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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Reading List: An Enemy of the State

Raimondo, Justin. An Enemy of the State. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000. ISBN 978-1-57392-809-0.
Had Murray Rothbard been a man of the Left, he would probably be revered today as one of the towering intellects of the twentieth century. Certainly, there was every reason from his origin and education to have expected him to settle on the Left: the child of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, he grew up in a Jewish community in New York City where, as he later described it, the only question was whether one would join the Communist Party or settle for being a fellow traveller. He later remarked that, “I had two sets of Communist Party uncles and aunts, on both sides of my family.” While studying for his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University in the 1940s and '50s, he was immersed in a political spectrum which ranged from “Social Democrats on the ‘right’ to Stalinists on the left”.

Yet despite the political and intellectual milieu surrounding him, Rothbard followed his own compass, perhaps inherited in part from his fiercely independent father. From an early age, he came to believe individual liberty was foremost among values, and that based upon that single desideratum one could deduce an entire system of morality, economics, natural law, and governance which optimised the individual's ability to decide his or her own destiny. In the context of the times, he found himself aligned with the Old Right: the isolationist, small government, and hard money faction of the Republican Party which was, in the Eisenhower years, approaching extinction as “conservatives” acquiesced to the leviathan “welfare-warfare state” as necessary to combat the Soviet menace. Just as Rothbard began to put the foundations of the Old Right on a firm intellectual basis, the New Right of William F. Buckley and his “coven of ex-Communists” at National Review drove the stake through that tradition, one of the first among many they would excommunicate from the conservative cause as they defined it.

Rothbard was a disciple of Ludwig von Mises, and applied his ideas and those of other members of the Austrian school of economics to all aspects of economics, politics, and culture. His work, both scholarly and popular, is largely responsible for the influence of Austrian economics today. (Here is a complete bibliography of Rothbard's publications.)

Rothbard's own beliefs scarcely varied over his life, and yet as the years passed and the political tectonic plates shifted, he found himself aligned with the Old Right, the Ayn Rand circle (from which he quickly extricated himself after diagnosing the totalitarian tendencies of Rand and the cult-like nature of her followers), the nascent New Left (before it was taken over by communists), the Libertarian Party, the Cato Institute, and finally back to the New Old Right, with several other zigs and zags along the way. In each case, Rothbard embraced his new allies and threw himself into the cause, only to discover that they were more interested in factionalism, accommodation with corrupt power structures, or personal ambition than the principles which motivated him.

While Rothbard's scholarly publications alone dwarf those of many in the field, he was anything but an ivory tower academic. He revelled in the political fray, participating in campaigns, writing speeches and position papers, formulating strategy, writing polemics aimed at the general populace, and was present at the creation of several of the key institutions of the contemporary libertarian movement. Fully engaged in the culture, he wrote book and movie reviews, satire, and commentary on current events. Never discouraged by the many setbacks he experienced, he was always a “happy warrior”, looking at the follies of the society around him with amusement and commenting wittily about them in his writings. While eschewing grand systems and theories of history in favour of an entirely praxeology-based view of the social sciences (among which he counted economics, rejecting entirely the mathematically-intense work of pseudoscientists who believed one could ignore human action when analysing the aggregate behaviour of human actors), he remained ever optimistic that liberty would triumph in the end simply because it works better, and will inevitably supplant authoritarian schemes which constrain the human potential.

This is a well-crafted overview of Rothbard's life, work, and legacy by an author who knew and worked with Rothbard in the last two decades of his career. Other than a coruscating animus toward Buckley and his minions, it provides a generally even-handed treatment of the many allies and adversaries (often the same individuals at different times) with which Rothbard interacted over his career. Chapter 7 provides an overview and reading guide to Rothbard's magisterial History of Economic Thought, which is so much more—essentially a general theory of the social sciences—that you'll probably be persuaded to add it to your reading list.

Posted at April 30, 2011 22:07