Murray Rothbard was born on this day in 1926. In 1935, according to Rothbard’s fourth grade teacher, “Murray seems so exceedingly happy that it is sometimes difficult to control his activities in the class.” Another teacher’s notes report that Murray “developed a combative spirit which frequently has to be checked. While this attitude is in itself, bad, still it is encouraging to see that his courage is increasing. Although this pugnacity has been developed largely in protecting a smaller child in a game against a larger group, it should be watched very carefully as it might very well lead to an antagonism toward the larger group.” In hindsight, Rothbard’s fourth grade teachers were correct in their prediction. Rothbard was a radical from the start. His tenacity for trouble-making and fighting against the establishment in his fourth grade classroom was just the beginning. Pugnaciousness would follow Murray throughout his life, in his relationships, and develop into a political philosophy for which he would become a fierce advocate.
Early in life, his immigrant father largely influenced Rothbard, leading him to value limited government, free enterprise, and private property. Into the 1940s, Rothbard was increasingly influenced by the “Old-Right,” a political fusion of libertarian and conservative ideas that stood against both the New Deal and entry into World War II. Rothbard read and even got to know some of the libertarian members of the Old Right, such as Frank Chodorov, Albert Jay Nock, and Garet Garrett.
These libertarian thinkers led Rothbard to attend the economic seminars that Ludwig von Mises began hosting in the early 1950s at the New York School of Business. Rothbard’s right-leaning ideological origins were a perfect fit for Mises’ Austrian economics, which place the individual as the primary economic unit and view private property and free exchange as crucial for human flourishing. At these weekly seminars, Murray met youngsters infatuated by the Austrian free market viewpoint. Together they formed a small group of young radical libertarians known as the Circle Bastiat, which would include Ralph Raico, George Reisman, Leonard Liggio, Ronald Hamoway, and Robert Hessen.
Given the size of New York City and the still minuscule scope of libertarian thought, the Bastiat Boys were bound to come into contact with Ayn Rand and her circle, which included Frank O’Conner (her husband), Nathaniel Branden, Barbara Branden, and Alan Greenspan. The Randians, as they were called, were similarly radically libertarian and enjoyed arguing philosophy in Rand’s New York apartment. However, when the Randian Circle came into contact with the Bastiat Circle in 1954, they conflicted on lifestyle and ideological differences. The two circles parted ways.
However, later, in 1958, Murray wrote Rand a letter about Atlas Shrugged, saying,
“I just finished your novel today. I will start by saying that all of us in the “Circle Bastiat” are convinced, and were convinced very early in the reading, that Atlas Shrugged is the greatest novel ever written…This was not wild exaggeration but the perception of truth. You are one of the great geniuses of the ages, and I am proud that we are friends. And Atlas Shrugged is not merely the greatest novel ever written, it is one of the very greatest books ever written, fiction or nonfiction. Indeed, it is one of the greatest achievements the human mind has ever produced.”
Rand also introduced Rothbard to the fields of natural rights and natural law philosophy, prompting him to learn “the glorious natural rights tradition.” This interest culminated in Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty, in which he lays out libertarian ethics from the ground up. Around Rothbard’s discovery of the long tradition of market anarchism, he was tasked by the Volker Fund to create a textbook style version of Mises’ Human Action. Rothbard let this become his magnum opus. In Man, Economy, and State, he builds economic and political theory from the ground up, with very explicit anarchist themes.
While working on his book, America’s Great Depression, Rothbard found common ground with some leftist historians, such as Gabriel Kolko, on historical revisionism, which led him to the New Left. In his Liberty and the New Left, Murray speaks positively of Students for a Democratic Society’s radicalism, non-violent methods, passion for peace and free speech, and practice of participatory democracy. In 1965, he started a journal called Left and Right: Prospects for Liberty.
Rothbard saw in the New Left and SDS a real opportunity to make positive, radical, and libertarian change in the world, especially in regards to issues such as Vietnam, the Cold War, the draft, education, Civil Rights, police brutality, parallel institutions, and participatory democracy. Unfortunately, SDS and by extension, the New Left, had collapsed by 1968, when inter-organizational power struggles destroyed its internal structure. SDS broke off into three smaller, distinct organizations and, despite his best efforts, a reorganization of New Left thought could never be brought back together. Rothbard, in classic pugnacious form, then purposefully sabotaged a national conference by Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative student group directly and explicitly at odds with the New Left and SDS. With the help of Karl Hess, Walter Block, and hundreds of other radical anarchist libertarians, Murray passed out copies of his open letter to YAF the first day of the conference. This catalyzed hundreds of students to walk out of the conference, and prompted a draft card burning that led to a violent conflict between the conservative and anarchist students.
After the disastrous YAF conference, Rothbard attempted a conference for his new “Radical Libertarian Alliance.” However, one of the left libertarians reportedly denounced “all academic economists and the wearing of neckties as great evils which the libertarian movement should focus on destroying.” This obviously didn’t sit well with Rothbard, as he was a necktie-wearing academic economist. The Radical Libertarian Alliance and the conference were ultimately a giant failure. Rothbard gave up on his left-right coalition by the early 70s. With his National Review gig long gone, and Left and Right flopping, Murray and Hess started The Libertarian Forum.
In 1976, Murray, along with Ed Crane and Charles Koch, founded the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. However, after only a few years, internal strife over the goal of Cato landed Murray on the street. While he wanted a Cato more focused on scholarship, he was outnumbered by those who viewed Cato as a more politically active organization. Rothbard was removed from his position and no longer invited to speak at Cato events. Rothbard then allied himself with the Libertarian Party, specifically the Libertarian Party Radical Caucus, which included people like Eric Garris and Justin Raimondo, who were against what they called the “low-tax liberalism” of LP candidate Ed Clark and Cato Institute’s Ed Crane. But, this radical alliance was not to last. Rothbard split with the caucus in 1982 because of disagreements on cultural issues. Following this split, along with Lew Rockwell and Burton Blumert, Rothbard founded the Mises Institute, an organization that works to advance Austrian economics. Throughout the 1980s, Rothbard worked close with Rockwell to create the Rothbard-Rockwell report, that was later renamed LewRockwell.com.
Rothbard was, ultimately, a radical system builder. He synthesized widely-ranging schools of thought and developed an over-arching, all-encompassing theory of liberty. Murray attempted to form alliances wherever he could, wherever he saw even a glimmer of potential human liberty. He was very good at building bridges, but he was a MASTER at burning them down. His passion for liberty and concern for strategy led him all over the political spectrum, and his hand in every facet of the libertarian movement is visible today. Sadly, Murray Rothbard died in 1995 at the age of 68. He is dearly missed, and if he were still running around today, he’d probably be too happy and too pugnacious for the collective’s own good.
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