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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Remembering Rothbard

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the death of Murray Rothbard, arguably the most important libertarian theorist of the twentieth century.  Although I only met him once in person, his work was influential in developing my “calling” in a number of ways, and the way he approached his scholarly and activist work for libertarianism over his life provides a number of lessons for advancing our own callings and the freedom movement more broadly.

Put simply, I don’t think I would be where I am today without Rothbard’s work.  I first became interested in libertarianism in my mid-teens after stumbling across Robert Ringer’s book Restoring the American Dream by chance while working at the local public library.  I found his very accessible case for libertarianism persuasive and, being the curious budding intellectual that I was, I looked at his bibliography for more things to read.  I wrote down a couple of titles and searched the public library’s card catalog (yes, it was that long ago) to see what we had.  The first book in the stacks, believe it or not, was Rothbard’s For a New Liberty.  It took me a few years to realize the irony of discovering that book in a public library, an irony that would have elicited Rothbard’s unmistakably joyous cackle if he heard the story.

I devoured the book quickly and was pretty much instantly convinced of the case for radical libertarianism.  It was a serious, intellectually rich book that carried with it the passion of someone who saw injustice and had a clear vision of a better world.  That book also sketched a vision of the free society that continues to motivate me to this day.

And in the one chance I had to really interact with him, at a series of lectures he gave in the early days of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, when it was located on Capitol Hill, he was not just brilliant and funny but also very gracious to a group of graduate students who were already known to be somewhat critical of aspects of his economics.  He autographed books for us, and I still treasure those copies.  His personal magnetism was a big part of his ability to persuade so many people to the cause of liberty.

As much as Rothbard was, and remains, an inspiration for why I do what I do today, like the rest of us, he was not without his flaws.  His deep passion sometimes spilled over into an impatience with and intolerance toward those who would push the libertarian movement, or Austrian economics, in directions he didn’t think were right.  He thought it was important to maintain a certain sort of purity in the freedom movement, and he often reserved his harshest criticisms for those in the movement who he thought were “contaminating” it in various ways.  He constantly shifted his alliances from the right to the left and back again, ending with the (unfortunate in my view) “paleo-libertarianism” of his last few years.  In the process, he broke from various individuals and organizations and left hurt feelings and frustrations that continue to bedevil the freedom movement to this day.

That behavior was, I think, a product of the impatience that accompanied his passion for liberty.  Murray simply could not wait to make the world more free;  he had to do whatever it took to accomplish that goal as soon as possible.  As admirable as that passion was — and it should be a part of what we do today — it has to be tempered by a degree of patience that prevents us from narrowing our field of vision and alienating those who share our goals.  We can’t let our passion bubble over so much that it damages what we are trying to accomplish.

Over the years I have also turned to another thinker as a role model for my academic work: the Austrian economist Israel Kirzner.  Kirzner’s patient and deep scholarship, and commitment above all else to truth in economic understanding, should be an inspiration for those of us in the scholarly world.  But what’s missing from Kirzner is exactly what Rothbard at his best provided:  a clear and radical vision of the free society and a passion for that freedom which was present on every page.

What libertarianism needs right now, when the stakes in the battle of ideas have never been higher, is the passion of Rothbard tempered by the patient and deep scholarly values of Kirzner, with both put in the service of the vision of the free society that Rothbard gave us during his long and illustrious career.  Whatever his flaws, Rothbard’s work and his deep commitment to human freedom remain an inspiration to many libertarians and are an important part of my calling to the work I do.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.