It is a magnificent thing that Murray Rothbard’s most overlooked masterpiece, his Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, has now been made available free online in two volumes, with complete navigation tools: Economic Thought Before Adam Smith and Classical Economics. It is the culmination of a process that began in the 1980s with the original research and writing, and many lectures, often presented at the offices of the Mises Institute. Finally, they appeared in print in 1995, the year he died. But the volumes were so expensive that they were nearly unaffordable for regular people. In 2006, the Mises Institute was able to publish both volumes at a fraction of the original price. Now, at last, the ideas have been set free with complete online editions.
There are not enough superlatives to describe what Rothbard has done in these books. He was not of the view that progress always defines the trajectory of ideas over time. He looked for truth in the ancient world, the middle ages, and modern times, while spotting error and outright evil in all times as well. He is fearless in naming names. The result is a remarkable intellectual drama, one so compelling that it will redefine the way you look at the course of history itself.
It is not just the astonishing level of research, but the ebullient energy of Rothbard’s personality and prose. Open any page and see what happens. Looking randomly now at page 33 in volume one, we get a roundup of the early Christian fathers and theologians. Tertullian was hostile to the merchant class partly because he expected the world to founder at any moment on the shoals of excess population. St. Jerome was not much better: he extolled the zero-sum view of wealth: “the rich man is unjust, or the heir of an unjust one.” The best of the lot was Clement of Alexandra, who celebrated private property and warned: “We must not cast away riches which can benefit our neighbor. Possessions were made to be possessed; goods are called goods because they do good, and they have been provided by God for the good of men: they are at hand and serve as the material, the instruments for a good use in the hand of him who knows how to use them.”
Fascinating, isn’t it? That’s about one one-millionth of what you get here. To read these books is like finding yourself at the most opulent banquet you can imagine, with an endless variety of foods prepared by the world’s greatest chefs, and everything is free. But there is a difference between culinary satisfaction and this intellectual feast. The mind is capable of far more consumption than the body, and Rothbard lavishes us with ideas. You get the sense that he just can’t wait to tell you what he has discovered. He has your attention and is thrilled, and hopes to engage you for as long as possible on the topic at hand. He draws you into this world and ends up making what some might think is a boring topic come alive and just about take over your life.
It’s a wonderful work, and it tells you something about the person that he was. His number one passion was research and his number two passion was telling others about what he found. In this sense, he was remarkably self-effacing. After all, he was an innovator like few minds in human history. His unique contributions to economic theory comprise a long list. More than that, he was the first to fully integrate economic science, moral philosophy, and political theory in a unified theory of liberty. To say that is not an exaggeration in the slightest. He was the founder of modern libertarianism, a theory of politics that is so compelling that once you have absorbed it, it becomes the lens through which you end up understanding all economic and political events. The best roundup of the whole of Rothbardian thought, by the way, is this excellent small book by David Gordon: The Essential Rothbard.
Oddly, however, Rothbard himself doesn’t figure into his own history of ideas. It’s not just that he never got around to writing about the 20th century. There is more at work. What we see here is a fascinating combination of generosity and humility, a man far more interested in promoting the sound ideas of others rather than his own work.
We saw this in the course of his life, and once we understand it, we gain insight into the unusual personal conflicts that have been fodder for gossip and legend in libertarian circles for decades. Justin Raimondo does a fine job of discussing many of these in his biography Enemy of the State. He shows that the history of personality conflicts that peppered the life of Rothbard really amount to a long series of personal betrayals of their benefactor (the worst sin, in Dante’s view).
And yet this raises the question: Why were there so many who benefitted from Rothbard’s personal mentorship and later turned on him to denounce him and try so hard to topple him from his position as Mr. Libertarian? Some, like the billionaire Charles Koch, attempted to run his name out of public life, as documented in Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism.
Here is a stab at a reason. To be around Rothbard, and to be part of his circle of friends, was an enormously flattering experience. He made everyone feel brilliant and important. He wasn’t the sort to insist that one sit at his feet and learn from him. He drew you in and made you feel as if you were making a great contribution to a historic project. If you made a point that he thought was a good one, he would praise you to the skies.
If you go through Rothbard’s work, you find an unleashed passion for giving others credit for contributions to the history of ideas. His Ethics of Liberty, for example, is replete with citations to people who otherwise made no mark. The people who entered into his world began to think of themselves as Rothbard’s intellectual equals, and this was not an accident. It was something that Rothbard himself encouraged. He was radically against the creation of a personality cult, and instead shared and spread his ideas with profligate abandon.
These people came to be so flattered by his attention, and so absorbed into his approach, that they actually started to believe that Rothbard himself was dispensable. There was usually some precipitating event. The Rothbardian would write an article that departed from the master in some respect. Rothbard might have said nothing, but this was not his way. He longed for intellectual engagement, so he would come back and engage, usually in a way that harmed the pride of the disciple. The disciple would take it all personally and turn on the master in a life-changing way, and swear eternal enmity. This happened time and again, even for some not in the Koch ambit.
But consider the driving force here. Rothbard was so generous, so flattering to those around him, that his disciples felt empowered to the point that they actually believed that they were on Rothbard’s intellectual level and could easily break off on their own, and become famous. A telling fact, however, is that none of these people — and there were many — really did anything on their own, and what they did do amounted to recycling what Rothbard had taught them without giving him credit. That’s a short history of how it came to be that Rothbard, one of the century’s brightest lights, rarely received the credit he deserved during his lifetime.
Now, nearly fifteen years after his death, his star is higher than ever, with a new edition of Man, Economy, and State just published, and his triumphant History of Economic Thought now online for the whole world. He continues to teach us all, as generous as he was in life. Fortunately, now he is also getting the credit, while even his detractors can only stand in awe at his current influence.