On Rothbard and Different Kinds of Libertarians

Recall that Smith was disatisfied by my non-treatment of Rothbard. He wrote,


Nor are any of Rothbard’s writings, such as For a New Liberty, listed in “Suggestions for Further Reading.”

Actually, in that very section (on p. 196 under “libertarian anarchism”), I recommend Rothbard’s For a New Liberty.


Rothbard’s name does not even appear in Brennan’s discussion of libertarian anarchism.

True, but I only name one person there, and only because I’m quoting him saying something funny.

In my last post, some readers got the impression that I was deliberately excluding Murray Rothbard. That’s partly my fault. But I didn’t ignore him so much as, well, he didn’t need to come up.

In fact, when writing the book, I generally found it unnecessary to bring up differences among libertarians. I say:

In popular discussions, people sometimes use “libertarian” in a narrow way, just to refer to hard libertarians. They sometimes use “libertarian” in a broader way, to refer to anyone who advocates free markets, property rights, and an open and tolerant society. This books uses “libertarian” in the broader sense, to include classical liberals, hard libertarians, and neoclassical liberals. At times, I will refer specifically to one of these three camps. When I describe what libertarians think, I generalize among them.

The thing is, I rarely have to re-introduce these distinctions. They don’t seem to make much difference. For instance, when talking about the drug war, I could just say, as many expect libertarians to say, “Well, libertarians say let people use drugs though the sky falls, period, because it’s their natural right to do so.” But the book would have sucked if every question were answered that way. Instead, I discussed why libertarians think the consequences of the drug war have been disastrous. And so it went for most of the other 104 questions in the book. I only brought up the differences when they made a difference, and they rarely did.

Some libertarians first try to answer every question by smacking the reader upside the head with a controversial moral theory. Not me. When I’m answering questions like, “What would libertarians do about the War on Terror?” or “Do libertarians support international aid?”, I first put myself in a reader’s shoes. Why would a smart, morally decent, non-libertarian ask that question? What would her concerns be? And then I try to address those concerns. I won’t address them by saying, “International aid requires taxes which requires theft so it’s evil!” Instead, I say,

Libertarians respond that this is the wrong question. If we really want to help the rest of the world, we shouldn’t open our wallets to provide foreign aid. We should instead open our borders to allow free immigration.



  • Kyle Nearhood

    To an economist Rothbard’s economic texts were worth reading. And most of his libertarian views would probably be shared by all on this site. But in many ways Rothbard was a bizarre and somewhat petty misanthrope. And some of his writings, especially toward the end of his life were really “out there”.

    However I find Rothbard to be somewhat representative of a certain type whom is greatly represented among libertarians. A person who is at once eccentric, doctrinaire, and combative. If any of you have ever attended a convention of the Libertarian party you will know what I am talking about.

    • Sean II

      I’ll grant you most of that. There’s something off-putting about Rothbard, and I mean apart from any specific problems with his ideas. It comes across quite clearly when you listen to one of his recorded lectures. He’s got the voice, the tone, and the breathless speech pattern of a charismatic rather than a rational thinker.

      Of course one might not notice or care about that, if not for the problems with his content. Both he and Rand seem to have developed part of their philosophies on a dare, as if to say “You think I won’t construct an argument for letting kids starve to death or [insert conscience-shocking conclusion here]? Just fucking try me, and you’ll find out I’m not afraid to do it!”.

      But in the spirit of giving him a fair trial, let me offer a couple of points…

      1) We should cut Rothbard (and Rand) some slack for living through what might be the worst time in modern history to be a libertarian public intellectual. The 30s and 40s were a kind of global low point for actual liberty, but the 50s, 60s & 70s were pretty awful in terms of libertarian culture. When no one is listening to you, when everyone hates you for unjust or bad reasons, it must be easy to become doctrinaire, eccentric, and combative…and thus to start giving people some very good reasons to hate you, which thereafter get mixed in with the bad.

      2) It may be that Rothbard was more of a minor economist and movement leader than he was a philosopher (making him an example of Rothbard’s Law, since he would have spent his life laboring at a weakness instead of a strength). But let’s be fair: the market in ideas is prone to occasional speculative frenzies that leave us forever stuck with insanely overrated figures, who get so much attention they couldn’t possibly live up to it. Rawls, Habermas, & Nussbaum all come to mind for me, though I’m sure plenty of others would disagree.

      So why is it okay for those characters to have market share far beyond their merit, while Rothbard must be put in check by being ignored? In plenty of other cases, fame and popularity are accepted as substitutes for, or supplements to, straight-up intellectual merit. Everyone talks about Rawls in part because so much has been writing and said about him over the years. At this point, his reputation could get by on the strength of his reputation, and even if his whole theory were exploded by some devastating critique tomorrow, a cottage industry would spring up to rebuild and repair it the day after that.

      It seems if Rawls is eligible for that kind of care and attention, Rothbard should be too.

      • Fallon

        Do you mean Rothbard was a “minor economist” in terms of contribution to the science or in popularity? Could you explain.

        • Sean II

          Whatever is least likely to provoke a fight about Rothbard’s place in intellectual history…that’s what I mean.

          I’m in no position to rigorously defend any assigned rank for Rothbard among Austrian economists, much less among economists in general.

          The sense I get, and I’m probably not alone here, is that he was a really interesting student of the Austrian school, without necessarily becoming one of its key theorists. At a minimum I hope people would give him credit for being a manically energetic synthesizer and popularizer of ideas which, although originated by other people, might have remained long neglected or even abandoned if not for his efforts. Surely we owe him that much, along with the constructive attention I suggested he should receive in my previous comment.

          It’s not exactly a fair test, but whenever someone starts talking to me about the greatness of a given thinker or writer or book or seminar, I like to ask them: “What’s the most important thing you learned from ______ in 20 seconds?”

          If you ask “why is Menger important?”, someone will say “that’s easy – marginal utility.” You get that answer without delay. If you ask about Bastiat, you get “the seen and the unseen”. If you ask about Mises, someone will always bring up praxeology (whether they like it or not). If you ask about Hayek, you get “calculation problem”, “spontaneous order”, etc. Of course it takes longer than 20 seconds to discuss all those things, but they can easily be named within the time limit.

          I’ve noticed something interesting happens when you address that question to Rothbard’s fans. Often they respond by simply praising the quantity and variety of his intellectual output. Sometime they say something truly strange, like “How dare you ask that? Have you even read his dissertation on the Panic of 1819?”

          What they rarely seem able to do, and perhaps you can show me wrong on this, is to give Rothbard credit for that one breakthrough idea or concept that would make him something more than a minor economist.

          Not too long ago, there was a link here to a fairly embarrassing clip of Tom Woods peevishly trying to defend Rothbard’s legacy and status against his critics. Not only did his defense fail to pass my 20 second test, but indeed Woods ended up crudely accusing all Rothbard skeptics of suffering from a chronic case of envy.

          My question is: if Woods had better cards than that, why didn’t he just play them?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            For what its worth, here is my $.02 on Rothbard as a philosopher (I leave the economics to better qualified folks). I think he deserves credit for demanding answers to certain questions that most people had not previously taken too seriously: can a state, any state, by morally justified; by what right does the state coerce people; why do philosophers so readily assume that property rights are the poor step-children of the rights family, etc. Having said this, I think that “minor” is a fair description, because I think that to break into the major leagues, you not only must ask the right questions but must at least suggest interesting answers and offer cogent arguments for them. In my opinion, he didn’t really pass this test.
            If you applied the 20 second test to Nozick, you could compile quite a list. He was a star not just in polituical philsophy, but made important contributions in entirely different fields. Some of the remarks he made literally in passing–just a couple of paragraphs–have provoked extensive discussion/debate amongst philosophers, e.g. the “experience machine” argument against utilitarianism.
            Its interesting, because in discussions between the two men Rothbard got under Nozick’s skin enough with his pestering questions that he provoked Nozick into enterring political phislophy, when his original interests were elsewhere. And, in the preface to ASU, Nozick speaks of “Since many of the people who take a similar position are narrow and rigid…my now having natural responses which fit the theory puts me in some bad company.” Was he referring to Rothbard here?

          • Fallon

            Thanks Sean. Good points. Part of the reason that Rothbard does not have the wow factor of his Austrian predecessors might be that his original goal was merely to rehash Mises’s Human Action for a general audience. Mises had made a significant leap to completely systematize deductive economics. Rothbard ended up ditching the simplicity and completed a towering treatise as well. Along the way, Rothbard noticed problems with Mises, e.g. on marginal utility and monopoly, and sought to correct them. What weight Rothbard’s contributions ought to be credited with– I am not prepared to ascertain.

            Should any philosopher worth her tenure be content to merely critique Rothbard’s “ought” side, the political/moral/ethical thought, without addressing the “is”, e.g. economics? Even if Rothbard did not have the “ought” particularly solid– it is no justification to dismiss his economics. If self-ownership is a conceptual failure, it does not mean that the logical scientific statement “only individuals act” is invalid too!

      • Aeon Skoble

        SeanII- spot on.

      • Kyle Nearhood

        Good reply, I agree with your points.

  • martinbrock

    The United State should open its borders to free immigration. My borders are already open. Countless people should open their wallets to foreign aid, assisting others that they know needing their help, but I can’t realistically expect the United State to help others this way with wealth confiscated from others.

    I’m far from a Rothbardian myself, and I’ve never attended a Libertarian party convention or much supported the party, but I attended my first Mises Institute Summit this year and found only friends there. I’ve read Ethics of Liberty and Man, Economy and State and can disagree with Rothbard, but I find him much less disagreeable than George W. Bush or Barack Obama. If that makes me eccentric and doctrinaire, I guess I’m still happy being me.

    • Kyle Nearhood

      Yes, well, of course any libertarian or classic liberal will be better intellectual company than hack, big government politicians.

  • famadeo

    It’s not always clear to me whether libertarians are fundamentally against the state or fundamentally for the individual.

    • j r

      That depends on the particular libertarian.

      • famadeo

        That’s a problem. Insofar as it expects to meet the pretense of the political philosophy of freedom par excellence, it’ doesn’t make sense to simply opose the state.

  • 7xgardner

    This seems like an appropriate moment to link to Ed Feser’s epic takedown: “Rothbard as a philosopher”. Little more need be added except to say that “For a New Liberty” is probably the worst reading recommendation one could make if the goal is to appeal to a skeptical audience. I doubt whether it has ‘converted’ anyone who didn’t already believe in ‘natural law’ or wasn’t already a libertarian.


      Yes, anyone tempted to uncritically accept self-ownership or other of Rothbard’s basic claims should read this first as a vacination, as it were.

    • Fallon

      My first impression, and thanks for the link, is that Feser tries to make his “takedown” of Rothbardian self-ownership do too much. Even if his critique is correct– it in no way validates his own assertions that the state and taxation are necessary. Argument from tradition, social evolution or deistic pronouncement, which I suspect makes up a good portion of Feser– correct me if I am wrong– are way more bottomless and arbitrary than Rothbard’s natural law approach.