By Max Lindh
In our last article on the subject, we looked at the evolution of the worldview of Murray Rothbard – the ostensible father of anarcho-capitalism - and how he came to take that worldview to the electorate.
This is what happened when he did.
One worldview, several Parties?
Murray Rothbard would always insist that his basic worldview had more or less remained constant throughout his career, but one could not deny that when it came to which parties he had supported, there had been a marked lack of constancy.
He had started out as a Robert Taft Republican, a member of the Old Right, in the early 40s. In 1948, however, he had decided to switch his support to Strom Thurmond’s segregationist Dixiecrats. Then, when it came to the year 1960, Rothbard had actually joined the Democrats to support Adlai Stevenson’s bid for a third nomination in the primaries, at that point having come to the conclusion that out of all the options there were to choose from, Stevenson was the lesser of many evils. Now the year was 1968, and Murray Rothbard was about to take his beliefs seriously on the electoral front.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater had defied expectations by defeating Nelson Rockefeller in the Republican primaries, and declaring in his acceptance speech that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”. He had become the most conservative Republican nominee for President since Calvin Coolidge, a radical break with the moderate brand of Dwight Eisenhower. Now, you might have expected that of course it would have been only natural for Murray Rothbard to rejoin the Republican Party under these conditions, but in that case, you wouldn’t have the first idea of what made Murray Rothbard tick. Just as Ayn Rand had her atheism, Murray Rothbard had his own particular opinions that made him irreconcilable with the Republicans. Still a diehard believer in isolationism and non-intervention in foreign policy, Rothbard had nothing but contempt for, and virulent opposition to, the Vietnam War. So strong was this opposition that now, in 1968, when the America was in the midst of a culture war so divisive that anything on its scale would not be seen for another half a century, Murray Rothbard decided to join the New York chapter of the Peace and Freedom Party.
Peace and Freedom
The Peace and Freedom Party was one of the many counter-cultural organizations that had grown out of the New Left movement in the late sixties. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Bob Avakian (who would later go on to found his own Revolutionary Communist Party, USA) was party spokesperson and in the autumn of ‘68, the party’s nominee for President was Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver. In New York, the party was said to have two wings: one Trotskyite, and another Maoist. And this was the potent, explosive mixture into which Murray Rothbard decided bring his little motley crew of followers.
His associates thought he was crazy. He probably was, at least a little.
What was even more crazy was that this unlikeliest of entryist operations actually had some limited success. Remember, nobody can do factionalism and infighting like radical lefties, and where there’s factionalism and infighting, there is political horse-trading to be done. In a remarkable coup, Murray Rothbard agreed to help the Trotskyites introduce rent controls to the party platform, and in return, the Trotskyites agreed to vote for introducing to that same platform a rather more libertarian demand – a return to the Gold Standard.
The love affair with Trotskyites was for obvious reasons to prove short-lived, and the small libertarian faction within the Peace and Freedom Party was soon outmanoeuvred and forced out. Not that this mattered much to Murray. He was already thinking bigger. In late 1971, Murray Rothbard was part of a small group of individuals who founded the Libertarian Party of the United States. This time, he and his merry gang were part of the mainstream, at least in the party within which they operated. Already the next year they were able to field a presidential ticket, consisting of philosophy professor John Hospers and radio and television producer Tonie Nathan. Though the party ended 1972 with only 80 members and having come in tenth in the popular vote with a mere 3,674 (beneath three parties with the word Socialist in its name, and one with the word Communist), their ticket was nonetheless to receive a vote in the electoral college that year when a faithless Republican elector from Virginia decided to protest against Watergate by going Libertarian, making Tonie Nathan the first woman in American history to receive an electoral vote.
This gave them some much-needed attention. Then Watergate happened. Murray Rothbard was of course delighted by the affair in and of itself, as it put a dent in people’s trust in the federal government and authorities, and removed Richard Nixon from office, who hadn’t just prolonged the unjust and horrible war in Vietnam, but even – unforgivably – taken the US off of the last vestiges of Rothbard’s so beloved gold standard. All this conspired to produce a situation where, when 1976 came around, the Libertarians forty-six-tupled their voteshare from the previous election, coming fourth with over 170,000 votes. For all his good intentions, Jimmy Carter’s strong Christian faith and warm (but toothy) smile could not restore faith in public authorities in the eyes of America. In 1980, the Libertarian Party nominated the lawyer Ed Clark and businessman David Koch for President and Vice-President respectively. Ed Clark tried to go for appeal that was at once centrist and neoliberal, the kind of appeal a European reader might associate with the likes of the German FDP in recent decades. Declaring libertarianism to be “low-tax liberalism”, Ed Clark benefitted from general disillusionment with both major parties and at over 900,000 votes, over one percent of the total, the Libertarians obtained their best result ever in a presidential election.
And yet by this time, Murray Rothbard himself had grown disillusioned with the Libertarian Party. The man who had just a decade before been eager to break bread with Trotskyites and Maoists now just couldn’t handle the moderation and pragmatism inherent in party that positioned itself to be Walter Mondale but with lower taxes. Nor did Rothbard take any pleasure in the landslide victories of Ronald Reagan that followed in the 80s, and the overturning of the Keynesian consensus. The libertarianism of the decade was not his brand of libertarianism, but that of Milton Friedman and the Monetarists, people that Murray’s followers regarded as heretics for their endorsement of econometric methodologies and their support of anti-trust laws. And Rothbard did not support the Reaganite approach to the Cold War. It was not for America, he believed, to bring capitalism and democracy to the rest of the world. An arms race with the Soviets was a waste of time and money: Communism there would collapse under its own weight anyway, so we should the Americans need to bother speeding up the process?
Von Mises Institute
Again, Rothbard founded a new organization, and this was the one he would stay with until the end of his life. It was called the Von Mises Institute, named in honour of Rothbard’s old mentor, and its brand of libertarianism was soon to be known as paleolibertarianism. It sought to build bridges with right-wing populist movements – as Rothbard termed it, an “outreach to the rednecks” – and indeed, over time it came to be associated with the familiar currents of opposition to immigration, nationalism, social conservatism, and (somewhat remarkably for a free market institution) even a qualified endorsement for protectionism. In 1992, Rothbard endorsed Pat Buchanan in the Republican primaries, in the hope that he would “break the clock of social democracy”, and when he failed to unseat incumbent President Bush for the nomination, he shifted his support to Ross Perot’s independent bid for the White House.
Murray Rothbard died in 1995, and to say that he left a legacy that was all over the place would be an understatement. There is virtually no facet of the modern libertarian movement that does not in one way or another have Rothbard’s fingerprints on it. His influence can be seen in the more moderate corners of the libertarian movement, like Reason magazine and the Cato Institute (which once counted him as an important affiliate, before he broke with them), as in the more radical sections, like the Von Mises Institute, where they are still proud to call themselves right-wing anarchists.
The Libertarian Party he helped to found has yet to collapse, and after duking it out with the Greens over several election cycles, they seem to have successfully established themselves as the third party of American politics. In 2016 alone, the presidential ticket of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld (both former Republican governors) got almost four and a half million votes.
The people at the Von Mises Institute (which in 2016 mainly supported the campaign of Donald Trump) will argue that they have moderated themselves too much. There, the true believers yet remain, thinkers who have taken libertarianism and right-wing anarchism to places one would never have thought possible. Ron Paul, the famous internet phenomenon, presidential hopeful, father of the Senator of Kentucky and long-term Republican congressman has long been affiliated with the VMI, and the man himself was a devotee of Rothbard’s writings, declaring that he used them as a guide for how to vote in Congress. Ron Paul, more than anyone, influenced the ideological direction of the Tea Party that emerged in 2010, and it may well be said that the reason why it is nowadays mainstream in the Republican Party to hold that the Iraq War was fundamentally a bad idea (as President Donald Trump believes) is to no small extent part of Murray Rothbard’s legacy. Through him, the views of the anti-interventionist Robert Taft have once again become Republican orthodoxy.
And I would be remiss if I did not mention Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who has taken the ideology to the point where he is reinventing the state, arguing for hereditary absolute monarchies and so-called “covenant communities”. This latter idea has made him something of a controversial figure in libertarian circles as well, as he is more than willing to accept that such establishments would deny civil rights to gays and other minorities. Ideologically inconsistent, some would argue, but perhaps that is the inevitable outcome of the privatization of the nation state itself?
Murray Rothbard was a contradiction of a man. The ideology he promoted can accurately be described as a patchwork of traditions, and yet at the same time it holds to an absolute devotion to internal logical consistency that few can rival. The man could be humble, gregarious, friendly, and more than happy to build bridges to the far side of the ideological spectrum, inviting people like the anarcho-communist Murray Bookchin into his apartment several times for dialogues and chats. And yet he could be just as abrasive, if not more so, than Ayn Rand, and denounce and break ties with people who cleaved to a libertarianism just not quite radical enough for him, for instance Ed Crane of the Cato Institute.
And there was the dark side, the views he held which inevitably leave a bad taste in one’s mouth as one looks back on them: in particular his view that the Confederacy was justified in seceding from the Union in the American Civil War, a position one perhaps would not expect after reading the article he wrote upon joining the Peace and Freedom Party in 1968, where he boasts of being supportive of “Black Power”. Now doubt much of the neo-Confederate apologia that can be found in much of the radical right these days can trace part of its veneer of legitimacy to him.
One thing that one cannot deny was that he most certainly was an interesting man.
The AH possibility involved when it comes to anarcho-capitalism are many. But not even the most fervent admirer of Rothbard would delude themselves into thinking that he was ever on the precipice of reaching political power for himself and his gang. Nonetheless, through the trickling down of ideas, Rothbard has most certainly left an impact on our society today. If Rothbard had never been, would the libertarian movement as we know it ever have taken off? Would we ever have seen Ron Paul, the Tea Party, and indeed, what came afterwards? Who knows?
As a final note, I would like to add that some devotees of Rothbard have actually taken a liking to counterfactual speculations themselves. The science fiction author L. Neil Smith has written an entire series on the “Probability Broach”, mainly set in a universe in which the addition of a single word to US Constitution results in America evolving into an anarcho-capitalist paradise. Rothbard himself has a small, if gender-bent cameo, in the form of the author Mary Ross-Byrd. And on her Majesty’s Shore one Sean Gabb can be found, who this author is informed (via Facebook) to be a close associate with the aforementioned Hoppe. He has written a work of alternate history entitled The Churchill Memorandum. If you want to see the world through a pair of very different ideological glasses, I suggest you give it a read. If nothing else, it is guaranteed to blow your mind.