An Enemy of the State

This review is from: An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard

I first heard of Murray Rothbard in 1970 when I was a high-school student researching the Depression. My kid brother pulled Rothbard’s “America’s Great Depression” off the shelf of our local public library and suggested I might find it useful.

I was at the age where I was exploring a variety of political perspectives, from John Kenneth Galbraith to Ayn Rand, but I soon recognized that Rothbard was unique.

It was only in the late ’70s, as a graduate student at Stanford, that I actually had a chance to meet Rothbard in person. At the time, the national libertarian movement (the Cato Institute, the Center for Libertarian Studies, the Institute for Humane Studies, etc.) had, for various reasons, come to be based in the San Francisco Bay Area, near Stanford, and I had a chance to meet not only Rothabrd but a number of other leading figures in the movement, including Justin Raimondo, the author of this biography of Rothbard.

I was thus peripherally involved in some of the incidents described in this book — for example, I was a member of the “Radical Caucus,” founded by Rainmondo and led by Rothbard. I can therefore testify that, as far as my personal knowledge is concerned, Raimondo has reported accurately, even where he himself differed from Rothbard (for example, on the 1984 Presidential campaign, when Rothbard and I were on the opposite side from Raimondo).

Above all, Raimondo paints an accurate picture of Rothbard as a person: Rothbard was joyously ebullient, voraciously curious, and, while politically passionate, always a gentleman. Over the years, I myself differed from Rothbard on a number of issues — ranging from intellectual property law to policy in Central America — but I know of no case in which Rothbard ever behaved in a dishonorable manner.

Rothbard reoriented the thinking of those in our generation who had a serious interest in issues of political philosophy and government. He differed from other advocates of individual rights and limited government in that he combined a rigorously logical understanding of the structure of human rights with an unflinchingly detailed empirical understanding of human history.

He taught us three central lessons:

1. Government — all governments everywhere — exists to enable some human beings to control and manipulate other human beings. While an occasional purpose of government is to interfere with others’ private lives and control their ideas and/or values, the overarching purpose of government is to enable some people to live at the expense of others via taxation, forced labor, etc.

2. The history of humankind is therefore the record of the struggle between Liberty and Power, between those humans who simply wish to be left alone to live their lives in peace and those who wish to control other human beings. Historians who portray the past as primarily consensus rather than conflict or as the inevitable triumph of impersonal, progressive social forces are lying apologists for tyranny.

3. War is, above all, the means by which government expands its power, not simply by seizing the population and territory of other states but, more importantly, as a means of intensifying and deepening its control of its own populace — curtailing civil liberties, whipping up nationalist hysteria, increasing the burden of taxation, etc. You cannot favor individual rights, private property, and free markets and also favor war.

Of course, these lessons were, to a large degree, as Rothbard himself recognized, simply a matter of relearning the lessons of the radical liberals of the nineteenth century, of the Jeffersonian wing of the American founding, and of the founding libertarians (such as John Lilburne and the American Roger Williams) of the seventeenth-century English Revolution. But Rothbard presented these lessons in a clearer and more straightforward manner, backed by a wealth of historical understanding, than ever before.

For those of us previously exposed to the “conservatism” of William F. Buckley and his “New Right” circle (Buckley actually advocated, in his own words, a “totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores…” to pursue the war against international Communism!) or the “laissez-faire capitalism” of Ayn Rand (who argued that government was basically legitimate but that government somehow always ended up mysteriously diverted from its legitimate purpose), Rothbard came as a clarifying thunderclap out of the blue.

The Randians did not much care about history (Rand’s “history” of philosophy was a cartoonish caricature) and the “conservatives” had little interest in either rigorous thinking or critical history. Rothbard, on the contrary, demanded that we pursue a serious study of economic theory, of the ethics of natural rights, and of the actual events of Western history.

In 1965, Rothbard predicted the collapse of the Soviet empire: based on his knowledge as an economist, he recognized that socialism could not succeed, and, using his knowledge of intellectual history, he predicted that the ideas of Locke and Jefferson, would, in the end, defeat the ideas of Marx and Lenin.

In the final years of his life, after the Soviet Empire had been swept into the dustbin of history, Rothbard correctly foresaw that the struggle over American imperialism would become the primary focus of world affairs, as is now clear to everyone in the wake of the “Bush doctrine” and the American attempt to conquer the Mideast.

As Raimondo discusses in detail, Rothbard pursued a variety of political alliances over the years, always with the goal of advancing his central aim, the freedom of the individual human being. Building on the great legacy of Western liberalism, Rothbard has left us an overarching framework, a powerful set of intellectual tools, for understanding the process of domination and exploitation, and ultimately, for bringing about the triumph of human freedom.

It is now up to us to further hone those tools and to learn to apply them to strip away the mask of Power and restore the natural rights of human beings both here in America and throughout the world.

1 thought on “An Enemy of the State

  1. John DavidI think that you missed the point. Admittedly, my thraaowwy line may have encouraged that.I was merely saying that if libertarian ideas about human motivation/psychology/spirit are correct, then libertarian political government is impossible.

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