“But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue?”
Murray Rothbard was like the elephant the blind Chinamen in the story tried to describe. Everyone who knew Murray saw only one or two sides of him: There was Murray the happy warrior who campaigned for the soul of the Old Right, the New Left, the Libertarian Party, and—once again, near the end of his all-too-short life—the Old Right; Murray the libertarian ideologue who, in collaboration with the Volker Fund, the Cato Institute, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, worked tirelessly to craft a practical consensus that was rooted in individual liberty; Murray the scholar and intellectual historian who assembled a prodigious amount of obscure information on business cycles. Rockefeller plots, and—perhaps most importantly—the true history of economic thought, which was the subject of his concluding masterwork.
Murray has many friends and enemies alive today who will no doubt take issue with Justin Raimondo’s fair-minded and sympathetic account of his mentor’s career. Small minds and “movement” (both conservative and libertarian) types often ended up hating Rothbard, either because he revealed the hollowness of their pretensions or because his expansive temperament saw farther than most of his warmest admirers. But Murray could make friends with the most unlikely people. Mel Bradford (about as opposite a number as one could hope to find) always spoke fondly of Murray, praising his courtesy and essential decency; he also gave high marks to the economist’s understanding of Southern history—and the Southern cause. As Raimondo points out, there was no contradiction in Rothbard’s support for the South in the 1860’s and Black Power radicals in the 1960’s: Both defended real people and communities from predatory big governments. Even our Washington editor, Dr. Samuel Francis—not a man given to excessive sentimentality—was shaken by news of Murray’s death, and whenever I think of Murray, the lines of a popular Victorian poem (a translation from Callimachus) comes to mind:
I wept as I remembered how oftenyou and I
Had tired the sun with talking and senthim down the sky
As Raimondo makes clear, Rothbard earned his reputation for being crossgrained and short with people. Lie did not suffer fools gladly—or dullards or lifestyle libertarians who did not own neckties or intellectuals who staked out theoretical positions so radical that they were able to justify going along with the powers-that-be. I, on the other hand, never saw him even annoyed, if you discount the time we took him for a half-mile walk through Colonial Williamsburg. (“What is this,” he complained, “the Bataan death march?”) The only thing I ever wrote that elicited a complaint from Murray was an essay counseling Stoic resignation. “I like you better as a fighter,” he told me, explaining that even spiritual resignation was a form of defeatism.
Many people have suggested that Rothbard adopted his conservative and libertarian principles in protest against the typical leftism of his New York Jewish family. Writing of his background in a Chronicles essay, Rothbard said: “I grew up in a Communist culture. The middle-class Jews in New York whom I lived among, whether family, friends, or neighbors, were either Communists or fellow-travelers in the Communist orbit. I had two sets of Communist Party uncles and aunts, on both sides of my family.”
But Murray Rothbard’s intellectual progress was quite different from that of the self-serving neoconservatives who made the short and safe journey from Stalinism to Trotskyism, while denouncing the friends and relatives who were capable of loyalty, at least, to Uncle Joe. Murray’s mother seems to have been, at worst, a sentimental liberal, and his father, David Rothbard, was, as Raimondo describes him, a man who had broken out of the ghetto, a “strong believer in science and rationalism,” who had (as Murray wrote in a high-school essay) “risen from an impoverished immigrant to a citizen of value and responsibility.” far from wanting to break with his father as the central act in some Freudian psychodrama, Rothbard viewed the development of his economic and philosophical individualism as the tribute a loyal son owes to an honorable father.
Rothbard displayed the same loyalty to the country that had adopted his family. Unlike so many leftists (and some libertarians), he did not swear fealty to an ideological America he had invented or borrowed from a textbook. In fact, Rothbard loved the gritty details—the deals and swindles, the crackpots and conspirators who give American history a richer texture than, say, an Ayn Rand novel or the Boy Scout oath.
When Rothbard broke with the conservative movement on the issue of Vietnam and the Cold War, his former allies at National Review attempted to portray him as an unstable crackpot and a cultural leftist, and NR’s obituary of Murray represents, along with Mr. Buckley’s attack on the dead Ayn Rand, that magazine’s moral nadir. Rothbard was a good hater, but he was a better friend, and he was willing to forgive most of his disloyal followers, so long as they were doing something worth doing. He forgave his disciple Williamson Evers for supporting the global-trade-regulation racket called NAFTA, and he even forgave Justin Raimondo for betraying him in the Libertarian Party.
What, in the end, is Rothbard’s legacy, apart from several good books and acres of pointed polemics and ideological trailblazing? For one thing, he was—despite his sometimes eccentric individualism—an institution builder. Neither the Cato Institute nor the Libertarian Party would be conceivable without Murray, to say nothing of the John Randolph Club (which Murray cofounded with his equally cranky counterpart on the Old Right), the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, the Center for Libertarian Studies, and perhaps the most successful project (established several years after Rothbard’s death) Antiwar.com, the website that has made Justin Raimondo the best known of Rothbard’s living disciples.
Raimondo suggests that Rothbard had been looking all his life for an ideological entrepreneur to be his partner in crimes against the state. He thought he had finally found such a person in Ed Crane, but they broke—for reasons that Raimondo describes with admirable delicacy. Near the end of his life, he found another entrepreneurial collaborator in Llewellyn Rockwell.
It would take a Rothbard to do justice to Rothbard, but Justin Raimondo (who is, perhaps, the most faithful of all of Murray’s disciples) has made a very good start. Unlike many Rothbardians, Raimondo sees his mentor as a philosopher who practiced polities, who crafted (in Lord Acton’s definition of liberalism) “a philosophy seeking a policy.”
A more critical reading of Rothbard would require a closer scrutiny of his unexamined assumption that moral decisions are made by autonomous individuals who are possessed of that strange manna known as “rights.” When we began collaborating, Murray made it clear that he wanted to avoid any discussion of first principles: We were forming an alliance, not coalescing into a unified movement. As time went on, however, he began to understand that there might be other means for defending liberty than a theory of rights; and once, after dinner, he burst out in an explosion of enthusiasm: “I get it: When you talk about natural duties (e.g., of parents), you are also making a rational argument for protecting people from state intervention.”
I am not suggesting that Murray Rothbard was about to abandon his philosophy of rights. He did come to realize, however, that there is more than one way to protect human liberties.
Rothbard was at his best as a critic of socialism (including the socialism of the Republican Party), and even though I often disagreed with his language and theoretical approach, I rarely, if ever, was disturbed by his most radical proposals. Only small minds cannot conceive of privately owned roads, and one major Roman historian (Ernst Badian) has defended tax farming (private corporations that receive contracts for collecting taxes). We struck a bargain from the beginning: Although I believe that the common wealth is a natural and necessary part of human social life, I nevertheless agreed with Murray that about 90 percent of what modern states do is evil and destructive. “When we get to the last ten percent,” I said, “it will be time for us to quarrel.” The offer stands open to any libertarian who wants to work with us for the common good (if that phrase is not too “socialistic”).
Where Murray’s theories fell short was in describing the “good life,” whose pursuit is the natural and proper end of man. He took good things (such as conventional morality, the family, innocent pleasures) for granted and even understood that liberty can only thrive under certain cultural conditions. Where he failed—where all philosophers fail—was in not spelling out what those conditions were.
This is what made our collaboration so fruitful: Between his anarcho-libertarian critique of the state and Chronicles emphasis on the culture of Christendom, we had assembled (at least potentially) the fuse and the dynamite. We were waiting for circumstances to provide the match. And then he died, and so many of our gaudy visions fell to the ground in pieces, like the piñata at yesterday’s party.
Anyone who wants to understand the mind of Murray Rothbard, libertarian principles, and the history of the American right should buy, read, and take notes on this book.
[An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard, by Justin Raimondo (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books) 400 pp., $35.00]
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