Murray Rothbard wasn’t afraid of real politics
By: W. James Antle III
Murray Rothbard is best known as an exponent of Austrian economics, a scrupulous political theoretician, and an uncompromising libertarian often at odds with weaker anti-statists. What is less well known is that despite his firm commitment to abstract principles, Rothbard was throughout his life active in practical politics. As an anarcho-capitalist he had little use for politicians, but Rothbard thought it important to use whatever moral means were available to combat the depredations of the state.
While Rothbard was quick to make common cause with people who shared his principles completely, more often he ended up supporting parties, movements, and candidates that, however flawed, would have the practical effect of expanding liberty or impeding statism in their time. For this reason, Rothbard’s political activism was often confusing to people who adhered to a rigid Left-Right ideological spectrum and even to many libertarians who either sought political respectability or whose pursuit of philosophical consistency made practical political involvement impossible.
Though the vehicles for Rothbard’s political activism varied widely, his priorities did not: wherever possible, he sought decentralized authority, a free market unfettered by central planners and central bankers alike, maximum individual liberties, and a noninterventionist foreign policy.
Rothbard began his political life as a man of the Old Right, which at the time still had a home in the Republican Party. As a student at Columbia University, the GOP was his political home too. “The only other Republican student at Columbia was an English major,” he later recalled in Chronicles magazine, “and so we had little in common…” Rothbard was “increasingly steeped in economics,” an opponent of socialism and a defender of genuine free-market capitalism.
During his college days, many Republicans were stalwart opponents of the New Deal at home and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s march to war abroad. They adhered to a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution that held most contemporary federal activity to be not just ineffective and unwise but illegal and unconstitutional. And although he could be philosophically inconsistent, politically the most powerful opponent of centralization and interventionism was Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio.
Taft, the son of former President William Howard Taft, would become Senate Republican leader and a credible candidate for the GOP presidential nomination. But more than anything else, he was the undisputed leader of the party’s Old Right wing. Taft was among the most vocal anti-New Dealers in Congress, and he led the America First opposition to American involvement in World War II until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He continued in this vein in the postwar era during presidency of Harry S. Truman.
“Taft was critical of the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO, each of which he viewed as either unnecessarily provocative or ruinously expensive,” the libertarian scholar Thomas Woods recounts in his introduction to Rothbard’s book Betrayal of the American Right. “Taft, along with lesser-known figures from the House and Senate like George Bender, Howard Buffett, and Kenneth Wherry, constituted the political arm of the Old Right.”
“In those days, it was a pleasure to pore over the voting records of right-wing Republicans in Congress, especially in the harder-core House, for the common garden-variety rightists of the pre-1955 era make the most right-wing congressmen today seem impossibly leftist and socialistic,” Rothbard would later recall. “My two favorite congressmen were Howard Buffett of Nebraska and Frederick C. Smith of Ohio, both of whom would invariably draw ‘zero’ ratings from the Americans for Democratic Action and other leftist groups.”
Rothbard became a member of the Young Republican Club of New York in 1946. He wrote a policy paper on President Truman’s price controls on meat. “I was astonished in later years to see ‘conservatives’ hail Harry Truman as a model president,” he reminisced. “On the contrary, we opposed Truman hip and thigh, for his domestic statism as well as for his interventionist foreign policy.”
In November 1946, Republicans took control of both houses of Congress for the first time since before FDR, running on a conservative anti-Truman platform opposing “controls, corruption, and communism.” Rothbard called it one of his “happiest political moments,” and his “first foray into print” was a letter to the New York World Telegram containing a one-word celebration of the GOP victory: “Hallelujah!”
He hoped the Republicans would repeal the New Deal in its entirety. “Well they said they would, didn’t they?” Although the “Do Nothing” 80th Congress turned out to be perhaps the most successful conservative legislative session since World War II, disappointment quickly set in. Republicans passed Taft-Hartley, modifying but not completely repealing the pro-labor Wagner Act.
“Politically, repeal might have succeeded, since the public was fed up with unions and strikes in 1946, and they had, after all, elected a rightwing Republican Congress,” Rothbard argued. Yet “also in this 80th Congress, the Republicans largely abandoned their ‘isolationist,’ noninterventionist principles, led by their foreign affairs committee head, renegade isolationist Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI), who managed to establish the first, disastrous ‘bipartisan foreign policy,’ i.e., global interventionism, in the post-World War II era.”
As Rothbard’s biographer Justin Raimondo put it in Reclaiming the American Right, “Taft was a great believer in party ‘unity’ and he refused the remonstrations of [Congressman George] Bender and Human Events editor Felix Morley to take a more militant stance.” So Taft ended up opposing NATO and working to cut military spending, arguing that Republicans should adopt the position that there was “no greater tragedy than war,” but he reluctantly voted for the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.
Domestically, Rothbard feared “that hack Republican politicians found themselves mouthing libertarian and antistatist slogans that they did not really believe—a condition that set the stage for a later ‘moderation’ and abandonment of their seemingly cherished principles.” By 1948, he could not bring himself to support the national Republican ticket. For one thing, Rockefeller Republican Thomas Dewey was once again the presidential standard-bearer, “beating out the Old Right isolationist Senator John W. Bricker (R-OH) for the nomination, Bricker getting the consolation post of vice president.”
“Old Right Republicans, the soul of the party, always managed to lose the presidential nomination,” Rothbard complained, “perpetually stolen from them by the Eastern Establishment-Big Banker-Rockefeller wing of the party, who used their media clout, as well as hardball banker threats to call in the delegates’ loans, to defeat majority sentiment in the party.” To him, the Dewey nomination “completed the congressional sellout” and forced him to bolt the Republican Party in the election.
So in the 1948 election Rothbard instead supported the “Dixiecrat” ticket of breakaway Southern Democrats Strom Thurmond and Fielding Wright. “I actually believed that the States’ Rights Party would continue to become a major party and destroy what was then a one-party Democratic monopoly in the South,” he subsequently explained. “In that way, an Old Right, Midwestern Republican coalition with States’ Rights Democrats could become the majority party!”
This has created confusion, because the State’s Rights’ Democrats are associated with racial segregation. But to Rothbard, the issue was political decentralism rather than race. He would later concede he “somewhat naively” accepted Thurmond’s claim to be a true champion of federalism, but to him it was all the more naïve to expect a centralized federal government to protect our natural rights. As a Columbia graduate student, Rothbard founded Students for Strom Thurmond. “I showed up at the first meeting, which consisted of a group of Southern students and one New York Jew, myself,” he recalled. Rothbard kicked off the meeting with “a fiery stump speech on behalf of states’ rights and against centralized socialism,” to the consternation of campus liberals. “What was a nice Jewish boy doing in a place like this?”
As the Old Right faded from political relevance with the nomination of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, the death of Taft in 1953, and the founding of the Cold War interventionist National Review in 1955, Rothbard would stray further from the Republican fold. “The last gasp of the Old Right in foreign policy was the defeat of the Bricker Amendment to the Constitution in 1954, an amendment that would have prevented international treaties from overriding American rights and powers,” he recounted. “The amendment was sabotaged by the Eisenhower administration.” But it wasn’t until the 1960s—“after a brief stay in the National Review orbit and an even briefer sojourn in the Objectivist movement,” writes Raimondo—that Rothbard found a new home.
In 1964, Rothbard founded a quarterly magazine called Left and Right. The first issue featured a manifesto entitled “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty” in which he sought to recast libertarians as the heirs of 19th-century liberalism—and to align fellow travelers of the Old Right with the opposition to the Vietnam War, criticisms of centralization and bureaucracy, and the student rebellions of the New Left. Classical liberalism, he wrote, was “the party of hope, of radicalism, of liberty, of the Industrial Revolution, of progress, of humanity”—all abandoned by the mainstream Left and Right.
But this was no mere academic exercise. Rothbard wanted his ideas associated with a genuine grassroots movement because he desired to prevail politically. He argued that the goal of the libertarian during the 1960s should be “to cast off his needless and debilitating pessimism, to set his sight on long-run victory, and to set out on the road to its attainment.” He urged the Left to embrace true radicalism by rejecting statism, rather than accepting the stale nostrums of socialism, which he said, “tries to achieve liberal ends by the use of conservative means.”
Alas, the New Left did not establish itself as a viable political force and Left and Right shut down. “By the summer of 1969,” Raimondo wrote, “SDS and the New Left had burned themselves out in an orgy of violence and self-destruction.” Rothbard began publishing a new periodical, Libertarian Forum, and looking toward the burgeoning libertarian movement that was seceding from the GOP and conservative organizations like Young Americans for Freedom.
The political wing of revivified libertarianism was the Libertarian Party, founded in 1971. Rothbard supported its first presidential candidate, John Hospers, who received just 5,000 votes in the two states where he was on the ballot. Hospers also collected one electoral vote, from a faithless Republican elector named Roger MacBride who would go on to become the Libertarians’ second presidential nominee in 1976. The party reached its electoral peak in 1980, when the ticket headed by Ed Clark received more than 900,000 votes and finished ahead of Jimmy Carter in a handful of precincts.
But Rothbard saw trouble on the horizon, mainly in the form of Clark’s conflation of libertarianism with “low-tax liberalism.” Ridiculing this as an unprincipled political equivalent of a get-rich-quick scheme, Rothbard wrote, “So: Clark has now promised that welfare will not be cut in a libertarian regime… . So middle-class liberals are assured: No Welfare Cuts. No ‘Goldwater extremism’ here.”
Low-tax liberalism reached its nadir with the Libertarian antagonism toward a more principled anti-statist: Ron Paul. Paul won the LP nomination in 1988, but only over the full-throated opposition of those who disdained his conservative cultural values and opposition to abortion. “The importance of this campaign is that Paul is an Old Right libertarian in the best sense,” Rothbard told Liberty magazine.
Soon after Rothbard left the Libertarian Party (in no small part due to its shabby treatment of Paul), there arose an opportunity for conservatives and libertarians in the Old Right tradition to reclaim a share of the Republican Party: a “new fusionism” between paleoconservatives clustered around the Rockford Institute and libertarians affiliated with the Ludwig von Mises Institute. As Thomas Fleming, editor of the Rockford Institute’s publication Chronicles, would later describe it, “We struck a bargain from the beginning: Although I believe that the commonwealth is a natural and necessary part of human social life, I nevertheless agreed with Murray that 90 percent of what modern states do is evil and destructive. ‘When we get to the last ten percent,’ I said, ‘it will be time for us to quarrel.’”
The political leader of this new movement was Patrick Buchanan, the former speechwriter for Richard Nixon and communications director for Ronald Reagan. A scrappy conservative columnist with impeccable Cold War hawk credentials, he believed American foreign interventionism should die with the Soviet Union. “Most of us ‘neo-isolationists’, a disparate, contentious lot, are not really ‘neo’ anything,” Buchanan explained. “We are old church and old right, anti-imperialist and anti-interventionist, disbelievers in Pax Americana.” When exposed to talk of a “New World Order,” Buchanan said, “we release the safety catches on our revolvers.”
Buchanan opposed the first war with Iraq in 1991 and the American military presence in the Middle East that would subsequently prove ruinous to our real homeland security. Rothbard cheered Buchanan’s 1992 challenge to President George H.W. Bush and the mainstream conservative movement: “The original Right, and all its heresies, is back.” With Buchanan, Rothbard hoped, true conservatives and libertarians would mount a serious populist challenge against the welfare-warfare state.
Rothbard would die a year before Buchanan’s second, more successful presidential campaign in 1996. He did not live to see Buchanan win the New Hampshire primary or nearly knock Bob Dole out of the race for the White House. More fortunately, he did not survive to see the Buchanan brigades co-opted in 2000 by George W. Bush, who promised a “humble foreign policy” but delivered anything but. Buchanan himself was imperfect by Rothbard’s lights: he feared that protectionism was moving Buchanan in a more statist economic direction across the board.
Rothbard was not always pleased by the results of his excursions into electoral politics. Yet he never stopped trying to build political coalitions to fight against government encroachments and never lost hope that liberty could be more than an abstract ideal. His radical libertarianism—anarchism, really—did not blind him to the value of conventional politicking. The arena could not be ceded to believers in state power.
Today, the Ron Paul movement is one of the fruits of Rothbard’s political activism. With hard work and a little luck, it could also accomplish one of Murray Rothbard’s main goals: making the politics of freedom, sound money, and peace viable in this country once more.
W. James Antle III is the associate editor of The American Spectator.