M.N. Rothbard:
A Scholar in Defense of Freedom


A person examining the books and articles of Murray Rothbard without prior acquaintance with their author could not help wondering whether five or six prolific scholars shared the name "Murray Rothbard." Surely one man could not alone be the author of books on economic theory, political philosophy, economic history, political and diplomatic history, as well as hundreds of articles on contemporary politics and culture. Anyone who met Murray Rothbard, however, experienced no such bafflement at the scope of his immense intellectual productivity. His amazing mental quickness and energy made what would be a puzzle in almost anyone else a matter-of-course for him.

But if it is easy to account for Rothbard's vast output by noting his equally vast energy, another puzzle at once arises. Are we confronted here with a case of authorial "split-personality"? That is to say, is Rothbard, as an author best viewed as several different persons, each with little or no relation to the others? The case is quite to the contrary. Rothbard's literary output was unified by one underlying theme: his passionate devotion to individual liberty. He did not approach the study of society in a detached manner, like an entomologist studying some new and puzzling species of insect. He could apply to his own scholarly and political work the definition of the political preferred by a thinker of very different views, Carl Schmitt: it is the "struggle between friend and enemy"

But to see the underlying unity in Rothbard's work in the way just indicated presents yet another problem. Rothbard was a scholar: his works expressed not merely his personal opinions but also claimed to be objectively true. Given his strong commitment to the value of liberty, however, can the claim to objectivity be made good? It will be a principal task of this essay to respond to this question. It will not "give away the game" unduly to state at the outset that the answer triumphantly vindicates Rothbard. His devotion to freedom is in no way inconsistent with scholarly objectivity.

How can this be so? Aren't values inexpungibly a matter of personal taste? Will not any attempt to use scholarly work to advance one's values infect that work with a subjectivity alien to the canons of scholarship? Rothbard's answer to this challenge is twofold.

First, his advocacy of liberty was not a mere whim or matter of taste, like a preference for vanilla ice cream. As Rothbard points out in his most important work of political theory, Ethics of Liberty, the principle of self-ownership, i.e., that each human being owns his or her body, is a self-evident axiom. If one denies this, one must hold that either some people own others, and this is slavery; or one must hold that each person owns parts of everyone else. When one considers these options, is it not obvious that self-ownership is the right position to adopt? Thus, by this simple argument, of which Rothbard is the foremost modern exponent, the basic principle of liberty is established as the foundation of political ethics. (Attempts have been made, e.g., by Professor George Mavrodes of the University of Michigan, to challenge the exhaustiveness of the three alternatives. But if "ownership" is understood in the way Rothbard wishes, i.e., as control, his point is correct.)

Once again, though, an objection confronts us. Is Rothbard's axiom at all controversial? Who today explicitly supports slavery? If Rothbard's principle of self-ownership is just an emphatic way of stating that slavery is wrong, of what value is it in helping one to choose between credible political systems, none of which explicitly favors slavery? But the simplicity and non-controversial nature of the axiom is precisely the point.

Most political regimes, Rothbard demonstrated, use measures totally at variance with the rejection of slavery. Among them the military draft and compulsory taxation stand as two of the most notable.

Rothbard did not stop with a mere list of various measures that violate the self-ownership axiom. In Power and Market, he presented a brilliant critique of all forms of governmental coercion. He divided intervention into two types: triangular, in which "the invader compels a pair of people to make an exchange or prohibits them from doing so" (p.19), and binary, which is a coerced exchange between the invader and his victim (taxation is the principal example of this). With great persistence, he elaborated a detailed classification of the possible types of intervention that fall under each heading, in every case he showed the deleterious effects of such interference.

As one illustration of Rothbard in action, consider the following: "All government expenditure for resources is a form of consumption expenditure, in the sense that the money is spent on various items because the government officials so decree.... It is true that the officials do not consume the product directly, but their wish has altered the production pattern to make these goods, and therefore they may be called its "consumers" . . all talk of government "investment" is fallacious" (p. 65). A simple, even self-evident point, once Rothbard called it to our attention, but hardly very obvious to previous writers. Rothbard's consistent adherence to the self-ownership axiom, illustrated here and throughout Power and Market, permitted him to see a fundamental truth about government investment ignored by previous economists. And this is no isolated instance; the book teems with insights (e.g., Rothbard's original and exciting views on the incidence of taxation).

In an attempt to draw out fully the implications of the self-ownership principle, Rothbard did not confine himself to a classification of the various forms of intervention, however valuable that task alone would have been. He went further, seeking to subsume all governmental coercion under one heading, the use of the "political means". Following the German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer, and his American disciple Albert Jay Nock, he intended by this phrase the securing of wealth by means apart from production and voluntary exchange. Following Oppenheimer and Nock, he defined the State as "the organization of the political means." Since its activities, by definition, violate the self-ownership principle, as they interfere coercively with freely chosen actions, the State has no place in a free society.

To those not accustomed to libertarianism, particularly in its Rothbardian variety, this is a view liable to prove unsettling. But before discussing it, another topic must first be addressed. It was suggested previously that Rothbard has a double line of defense to the charge that his valuing of freedom compromises the objectivity of the results he claims to achieve. But so far only one of these lines, namely that his values are not subjective at all in any pejorative sense of that term, has been presented. The other argument is both simple and fundamental to Rothbard's thought.

Because one holds certain values, it does not follow that any theorizing that one does about men and society must depend on the truth of these values. (This holds even if the values in question are objectively true.) There is a division of labor in the intellectual realm, as well as in the economy, and just because a thinker holds certain beliefs about the way the world ought to be, he is not prevented from pursuing his investigations of economics and history in sovereign independence of these beliefs.

In holding that economics, in particular, is a value-free science, Rothbard for once was not very controversial among his fellow economists. But once more Rothbard, in his consideration of this topic transformed a seeming commonplace in a creative way, by perceiving implications beyond the grasp of his colleagues. In spite of their professed belief that economics is wertirei, many economists readily concocted supposedly non-value-dependent justifications for interference with the free market. These elaborate attempts to square the circle, by producing a value-free defense of social welfarist values, received their "well deserved comeuppance," in Booth Tarkington's phrase, in one of Rothbard's earliest, and best, essays, "Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics" Rothbard, with great gusto and equally great precision, showed that the entire field of welfare economics rests on the promise that interpersonal comparisons of utility are possible, a premise he sternly rejected as violative of "demonstrated preference." The latter is the doctrine, which he holds to be basic to scientifically sound economics, that preference is shown only in concrete action. Welfare economics, he showed, rests upon covert introductions of unsupported value premises in a fashion alien to proper method. The technical details of Rothbard's article cannot be dealt with here. Suffice it to say that he stood like a lion in the path of any future attempt to pit the discipline of welfare economics against the market.

Perhaps we have already said too much on the topic of Rothbard's view of values. But it was after all of decisive importance in his thought and we cannot leave it without stopping to present one further example of the subtlety of his position in this area. Rothbard had, as we have just shown, sharply delimited ethics, including his own views, from the science of economics. He also distinguished political philosophy from ethics as a whole. (Incidentally, it is, in the Trotskyist phrase, "no accident" that one of Rothbard's favorite words was "architectonic" He was one of the great classifiers and systematizers.) When, e.g., he deduced from his nonaggression axiom that people ought to be free to make any voluntary exchange they wish, his conclusion, like his premise, was part of a political philosophy. He made no attempt to argue that every voluntary exchange is morally desirable. It follows, Rothbard contended, from sound political principles that blackmail ought not to be legally prohibited: it is the sale of information for a price. As another example of the iron consistency with which Rothbard was willing to pursue his conclusions in the face of commonly held beliefs, parents should be under no legal obligation to care for their infant children.

Some would, at this point, throw up their hands in outraged horror. But one may hope that before doing so, anyone who reacts negatively will stay for the key issue. Rothbard in no way suggested that blackmail or parental neglect is morally permissible. His moral opinion of these practices was just the same as that of most people. But from the fact that an activity is immoral it does not follow that it ought to be legally banned. Indeed, if Rothbard is right about political morality, it will often be immoral to attempt to prohibit immoral activity. This seeming paradox, instead of undermining morality, actually serves as an important means for its defense. One has only to glance at any period of history to see that the main violator of morality has been what Nietzsche called "that coldest of all cold monsters, the State" Any doctrine, like Rothbard's that rigidly restricts the role of politics in the enforcement of morality can only be welcomed from the moral point of view. ("Rigidly restrict" rather than "eliminate" is correct here, since Rothbard wished to eliminate the State, not coercive action altogether. The private enforcement of rights is perfectly legitimate.)

Although Rothbard's views on the role of values in economics were of great importance, to stress them exclusively, as we have so far done, is a distortion. Murray Rothbard was much more than a political philosopher. Most fundamentally, he was an economist, specifically an Austrian economist. That is to say, he worked in the tradition of Carl Menger, Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk, and Ludwig von Mises, the latter his own revered teacher.

His greatest work in Austrian economic theory is Man, Economy, and State, published in 1962. Rothbard produced this magnum opus of close to one thousand pages on a grant from the Volcker Fund in the late 1950's: few groups have done so much as that foundation did in a few short years to advance the cause of classical liberalism.

Before turning to a consideration of this distinguished work, we need to confront a preliminary question. With that justification can the claim be advanced that Man, Economy, and State is in fact a great work? After all, the present writer, it should be hardly a secret by now, can scarcely be termed a neutral observer on the subject of Murray Rothbard. For the preliminary thrust of a response to this, let us consult the world of the man whom most Austrians regard as the greatest twentieth-century economist, Ludwig von Mises. Reviewing the book in the New Individualist Review for Autumn, 1962, Mises termed it "an epochal contribution to the general science of human action, praxeology, and its practically most important and up-to-now best elaborated past, economics" (p. 4I). (Incidentally, Mises, as any student of his work knows, was notoriously a tough critic; for him to say this about a book is genuinely remarkable.)

But the main response to any challenge to the stature of the book must lie in a detailed examination of its contents. On opening the book, one is immediately struck by a similarity in method as regards Rothbard's work in ethics and economics. Just as he attempted in political philosophy to deduce as much as possible from a single axiom (the principle of selfownership), so in economics Rothbard attempted to deduce the whole corpus of economics from the axiom that human beings act, along with a few supplementary postulates of equally unchallengeable character. Economics, like ethics, is a science of necessary truths, and its method is a priori rather than empirical.

But, as we have said before, Rothbard was much more than a methodologist. His treatise contains a number of important innovations in Austrian theory. To begin with, Mises pointed out one such feature in the aforementioned review. He states: "In a few brilliant lines he [Rothbard] demolishes the main device of mathematical economists, viz., the fallacious idea of substituting the concepts of mutual determination and equilibrium for the allegedly outdated concept of cause and effect" (p.40).

Lest this be catalogued as simply another "philosophical point," it is easy to find many straightforward advances in pure economic theory in the book. For one thing, he argued that Mises' classic demonstration of the impossibility of economic calculation under socialism can be generalized to show that there are limits to the size a private firm can attain on the market. "For every capital good, there must be a definite market in which firms buy and sell that good. It is obvious that this economic law sets a definite maximum to the relative size of any particular firm on the free market....Because of this law, there can never be One Big Cartel over the whole economy or merger, until One Big Firm owns all the productive assets in the economy" (p. 548, emphasis in original).

Another fundamental innovation occurs in a related area, the theory of monopoly price. In Rothbard's view, the notion of a monopoly price on the free market is founded on illusion. "In the market, there is no discernible, identifiable competitive price, and therefore there is no way of distinguishing, even conceptually, any given price as a "monopoly price" (p. 605). He advanced a quite similar criticism of the monopolistic competition theories of Robinson and Chamberlain. "The monopolistic competition theorist contrasts this ideal firm [i.e., one without influence on its price] with those firms that have some influence on the determination of price and are therefore in some degree 'monopolistic.' Yet it is obvious that the demand curve to a firm cannot be perfectly elastic throughout" (p.633).

There is a notable parallel between Rothbard's point here and his criticism of conventional welfare economics. In the latter, he rejected the resort to hypothetical preference scales, refusing to budge from the firm ground of the way people in fact behave. The case is quite similar for monopoly prices: he wanted to be shown an actual monopoly price, not some hypothetical construct. It is because, in his view, this demand cannot be met that he rejected the entire notion of a monopoly price on the free market. More generally, we can see the same personality trait at work throughout Rothbard's work in economic theory. The constant insistence on "apodictic" truth (another favorite phrase of his) manifests the personality of a man who demanded ironclad standards of rigor in argument. He was not satisfied with guesses and "might be's"; he could easily adopt as his own Bishop Butler's "Everything is what it is, and not another thing". Unfortunately, Rothbard's demanding standards of rigor in argument have proved too much for most of his fellow economists. But there was a happy aspect to their failure: it allowed Rothbard the chance to demonstrate another of his manifold talents.

He was a formidable critic of the arguments of other economists. The relentless quality of his pursuit of his adversaries through every twist and turn of their arguments resembled the way in which A. E. Houseman used to destroy, in his famous prefaces, classical scholars incapable of his own precision. Consider, e.g., Rothbard's demolition of the view of the productivity of capital held by Earl Rolph, a follower of Frank Knight. After a careful analysis of Rolph's pure marginal productivity theory, he adjured the hapless professor: "Let Rolph picture a production system, atomized or integrated as the case may be, with no one making the advances of present goods (money capital) that he denies exist. And as the laborers and landowners work on the intermediate product for years without pay, until the finished product is ready for the consumer, let Rolph exhort them not to worry, since they have been implicitly paid simultaneously as they worked. For this is the logical implication of the Knight-Rolph position" (p. 433).

We must resist the temptation to go on for page after page giving further examples of Rothbard's polemical skill. But one instance cannot be passed over. Keynesian economics is no recondite theory of interest to a few academics. On the contrary, it has had enormous impact as the pseudo-justification for all manner of interference with the free market. All the more important, then, was Rothbard's crushing refutation of the entire Keynesian system. He remarked, for example, about the much-vaunted notion of liquidity preference: "Keynesians, however, attribute liquidity preference, not to general uncertainty, but to the specific uncertainty of future bond prices. Surely this is a highly superficial and limiting view" (p. 692). One wishes that every student of economics would study the anti-Keynesian section of Man, Economy and State.

In stressing Rothbard's abilities as a critic of economic doctrines, we have been so far in danger of doing him an injustice. His critical acumen was by no means restricted to the confines of economic theory. If one examines the last few chapters of Ethics of Liberty, one will discover a formidable philosophical critic. He raised provocative objections to Sir Isaiah Berlin's distinction between positive and negative liberty; poked holes in the system of the "rule of law," elaborated by Friedrich von Hayek, here following the pioneering articles of his friend Ronald Hamowy; and did not shrink from challenging the overly utilitarian views of Mises himself. The great Austrian economist had imagined himself to have arrived at a value-free reason for opposing measures such as minimum wage laws. Mises readily demonstrated that such devices would have deleterious economic effects. Thus he thought that, from the viewpoint of its own advocates, he could show that interventionism ought to be rejected. But as Rothbard pointed out, not everyone in fact shares the motive of wishing to promote economic welfare. Mises failed to see that not everyone was so kindhearted as he was. Incidentally, in view of Rothbard's criticisms of Hayek, all the more significant is the latter's remark about Rothbard's work as a methodologist: "Professor Rothbard's writings are undoubtedly most helpful contributions to a great tradition" (Foreword to Rothbard, Individualism and the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, p. x.)

Lest we once more give a misleading impression, however, we must return to Rothbard's work as an economist. One very distinctive aspect of Rothbard's views has so far gone unmentioned. He was a specialist in monetary theory, with very definite views on that subject. He was a firm advocate of the gold standard: indeed, he was probably as well known to the general public, through his speeches and articles on this subject, for his support for the unrestricted gold standard as he was for his general belief in the free market. Particularly noteworthy in this connection is his famous pamphlet What Has Government Done To Our Money? It would be difficult to think of any other work by an economist which has done as much to popularize the cause of the gold standard as this one.

As one would expect from a theorist of Rothbard's stature, his work in monetary theory was not confined to popularization of the views of others. He was, on the contrary, concerned to show that his monetary policies were firmly grounded in the Austrian economic theory he supported. Specifically, the money regression theorem of Menger and Mises shows that money can only arise as a commodity: it is no mysterious substance called into existence by government fiat. Once more we see Rothbard's rejection of the unsubstantiated hypothetical, in this case the assertion that money's value is an occult quality arising entirely apart from free exchange. Money to him was a very definite thing. As one might anticipate from someone with this attitude, Rothbard looked with a jaundiced eye upon the legitimacy of barkers' claims to create money through fractional reserve banking. This is once more for him an appeal to a process unfounded in the real world of exchange. For him the claim to create money ex nihilo amounts to little but fraud. He therefore called for one hundred percent reserve banking.

Rothbard's views on money were not, however, restricted to a theoretical argument. If, as he claims, economic theory is apodictically true, the economist who uses correct theory in an effort to explain the events of the actual world, both contemporary and historical, will have a formidable tool at his disposal. Of course, the use of correct theory does not mean that an historian's account is true a priori: the events of the real world, as opposed to theories about them, are contingent matters of fact. An historian, besides possessing the correct theory, must also master the techniques of empirical research.

Rothbard passes this test with flying colors. His doctorate was in the field of economic history: his mentor was Joseph Dorfman, the author of the multi-volume The Economic Mind in American Civilization. (Rothbard received his doctorate from Columbia University in 1948.) His first book, The Panic of 1819, already exemplified his remarkable combination of economic theory and historical research. By using the tool of Austrian business cycle theory, Rothbard illuminated an episode in American history previously misunderstood by historians. His theoretical scaffolding is even more explicit in his foremost contributions to economic history, America's Great Depression. Rothbard began his great work with a careful exposition of business-cycle theory, which he then deployed to great effect in order to show that the U.S. Depression of the 1930's originated through overexpansion of bank credit and was exacerbated through constant government meddling. Insisting once more upon seeing things "as they actually were" in Ranke's great phrase, he argued that Herbert Hoover, in spite of much belief to the contrary, was an ardent supporter of interventionism. His efforts to deal with Depression were in point of fact precursors of the New Deal. (This view of Hoover was a rarity when Rothbard first advanced it, though later historians have taken it up.)

Once more we are in danger of taking an unduly narrow perspective on Rothbard's work. His historical scholarship was not limited to the depiction of past economic events. He has shown himself to be a master of narrative political history in his multi-volume history of the United States from the colonial period through the adoption of the Constitution, Conceived in Liberty. (Four volumes have so far appeared and a fifth has been completed.) Besides exhibiting Rothbard's grasp of a frighteningly large body of historical detail, the work manifests his customary love of liberty and willingness to take on "sacred cows." He reverses, e.g., the favorable view of Puritanism promulgated by Perry Miller and his many disciples, on the grounds that the Puritans were enemies of liberty. George Washington for Rothbard is no heroic figure but an inept military strategist. It is Conceived in Liberty that, perhaps more than any other work, illustrates Rothbard's insatiable curiosity and interest in the byways of history.

Surely one would think at this point that we cannot repeat our now tiresome litany that we are so far in danger of taking an overly limited view of Murray Rothbard. Yet such is in fact the case. We have as yet left out one of the most essential points about him. He was not just a scholar, albeit a scholar with strong views about ethics and politics. He was also an indefatigable political activist and played a principal role in founding the contemporary libertarian movement. Rothbard had early absorbed the lessons of the free market, and he soon saw that their consistent application demanded the removal altogether of "our enemy, the State". But theory was not enough: groups needed to be organized to publicize the libertarian outlook and to secure as much as possible, the adoption of its programs. Rothbard accordingly played a key role in the founding of the Libertarian Party and occupied an unparalleled, if at times controversial, position of influence within its ranks down to the present day. Few if any contemporary libertarian activists have not at one time at least been "Rothbardians." He was a major influence in promoting libertarian scholarship, through groups such as the Center for Libertarian Studies and the Mises Institute.

The details of Rothbard's activities in the libertarian movement are best left to another place. We cannot pass over altogether, however, what has probably been his most influential and innovative contribution to libertarianism. Using his unrivaled knowledge of both economics and history, he showed how a synthesis of the free market principles of Austrian economics and the individualist anarchist tradition of the nineteenth century can be constructed. The result at his hands has been an appealing and powerful program of political reconstruction. Rothbard had, also, original ideas as to the proper strategy a libertarian organization ought to pursue, but unfortunately space does not permit their discussion here.

We have thus far tried to present a picture of Rothbard as a scholar and activist. But what of Rothbard the man? To present his personality to those who did not know him is a task beyond the powers of the present writer. But two traits of his personality stand out, besides the intellectual energy and curiosity we have already sufficiently stressed. One was his love of life. He could apply to himself his epithet for H. L. Mencken: "The Joyous Libertarian". His conversation revealed an insatiable interest and enjoyment in the world: anyone who talked to him was apt to receive an enthusiastic analysis of German Baroque churches, the latest speculations in cosmology and evolutionary biology, the "real story" behind the Korean Airlines Crash, etc. It is difficult to think of a subject in which Rothbard did not display some enthusiastic interest. Even when he felt called upon to direct his immense polemical drive against someone taking what he thinks an aberrant course, there was always a certain enjoyment, not to say glee, present in his remarks.

Reference to polemics suggests the second personality trait essential to gaining an idea of Rothbard's personality. He was someone who believed with the hero of Ibsen's Brand that "the Devil is compromise!" To him, his libertarian principles were a matter not to be trifled with, and he did not hesitate to take up the cudgels against anyone who in his view abandoned the proper path. His doing so, at times cost him power and money, but he always stood by his beliefs above all else. (One can imagine, e.g., what position in the academic world Rothbard's immense talent would have secured for him had he been willing to adopt a political position more popular among his fellow economists.) Like another economist of controversial views, he could say of himself: "The maxim of the great Florentine is mine: 'Follow your own course, and let the people say what they will.'"

* * * * *

David Gordon is senior fellow of the Mises Institute and editor of The Mises Review.


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