But Rothbard himself granted that his course was not wise, if what he sought was professional advancement. As he explained in a letter to Robert Kephart:
“Bob, old and wiser … heads have been giving me similar advice all my life, and I’m sure all that advice was right. … When I was a young libertarian starting out, I was advised by Leonard Read: ‘Only be critical of bad measures, not of the people advocating them.’ It’s OK to criticize government regulation, but not the people advocating them. One big trouble with that is that then people remain ignorant of the ruling class, and the fact that Business often pushes regulatory measures to cartelize the system, so I went ahead and named names….
“Then, when I became an anarchist, I was advised, similarly: ‘Forget this anarchist stuff. It will injure your career, and ruin your scholarly image as a laissez-faire Austrian.’ I of course didn’t follow that perfectly accurate advice. Then, come the late 1950s, I was advised by friends: ‘For god’s-sakes, forget this peace crap. Stick to economics, that’s your scholarly area anyway. Everybody is against this peace stuff, and it will kill your scholarly image, and ruin you with the conservative movement.’ Which of course is exactly what happened. And then: ‘Don’t attack Friedman directly. Just push Austrianism.’ And ‘don’t push Austrianism too hard, so you can be part of one big free-market economics family.’
“So you see, Bob, my deviation from proper attention to my career image is lifelong, and it is too late to correct at this point. I’m sure that if, in Ralph [Raico]’s phrase, I had been ‘careful,’ and followed wise advice, I would now be basking in lots of money, prestige, and ambiance. … Why did I take the wrong course?… If there had been lots of libertarians who were anarchists, lots who were antiwar, lots who named names of the ruling elite, lots attacking Hoover, Friedman, etc., I might not have made all these choices, figuring that these important tasks were being well taken care of anyway, so I may as well concentrate on my own ‘positioning.’ But at each step I looked around and saw indeed that nobody else was doing it. So then it was up to me.” ~Lew Rockwell, Mises.org
Mr. Rockwell’s article, which is a review of Justin Raimondo’s Rothbard: An Enemy of the State, does a fine job recapitulating the career of Murray Rothbard and explaining the virtues of Mr. Raimondo’s book. I must confess that, having never read any Rothbard, I am just the sort of person who needs to read An Enemy of the State, and I have been very much encouraged to do so by this review. I am all the more compelled to learn more from Rothbard as I see that his views, though perhaps a tad too libertarian in certain respects, were usually the expressions of the same principles I have held and defended, and he readily embraced the consequences of holding fast to his convictions in a truly admirable manner. In addition to his prodigious intellectual output, Murray Rothbard also bequeathed his example of steadfast conviction as part of his legacy. What a pity that, even if they preferred access and power to integrity and truth, his “conservative” enemies could not at least honour him for that–but then that would require a sense of honour, which the crowd at NR and like organisations have shown again and again that they lack.
The article’s reference to the tenth anniversary of Rothbard’s death in January reminds me of a story my father had told me, which constitutes, alas, my main connection to the influence of Rothbard, but it is worth noting all the same. My introduction to conservatism came through my father for the first eight or ten years that I was really aware of politics, so his repudiation of National Review in 1995, following the hateful obituary of Murray Rothbard written by William Buckley (some of the errors of which Rockwell points out), resonated with me and gave me my first hint that NR had become apostate, so to speak. The earlier causes of the war between Rothbard and Buckley were not known to me then, but in this episode I was made aware of the sharp divisions in the American Right (of course, I did not think of it quite like this at the time) and saw clearly who had been on the right side of those divisions.
“He became a Buchananite. When Pat Buchanan criticized Bush’s war and tax increases, and was smeared as an anti-Semite, Rothbard rose to his defense. He also worked to turn Buchanan into a consistent libertarian, or at least to make him into the model of what he claimed to be: an Old Right isolationist constitutionalist. Raimondo points out that Rothbard was frustrated that he did not achieve his goal.
Further, he points out that Rothbard “chided Buchanan for being a classic case of the old adage that some people (especially politicians) often concentrate on those issues in which they have the least expertise; in Buchanan’s case, this is undoubtedly the realm of economics.” Special credit goes to Raimondo for pointing this out, since he is personally far more favorable to Buchanan than Rothbard was from 1992 forward.”
Here Rockwell explains another aspect of Rothbard’s relations with conservatives. I include this not really to demean Mr. Buchanan, just as Mr. Raimondo did not, but to highlight Rothbard’s perspicacity and good judgement. It also expresses well some of the frustrations I have had as an observer and supporter of Mr. Buchanan’s efforts, including the excellent American Conservative, as the “Old Right isolationist constitutionalist” position has very often, with the exception of the so-called “isolationism,” been relegated to the background. Indeed, if one were to ask how I would briefly define my paleoconservatism, I would, with a few other qualifications, define it in just this way. Mr. Buchanan does adhere to this same view, of course, and he has done more for this persuasion than just about any other individual alive today, but it is something of a confirmation of Rothbard’s observation that the constitutionalist aspect is often hard to find or muted.
Whatever fundamental agreement and sympathies I may have with Mr. Buchanan’s America First arguments when it comes to economics, as opposed to laissez-faire or the fake “free trade” and state capitalism we ‘enjoy’ today, I have found this consistently to be the stumbling-block of the appeal of Buchananism to its natural constituencies. This is not to concede that laissez-faire is preferable or morally right, but that arguing against both it and our present-day state capitalism would require greater expertise in economics than Mr. Buchanan has had.
What makes Mr. Buchanan’s America First appeal so profound and meaningful, and potentially very popular, is its political and moral arguments, not its economic ones: Americans ought to have economic policies that privilege other Americans because we are fellow citizens and others closer to us have greater claims on our loyalty than foreigners, and the political and moral benefits of this national loyalty do outweigh the economic benefits of cheap commodities. It is the promise of greater equity and national loyalty, not greater wealth or greater economic growth, that makes this appeal meaningful and inspiring. Where Mr. Buchanan can bring clarity and insight to problems of foreign policy, American identity and culture that few others can or dare offer, his economic arguments are often a mix of sentimentalism for steel workers (sympathy not unworthy in itself, but also not very convincing as an economic argument) and often enough objections rooted in one of the more peculiar readings of the decline and fall of the British empire (in its simple form, the idea that Britain was laissez-faire and thus gradually lost out to protectionist America and Germany).
The extent to which this focus on economic policy did dominate his 1996 campaign prevented him from building on his initial successes in 1992 and made it that much more difficult to challenge the dull, dreary establishmentarian Dole in the primaries. Had Rothbard been more successful in moulding Buchanan’s ’96 campaign, and had Buchanan been able to tap into principled conservative constituencies enough to wean them from their Clinton-hatred (certainly a formidable task!), Buchananism might have been waxing in strength after that point rather than becoming the honourable and good, but marginal, movement that it did become in 2000.