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July 2000

Markets Unlimited: A Biography of Murray Rothbard

A prolific author and Austrian economist, Murray Rothbard promoted a form of free market anarchism he called “anarcho-capitalism.”

Economist Murray N. Rothbard mounted the most comprehensive intellectual challenge ever attempted against the legitimacy of government. During a career that spanned more than 40 years, he explained why private individuals, private companies and other voluntary associations can do whatever needs to be done.

He insisted that individuals should be free to go about their business peacefully without interference from anybody, including government. He objected to robbery whether committed by a private criminal or a tax collector. He acknowledged that there are plenty of problems affecting the private sector, but historically government has made things worse by throttling enterprise and oppressing people. Governments, he noted, are driven to expand their power, not to serve people. That’s why regardless of which political party is in power, governments tend to get bigger, enact more laws, tax and spend more of what hard-working people produce.

Rothbard wrote a dozen major books and several hundred articles about ethics, philosophy, economics, American history and the history of ideas. His work appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Fortune and other major publications, and he was interviewed in Penthouse. He contributed to such scholarly journals as American Economic Review, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Journal of Economic History, Columbia Journal of World Business, Journal of the History of Ideas and the Journal of Libertarian Studies. He contributed to just about every publication in the libertarian movement, including Reason and Liberty. For a number of years he published his own newsletters, Left and Right and The Libertarian Forum. His work has been translated into Chinese, Czech, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portugese, Romanian, Russian and Spanish.

He gave talks and participated in conferences across the United States, at Harvard Law School, Yale University, Princeton University, Columbia University, Stanford University, New York University, the University of California (Los Angeles), the University of Virginia and elsewhere. For a long time, he was involved with the Libertarian Party after it was established in 1972. He worked with the Cato Institute (started in 1977) during its early days, and later became a key player at the Ludwig von Mises Institute which he served for the rest of his life. In 1994, Rothbard received the $20,000 Richard M. Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters from the Illinois-based Ingersoll Foundation — previous winners included distinguished American historians Shelby Foote and Forrest McDonald. The New York Times Sunday Magazine featured Rothbard among the most important contemporary thinkers about liberty.

Rothbard was about five feet, six inches tall. He gained weight during his adult years in New York City – he would have been horrified at the idea of jogging. He slimmed down later, when he began teaching at the University of Nevada. He kept his curly hair short. He always wore a conservative suit and bow tie. Although slightly rumpled, he looked good.

Until his late 40s, Rothbard had a travel phobia and didn’t like tunnels, bridges, trains, planes or, for that matter, elevators. He overcame his phobia and went around the world. When he spoke at a dinner atop Manhattan’s 110-story World Trade Center, he opened by saying: Greetings from earth!”

He was an incurable night owl. Entrepreneur Robert D. Kephart remembered “the Handel’s Messiah singalong which the Rothbards had in their living room every Christmas season, with friends visiting all through night to join in snatches of the chorus. Here you would find Murray engaged in simultaneous conversations with a half-dozen people until his wife Joey would shush him. A chastened Murray would return to the chorus, squeeky and off key, until he could restrain himself no more and stop singing to pick up the conversations.

“And there was the evening I introduced him to Victor Niederhoffer, then reigning world squash champion. Vic had long admired Murray, and over dinner the two hit it off very well. Murray was awed to be in the company of a famous athlete, and he began asking Vic about the game. On the walk home, Vic asked if we would like to stop in at the Harvard Club to see the courts where Vic had done so much training. Murray took off his shoes, and we walked onto the court, Murray peppering Vic with questions. Then Vic suggested that Murray take a racket and hit a few balls. Murray, perhaps the least athletic person in Manhattan, was soon slashing away at shots lobbed to him by a world champion, the walls shaking with Murray’s laughter.”

Murray Newton Rothbard was born in Bronx, New York, March 2, 1926. He was the only child of Ray Babushkin Rothbard who had emigrated from Russia, reportedly Minsk. His father David Rothbard, born in a little village near Warsaw, Poland, became chief chemist of Tidewater Oil Company, Bayonne, New Jersey. A believer in reason and liberty, David Rothbard honored the great mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton with his son’s middle name, and he encouraged Murray philosophically

Rothbard enrolled at Columbia University in 1942. Majoring in economics and mathematics, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa three years later. He earned his M.A. in economics there the following year, then began working on his Ph.D. under economic historian Joseph Dorfman whom Rothbard later called “my first mentor in the field of American history.”  Rothbard received his Ph.D. in 1956.  

According to Rothbard’s longtime friend Leonard Liggio, in 1946 Rothbard had taken a class from George J. Stigler at Columbia, soon after Stigler had collaborated with Milton Friedman on a pamphlet, Roofs or Ceilings. This attack on rent controls was published by the Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, about 30 miles north of New York City. Stigler suggested that Rothbard might be interested in visiting the place. Rothbard got there by taking eight buses (his travel phobia didn’t extend to buses). At FEE he learned about libertarian journalists like H.L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, Garet Garrett and John T. Flynn who were opposed to militarism and conscription as well as big government. “All this rapidly converted me from a free-market economist to a pure libertarian,” Rothbard recalled.

He heard about the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises in the spring of 1949, probably from F.A. “Baldy” Harper who worked at FEE. Three decades earlier, Mises had correctly predicted that socialism would impoverish millions. Mises had fled from the Nazis to America, and Harper seems to have told Rothbard that Mises would be conducting a weekly seminar at the New York University, 100 Trinity Place. He attended the first seminar and continued attending for years. 

Rothbard broke into print by writing book reviews for analysis, a libertarian newsletter started in November 1944 by Frank Chodorov, the New York-born son of a Russian Jewish immigrant peddler whose essay “Taxation is Robbery” had an impact on his thinking. Rothbard’s first reviewed A Mencken Chrestomathy, the collection of writings by H.L. Mencken, which appeared in August 1949. Then between March 1950 and December 1956, Rothbard contributed 13 articles to the libertarian monthly Faith and Freedom. His topics included inflation, price controls and Thomas Jefferson.

At Columbia, while continuing his Ph.D. studies, Rothbard met and became charmed by JoAnn Beatrice Schumacher, a Presbyterian who had earned her B.A. degree at Columbia and her M.A. degree at New York University. Born in Chicago, she grew up in Virginia. They were married on January 16, 1953. He was 27, and she was 25. They moved into apartment 2E, 215 West 88th Street, New York City, their primary residence for the rest of his life. New Year’s resolution for 1954, which Joey had him sign: to be in bed every night by 5:00 A.M. and to arise no later than 1:30 P.M.

Perhaps in 1954, Rothbard met Russian-born Ayn Rand who was working on her philosophical novel Atlas Shrugged. Later he was among those invited to her 36 East 36th Street apartment where completed portions of the novel were read. Rand was horrified that Rothbard was married to a religious woman and in 1958 urged that the Rothbards get divorced. Rothbard quit Rand’s circle.

He struggled to do scholarly work and pay bills. Since January 1952, his principal income had been a $6,000 annual grant from the William Volker Fund, established by a Kansas City furniture wholesaler, to help him write a primer on free market economics. Rothbard’s project expanded until it became a 1,900-page manuscript tentatively called Man, the Economy and the State. The Volker Fund grant ran out on June 30, 1956, and he finished the manuscript in 1957. Several publishers rejected it.

Next, Rothbard wanted to write a book which would explain why the Great Depression was the result not of free market excesses but of government credit, trade and tax policies. In April 1956, Rothbard was awarded a one-year, $5,000 grant from the Earhart Foundation, Ann Arbor, Michigan, through May 31, 1957. 

By this time the Volker Fund had supported about a dozen professors who wrote manuscripts about liberty, but they remained unpublished. During the late 1950s, it was probably the Volker Fund’s Herbert Cornuelle who arranged with D. Van Nostrand Company, Princeton, New Jersey to publish the manuscripts. Among the manuscripts was Rothbard’s Man, Economy and State, A Treatise on Economic Principles. It was cut by 700 pages, and Rothbard wrote a new ending. The book, which filled two volumes, appeared in 1962. 

Rothbard explained how market incentives spur the development of a complex, successful social order. He emphasized how markets and market prices are ultimately determined not by businesses but by consumers. Monopolies tend to persist, he showed, only when supported by government. Rothbard affirmed Mises’ view that government causes inflation by artificially expanding money and credit, and that depression is a consequence of prior inflation. He concluded: “there can be no business cycle in the purely free market.”

Rothbard insisted politicians and bureaucrats cannot fix whatever problems there might be in free markets, because they are imperfect human beings with limited knowledge, driven by their own self-interest – and possessing power to disrupt the entire economy, something even the mightiest corporate executives are incapable of doing. Manuel S. Klausner, Ford Foundation Fellow in Comparative Law at New York University, wrote in New York University Law Review that there was “no more readable treatise and no more forthright case for freedom and free enterprise.”

Van Nostrand published Rothbard’s America’s Great Depression in 1963. He maintained that the Depression was the consequence of the government’s prior credit expansion, and stepped up government interference with the economy prolonged the Depression. Rothbard discussed government blunders including the Smoot-Hawley Tariff and the steep hike in income, corporate, excise and stock transfer taxes. Rothbard influenced historian Paul Johnson’s view of the Great Depression, explained in his 6 million copy seller Modern Times (1983). Johnson called the book “an intellectual tour de force…presented with relentless logic, abundant illustration, and great eloquence.” 

In September 1966, Rothbard was able to secure a steady job teaching at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute which trained engineers. This wasn’t what Rothbard hoped for, but he was thankful for a steady paycheck.  

Rothbard plunged into his next project which was to make a book out of the material cut from Man, Economy, and State. He was determined to present a through case that people would be better off if there weren’t any government interference with their lives. He told how private, competitive judiciaries had played an important role in Western history, and he expressed the view that in the absence of government judges insurance companies would have strong incentives to provide courts. He explained how private defense agencies could work, and he answered objections. F.A. Harper, who by this time had started the Institute for Humane Studies, in Burlingame, California, published Power and Market in 1970.

The Vietnam War had intensified while Rothbard was producing scholarly work. Neither Democrats nor Republicans offered much hope for peace. U.S. forces in South Vietnam reached a peak of 540,000 by 1969. Rothbard tried to forge an alliance with the New Left which organized protests against the war and conscription. Rothbard and his friend Leonard P. Liggio, an historian, started Left and Right, A Journal of Libertarian Thought, in the spring of 1965. Further cultivating the New Left, Rothbard wrote an article for Ramparts magazine (June 1968).  

After reading the article, journalist and political speechwriter Karl Hess contacted Rothbard, and they met at his New York apartment. “It was a classical salon,” Hess recalled,  “a roomful of a dozen or so extraordinarily bright and witty men and women united by enthusiasm for liberty. There was only one difficulty. They never slept, at least not at night…[here] I learned, with great excitement, about a grand tradition in this country…laissez-faire capitalism and human association based on voluntary agreement and absolute individual responsibility.”   Hess wrote for Rothbard’s newsletter The Libertarian, then joined Rothbard as co-editor of the bi-monthly Libertarian Forum. Hess aired his libertarian views with “The Death of Politics,” an article in the March 1969 issue of Playboy. Rothbard, Liggio and Hess deserve credit for reaching out, but they didn’t prevail. The New Left split into factions, some of which turned to violence.

On February 9, 1971, the New York Times published Rothbard’s op-ed article, “The New Libertarian Creed,” which reported on the growing numbers of young people who rebelled against the Vietnam War, military conscription, skyrocketing taxes and government intrusion into personal life. This op-ed attracted the attention of Tom Mandel, an editor at Macmillan, and soon Rothbard had his first commercial book contract. The result was For a New Liberty, the Libertarian Manifesto (1973).  

In it, he provided a sturdy natural rights defense of liberty, beginning with the principle of self-ownership and private property. He debunked the conventional view that government, the principal agency of coercion and violence, could be counted on to do good. Rothbard critiqued welfare, government schools, compulsory unionism, urban renewal, farm subsidies and other government programs which benefit powerful interest groups at the expense of everyone else. Nicholas Von Hoffman praised the book in the Washington Post. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner wrote, “Overall, For a New Liberty presents an articulate, well-reasoned and mostly well-documented argument for the truly radical changes advocated by members of the Libertarian Movement.”

Kenneth Templeton, who had been with the William Volker Fund and later moved to the Institute for Humane Studies, encouraged Rothbard to do a book affirming that the American Revolution was about liberty. He was able to concentrate on this project when the Lilly Endowment provided a five-year grant.  Kansas oilman Charles Koch and Washington, D.C. publisher Robert D. Kephart also provided financial support. Scholar Leonard Liggio collaborated with Rothbard on the project.

Conceived in Liberty, volume I  (The American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century) and volume II (“Salutary Neglect”: The American Colonies in the First Half of the 18th Century) appeared in 1975. Volume III (Advance to Revolution, 1760-1775), in 1976. Volume IV (The Revolutionary War, 1775-1784), 1979. Rothbard discussed the development of libertarian ideas, and he celebrated great libertarians like Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. He regaled readers with outrageous, sometimes amusing stories about the ways government officials interfered with people’s lives. Rothbard dictated much of a fifth volume which would have brought the story through the Constitution, but the publisher got into financial trouble, and the dictating machine belts were damaged.  

While Conceived in Liberty was being published, Kansas entrepreneur Charles Koch arranged financial support so that Rothbard could take a year off from teaching to write a book presenting his political philosophy. The result was The Ethics of Liberty, published by Humanities Press in 1982. He explained why government, based on coercion, is inherently immoral, and he developed a sophisticated case for ethics grounded on natural rights. This has turned out to be one of his most enduring works.

Rothbard’s next project was inspired by one of Rothbard’s admirers, Florida-based investment advisor Mark Skousen. In September 1981, he proposed that Rothbard write a popular survey of economics suitable for college courses, about 300 pages. Skousen offered a $20,000 advance – half on signing and the balance upon completion supposedly within a year. The project expanded in Rothbard’s mind, and years passed.

In 1982, Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr., who had worked for Arlington House Publishers, founded the Ludwig von Mises Institute, now affiliated with Auburn University, Alabama. He persuaded Rothbard to become vice president for academic affairs. He provided Rothbard with research support, and Rothbard led Mises Institute seminars. Rothbard edited The Review of Austrian Economics, the first journal to focus on Austrian economics. Rothbard wrote for the Mises Institute’s Free Market newsletter.  

He was appointed the S.J. Hall Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 1985 (while Las Vegas didn’t have great library resources, the city was open all night). He continued working with the Mises Institute.

Then in April 1991 came the Rothbard-Rockwell Report, a monthly 12-page newsletter which featured commentary about the libertarian movement and world news. With the Cold War over, and conservatives no longer focused on anticommunism, the newsletter urged an alliance between libertarians and conservatives.

During the summer of 1994, Rothbard had trouble sleeping because of fluid in his lungs. On January 7, 1995, Murray and Joey went to a late afternoon appointment at an optometrist’s office about a half-block from their apartment. While she was in another room being examined, Murray asked a technician to have his glasses be tightened. Then he collapsed, unconscious on the floor. Paramedics took him to Roosevelt Hospital where he died of congestive heart failure. He was 68. His ashes were buried in Joey’s family plot at Oakwood Cemetary, Unionville, Virginia. 

There was a memorial service at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, 921 Madison Avenue, New York, where Joey had gone for years. Historian Ralph Raico remarked, “Murray was totally inner-directed, in every way his own man, guided always by values that were an inseparable part of him – above all, his love of liberty and of human excellence.”   Historian Ronald Hamowy: “I’m not a religious man and I have no right to ask for a place in heaven. But I hope that when I die God will chose to let me in, because it sure would be nice to see Murray again.” 

Soon after Rothbard’s death, the project started by Mark Skousen appeared as the two-volume An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought: Volume I, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith; Volume II, Classical Economics. Rothbard traced the intellectual history of natural rights and economic liberty from ancient China to early 19th century Europe. His favorite thinkers included Lao-Tzu, Chrysippus, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Francisco Suarez, Jacques Turgot, Jean-Baptiste Say and Frederic Bastiat.

Rothbard’s wife Joey suffered a stroke in January 1999 and was transferred to Virginia where her relatives lived, and his papers were shipped to the Mises Institute. There scholar Jeff Tucker reported the discovery of several unpublished manuscripts. The Mises Institute issued Making Economic Sense (1995), 112 of his topical essays from Free Market. Then came The Logic of Action (1997) with 43 of Rothbard’s major essays about economics; Education: Free and Compulsory (1999); and a reissue of America’s Great Depression (1999) with a new introduction by Paul Johnson.

Murray Rothbard did more than anyone else to show that society generally does just fine without government interference. He helped inspire confidence in the unlimited potential of free people.

Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.