Wednesday, May 07, 2008


I decided during the 2007 - 2008 winter season to report on the works of Dr. Murray N. Rothbard, one of the most brilliant economists who ever lived.

Before long I realized there would be no way to do all of this in one winter even if I confined myself to works by him that I already own. It would take at least two more winters. Dr. Rothbard was a very prolific writer on a variety of topics; in fact, I can truthfully say that he could write faster than I can read.

Dr. Rothbard (1926 - 1995), excelled in economics and math at Columbia University. He studied for years under the great free-market economist Ludwig von Mises (1). He studied Mises' great epic Human Action and found it very appealing. The book, more than 1,000 pages long, was an industrial-strength defense of the truly free (laissez faire) market. Human Action appeared in 1949, and in the post-Roosevelt era when most young people had been raised during the Depression and schooled by “progressive education,” collectivism was rampant as it is right now in the Bush era. Murray Rothbard knew it was all wrong, and Human Action vindicated his belief in freedom.

I can relate! Growing up, even from babyhood, I knew there was something wrong with the subjugation of the individual to the group, and as a child's gut feeling turned into an adult's reasoning, I too was vindicated by the works of Misean economists, Dr. Rothbard being the most influential.

Dr. Rothbard took the free market to a new level. If goods and services are provided to consumers better on a free market, then wouldn't defense and protection also be better provided by the market rather than by government?

Why not? I wonder too! “Just because” is not an answer. “It has always been done this way” is not an answer either.

Either you believe the free market can provide everything better than government, or you don't. Dr. Rothbard concluded the market can, and set out to prove it. He proved it to my satisfaction. Not only that, he seriously embarrassed the establishment by proving individual freedom is by far the most beneficial in every area ranging from the gold standard and free market money to free trade to self-ownership to gun freedom to seat-belt freedom to an end to minor status laws.

Dr. Rothbard, committed to individual liberty, combined themes of other great thinkers such as John Locke, Lysander Spooner, and Benjamin Tucker, along with Ludwig von Mises, Carl Menger, and Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, under whom he studied.

These names are household words in the libertarian movement. But Murray Rothbard himself was probably the main reason there even is a libertarian movement per se, and is called “Mr. Libertarian” and “The State's greatest living enemy” by Lew Rockwell in the introduction to For a New Liberty (2).

Economics is the study of human action, so if you are interested in people and what makes them tick, then you are interested in economics. The problem with establishment economics is that it is mathematical economics. The establishment considers economics as a science like astronomy or physics.

Yes, it is a science of sorts, but I think it is more of a humanity. It is not a study of inanimate objects (or even animals) that move, but of human beings made in the image of God with a free will, who purposefully act (3). They act to attain ends. So the study of human action is entirely different from the physical sciences.

And this error, or purposeful deceit, on the part of the establishment is related to its belief that human beings are malleable and need to be led, and wait patiently to be told what to do. It is the role of government, it says, to lead people along, to protect them, sometimes by force, “for their own good” and for the “greater good” of “society.” This means, of course, that government officials are somehow better.

In Man, Economy and State, one must remember that Dr. Rothbard is talking about a free-market economy, so government, for the most part, is absent from the discussion.

And that is how it should be. As I read along, one point was hit home over and over again. The sheer number of decisions that have to be made in advanced economies (or even primitive ones) is so great, and the sheer complexity of decisions is such that in each case the “decider” has to be right there zeroing in on the decision at hand. It is impossible for one “decider” to micromanage the whole economy. Each individual has his or her own little niche, his or her own life, and to make all the decisions and make them intelligently is a full-time job. Even a whole office building full of government bureaucrats cannot do it. No two cases are identical so each decision has to be made separately. And to socialize everything skewers all the incentives; in fact, we will be shown that “everybody owning everything” cannot work.

The books show beyond doubt that a free market economy is really the only economy. How well it works depends on how free it is. If it is hampered by taxes and regulations, efficacy is compromised. They also show that economic freedom really includes civil liberties and a non-interventionist foreign policy.

Human beings have a God-given free will, and for government to interfere with that free will amounts to not just playing god, but trying to be a god over God. Government officials are worse than fools when they take that route.

So, now, I embark on this multi-year project!

(1) See the Rothbard biography at

(2) Rothbard, Murray, For a New Liberty, The Libertarian Manifesto, (Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006) P. ix.

(3) Rothbard, Murray, Man, Economy and State with Power and Market, (Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2004) P. 306


Anonymous said...

Great stuff!
Mary Jane Gra

Alice Lillie said...

Thank you, Mary Jane!

It is responses like yours that make it all worth while!


clem clements said...

This is fantabulous stuff. Don't give up on the blogging front! Mises is a rock-star!

Anonymous said...

I find Rothbard to be a combination of Mises, Spooner and Rand. Mises for economics, Spooner for anarchism and Rand for natural law theory. I prefer the originals.

Having known Murray and seen him in action I'm not impressed by him. I don't have major disagreements with his ideas but the scholarship of other writers from a libertarian perspective far outweigh his own. I just don't think he was that good. Most his stuff was a rewrite of other material better said in the original sources.

Glen Litsinger said...

Alice, excellent writing and review of a challenging body of work by one of the foremost thinkers of the 20th Century. I recently started my own blog called The Anarchy School. I know our ideas largely overlap, so I'll be keeping an eye on yours.

The anonymous poster who knew Rothbard and was not impressed - do you happen to work for Cato? The only criticisms of Rothbard (from libertarians) I've ever heard have come from Beltway libertarians. Sure, Rothbard built on the work of earlier thinkers, but in most cases he went far beyond their ideas, and was not afraid to criticize them, even Mises. I just finished reading Rothbard's "Ethics of Liberty", and was most impressed by his demolition of the pseudo-libertarian ideas of Nozick.

Michael Morrison said...

We ALL stand on the shoulders of giants, but that does not preclude some of us, including Murray Rothbard, from also being giants.
What is important in this context, though, is not the person, but the person's ideas -- and Rothbard, in that regard, deserves high praise.
Oh, he was not always right, or always even intelligent.
He made a famously stupid remark about the end of the Vietnam War, but, except for Alice, Glen, and me, nearly everybody makes a stupid remark once or twice in his life.