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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Murray Rothbard

In 1946 the fledgling Foundation for Economic Education published a pamphlet titled “Roofs or Ceilings: The Current Housing Problem,” a brief against rent control written by two unknown young economists: Milton Friedman and George Stigler. They would go on to win the Nobel Prize in economics in 1976 and 1982, respectively.

That’s a remarkable story. But just as remarkable is what that pamphlet led to. When it was issued, Stigler, then teaching at Columbia University (his University of Chicago days still lay ahead), told a young student about it, perhaps changing American intellectual history.

The student was Murray Rothbard.

“Rothbard,” writes Brian Doherty in Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, “was delighted to learn of an organization promoting his political and economic values. . . . By 1948, Leonard Read had already noted young Rothbard’s deep knowledge of market economics and libertarian principles (and their history) and began to lean on him to vet articles for FEE.”

On visits to FEE Rothbard met Frank Chodorov, the prolific libertarian author who edited The Freeman the first year after Read acquired it. “Chodorov helped introduce Rothbard to the works of [Albert Jay] Nock, Herbert Spencer, Garet Garrett, and Isabel Paterson, among others,” Doherty reports. It wasn’t long before he encountered Ludwig von Mises, an adviser to Read.

Thus Rothbard, who went on to become one of the great natural-law libertarian figures in history and an indefatigable advocate/elaborator of Misesian (Austrian) economics in method and substance, can be said to have received vital intellectual nourishment at FEE’s Irvington-on-Hudson estate.

Rothbard, who died 15 years ago, was at once a beloved and controversial figure. He was one of the very few individuals who shaped the modern freedom movement at its start. Even advocates of the freedom philosophy who never read a word he wrote have been influenced by him. With a passion nonpareil, Rothbard set out to create a self-conscious libertarian movement, which he accomplished through his activism and charisma, as well as through his writings—from the scholarly to the popular—in economics, history, political philosophy, and social criticism. For one man to have turned out Man, Economy, and State/Power and Market; America’s Great Depression; The Ethics of Liberty; Conceived in Liberty (four volumes on American history through the Revolutionary War); For a New Liberty—and so much more—is something astounding. We probably won’t see his likes again. (See David Gordon’s Freeman article, “Murray Rothbard’s Philosophy of Freedom.”)

I feel lucky to have known Murray. He was always a delight to be around, whether talking about some obscure historical figure, traditional jazz (before the electric guitar intruded), classic movies, or the future of liberty. He was unfailingly optimistic and ever ready for a laugh. He was what he called H. L. Mencken (whom he treasured): “the joyous libertarian.”

To say that he was controversial even within the freedom movement is an obvious understatement. His application of libertarian and market principles to even the “traditional functions” of limited government—that is, his belief that the free market can and should provide all legitimate services competitively—stirs heated debate today. While his originality in the matter he called “anarcho-capitalism” is clear, he himself might say he was simply picking up the baton carried by the pioneering nineteenth-century free-market economist Gustave de Molinari, whose seminal essay, “The Production of Security,” Rothbard first brought to American libertarians.

Whatever one thinks of Rothbard’s answer to the question raised therein, there can be no doubting the value of the question itself; it forces one to examine the contours of liberty, the nature of the State, and therefore the very possibility of limiting its powers.

Those who cherish liberty cannot calculate their debt to Murray Rothbard.

* * *

We lead off with the winning essay in the second annual Eugene S. Thorpe writing competition: Richard Fulmer’s “Legends of the Fall: The Real and Imagined Sources of Our Bubble Economy.” Of the 182 entries addressing the causes of the current housing and financial debacle, Richard Fulmer’s was judged the best. Congratulations, Richard!

As the practice of medicine becomes more bureaucratized by government intervention, the profession will change subtly and gradually, but patients will eventually notice the degradation in service. Such is where “reform” will lead, says Theodore Levy.

All during the debate over the reinvention of medical insurance, it was taken for granted that individuals should be forced to buy coverage. James Payne, who refuses, is ready to accept his status as a criminal.

Nien Cheng suffered unimaginable oppression at the hand of the Chinese communist regime but went on to be a passionate spokeswoman for freedom. On the occasion of her death, James Dorn offers a tribute to this heroic woman.

When people think of Africa, sadly, they think of poverty and oppression. But that has not been true for Botswana. Scott Beaulier explains this little-known success story.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a provocative writer who scoffs at the idea that human affairs can be predicted scientifically. Robert Murphy introduces us to the man who popularized the term “black swan.”

Ethanol is still in our gasoline, and besides all the bad things you’ve heard about it, it also harms engines. Michael Heberling has the details.

Broadly speaking, there are only so many ways for society to be organized, and only one is in harmony with freedom and human nature. Paul Cleveland and Art Carden elaborate.

Here’s what our columnists have whipped up: Lawrence Reed says he doesn’t care what you call yourself as long as you oppose aggressive force. Donald Boudreaux defines the rule of law. Robert Higgs discusses capital consumption during World War II. John Stossel dissects crony capitalism. Charles Baird anticipates how health care “reform” will help labor unions. And Ivan Pongracic, Jr., reading Paul Krugman’s claim that more government spending will fend off a 1937-style recession, responds, “It Just Ain’t So!”

Books on private schools for the poor, political capitalism, Herbert Hoover, and the Federal Reserve occupy our reviewers.

In Capital Letters, Thomas Szasz answers a reader’s concerns about religious identification and George Schwappach explains how carrying less health insurance saved him money.

—Sheldon Richman
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  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.