Apologetics for “Death of a State”

by Tom Palmer on April 5, 2005

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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Ross April 5, 2005 at 2:02 am

Without in any way defending the undefendable, to coin a phrase, in Rothbard’s delight in anything that could be viewed as a defeat for the American state, the following question arises: Can one justify “cheering” for the defeat of US foreign interventions, despite the unfortunate consequence of “even worse” regimes denying liberty abroad, if one believes–and has good reason to believe–that a US government that never faces defeats in its interventionist militarism overseas is a US government that will never, ever stop meddling abroad?

Otto Kerner April 5, 2005 at 2:31 am

I really don’t understand the vitriol on this issue at all. Rothbard saw the South Vietnamese dictatorship falling, and he felt exhilarated by it. He thought it was inspiring that an imperialist power was defeated by an underdog insurgency.He never said the world or Vietnam would be better off. What’s the dispute here? Admittedly, “[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” sounds like grasping at straws, but this comes from the attempt to figure out exactly what Rothbard’s critics are trying to charge him with. One could say that Rothbard, emotionally, should not have been exhilarated at a moment when a new, evil regime was coming in. But, on this score, who cares about his emotions? What difference does it make?

The bones Mr. Palmer shows above his Rothbard quote are strikikingly out of place: they are the bones of human beings, while Rothbard is talking about the death of a government.

Tom G. Palmer April 5, 2005 at 2:45 am

Where is the vitriol? Rothbard’s remarks were both immoral and helpful in explaining the eagerness of some of his contemporary followers for the failure of democracy in Iraq, the continuation of gangsterism in Ukraine, and so on. Anything that’s a setback for the American state is welcomed by people who view the American state as the most evil force on the planet and their only, or at least their primary, enemy.

It’s not merely a matter of what his emotions were (and emotions can, indeed, be immoral), but of what motivates those who toast the deaths of American soldiers and cheer the defeats of American troops. It surely isn’t concern for the freedom of the people who would be ruled by jihadi beheaders, just as Murray cared not at all about the fate of the Cambodians who were left to the mercy of Pol Pot. Such people are merely enemies of the American state; they are not friends of liberty. The difference is important.

Mr. Stromberg attempted a defense of Rothard’s statements. I don’t think that it works. Rothbard was wrong to be excited and exhilarated and to rejoice at the collapse of the South Vietnamese and Cambodian states, which were replaced by even worse states from which people attempted to flee in their millions.

The form of Rothbard’s statements (and Stromberg’s response) would require that one rejoice at the collapse of the Polish and Czechoslovak states when the Third Reich and the USSR expanded. Would Mr. Kerner find such rejoicing immoral? Would the bones of the Poles killed in the Warsaw Ghetto or in the forest of Katyn not be relevant images when discussing whether one should have rejoiced at the collapse of the Polish state?

LB April 5, 2005 at 5:54 am

I haven’t found much praise for Rothbard on this site of late so I was wondering what is the good stuff he did. Just the economics? Some of the libertarian stuff? Why are we bothering over this fellow?

AAA April 5, 2005 at 6:03 am

“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.”

I think this is the key point. It is an obsession that can easily lead perfectly good and otherwise reasonable libertarians to support the strangest (and most anti-libertarian) causes.

Anonymous April 5, 2005 at 6:45 am

Mr. Palmer,

Well, that’s quite a strawman argument there. The main thing that Rothbard seems to have been cheering in the “death of a State” article was the defeat of an entrenched, violent state by a guerrilla movement — in the case of Vietnam, the defeat of a huge international empire by what began as a national liberation movement. The defeat of the Poles and Czechs by the Third Reich and the USSR was the opposite situation, where huge empires managed to conquer local governments.

Still, if one wants to look at the event completely out of context, as Rothbard looked at the fall of Saigon partially out of context (that is, he was explicitly considering only part of the context), then cheering the end of the Polish and Czech states is fine. The plight of the Polish and Czech people under the Nazis is of enormous importance, but the fate of their governments themselves is at best irrelevant. Now, to view that situation out of context like this does seem completely irrelevant — which would be true of Rothbard’s articles, too, if he hadn’t considered some context or made some additional point, which he did — but, it’s not incorrect or immoral.

Therefore, the strongest critique of Rothbard’s articles I could accept is that they are irrelevant or distracting. One could reasonably ask him to focus his energies on something else (although I don’t agree with this point). However, Rothbard wrote many, many other articles, and is, in any event, now quite dead, so it is primarily his detractors who are wasting their time by concentrating on this stuff.

Your statement: “It’s not merely a matter of what his emotions were (and emotions can, indeed, be immoral), but of what motivates those who toast the deaths of American soldiers and cheer the defeats of American troops. It surely isn’t concern for the freedom of the people who would be ruled by jihadi beheaders, just as Murray cared not at all about the fate of the Cambodians who were left to the mercy of Pol Pot,” is inaccurate. You presume to know the hearts of the people you argue against, and you presume to know that they are wicked. I don’t know what motivates anyone else, but I know that it is possible for someone who cares about the freedom of the Iraqi people to cheer American defeats, because I’ve done it (although I’ve yet to toast anyone’s death).

I was reminded of something Rothbard wrote:
“a just war exists when a people tries to ward off the threat of coercive domination by another people, or to overthrow an already-existing domination. A war is unjust, on the other hand, when a people try to impose domination on another people, or try to retain an already existing coercive rule over them.” This is a useful way of looking at the ongoing war in Iraq. From a national-statist perspective, it is straightforward that any Iraqi is right to fight American soldiers in Iraq, in order to restore Iraqi control of their own country. However, we are libertarians, so we must take a more nuanced, individualistic approach. The Iraqis are not a single group. Some — no doubt a large number of them, but not all — Iraqi insurgents are fighting in hopes of setting up their own dominating state. On the other hand, all the American troops are working together toward the end of controlling Iraq and, well, controlling pretty much everything. Therefore, some of the Iraqi soldiers are fighting a just war and some are not, but all the American soldiers are fighting an unjust war.

P.S. to LB: Rothbard was the key libertarian of the second half of the 20th century, which was when the libertarian movement as we know it coalesced. He sure wasn’t perfect, sometimes he wrote flawed and tendentious arguments, sometimes he got into pompous personal disputes with people, I’ve never found his books to be very interesting to read (partly because I usually agree with everything before he says it); but, there would be a lot less libertarianism in the world if there had been no Murray Rothbard. So yes, the economics and libertarian stuff.

Otto Kerner April 5, 2005 at 6:47 am

I was the author of the above post, which I neglected to sign.

Q Mark April 5, 2005 at 8:46 am

Several questions/observations:

1) Do you think the fact Rothbard (and his followers) don’t care about the freedom of other peoples is a sign of racism?

2)Have you noticed the similaries between Hegal/Marx and Mises/Rothbard among both sets of cultists?

3) If the Rothbardian Party Line is to cheer the deaths of a State, why didn’t they cheer the death of the Baathist Iraq regime?

4) Was it Rothbard who popularlized the word “libertarianism”? If not, has he and his followers corrupted the word so badly we need a new word?

5) Anyone else find it ironic how collectivist all this Rothbard worshipping is by some “libertarians”?

6) To second LB, what did Rothbard do which makes him so damn important? He wrote a few interesting economic books, but still nothing to approach Hayek. His “philosophy” was inconsistant pastiche crap. His politics were Lyndon LaRouche. Yeah, I know a whole bunch of wacko libertarians were his buddies in the 1970s. I didn’t know him, and from what I can tell he was a real asshole. Time to sweep his ass to the dustbin of history.

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Otto Kerner April 5, 2005 at 11:12 am

Thanks for your questions, Q. I’ll do my best to answer them succintly:

1) There is no such fact. It is the neocons, not the Rothbardians, who call for the darker nations of the world to be conquered by America.

2) Hegel was not a Hegelian!

3) Because it was conquered by a large outside power, rather than being overturned by a popular revolution.

4) I’m not sure if he was the first, but he probably did a lot to popularize it, yes. As for a new word, well, David Boaz proposed “socialist” (… just kidding).

5) “Collectivist” is a swear word which is usually tossed around without much meaning.

6) See my answer to LB above.

Q Mark April 5, 2005 at 12:29 pm

1) Iraq was conquered? Odd, I thought they were electing their own government (one which appears to be more libertarian than the previous state). Those evil neocons must be bad imperialists.

2) Is Mises not a Misesan?

3) See above. Also, US independence was achieved by French intervention. Therefor the US was conquered and the US secession was not libertarian, which means Rothbard lied in his books? Discuss.

4) Did he popularize in a positive or negative way?

5) Colletivists are usually more focused about movements, factions, fractions, parties, etc. than with invididuals or groups of individuals. It appears the “Rothbardians” are interested in movements, factions, etc, so wouldn’t that count as collectivism?

6) I don’t understand your answer. If you mean he popularized libertarian IDEAS, then I disagree. He doesn’t squat to anyone outside the “movement,” at least compared to Rand, Hayek, Friedman and even Reagan and Thatcher.

If you mean he popularized “libertarianism” and “liberatarians” to mean Rothbardianism and Rothbardians, then you are probably correct (but this doesn’t invalidate my points).

Thank you for your reply.

Tom G. Palmer April 5, 2005 at 12:41 pm

A quick note. I believe that Mr. Kerner’s understanding of the history of Indochina is quite flawed. South Vietnam was conquered by the army of North Vietnam. The Viet Cong had been effectively wiped out by then. Similarly, Murray Rothbard called the destruction of the Cambodian state by the Khmer Rouge a cause for rejoicing. Neither the conquest of the south by the North Vietnamese army nor the military conquest of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge can plausibly be considered cases of “popular revolution.” The claim is simply not consistent with the facts. In each case the country was conquered by a disciplined military force; in the case of Cambodia, the conquerors then drove people out of the cities to work as slaves.

I will think over and then add a note this evening on Murray Rothbard’s positive contributions. I would not overstate them (as I believe that Mr. Kerner has done in calling Murray “the key libertarian of the second half of the 20th century”), but they should not be swept aside, either.

Bill Woolsey April 5, 2005 at 1:20 pm

Perhaps I am wrong, but I believe that Tom Palmer was a Rothbardian during the mid to late seventies. Often Rothbardians go through a period in which they identify libertarianism with Rothbardism. (That was true of me!)

While the term libertarianism has a long history, it came to be used to refer to classical liberalism during the fifties. The term “liberal” had been lost, mostly because the vast majority of liberals came to support an expansive welfare state and anti-business regulation. The remnant of liberals who thought all of that was counterproductive and continued to support the free market were unconfortable with identifying too closely with conservatives. That Milton Friedman and James Buchanan call themselves libertarians rather than conservatives comes from that era and perspective. Libertarian is a synonym for classical liberal. It is used because too many people would think that classical liberal means McGovern, or Kennedy, or Roosevelt as opposed to Howard Dean.

By the late sixties, some of the less devoted followers of Ayn Rand came to use the term libertarian to refer to her political perspective. She said that her political views could be summarized as the view that it is always wrong to initiate the use of physical force. While she called her view “capitalism,” a bunch of people came to call it “libertarianism.” When “popular” organizations like the Society for Individual Liberty were introduced in the late sixties, they were using the term “libertarian” to mean no initiation of force. The Libertarian Party as founded by people with that view in 1971.

Rothbard and a handful of close friends developed his political perspective during the fifties (or so they say.) They called it libertarian. And pretty early on began to use the rhetorical device of identifying libertarianism with Rothbard’s position. Deviate too far (according to Rothbard) and you are no longer a libertarian.

Generally, Rothbard didn’t demand anarchism, but did rhetorically purge anyone who wasn’t an isolationist. Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and James Buchanan were all beyond the pale because they favored too large a role for government.

Rothbard’s views gained substantial ground in early groups like SIL and the LP. While
they already were identifying libertarianism as noninitiation of force, the coda of isolationism was added by the Rothbardians. The neo-objectivists rejected it as a fundamental principle, but were soon marginalized.

While “isolationism” made some progress, other elements of Rothbardism have never been counted as “essential” by the libertarian rank and file. What is it–natural rights political philosophy, austrian economics, power elite sociology, and revisionist history? While you can hear an occassional “libertarians believe” and then some Rothbardism, few really believe that deviations on such matters mean one isn’t a libertarian.

By the mid-nineties, the LP was promoting a program of cutting out all unconstituional government spending, ending the
income tax, but using excise taxes and custom duties to finance the remainder, ending drug prohibition, and immediately privatizing social security. A good number of self-described libertarians think that this sort of “constitutionalism” is what libertarianism means.

And in the eighties, Maddox and Lillie introduced a new usage of the term. Libertarians are more socially liberal than other conservatives. They are more fiscally conservative than other liberals. They are neither liberal or conservative–they are so different, they are libertarians. There is really no notion that they all support some complete classical liberal program a la Milton Friedman, much less deduce all positions from nonintiation of force like Rand or Rothbard.

This Maddox and Lille approach has received persistent use, and has been reinforced among self-described libertarians by the use of the Nolan chart, and particularly the Advocates for Self-Government’s World’s Smallest Political Quiz. There is a whole libertarian “quadrant” where answering more libertarian than conservative or liberal makes you a libertarian.

In Libertarian Party circles, there has been a debate for at least the last decade over whether this more inclusive use of the term “libertarian” is more appropriate or else one should stick with the old “noninitiation of force” approach. Keeping in mind that there is a rank and file who think libertarianism means the Presidential programs promoted by Harry Browne in 1996 and 2000.

Generally, the term “libertarian” is up for grabs. I strongly favor the more inclusive approaches, so that libertarian is like liberal or conservative–sets of sympathies and skepticisms regaring possible changes from the status quo. Within that broad grouping, there is a variety of libertarian positions. That would include views similar to those of Milton Friedman. And positions like what the LP has been promoting. And positions like what Rand or Rothbard promote.

Q Mark April 5, 2005 at 2:45 pm

Bill:

“Generally, the term “libertarian” is up for grabs.”

Do you see this among the general public / non-libertarians?

I haven’t seen this, but I only really interact with other libertarians on the Interent and most of the “Internet libertarians” tend to be doctronaire and exclusive with the term.

Anders Monsen April 5, 2005 at 4:57 pm

Certainly libertarians owe an intellectual debt to Murray Rothbard. Many of his works were instrumental in expanding and illumating my knowledge on economics and liberty, and I doubt that I am alone. We all hold in high esteem various libertarian heroes. This does not mean we accept all Rothbard’s opinions and theory without question. It is individual liberty we must support, not one person, or those purporting to carry on the work of others. This smacks too much, as Mr. Palmer states, of cultism. And if I remember correctly, Rothbard himself had a few harsh words to say about the Ayn Rand cult.

Q Mark April 5, 2005 at 5:14 pm

I don’t owe an intellectual debt to Rothbard or consider him my hero and yet I consider myself a libertarian. And of course Rothbard hated Rand, rival cult leaders always despise each other.

Peter April 5, 2005 at 6:00 pm

Some might be interested in George Reisman’s experiences with Rothbard. Rand is mentioned as well. This is from the preface of his book Capitalism (p. xliv, readable online at http://www.capitalism.net, any typos are my fault):

“Some of the credit for my having had the courage to start the translation [Mises' Epistemological Problems of Economics] belongs to the late Murray Rothbard, whom I met when I entered the seminar and became close friends with over the next five years. (Other members of the seminar when I arrived on the scene were Hans Sennholz, now President of the Foundation for Economic Education, and his wife Mary; Israel Kirzner, now a Professor of Economics at New York University; Professor William H. Peterson, then of New York University, and his wife Mary; and Percy Greaves, who later wrote Understanding the Dollar Crisis, and his wife Bettine Bien Greaves, then and now a staff member of the Foundation for Economic Education. Prominent more or less frequent visitors to the seminar were Henry Hazlitt, then a regular columnist for Newsweek as well as the author of numerous books, the best known of which is Economics in One Lesson,Ã?Â?Ã?¢Ã?¢?Ã?¬Ã?Â?Ã?¦). Rothbard was then working on his Man, Economy, and State on a grant from the Volker Fund and urged me to apply, assuring me that a proposal to translate Grundprobleme would be considered both seriously and sympathetically.

By the time I had been in the seminar for about a year, Rothbard, Raico, and I, were joined by Robert Hessen (now a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford) and Leonard Liggio (who later became President of the Institute for Humane Studies)Ã?Â?Ã?¢Ã?¢?Ã?¬Ã?Â?Ã?¦. We almost always continued the discussions of the seminar until past midnight, usually at Rothbard’s apartment, and frequently met on weekends. We informally called ourselves “The Circle Bastiat,” after the leading nineteenth-century French advocate of capitalism, Frederic Bastiat.

At one of our gatherings, in the summer of 1954, over three years before the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Rothbard brought up the name Ayn Rand, whom I had no previously heard of. He described her as an extremely interesting person and, when he observed the curiosity of our whole group, asked if we would be interested in meeting her. Everyone in the group was very much interested. He then proceeded to arrange a meeting for the second Saturday night in July, at her apartment in midtown Manhattan.

That meeting, and the next one a week later, had an unforgettable effect on meÃ?Â?Ã?¢Ã?¢?Ã?¬Ã?Â?Ã?¦. By the time I left Ayn Rand’s apartment, even after the first meeting, I was seriously shaken in my attachment to utilitarianism.

Both meetings began at about 8:30 in the evening and lasted until about five o’clock th following morningÃ?Â?Ã?¢Ã?¢?Ã?¬Ã?Â?Ã?¦

At both meetings, most of the time was taken up with my arguing with Ayn Rand about whether values were subjective or objective, while Rothbard, as he himself later described it, looked on with amusement, watching me raise all the same questions and objections he had raised on some previous occasion, equally to no avail.”

but a few pages later, Reisman explains that his relationship with Rothbard deteriorated, and describes:

“Much worse, Rothbard, who was widely regarded as the intellectual leader of the younger generation of the Austrian school and of the Libertarian party as well, was a self-professed anarchist and believed that the United States was the aggressor against Soviet Russia in the so-called cold war.”

Footnote to the above sentence: “Cf. Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty (New York: Macmillan, 1973). In that book, Rothbard wrote: ‘Empirically, the most warlike, most interventionist, most imperial government throughout the twentieth century has been the United States’ (p. 278; italics in original). In sharpest contrast to the United States, which has supposedly been more warlike even than Nazi Germany, Rothbard described the Soviets in the following terms: ‘Before World War II, so devoted was Stalin to peace that he failed to make adequate provision against the Nazi attackÃ?Â?Ã?¢Ã?¢?Ã?¬Ã?Â?Ã?¦. Not only was there no Russian expansion whatever apart from the exigencies of defeating Germany, but the Soviet Union time and again leaned over backward to avoid any cold or hot war with the West’ (p. 294).

Tom G. Palmer April 5, 2005 at 10:36 pm

I’d like to write something longer, but I simply don’t have the time, as I am frantically packing for my trip and trying to finish up a dozen projects.

I think that Mr. Woolsey and Mr. Monsen have expressed quite well some important truths about Murray Rothbard. He certainly had a positive influence on plenty of people, but he also had a baleful influence on some.

I have very fond personal memories of him and of Joey, but also some quite unpleasant ones, as they could be remarkably vicious toward those who did not accept his views. Murray was typically dismissive of views with which he disagreed and saw whatever constellation of views he held at that moment as the “plumb line,” deviations from which were to be “smashed,” “crushed,” and so forth. Such talk could, of course, sometimes be playful, but it revealed a very disturbing cult-like mentality, as well.

As to who “the key libertarian of the second half of the 20th century” (as Mr. Kerner put it), that’s a hard one, but I don’t think it was Murray Rothbard, unless you simply define libertarian as “agreeing with Murray Rothbard.” I would say that Milton Friedman, for example, has had a far greater influence for good and has reached far more people with the ideas of liberty than did Murray. Through his television shows, his Newsweek column, his many media appearances, and his popular books, Friedman built a career as a public intellectual that was in addition to his dazzling career as a high level academic. Friedman has always been more willing to be shown wrong and his scholarship shows it. In contrast, Murray’s writing on monetary theory may have much to recommend it for popular understanding of money, but his monetary history is woefully deficient and his later writings on fractional reserve banking, which he condemned as “fraud,” have more in common with pamphleteering cranks than with serious economics.

The other major candidate for “the key libertarian of the second half of the 20th century” would have to be F. A. Hayek, who certainly reached and changed the minds of more people than Rothbard.

To say that someone was not “the key” libertarian is not to say that he or she was unimportant or insignificant. Rothbard exerted some important positive influence, notably an increase in the appreciation of the importance of history (although his own writings in history often were “history as it ought to have happened,” rather than serious scholarship) and an appreciation of the natural rights tradition. (Both of those, however, also reflected the influences on him of other libertarians who were less colorful, some of whom are still actively promoting freedom, but in less colorful ways.)

Like plenty of other very smart and strong willed people, Murray Rothbard left ehind a mixed legacy. The topic of Mr. Stromberg’s apologia, which occasioned this post, was a decidedly negative part of that legacy.

Q Mark April 5, 2005 at 11:04 pm

Another guy with way more influence than Rothbard…Thomas Sowell. Let’s also not forget about RA Heinlein either.

Anyway, the issue seems to be less about Rothbard (the person) and more about the Rothbardians. The same could be said for Randians, Marxists, Palmerites (kidding), etc.

I think cultism reflects badly on the thinker and their ideas, but worse on the followers. Especially if the followers claim to be individualists.

Jeff Riggenbach April 5, 2005 at 11:14 pm

“I would say that Milton Friedman, for example, has had a far greater influence for good and has reached far more people with the ideas of liberty than did Murray.”

I could not agree more. Whenever I think of the great influence for good of such Friedmanite inventions as the negative income tax, whenever I think back on Friedman’s heartfelt support for such magnificent lovers of individual liberty as Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran, I am once again humbled.

Humbly,

JR

Tom G. Palmer April 5, 2005 at 11:47 pm

How sad that Mr. Riggenbach has devoted his prodigious knowledge of chemistry over the years to perfecting a completely sour personality.

Milton Friedman has, indeed, promoted some ideas that have had a mixed impact (actually, wartime withholding over thirty years ago was far more harmful than the negative income tax ever could be; Milton has promoted the negative income tax as a less harmful alternative to the dole). That sometimes happens when you try to promote improvements (educational choice in place of assignment to monopoly schools; monetary rules in place of rampant inflationism; multilateral free-trade in place of protectionism; etc.). The rest is simply slander. And especially strange after the above discussion of Murray Rothbard’s immoral rejoicing at the collapse of the Cambodian government, which was replaced by one of the most horrifying murder states of the twentieth century (and that’s saying a lot).

Ross April 5, 2005 at 11:49 pm

Jeff Riggenbach:

“Whenever I think of the great influence for good of such Friedmanite inventions as the negative income tax, …”

Is this true, or does Jeff mean to refer to the invention, I think during WWII, of income tax withholding?

Ross

I should mention that despite these Friedmanian “errors”, I agree with Tom’s assessment, not really a close call, that Friedman did more for liberty than Rothbard. Their relative fame levels, if nothing else, virtually guarantees that answer.

Bill Woolsey April 6, 2005 at 8:04 am

In the fifties, the libertarian movement was tiny. While there was there was some great quality, (Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, Henry Hazlit) that had impact on the larger society, there weren’t that many rank-and-file libertarians.

Ayn Rand’s novels built up a mass movement. Well, a small one, but bigger than what existed before.

I believe Rothbard’s contributions to the libertarian movement should be seen as improving that Rand-dominated movement of the mid- to late-sixties.

Rothbard combated the militant atheism and anti-religious propagandizing during that era.

While I think Rothbard went to far in his isolationism and anti-U.S. perspective on foreign policy history, the pre-existing movement went too far in the other direction. I don’t believe that the mainstream of the libertarian movement ever went as far as Rothbard would have liked, but it did move. It may have gone too far. But, in my view, it did need to change and it did change in the right direction.

The libertarian movement was and is heavy on economists especially, and then philosophers next. Rothbard encourged research in history and sociology. Of course, the problem hasn’t been solved.

Rothbard wrote Austrian economics accounts of the operation of the market economy that were relatively easy to understand. Like Hazlitt, but more complete. (In response to those who ask if Rothbard’s contributions were mostly in economics–the rule of thumb is that if Rothbard disagrees with Mises, Rothbard is wrong. A second rule of thumb is that if Mises is wrong, Rothbard is usually more wrong.)

While we can imagine the libertarian movement changing in even better ways than what happened due to the influence of Rothbard, we can hardly be certain it would have happened.

Rothbard put a lot of energy into influencing the relatively small libertarian movement. Folks like Milton Friedman put more energy in trying to influence U.S. society at large.

Anonymous April 6, 2005 at 8:48 am

Rothbard = L. Ron Hubbard

Minor contributor to Austrian economics / Minor contributor to science fiction

You can fill in the rest yourself…

Anonymous April 6, 2005 at 10:52 am

Q: I am happy, as always, to answer your followup questions

1) Yes, conquered. A while after the invasion, the conquering army sponsored an election, partly in response to popular uprisings in the south of the country. However, the occupying troops are still on the ground and appear likely to remain until Iraq has a government of their liking.

2) I was making a joke based on the expression, “Mises was not a Misesian”, which is itself a joke I have heard from the mouth of at least one Mises Institute person, spoofing the perceived differences between the philosophies of the Mises Institute and of Mises himself. The actual point here is that Misesians are not required to believe exactly the same thing as Mises on every point. As far as your question about Marx and Hegel, I don’t know enough about them to attempt a comparison, I’m afraid.

3) US independence was achieved by a popular movement which was backed by the French (and then only after it had proven itself successful on the battlefield). Surely you are aware that the U.S. was never occupied by French troops.

4) He popularized it in a Rothbardian way. Whether that’s good or bad depends on your view of his merits as a thinker.

5) You’re using collectivist in a sense with which I am not familiar. I usually use collectivist to refer to collective economic systems. What you are describing, I would call maybe … “politicism”? Anyway, Rothbard certainly had an avid interest in politics. Don’t we all? I suppose that if this is “collectivist” because it involves groups of people, so is, for instance, fame. All the Britney Spears fans might be described as collectivist, too.

6) It depends on how important you think the libertarian movement is. To me, the movement is the backbone of libertarianism: by definition, without a movement, what you have is isolated bits of libertarian and partly libertarian ideas flopping around, piecemeal. Of the other people you mention here: Rand is a joke to people outside of the libertarian movement, although she, like Rothbard, is quite influential within it; Reagan and Thatcher were not libertarians but anti-libertarians (Reagan was, anyway; I don’t know a lot about Thatcher); Hayek I was grouping with the first-half-of-the-century libertarians — along with Mises (probably the preeminent libertarian of the century), Hayek was very important (although much farther left on some economic issues than he ought to have been). So, that leaves us with Milton Friedman. I can see both sides. Friedman is certainly much more famous than Rothbard, there’s no doubt about that. But how much does Friedman mean in isolation? Certainly, he has done a lot to publicize conservative economics — although far too neoclassical for my taste — but how much ink has he spilled on other libertarian issues? How clearly has he ever distinguished what we do from what the Republican Party does? Rothbard’s work was to strengthen and educate the basis of the movement. Personally, I think that Rothbard, Leonard Read, Robert LeFevre, and in the long run Lew Rockwell and maybe Ed Crane have done more for liberty than Friedman, because, without people like them, there is no libertarianism, only a handful of isolated writers.

Anyway, I just can’t see calling a man who invented income tax withholding, as well as proposing a negative income tax, the most important libertarian of any period of time. That said, I still like Friedman a lot and I’m glad he’s on our side. Incidentally, one of the best things Milton Friedman did for liberty was have a son.

Also incidentally, one might note that one of Rothbard’s more practical contributions was to help found the Cato Institute, now the stomping ground of Tom Palmer.

PS – Thanks to Bill Woolsey for his historical insight. Very interesting.

Tom Palmer notes, in reference to Friedman’s hand in ideas like withholding and the negative income tax: “That sometimes happens when you try to promote improvements”. That is quite true, and, in fact, it’s the heart of the Rothbard-Rockwellian argument against getting overinvolved in promoting lesser-evil type policies.

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