Apologetics for “Death of a State”

Tuol Sleng Victims of Khmer Rouge.jpg

This Was No Cause for Rejoicing: It Matters Which State Replaces Which

In comments and discussion on an earlier posting, a commenter posed a query about a low moment in the late Murray Rothbard’s life, viz. his “rejoicing” at the conquest of South Vietnam and Cambodia by the communists. That was followed by some discussion, concluded (by the person — “TB” — who asked about Rothbard’s statements) with a comment containing a link to an attempt by “the holder of the JoAnn B. Rothbard Chair in History at the Ludwig von Mises Institute,” Joseph R. Stromberg, to defend Rothbard’s statements, in an April 4 essay titled “How Murray Rothbard Single-Handedly Brought Down the Saigon Government with Malice Aforethought.”

It’s worth a read. Among other things, it serves as an example of how cultish the Rothbard following has become. I find that sad, because Murray accomplished much that was good. Acknowledging that should not require one to integrate all of his remarks — even the least thought-out and least defensible among them — into a grand synthesis. On this issue, Rothbard’s remarks are indefensible. Stromberg’s attempt at a defense is evidence of that.

Mr. Stromberg’s essay offers an attempt at sweeping historical “analysis,” much of it rooted in the attempt (au courant in the 1960s and 1970s) to affect the style of the then intellectually prominent Marxists. It fails, however, to grapple with the central question of the immorality of exulting over the “death of a state” when that “death” meant the imposition of another state that was even more criminal. (I’ll set aside the minor criminality of such Stromberg phrases as “This angst reverberates down the halls of time.”) Mr. Stromberg drags a series of red herrings across the path of criticisms of Rothbard’s attitude toward the American state and his excitement (which I witnessed in person) at the conquest of South Vietnam by North Vietnam and of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge:

[N]o one can reasonably say that Rothbard’s three “Death of a State” essays flowed from any partisan commitment to communism or Islamic republicanism. In any case, it was not within Murray Rothbard’s power to bring down the Saigon regime.

I have not charged and do not believe that Rothbard was “pro-communist” or “pro-Islamicist.” Nor that he caused the collapse of the South Vietnamese state. Nor does any other serious person make such charges. Those are red herrings. They draw our attention away from a serious flaw in Rothbard’s worldview, one that has been adopted by some of his less reflective followers — a hatred of the American state so overpowering that any defeat or setback suffered by that state (or any annihiliation of its allies or clients) is a cause for rejoicing, regardless of whether the net effect is more or less liberty, more or less justice. We have recently seen that in the excitement shown by “Rothbardians” at the killing of American soldiers and of Iraqi police and soldiers. (Visit “The Fever Swamp” for ample quotations, including that of Antiwar.com’s editor, who states, “I have cheered on men attacking US troops. I will continue to cheer any defeat US troops meet.”)

The problem at the root of the matter is not that Murray Rothbard was “pro-Communist” or “pro-Islamicist,” but that he frequently saw himself as merely “anti-state,” as do many of his followers. The problem is that in being merely anti-State, Murray sometimes forgot to be pro-liberty, and quite frankly cared not one whit about the suffering of others. (I do not merely divine that from his writings; I heard him say it repeatedly, when he would query whether people assembled in his living room “hate the oppressors, or love the oppressed?” The correct answer was to “hate the oppressors” and “screw the oppressed!” )

For a libertarian, the conquest of South Vietnam by North Vietnam and of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge was not “exciting,” “inspiring,” or cause for “rejoicing.” It may have been instructive (although no more so than the conquest of Poland by the Third Reich and the USSR), but inspiring it was not.

Mr. Stromberg’s essay is an example of what happens when a movement becomes excessively focused on inspiring personalities. Marxism, after all, had Marx. And now some wish the same fate on Rothbard. In the attempt to mimic the Marxists and to be as “scientific” as Marxism claimed to be (with a grand theory capable of explaining everything and even of transcending all is-ought gaps, unifying positive and normative disciplines in one overarching science), “Rothbardism” has become remarkably like it. Poring over the texts of the great thinker will show that all the parts cohere or, if some don’t, that is but appearance, for they were important steps along the way toward the greater synthesis. Yes, one also pores over the books of his predecessors, notably the revered texts of Mises, but that, too, is to show how those works paved the way toward the synthesis of all knowledge achieved by Rothbardism. (And, of course, the most extreme version of that phenomenon is Hans-Herman Hoppe, who has shown that Mises-Rothbard thought has laid the foundation for all knowledge, for economics, for history, for the science of right — ethics itself! — and along the way for such sciences as geometry and optics! No doubt flower arranging will in time also be deduced from Misesian/Rothbardian/Hoppean axioms.)

To be the guru of an absurd cult is a sad and pathetic fate for a man of intellect who accomplished much that was good — and some that was bad — in his lifetime.

Khmer Rouge Victims.jpg
“A particularly exhilarating experience: the death of a State,
or rather two States: Cambodia and South Vietnam….”
—Murray N. Rothbard, April, 1975

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