Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Price of Being a Pioneer

That Galileo, Kepler, Bacon, Jung, Pascal, and Descartes – all men of the 17C – are better known than their elders in science is the kind of wrong that happens in all fields of culture.  The pioneers, the first who struggle out of the established systems and who form new and useful conceptions, appear only half right, incomplete, and their names stay remote.  But they are perhaps more to be cherished than those who come after, who clear off the debris and offer a neater, more full-blown view.
Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence

Barzun identifies several 17th century individuals who built upon foundations that came before, in many cases during the Middle Ages.  Many, but not all, of the pioneers from the earlier time are lost to us, although their work influences us even today.  Barzun suggests that none of these later, more well-known, men of genius stood on their own.

Barzun also recognizes that these earlier pioneers often were not quite right, in some cases incomplete.  I wonder how it could be otherwise – when truly charting a new and unknown course, is it even conceivable that every step, every conclusion, remains valid after subsequent developments in the field?  Yet, there would be no “field” in which to discover error without these pioneers.

This is a post about Murray Rothbard, unquestionably a pioneer.  There is no developed body of libertarian thought without him.  Separately, no one made Austrian economics more readable for the layman than he did.  This is to say nothing of the significant work he did in revisionist history and power-elite analysis.

I will focus on two aspects of his work, the aspects that I believe best fit the description above by Barzun: the development of libertarian thought and the work he did to make Austrian economics accessible to the layman.

Libertarian Thought

I wonder if there even is libertarian thought had Rothbard not existed.  I don’t mean concepts about liberty, natural law, property rights, etc.  These all existed in bits and pieces before Rothbard was born.  I mean an integrated and well-developed philosophy; work that explains the theory, practical application, and how to get there from here.  When are interim steps toward liberty appropriate?  Rothbard offers the answer.  The immorality of nuclear weapons – not only in use but even in possession?  Rothbard applies consistent libertarian theory to answer the question.  Developing a consistent application of the non-aggression principle to a wide variety of circumstances?  Rothbard has likely covered whatever subject you have in mind.

Do you have a question regarding pretty much any libertarian topic?  Odds are high that Rothbard has already addressed it.  Do you want to point someone to a readable book on the topic?  Odds are high that Rothbard wrote it.

Accessible Austrian Economics

Admit it: Mises can be tough to read.  How many people would slog through The Theory of Money and Credit as their introduction to this school?  (I tried; it didn’t work.)

Pick up anything by Rothbard on the subject and it reads about as easily as your favorite novel.  Human Action too tough?  Try Man, Economy, and State.  This is to say nothing about his countless works applying Austrian economics to events of both his time and through history.

I would be remiss to not mention Henry Hazlitt in this regard – he wrote so wonderfully well and also brought Austrian economic analysis to the layman.  But no one offered a meaningful fraction of the output and breadth that Rothbard did.

What’s the Point?

Rothbard is often a favored target, a whipping boy for some in the libertarian and Austrian communities.  In the broad libertarian community, he is derided as a purist, not practical.  To some Austrians, his views on fractional reserve banking are derided – and used to justify marginalizing him as an economist.

I return to the quote from Barzun:

The pioneers, the first who struggle out of the established systems and who form new and useful conceptions, appear only half right, incomplete, and their names stay remote. 

Thankfully (due to the efforts of another pioneer), Rothbard’s name has not stayed remote.  I myself have disagreement with Rothbard on a handful of subjects; I feel quite settled that my conclusions are correct and his are not – of course, I could be wrong.

But they are perhaps more to be cherished than those who come after, who clear off the debris and offer a neater, more full-blown view.

Even with my disagreements, I stand in awe and respect of the man and his work.  He was a pioneer in these two fields – and this says nothing of the work he did to advance the ball on many other subjects.  Rothbard is to be cherished far more than any who have come after – without Rothbard, there would be no “after”; virtually no one to offer criticism. 

I feel on firm ground to suggest that there would be no libertarian movement as we have come to know it if Rothbard did not exist – perhaps, more generously, his four-plus decades of work advanced the science by a century or two.  In other words, our time would not yet enjoy this knowledge.

As to Austrian economics, whatever his critics might offer, what cannot be taken away is that Rothbard has done more to bring more people to this school than any other individual alive or dead. Perhaps this is why they criticize.

We have seen the recent explosion of interest in both Austrian and libertarian concepts, driven by the fortuitous confluence of Ron Paul, the internet, and the financial calamity of 2007 / 2008.  Without Murray Rothbard, while the same events would have transpired, it is easy to imagine there would have been no cohesive message with which to make sense of it.

Bernard of Chartres, in the twelfth century, had exclaimed: “We are dwarfs who have climbed on the shoulders of giants.”  He nonetheless concluded that, thus carried by the Ancients, he could “see farther than they could”.

Is it surprising that aspects of both libertarian thought and Austrian economics have advanced beyond Rothbard, in some cases calling into question some of his conclusions?  To expect otherwise is to defy both progress and logic.  Yet all of the critics are truly dwarfs – many not even able to admit that they are standing on the shoulders of a giant – when compared to this man.  For every possible criticism, there are 100 reasons to be grateful.

The errors or disagreements make the man even more remarkable.  Through these, we are reminded he was merely human.

As Barzun offers, this is why we cherish such pioneers.

1 comment:

  1. I started with the first 200 pages of Human Action. I still don't think there is a better insight into the interactions of man and nature than what can be gained there.

    I'd heard to start with Rothbard due to the clarity of language, but I wanted to see the source first and I'm glad I did. The amount of language to decipher is really very little when compared to the breadth and depth of ideas discussed which, when you look up the tough words like "ontological", "tautology" and "epistemology", is really quite clear for such deep philosophical thinking.

    Wikipedia provides a good philosophical guide to Mises :)

    I'm reading Mises' Theory and History now and I would argue that it provides much of the epistemological theory that he lays forth in the beginning of Human Action in a much more accessible manner. It is quite a joy to read.

    "Barzun also recognizes that these earlier pioneers often were not quite right, in some cases incomplete."

    I'm often surprised that, despite his immense genius and apparent integrity, Mises never took his ideas to their logical, anarchist conclusion. Rothbard, the Bard II?, did this in an impressively developed way, integrating his voluminous readings with his fundamental understanding of Austrian economics.

    In a lot of ways, Rothbard was, as you indicate, the great Integrator; at his best in channeling the intellectual clarity of Albert Nock and the intellectual rigor of Mises. It is true that dwarves see further on the shoulders of giants, but giants see further still on the shoulders of other giants.