851 Colt .36’s. He would have made that mistake only once.

May 7, 2001

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of an eleven-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible. The latest volume is Cooperation and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Romans. The series can be downloaded free of charge at