Monday, August 21, 2023

Where is Murray Rothbard?


All of my work has revolved around the central question of human liberty.

This is the opening line to the Preface of The Ethics of Liberty, by Murray Rothbard.  I have been giving a lot of thought to this line and this book lately.  While I admittedly am not familiar with everyone doing any work along the lines that Rothbard describes in this work, I am not familiar with any meaningful individual, group, or institution that is carrying it out.

Wait.  I will correct that last statement.  If there is one individual, it is Hans Hoppe.  He has carried it out through his writing, his talks, and through his Property and Freedom Society, including its annual conference.  As it is, Hoppe wrote the introduction to this present volume of Rothbard’s work; I will reference it along with another work of his during this examination.

With this exception noted (and I will not repeat it, but it applies every time I make this absolute statement), Hans Hoppe is only one individual – granted, a giant among men in Rothbard-adjacent circles, but one man.  And it is for this reason that I ask the question posed in the title.  But to get at this further, more from Rothbard’s work:

For it has been my conviction that, while each discipline has its own autonomy and integrity, in the final analysis all sciences and disciplines of human action are interrelated, and can be integrated into a "science" or discipline of individual liberty.

Rothbard continues by commenting that his earlier, comprehensive work on economics was value-free – as economics properly theorized must be.  But for liberty, this focus on value-free economics alone is not enough; a positive ethical theory was required:

I at no time believed that value-free analysis or economics or utilitarianism (the standard social philosophy of economists) can ever suffice to establish the case for liberty.

Rothbard wrote these words in 1980, but this was no recent revelation for him.  In 1960, he would write:

What I have been trying to say is that Mises's utilitarian, relativist approach to ethics is not nearly enough to establish a full case for liberty.

To establish this full case, Rothbard would continue, requires an absolutist ethic “grounded on natural law…”.  This would be the focus of this book by Rothbard.  Actually, the first several chapters are dedicated to natural law; the bulk of the work thereafter is focused on the natural rights to be derived when the theory of natural law is properly applied to human relationships.  While I disagree with a couple of his applications, on the whole the conclusions are solid.

Returning to the book, Rothbard writes:

It was furthermore clear to me that no one was engaged in trying to fill this crying need.

Which, forty years later, seems to still be the case. 

As mentioned, Hoppe wrote the introduction to this edition.  In it, he raises some key and complimentary points:

In an age of intellectual hyper-specialization, Murray N. Rothbard was a grand system builder.

He was not merely an economist.  Hoppe notes the practice of separating economics from ethics – yet these two had to be combined if one was to speak of liberty:

Rothbard's unique contribution is the rediscovery of property and property rights as the common foundation of both economics and political philosophy, and the systematic reconstruction and conceptual integration of modern, marginalist economics and natural-law political philosophy into a unified moral science: libertarianism.

I will go a step further: Rothbard’s integration extended far beyond even that which is found in this work (but in much of his other work).  It included revisionist (or realistic, honest) history, an examination of the modern state as presenting everything that is antithetical to liberty, an appreciation of the western civilization in which the idea of a healthy individual liberty blossomed, and an appreciation of the role of the entrepreneur (as opposed to the rent-seeker) in providing for the economic flourishing of man.

All of these were areas of focus for Rothbard, and nowhere do I find anyone doing the work necessary to further develop and integrate these into a whole.  In other words, nowhere do I see this integration continuing.  And this is to the detriment of liberty and in some ways a repudiation of Rothbard’s accomplishments.

Hoppe addressed this shortcoming, at least to a great part, in a talk he gave at the Property and Freedom Society Conference in 2018, The Libertarian Quest for a Grand Historical Narrative:

.... the greatest challenge for libertarians is to develop a grand historical narrative that is to counter and correct the so-called Whig theory of history….

While he agrees with one aspect of this theory – that economic progress has been substantial – his main objection to this theory is that it claims that we live in the freest societies ever to be found on earth. 

Hoppe integrates Austrian Economics, libertarian political philosophy, natural law, and historical revisionism into this one presentation.  It is, in fact, a summary and extension of the work of Rothbard – not in detail, but in its breadth. 

Returning to the Preface of Rothbard’s book, from Hoppe:

Much of Rothbard's later writings, with their increased emphasis on cultural matters, were designed to correct this development and to explain the error in the idea of a leftist multi-counter-cultural libertarianism, of libertarianism as a variant of libertinism.

In this, Rothbard foresaw the current crisis in the West.  While I don’t know if he ever labeled it as such, it is the meaning crisis in which western man is drowning.  It goes hand in hand with our loss of liberty.  No purpose, no aim, no focus; suffering, depression, suicide.  His humanity so completely beaten out of him that he would not only obey but also advocate for (insert all of the abuses just seen since 2020).  No liberty and no meaning in life.

In other words, one cannot separate cultural analysis from liberty or from the economic theories necessary to move toward liberty.  Rothbard recognized this.  It isn’t clear that any subsequent Rothbardians embrace this.


I am one person, and clearly am not aware of every endeavor that might fit the lines I have outlined above.  I would welcome any feedback that could fill in my gaps. 

In the meantime, I offer some of my meager efforts at continuing and extending this work, here, here, and here.  If anyone has written or spoken more on these matters than I have, I would welcome feedback on this as well.

I will write a subsequent post addressing any feedback along these lines.


  1. Have you thought of being in touch with David Gordon?

    1. For what purpose? Do you see him as continuing Rothbard's work in the manner described here, or as someone who can point me to an institution which is or a person who is doing so?

  2. I want to do a PhD on the interaction of liberty and either Christian theology or European history in the vein of Rothbard's An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, but I haven't found the right niche topic to interest me enough to spend 4 years delving into it. Let me know if you have any ideas!

    1. Read everything in the link at the top of the page entitled "Libertarians and Culture." You may find something there.

  3. Your comprehensive body of work on this blog, apart from Hoppe (the vanguard), stands head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. This blog is a treasure, and I always love checking in on your current writings and interests and how they relate to the search for liberty and its cultural (and religious) foundations, even if I don't interact as much as I used to.

    As far as institutions go, I would say the Mises Institute is still adding interesting ideas and insights into the discussion of liberty from a variety of angles. It's purpose is geared more toward a focus on good economics, but most people associated with it are libertarians interested in liberty and history and Mises articles on the website tend to reflect this multi-disciplined approach.

    As far as other living people besides Hoppe and you that have devoted themselves to the task of advancing not just libertarianism but the science of liberty (sociology, psychology, politics, economics, history, etc.), I would have to say Gerard Casey is #3. You have written some articles in relation to his book "Freedom's Progress?" if I remember correctly. Here are his major works.

    2005: Born Alive: The Legal Status of the Unborn Child
    2010: Murray Rothbard
    2012: Libertarian Anarchy: Against the State
    2017: Freedom's Progress?: A History of Political Thought
    2019: ZAP: Free Speech and Tolerance in the light of the Zero Aggression Principle
    2020: After #MeToo: Feminism, Patriarchy, Toxic Masculinity and Sundry Cultural Delights
    2021: Hidden Agender: Transgenderism's Struggle against Reality

    Notice that he first writes about the legal situation of human children in the womb (an interesting and promising start for a libertarian). He then pays homage to Rothbard, writes his philosophical case for stateless liberty, and follows that up with an exhaustive and astoundingly good history of liberty through the ages. He then switches gears and begins applying his libertarian principles in a targeted manner to relevant cultural topics in a series of books. Not bad!

    I suppose he hasn't written a treatise on economics, but did we really need another after Rothbard's "Man Economy and State?"

    I would say some very excellent runner ups would be Ryan McMaken, Jorge Guido Hulsmann, Jeff Deist, and of course Tom Woods, whose podcast applies libertarian principle to every issue under the sun.

    I think maybe the issue is that in today's world so much of the broad system-building intellectual work has already been done. Now may be the age of the specialists who focus on the intersection of liberty and one or two other things, and of course the strategists, who contemplate how we are going to make this liberty thing happen outside our beloved texts.

    It is a great question though.

  4. Ethics is futile until we can remove the uncivil and immoral in power. Their ability to lie with abandon without repercussion is criminal to the people they refuse to represent.

    1. "Ethics is futile until we can remove the uncivil and immoral in power."

      Why? Ethics is nothing more than a "code" of behavior which everyone lives by and which can vary from individual to individual or society to society. Ethics defines what is moral and civil. Without ethics, how can you know what is uncivil and immoral?

      Tacking now, their (powerful, uncivil, immoral persons) ability to lie without repercussion is, in the end, a reflection of the society at large. If they are not punished for lying, then it is (apparently) acceptable to the society. Taking this further, it is reasonable to conclude that the society itself is made up of "uncivil and immoral" people who themselves crave power.

      It is true that these people need to be removed from power, but it will not happen until society-at-large changes at the grassroots, individual level. Unfortunately, America is a nation of liars and thieves who think nothing of grabbing whatever they can get via the proxy known as government.

      The best way to change America for the better? Change yourself.

  5. I would say you are doing more than your share of moving forward the idea that natural law, economics, and liberty are intertwined. I am doing what I can with the very few opportunities I have. I am half way through reading and writing about The Ethics Of Liberty.

    On the more public front the people I see advocating Hoppe's ideas but not building on them or explicitly teaching on natural law are : Bob Murphy, Tom Woods, Jeff Deist, Lew Rockwell, Dave Smith, and the Mises Caucus guys. Those building some on Hoppe's ideas are outside the libertarian camp: CJ Engel, Pete Quinones, and the paleoconservatives. They don't mention natural law but they do talk almost primarily about culture.

  6. Gary North prior to his passing finished his four volume commentary on Christian Economics:

    “This book is the initial presentation of what I learned in writing my commentary. There is a separate discipline of Christian economics. The conclusions are similar to secular free market economics, especially Austrian School economics, but not identical. The philosophical foundation is radically different. Austrian School economics begins with the axiom of purposeful action. Christian economics begins with God's purpose.“

    “This book is a comprehensive answer to the so-called social gospel. It was never a social gospel. It was a statist gospel. It first began to be promoted in Protestant mainline denominations in the United States in the 1880s. This book shows that there is nothing in the Bible that calls for the creation of a Christian welfare state. On the contrary, what the Bible requires is the creation of a free market society. The social gospel has always been weak on exegesis of the Scriptures. This book begins with biblical passages in every chapter. Each chapter begins with an analysis of a text: theological analysis and economic analysis.“

    “This volume moves away from the theoretical to the practical. It answers the question: "How should we then live?" That was the question that Calvinist theologian Francis Schaeffer asked in 1976, but did not answer.”

    “I have finished my magnum opus: Volume 4 of Christian Economics.”

    1. Gary North has had more influence on my thinking than any other person since my parents. In my 20's and 30's, I read and absorbed his writings far more than those of any other author.

      Eventually, due to pressures beyond my control at the time, I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life--I got rid of all the books I had accumulated which he had authored. Fortunately, they are available online (
      but, in my opinion, reading them off a computer screen is not equivalent to the printed page.

  7. IMO, there is one other individual who has dramatically, and practically, pushed forward the ideas of Rothbard. His name is Satoshi Nakamoto.