Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
Friday, Dec 26, 2008
This book more than any other explains why Rothbard seems to grow in stature every year (his influence has vastly risen since his death) and why Rothbardianism has so many enemies on the left, right, and center. Quite simply, the science of liberty that he brought into clear relief is as thrilling in the hope it creates for a free world as it is unforgiving of error. Its logical and moral consistency, together with its empirical explanatory muscle, represents a threat to any intellectual vision that sets out to use the state to refashion the world according to some pre-programmed plan. And to the same extent it impresses the reader with a hopeful vision of what might be.
Rothbard set out to write this book soon after he got a call from Tom Mandel, an editor at Macmillan who had seen an op-ed by Rothbard in the New York Times that appeared in the spring of 1971. It was the only commission Rothbard ever received from a commercial publishing house. Looking at the original manuscript, which is so consistent in its typeface and almost complete after its first draft, it does seem that it was a nearly effortless joy for him to write. It is seamless, unrelenting, and energetic.
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The historical context illustrates a point often overlooked: modern libertarianism was born not in reaction to socialism or leftism – though it is certainly anti-leftist (as the term is commonly understood) and antisocialist. Rather, libertarianism in the American historical context came into being in response to the statism of conservatism and its selective celebration of a conservative-style central planning. American conservatives may not adore the welfare state or excessive business regulation but they appreciate power exercised in the name of nationalism, warfarism, “pro-family” policies, and invasion of personal liberty and privacy. In the post-LBJ period of American history, it has been Republican presidents more than Democratic ones who have been responsible for the largest expansions of executive and judicial power. It was to defend a pure liberty against the compromises and corruptions of conservatism – beginning with Nixon but continuing with Reagan and the Bush presidencies – that inspired the birth of Rothbardian political economy.
It is also striking how Rothbard chose to pull no punches in his argument. Other intellectuals on the receiving end of such an invitation might have tended to water down the argument to make it more palatable. Why, for example, make a case for statelessness or anarchism when a case for limited government might bring more people into the movement? Why condemn U.S. imperialism when doing so can only limit the book’s appeal to anti-Soviet conservatives who might otherwise appreciate the free-market bent? Why go into such depth about privatizing courts and roads and water when doing so might risk alienating people? Why enter into the sticky area of regulation of consumption and of personal morality – and do it with such disorienting consistency – when it would have surely drawn a larger audience to leave it out? And why go into such detail about monetary affairs and central banking and the like when a watered-down case for free enterprise would have pleased so many Chamber-of-Commerce conservatives?
But trimming and compromising for the sake of the times or the audience was just not his way. He knew that he had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to present the full package of libertarianism in all its glory, and he was not about to pass it up. And thus do we read here: not just a case for cutting government but eliminating it altogether, not just an argument for assigning property rights but for deferring to the market even on questions of contract enforcement, and not just a case for cutting welfare but for banishing the entire welfare-warfare state.
Whereas other attempts to make a libertarian case, both before and after this book, might typically call for transitional or half measures, or be willing to concede as much as possible to statists, that is not what we get from Murray. Not for him such schemes as school vouchers or the privatization of government programs that should not exist at all. Instead, he presents and follows through with the full-blown and fully bracing vision of what liberty can be. This is why so many other similar attempts to write the Libertarian Manifesto have not stood the test of time, and yet this book remains in high demand.
Similarly, there have been many books on libertarianism in the intervening years that have covered philosophy alone, politics alone, economics alone, or history alone. Those that have put all these subjects together have usually been collections by various authors. Rothbard alone had mastery in all fields that permitted him to write an integrated manifesto – one that has never been displaced. And yet his approach is typically self-effacing: he constantly points to other writers and intellectuals of the past and his own generation. In addition, some introductions of this sort are written to give the reader an easier passage into a difficult book, but that is not the case here. He never talks down to his readers but always with clarity. Rothbard speaks for himself. I’ll spare the reader an enumeration of my favorite parts, or speculations on what passages Rothbard might have clarified if he had a chance to put out a new edition. The reader will discover on his or her own that every page exudes energy and passion, that the logic of his argument is impossibly compelling, and that the intellectual fire that inspired this work burns as bright now as it did all those years ago.
The book is still regarded as “dangerous” precisely because, once the exposure to Rothbardianism takes place, no other book on politics, economics, or sociology can be read the same way again. What was once a commercial phenomenon has truly become a classical statement that I predict will be read for generations to come.
This article was posted: Friday, December 26, 2008 at 6:40 am