Review of David Gordon, The Essential Rothbard (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007), 184 pp. $19.
In early 2007, the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, published David Gordon’s enlightening study of his deceased friend and onetime teacher Murray N. Rothbard (1926–95). Although Gordon claims to have written the text with breakneck speed, The Essential Rothbard witnesses to its author’s great learning and measured judgments. It offers lucid discussions of Rothbard’s historical and economic writings and, like Justin Raimondo’s earlier work on the same thinker, it describes with verve and humor its subject’s early years in New York and decisive break with his family’s leftist politics. (One can imagine the consternation of Murray’s left-liberal parents when in 1948 he campaigned for the states-rightist Strom Thurmond for president.)
Murray, who was widely known as “Mr. Libertarian,” was both a leading figure and a controversial dissenter in the postwar conservative movement. For someone who spent most of his life on the outs with his fellow rightists, primarily because of his opposition to military spending and his criticism of what he saw as attempts to invest the American Right with the “stench of European conservatism,” Murray nonetheless cast a long shadow upon the movement with which he fought. George H. Nash’s encyclopedic study The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America not only recounts Murray’s quarrels with conservatives—especially during the Vietnam War, which he vehemently opposed—but also abounds in multiple references to Mr. Libertarian. An unseemly obituary that National Review published at the time of his unexpected passing told less about the man who had just died than about the anger he had aroused as a controversialist. (May his tribe increase!)
Gordon goes through Murray’s early professional life with great diligence. We learn about his subject’s graduate studies at Columbia and about the mathematical skills he inherited from his chemical engineering father. Although as an Austrian-school economist Murray became skeptical of forecasting models, he did not do so as someone who was ignorant of mathematics. He knew enough about this discipline to question its doubtful applications, and particularly its attempts to second-guess the market. Gordon discusses how Murray built contacts with the Volker Fund, which generously funded his research. And he fills in details about Murray’s relationship with his mentor Ludwig von Mises, who gave a seminar at New York University that the university refused to subsidize but for which it charged rent.
Gordon also makes use of Rothbard’s unpublished early papers, some of which he obtained access to through the Italian scholar Roberta Modugna. These papers, which first came to my attention in Italian translation, reveal the young Rothbard’s intuitive skill in examining the fact-value dichotomy, the ideas of Leo Strauss, and various progressive historical views. It is certainly possible to see in these documents, which were not intended for publication, intimations of the later Rothbard, and particularly of the author of Man, Economy, and the State (1962), America’s Great Depression (1963), the four-volume work brought to completion in the 1970s and published as Conceived in Liberty, and “Value Implications of Economic Theory” (1973). The acceptance of John Locke and his defense of property as the underlying justification of the American Revolution, a faith in free-market solutions to economic crises, and an emphasis on the morality and rationality of uncoerced market transactions were all themes in Rothbard’s early, unpublished thoughts that were later articulated in his mature writings.
I have not viewed everything Murray wrote with equal sympathy. From my perspective, he read too much John Locke—and his own interpretation of this thinker—into the American founding; he also assumed a degree of continuity between medieval scholastic thought and Lockean contractualism that critics like Edward Feser have effectively challenged. I used to argue with Murray and his disciples against what seemed to me to be their exaggerated emphasis on individuals creating society on the basis of their rational interests. And given my Aristotelian sense of our corporate nature as members of already formed societies and my studies of cultural anthropology, it is impossible for me to accept his anarcho-capitalist focus as a point of departure for understanding man’s relation to anything but market choices. On this point (horror of horrors!) I may be closer to Marx than to Murray.
Rothbard was also, in my opinion, too driven by his justified hatred of Wilsonianism to recognize that the U.S. had confronted aggressive foreign dangers in the twentieth century, dangers to which military force was a reasonable response. I do not defend the terror bombing that was carried out against Central European cities in the 1940s or the criminal stupidity of the unconditional surrender that FDR and his advisors demanded from enemy nations during World War II. But unlike Murray, I think that Hitler and Stalin were international dangers that our country was correct to deal with via military force.