The Forgotten Man
John Maynard Keynes, toward the end of his 1936 The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, wrote,
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.
This is not a theory of history likely to find many supporters today. Events seem to most people more probably to be governed by great social forces like globalization, or the largely unconscious predilections of the social classes, or the rapacious designs of a self-interested few. And surely, one would imagine, there’s no less philosophical figure than the current president. Trump, who it seems has never cracked a book, must distill his own frenzy and pull his ideas not from the air, but from somewhere else entirely. Trumpism, we are often told, represents the end of conservativism as a movement guided by ideas and intellectuals; this is supposed to be a revolt of what H.L. Mencken once called the “booboisie,” or the result of “economic anxiety” to use a favored euphemism.
True, Trump may not be a man of ideas, but his presidency and political style were imagined by one man: the libertarian economist and philosopher Murray N. Rothbard, who died in 1995. Not long before his death, Rothbard rejoiced when he saw in the emergence of David Duke and Pat Buchanan, in 1992, his long-held vision for America’s right and concluded that what was needed was more of the same:
And so the proper strategy for the right wing must be what we can call “right-wing populism”: exciting, dynamic, tough, and confrontational, rousing and inspiring not only the exploited masses, but the often-shell-shocked right-wing intellectual cadre as well. And in this era where the intellectual and media elites are all establishment liberal-conservatives, all in a deep sense one variety or another of social democrat, all bitterly hostile to a genuine Right, we need a dynamic, charismatic leader who has the ability to short-circuit the media elites, and to reach and rouse the masses directly. We need a leadership that can reach the masses and cut through the crippling and distorting hermeneutical fog spread by the media elites.
Despite the eerie accuracy of his vision, Rothbard’s name is not widely known.
Despite the eerie accuracy of his vision and his prolific writing on every subject from contemporary cinema to the Federal Reserve system, Rothbard’s name is not widely known. It’s not likely to be found in bibliography of a contemporary economist’s paper, but you will find it scrawled on the seamy underbelly of the web, in the message boards of the alt-right, where fewer voices are more in the air than Rothbard’s. One can look at the recent profiles of neo-fascists to find the name Rothbard, and that of his favorite pupil and protégé, Hans Hermann-Hoppe, again and again. In The New Yorker’s piece on Mike Enoch, the founder of the “Daily Shoah” podcast, Enoch notes that his path to the alt-right began with reading Rothbard, Ayn Rand, and Ludwig von Mises. When asked how he began to move “so far right,” Tony Hovater, the Indiana Nazi from the infamous New York Times profile, “name-drops Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe.” Chris Cantwell, the crying Nazi of Vice News notoriety, says he was a “big fan of Murray Rothbard” and then went on to “read Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: The God that Failed.” Trump backer Peter Thiel’s essay, “The Education of a Libertarian,” shows the clear influence of Rothbard’s apostle Hoppe, who invited Thiel to a conference that also hosted American Renaissance’s Jared Taylor and VDARE’s Peter Brimelow. For a time before his death, Rothbard had the ear of Pat Buchanan. Paul Gottfried, the erstwhile ally of Richard Spencer, who is sometimes credited with coining the term “alternative right,” was a friend and admirer of Rothbard, and he also delivered the Murray N. Rothbard Memorial lectures at the Mises Institute.
Inching more to the mainstream, Andrew Breitbart and Steve Bannon’s fusion of libertarianism and populism seems Rothbardian in inspiration. Indeed, Justin Raimondo, Rothbard’s disciple and the author of the biography Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard, pronounced in February 2017, “Bannonism is libertarianism.” A few days, later Bannon announced his fight for the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” a goal that would have garnered Rothbard’s enthusiastic applause. Rothbard and Bannon apparently also both share an appreciation for Vladimir Lenin as political sensei, but the latter’s familiarity with the Russian revolutionary’s ideas might very well have come from the former’s writings.
The literature about Rothbard tends to be hagiographic; at times, almost literally so. One biographer, right off the bat, compares him to Saint Augustine and Soren Kierkegaard. Raimondo, sounding like something that might have been written in the nineteenth century about Beethoven or Goethe, is taken by the man’s physiognomy: “The high forehead, the nose prominent but finely formed, the half-smile exuding an earnest intelligence.” The Mises Institute, named for Rothbard’s mentor, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, which served his intellectual home for many years, is almost a personality cult dedicated to the memory of Rothbard the Great; its website is sprinkled with many fond reminiscences of his intellectual and personal virtues.
How did this Jewish libertarian from the Bronx, the child of immigrants from Eastern Europe, a self-professed anarchist (or anarcho-capitalist in his chosen term) whose entire life was dedicated to destroying the state, end up on the reading lists of so many would-be fascists? And how, as some of his followers protest, could any aspirant jackbooted thug be attracted to the thought of a man whose main contribution to discourse, as far as they are concerned, is the “Non-Aggression Principle,” where, it is thought, all political and ethical questions can be solved simply by reference to the axiom that one must never, ever violate the person or property of anyone else? (Violence can only be initiated in self-defense.) Well, with a man like Rothbard, the boundaries of the self tend to become mutable and expansive.
Murray N. Rothbard, as it happens, was an only child. His father, David Rothbard, who emigrated from Poland, grew up speaking only Yiddish, but as Rothbard recounts with no small pride in reflections on his life, he completely lost his accent and spoke English fluently. David also adopted what his son considered to be “devotion to the Basic American way: minimal government, belief in and respect for free enterprise and private property, and a determination to rise by one’s own merits and not via government privilege or handout.” This is despite the fact that his family was situated in a deeply leftist milieu. He wrote near the end of his life in a short memoir for Chronicles: “I grew up in a communist culture; the middle-class Jews in New York whom I lived among, whether family, friends, or neighbors, were either communists or fellow-travelers in the communist orbit. I had two sets of Communist Party uncles and aunts, on both sides of the family.” He took his father’s side in the frequent debates and Rothbard recalls being “eleven or twelve” when he upset a family gathering by asking, “What’s wrong with Franco, anyway?”
While he looked up to and emulated his father’s lone, dogged right-wing stand in the heart of leftist Jewish New York, Rothbard did not think his mother, Raya Babushkin, assimilated as fully. He seems annoyed with what he perceived as his mother’s continued connection to the Old Country, and he was particularly irked by her interest in Russian literature, which he viewed as dreamy escapism. In a breathless fan letter to Ayn Rand on the publication of Atlas Shrugged, in which he called that book “the greatest novel ever written,” he regretted, “that all those generations of novel-readers, people like my mother who in their youth read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, searching eagerly for they knew not what truths which never quite found, that these people could not read Atlas Shrugged. Here, I thought, were the truths they were looking for.”
Given the middle name Newton by his scientist father, he followed his namesake’s axiomatic lodestar, believing that by starting with a limited set of simple, clear rules you could rationally derive everything else in reality. But, in some ways, he was more like a character out of his mother’s beloved Dostoevsky novels: clever, voluble, possessed of a malicious wit, gregarious and generous to new friends at first, but then prone to bitter quarrels and falling outs, nurturing deep, obsessive grievances and resentments, willing to go to extremes to follow the consequences of a putatively consistent intellectual system of his own making, gleefully contrarian to the point of perversity, and above all, single-mindedly willing the destruction of the established order. Pondering the strange, authoritarian political fantasies of this declared partisan of absolute liberty, he particularly brings to mind Shigalyev, the theorist of the revolutionary cell in Dostoevsky’s Demons: “My conclusion stands in direct contradiction to the idea from which I started. Proceeding from unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism.”
Precocious and outspoken, Rothbard was bullied in public school, so his parents put him in the private Birch-Wathen Lenox school on the Upper East Side. He thrived academically, but he resented the Park Avenue-bred limousine liberals among his peers and set up shop as class contrarian and sole right-leaning voice: “I soon became established as the school conservative, arguing strongly in the eighth grade against Roosevelt’s introduction of the capital-gains tax in 1938 and later against Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s left-wing policy of coddling criminals.” (He did make at least one friend, Lloyd Marcus; Roy Cohn’s first cousin, whose father, Bernard K. Marcus, went to prison for fraud when his bank collapsed in 1930, contributing to the worsening financial crisis.)
I wasn’t able to find any record of his immediate family suffering much from the Great Depression. Dealing with annoying communist family and neighbors aside, 1930s New York seems to have been an idyll for young Rothbard, and one that he clung to ferociously in later years: “New York street life was vital and fun . . . at that time, New York was studded with inexpensive cafeterias, where one could sit nursing a cup of coffee for hours and either read or discuss ideas undisturbed.” There was, for Rothbard, also a sense of racial order:
There was no harassment, no sense of crime lurking around every corner. Whites would go up to the Apollo Theater in Harlem to watch Pearl Bailey and other great entertainers with no sense of fear whatsoever. There were no bums or aggressive beggars on the street; if anyone wanted to see a bum, they could go to a short street downtown called the Bowery, where bums or “winos” hung out.
Rothbard loved Dixieland jazz and George Gershwin. In his film criticism for Libertarian Forum in the 1970s, he at first prefers Mel Brooks to Woody Allen, because he detects in Brooks an “older, healthier tradition” of comedy, one that “harks back to the superb tradition of the Marx Brothers pictures of the 1930s: with the possible exception of the W.C. Fields canon, the funniest pictures ever made.” But with Annie Hall and Manhattan, Rothbard felt Allen showed himself to be a past-looking, curmudgeonly social critic, longing for old jazz on the radio and the old pictures in the movie houses. His review of Manhattan provides a striking revelation of his own self-conception:
The great satirists, from Swift to Chesterton to Mencken—and now to Woody Allen—have always and necessarily been cultural conservatives and reactionaries . . . By transmuting his rage and the sadness of nostalgia into the bracing and liberating joy of wit and laughter, the satirist not only liberates his own psyche: he can have momentous social effect, until—as in the height and the wonder of reading Swift or Mencken or in watching Manhattan—it almost seems that the walls of Jericho can indeed come a-tumblin’ down, and that one lone man can change the culture. And in many ways he can and has.
The Woody Allen movie that most comes to mind when one reads Rothbard’s sentimental musings on life growing up in the 1930s and 1940s is Radio Days, the director’s memoir of his childhood in Brooklyn, depicting him as a boy glued to the radio with all the wonderful serial dramas and variety shows. The impression one gets from Rothbard’s youth is a bit like Radio Days, but America First Committee chairman John T. Flynn is blaring on the set. He liked to cozy up with the yellow journalism of the New York Sun and the Hearst newspapers, and America First Committee founder and Flynn’s anti-Roosevelt conspiracy theories in the Chicago Tribune. Later, Rothbard would defend Charles Lindbergh and the America Firsters from charges of anti-Semitism, but also averred that what anti-Semitism there was, was caused by the Jews themselves:
Influential Jews and Jewish organizations helped agitate for war, and helped also to put economic pressure upon opponents of the war. This very fact of course served to embitter many isolationists against the Jews, and again create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy; this resentment was intensified by the hysterical treatment accorded to any isolationist who dared so much as mention these activities by Jews.
Rothbard seems to have shown little interest in the plight of his fellow Jews in Europe during the period.
He seems to have shown little interest in the plight of his fellow Jews in Europe during the period. He had no interest in fighting in the war when it came: he got a 4-F classification and thus avoided the draft. But for his anti-war sentiment and his devotion to the Old Right, which he called “a coalition of fury and despair against the enormous acceleration of Big Government brought about by the New Deal,” he found himself isolated again when he started Columbia University at sixteen, one year before a fellow Bronx native matriculated: the equally precocious Roy Cohn, who would later go on to be an attorney, first for Joseph McCarthy and then, later, for Donald Trump.
Rothbard found solace in the informal seminars held at NYU by the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, a refugee from Hitler’s Europe. Already a convinced libertarian, it was from Mises that he got his taste for vast, systematic treatises on economics, based on what Mises called “praxeological” principles, the belief that the entire realm of human action could be reduced to a few simple axioms that laid out man’s self-interested drive to better his material conditions. Rothbard believed that everything in economics could be derived from the logical implications of the concept “man acts.” This notion—that “human beings do things, for one reason or another”—never struck Rothbard, it seems, as too simple or unenlightening.
No matter how abstract the economics he liked were, Rothbard never lost his taste for concrete politics. He was particularly drawn to the first reactions against the early stirrings of civil rights legislation. In 1948, he horrified his fellow Jewish students by leading a meeting of a Students for Thurmond group. He claimed toward the end of his life to have founded the group, but if he did, he did not cop to it in his effusive fan letter to Strom Thurmond’s States Rights Democrats in Jackson, Mississippi: “Although a New Yorker born and bred, I was a staunch supporter of the Thurmond movement; a good friend of mine headed the Columbia Students for Thurmond, which I believe was the only such collegiate movement north of the Mason-Dixon line.” But he only regretted that Thurmond’s movement was too regional, too Southern, saying it was “imperative for the States Rights movement to establish itself on a nation-wide scale” where “[it] could grow into a mighty movement if you have the will and vision. There are millions of Americans throughout the country, Republicans and Democrats, who would flock to your banner.”
He did not find himself at home with the New Right rallying around William F. Buckley’s National Review.
But it was Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism that provided Rothbard with one of his main political inspirations. In 1954, when Roy Cohn was forced to resign as McCarthy’s counsel, Rothbard wrote a speech for Students for America’s George Reisman to give at what would be a raucous goodbye fete for Cohn at the Hotel Astor. With McCarthy in attendance, Reisman declaimed Rothbard’s words:
There’s been only one thing wrong with the famous methods of you or that other great American Senator Joe McCarthy: You have been too kind, too courteous, too considerate, too decent to realize in the fullest sense the viciousness and venom of the left’s smear bund that’s dedicated to drive every effective anti-communist from public life. The communists and their New Dealer cousins may have their family quarrels at times, but essentially they have been united, united for 21 years in a popular front regime of the left.
In the recorded version of this speech, you can hear the crowd going totally wild.
Rothbard’s McCarthyism was idiosyncratic: he mostly liked that it was directed at the Federal bureaucracies, because he hated the very existence of those institutions. He did not find himself at home with the New Right rallying around William F. Buckley’s National Review: he objected on principle to any and all foreign interventionism; and besides, he thought the New Deal consensus at home was a far greater and more important enemy than communist regimes abroad. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he was employed at the Volker Fund, organized by ex-America First Committee member Harold W. Luhnow, where he became a prolific writer of strategy memos for the right. It was here where he began to articulate a populist, demagogic strategy to “short-circuit” the “state,” and where he wrote the memo entitled “In Defense of Demagogues.” A later moment of reflection, 1979’s The Betrayal of the American Right, provided the occasion for refinement of the theory. On top of it being targeted at bureaucrats, he wrote:
[T]here was another reason for my own fascination with the McCarthy phenomenon: his populism . . . there was a vital need to appeal directly to the masses, emotionally, even demagogically, over the heads of the Establishment: of the Ivy League, of the mass media, the liberal intellectuals, of the Republican-Democrat political party structure . . . in sum, by a populist short-circuit.
It was “the open-ended sense that there was no audacity of which McCarthy was not capable, that frightened liberals”—and this thrilled young Rothbard.
The other big idea that Rothbard cooked up during his years at the Volker Fund was to borrow from a particular tradition on the left, one that would’ve been very familiar from his Bronx boyhood. In a 1961 memo entitled “What Is To Be Done,” after Lenin’s 1901 pamphlet of the same name, Rothbard outlined a strategy for the movement:
Here we stand, then, a “hard core” of libertarian-individualist “revolutionaries,” anxious not only to develop our own understanding of this wonderful system of thought, but also anxious to spread its principles—and its policies—to the rest of society. How do we go about it? I think that here we can learn a great deal from Lenin and the Leninists—not too much, of course—but particularly the idea that the Leninist party is the main, or indeed only, moral principle.
What Rothbard thought the libertarian movement needed to copy from Leninism were professional cadres of dedicated ideologues to organize cells and spread the faith. After an abortive attempt to woo the New Left in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this was almost certainly the vision Rothbard brought to Charles Koch, when he inspired him to found the Cato Institute at the Koch’s ski lodge in Vail. Justin Raimondo illustrates the scene vividly: “Over the course of a weekend, in the winter of 1976,” Raimondo writes, “Rothbard and the heir to one of the largest family held corporations in the nation talked into the night. As the roaring fire in the elaborate stone fireplace, burned down to flickering embers, Rothbard outlined the need to organize and systematize the burgeoning libertarian movement and bring order out of chaos.”
The name Cato itself was Rothbard’s idea: it was after John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s Cato Letters, pamphlets that inspired the American Revolution. They took the name from Cato the Younger, Julius Caesar’s republican foe, but as Raimondo points out, it was meant to invoke his grandfather, Cato the Elder, as well: “The old Roman senator, after all, had ended every speech with the famous imprecation against Rome’s ancient enemy: ‘Carthage must be destroyed!’ Insert the ‘the state’ in place of the Carthaginians, and the name conjures the Rothbardian spirit that imbued the founders of this new intellectual enterprise.”
Rothbard got quickly to work. In early 1977, he distributed a highly confidential 178-page memo, meant only for the inner circle of Cato, called Toward A Strategy for Libertarian Social Change. Within is a deeper elaboration and analysis of Leninist strategy and tactics, again calling for professionalized, hard-core libertarian cadres and “purity of principle, combined with entrepreneurial flexibility of tactics.” Following the course of Bolshevik revolution, he believed the best course of action was to follow the “centrist” path. That is, they were to stay radical, but also stay practical: don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal by getting mired in reformist coalitions, but don’t isolate the “party” of dedicated anti-statists by making hopeless quixotic stands either. To the example of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Rothbard now adds Hitler and the Nazis, who had the tactical advantage, he wrote, of a “clear two-group, ‘good-guy vs. bad guy’ dichotomy.” He also discusses with interest the Italian Futurists’ corrosive contempt for the mores of old society as an avant-garde paving the way for the triumph of the fascist movement. He felt libertarians could benefit from the lesson of the fascists’ use of emotionally stirring propaganda and spectacles, as well as their enlistment of youth in the cause. He believed that supreme willpower was the quality most needed in a political leader. But he cautions, the movement has to be straight in its appearance, “radical in content, conservative in form”; not too much shocking of the bourgeoisie, and no shaggy hair cuts: libertarian cadres must appear “respectable.”
The memo briefly caused a storm in right-wing circles, and then was largely forgotten. It leaked to the National Review, which got particularly upset about the invocation of Lenin. But it did not shake Rothbard’s position at Cato, yet. For his part, Justin Raimondo, toward the close of his Rothbard biography, expresses his belief that the strategy memo is still more or less Cato policy. Brink Lindsey, who was at Cato for twenty years and is now at the Niskanen Center, said that while he never saw the memo during his time at Cato, Rothbard’s radical antipathy toward the state long outlived his tenure: “The ultimate goal of minarchy or anarchy was and is intellectual orthodoxy at Cato, always in the background, with consequentialist policy analysis in the foreground.” (At one point in the memo, Rothbard talks approvingly about the American Revolution, but regrets that it was ruined by the drafting of the constitution.)
Rothbard’s truculence, amid infighting in the tiny Libertarian party, and his insistence on ideological purity—he was upset when they brought in a Chicago School, rather than Austrian School, economist—eventually soured the other members of Cato’s inner sanctum against him. He was pushed out in 1981, but quickly found a new home at the more radical Ludwig von Mises Institute, founded by a firebrand named Lew Rockwell, who was also Ron Paul’s congressional chief-of-staff from 1978 to 1982. Joined with the conservative Catholic Rockwell, Rothbard returned firmly to his Old Right roots, and together they devised a synthesis they called “paleolibertarianism”—a position that was radically anti-state, but conservative in its cultural values. They would, in Rockwell’s term “de-louse” the movement, and end the association of libertarianism with shaggy, good-time counter-cultural libertinism. Although Rothbard got an academic appointment at the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 1985, he was still able to write prolifically for his political causes and to advocate strongly for Ron Paul’s bid as Libertarian candidate in 1988.
The writing Rockwell produced on behalf of Ron Paul in the 1980s and early 1990s is quite frank in its racism, homophobia, and paranoia about AIDS—part of what Rothbard described as an “Outreach to the Rednecks.” By 1990, the Ron Paul newsletters started discussing David Duke in favorable terms. But it was in 1992, after David Duke’s failed presidential run, that Rothbard in an article entitled “Right Wing Populism,” from the Rockwell-Rothbard Report, fully puts Duke’s politics in the context of his earlier articulated “populist short-circuit” strategy. There he encourages emulation of Duke:
It is fascinating that there was nothing in Duke’s current program or campaign that could not also be embraced by paleoconservatives or paleo-libertarians: lower taxes, dismantling the bureaucracy, slashing the welfare system, attacking affirmative action and racial set-asides, calling for equal rights for all Americans, including whites: what’s wrong with any of that?
Ultimately it was Pat Buchanan who was to be Rothbard’s man in 1992.
Rothbard applauded The Bell Curve for destroying “the egalitarian myth” that “has been the major ideological groundwork for the welfare state.”
But the clearest expression of Rothbard’s racism comes in his review of Charles Murray’s and Richard Herrnstein’s book The Bell Curve in 1994. As far back as his undergraduate years Rothbard believed that the statistical regularities expressed in bell curves were a load of bullshit: “Well, what is the evidence for this vital assumption around a normal curve? None whatever. It is a purely mystical act of faith.” He stayed remarkably consistent in his review of Murray’s book: he thought there was entirely too much reliance on boring numbers and evidence, that it doesn’t get to the good stuff fast enough: “. . . the Herrnstein-Murray book almost drowns its subject in statistics and qualifications, and it tries to downplay the entire race issue, devoting most of its space to inheritable differences among individuals within each ethnic or racial group.” He applauds the book for destroying “the egalitarian myth” that “has been the major ideological groundwork for the welfare state, and, in its racial aspect, for the entire vast, ever expanding civil rights-affirmative action-set aside-quota aspect of the welfare state. The recognition of inheritance and natural inequalities among races as well as among individuals knocks the props out from under the welfare state system.” Rothbard continues:
If and when we as populists and libertarians abolish the welfare state in all of its aspects, and property rights and the free market shall be triumphant once more, many individuals and groups will predictably not like the end result. In that case, those ethnic and other groups who might be concentrated in lower-income or less prestigious occupations, guided by their socialistic mentors, will predictably raise the cry that free-market capitalism is evil and “discriminatory” and that therefore collectivism is needed to redress the balance . . . In short; racialist science is properly not an act of aggression or a cover for oppression of one group over another, but, on the contrary, an operation in defense of private property against assaults by aggressors.
Here what Rothbard meant when he talks about non-aggression and self-defense is made plain: the ideological rampart of the post-welfare order against egalitarian attacks would have to be scientifically dressed up racism, defending the “property rights” of the rightful masters, sorted to the top by the ineluctable logic of the market. At this point his appeal to the alt-right shouldn’t be much of a mystery.
A year later Rothbard was dead. His old foes tried to bury him. The leader of the conservative movement, William F. Buckley, sneered in his obituary at the man who he had once been on friendly terms with:
In Murray’s case, much of what drove him was a contrarian spirit, the deranging scrupulosity that caused him to disdain such as Herbert Hoover, Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, and-yes-Newt Gingrich, while huffing and puffing in the little cloister whose walls he labored so strenuously to contract, leaving him, in the end, not as the father of a swelling movement that “rous [ed] the masses from their slumber,” as he once stated his ambition, but with about as many disciples as David Koresh had in his little redoubt in Waco. Yes, Murray Rothbard believed in freedom, and yes, David Koresh believed in God.
Rothbard’s vision ends up desolate and despairing.
“Who laughs last, laughs best,” Rothbard’s ghost might reply. The fact is that the American right looks more and more like Rothbard’s vision than Buckley’s. His disciples have noticed. In July 2016, Raimondo wrote in The American Conservative, “Rothbard, who died in 1995, would’ve loved Donald Trump, and he seems to have foreseen his rise as if in a dream.” But it was more than just a dream, Trump was in part the product of his will: of his ideas, his prodigious body of writing, of the political alliances he built, of the intellectuals he trained and influenced, a lifetime of bile, spleen, and hate against what he saw as the establishment. I said earlier that to find a close model of Rothbard one had to look at fiction, to Dostoevsky’s Demons, but Demons was based on what Dostoevsky saw happening in his society. He based the doctrines of the revolutionary cell led by Verkhovensky on the thoughts of a real man, the nihilist Sergey Nechayev. Reading Rothbard feels like reading Nechayev at times, particularly in his belief that the primary role of the revolutionary was to “aid the growth of calamity and every evil,” to make any alliance, advocate any idea, and encourage any force, against the state:
Therefore, in drawing closer to the people, we must above all make common cause with those elements of the masses which, since the foundation of the state of Muscovy, have never ceased to protest, not only in words but in deeds, against everything directly or indirectly connected with the state: against the nobility, the bureaucracy, the clergy, the traders, and the parasitic kulaks. We must unite with the adventurous tribes of brigands, who are the only genuine revolutionaries in Russia.
This is from Nechayev’s 1869 Cathechism of a Revolutionary, which is said to have inspired Lenin. But very much unlike Nechayev or Lenin, there’s also something maudlin in Rothbard’s worldview, pining for the lost world of his middle-class boyhood: New York cafeterias filled with lovable eccentrics, Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter tunes, W.C. Fields and Marx Brothers comedies in the theaters. Like so many other reactionaries, he also mourned for a world he never experienced; he would have been six years old when Roosevelt was elected, he never really experienced a pre-New Deal America, or the “Old Republic” as he called it. And he does not, as he wrote of Woody Allen, manage to “[transmute] his rage and the sadness of nostalgia into the bracing and liberating joy of wit and laughter.” His W.C. Fields impression is just a mean-spirited crank—there’s no sublimation.
As commonly happens when you aim for, and miss, the sublime, Rothbard’s vision ends up desolate and despairing. He based his economic theory on the striving individual, but failing to deliver a paean to the noble soul bravely facing down conformity and cultural decline, his imagination instead reveals a world of petty grievance leavened with grand pretensions; a mixture of self-pity and spite. But say this for Rothbard: even when he seemed at the very margins of American political life, he never quit. “I am sure,” Keynes wrote, “that the power of vested interest is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.” Today, Rothbard’s ideas aren’t merely encroaching; they’re on the march.