Murray Rothbard

By Richman, Sheldon | Freeman, April 2010 | Go to article overview
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Murray Rothbard


Richman, Sheldon, Freeman


In 1946 the fledgling Foundation for Economic Education published a pamphlet titled "Roofs or Ceilings: The Current Housing Problem" (www.tinyuri.com/cpluwy), a brief against rent control written by two unknown young economists: Milton Friedman and George Stigler. They would go on to win the Nobel Prize in economics in 1976 and 1982, respectively.

That's a remarkable story. But just as remarkable is what that pamphlet led to. When it was issued, Stigler, then teaching at Columbia University (his University of Chicago days still lay ahead), told a young student about it, perhaps changing American intellectual history.

The student was Murray Rothbard.

"Rothbard," writes Brian Dohcrty in Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, "was delighted to learn of an organization promoting his political and economic values. . . . By 1948, Leonard Read had already noted young Rothbard's deep knowledge of market economics and libertarian principles (and their history) and began to lean on him to vet articles for FEE."

On visits to FEE Rothbard met Frank Chodorov, the prolific libertarian author who edited The Freeman the first year after Read acquired it. "Chodorov helped introduce Rothbard to the works of [Albert Jay] Nock, Herbert Spencer, Caret Garrett, and Isabel Paterson, among others," Doherty reports. It wasn't long before he encountered Ludwig von Mises, an adviser to Read.

Thus Rothbard, who went on to become one of the great natural-law libertarian figures in history and an indefatigable advocate/elaborator of Misesian (Austrian) economics in method and substance, can be said to have received vital intellectual nourishment at FEE's Irvington-on-Hudson estate.

Rothbard, who died 15 years ago, was at once a beloved and controversial figure. He was one of the very tew individuals who shaped the modern freedom movement at its start. Even advocates of the freedom philosophy who never read a word he wrote have been influenced by him. With a passion nonpareil, Rothbard set out to create a self-conscious libertarian movement, which he accomplished through his activism and charisma, as well as through his writings - from the scholarly to the popular - in economics, history, political philosophy, and social criticism. For one man to have turned out Man, Economy, and State/Power and Market; America's Great Depression; The Etliics of Liberty; Conceived in Liberty (four volumes on American history through the Revolutionary War); For a New Liberty - and so much more - is something astounding. We probably won't see his likes again. (See David Gordon's Freeman article, "Murray Rothbard's Philosophy of Freedom," www.tinyurl.com/ycfbybb.)

I feel lucky to have known Murray. He was always a delight to be around, whether talking about some obscure historical figure, traditional jazz (before the electric guitar intruded), classic movies, or the future of liberty. He was unfailingly optimistic and ever ready for a laugh. He was what he called H. L. Mencken (whom he treasured): "the joyous libertarian."

To say that he was controversial even within the freedom movement is an obvious understatement. His application of libertarian and market principles to even the "traditional functions" of limited government - that is, his belief that the free market can and should provide all legitimate services competitively - stirs heated debate today.

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