Contra Horwitz

Contra Horwitz

by Walter Block by Walter Block Recently by Walter Block: Libertarian Basics

Steve Horwitz wrote a rather condescending article about Murray Rothbard for the Freeman. Here is my response to it.

My experience with Murray Rothbard is very different from that of Prof. Horwitz. I, too, disagreed with Murray on several important issues, abortion, voluntary slavery, immigration, among them. I once even criticized him for having a picture of Mises on his wall, since Mises wasn’t an anarchist. I never at all experienced any “impatience with and intolerance toward” me, although I richly deserved it for that crack about Mises (in my “defense,” this occurred during my very early days in the Austro-libertarian movement). Murray just smiled, and suggested that I read some Mises. A lot of the “impatience with and intolerance toward” that Horwitz complains of came not from Murray, but, rather, from the people Murray was criticizing for, in his view, trashing libertarian and Austrian theory.

Let me offer an example of this phenomenon. Murray did not at all agree with Don Lavoie’s and other ex-Misesians’ attempts to convert Austrian economics into "hermeneutics," or to conflate these two very different perspectives. So, he wrote a critique of this initiative. What was Murray supposed to do about this intellectual violation of what he held near and dear; ignore it? That was just not his way, nor, should it have been. I have just reread this essay of Murray’s, and it is as fresh and brilliant as it was upon my first reading. Yes, it was hard hitting, as with virtually everything Murray ever wrote; but, there was nothing personal in it. Had Lavoie written or said to Murray, "Hey, I have read this essay of yours, and I’m convinced by it; I’m now giving up on hermeneutics, and once again embracing Austrian economics," there would have been no one happier with that reaction than Murray. Nor, based on my many conversations with him, would Murray ever have broken with any former student or follower such as Lavoie merely because of a difference of opinion, even if the latter had stuck to his views on hermeneutics. Rather, Murray prided himself on having friends and acquaintances with whom he did not fully agree (this was a characteristic he shared with William F. Buckley, Jr.). It was not Murray Rothbard who broke with Don Lavoie. Rather, it was the other way around.

I won’t go into details here, but Murray Rothbard disagreed with several others of his one-time friends and followers as well: with Mario Rizzo and Jerry O’Driscoll on their book, The Economics of Time and Ignorance, for example. And, in each and every such case, Murray was not found behind hand in defending what he regarded as plumb-line Austro libertarianism against what he saw as these unjustified attacks on it. But, just as in the case of hermeneutics, there was nothing personal in any of this; I say so, based on my many conversations with Murray on these matters. Despite what he saw as their intellectual errors, Murray would have been willing to continue associating with all of these people. Instead, they complained of a "stultifying atmosphere" in New York City, due to Murray’s supposed attempts to "force" them to toe his line on these various issues, and would have nothing further to do with him. Stuff and nonsense, say I. Murray was guilty of no more than attesting to the truth as he saw it. But this is precisely what these others (Lavoie, Rizzo, O’Driscoll) were doing, as they saw matters. Why is it then, that Murray was "stultifying" these others, and not them, him? Yes, Murray was a bit older than all of them, and far more famous and accomplished, but that is hardly his fault. In any case, it is entirely irrelevant to the point at issue.

What is so difficult about keeping friendship and intellectual disputes in perspective? Just because Murray criticized these people on intellectual grounds was no justification at all for them seeing him as some sort of ogre. I myself am a reasonably good example of how, properly, to react to criticism, if I say so myself, and so are the several people I am now about to mention.

Hans Hoppe and I have criticized each other up and down over the last several decades on things like immigration (see here, here and here), indifference and praxeology (see here, here, here and here), on conservatism (see here and here), and on wealth and time preference (see here), issues of great importance to both of us. Yet, we are firm friends and it is my great honor to be a co-author with him (in areas where we agree, which are, of course, numerous; for example, see here and here), and to have contributed to his Festschrift and an edited book. I regard Hans as one of my closest friends in the entire world. Were there a Hoppe fan club, my credentials to be its president would be as good as anyone else’s.

Bob Murphy, Matt Machaj and Laura Davidson (forthcoming) have really lit into me for mistakes they claim I made in my book Defending regarding the counterfeiter. They pulled no punches in their published attempts to eviscerate my views on this subject. Yet in my (forthcoming) rejoinder to them (all these debates either have already appeared in, or soon will appear in, the American Journal of Economics and Sociology), I was very kind to them, as they were to me in their critiques. I have been friends with and co-authored more than a few pieces with Bob Murphy before and after his totally unjustified criticisms of me on counterfeiting, and look forward to doing the same with him again in future and also with Machaj and Davidson. Machaj and I have also tangled on the concept of indifference in Austrian economics, without losing the slightest degree of respect for each other.

One further example: those young pups David Howden and Philipp Bagus had the effrontery, the audacity, the chutzpah, to criticize one of the articles I wrote (co-authored with Bill Barnett) on the subject of time mismatches in time deposits (borrowing short and lending long). My reaction to this outrage? I am filled with great admiration for these young scholars, so much so that I subsequently invited them to co-author with me an article on an entirely different issue, taxation. (These articles can all be seen in, or soon will be published in, the Journal of Business Ethics.) One last example: I have had a knock-down, drag-out, sometimes even ferocious battle with Harold Demsetz over the years regarding Ronald Coase and property rights (see here, here [go to chapter 5], here, here and here). While Harold and I do not regard each other as anything like close personal friends, we are on very good, cordial terms with one another. If Prof. Demsetz and I haven’t broken with each other after all that slanging at each other we have both engaged in over the years (as it happens, all the way from 1977 to 2000), then no one need break with anyone over mere long-standing intellectual disagreement.

All of the young Austro-libertarian scholars (as well as Hans Hoppe and Harold Demsetz too) will readily admit that I did my level best to blast them out of the water, intellectually speaking, of course. I certainly acknowledge this very same thing on all their parts. Yet, none of them, I am sure, have ever felt "stultified" by me, nor I by any of them. How else are we to ever be able to get that proverbial one millionth of an inch closer to the Truth if we are not allowed, nay, not encouraged, to "have at" each other, Rothbard-like, in the most thorough-going manner possible? If people feel "stultified" by Rothbard merely because he disagreed with them in print, then there is little hope for our movement. If you can’t stand this sort of heat, maybe the intellectual life is not really for you.

Had I followed the path of the Horwitzs of the world, I would have long ago broken with Hoppe, Demsetz, Murphy, Machaj, Davidson, Howland, Bagus and others with whom I have disagreed. After all, these people had the temerity to disparage my intellectual output in public, and to have authored thorough, well-researched, well-considered, hard-hitting critiques of my own publications. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unlike those who have felt "stultified" by Rothbard, all parties to these debates can separate purely intellectual disputes from personal relationships.

In my view, the persons whom Murray criticized bore primary responsibility for the breaks. But this fact, along with the further fact that Murray was tolerant of my own disagreements with him, doesn’t suffice to show that Murray would have been happy to associate with people he regarded as deviationists, so long as they were willing to be friendly with him. This, of course, would have depended on how seriously Murray regarded the particular deviation. And no one but Murray could definitively speak to that, indeed, respond to that in human action. However, it is my strong impression that when a Randy Barnett published in favor of U.S. imperialism, or a Bill Evers went over to Iraq to help the U.S. imperialistic efforts in that victimized and beleaguered country, that would have been too much, far too much, way too much, for even the saintly man I have known as Murray Rothbard to continue a friendship. However, when it came to "mere" economics, or matters of arcane libertarian philosophy, the issues where Murray and I parted company (abortion, voluntary slavery, immigration), or similarly less important areas of disagreement with these other people (hermeneutics, banking, methodology) it is inconceivable to me that he would have cut off relationships based on disagreements over such matters.

I also take issue with Horwitz’s phrase “the passion of Rothbard tempered by the patient and deep scholarly values of Kirzner.” Yes, Kirzner had very little passion for our movement, although he did have “deep scholarly values.” But, he wasn’t all that “patient,” once calling Joe Salerno a “verbal terrorist” (see here, footnote 2). Horwitz’s statement implies that Rothbard was NOT patient and DIDN’T have “deep scholarly values.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

I further disagree with Horwitz’s characterization of Rothbard as “arguably the most important libertarian theorist of the twentieth century.” In my view, he was the most important libertarian theorist EVER to have written in the entire history of the world. For some, characterizing Murray as “the greatest libertarian of whatever” is a back-handed way of denying or downplaying his Austrian credentials as the founder and greatest economist of the Austrian revival. This, certainly, does not apply to me. I regard Murray, in addition, as the second greatest economist of all time. Second to whom? Well, I’ll give you one hint: second to the person, for some "Austrians," we should all "promote Austrian economics without you know who." Mises, of course.

Nor can I let this one pass: "(Rothbard) constantly shifted his alliances from the right to the left and back again, ending with the (unfortunate in my view) "paleo-libertarianism" of his last few years.  In the process, he broke from various individuals and organizations and left hurt feelings and frustrations that continue to bedevil the freedom movement to this day."

Murray didn’t "break" from anyone. Rather, he was trying to promote liberty. At times, the left was more libertarian (e.g., during the war in Viet Nam). So, he supported them on the areas of agreement (anti—imperialist wars). At other times, the right was more libertarian (e.g., during the epochs of feminism, political correctness, multiculturalism, mysticism). So, he supported them on the areas of agreement (rights of free association, rationality, etc.). What is wrong with that? For his entire life Murray was a "plumb line" libertarian. But, when it came to actually trying to move society as much as he could in the direction of liberty, Murray made alliances; what else could he have done? For most of his life, unfortunately, there were simply too few libertarians to accomplish much of anything as far as mass movements were concerned. So, as the leader of a small band of libertarians, he allied us with other, far larger, groups. And, these were done in an eminently reasonable manner (remember, political action is not praxeology; it is based on the weighing of empirical probabilities). What was he supposed to have done, support the right during the war in Viet Nam? Aid the left on feminism, political correctness, environmentalism? What Horwitz and other Rothbard critics don’t seem to understand is the very idea of alliances. There is nothing at all wrong, nothing incompatible with libertarianism, in cooperating with people on issues where there is overlap between us and them.

Maybe that is why they don’t much like Ron Paul, either. They think of him as a hayseed, as not "cosmopolitan" enough for their exalted tastes. Congressman Paul, too, lives in the real world, and tries to improve it as best he can. He is now in the midst of an alliance with many of his congressional colleagues regarding monitoring the Fed, when we all know full well that in his heart of hearts he wants not merely to oversee that institution, but to "End the Fed," the title of one of his many magnificent books. I suppose that Ron, too, is guilty of "shifting alliances."

Murray is no longer with us, so he can’t say this to the present generation of his critics. So, I’ll attempt to do so, to the best of my far lesser ability. Arguing and criticizing are part of academic life. As intellectuals, all we bring to the table is our ability to seek the truth. Sometimes, this process is an uncomfortable one. But the proper response is not to declare "war," to "cut each other dead." (What happened to Rizzo’s call for peace? When reading essays such as Horwitz’s, I sometimes wonder if it applies only to the Misesian side.) Here is my own peace plan. Let us delve as deeply as we can into the political economic philosophy we all embody, Austro-libertarianism. Let us do so without fear or favor, and let the chips fall where they may. Let us feel free to wholeheartedly criticize one another, always keeping in mind that the goal is to seek truth and promote liberty. But let us resolve, also, not to allow nastiness to overtake us. Let us agree to disagree, where we must, without rancor.

It is a fallacy, it is a lie, it is a vicious lie, it is a downright vicious lie, to say that collegiality requires that academic interchange must be free of vigorous controversy.  Reasoned academic debate need not be personal and does not at all involve “breaking” with people.  If this present response of mine to Horwitz does nothing else, I hope it explodes the fallacy of equating forceful academic debate with personal attacks. Horwitz’s Freeman essay is merely the latest illustration of this fallacy which pervades the culture of Austrian economics; well, at least some subsets of it.

Why is this so dangerous? Because if we swallow this nonsense, we are to that extent less able to vigorously propound positions, and criticize those of others, both within Austrian economics and with regard to the profession as a whole. And, unless we are able to do so, to the best of our ability, without fear or favor, we will not be able to give our utmost to the Austro-libertarian philosophy, the last best hope for the prosperity, and, yes, even survival of, mankind.

I once published a co authored essay in Journal X, edited by Professor Y attacking Professor Z (I mention no names; I don’t want to humiliate either one, by name). The referee’s report said something along the following lines: "This is a good essay, and should be published. However, the authors are altogether too vigorous, forceful. As a requirement for acceptance, this essay should be re written so that Professor Z’s mother, were she to read it, would not feel too badly." I pleaded with Professor Y, the editor of Journal X, to over-ride this referee. He would not. Coward that I was, pathetic wimp, sissy and wuss, I complied with this outrageous demand, and rewrote the paper along those lines. Instead of saying that Professor Z was a moron (okay, in nice academic language), that paper was published stating in effect that the present authors and Z have "different views" on the matter under consideration. I am ashamed of myself for having done this, and never will, again. But, this is exactly the sort of "culture" that has infected some members of the Austro-libertarian scholarly community, me, pathetically, as this example shows, included. My New Year’s Resolution for 2010: "No mas."

Walter Block acknowledges editorial assistance from his friends David Gordon and Joseph Salerno, which greatly improved this column. All responsibilities for errors, as per usual, however, rest with the author.