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Murray N. Rothbard, one of the foremost libertarian thinkers of the 20th century and a leading theoretician of free-market anarchism, died this past January at the age of 68.
A former student of Ludwig von Mises and associate of Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard was a prolific and erudite writer whose twenty-odd books and several hundred articles range over economics (favoring the approach of the Austrian School), philosophy (expounding an Aristotelean version of Natural Rights theory), and history (especially economic history).
Dr. Rothbard's influence on the libertarian movement is incalculable. Priding himself on his radicalism, he used to brag that if there were a button one could push that would sweep away all vestiges of government in an instant, he would break his thumb pushing it. During the 1960s he played an instrumental role (along with Karl Hess) in waking libertarians to political self-consciousness and leading them to start their own movement and to break away from the conservative movement (which had served as an often uncomfortable political home for classical liberals during the first half of the 20th century). Later, Rothbard helped to draft the Libertarian Party Platform. Rothbard spent his last years teaching economics at the University of Nevada, serving as head of academic affairs at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and editing the highly regarded Journal of Libertarian Studies.
Rothbard's best-known book among libertarians is probably For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. His works also include, on economics, Man, Economy, and State: A Treatise on Economic Principles and Power and Market: Government and the Economy; on philosophy, The Ethics of Liberty ; and on history, America's Great Depression. Two massive works were left unfinished at his death: one on the history of the American Revolution, four volumes of which have been published under the title Conceived in Liberty; and one on the history of economic thought, several volumes of which are in the process of being published by the Mises Institute.
Wry, pugnacious, and a bit of a curmudgeon,
Murray Rothbard was always at the center of controversy, and his career
in the libertarian movement was frequently marked by feuds and ruptures
with other libertarian thinkers and organizations over principles and personalities.
The most radical break came in recent years. Rothbard had always stressed
the differences between libertarianism and conservatism, and urged libertarians
not to think of themselves as "right-wing" or to compromise with conservative
In the late 1980s, however, Rothbard baffled and disappointed many of his admirers, myself included, by breaking violently with the entire libertarian movement in order to make common cause with some of the more bigoted and reactionary elements on the "paleoconservative" right, and to launch bitter personal attacks on prominent libertarians in his newsletter Rothbard-Rockwell Report.
But in the wake of his death, few libertarians can feel anything but gratitude for Murray Rothbard's lifetime of dedicated service to the cause of liberty, and sorrow at his passing.
It seems appropriate to give Dr.
Rothbard the last word:
"Strands and remnants of libertarian
doctrines are, indeed, all around us, in large parts
of our glorious past and in values and ideas
in the confused present. But only libertarianism
takes these strands and remnants and integrates them into a mighty,
logical, and consistent system. ...
Liberty cannot succeed without
[a] systematic theory ... We
now have that systematic
theory; we come, fully armed with our knowledge .... All other theories and systems have clearly failed: socialism is in retreat everywhere, and notably in Eastern Europe; liberalism has bogged down in a host of insoluble problems; conservatism has nothing to offer but sterile defense of the status quo. ... libertarians now propose to fulfill the American dream and the world dream of liberty and prosperity for all mankind."
(For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, Revised Edition (Fox & Wilkes,
San Francisco, 1994), p. 321.) D
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