A Good Guy Gets Rothbard Wrong

In a recent article, “The First Libertarian?,” Jeff Thomas makes some mistakes about Murray Rothbard that radically distort his thought. Thomas means well, and he obviously respects and admires Murray, but he just doesn’t get him.

In the article, Thomas says that Rothbard’s “primary mentors” were Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek but then he dug deeper. He became aware of the “first libertarian,” the Chinese sage Lao-Tzu, and from him Murray learned a strategy of quietism and nonresistance.

This isn’t correct. Murray’s primary mentor in economics was Mises, not Hayek. In philosophy, he was a student of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. He extended their theory of natural law in innovative ways, especially in regard to individual ownership of property.

Thomas is correct that Murray wrote about Lao-Tzu, and you can read what Murray says about him in his monumental Economic Thought before Adam Smith. But he wasn’t a Taoist. As you will see if you read his discussion, his theme is “Isn’t this magnificent? Somebody that early in history didn’t like the State!”

Here is where Thomas goes off the deep end. He urges people to adopt a strategy of withdrawal. America is rotten to the core, so we should scan the internet to find a better place to move to:

Anyone who is inspired to believe in the libertarian principle has two choices if he lives in a country that is in the final, most oppressive stages: he can either remain there, swimming against an overwhelming tide, or he can vote with his feet. He can seek out other locations—those that are in the early stages of development, where the residents think as he does, where he is not a threat to ‘the system’ but, by being a libertarian, is actually swimming with the tide. . . . Not only is transportation so good that we can fly anywhere in the world, but the Internet keeps us posted on the information we need to learn of locations in the world that might suit our liking better than the one we presently reside in. There are unquestionably those out there who prefer to be proles—to accept an Orwellian existence. For those who do not—those of a more libertarian bent—the good news is that there are choices—many of them. A better life elsewhere.

Murray’s attitude was just the reverse of this. He was a fighter, not a quitter. We should always battle our enemy the state, and if we do so, we have a good chance to win. As he says in “Toward a Theory of Strategy for Liberty,”

 The rapid growth in these last years of libertarian ideas and movements has pervaded many fields of scholarship, especially among younger scholars, and in the areas of journalism, the media, business, and politics. Because of the continuing objective conditions, it seems clear that this eruption of libertarianism in many new and unexpected places is not a mere media-concocted fad, but an inevitably growing response to the perceived conditions of objective reality. Given free will, no one can predict with certainty that the growing libertarian mood in America will solidify in a brief period of time and press forward without faltering to the success of the entire libertarian program. But certainly, both theory and analysis of current historical conditions lead to the conclusion that the current prospects of liberty, even in the short run, are highly encouraging.

If you want to know Murray’s views, read Murray. Don’t settle for less.

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