Ludwig von Mises Institute • 2000 • 321 pages • $15.00 paperback
Young students of music, if they are at all serious about the subject, must sooner or later be introduced to Bach. Whatever else one might play or study, music without Bach would be terribly incomplete. Older musicians understand that they must introduce the rising generation to the works of the great master.
So it is also, I submit, with young students of liberty and the writings of the late Murray Rothbard. Rothbard (1926-1995), economist, philosopher, historian, and essayist par excellence, performed intellectual feats on behalf of freedom that are as vital to the literature of liberty as are Bach’s preludes and fugues to the literature of the organ. In this volume, the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor David Gordon play the role of older musician by putting back into print a tremendous collection of Rothbard’s essays.
The book shows two things about Rothbard. First, the remarkable scope of his mind: the 16 essays presented here range from a devastating assault on the “women’s liberation” movement to an analysis of the nineteenth-century anarchist Lysander Spooner; a dissection of the essence of the state to an argument for the rights of children. The reader cannot but marvel at the encyclopedic display of knowledge they contain.
The second characteristic is his logical consistency. Rothbard argued that the proper approach to economics was logical deduction from the fundamental principle that human beings act purposefully to achieve their objectives. His writings on economic questions hew to that idea, but so do his writings on contemporary issues. He starts from libertarian axioms and deduces the correct policy, much as one would prove a point in geometry. Rothbard is useful, then, not just for arriving at right conclusions, but also for demonstrating the process of thinking matters through. At a time when sloppy, emotion-laden argumentation is found almost everywhere, Rothbard is a beacon of intellectual rigor.
In a short review, I can do no more than offer up a few appetizers to entice the reader. So here goes.
The book’s title essay takes dead aim at the prevalent notion that government policy ought to promote equality in any respect except equality before the law. Equality has become a default position, with every law ostensibly adopted to bring about more equality treated as presumptively good. Rothbard won’t have it, arguing that egalitarianism is a revolt against nature. Equality is not in the natural order of things, and the crusade to make everyone equal in every respect (except before the law) is certain to have disastrous consequences. Rothbard writes, “At the heart of the egalitarian left is the pathological belief that there is no structure of reality; that all the world is a tabula rasa that can be changed at any moment in any desired direction by the mere exercise of human will.” Learning that there is nothing sacred or lovely about forced equality—now there is a crucial lesson for any student of liberty.
Another justly famous essay included is “The Anatomy of the State.” That piece stands in relation to our modern political debate as Galileo’s observations about the solar system stood in relation to seventeenth-century theology. Rothbard argues brilliantly that the state is nothing more than the evolution of marauding plunderers of ancient times who realized that their plundering would be more secure and pleasant if they could convince the conquered people to willingly give up their tribute payments—that is, taxes—rather than fighting to keep the fruit of their labors all for themselves. Rothbard’s discussion of the means by which rulers manage to accomplish that and thereby cement their control is by itself worth many times the price of the book.
Another crucial question Rothbard takes up more than once is the best ground for the defense of freedom. Many advocates of laissez faire base their arguments on utilitarianism, contending that we ought to get rid of (to pick an example) the minimum wage because it does not lead to “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Rothbard disagrees. What is chiefly wrong with interventionist policies, he argues, is not that they get in the way of wealth maximization, but that they are unjust. Consider this passage from “Why Be Libertarian?”: “[A] flourishing libertarian movement, a lifelong dedication to liberty, can only be grounded on a passion for justice. Here must be the mainspring of our drive, the armor that will sustain us in all the storms ahead, not the search for a quick buck, the playing of intellectual games or the cool calculation of general economic gains.”
In these sharp, erudite pages, statist myths topple like tenpins. Buy a copy of Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature for yourself and then buy a copy for any intelligent high-school or college student you’d like to see put on the right philosophical track.
George Leef is the book review editor of Ideas on Liberty.