Let me start by saying what this article is not. It is not going to be a place to debate Murray Rothbard’s anarchism. Or his stance on foreign policy. Or his various, changing stances on libertarian strategy. (In fact, all of these stances put together constitute a very small fraction of the totality of his thought.) Suffice it to say, I had and have profound differences with Rothbard. But there comes a point at which it is important to express one’s own appreciation: Murray Rothbard was one of my mentors and made a crucial impact on my own intellectual development. And, quite frankly, he was a teacher to many, many libertarian writers—including those who, today, are among his fiercest critics.
I discuss my own relationship with Rothbard in an essay entitled “How I Became a Libertarian“:
While an undergraduate, I met Murray Rothbard. I was a founding member of the NYU Chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society. We got Rothbard to speak before the society several times. I struck up a cordial relationship with Murray, and learned much from my conversations with him. He was a real character, very funny, and quite entertaining as a speaker. When I went into the undergraduate history honors program, Murray gave me indispensable guidance. … In later years, I don’t think Murray was too thrilled with some of the criticisms I made of his work, but he was always cordial and supportive. I’m only sorry that Murray didn’t live to see my published work on Rand, which greatly interested him, or my Total Freedom, which devotes half of its contents to a discussion of his important legacy.
Here, let me provide a small hint of the extent of that legacy.
Rothbard, Austrian Economist
Rothbard’s reconstruction of the Misesian approach to Austrian economics can be found in such monumental masterpieces as Man, Economy, and State, and Power and Market. (Both of these books are online here.) Additional writings have been collected in hefty volumes such as The Logic of Action One: Method, Money, and the Austrian School, and The Logic of Action Two: Applications and Criticism from the Austrian School. Among his important essays are those on “praxeology” (the “science of human action”), which replace the Kantian presuppositions of Mises’s approach with a firmer Aristotelian foundation; “utility and welfare economics,” which question many presuppositions in standard neoclassical theory; extensions of Austrian monopoly and business cycle theory; and, finally, work on the history of economic thought, including two path-breaking volumes: An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Volume I: Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, and Volume II: Classical Economics. (Many of these works are available in PDF form here.)
Rothbard, Historian and Social Theorist
Aside from his books on the history of thought, Rothbard authored many significant works on various aspects of American history: Conceived in Liberty, a colossal four-volume work on the American colonial and revolutionary eras (a fifth volume remains unpublished); The Panic of 1819 and America’s Great Depression, seminal works on two of the most important events in the history of money and banking, and superb applications of Austrian theory to real historical-economic phenomena; and important essays on the genesis of the welfare-warfare state in the Wilson and FDR eras, including those published in an anthology co-edited with Ronald Radosh, entitled A New History of Leviathan.
Additionally, Rothbard’s works in the area of social philosophy and social theory remain worthwhile and challenging, insofar as they resurrect a specifically libertarian view of “class conflict” and structural crisis in contemporary political economy, as well as a radical neo-Lockean view of individual rights: Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature; For a New Liberty; and The Ethics of Liberty.
Rothbard and Rand
Rothbard himself, not unlike other passionate thinkers of his generation, had many personal and intellectual squabbles and breaks with various people. One of those breaks was with Ayn Rand. I’m not interested in exploring here the specifics of that break, which have been beaten to death in many forums and books. The break must have been bitter because Rothbard refused, for many years thereafter, to give much credit to the Randian impact on his thought. But it’s not as if Rothbard never acknowledged that debt. As Larry Sechrest and I point out in the forthcoming introduction to “Ayn Rand Among the Austrians,” a Spring 2005 Journal of Ayn Rand Studies symposium (the second of two in honor of the Ayn Rand Centenary):
At first, Rand had developed a collegial relationship with Mises’s protégé, Murray Rothbard. Though they had met after the publication of The Fountainhead, their steady intellectual engagement did not begin until 1954. Early on, Rothbard told one of his libertarian correspondents, Richard Cornuelle, of his “particularly depressing” experiences with Rand’s inner circle, and profound reservations about some of her claims. Yet, in 1957, upon reading Atlas Shrugged, he expressed to Rand in a personal letter his view that it was “the greatest novel ever written,” one with “a completely integrated rational ethic, rational epistemology, rational psychology, and rational politics, all integrated one with the other.” He had even compared Rand’s achievements in Atlas Shrugged to those of Mises in Human Action. Rothbard went on to defend Rand’s novel in print in Commonweal magazine (1957) and in National Review (1958), and he attended the first courses offered by the Nathaniel Branden Lectures (which developed into NBI). As an anarchocapitalist, Rothbard certainly rejected Rand’s concept of limited government, but he nevertheless told Rand’s biographer, Barbara Branden, that he was “‘in agreement basically with all her philosophy’ and that it was she who convinced him of the theory of natural rights which his books uphold.”
One can disagree, and disagree strongly, with various aspects of Rothbard’s work, and still be awestruck by the sheer depth and breadth, quantity and quality, of his remarkable output as a writer and thinker.
I certainly had my own serious differences with Rothbard’s approach, which I outline extensively in my book, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. In that book, I argue that Rothbard forges dualistic distinctions between personal morality and political ethics, cultural specificity and libertarian ethos, abstract normative political principles and historical context, voluntarism and coercion, and, finally, market and state. I take issue with his defense of anarchism. I take issue with his ideological turn, late in life, toward the “paleoconservative” or “paleolibertarian” model.
But his work deserves critical and respectful engagement from all those who are serious about the creation and sustenance of a free society.