It is time to reminisce. It is now just a little over 5 years since Murray Newton Rothbard died. He passed away on Saturday, the 7th of January, 1995. Perhaps we can all take comfort from the fact that Murray is up there, somewhere, looking down upon us, cheering us on, in our efforts to follow the path he blazed so bravely.
Murray’s untimely passing was the end of an era. An only child, he left his beloved wife Joey, a sister-in-law, two nephews, and a few distant relatives. But what he lacked, numerically, in terms of blood relations is perhaps offset by the hundreds, no, the thousands of people who saw themselves as part of his family: his intellectual and moral children.
He was a giant in the intellectual fight for free enterprise. His notion of the free market economy was a radical one, which lead him to criticize such people as Milton Friedman, George Stigler, James Buchanan, Ronald Coase, and Friedrich A. Hayek — erstwhile champions of the market — for their many compromises, as he saw it, with socialism. For example, he disputed Friedman’s negative income tax and school voucher plan, dismissing the former as welfare and the latter as a government intrusion into what should be a full free market in education. Unlike the reformists Stigler, and Bork, he called for the total elimination of anti trust law. What with the Microsoft case now threatening our economic welfare, Murray’s words are particularly prescient.
His contributions to economics alone are remarkable. As Dean of the Austrian School of Economics — a school more uncompromising in its defence of the free market that its more well known rival, the Chicago School — Rothbard is best known for his books Man, Economy and State, Power and Market, and America’s Great Depression. Ranging over almost every category of the dismal science — from utility theory to business cycles, from monopoly to public goods, from economic history to the history of economic thought, from monetary to trade, from banking to methodology and much much more — Rothbard made a significant mark in each.
But this was only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to his chosen field of study, he was active in practically every realm of humane study known to man. As a revisionist historian, he revised our thinking on such disparate subjects as the American Revolution, U.S. war policy and the progressive era. In the latter field he showed that regulatory agencies were set up not to protect the consumer from rapacious businessmen, but rather these self same rapacious businessmen from competition. As a sociologist, he expanded our knowledge of cults, particularly the one established by Ayn Rand. As a political scientist, he made original contributions to the theory of libertarianism, anarchism and free speech.
As a philosopher, he addressed himself to freedom and natural rights. His most notable books in this field include Power and Market, For a New Liberty, and The Ethics of Liberty. As a theoretician of law, he challenged preconceptions on punishment, property rights and environmentalism. In each and every one of these fields, he did not shrink from controversy; rather, he took on the leading exponents of the advocates of regulation, imperialism, statism, liberalism, etc. In addition to his writing, he also served as editor of The Journal of Libertarian Studies and The Review of Austrian Economics, directly mentoring a whole generation of scholars involved in these issues.
Nor does his gigantic scholarly output even exhaust his contribution. In addition to writing dozens of books and hundreds of journal articles, he also appeared voluminously in the more popular literature. As well, there was the lesser known “free market movement” literature. From magazines and newsletters such as the Rothbard Rockwell Report, to Free Market, to Austrian Economics Newsletter, to The Libertarian Forum, he was actively involved, on a monthly and even weekly basis, with the current events of his time. Who can ever forget “Mr. First Nighter,” Rothbard as movie critic?
Nor can we ignore the institutions he was instrumental in helping set up: the Center for Libertarian Studies, the annual series of Libertarian Scholars Conferences and the Mises Institute. Had he accomplished what he did in any one of these fields of endeavor, his reputation as a scholar of note would have been secure. The fact that he did so in such a myriad of intellectual occupations is nothing short of truly astounding.
In any just world, he would have long ago been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, and similar accolades in every other scholarly field he addressed. He would have taught at a prestigious graduate school. His writings would have graced all of the leading academic journals. In the present one, however, this was not to be. He languished for years teaching engineers at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, and only for the last decade at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
For Rothbard was an odd man out throughout every aspect of his multitudinous career. In an economic profession increasingly devoted to mathematicalization and scientism, he harked back to an older logical argumentation and literary tradition. He was out of step with the socialism, the interventionism, the finding of “market failure” at every hand so beloved of his fellow economists. He similarly marched to a different drummer amongst “court” historians who justified militarism, amongst philosophers busily aggrandizing egalitarianism, amongst sociologists doing only God knows what, amongst political scientists weaving apologia for the centralization of power, and amongst lawyers given to legal positivism.
In the eyes of critical commentators, he harbored inconsistent viewpoints. Free market in economics, anti war in foreign policy, and profoundly freedom oriented in personal liberties, he saw these positions all as part of a seamless web of liberty.
I first heard of Murray Rothbard in 1965 when I was studying for my Ph.D. in economics at Columbia University. At that time a newly minted libertarian, I had never even heard of Austrianism (which speaks volumes of graduate education at that time). He was described, variously, as an anarchist, as a person who accepted the veracity of the synthetic apriori (an argument claiming that we can have absolutely true knowledge of the real world), and as an opponent of the U.S. in the war in Vietnam. Naturally, I wanted nothing to do with such a maniac, and refused an offer to meet with him.
Happily, several months later, I was argued out of this position, and consented to beard the lion in his den. Boy, was I surprised. I had expected some lean, mean muscle man, say, about 6’2″ and 180 lbs., toting a machine gun in one hand and a bomb in the other. Instead, I met this little fat man who kept up a rapid fire of positively wicked jokes; the danger, I soon percieved, was not of going to jail or being blown up, but rather of dying from stomach cramps brought on by uncontrollable laughter. William F. Buckely Jr. once called him “the joyous libertarian” and no truer words were ever uttered. Instead of the armory I expected, his apartment was chock full of floor to ceiling bookcases, and there were books piled up seemingly everywhere else.
In other ways, however, Murray seemed to be just the sort of person my parents had always warned me about. He kept odd hours, and soon had me staying up to 5:00 a.m., playing, of all things, the game Risk, and cackling on about how only anarchists could really enjoy the game, since they were the only ones who really didn’t want to take over the whole world. As well, there was Joey’s magnificent cooking. Under the tutelage of the Rothbards I soon began to put on some weight. When I worried about this, Murray told me that “every calorie says ‘yea’ to life.” What could I say?
Then, there were the political alliances. In the early days, they were with left wingers, who opposed the war. I’ll never forget the time that we in Murray’s little band united with Progressive Labor vis a vis the Trotskyists under the Peace and Freedom banner. Under the terms of the agreement, we had to vote for rent control and they had to vote for the gold standard. There were a lot of puzzled Stalinists around that day, as well as a few libertarians. In the more recent epoch, with the passing of the Soviet menace, and with the U.S. taking an increasing multiculural, feminist and egalitarian turn, his alliances were with paleo conservatives, such as those involved with Chronicles magazine.
After knowing Murray for a short time in the mid 1960s, I had changed my mind on quite a few things. How did it happen? I would spend an afternoon reading something of Murray’s, for example, Man Economy and State; suddenly, I realized that I would see the great man that very night. A sort of cognitive dissonance would seize me. Was I, insignificant worm that I was, really going to see the great man that night? It seemed impossible. Somehow, I had to make myself worthy of such a great honor.
The only way I could do this was by vociferously attacking him on every point of disagreement. In the early days, there were quite a few. How could he have a picture of this guy von Mises on his door? Didn’t he realize that Mises favored government subsidies for operas (which turns out not to be true)? How could we be sure that demand curves always sloped downward? What about Giffen goods? How could he say that monopolies didn’t misallocate resources? I could show him lots of geometrical diagrams that proved the very opposite. Everyone knew that the great depression was caused by the fed allowing the stock of money to fall in the thirties, not by increasing it in the twenties. How could he take the opposite view?
I fear, intense young lad that I was at that time, that I was a bit of a trial for him. Somehow, he put up with me. It was only many years later that I realized he only wanted to be friends. He would like me even if I didn’t pester him incessantly on every jot and tittle of learning I could think of. But how could you be friends with someone you admired so much? Full of hubris, I once called Murray, wanting to compare productivity levels, one writer with another. Forget about quality; I knew there was no contest there. I just wanted to see how my best day so far (23 double spaced typewritten pages) stacked up against his average output. His exact response to my query as to his typical daily productivity — I remember this as if it had occurred yesterday — was: “Mhrech, mhrech! Who keeps count? Leave me alone.”
But I kept after him, and he knew he was dealing with a world class nudge, so finally he relented and told me: “Eight pages per hour.” I knew from others that he rarely edited his own material; straight from his typewriter to the published version. At last I had an explanation for his monumental output (other than the hypothesis that there were actually a platoon of Murrays running around): hard hard work, for many many hours, for many many years, all at breathtaking speed.
Murray N. Rothbard lived life to the fullest, and way, way beyond. He had friends and admirers throughout the world. He was not only my intellectual father; this applies, in my opinion, to pretty much everyone else now toiling in the vineyards of the freedom philosophy, whether they know it or not; whether they acknowledge it or not; whether they appreciate it or not. He spoke out, his entire life, against coercion in all of its forms. He made not only the economic, but even more importantly, the moral case for laissez faire capitalism. He bore witness to the truth, using the most eloquent writing style ever known to the economics profession. True, the world never paid him his due, neither in prestige nor coin. But for all that he led a happy life. What else can we conclude from his many years of effervescent bubblyness?
His passing is a tremendous blow to the fight for freedom and free enterprise. In the movie “The Godfather,” when this worthy was shot it was said that his Mafia Family lost 50% of its power, despite having hundreds of armed men under its control, and hundreds of millions of dollars in its coffers.
Something similar applies in this case. Thanks in no small part to his efforts, there are now, literally, thousands of libertarian scholars, and hundreds of Austrian economists. Yet, with his passing, we have in my opinion lost a large part of our ability to move the world in a better direction.
All the more reason, then, for all of us dedicating ourselves, anew, to this purpose. Murray is now up there somewhere, looking down on us and rooting us on, while at the same time delighting himself with the human condition. We can’t let him down.