Murray Rothbard, age 68, died on January 7. We extend condolences to his family, but not to the movement he inspired.
The academic and journalistic achievements of Professor Murray Rothbard of the University of Nevada were prodigious — 25 books, including Man, Economy, and State, and a four-volume history of economic thought, the final two volumes of which will appear in the spring. He was the primary influence in founding the Libertarian Party, whose godfather he continued to be until he broke with it a few years ago.
What reason, then, not to regret the end of his influence on the conservative-libertarian movement?
Murray Rothbard had defective judgment. It pains even to recall it, but in 1959 when Khrushchev arrived in New York, with much of America stunned by the visit of the butcher of Budapest — the Soviet protege of Stalin who was threatening a world war over Berlin — Rothbard physically applauded Khrushchev in his limousine as it passed by on the street. He gave as his reason for this that, after all, Khrushchev had killed fewer people than General Eisenhower, his host.
Murray couldn’t handle moral priorities. In 1991 he decried the Cold War, which had just ended by liberating three hundred million people while maintaining our own independence. As president of the John Randolph Society, he spoke jubilantly at its convention in 1991 of his fancy, that we should “think the unthinkable and restore the good old Articles of Confederation.” In recent years he disavowed Milton Friedman on the grounds that in endorsing the idea of school vouchers, Professor Friedman had sold out to the enemy, the State. James Burnham, the noble strategist and philosopher, he attacked bitterly in 1968 (“I can see Burnham now, helping the slavemasters of the South round up the slave rebels under Nat
Turner”). In 1957, reviewing in NR a book by Murray Rothbard, Henry Hazlitt observed that he suffered from “extreme apriorism.” Indeed he did, Rothbard retorted in an essay that defended categorical positions, leaving no room for qualifications however critical. We have not read his economic history, but if it is as reliable as his contemporary history, we warn against it a generation of scholars which, from all appearances, is paying it the attention it deserves. In his speech to the John Randolph Society Rothbard gave this rendition of the history of National Review: “And so the purges began. One after another, Buckley and National Review purged and excommunicated all the radicals, all the nonrespectables. Consider the roll call: isolationists (such as John T. Flynn), anti-Zionists, libertarians, Ayn Randians, the John Birch Society, and all those who continued, like the early National Review, to dare to oppose Martin Luther King and the civil-rights revolution.” Anybody who could decipher this magazine’s history as above, could also conclude that Khrushchev was morally preferable to Eisenhower.
Murray Rothbard was a wonderfully pleasant social companion. He had been a friend and colleague — he did the research for the passages in Up from Liberalism that dealt with economics. But in 1962, at an ISi-sponsored seminar at Yale, I spoke derisively, if with good humor, about Murray’s proposal to privatize the lighthouses, suggesting that such a platform would persuade listeners less of the advantages of the private sector than of the disadvantages of knowing nothing about lighthouses. Rothbard was outraged and noisily denounced this journal, vowing never again to contribute to it.
We muddled through without him, and he got on with his own work, though the influence of the Libertarian Party did not correspond with its valuable insights — the American people, during the Cold War, were not going to welcome in large numbers a political party whose leader thought the defense of freedom through containment was a travesty.
It was a great pity, but his problem ought not to be thought of as tracing to the seamless integrity of libertarian principles. In Murray’s case, much of what drove him was a contrarian spirit, the deranging scrupulosity that caused him to disdain such as Herbert Hoover, Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, and — yes — Newt Gingrich, while huffing and puffing in the little cloister whose walls he labored so strenuously to contract, leaving him, in the end, not as the father of a swelling movement that “rous[ed] the masses from their slumber,” as he once stated his ambition, but with about as many disciples as David Koresh had in his little redoubt in Waco. Yes, Murray Rothbard believed in freedom, and yes, David Koresh believed in God.
— This obituary appeared in the February 6, 1995, issue of National Review.