Murray Rothbard was, at the very least, one the top three libertarian thinkers in the 20th century. He was a prolific writer as the author of dozens of books, articles, and essays. Cory Massimino joins the show to discuss Rothbard’s brand of anarchism.
What does it mean to be paleoconservative? What is the New Left? What do they believe? Who influenced Murray Rothbard?
00:07 Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:10 Aaron Powell: Joining us today is Cory Massimino. He’s a Fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society. We’re gonna be talking about the political ideas of Murray Rothbard, which is the subject of a chapter Cory’s authored for the upcoming Routledge Handbook of Anarchy and Anarchist Thought. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Cory.
00:26 Cory Massimino: Hey, thanks for having me on.
00:28 Aaron Powell: Can you start by giving us a sense of who Rothbard was and the influence he’s had on 20th‐century libertarian thought?
00:39 Cory Massimino: Sure. So Murray Rothbard was perhaps the major, at least in the top three Libertarian thinkers in the 20th century, one of the most prolific writers of anyone of any political ideology, authored dozens of books, articles, essays, he wrote constantly for his whole life. So there’s lots of material and literature to draw on when you’re looking at his ideas and trying to parse out his positions, which changed over time sometimes. And he’s mainly I think… I think his most popular book among Libertarians is probably For a New Liberty, which he wrote in 1973, which is kind of a manifesto for his version of libertarianism at that time, which could be understood as a kind of like mainline libertarianism. It’s after his period of allying with the New Left, and it’s before his period of being more of a paleolibertarian. And I think that’s been a big… ‘Cause you have some people who are really hardcore Rothbardians, but as you asked about just the broader libertarian movement in America as it’s understood as a political ideology, it was a lot to Rothbard and his books like For a New Liberty and how he spelled out his ideas.
01:55 Trevor Burrus: You mentioned that he’s got a phases in his life like the reaching out to the New Left and then the paleoconservative stage. Should we understand those as strategic moves by his looking for different political alliances or ideological changes of mind that he had?
02:16 Cory Massimino: I tend to think… It’s hard to psychologize someone, especially that you’ve obviously never met. But my read on that stuff is kind of… It’s hard to distinguish between… In theory, that you can distinguish between was it for strategical purposes or was it because of a genuine change in ideology, but those things kind of tend to run together. Once you start strategically allying with the New Left and you’re going to all these protests about Vietnam War and you’re talking to all these New Leftists, your ideas are probably gonna start to shift a little bit and come a little closer to the people you’re surrounding yourself with and the ideological climate that you immersed yourself in. So I think often strategical was at the top of his head. With his decisions, I think he was pretty clear about always trying to find the best avenue and best political affiliations to spread his idea of liberty at whatever time it is, and that’s why it shifts so much.
03:21 Cory Massimino: In his life at first, in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, when he’s starting to write… He writes his treatise, Man, Economy, and State in 1962 I think, and during that time, he’s a big fan of the Old Right from maybe a decade or two prior, and people like [03:42] ____ Mengenen and Oppenheimer and Nock. And he sees that as the main way to advance liberty. But then the ‘70s come along and Vietnam comes along, and more importantly, the Cold War really intensifies and that really pushes him to go away from the conservatives, which he’d use as… They became a lost cause because of the Cold War, I think is his position and the Old Right didn’t exist anymore. And now, there was this emerging new kind of radical ideas that he was attracted to in the ‘70s, and so I think he started to ally with them. And he’s still critical of certain leftist things in the time period, for sure. And it wasn’t long before the New Left itself sort of collapsed and disintegrated into competing factions and Rothbard just abandoned it too and realized, “Well, this isn’t strategical anymore. I gotta carve out my own kinda new path.”
04:41 Cory Massimino: And then you fast forward a couple of years and he starts to see paleoconservatism as the best ally for libertarianism. And I think, again, mainly because that’s when you get to the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s at the end of his life, the Cold War was over so he saw again, “Well, maybe the right can be salvaged and allied with for a libertarian cause.” And he was very pessimistic about the left, ’cause in the early ‘90s, you had just like now, the last few years, you had a way of political correctness discourse around, similar to what we’re experiencing, and he was very paleoconservative on these issues and really pushed away from the left. So at the end of his life, those were his alliances there, and I think his ideas probably shifted more towards paleoconservatism at that time because that’s who he was around, that’s who he was reading and who was reading him. And that’s who his friends circle was, that’s who his financial support was. But we know all throughout his life, he just… He liked to burn bridges, he liked the strategical element of politics almost as a game.
05:48 Aaron Ross Powell: Before we dig into his thought, because of his shifting alliances and his shifting views over the course of his life and how that plays into your argument, it might be helpful if we took a moment to have you just explain what you mean by the New Left and what kind of the core of their views was? And what you mean by, like what is a paleoconservative? What do they believe?
06:17 Cory Massimino: Well, the New Left, I would say, was characterized mostly by an opposition. I mean, the big thing was the Vietnam War at the time, and I think that united everyone and that united a lot of radical leftists that opposed the status quo, American governmental economic‐political system with a lot of different details and specifics. Under that one big header, New Left. And you even have one of the presidents of the Students for a Democratic Society, the hallmark New Left organization at the time, he himself identified as a Rothbardian, Carl Oglesby. He’s a quite interesting New Left thinker that you can find and he was influenced by Rothbard and sort of, if we put it in language today, he would be an advocate, I think, of bottom unity or the idea that the two bottom quadrants on the political compass, the two libertarian quadrants ought to try to work a little more together and against the authoritarian quadrants because of their common affiliations, and… So the New Left, I think, was mainly against the war, against militarism, and it saw that it really entwined with the corporate state and the militarian industrial complex, and policing at home and corporatism, and neo‐mercantilism. And Rothbard was on board with all that stuff and he wrote about it quite a bit.
07:38 Cory Massimino: But when you get… Fast forward 15, 20 years, and you got the Cold War is ending, and conservatism is kind of changing a little bit, and there’s this paleoconservatism that he kinda hooks onto, that he gets drawn into, and I would say the central thing that characterizes paleoconservatism is it’s distinct from neo‐conservatism, it tries to have this non‐interventionist foreign policy while at the same time advocating for minimal government in economics spheres, say… And advocating for at least culturally conservative attitudes on most issues, like things like gender and race and sexuality and religion. And he, by the early 90s, was very much interested in and invested in these culturally conservative attitudes as he saw as pretty important, but he didn’t want the government to mandate anything about it, obviously. He never repudiated anarchism but he did say… His most infamous quote is from the early ‘90s, in an essay, where he says, “To unleash the cops,” to administer instant punishment on the people on the street. And so it’s a weird shift where he was more aligned with the Black Panthers against the cops in the New Left phase, and then by the early ‘90s he’s being squishy and screaming on his anarchism and supporting more police action.
09:01 Trevor Burrus: So despite these phases that we’ve been discussing, you argue that there are some core things, as you said, he never repudiated his anarchism, even though he might have had some poorly chosen words at different times. So we can go through those, one of them you point out is that he was a lifelong believer in natural law and morality based on natural law. How did he view that?
09:25 Cory Massimino: Yeah. So I would say one of the biggest elements that forms the foundation of his thought, and it can be really seen throughout, is Aristotelian natural law, in the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas viewing humans as natural entities in the world with a certain nature and with a certain function, a certain thing that’s unique and specific to humans that distinguishes them from the other natural entities in the world, particularly non‐person animals, and that’s a rational faculty or capacity to chose and decide our ends and form projects and goals and by extension cooperate with other agents who are forming projects and goals. And so that’s a big thing for Rothbard. He at first wasn’t…
10:15 Cory Massimino: I mean, his teacher was Mises in the ‘50s, so Mises did not like natural law at all, he was utilitarian of sorts, but when Murray came into contact with Rand, he’s quoted in the letter saying that Rand showed him the glory of natural rights, and they had a schism and split off, so he never attributes his ideas to Rand, but if you read his major work on here, The Ethics of Liberty, the first few chapters, they could have been written by Ayn Rand, I would argue. They’re right out of her similar Aristotelian liberal framework. Let’s use this connection between the rational action necessary for a virtuous life and the good life, a connection between that and a connection between the freedom and autonomy granted by liberal political orders, and in Rothbard’s case, full on anarchism without any government. So natural law for him is kind of the moral base that he sticks his anarchism on top of.
11:15 Aaron Powell: What’s the scope of rights for Rothbard drawing from that Aristotelian tradition? Because if… You can imagine, if the argument is that we have these faculties and a nature and that is tied into a good life, and so a good life is being able to exercise these sort of things, and so if I interfere with your exercise of rational choice and self‐authorship and so on, I’m interfering with your ability to lead as good a life as possible, but you could also imagine saying, “Well, but that also means that we should be positively providing for you because if what matters ultimately is that you lead a good life, there’s lots of things that you need beyond just autonomy in order to live well, or lots of things we could do to help you live well,” and so you could see it on the other end of the spectrum potentially justifying much more robust, say, positive liberties or intervention or resource transfer, so on. So how does he… Where does he come down in that spectrum, and how does he get to there from these priors?
12:27 Cory Massimino: For sure. That’s a good question. Most Aristotelians following Aristotle have been much more to the communitarian side of political theory, whereas Rothbard is on the more individualist side, and that makes sense because for Aristotle, political community is completely central and essential to human society and human nature. He sees a very close connection between our rational nature and our language‐using nature and our political nature. Like I said the rational faculty we have is what enables us to cooperate with other rational actors, so all these are sort of intertwined for Aristotle, and that’s why he calls us a social animal or a political animal at times, and most thinkers in history have taken that to say, okay, well, that means we need a state. Politics that’s a state, the state represents the community, in some facet, and then helps everyone be virtuous, like you said, provides for them and helps them habituate their dispositions to become virtuous, just like Aristotle says.
13:34 Cory Massimino: And Rothbard, he couldn’t disagree with this more, he kind of thinks it’s a big assumption, a big leap from well we’re political animals, social animals to government. He doesn’t deny that we’re social animals, he just sees different implications of that fact for political theory and says that as social animals, the first and foremost feature of justice of that virtue is gonna be non‐interference in a way, is going to be respecting the space of another’s autonomy, because he really thinks virtue and rational deliberation, it’s impossible when you’re coerced, you’re taken out of the realm of action itself, of human action, and into mere motion, that’s kind of how he talks about it and so it’s not that he would deny any positive duties towards other people, ’cause he wouldn’t deny that at all, but he says a minimum of justice necessary, but perhaps insufficient condition of justice, is that non‐interference principle, the people’s projects and self‐authorship, as you guys put it.
14:47 Trevor Burrus: So he tends to get… For a lot of people, or some people love the… With his view of natural rights, quite absolutist, of course, the idea that taxation is theft is a good example, but he gets into some pretty abstract conversations sometimes that he seems to countenance to no degree any possible right violation. And almost seems to view as the same as flicking you on your arm is cutting off your entire arm, they’re both rights violations. Or shining a laser pointer on your door, or I think he had a pretty famous essay in the Cato Journal in the ‘80s where he kind of argued that if you take pollution and environmental harm and you take rights seriously, you might have to shut down factories wholesale, because they’re polluting and therefore, violating rights. Is that accurate? Or am I mis‐characterizing, you think in terms of how absolutist he was on rights violations?
15:43 Cory Massimino: No, I don’t think you’re mis‐characterizing him, this is why… Because when he lays the foundations, the ethical foundations for his rights theory, he’s thoroughly Aristotelian, but when he actually gets to the rights theory, and that’s what he spends most of his time on, not just in his book on ethics, The Ethics of Liberty, but just in his career in general, he doesn’t talk much about the ethical foundations of rights that he roots in Aristotle, but the application of rights, and in that regard, he is very absolutist, and so people sometimes forget or miss his Aristotelian foundations, and interpret him as kind of more of a deontologist, and that’s not ridiculous because it is fundamentally about that classic deontological principle of Kant’s that you treat people as a ends and not mere means, as ends in themselves, and so he… In that sense, okay, but for him, it’s still a part of that broader Aristotelian framework.
16:32 Cory Massimino: And I’m glad you brought up that Cato article, I think I cite that in the book chapter, because it brings up a very interesting distinction to where you might think of force and violence in these terms of interfering in other’s projects, and you might think of these in excessively physicalistic terms, in a sense that we can figure out where an instance of interference has occurred by just looking at the objectively definable physical facts of the situation empirically, and then we can determine the normative analysis of this, and this gets really into the weeds of rights theory, but Rothbard in that Cato article, in the context of pollution as a rights violation, he denies this physicalistic view and instead favors what you could call…
17:34 Cory Massimino: And I did not come up with the distinction, but I cite it in the book chapter, and I wish I remembered the author who kind of put it in these terms, I think in a Journal of Libertarian Studies article a few years ago. But the idea is that instead of a physicalistical conception, you have a praxiological conception of rights. And so keeping at the center of your mind, when you’re looking at rights is not necessarily just the bare facts of the physical interactions in the material world, but it’s a kind of a thicker, more robust sense of action in the sense of projects we undertake. So that’s how he gets to the conclusion that in a lot of cases, but these instances of pollution are rights violations, not because the molecules of the gases that companies pollute the air or water with come into physical contact with the molecules of my lake that I might own, or the air around the house that I own. They’re rights violations because they interfere in some important way with actually with the undertaking of projects that other people are engaged in, so your example of shining a light on someone or flicking their wrist, those are rights violations in a physicalistic sense, but that’s a less useful way than the more action‐oriented one that Rothbard wants to argue for.
18:57 Cory Massimino: So you do get some perhaps counter intuitive conclusions that maybe a lot of pollution actually is a rights violation and we need… And he wants this very complex system of tort law and property rights to help resolve those issues, but that saves him from having to bite the bullet on a weird issue, like shining a laser pointer on someone is a rights violation, because it doesn’t interfere with… If you’re blinding them, okay, that’s interfering with the projects, but if you’re not then it’s a very minimal sense in which it’s really interfering.
19:30 Aaron Powell: So then, this very strong conception of rights turns into individualist anarchism, which you say is the second of the four frameworks.
19:43 Cory Massimino: Yeah. Yeah, Rothbard draws heavily on Spooner, on Lysander Spooner, and also Benjamin Tucker, another 19th‐century American anarchists. Again, at first, he was just exposed to Mises, at the seminars at New York University. And so, he had this Misesian, kind of Austrian framework, and we’ll get to that later, I hope, ’cause that’s another part. But he has that background. And then, he encounters, I believe it was Bastiat, through a fee pamphlet back in the ‘50s. And through Bastiat, he found Molinari, and he found the French anarchists, and then he found the American anarchists, Spooner and Tucker, and he brings that into his existing ideas, and with the natural rights. And so, he revives in a lot of ways this more liberal variation of anarchism instead of more communitarian or collectivist visions of anarchism that really dominated anarchist space and thought for the first half of the 20th century. He revived the stuff that went away with the 19th century American anarchists.
20:53 Cory Massimino: And so, he dubs this… Although I don’t think he coined… I think Karl Hess coins this term, but Rothbard becomes the founder, or the accepted founder of anarcho‐capitalism, which many anarchists deny is even anarchism. We’ll get into that later. But nonetheless, he distinguishes a little bit from the individuals anarchists of the 19th century, ’cause he has this Austrian bend, he has this natural rights bend, he has his own specific thing, and he likes the term capitalism, and so, he calls anarcho‐capitalism. And that’s a huge move and a huge thing, for good or bad, depending on your views, obviously. That spawned tons of work and literature and research, just dated the last 50 years of dealing with that idea, essentially, with liberal anarchism as, I think, it should be viewed.
21:47 Trevor Burrus: Though you hadn’t mentioned and alluded to it, but of the time and the tradition of anarchy up to Rothbard, I guess, we have, you do have Tucker and Spooner there, but how did he play with other anarchists, maybe, contemporaries of his? And where were they coming from, more usually, if they were coming from the capitalist side?
22:10 Cory Massimino: Yeah, yeah, he was in deep, deep tension with contemporary anarchists at the time, and there wasn’t much discourse, really, between them, I think, because neither side really wanted to admit the other one was genuine anarchism. They write things about the other side. Rothbard wrote things about anarcho‐communism, or collectivizations of anarchism, which he says they’re really… Doesn’t even make sense to consider them anarchism. And in addition to that, they would also just be horrible, impoverished societies as well. And on the other side, anarcho‐communists have written about anarcho‐capitalists, Rothbard being the foremost one, and argued, “This shouldn’t even count as anarchism.” And would lead to a really undesirable, unequal society, with lots of domination, that anarchists see good reason to oppose.
23:09 Cory Massimino: Even you have Noam Chomsky, who has not really engaged with Rothbard’s thought, but has said before that Rothbard’s vision is something like a world full of hatred, and built on hatred. And it’s kind of this bizarre, straw man. That gives you a sense of how anarcho‐communists and anarcho‐socialists of that bend might see Rothbard and his vision. Which I think is really unjustified and really just a silly kind of accusation, like a world built on hatred. Obviously, that’s nowhere in Rothbard’s work. And you have exceptions. Rothbard knew Murray Bookchin, and they seemed to interact a bit. Not in publicized debates or anything, sadly, but I think, just more in real life, they actually knew each other and talked. But there really is this huge gap between… And still to this day, obviously, most people of these camps don’t consider the other ones genuine anarchists and think their ideology is really horrible and doesn’t contribute anything worthwhile.
24:10 Aaron Powell: How does the distinction between capitalism and free markets fit in here? Because libertarians typically… A lot of libertarians will use those two terms interchangeably. And so, an anarcho‐capitalist is simply someone who thinks that you should anarchism plus strong property rights in the markets that result from them. But then, there are people like left market anarchists who say, “No, capitalism is something distinct from markets and actually something that ought to be rejected in favor of markets.” So, what does an anarcho‐capitalist say versus a market anarchist?
24:49 Cory Massimino: So, I’m definitely coming from the left market anarchists’ perspective, and part of the chapter is trying to bring Rothbard and his frameworks that we’re discussing into dialogue and into more closer vision with left market anarchism. And so, I would describe the distinction as… Rothbard didn’t distinguish between markets and anarchism. The American anarchists that we discussed earlier, like Spooner and Tucker, tended to distinguish between markets and capitalism. The 19th century, that was mostly before capitalism was used as a positive self‐identifier. It was often used by people like Tucker and Proudhon, and later Marx, and even Ricardo, I think, that it was used to describe a system of concentrated capital ownership, which may or might not have property rights and price signals, even in profit‐loss mechanisms.
25:49 Cory Massimino: It could have those things. It’s not mutually exclusive with those features that we associate with markets, but for them, capitalism referred specifically to a system that had this concentrated ownership of capital. And that’s why people like Spooner and Tucker also called themselves socialists, which again, is really, doesn’t fit into our modern understanding of these terms. The Cold War sort of permanently fixed these concepts, socialism and capitalism, and they’re not able to be in dialogue with each other any more sadly. But in the 19th century, that was before the Cold War, and that was before this really hard distinction took place. So you have anarchists like Proudhon and Tucker and Spooner and de Cleyre, and they… It’s not really clear how they fit between this dichotomy. And so anarcho‐communists and anarcho‐capitalists constantly, they often fight for who was the real intellectual heritage. What… Actually, Tucker was only a socialist, or he was only a capital… And so Rothbard kind of doesn’t pick that up from them. He keeps the understanding of capitalism just as markets that he gets from Mises and Rand, and who were the probably the two biggest authors that in the early 20th century that came to really stick capitalism with pure laissez‐faire free markets in their liberal understanding.
27:01 Cory Massimino: And so the distinction I think that I try to make, is that capitalism can be understood as the system where capitalism in the hands of a few, and most people are then left with little option but to work in wage labor for the few with capital. And this is distinguished from markets because the vision of markets that people like Tucker and Spooner had was not one where people worked for capitalists for wage labor, but where people combined their efforts and labor through things like worker cooperatives and more horizontal forms of economic production. And he saw those as preferable and in fact, likely given the economic incentives of laissez‐faire. And Rothbard denounces that, he in places argues against this view and says, “Capitalism just is… Capitalism as a lot of people performing wage labor for capitalists, not just as free markets but capitalism that even in the thicker sense,” he says, “is more of this organic result from markets, because people have different preferences and consumption patterns and savings patterns, and so some people accumulate more capital, they save it up, and then other people work for them and get an advance on their income.”
28:20 Cory Massimino: And he says, “This is fine, this is organic, this is part of free markets.” What’s not part of free markets is corporatism and what he calls really at times, neo‐fascism, this kind of corporatist system that he associates with 20th century America, with the progressive era, and New Deal reforms and the military industrial complex and all that’s kind of connected to him. But just bare, wage labor for other people, for him is an organic result of markets and totally fine, whereas left market anarchists see it as there is moral questions there, and that’s undesirable. A lot of people working for wage labor for a few, and also unlikely with the incentives of say, a laissez‐faire economy. So that’d be the distinction.
29:04 Trevor Burrus: You also know that the third pillar, as we’re going through these for Rothbard’s thought is liberal class theory, which seems like a strange combination of words where class theories historically have been associated with Marxists. So what is Rothbard’s view on class theory?
29:21 Cory Massimino: Yeah, so class theory plays an important role for Rothbard and the phraseology will sound strange to a lot of modern readers. But class theory predates Marx. Marx’s class theory was a specific variation on earlier class theories that Marx was inspired by and then specified in his own little ideology and it’s specifics. But the early French Liberals like Bastiat, Molinari and Comte, and they’re talking before Marx about this idea that we can understand social phenomenon in a way through these stratified classes. And they all have kind of specific variations and details of their vision. But broadly that we can understand these two classes, and all the French Liberals really tended to associate the origin of class division with a state, whereas Marx… Marxists see it… If Marx himself sees it this way, is perhaps up to argument, but almost universally because Engels very much cemented this view among Marxism. They view the class structure as an organic result of markets at all.
30:40 Cory Massimino: And if you have markets that will inevitably naturally result in the stratified system of class system and a stratified class ownership that… Or capital ownership that I was referring to. And so they say no to markets even at all. Whereas the liberal class theorists, they say the market is not the source of class stratification. We haven’t had free markets. We’ve had state intervention and colonialism and theft, and land theft, and slavery, and corporatism now in the last 150 years. And so they view the source as the state as the source of social division by privileging people with access to political power, access to the Bion apparatus of the state, access to the taxing, regulating powers of the state. They use that to their benefit as a kind of entrenched elites. And this is well, how they see capitalism in the sense of widespread wage labor is itself can be a product of the state itself, because capital would be more widespread and easier to access without all these barriers to entry and the marketplace and competition and licensing regulation.
32:00 Cory Massimino: So Rothbard draws on that quite a bit, but again, obviously he doesn’t attribute capitalism itself to the state, but he’s fine with capitalism. But he does draw on the liberal class theorists very heavily, because he definitely views the American economic system, starting probably with the Progressive Era, supposedly altruistic reforms, and then into the New Deal reforms, he views these things as all really taken on by big businessmen and supported and even often designed by big businessmen to better protect their monopolies and their status from competitors in the marketplace that might arise and take customers away from them and produce better, cheaper products that put them out of business eventually. And on this, he really draws heavily from… This ties back into his association with the New Left, because he draws heavily on New Left historical revisionists like Kolko and Galbraith, and they are writing at that similar time about how we have the story wrong, the progressiver and the New Deal want these great altruistic, positive for the working classes reforms. They hurt the working classes more, they stratified the market more, they benefited entrenched elites with access to political power.
33:23 Cory Massimino: And so Rothbard takes that, and even though he leaves the New Left, he doesn’t abandon this view. He talks in For a New Liberty, which is after the New Left phase, about this as well, about neo‐mercantilism and how the 20th century has been far from a free market, it’s been a system of corporatism that benefits these elites. And he keeps that view even to his paleo phase. And this is where paleoconservatism, to go back to that a little bit, distinguishes itself from conservatism more broadly, as we understand it in America. Because paleoconservatism, if you… We’re seeing this… This is becoming much more apparent the last few years, especially with Trump, though not to get into Trump. But [chuckle] the idea that there is this initial skepticism of big business as these elites that are benefiting from some sort of unfairness in the system. And so paleoconservatives, even though they’re not anti‐capitalist, obviously, of any leftist variety, they’re often skeptical of big business. And Rothbard kept that kind of scepticism throughout his life.
34:33 Aaron Powell: Let’s hit on the fourth one before we move to your critiques of Rothbard, and that’s Austrian economics, that he pulls this together into this economic theory.
34:43 Cory Massimino: Yeah, so Rothbard was obviously an economist, first and foremost, that’s what his degree is in and that’s what his teaching was in. And that is the major focus of most of his work, is more on economic analysis, but he obviously was a philosopher and historian and political theorist as well, ’cause he was such a wide ranging thinker. And in the economics realm, he very firmly inherits this proxy logical framework from Mises by attending his seminars in the ‘50s, and then he himself writes a human action‐esque treatise on economics called Man, Economy and State in 1962 and Mises praises that book in his review, Mises is a fan. So Rothbard kind of brings the other three parts, the natural law, the individualist’s anarchism and the class theory, he brings this all into a whole, these four aspects, which is quite a novel synthesis. It’s certainly very disparate traditions historically, to some extent. Certainly no one before Rothbard, as far as I know, really, really tried to integrate all these kind of different ideas and different traditions in this kind of interesting way. And so, Austrian economics starts with Menger and von Bawerk in the 1800s, and then Mises and then Hayek and Rothbard and you have a lot more in the last 50 years.
36:09 Cory Massimino: And so I guess a little overview of Austrian economics for Rothbard, is the view that we can figure out a lot of economic theory purely from analyzing the conceptual terms of human action, of the way that our means are related to our ends, how our goals and our projects are inter‐related, and how we economize on resources that are scarce, both material resources and things like time. We economize on these things necessarily by acting and when we act, we have these trade‐offs and opportunity costs. And so he’s really against… At the time, when he’s writing in the ‘60s, especially, there’s this big push in economics for a much more statistical, mathematical conception of economic analysis, seeing more to gain from statistical aggregates and mathematical equations than conceptual analysis. And Rothbard’s firmly on the side of conceptual analysis. He has very little, if at all, use for the statistical stuff. So Man, Economy and State is this broad overview of this… It’s kind of an in‐depth analysis, tracing out the implications of these core ideas about human action, and about the nature of human action, how to economize on scarce resources to attain future ends. And he talks a lot about how this has implications for all these areas of economics and prices and property and capital, and how these things emerge and interact.
37:46 Cory Massimino: And there are other elements to his Austrian stuff. I think maybe worth mentioning here is he has an interesting contribution in Man, Economy and State, arguably his major novel economic contribution is in… So, back up a little bit for, ’cause you’ll need to understand Mises slightly to get Rothbard’s contribution. Mises, in 1920, he writes Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, and he puts forth this new argument that really shakes things up and really changes the tide of things about how rational economic calculation is impossible without property rights and the profit/loss mechanism that emerges from those property rights. And Rothbard takes this and says, “Social societies, the reason they can’t allocate resources efficiently and rationally isn’t necessarily because of their use of force, although that’s central to understanding those societies, but the irrational economic stuff is due to the monopolized control over all the resources, all the productive resources, land, labor, materials, all these factors of production in a given territory. And so there’s no way for prices to emerge that reflect individuals’ changing and shifting preferences and plans and projects and talents.”
39:25 Cory Massimino: So Rothbard says… And this can be seen in the way that socialist states have historically relied on prices from the world market and sometimes prices from domestic black markets to perform internal economic calculations that they wouldn’t be able to otherwise without the prices emerging from elsewhere. And Rothbard says, “We can think about this in the context of the firm.” The firm is famously an island, a central planning in a sense, the firm is not a market, it exists within a broader web of interactions that is the marketplace. And so a firm is a system of conscious organization, it’s not a spontaneous order. A firm is this deliberate concerted action on the part of multiple individuals. And he says, “As a corporation or firm or business, as opposed to socialist states, as those organizations come to acquire more resources and more of the machineries and capital and factors of production in a territory and in the market, then there’s nowhere for the prices to emerge outside of the firm, just like there’s nowhere for the prices to emerge when a socialist state has a monopoly over everything.”
40:40 Cory Massimino: So he says, “You’re left with this similar irrationality inside the firm as they become bigger and bigger and more insulated from the price system, then they have to rely on faux prices that they create internally and less efficient, less effective and less knowledge‐yielding systems of coordination within the firm.” And so that’s related to his skepticism of big business and ties into the left market anarchist analysis as well.
41:05 Trevor Burrus: So as an anarchist in the broader tradition of anarchism… You have some… He’s not, as you mentioned previously, I think a lot of those people, maybe people protesting right now who might casually call themselves anarchists would not really go near Rothbard because they’re pretty anti‐capitalist, but what kind of mistakes do you think Rothbard made in that way, in terms of understanding even the broader anarchism, even the ones who don’t wanna have anything to do with him?
41:40 Cory Massimino: So I think it’s a really broad kind of issue, and it’s not just for Rothbard, but for in general how a tradition that was initially just Libertarianism or Anarchism in the early nineteenth century diverged into two completely separate directions, left and right Libertarianism. And the left one being… And this is… Left Libertarian has many, many terms, this is one usage that’s the oldest of it, which is anarcho‐communists, anarcho‐socialists, collectivist anarchists, as we discussed earlier. And the Right Libertarian isn’t being markets if not full‐on anarcho‐capitalists like Rothbard. Like I said, his view is that these guys probably don’t count as genuine anarchists even, and their ideas are pretty horrible. They don’t understand economics, they’re not sufficiently opposed to the state, even though they are in letter and in theory, he’s very skeptical of their credentials to anti‐statism, I guess I would say.
42:47 Cory Massimino: And I think he’s mistaken because there are aspects of traditional Anarchism, obviously, that he has nothing to use for and it makes sense for him to reject, but the general anarchist’s skepticism of interpersonal domination, as opposed to mere aggressive force and physical violence, which is what Rothbard is mainly focused on, both things have real moral relevance. Both the physical violence that Rothbard is concerned with, and the interpersonal domination that may involve physical violence but cannot be reduced to it and may involve other things.
43:35 Aaron Powell: What do you mean by domination? Just to clarify.
43:38 Cory Massimino: So, there are many ways you can think about domination. In the chapter, I try to talk about it as the power one person holds over another insofar as the one person is deprived of essential needs, and so acquiesces to the will of the person with power over them, because they have little option, otherwise they will lose essential needs. An example is a very poor worker who’s working for someone who pays them in wages, and if they have little option outside of that and they’re gonna starve without their weekly or monthly wages, they’ll acquiesce to the will of the other person. And there’s no physical violence there. The scarcity of resources that leads to poverty is a natural condition of the world. This is the Austrian economics, scarcity is this omnipresent feature. But that doesn’t mean that… It doesn’t follow that everything’s just fine and dandy with that interaction, because the person with power didn’t actually use any physical violence against the other person.
44:54 Cory Massimino: There’s still, to me, something morally questionable about a person spending eight hours a day, five days a week, almost a third of their life, basically acquiescing and taking the orders of another person in a way a school child or a prisoner even would. And so obviously, this is a broad topic, there’s a huge range of what domination can entail even in the case of the employer‐employee relationship, the range of those, there’s so many kinds of those relationships and they cannot be reduced to any single one. But Rothbard doesn’t give much concern for anything beyond physical violence. For most of his life, he thought basically the only thing that really mattered was just physical force and violence, and his analysis of morality and economics emerges from that focus.
45:46 Cory Massimino: Towards the end of his life, he started to realize, “Well, Libertarianism can be logically extricated from other matters: Psychological, cultural and social matters. But it can’t be in practice separated from those things.” So he came to care for cultural and psychological and social issues, which could include a care for domination. But in his case, it didn’t. It was very much a dismissal of these ideas. He called them “victimologies”, and that’s what he would say about the second half of my chapter. At least late Rothbard. Obviously, he was very different as we discussed earlier throughout his life. But he kind of denigrates this whole list of what you might say left‐wing commitments. Things like feminism and anti‐racism and anti‐ableism, things that are intended and often associated with the anarchist tradition because they are opposed systems of domination of some people over another.
46:46 Cory Massimino: And he’s really skeptical of all this stuff, especially by late in his life and before this paleoconservatism. But I think he’s mistaken. I think the anarchists are onto something. I think we can care about both. I think we might say that violence is itself a form of domination, albeit not the only form. And we don’t have to say that violence is an acceptable solution to domination in general. I still agree with Rothbard, and I think anarchists in general should consider this view more seriously, that violence is only okay in response to violence. The only force that’s justified has to be defensive in nature.
47:19 Trevor Burrus: What do you think non‐anarchist libertarians, maybe Hayekians or more consequentialists perhaps, but what can they learn from reading Rothbard? Because many lesser areas, maybe less absolutist libertarians, encounter Rothbardians and get called a statist within about three minutes. It’s often not a productive conversation. But if someone’s gonna go read some Rothbard, what could they learn from it, the more important things?
47:49 S4: Yeah. Yeah. That’s an interesting question. There’s so much diversity under the Libertarian label in America, despite Rothbard’s huge looming influence. And in very broad swaths, you might kind of divide it up into Rothbardians who tend to be more radical, tend to like the natural rights arguments and tend to be anarchists and tend to oppose fractional banking, fractionals or banking, those kinds of hosted positions. Versus the other camp of Libertarians that are much more related to people like you said Hayek who don’t subscribe to natural law, who don’t have as much of a radical critique as Rothbardians. And I think that Rothbardians have plenty to learn from the Hayekians. That’s another subject, I guess. But the Hayekians can learn from Rothbard… Well, I think the natural law view is defensible. I don’t think it’s impossible to reconcile that with all of Hayek although, yeah, it is a completely different moral framework than the one Hayek is working with, which is really skeptical of the power of reason and determining the nature of happiness in some objective way.
49:08 Cory Massimino: So then Hayek relies instead on rules that we can formulate from a more neutral perspective that apply to people equally and help prevent arbitrary discrimination and force and things like that. And so he’s not wholeheartedly committed to all force, like Rothbard is. But I think Rothbard is right on this one. Rothbard critiques Hayek in his Ethics of Liberty. He critiques Hayek’s understanding of these concepts and says, “This natural law approach is better.” It not only is more consistent with the way we think about morality in general and inter‐personal morality, and it also grounds a more consistent opposition to the state, instead of this kind of wishy‐washiness that maybe Rothbardians get annoyed by Hayekians for. So I think the natural law and the anarchism that it kind of grounds is the big area where Hayek’s not on board with those firm commitments but I think there’s a lot there.
50:16 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcast or on your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.