Murray's Missing Plan
Column by Jim Davies.
Exclusive to STR
I've been continuing to read the fascinating story of the modern libertarian movement's early years, as told in the Libertarian Forum, edited and often written by Murray Rothbard. It's vast, but very worthwhile – warmly recommended. I've supplemented it recently with a re-read of parts of Justin Raimondo's excellent biography of him, An Enemy of the State.
Despite occasional flaws, my admiration for MNR is undiminished. Single handed, he spotted the weakness in both Ayn Rand's philosophy and in that of his lieber meister, Ludwig von Mises; in different ways each of those had concluded that, terrible though government is in almost every respect, it was not feasible to do without it altogether. So they were minarchists.
Rand thought that a justice system required punishment, and she could not imagine any way to establish in a free society a uniform schedule of punishments without a single authority to decide and enforce it – i.e., government. That was, at least, one of her reasons for not being an anarchist. I think she was right; the two do go together. If you want punishment (retribution), you need government; if you want government, you will get plenty of punishment. She chose both; I choose neither. Murray Rothbard, in a rare lapse of good logic, tried to have one without the other, as explored in this STRticle.
But meanwhile Murray showed, for students of both Rand and Mises, that all the functions of government (like justice and defense) which might be necessary or desirable could well be provided by an unfettered market without coercion, and he did so in detail and with all the authority of a first class scholar. After wrestling with the idea of minimizing the state to perform only vital functions of that kind, the light-bulb went on for him: he saw that if powers like those are granted, eventually there can be no limit to other powers government will take.
This was new ground. It's where he leaped “outside the box” of conventional thinking – and even that of the unconventional thinking of those two giants. He presented his findings in 1970 in Power and Market and in 1973 in For a New Liberty, still the standard work of its kind, and it was well accompanied by works of other authors like David Friedman (The Machinery of Freedom, also 1973), the Tannehills (The Market for Liberty, 1970) and in such more recent books as Wes Bertrand's Complete Liberty (2007) and my own A Vision of Liberty (2006.) All of those derive from Rothbard's original and seminal work, which is why I rate him the #1 champion of freedom in the 20th Century.
Thus, Murray Rothbard took politics out of consideration. Post-Murray, it became possible to think of society working well without any central directorate at all. This was radical, for politics had been a fundamental part of sociology ever since Aristotle. He was that important!
But four decades after For a New Liberty appeared, a zero-government society has not. How come? What went wrong? Where did Murray's Master Plan, if he had one, come unstuck?
The problem is right there: he didn't. I've referred before to his “elephantine” failure to lay out a way to get from here to there, because that task is the elephant in the room. It's all very nice and exciting to dream of a free society, but if there's no known way to obtain one, it's not a whole lot of use. Now, his written output was so prolific that I could be wrong on this; he may have outlined a plan which I've not yet encountered. If any reader happens to know of it, please comment below with a link to it and I'll prepare to eat some or all of my words. But my impression that such a plan is missing is bolstered by noting what he actually did, in those critical years from 1968 through 1984 – as well as what little about it that he did write.
For what he wrote, I searched the Libertarian Forum and the Irrepressible Rothbard for phrases like “plan for liberty,” “strategic plan,” “strategy for freedom,” etc., but struck out. More accurately, I struck out in the sense that I found nothing that I recognized as a strategic plan for achieving a zero government society by a specified, proactive method in some particular period of time. I did find phrases like “strategy for liberty,” but eventually realized that Rothbard meant by it something different from what I knew in the business world.
For example, he wrote a lengthy “Epilogue” to For a New Liberty, which is a guidebook for the new movement, titled “A Strategy for Liberty.” At first sight this seemed to be Murray's missing plan, and it begins very well with the header “Education: Theory and Movement,” but proposes how members of the libertarian movement should best educate each other and present or package ourselves and our ideas to voters. I'd call that more of a policy than a strategy, and if he had a systematic plan to educate every American, he didn't mention it.
A similar, and longer, essay can be read here online as the final chapter in Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty. His perspective is that of how the movement should best position itself, what policies it should emphasize first, etc; the whole assumption is, it seems to me, that it is expected to take its place in a political process. It's a fine homily, but it's not a plan at all – with stated objectives, dependencies, resource listing, timetable, etc.
A minor example: Rothbard was eager that libertarians should present ourselves to the public as respectable, real-world people rather than as long-haired hippies. He always wore a suit, himself. He was impatient even with David Bergland for conveying to Californians an image of LPers as laid-back, live-life-your-way rather than being orderly and well-groomed. He often used the word luftmenschen (air-heads) to demean those more spaced-out and easy-going, and I ran into that myself at the Seattle LP convention in 1987; I happened to prefer Russell Means to Ron Paul and was a bit peeved when MNR called us air-heads. So I made up a lapel button and wore it proudly, for fun: Ich bin ein luftmensch. But I didn't realize that Murray was serious, he thought it awful that the LP might trust its future to a flamboyant, unorthodox American Indian instead of an articulate, buttoned-down physician, economist and politician.
I found one other reference to the subject. In the June 1971 issue of LF (Vol III #5), Rothbard wrote of two streams of libertarian thought about how to “destatize” (a word that has, happily, sunk) -- “the 'left-wing' tends to call for immediate destruction of existing society” while the “'right-wing' tends to be pure 'educationists'. Both strategies are self-defeating . . . . The educationist view tends to hold that as more people are converted, the State will somehow automatically wither away. But how?” If only he had pondered that fair question a little longer!
What he did, on the other hand, is much more eloquent. As a preeminent economics scholar, he would have been perfectly well justified to lay out the theoretical framework for a free society for us, and let others enter the practical grind to cause it to come about; but he didn't. He dove in head-first to the fray, leading charge after charge against statism and all its works.
His choice was to engage in political activism. That was the environment in which he'd been raised – though his uncles were communists, not libertarians. For example, Raimondo recalls how, in 1968, Rothbard “wandered in innocently to a Peace and Freedom Party meeting . . . one can almost hear the mischievous cackle that must have accompanied this statement . . . 'And I was plunged into the vortex of left-wing politics; it was lots of fun, it was a very fun thing . . . .'” -- so he did it without apology.
That's not to say he was eager to start a new party and run for office. At first he was skeptical about what David Nolan and his friends did in 1971, even though the newborn LP tried to nominate him for President; “Your editor came in first in the poll, thus becoming the runaway plurality choice of the 52 people who participated in the voting . . . . [In support] a deluge of five letters and calls came flooding in. It should be clear that, at the very least, any talk of a libertarian party is grossly premature, and will be for many years to come.” Time has proven him only too accurate, even though later on he became the LP's de-facto leader.
Rather, Rothbard's initial activism was to plunge into whatever was the current political scene, getting media attention, to shake it up and get reported; mount demonstrations, write op-eds, get noticed. Support less-evil candidates in elections, from either big party, in the hope that when they won, they would make government a bit less obnoxious.
This failure to reflect and form a rational, strategic plan to bring about a zero-government society is really a colossal failure, a major omission. It's as if Rothbard and his friends were attacking an enemy where he is strongest and best fortified, with pea shooters. He was a David, going up against Goliath without even a slingshot. They were one squad of Marines, assaulting Omaha Beach with a couple of rubber dinghies and one rifle, a revolver and a grenade per person. They did an amazing job, of getting far more publicity than they might have, but it was doomed from the get-go.
Instead he should have obtained answers to some key questions. The State's defenses seem impregnable – but where are their weak spots? On what do they depend? How about the enemy's supply lines? From where come his water, his food, his ammunition? How about telecommunications, where do the phone wires run? Whom does he employ? I don't mean the key people (although as we saw this year in the case of Edward Snowden, if a single well-placed employee quits his job, it can have a devastating effect) but the ancillary staff, the hewers of wood and drawers of water. One persistent strike by garbage workers can bring a city to its knees.
In the case of government, on what support does it depend? Votes? Hardly, until the election turnout sinks to single digits, and maybe not then. Taxes? Perhaps, but not much. Not now that it can fabricate $85 billion of new “money” every month. Employees? Ah, now you're cookin'. Without their support, it can't survive a single day.
In blaming Rothbard for failing to pause and ask these simple, vital questions and form an action plan to fit the answers, I am also blaming myself. I joined the movement in 1980, and it was 25 years before I got around to posing them; and by then, very sadly, Murray had been dead for ten. And I did business planning for a living! So while his omission is tragic, few if any of us can point an accusing finger without three others pointing back at ourselves.
Anyway, his Quixotic assault on government strongholds hasn't worked. Rothbard's original take on the LP's founding proved correct, and as early as 1984, he was writing that the movement, while by no means dead, had “imploded” (LF volume XVIII issues 8-12). Money had been attracted in generous amounts from the Koch brothers, but with the funds came, naturally, control. And in their wisdom, Charles and David Koch decided to place them with people (like the Cato Institute) who would soften the properly hard edge of pure libertarianism that Rothbard favored; they are businessmen, and expect some visible progress for their investments. So here we are, four decades on, and the LP has never won more votes than it got in 1980, when its Presidential team was Ed Clarke and David Koch.
Hence the deep irony, the sad contradiction in Murray Rothbard; he brilliantly pioneered the theory that society can do very well in every way without any political component at all, yet he employed a political method to try to bring that about. Little wonder it failed. Had he devoted his astonishing intellect to the formation of a rational plan for translating theory into practice, instead of plunging into activism with apparently little thought, we'd be in a very different spot.
It's understandable that in the anti-war ferment of the late 1960s he should wish to seize the moment, to join with all enemies of the state including the far Left, to combat government in its time of weakness; nonetheless, the error was tragic. Had he paused, reflected quietly, and planned, I think he could not have failed to begin by describing what government is; of whom it consists. To form a strategy to abolish it, first one must understand its nature.
He'd have had no problem, for all of that is implicit in what he'd already published – perhaps most notably in Anatomy of the State. He might have defined government as “that which prevents the operation of a market.” He'd probably have noted that its members all have a wish to live by force, rather than persuasion. And, crucially, I think he could not have failed to see that in order to abolish it, the one necessary job is to cause its employees to leave their jobs; for he knew that government consists only of those who work for it.
From there, he would have grasped at once that the task was indeed one of education; not only of government workers but also of those who might replace them if they quit; and that the education required would teach not only the repugnant nature of the state but also the nature of a free-market alternative, so that everyone would know how to live in one.
Above, I noted how close he came: he referred to education, but then asked rather scornfully, “But how?” -- how would education of libertarian leaders cause the state to wither away?
It wouldn't, of course. But if he'd only taken the question one stage further, another light bulb would surely have lit up: the needed education is not just for activists and leaders but for everyone. No matter the formidable size of that task; if a free society is to come about, that is what needs to be done, and nothing less. Otherwise, there could be no universal repudiation of government, needed to motivate everyone to avoid working for it. Then, once he had seen that, he'd have figured out a way to deliver the indispensable education.
At least, I think he would, given the power of his intellect; though the task would have seemed far more formidable then, in the 1970s, than it does today now that we have the Internet. He'd have had to propose some kind of correspondence school, as in What Might Have Been. Possibly he'd have seen a way to use TV, with VHS tapes – or even just audio. If he had forgotten how the early Christian Church grew exponentially, his wife JoAnn, a lifelong Presbyterian, would surely have reminded him – and so he would have tumbled to the central idea of one-to-one replication, with its enormous ability to cause rapid growth.
Absence of the Net, and of low-cost CDs, might have slowed down progress a bit; who knows, the process might have taken 40 years instead of a reasonably-projected 28. But since 1970, when Rothbard had all his ducks in a row and had begun his activism, we've had those 40 years. If only he had chosen such a non-political method, to complement the non-political nature of the free society he had just portrayed, we'd be enjoying the result already.