Murray N. Rothbard: Against War and the State

"War is the health of the State."

~ Randolph Bourne

During much of the post World War II era there was a top-notch free market scholar and activist on the Right that made it a top item of his agenda to consistently oppose the warfare state. As you can imagine, he was not very popular among the so-called conservatives that dedicated themselves first and foremost to having a global empire supposedly to combat the menace of Communism. William Buckley of National Review, for example, detested this fellow man of the Right and did everything he could to see that he remained as obscure as possible by accusing him of being a Soviet sympathizer and other lies, (yes, people on the Right get Red-baited too!)

Murray N. Rothbard (1926—1995) was this unusual and heroic American who fought, sometimes seemingly by himself, to keep the memory alive of an American Right that had strongly opposed not only FDR’s New Deal but also entry into the New Dealer’s war: World Massacre II. A Right that opposed the Korean War, the Cold War and was (originally) divided over entry into the Vietnam War. A Right that understood they could never keep a republic at home if the federal government was running an empire abroad.

At first, it may seem strange that opposing the endless wars of the State would become a focus of Rothbard’s political activism. A Jewish New Yorker trained as an economist at Columbia University, he came under the influence of Ludwig von Mises and became a firm adherent of the "Austrian school" of economics, the most consistently free market branch of economics. One of Rothbard’s major scholarly achievements was the publication of one of the few economic treatises of the 20th century, the thousand page tome Man, Economy and State (1962). That was only the beginning of his scholarly output, which included a dozen or so more books including a four volume history of colonial America and a two volume history of economic thought.

Rothbard’s emphasis was always on his libertarianism, meaning his opposition to the State and his support for people and communities being allowed to go about their business peacefully. This was, for him, not a hippie, "drop out" social philosophy. But instead an approach that emphasized the necessity of business entrepreneurs, hard work, saving and personal moral behaviour to the growth of civilization. Given all this, Rothbard found himself making some pretty strange allies in his decades long effort to oppose the wars of the State.

In "Life in the Old Right" from The Paleoconservatives: New Voices of the Old Right, Rothbard describes his original political home. The "Old Right" came about originally in 1933, in opposition to FDR’s New Deal. This group was by no means homogenous. The most consistently anti-State wing was represented by people like H.L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock and Rose Wilder Lane who desired an ultraminimal government and were libertarian in orientation. The second component were conservative, states’ rights Democrats, mostly from the South. The third group were mostly Midwestern conservative Republicans. The last group were former Progressives and statists led by ex-President Herbert Hoover who felt that FDR was going too far into "fascism".

As Rothbard came of age in the 1940s, he saw himself as a firm part of this "Old Right", albeit clearly in the libertarian/individualist wing. Rothbard explains how when he was young the Old Right turned from its opposition to FDR’s domestic policies to opposition to FDR’s foreign policy: "they realized that, as the libertarian Randolph Bourne had put it in opposing America’s entry into World War I, ‘War is the health of the State’ and that entry into large-scale war, especially for global and not national concerns, would plunge America into a permanent garrison state that would wreck American liberty and constitutional limits at home even as it extended the American imperium abroad."

Unfortunately, by the mid-1950s, the "Old Right" began to fade away. It’s last gasps were in opposition to the Cold War: "All Old Rightists were fervently anticommunist, knowing full well that the communists had played a leading role in the later years of the New Deal and in getting us into World War II. But we believed that the main threat was not the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, but socialism and collectivism here at home, a threat that would escalate if we engaged in still another Wilsonian-Rooseveltian global crusade, this time against the Soviet Union and its client states. Most Old Rightists, therefore, fervently opposed the Cold War, including the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the quasi-debacle of the Korean War."

After the Old Right fell apart, the New Right began to rise to take it’s place. This time William F. Buckley and his magazine National Review played a leading role. Buckley paid lip service to traditional conservative concerns but his main goal was to take the natural anti-communist sentiments of American conservatives and turn them towards unquestioning prosecution of the Cold War. Unlike the Old Right’s pre-eminent concern with not turning the U.S. into a ‘garrison state’, the young Buckley wrote in 1952 that "we have to accept big government for the duration [of the cold war] — for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged . . . except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores." Clearly, with Buckley and his Cold Warriors increasingly defining what the American Right was, there would be little room for Rothbard.

So Rothbard was without a political home for a while. But with the Vietnam War and rising popular opposition to the war, especially from the "New Left", Rothbard decided to try to make a tactical alliance between the few libertarians left and these young opponents of the latest American crusade. So Rothbard wrote about how libertarianism is "beyond left and right," making the point that a stalwart of the Old Right like H.L. Mencken was, in the 1920s, considered a "leftist". In other words, "left" and "right" seemed to shift around but the libertarian agenda was consistent: anti-state, anti-war, pro-liberty.

Justin Raimondo in his biography of Rothbard, An Enemy of the State, describes the reaction to Rothbard’s shift: "Without changing his fundamental position one iota, Rothbard had gone from being excoriated as a right-wing extremist to being branded a Communist dupe. The explanation for this was due partly to the fact that these epithets were issuing largely from the same group of people who had been prowar leftists and Popular Frontists during the thirties and were now liberal anti-Communists. Whatever their various line shifts, the leftist cultural and political elites, who dominated the intellectual and political life of New York City, had always been consistent on two points: they were invariably prowar, and always pushing for the expansion of government power on every level."

As the Vietnam War ended, Rothbard took some of these young folks who had learned to call themselves libertarians and started the Libertarian Party as well as the Cato Institute. With organizations of people explicitly dedicated to libertarian ideals, Rothbard hoped that he might focus resistance to the state and it’s wars.

Near the end of his life, Rothbard began to become disenchanted with many of these libertarians, who he felt were selling out on core principles. (His insight seems prophetic now with the Cato Institute largely backing the state’s current global crusade, the "war on terrorism"). He found himself home again with a resurrected "Old Right", now calling themselves "paleoconservatives" and "paleolibertarians". Rothbard’s views, after his death, continue to be championed pre-eminently at, and