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Murray Rothbard (1926—1995) was an Austrian school economist and influential leader of the modern libertarian movement. As T.H. Huxley was nicknamed "Darwin's bulldog," Rothbard might as well have called himself von Mises' bulldog.
Rothbard was one of the foremost proponents of the pseudo-psychology known as praxeology. Rothbard viewed property rights as paramount to freedom and so went even beyond von Mises, who was a minarchist, in advocating anarcho-capitalism. He was also known as a big critic of fractional reserve banking and the Federal Reserve. Because of his philosophy, he held many views that would be seen as progressive as well as ones that were batshit crazy. For example, he voiced support for the civil rights movement as well as opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft, but also defended the practice of child labor, "racialist science," and that "cops must be unleashed, and allowed to administer instant punishment." Also, despite his initial vocal support for revolutionary black power politics, he later worked with Lew Rockwell, founder and then president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, to run a campaign strategy to exploit racism in order to build a libertarian/paleoconservative coalition and praised the notorious work by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve.
Right to Left to Right
Rothbard's political alliances shifted over time, although he and his supporters would say his actual views never really changed much since the 1950s, he just worked within whichever radical movement was gaining popularity and thus the best place to advance his own views.
During the 1950s he was part of the conservative movement and wrote for a time for William F. Buckley's National Review, as well as the Foundation for Economic Education. He briefly joined Ayn Rand's inner circle but soon left and became a critic of the cult-like aspects of the Rand movement, writing a long article about the movement and also a satiric play, "Mozart was a Red," sending up Ayn Rand and two of her chief lieutenants.
But later in the decade he supported Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaign and joined the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy to work for nuclear disarmament, and in the 1960s he was part of the New Left, praising the student uprising, promoting the works of New Left historians William Appleman Williams and Gabriel Kolko, and even joining the Peace and Freedom Party. Under Rothbard's influence several movement conservatives switched allegiences to the New Left, most notably Goldwater speechwriter Karl Hess, and at the same time several of the New Left were influenced toward libertarianism such as Leonard Liggio, Ronald Radosh, and former SDS president Carl Oglesby. His newsletters, Left and Right and the Libertarian Forum, promoted a cross-fertilization among Old Right isolationists, Goldwaterites, and the New Left; this approach of a simultaneous Robert Taft - Noam Chomsky axis came to define libertarianism during the 1970s before it shifted rightward under the influence of the stable of Koch Industries funded groups.
He worked within the Libertarian Party during the 1970s and 1980s, and helped found the Cato Institute. During this period he attempted to keep the libertarian movement on a "centrist" course, criticizing "deviationism" of both the right (Ayn Rand and the neoconservatism of William F. Buckley) and the left (Henry George and left-anarchism of the Kropotkin/Bakunin variety); and, to his credit, spoke out against libertarians being wooed by such fads as est and New Age beliefs. Rothbard's increasing animosity toward the Koch faction during the 1980 Ed Clark presidential campaign led to his being booted from Cato in early 1981; he turned his attention toward struggle with the Koch-aligned Ed Crane for control of the Libertarian Party, eventually leading to a walkout of Crane and his supporters at their 1983 convention. Ironically, when the Crane/Koch faction proposed drafting Ron Paul for the 1984 Libertarian Party nomination, Rothbard opposed Paul as insufficiently pure libertarian.
Rothbard's own political allegiances however were also shifting back to the right during this time. While he supported nuclear disarmament, Black Power, pro-choice on abortion, amnesty for draft resisters, and the anti-Vietnam War movement he was vocally opposed to environmentalism, radical feminism, humanistic psychology and had at best a personal animosity toward the counterculture, and began articulating a pro-police "tough on crime" viewpoint as early as 1971 when he stunned some readers by advocating a tough crackdown on the Attica State prison uprising. He abruptly flip-flopped during the 1972 U.S. Presidential election from "dump Nixon at all costs" to endorsing his re-election once the Democratic nominee was George McGovern. During the late 1970s when prominent libertarians were voicing support for the Equal Rights Amendment and opposition to nuclear power, Rothbard viewed both positions as heresy and opposed them from the right.
When in 1988 the Libertarian Party presidential nomination was between American Indian Movement leader Russell Means - supported by those within the LP whose attraction had been cultural-left issues - and former Republican congressman Ron Paul, Rothbard threw his support behind Ron Paul and the emerging paleoconservative movement. By 1992 he had left the Libertarian Party altogether, supported Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign, and had adopted a socially conservative line fused with foreign policy isolationism that he and Lew Rockwell defined as paleolibertarianism. From then until his 1995 death, he threw his lot in with the paleoconservative movement and with right-wing populism that had grown out of the 1992 campaigns of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot.
Particulars of Private Property
This is where those who call themselves "classical liberals" are full of it. None of them ever endorsed the sort of absolutist property rights of today's right-libertarians. Rothbard for one rejected the Lockean Proviso in which Locke included this important caveat:
Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough and as good left, and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself. For he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all.
Being a right-libertarian means you have to either ignore exploitation of labor, or you need to rationalize it. Right-libertarians argue that the current problems are caused by "crony capitalism.' They hold the weird belief that corruption would disappear without government regulation, giving corporations an even more streamlined path to exploitation. Rothbard actually recognized the problem and argued that a naive acceptance of existing property titles is logically equivalent to supporting absolute monarchy. He then proposed a redistribution scheme to rectify past theft, which is more computationally complicated than Stalinist central planning.
One method would be to turn over ownership to the homesteading workers in the particular plants; another to turn over pro-rata ownership to the individual taxpayers...I do not often agree with John Kenneth Galbraith, but his recent suggestion to nationalize businesses which get more than 75% of their revenue from government, or from the military, has considerable merit.
Rothbard's About-Face on Borders
For much of his life, Rothbard upheld the notion of a totally free market indicating his support for open borders which would be invaluable in having such a society. Due to his shift of views, Rothbard shocked many of his fellow Libertarians in an about face on the issue.
In a 1994 paper, Rothbard revoked his support for open borders, using the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing emigration to nearby societies afterward as chief justification for his change of mind. His main reason for suddenly applauding borders was as a means to control people from what he believed would result in the destruction of cultures and languages. The paper, further evidence of Rothbard's then blatant support for right-wing populism and lip service to white nationalism, tosses a majority of what he taught in regards to free-market anarchism and voluntarism out the window.
Many Libertarians became, and still are, angry at Rothbard's 180 turn in supporting something that totally undermines his concepts and ideas regarding a Libertarian society. Notable opponents who have challenged Rothbard's defense of borders include Walter Block, Bryan Caplan and Adam Kokesh. They call Rothbard's attempt to justify borders in a "free and voluntary society" a futile attempt to have cake and eat it too.
Members of the open borders camp argue (rather logically) that it is impossible for an ideal Libertarian society be considered free if people are still forced to remain on parts of the planet they want to leave to move about a planet they shouldn't be forced to ask permission to travel upon. A bigger issue is the fact that it'd be impossible to have totally free trade with borders still enforced with people being denied access to conduct trade or travel to businesses that seek to hire them.
On the other hand, if Rothbard's system of private property were implemented then people would need permission to travel onto other's property and doubtless be charged for it, which is itself much like taxation. This logical outgrowth of his system is deeply ironic.
Sadly, in a final testament to the lasting damage Rothbard did to the Libertarian movement before his death, many Libertarians and anarcho-capitalists have jumped to defend his most infamous stance. They still often locking horns with Libertarians who attack it and its many issues.
One of the most famous libertarians to support and expand on Rothbard's view of borders is German-born anarcho-capitalist Hans-Hermann Hoppe. He's taken it to blatantly xenophobic levels, arguing for what is effectively an immigration system complete with arbitrary regulations. This, he claims, is to be used to maintain an ideal anarchist society (insert canned laughter here).
Adam Smith was a Red!
One of Rothbard's more "interesting" arguments concerned Adam Smith. Not only did Rothbard argue that he was no true capitalist, but that Smith was in fact a proto-Marxist because of his formulation of a labor theory of value and his failure to advocate totally "free" markets.
Hilariously, given Rothbard's stance against open borders, as mentioned previously, his attack on Adam Smith in regards to being unable to advocate for totally free markets makes him a flaming hypocrite.
The poor and homeless
Like his former associate Ayn Rand, Rothbard wasn't a fan of the poor and the homeless. Despite claiming his ideal society would deal with them, his attitudes toward them show the opposite. Rothbard made it a common habit of ridiculing welfare and sometimes went further in extended his disdain to the poor as well.
A notable example is Chapter 8 of his book For a New Liberty . Rothbard took light jabs at the welfare state and the homeless up until that point before going into delivering brutal hooks against welfare and the less fortunate. His points and solutions display his flagrant favoritism towards the rich while giving middle fingers to those who weren't.
As if that wasn't enough, Rothbard said that police should be administered on the homeless to "clear the streets of bums and vagrants." In regards to where they would go, Rothbard's reply merely said "who cares?"
Ethical system and children
Rothbard reminds us that reasoning completely from first principles and paying attention only to the means rather than the ends can lead to truly batshit heights of insanity, envisioning the wonders of a "free baby market":
Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive. (Again, whether or not a parent has a moral rather than a legally enforceable obligation to keep his child alive is a completely separate question.) This rule allows us to solve such vexing questions as: should a parent have the right to allow a deformed baby to die (e.g., by not feeding it)? The answer is of course yes, following a fortiori from the larger right to allow any baby, whether deformed or not, to die. (Though, as we shall see below, in a libertarian society the existence of a free baby market will bring such “neglect” down to a minimum.)
Rothbard also held that children should have more legal rights. Quite a reasonable view. But that is quickly overshadowed by his eye opening statements that they should also not face any punishment, such as being imprisoned at juvenile halls, by society for doing things adults are allowed to do. Rothbard says these rights include the right to smoke, drink and engage in sexual acts no matter the age of children.
Further adding to his controversial views was his stance on child labor laws. Rothbard was adamant that children should be allowed to work, not be forced into schools, and viewed child labor laws as immoral.
As Rothbard explains:
The rights of children, even more than those of parents, have been systematically invaded by the state. Compulsory school attendance laws, endemic in the United States since the turn of this century, force children either into public schools or into private schools officially approved by the state. Supposedly “humanitarian” child labor laws have systematically forcibly prevented children from entering the labor force, thereby privileging their adult competitors. Forcibly prevented from working and earning a living, and forced into schools which they often dislike or are not suited for, children often become “truants,” a charge used by the state to corral them into penal institutions in the name of “reform” schools, where children are in effect imprisoned for actions or non-actions that would never be considered “crimes” if committed by adults.
Besides being horrifying and insane, the bulk of Rothbard's views on children ignore the huge elephant in the room: the majority of children, due to the their still ongoing development period, are unable to function as independent individuals and act responsibly. They also have very underdeveloped bodies meaning that if they were to execute some of the freedoms adults have then they're far more at risk for hurting or even killing themselves more easily.
Children need care, guidance, protection, proper parenting, educations and limitations placed upon them until they are more responsible. Without them, children will not develop properly. Though it might ruffle the feathers of radical libertarians like Rothbard, this does require a necessary amount of coercion in order to make them do things they may not want to do. That's not immoral, it's necessary and common sense in raising them to be healthy, intelligent and moral adults.
By the way, all of Rothbard's views above were stated in the span of a single chapter in a book he wrote. Quite an impressive feat to cram so many bad ideas about children into such a few pages.
- Black Power, actually; he praised the revolutionary stance of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panther Party while being critical of Martin Luther King as "the major restraining force on the developing Negro revolution."
- The Irrepressible Rothbard, Essays of Murray N. Rothbard, December 1994
- Right-Wing Populism, January 1992
- Reason - Who Wrote Ron Paul's Racist Newsletters?
- Race! That Murray Book, in The Irrepressible Rothbard
- "The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult"
- "Mozart was a Red," with introduction by Justin Raimondo
- Performance of the play at the Ludwig von Mises Institute for Rothbard's birthday
- "The New Libertarian Vanguard", The Libertarian Forum November-December 1982, p. 8
- "Attica", The Libertarian Forum, October 1971, p. 1
- He said some astonishingly batshit things during this period that were at odds with his views two decades earlier, such as praising David Duke and the police beating of Rodney King.
- Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty Ch. 29.
- Rothbard, "Do You Hate the State?", The Libertarian Forum Vol. 10, No. 7, July 1977.
- Rothbard, "Confiscation and the Homestead Principle", The Libertarian Forum Vol. 1, No. 6, (15 June 1969).
- "Nations by Consent: Decomposing the State" Journal of Libertarian Studies Fall 1994
- The site openborders.info is run by some (mostly) libertarian friends of his who use it to post arguments against borders
- Borders are just another government scam
- On Free Immigration and Forced Integration
- On Immigration: Reply to Hoppe Journal of Libertarian Studies Fall 2007
- Peter Hans Matthews and Andreas Ortmann. An Austrian (Mis)Reads Adam Smith: A Critique of Rothbard as Intellectual Historian. Center for Economic Research and Graduate Education (CERGE), Oct. 1999
- Right-Wing Populism, January 1992... again.
- Chapter 14 in the Ethics of Liberty