Lew Rockwell discusses the life and works of Murray Rothbard with Tom Woods.
Tom Woods: In two minutes or less, why is Rothbard important to begin with?
Lew Rockwell: Well, Rothbard is important for a couple of reasons. First of all, because he was such a significant scholar as an economist, as an historian, as a political philosopher. He was an original thinker, and a very compelling thinker, a man who created, among other things, modern libertarianism, by combining nineteenth-century American anarchism and Austrian economics and natural law based in Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. And really its a durable and fascinating philosophy. It explains what we need to be concerned about; in a sense it explains how to proceed. Its extremely compelling. Everything of Rothbards was compelling.
If you speaking to the people listening to us havent read Rothbard, just pick up anything by Murray, and its all for free online at mises.org, and theres a lot at LewRockwell.com as well. Just take a look at any essay of Murrays, lets say The Anatomy of the State, which is one of his famous essays. Youre immediately pulled into it. Hes so clear. Hes so logical; hes so persuasive. Youll never be the same again. I mean, this is true of many, many of Rothbards works; they really are life-changing, based on the immense knowledge that he had.
And this is somebody, so far as I can tell, who knew everything. Now of course Im exaggerating, but only slightly. In the areas that he was interested in, he pretty much knew everything just such deep and well-analyzed and rigorous knowledge. He read everything; he remembered everything. If you were in his apartment which was full of books, almost humorously full of books and you were asking Murray a question, hed say, well, you know, thats covered in that particular book on that shelf, there it is, the third one from the left, chapter 3 and pages 29-36. I mean, he had that kind of knowledge.
Yet he was a humble guy, not at all arrogant, one of the most charming people you could ever meet, extremely funny; he was like a standup comedian in addition to all his scholarly abilities and his teaching abilities, very charming, very welcoming, and never put down students. I think of him in contrast to Milton Friedman, who was a brilliant guy, too, but was famous for humiliating a student who asked a question Friedman either thought was stupid or he didnt like the question for whatever reason. Rothbard was never like that. He was just a great human being as well as just, I think, no question one of the extraordinary men of the twentieth century, and maybe will in the future come to be seen as an extraordinary figure over a much broader time span.
TW: Before we get into the overview of his life, I want to say something, before I forget, about Rothbard that I dont think Ive ever said before. When you look at what he was engaged in doing in his scholarly work, as opposed to the various popular articles he would write for periodicals, he could write scholarly work that was respected by the academic community. For example, his book The Panic of 1819 got very good reviews in the professional journals, published by Columbia University Press, great. But a lot of the rest of his scholarly work, like Man, Economy and State, The Ethics of Liberty, a lot of this stuff, he knew for a fact there would be no academic audience for it; if there were, it would be only an audience that would condemn him. Theres no popular audience for this scholarly work either, so whos he writing this for? And the answer is he can only be writing for posterity, and I suppose to a lesser degree for himself, for the sake of the ideas. He did this knowing full well hes not going to be appointed chairman at the economics department at Harvard; hes already been purged from National Review, so libertarian economic ideas or at least his name expressing those ideas is not going to be welcome in that magazine, and yet he kept on churning out an enormous amount of output without getting the commensurate reward. And he kept on doing it and kept on doing it.
Today you and I have instant gratification: you write an essay it goes up on the Internet. The next day, people write you emails telling you how great you are. He didnt have that kind of feedback; he didnt have that kind of audience; he didnt have that kind of technology. And look what he produced.
LR: Well he really was such an extraordinary guy, and of course he enjoyed money; he loved buying books, for example. But money was not the chief motivator in his life. Of course this is one of the ways in which Austrian economics differs from mainstream economics: we dont think of man as homo economicus; there are other things that motivate people besides money, although again money is a great thing, its necessary. Murray taught for a very long time at a very minor school in New York, Brooklyn Polytechnic, only getting a job there because he was such an expert exponent of the case against the Vietnam War. And of course, like everything else Murray got interested in, he knew everything about it. He knew everything about the history of Vietnam, the previous interventions, all the people that were important on the North Vietnamese side, the Viet Cong, the South Vietnamese, the American government, the French government and so forth. He felt they were so impressed by him that he felt that they sort of overlooked or didnt really care about his other views. Later, when they realized what his other views were, they never would have hired him because it was pretty much a left-wing outfit. He made at the height of his income there at Brooklyn Polytechnic, $26,000 a year. So he never had much money, exactly like Mises when he famously told Margit, the woman who was going to be his wife: I just want to warn you Im going to write much about money, Im not going to have much of it.
TW: (laughs) Thats exactly it.
Go here to read the rest:
Murray N. Rothbard: The Man and His Work