Was Rothbard Really So Intransigent?
David Gordon's recent article regarding the late Murray Rothbard's keen interest in handicapping political races shows that Rothbard was hardly bound up in a world of theoretical abstractions. But critics of Rothbard often claim that his supposed intransigence, his unwillingness to compromise on matters of libertarian principle, rendered him a less effective advocate in the real world. Not coincidentally, the same was said of Rothbard’s great mentor, Ludwig von Mises.
But our newly released book of Rothbard’s essays from the 1960s shows that Rothbard was entirely comfortable with the practical and strategic considerations involved in building a movement. Never a Dull Moment: A Libertarian Look at the Sixties provides several great examples of his willingness to work across ideological or party lines to advance a cause—and in that era, one of Murray’s ardent causes was opposing the Vietnam War.
Hence the book gives readers a good look into what editor Justin Raimondo terms Rothbard’s “left” period, where he found allies among Mario Savio and radical students groups at Berkeley; among “draft dodgers"; among radical black supporters of Malcom X; and among Palestinians suffering under US- funded dislocation. That the majority of individuals involved in these causes might be left-wing or even communist in their sympathies did not go unnoticed by Murray: on the contrary, he relished debate and viewed any common cause as a chance to educate people about libertarianism and the errors of their statist thinking. If someone can understand the Vietnam War as an aggressive, immoral, costly, wasteful, and futile exercise, why not convince them to oppose LBJ’s domestic schemes on the same grounds?
But as Raimondo explains in the book’s introduction, seeking areas of agreement did not mean watering down the message:
Rothbard didn’t pander: he didn’t try to imitate the rhetoric of the students, he didn’t insult them by trying to make them think he was “cool”: Rothbard was strictly Old School, and never pretended otherwise. What he did was apply libertarian principles to the concrete day-to-day issues that rose up in those two tumultuous years, revealing the radical evil of the State and the unadorned radicalism of the libertarian stance in every case.
He didn’t pretend to be a leftist: the idea was to win over the left-leaning students, and the revolutionary blacks, to libertarianism, not to masquerade in the fashionable rhetoric of the moment. He never disguised or watered down his libertarianism to suit his audience: unlike the self-styled “left-libertarians” of today, he rejected any modification or “addition” to the central axiom of libertarian political theory, which is the nonaggression principle plain and simple. In answer to the “check your privilege” sloganeering of the cultural left, Rothbard would have said “Check your cultural prejudices at the door.”
Mises, of course, came from a very different place and time than Rothbard. Having seen what the Soviets did to Russia and what the Nazis did to Europe, he did not countenance outreach to leftists of any political stripe. A letter to Mises from his friend Lawrence Fertig in 1968 expresses what many may have thought about Rothbard's alliances:
Among the things which are really disturbing is the case of Murray Rothbard. I enclose the current issue of National Review. . . . Now he is allied with the New Left. Imagine that!
But it’s telling that the majority of Rothbard’s modern critics accuse him of pandering to the right, of using populist and “isolationist” rhetoric to move conservatives, evangelicals, and even (horror!) Southerners toward more libertarian positions. But what exactly is the harm in this? And doesn’t the accusation that he somehow stooped to using populist strategies refute the claims he was too academic, dogmatic, or rigidly philosophical in his approach?
Rothbard did reach out to the disaffected right. He expressed a “rooting interest” (vs. a voting endorsement) for George Bush Sr. as the Rockefeller Republican choice in a neoconservative-dominated GOP; for Pat Buchanan as a flawed protectionist who nonetheless favored nonintervention abroad; and for Ross Perot as a straight-talking Texan who opposed the Gulf War and would “throw a monkey wrench into the DC machinery.”
But Murray’s tepid support for flawed candidates, like his support for leftwing antiwar groups, was always based on the fundamental libertarian principle of minimizing war and aggression. His simple credo, later adopted by Ron Paul in Congress, could be summarized as follows: Any person who takes a libertarian position on any issue, for any reason, is a potential ally. As long as we don’t compromise on principles, we should welcome and work with anyone who wants to advance liberty even a fraction of an inch.
So if Code Pink activists didn't like the Iraq War mostly out of an irrational hatred for George W. Bush, who cares? Libertarians should have been busy reaching out to them to build a coalition that might have prevented a disaster. If the right wing wants to resurrect the 10th amendment and talk about secession primarily because they’re losing the culture wars, libertarians should join them to advance the central libertarian goal of political decentralization.
Rothbard, far more than his Beltway critics, understood the practical necessity of working with diverse people on an issue by issue basis. He understood that from a purely tactical libertarian perspective, motivations are less important than building coalitions. So rather than see Rothbard as a purist who wouldn’t budge an inch, we should see him as he really was: a happy warrior who could put aside ideological, social, and cultural differences to advance liberty.