Murray Rothbard: An Uncompromising Optimist
Murray Rothbard has been gone more than 20 years now, his brilliance, wit, and irreplaceable insights taken from us far too soon. At home in New York City over a Christmas break from his teaching duties at the University of Nevada, Rothbard accompanied his beloved wife Joey to her optometrist appointment on a bitterly cold day. A few moments later, on January 7th 1995, he was gone — lost to heart failure at the age of 68.
What he left behind was not only a grieving wife, countless friends and colleagues, and fans of his work around the world. He also left a legacy of academic and popular work that is virtually unrivaled in its sheer magnitude, in the depth and breadth of his knowledge, expertise, and interests. Murray was not only an economist and libertarian scholar, but also a philosopher, historian, political scientist, legal theorist, ethicist, sociologist, mentor, and journalist — all apart from his moonlighting as an amateur sports analyst, election handicapper, and movie critic.
It is this legacy, his immense body of work, that cements his position as a preeminent libertarian thinker of the 20th century. It is what makes him relevant today, and will keep him relevant for the decades to come. In today’s world full of white noise and dilettantes, the substance of his work sets him apart.
An Immense Body of Work
Rothbard’s career spanned more than four decades, during which he produced more than 30 full-length books. Man, Economy, and State, his sweeping economics text, is regarded as one of the four landmark treatises of the Austrian school. His academic work in areas like money, monopoly, price theory, and economic calculation all represented great strides for the Austrian school. He dramatically advanced our understanding of business cycles, and took particular pleasure in correcting enduring myths about banking in What Has Government Done to Our Money?, The Mystery of Banking, A History of Money and Banking in the United States, and Economic Depressions: Their Cause and Cure.
But much of his greatest scholarship was outside the field of pure economics. He demolished arguments for government as a necessary evil while offering a wholesale libertarian manifesto in The Anatomy of the State. He presented the groundbreaking normative argument for laissez-faire in The Ethics of Liberty, making a courageous (and still controversial) break from the utilitarianism and classical liberal traditions of his mentors. He upended the illiberal and unnatural arguments for state-enforced equality in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature. And he gave us his colossal 4-volume treatment of colonial American history in the comprehensive and revisionist Conceived in Liberty.
But while these great books would represent a robust publishing career for any five ordinary academics, they represent only a fraction of his incredibly varied written work. A full bibliography of his published writings requires a bibliography of 62 pages! Murray contributed more than 100 chapters to books edited by others, and wrote more than 1,000 scholarly and popular articles. Imagine if he had lived another 10 or 20 years, even if slowed by age or semi-retirement.
Dr. David Gordon, Murray’s longtime friend, believes that Rothbard’s oeuvre rivals that of any 20th-century intellectual in size and scope. Professor Guido Hülsmann argues that while it is possible to read everything Ludwig von Mises wrote, it is impossible in the case of Rothbard. And the Mises Institute continues to release “new” Rothbard material, in the form of his previously unpublished essays (the Institute is fortunate to house all of his archives, files, papers, and notes). Last fall saw the publication of Never a Dull Moment: A Libertarian Look at the Sixties, and later this year we will unveil his rollicking take on the Progressive era. And there is even a handwritten fifth volume of Conceived in Liberty that may be released in the future.
Of course his CV can never capture the full measure of his impact. It cannot account for the countless scholars he mentored, the countless speeches he wrote and delivered, the countless conferences, symposia, and debates he participated in, or the countless conversations he held late into the night with young people eager to learn everything they could from this indefatigable man.
His Unwavering Optimism and Conviction
More than anything, his résumé cannot measure the optimism and uncompromising tenacity with which he approached the intellectual battle. This combination of joy and steadfastness gave Murray an advantage almost as big as his intellect: the conviction that his cause not only was right and just, but also that it would ultimately prevail — no matter how illiberal the current age might seem.
Consider the cheery sense of optimism demonstrated in this quote from a chapter on strategy in For a New Liberty:
The case for libertarian optimism can be made in a series of what might be called concentric circles, beginning with the broadest and longest-run considerations and moving to the sharpest focus on short-run trends. In the broadest and longest-run sense, libertarianism will win eventually because it and only it is compatible with the nature of man and of the world. Only liberty can achieve man’s prosperity, fulfillment, and happiness. In short, libertarianism will win because it is true, because it is the correct policy for mankind, and truth will eventually win out.
Note the self-assured tone, his unshakable belief that the obvious superiority of a free society would become apparent in the long run. Was he overconfident about our libertarian prospects, given hindsight and looking back to the early 1970s when the passage was written? Perhaps. But a fuller reading of Rothbard’s work on strategy reveals time and again his pragmatic reasons for this optimism:
The clock cannot be turned back to a preindustrial age. Not only would the masses not permit such a drastic reversal of their expectations for a rising standard of living, but return to an agrarian world would mean the starvation and death of the great bulk of the current population. We are stuck with the industrial age, whether we like it or not. … But if that is true, then the cause of liberty is secured. For economic science has shown, as we have partially demonstrated in this book, that only freedom and a free market can run an industrial economy. In short, while a free economy and a free society would be desirable and just in a preindustrial world, in an industrial world it is also a vital necessity. For, as Ludwig von Mises and other economists have shown, in an industrial economy statism simply does not work. Hence, given a universal commitment to an industrial world, it will eventually — and a much sooner “eventually” than the simple emergence of truth — become clear that the world will have to adopt freedom and the free market as the requisite for industry to survive and flourish.
This passage, again from For a New Liberty, reveals the source of Murray’s confidence, namely the manifest failures of state planning. Contrary to the progressive delusions of the 20th century, no advanced form of government was inevitable or even desirable. It was liberty that could not be stopped. Whether collectivists could be persuaded of this was beside the point; they need to live in the material world like the rest of us. Only laissez-faire can make that world possible.
The move from farms to industrial factories had created a society far too rich, too complex, and too interconnected for rule by would-be central planners. And while Rothbard lived to see only the early stages of the digital revolution, his understanding of the industrial economy presaged the rise of neoliberalism — with its grudging admiration for markets and their essential role in creating prosperity.
Rothbard’s optimism was rivaled only by his insistence that strict adherence to libertarian principles was the wisest approach in the long run. As a result, he never shied away from controversy and never succumbed to the million small compromises that would have secured him the prestige and academic sinecure he richly deserved. Remember that he held a PhD in economics from Columbia, and possessed an intelligence and work ethic far superior to other public intellectuals and his colleagues in academia.
In this sense Murray’s life mirrors that of his mentor, Ludwig von Mises. Mises too had a stubborn streak, and was known for an unyielding tendency to place the pursuit of truth ahead of personal or career advancement.
In one famous instance during the mid-1950s Mises stormed out of a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, concerned that the young organization he helped create was falling under the sway of the Chicago school and corrupting its advocacy for uncompromising laissez-faire. One witness to this event was the rising Chicagoite star Milton Friedman, who years later recalled the story as proof of Mises’s intransigence. Mises’s adherence to principle was a strategic error in Friedman’s view, one that would cost Mises influence and money.
But Mises, like Murray Rothbard, saw things differently:
Occasionally I was reproached because I made my point too bluntly and intransigently, and I was told that I could have achieved more if I had shown more willingness to compromise. I felt the criticism was unjustified; I could be effective only if I presented the situation truthfully as I saw it.
Rothbard’s Lasting Influence
Today it is clear that much of Rothbard’s fame and influence is due to the very intransigence for which he still faces criticism. Certainly he could have stifled his more controversial views, and in particular kept silent on the topics of foreign policy and anarchism — at least until he was comfortably tenured at a university. Certainly he could have confined himself to writing only in academic journals. Certainly he could have had a much more comfortable and financially rewarding career.
But had he done so, would we celebrate him today? How many people remember former chairmen of Ivy League economics departments, or even know the names of past Federal Reserve governors? How many people read academic journals? Countless economists, historians, political philosophers of Rothbard’s time are already forgotten, while a growing number of people from all walks of life and all corners of the planet still read, enjoy, and learn from Murray.
One man’s inflexibility is another man’s adherence to principle. Whether intransigence is virtue or vice often depends on whether one stands on principle or stands on ceremony. For Murray Rothbard, the principle was always the point. Ego, popularity, and personal gain had nothing to do with it. Standing up for liberty, and against the state, was always worth whatever slings and arrows he might endure.
We need not sanctify Murray Rothbard, nor treat his pronouncements as infallible. Many of his best and most provocative writings still evoke strident debate and disagreement even among ardent Austro-libertarians today. We must, however, insist on giving him his due as among the greatest libertarian thinkers of the modern age. The world owes this great man a debt that has not yet been repaid.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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Cite This Article
Jeff Deist, "Murray Rothbard: An Uncompromising Optimist," The Austrian 3, no. 4 (July/August 2017): 4–7.