Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Mises Without Rothbard

Thanks to Ryan McMaken, I was reminded that today marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of Murray Rothbard.

Murray Newton Rothbard was an American heterodox economist of the Austrian School, a revisionist historian, and a political theorist whose writings and personal influence played a seminal role in the development of modern libertarianism. Rothbard was the founder and leading theoretician of anarcho-capitalism, a staunch advocate of historical revisionism, and a central figure in the twentieth-century American libertarian movement.

I offer the biographical summary not because I think it is necessary for the audience of this blog; merely a reminder of the breadth of Rothbard’s work and the foundations he built in libertarian theory. 

While there are a few areas with which I disagree with him, there is no doubt that everything I write about libertarian theory and Austrian economics (and to some degree revisionist history) would be little more than a fluffy white cloud inside my brain without the work Rothbard had already done – I would have no language or concepts upon which to build had he not done the work for me.

And did he ever do a lot of work!  But more than his prolific and tireless writing, what stands out to me most about Rothbard is his consistency.  In all of his work, he kept as a guiding light the idea of non-aggression and the corresponding concepts of private property and free trade.  Principled is the proper word to describe his writing.

From McMaken’s post: “…look at how frequently he is attacked by his intellectual opponents, even to this day.”  I would add, not just from his intellectual opponents, but also jealous libertarian and Austrian intellectuals.

One of the things I have gathered while learning about and poking around our libertarian / Austrian corner of the world is that there are many who don’t like Rothbard, or perhaps better said who believe that he shouldn’t be so prominently displayed.  I know there are minor issues, such as Rothbard’s view of fractional reserve banking (and regular readers of my blog know where I fall on this issue).  But I think the big issue is Rothbard’s steadfast opposition to all aspects of the State.

Rothbard had no problem saying what should not be mentioned in polite society.  This seems to be embarrassing to those libertarians and Austrians who want to be accepted.

Again, from McMaken: “…one can find virtually all of his published works at”

So, what do I mean by “Mises without Rothbard”?  I think Rothbard is the main reason the beltway libertarian crowd shies away from, ignores, or even ridicules the Mises Institute.  The Institute certainly is not shy about Rothbard’s work.

But what would the Mises Institute look like without Rothbard?  For this, I will offer an analogy, one playing out in real-time and right in front of our eyes.

Ron Paul, having toiled away in near anonymity for 30 years, suddenly burst on the wider scene in 2007.  We all remember money bombs and standing-room-only college crowds.  But why?  What was different about Ron Paul?

I will suggest two things: first, the message.  It was a consistent one – based on non-aggression and free markets (as much as could be so within the context of the most conservative interpretation of the US Constitution).  It was a principled message. 

Second was the man himself.  It was clear that this message was not based on poll numbers, focus groups, etc.  He didn’t transform himself overnight to become something different than what he had been before.

Ron never shied away from the unpopular message; he never worried about being politically correct.

Contrast this with his son, Rand Paul.  I do not intend to get into the politics; suffice it to say that Rand is not as principled as is his father when it comes to non-aggression.  There is nothing controversial in saying so – Rand has said himself he is not a libertarian.

What is my point?  Ron’s following – never large (plus or minus ten percent) – was extremely dedicated.  Rand, who by all appearances will draw larger support (and certainly has more inside the beltway support) has not generated anywhere near the dedication that his father did.  More in numbers, but not as committed.

And 50 or 100 years from now will it be the father or the son remembered as having had more impact?  I have no doubt that it will be Ron.  Rand might even become president, but he will not do as much as Ron has done to change the thinking of more people about life and liberty.  And it is only from a change of thinking in the people that lasting change will come.

So, how do I apply this to my question about Mises without Rothbard?  The Mises Institute is dedicated to Austrian economics.  It is an easy connection to make from Austrian theories to libertarian politics – not to suggest that a good Austrian must be a libertarian (Mises was not, after all); but the two schools are quite complimentary one to the other.

Once in the libertarian tent, and within the broad swath of libertarian possibilities, it seems to me that the most intellectually consistent view to take is that of anarcho-capitalism – the view of Rothbard.  If the philosophy is non-aggression, it means non-aggression.

I think consistency in a well-grounded philosophy is mandatory if one is to generate dedicated support.  It may not result in the broadest support, but it will result in the most dedicated support.

What would the Mises Institute be without Rothbard?  I think it is possible it might generate broader appeal.  I don’t think it would generate more dedicated supporters.  And I certainly believe it would not have the impact that it has on Austrian, and therefore libertarian, acceptance.

I think it would look like any other beltway think-tank.  Bigger maybe, but with little meaningful impact.

And I think this is because of the consistency of Rothbard.

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