This talk was given on June 7, 2010, at the Mises Institute’s Rothbard Graduate Seminar.
Tributes to Murray N. Rothbard are often taken up with a listing of his accomplishments. This is because he was so astonishingly prolific that there seems to be many scholars with that name.
As soon as you describe him as an economist, you recall that he wrote some ten large volumes on history. But describe him as a historian and you suddenly recall that he made large contributions to political philosophy. But as soon as you begin talking about his libertarianism, you recall again that he wrote vast amounts of technical economic theory.
It is the same with the venues in which he chose to write. If you look at his scholarly publications list, which is vast and expansive, you can easily forget that he wrote constantly and for 50 years in popular periodicals of every sort, commenting on politics, movies, culture, sports, and anything else in the popular scene.
The problem grows worse when you consider the major parts of his legacy. Let me list just a few:
- He was the economist who provided a bridge from Mises to the modern Austrian school, through his personal influence, articles, and especially through Man, Economy, and State, which appeared in 1963;
- He developed the Misesian system in the areas of welfare economics, production theory, banking, monopoly theory, and tied it all together with a theory of natural rights that drew on medieval and enlightenment thought;
- He was the pioneer of libertarian theory who finally tied the principle of property rights to a consistent non-aggression principle of politics;
- He was the anti-war theorist who insisted that the cause of peace is inseparable from the dream of prosperity;
- He rescued the 19th-century American hard money school from obscurity and wove its contributions into modern banking theory;
- He demonstrated the libertarian origins of the American Revolution with the most extensive account ever of the tax strikes and prominence of libertarian theory during the Colonial Period;
- He explained the ideological upheaval that afflicted the American Right following World War II, showing the clear difference between the Old Right and the New based on the attitude toward war.
This of course only scratches the surface, but if I went on like this, I would use too many words and take up too much time, when what I would really like to discuss is Rothbard’s methods as a researcher, writer, and scholar. I would also like to draw attention to his heroism.
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A friend tells the story of a time when he was hanging around Rothbard’s apartment one summer. The conference that was coming up that weekend was mentioned, and Rothbard had forgotten about it. Rothbard rushed to the typewriter and started writing. The words flowed from him as if the entire paper had already been written in his head.
The result was a 60-page paper on monetary history and theory, complete with bibliography and footnotes. The scene was recalled to me the way miracles are described in the Gospels. His jaw was on the floor in amazement.
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The anecdote is inspiring but also intimidating for those who labor so hard to accomplish a tiny fraction of this level of productivity. We might look at what he did and become discouraged that we could never equal his productivity in even one small sector, much less take on all of his interests in so many areas of life.
Fortunately, we do not have to. The Rothbardian movement today is international. It is vast. It encompasses many sectors of life. He has inspired historians, legal theorists, philosophers, and economists. He is the muse of many bloggers, webmasters, editors, and essayists. He is the inspiration of many political activists, software programmers, film makers, and novelists. He is the model for teachers, pastors, investors, and even politicians. And this is as it ought to be. He set out to change the world. He left a legacy so that millions of people in all walks of life could take up the task.
It is natural to wonder what scholar today has inherited the mantle of Rothbard. To me this is the wrong way to look at it. Rothbard vastly broadened that mantle so that hundreds, thousands, and millions of people can wear it. What has replaced Rothbard is this vast network of ideas and those who champion them. This is how ideas are transmitted. They are not finite things that are transferred only from one brain to another and there it stops. Instead, they spread and duplicate infinitely, landing in the hands of anyone who embraces them. The more compelling the idea, the more it spreads and the longer it lasts. This is the source of the power of the Rothbardian paradigm.
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At the same time, we all do well to emulate this master when we go about our work. When Rothbard would take on a subject, his very first stop was not to sit in an easy chair and think off the top of his head. Instead, he went to the literature and sought to master it. He read everything he could from all points of view. He sought to become as much an expert in the topic as the other experts in the field.
In other words, Rothbard’s first step toward writing was to learn as much as possible. He never stopped taking this step for his entire life. There was never a point when he woke up feeling as if he knew all that he needed to know. No matter how much he wrote, he was always careful to read even more.
If you follow his model, you will not regard this as an arduous task, but rather a thrilling journey. A trip through the world of ideas is more exciting and exhilarating than the grandest excursion to the seven wonders of the world, more daring and adventurous than wild game hunting, and far more momentous than any moon shot.
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There is another respect in which we can all emulate Murray. He was fearless in speaking the truth. He never let fear of colleagues, fear of the profession, fear of editors or political cultures, stand in the way of his desire to say what was true. This is why he turned to the Austrian tradition even though most economists at the time considered it a dead paradigm. This is why he embraced liberty, and worked to shore up its theoretical and practice rationale, at a time when the rest of the academic world was going the other way.
This fearlessness, courage, and heroism applied even in his political analysis. He was an outspoken opponent of the U.S. nuclear buildup and militarization during the Cold War. His opinion in that regard cost him many publication outlets. It cost him friends. It cost him financial supporters. It hurt his prospects for professional advancement. A surprising number of his articles were written for very small publications, simply because the larger ones were captives of special interests.
But time would eventually reveal that he took the right path. Forty years of pro-Cold War writing on the Right were made irrelevant by events. Rothbard’s work during these years has stood the test of time. He is seen as one of the lone prophets of the collapse of socialism in Russia and Eastern Europe.
The choices he made in life were not designed to advance his career. They were made to advance liberty and truth. For many years, publications were closed to him. He did not teach in a prestigious institution. His income was small. Only very late in life did he begin to get his due as a thinker and teacher. But he never complained. He was grateful for any and every opportunity that came along to write and teach. His legacy is now a living part of the world of ideas. The people who tried to exclude him and write him out of history are mostly forgotten.
We call our program this week the Rothbard Graduate Seminar. The focus is on his great work Man, Economy, and State. In the Rothbardian tradition, the goal is to accomplish that most important first step toward making any contribution to the world of ideas: to open your mind to learn. Once the material is mastered, the next step is to do your own thinking and be fearless in embracing what is true.
I don’t doubt that some in this room will extend some aspect of Rothbardian political economy at some point in your lives, perhaps even this summer. No one would be as happy about that as Rothbard. Murray loved his teachers. He loved books. More than anything else, he wanted to be a teacher and leave books for you to read, all toward the goal of changing the world. You pay him, and the cause of liberty, the highest compliment by doing just that.