Review of Justin Raimondo – An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), 400 pp.
First Published in Liberty, November 2000.
David Ramsay Steele
Murray Rothbard was a powerful and lovable character. Those who knew him can still fondly recall his indignant squeal of “Monstrous!”, a characteristic response to the latest outrage, often a deviation from the Rothbardian ideological line du jour. Murray was a knowledgeable propagandist and stimulating essayist who offered libertarians an alternative to the Death Star of the Rand cult and thus played a pivotal role in shaping the reborn libertarian movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Justin Raimondo warns us that An Enemy of the State is not intended as a “full-scale biography” but rather as “little more than an extended biographical sketch” (p. 19). It’s a fragmentary and partial depiction of a remarkable person. More memoirs and sketches will follow from other hands, and no doubt many of them will contain correctives to Raimondo’s account.
Born in the Bronx in 1926, Murray Newton Rothbard emerged from a leftist milieu to become a strong conservative at a young age. As a scholar, he tried to develop an integral system of thought uniting ethics, economics, and political philosophy. As an activist he was not a founder or organizer–his wife is quoted as saying that “Murray couldn’t organize his way out of a paper bag” (p. 139). But he was a joiner of organizations, a former of factions and coalitions, and an inter-organizational intriguer.
Murray fancifully saw himself as something of a libertarian Lenin. While his dogmatic invective and propensity to conspire may sometimes have seemed reminiscent of the founder of Bolshevism, Rothbard was too playful, too volatile, and too much smitten by the allure of pure ideas to build or to lead a vanguard party.
His political life became an erratic succession of alliances, each one enthusiastically pursued for a few years, then angrily abandoned, with his erstwhile confederates anathematized, though unlike Rand he would sometimes team up with them again later, old differences forgiven if not forgotten.
Murray was allied with the Maoist group Progressive Labor in a struggle against the Independent Socialist Clubs for control of the Peace and Freedom Party. He joined the Libertarian Party, won battles within it, then (having reduced its effectiveness) tired of it and left in disappointment. He helped found the Cato Institute, which he named, and then bitterly broke with Cato. In his final years he severed connections with all libertarian enterprises, including Liberty, to join the “paleos,” rooting for Patrick Buchanan, then for Ross Perot, then (flipping again just before the 1996 election, a fact not included by Raimondo), for George Bush.
The Infatuation with Rand
In the 1950s Rothbard had his own New York libertarian group, which for a while interacted with Rand’s. Rothbard and Rand influenced each other before the unpleasant falling-out which was de rigueur with Rand and not at all rare with Rothbard. But Raimondo does not give us much information about these mutual influences and what he gives us is not reliable.
Throughout his book, Raimondo often won’t tell us what we want to know, and just as often tells us what we know ain’t so. The very existence of Liberty, let alone Rothbard’s involvement with it, has been dumped into Raimondo’s Memory Hole; Raimondo doesn’t seem to have consulted Rothbard’s 5,000-word account of his relationship with Rand, for instance Raimondo makes the startling claim that Ayn Rand was a determinist and an opponent of free will until she was argued out of that position by Rothbard around 1954. In Raimondo’s account, Rand held, until “at least 1954,” that anyone who believed in free will was “insane.”
But in her journals, Rand takes a clear stand in favor of free will, the earliest explicit argument being dated May 9th, 1934 (Journals of Ayn Rand, ed. David Harriman, 1999 , pp. 68-69). Other committal remarks on free will and determinism are from May 15th and August 18th of the same year (pp. 69-71, 245), October 25th, 1944 (p. 265), July 23rd, 1945 (p. 296), and March 8th, 1947 (p. 555). These Journals have been criticized for selective and inept editing, especially for the suppression of statements embarrassing to the present-day Objectivist church, but I hardly think that entire pages-long passages were fabricated and inserted by the editor.
For Raimondo to be correct, Rand must have first adopted a clearly thought-out free-will position, maintained this for some years if not decades, then for a few years abandoned it, then reverted to it under Rothbard’s influence (persuaded by arguments no better than she had herself propounded in her earlier pro-free-will days). This seems unlikely. On the other hand, Raimondo quotes (p. 114) from a Rothbard letter of August 1954, which appears to show that at this time, fresh from a discussion with Rand, Rothbard was convinced that she did reject free will. All I can guess is that Rothbard misunderstood something Rand had said in her thick Russian accent.
Raimondo’s cavalier treatment of this factual question casts doubt on many other factual claims on which I have no independent information. On a related matter, how seriously can we take the claim that Herbert Cornuelle convinced Rand to oppose eminent domain, which she had till then supported on the ground that it was in the Constitution? This “revelation” is also sourced to a recollection of Rothbard’s (p. 133).
Raimondo confirms that Rothbard became for a while virtually a member of the Rand cult, and reports that Rand introduced Rothbard to the philosophy of natural rights. Rothbard told Rand: “You introduced me to the whole field of natural rights and natural law philosophy, which I did not know existed . . .” (p. 133). Since Rothbard was a participant in Mises’s seminar and held a doctorate in American history, this statement is remarkable, yet it is by no means incredible.
After reading Atlas Shrugged in October 1957, Rothbard wrote a letter of drooling admiration to Rand, saying that “Atlas Shrugged is the greatest novel ever written” (p. 118), a judgment that could only be passed by someone who usually took no interest in novels. Rothbard confessed to Rand that “when, in the past, I heard your disciples refer to you . . . as one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived” he had thought this to be “the outpouring of a mystic cult. But, now, upon reading Atlas Shrugged, I find I was wrong” (p. 121).
To the alert Objectivist, Rothbard’s insolent suggestion that Rand was merely “one of” the greatest geniuses must have already betrayed the corruption in his soul. Within six months Rothbard decided he had been right the first time: his later article “The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult” is one of his most entertaining pieces.
Raimondo explains Rothbard’s brief infatuation with Rand the super-genius as a response to the situation of libertarian isolation. “In 1957, the few libertarian remnants of the Old Right had almost entirely faded away. Here, at last, were reinforcements: just when it seemed all was lost, the cavalry was coming over the hill” (121-22). This is a common depiction of the situation in the 1950s; it overstates the case by focusing on visible organizations at the expense of less conspicuous developments in opinion. The Road to Serfdom was published in 1944 and was immensely influential, both immediately and over the years. At Hayek’s instigation, the Mont Pèlerin Society was founded shortly afterwards. Already by the 1950s, Milton Friedman was an extremely effective propagandist for libertarian ideas, and in the 1960s Friedman was to become more effective than Rand or Rothbard would ever be.
Raimondo recounts once again some of the hilarious stories we have heard many times. Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, the second greatest philosopher since Aristotle and the most beautiful woman in the world, were (until they fell out with Rand in 1968) the Rand cult’s high priests and enforcers. The “psychologist” Nathaniel was also therapist for most cult members, including Rothbard. “Dr.” Branden proved unable to do anything for Rothbard’s emotional problem (what Raimondo calls his “travel phobia”), and decided that the only hope for a “cure” lay in Rothbard’s giving up all his Christian friends and converting his Christian wife, Joey, to atheism.
At one of the Rothbards’ last meetings with Rand, Joey Rothbard was asked to read through some arguments for atheism, with the understanding that, if she were unconvinced, Rothbard would be obliged to divorce her or forfeit any claim to rationality. The equally risible circumstances of Rothbard’s departure from the cult are also related, with Rothbard accused of plagiarizing from Rand and from Barbara Branden by repeating ideas which had, in fact, been commonplace for decades.
Barbara Branden has stated that Rothbard was in basic agreement with Rand’ s ideas, and Raimondo comments that this “is true in the narrow sense that they both were advocates of individualism and laissez-faire capitalism” (134). But it is true in a broader sense as well: Rothbard followed Rand in appealing to a similar kind of “natural rights” argument for libertarian principles, and this was only the most prominent instance of a tendency to settle major issues by deduction from apodictic axioms.
The Refutation of Statistics
Raimondo reproduces Rothbard’s account (p. 35) of how, having enrolled as a statistics major at Columbia, he experienced an “epiphany” during a lecture by Harold Hotelling, and walked out. Rothbard thought he had seen that statistics rests on one crucial assumption which was utterly groundless. The fatal flaw is reliance on the “bell curve” or normal distribution (p. 36).
If the young Rothbard really had found something that refuted all statistical theory, this would be a momentous discovery, and a great consolation to tobacco producers. But, 60 years on, the edifice of statistics has not registered any tremors.
In the Rothbard-Raimondo account, statisticians accept the bell curve because of a single example, the distribution of hits around the bull’s eye on a target. In fact, statisticians don’t view the bell curve as sacrosanct. Since a great many phenomena are, as a matter of fact, so close to normally distributed that the assumption of normal distribution will yield correct predictions, normal distribution can be treated as an empirical generalization and a useful instrument.
Alternatively, normal distribution can be strictly derived by the Central Limit Theorem, which shows that where some variable is influenced by a large number of unrelated random variables, that variable will be normally distributed. This result holds subject to certain conditions, which are very widely, but not universally, encountered. Statisticians are open to the possibility of non-normal distributions where these conditions don’t apply. It doesn’t seem likely that Rothbard successfully debunked all of statistics around 1942. However, this incident prefigures the Rothbard approach: treat all branches of human knowledge as resting on axioms, hastily dismiss the axioms of any disliked discipline, discount that discipline entirely, then move into the gaps so generated by establishing new disciplines based on more congenial axioms.
It’s entirely typical of Rothbard’s thinking that he would reject all of statistics because of some supposed fundamental conceptual flaw, then abandon his personal pursuit of statistical knowledge at an early stage, then develop his own praxeological approach to social science in slap-happy fashion, without much scruple as to rigor.
Although Rothbard’s criticisms of statistics and of mathematical methods in economics are wrong, his entire philosophical approach here is misguided. A science can make great progress without its conceptual foundations being correct or even free of absurdities. The conceptual foundations of arithmetic, for instance, are still controversial and still contain unresolved problems, but this does not mean that arithmetic ought to be disregarded. Typically, the conceptual foundations of a discipline only begin to be investigated centuries after the discipline has been developed. “Foundations” is just a metaphor.
The Dead Hand of Rothbardian Economics
Rothbard’s misguided views on methodology, insofar as they have influenced young free-market economists, have tended to wreck those economists’ chances of contributing anything enduring to economics. These Rothbardian economists tend to apply the body of theory which is common to Misesians and mainstream neoclassicals, on such matters as price controls, while rejecting on a priori methodological grounds most of the new theory which comes along. The wonderful insights of such truly outstanding thinkers as Ronald Coase and Gary Becker are ignored or deprecated. Meanwhile, effective criticism of the real dangers arising from the excessive proliferation of mathematical apparatus is nullified by the dogmatic and indefensible refusal to admit any math at all into economics.
Rothbard saddled a large section of the libertarian movement with his version of Austrian trade cycle theory, including its horror of “bank credit expansion” and its hostility to all “fractional reserves.” In the early 1970s I found that the Rothbardians I met, just like the Marxists I had known, were all looking forward to the next major slump.
The Innocence of Joe Stalin
Rothbard maintained that the West was wholly culpable, the Soviet Union wholly innocent, in responsibility for the Cold War. In Rothbard’s view, as in Raimondo’s, “there was no Russian ‘threat’ (p. 136).
The details of the West’s response to the growth of the Soviet empire are open to argument. Western powers have admittedly committed crimes and blunders. But the West could not have avoided the Cold War except by unconditional surrender. Trying to view Cold War history through Rothbardian eyes is a demanding exercise. In 1948 the West tricked the Communists into executing a coup in Czechoslovakia, innocently overthrowing a democratic regime and crushing all dissent. The Western powers followed this up with another devious stratagem in which they enticed the ingenue Stalin into blockading West Berlin, and then, crazed with anti-Communist prejudice, kept West Berlin alive by an airlift. In 1950 the West’s satanic machinations sank to new depths when it manipulated North Korea into naively invading the South–and then lost its temper, employing crude military force to rebuff this gauche overture of the North Koreans. So it went on, down to the Russian war in Afghanistan, one sad episode after another where the Kremlin was hypnotized into plunging its fragile and reluctant bayonet into the cynical bosoms of its neighbours.
Raimondo defends the Rothbardian position with the observation that since socialism doesn’t work, it must eventually collapse. But surely it makes a difference whether this collapse occurs before, or after, Soviet socialism has subjugated the entire world. If the West had unilaterally disarmed and retreated at every step, as Rothbard urged, the evil empire would still be very much alive today, and would now encompass much of Latin America, much of Africa, most of South and Southeast Asia, and possibly even parts of Western Europe.
A Great Mind?
Raimondo still believes that Rothbard was “one of the greatest minds of this century” (p. 237) and that his theoretical system is “the most important and interesting development in the modern history of ideas” (p.19). Perhaps to excuse Rothbard’s wayward political trajectory, Raimondo concludes that Rothbard viewed politics as “a kind of hobby–a vacation from the complex problems of theory that occupied the center of his attention.” (p. 173).
Most of the book is written without any evaluation of Rothbard’s conduct, therefore by omission leaving an impression of wholesale endorsement. Halfway through, I still thought that Raimondo was tacitly defending everything that Rothbard had done, but in the second half this breaks down a little.
We are briefly notified of a doubtful pattern in Rothbard’s behavior with respect to Karl Hess, and later Ed Crane (p. 218). (Hess, the former Goldwater speechwriter turned guerilla “enemy of the state,” was an ally of Rothbard in the late 1960s; Crane, head of the Cato Institute, was allied with Rothbard in the 1970s.) A bit later Raimondo tells us: “In the case of Crane, as in others, idealization soon turned to demonization when Rothbard’s great expectations were dashed on the rocks of reality” (p.236). Here we’re somewhat softened up for Raimondo’s account of his own breach with Rothbard (over the attempted nomination of Earl Ravenal as Libertarian Party presidential candidate), where Rothbard evidently couldn’t have been entirely in the right (pp. 245-47).
It would have made for a more interesting story if Raimondo had undertaken to explicitly evaluate the wisdom of Rothbard’s ever-changing tactical postures. This might have given the book a structure and perspective it lacks. Contrary to Raimondo’s view, agitprop was the historically significant side of Rothbard. Rothbard was not an outstanding thinker who pursued fringe politics as a hobby, but an outstanding influence in fringe politics who pursued intellectual system-building as a hobby.