Mises Daily Articles
David Gordon: The Life and Times of Murray Rothbard
This article is a transcript of the interview on Mises Weekends.
Jeff Deist: This week we’re joined by Mises Institute Senior Fellow Dr. David Gordon, the man who Rothbard claimed knows everything about everything. Our topic is the life and times of the late Dr. Murray Rothbard. David Gordon was both his friend and associate and if you are a Rothbard fan, you’ll really enjoy this week’s show. We discuss Rothbard’s life from an insider’s perspective, touching on his experience founding the Cato Institute, his relationship with Mises and the areas where they disagreed, his time with Ayn Rand and her objectivist followers and much, much more. Stay tuned.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome once again to Mises Weekends. I’m Jeff Deist and I’m very pleased to be joined this weekend by none other than our own David Gordon who is visiting us from Los Angeles, so he’s in the studio here. I’m face-to-face with him and David, thank you very much, it’s great to see you.
David Gordon: Great to see you too, Jeff. Thanks for inviting me.
JD: David, last weekend we spent some time with Guido Hülsmann, going inside the mind of Ludwig von Mises. This week, we’d like to talk to you in a similar vein about Murray Rothbard. So tell us first and foremost about your relationship with Murray.
DG: I met Murray in 1979. I’d actually read Man, Economy and State when it came out in ’62 when I was in junior high and I didn’t get to meet any of the major libertarians till ’79. I met him in ’79 when I attended a conference at the Cato Institute in Eugene, Oregon in June and he and I hit it off right away and I met also his great friends, Ronald Hamowy and Ralph Raico and right after that conference, thanks to Murray’s influence, I was offered a job at the Cato Institute and I was there briefly. As you probably knew, Murray split with the Cato Institute and I went with him, but I always got along very well with Murray.
What impressed me the most about him was he had an endlessly curious mind. He was always absorbing new information and he would keep up with the latest books and of course, he’s best known for his libertarianism and his work as an economist. He kept up with all sorts of subjects. He knew philosophy, history, trends in art and music, anything you wanted to talk to him about, he would have new ideas and know all the new books on it and he would be very fast in the way he talked and want you to have to keep up with him and sometimes hard to do it. I’d always be on the phone with him, sometimes several times a week and I knew him for 17 years.
JD: So, did you ever spend any time in his New York apartment and did you know Joey Rothbard as well?
DG: Oh yes, well I knew Joey very well. She was very protective of Murray. They had met when they were both at Columbia. She was very, very smart, very well read. She knew American history very well.
JD: And of course, she was protective of him and then he ultimately found himself in hot water with the Ayn Rand circle over the fact that Joey was not rational enough for them in the sense that she was religious.
DG: Oh yes, yes. I remember she told me that one of the things they wanted her to do, they didn’t want him to divorce her right away because she was religious, but they wanted her to listen to their stuff and they thought if she did, then she would convert to their views. Nathaniel Branden apparently had done a series of tapes on the existence of God and proofs of God and they wanted her to listen to them and she didn’t do it. She said something like, why do I need to listen to these tapes? She was a quite devout Presbyterian. She kept up with that all of her life. There was a minister, I think Dr. Reed in the church in New York she thought very highly of.
JD: David, of course, Murray Rothbard was known for being just enormously well read and able to carry on conversations about an incredibly wide variety of topics. In a sense, I guess this is the definition of a polymath.
DG: Oh yes very much. Although I got my PhD in history, most of my academic work has been in philosophy and I found he was very good at philosophical arguments. His mind worked extremely fast and sometimes when he was writing, he wouldn’t put in all of the steps. He would expect things that were obvious to him might not be obvious to all the readers and I think he’d expect readers to be able to fill in all of the blanks and sometimes they couldn’t do it, but he, if you asked him about something, he could explain all the steps, but it’s just so obvious to him that I think he didn’t always put everything in. So you’ll find sometimes people criticize him. They’ll say, oh well he said this and this doesn’t follow, but in his mind it did. You just have to get the derivation and he assumed that readers would be able to do that.
JD: Well David, another aspect of Murray’s genius was just that he was so incredibly prolific. Can you talk a little bit about his tremendous output, both academic and otherwise?
DG: Oh yes, it really is quite amazing. I mean, Man, Economy and the State, which is his major work on economics, if you include the Power and Market, which he intended to have in the book, it’s well over 1,000 pages. That was something he was finishing in his late 20s, early 30s and he did a four-volume history of colonial and revolutionary America Conceived in Liberty, he has published it after he died, there’s a massive two-volume work on History of Economic Thought. He has thousands of articles and while this was going on, most academics are just occupied with their scholarly work and he was very involved in libertarian politics and he was constantly writing and commenting on all the different events that was happening.
One thing also, he kept up with politics really in a very unusual way and in this way, he would be able to tell you say, in elections, he could take any one, all the different Congressional races in the country and could tell you who was running and what the different issues were. If there was a conflict, say, in the Middle East, like today we have the conflict going on with the Israelis against Hamas, he would be able to tell you what every subgroup of the different sides was and what all their positions were and what each one had said and give you the history of all of them. So anything you asked him about politics, he would give you detailed account and you’d have interpretations of everything. These accounts would be based on his own reading in sources, he’d know all the different sources and he could tell you books about it and what he thought of it.
JD: David, do you think if Murray had had a more comfortable academic position, a tenure at some prestigious school somewhere, that his output and his drive would have been reduced?
DG: Well, it’s possible although I think with him: Mises has in Human Action a discussion on the creative genius of someone who is driven to work no matter what and I think this was probably true of Murray. I think whatever his position was, he would never have gotten comfortable. I mean, when he got his job at Las Vegas, I think he was doing better financially than he had at Brooklyn Polytechnic and he really didn’t have to keep writing. He had really nothing to prove, but he really kept on and people didn’t even know he was working on this multi-volume history of economics and there were some of his critics who would say, well Rothbard was a scholar at one time, but then he gave up scholarship and he just decided he wanted to do libertarian political work and that they were very surprised when his history of economics came out because anyone else would have had to work full time on it for years and probably then wouldn’t have been able to finish it, but he was able to do it and it’s amazing how he had the time to do it, but he did because if you read the book, he gives not just accounts of the major figures in economics, but he’ll give accounts of all the minor people who were writing and he’s read all of their works and had detailed comments on them and the secondary literature on them, so it was a tremendous achievement. That’s actually my favorite of Murray’s books, the History of Economic Thought.
JD: So Murray Rothbard completes his magnum opus, Man, Economy and State at a fairly young age and this book is praised by Mises himself. Tell us a little bit about Murray’s relationship with Mises.
DG: Murray always respected Mises a great deal when he started attending Mises’ seminar at NYU in 1949. He always looked up to Mises and they would go after the lectures, the students would I think go to a café and keep talking. Now, Mises, although he was from what all accounts a very warm, friendly person, he was in typical style European. He wasn’t one who really palled around with the students very much. So I think Murray and Joey would sometimes visit him and Mises’ wife, Margit, but I wouldn’t say they were enormously close friends. You could certainly say they were friends, but they didn’t really socialize enormously. One thing Murray said about Mises was that he had a very dry sense of humor.
I remember Margit von Mises came to a conference and a dinner for Murray on his 60th birthday at the Mises Institute, which was in 1986. I was lucky enough to be there and Margit von Mises was there and she spoke and she said how much she and her husband admired Murray.
JD: Of course, Mises was a very different kind of person than Murray. He was obviously an old world European gentleman. Murray was sort of a brash Brooklynite, very much a product of the 20th Century and I know Mises was a little uncomfortable with some of Murray’s positions on let’s say, anarchism.
DG: Oh yes, I think that’s right. When Mises did an extremely favorable review, a glowing review of Man, Economy and State, he said there are few things on legal questions where he thought Murray’s views were more questionable and could be challenged and I think Mises tended to associate anarchism with the left, this is what he was familiar with and the idea of the individualist anarchism, pro capitalist anarchism really wasn’t one he was familiar with. I’d like to think if he’d had more time to study it, he would have gone over to that view, but as it happens, he didn’t, and in fact, in Human Action, he’s very critical of Franz Oppenheimer, who is one of the heroes to the anarchists, one Murray liked a lot. But Mises was very critical of him and I think one thing that you touch on in your question that I think is very important is, Murray Rothbard was in foreign policy very consistent non-interventionist. He thought the US shouldn’t have gotten involved in World War II or the Cold War.
For him communism is more of an internal problem, it’s that socialism is a bad system, so the way to combat communism and socialism is just to establish a free market, but Mises tended to be much more sympathetic to an anti-communist foreign policy. Mises was not an opponent of entry into World War II. I don’t know that he specifically commented on American entry, but he would not I suspect, have been sympathetic to the American isolationist, so he was one who I think on foreign policy grounds, would have been opposed to Rothbard on the Cold War. In fact, I think in Planned Chaos, Mises suggested that there’s something about the Soviet state, the socialist character of the state would cause them to expand necessarily and in fact, he went so far in the second edition of Human Action, he defends conscription which went against his own work. He had some very good arguments in Nationalökonomie which is the 1940 German version of Human Action. He endorsed conscription, so I think there would be quite a bit of divergence there between them, but so far as I know, they didn’t go into that. They never argued about it or went into it. I think that would have been certainly an area that they differed.
JD: David, after Murray Rothbard completes Man, Economy and State, his major economics treatise, he goes on to write some truly fundamental books about libertarianism, including of course, The Ethics of Liberty. Talk about how Murray really created the foundation of the modern libertarian movement.
DG: Oh yes, that’s a very good point. I think if you do it through Austrian economics, Austrian economics is value free, but Mises was a utilitarian. I’d say roughly, he was arguing, we should have the free market because this is for the best, in fact, the only way to promote peace and prosperity, so we should have free market because it’s really the only system that works. But the approach through rights is saying it’s certainly relevant that something works, it’s promoting peace and prosperity, but that really isn’t the basis of ethics. It’s that people have certain rights, which is the right to own, the right to acquire property and you get an independent argument for libertarianism on that basis. Murray in philosophy was mainly interested and influenced by the Aristotelian and Thomist tradition. “Thomist” describes followers of St. Thomas Aquinas and afterwards. “Neo-scholastic philosophy” it’s sometimes called. He studied that quite a bit and this is another area where Mises differed with Rothbard. Mises had a very low opinion of the neo-scholastics. There’s a footnote in Human Action where he refers to a book by Louis Rougier and is very critical of the neo-scholastics. Mises was also critical of natural law philosophy. He thought that wasn’t really very sound, so that’s another area where they were rather different.
JD: David, you’ve identified some areas where Murray Rothbard felt Mises was wrong in his approach or his theory. Given the benefit of hindsight today, are there some areas where modern Austrians or modern libertarians might look at Murray’s work and say Rothbard was wrong about X, Y or Z?
DG: Well basically, I think Murray was on the right lines entirely. If I had to say anything, sometimes I think when he was refuting a position he differed with, when he was defending a position, his — what he would do would be, he would amass as many arguments as possible and sometimes I think in a few cases, there are problems in some of the arguments. As I mentioned before, he thought enormously fast and I think sometimes in philosophy, you have to go a little slower and then sometimes some steps that he would just say, oh, well, this is completely obvious, sometimes there are objections one could raise, so it would have been nice if he could respond to that. He would have if he’d been asked, but he just didn’t. I remember there was one — you see, one thing about Murray was very, very open in conversation, but if he was convinced of a certain position, especially if it involved politics, this wouldn’t be true just in any general intellectual issues, like you could certainly say I don’t agree with what you’re saying about German baroque art, of course I wouldn’t know enough to differ with him, but I mean, somebody could certainly say that. But if somebody differed with some political point, you had to be very careful how you put it. Like I would usually say, “well if someone were to object to give this objection, how would you respond?” I wouldn’t say, “I think this is a good objection.” You had to be rather careful about this because Murray would get very enthusiastic about a particular way of looking at things and that would be it.
JD: Were you at all intimidated by him intellectually? I mean, he was this little guy, but he was such a force.
DG: Oh yes. I mean, I would very much hesitate to differ with Murray. If I differed with him, the odds were very much in favor of his being right, but I mean sometimes we might just go over things and I’ll say, here’s a point. One issue, this is one I think that was one where Murray was right and I was wrong, is I tended to be much more favorable than he was to Robert Nozick as a philosopher. I thought maybe there was a way of taking Nozick’s position so that he really wasn’t that different from anarchism and Murray thought no, no, this is wrong and I think Murray was right. But what happened, in the differering philosophies, there is a complication in that Murray and Nozick really didn’t like each other much. It was much more Nozick didn’t like Murray than the other way around, but that was something you always had to bear in mind when you were talking to Murray about Nozick, that he didn’t like Nozick very much. They apparently had their different issues — I think one of the issues was a very obscure one that Nozick thought you can have measurement of someone’s internal subjective states, like you could talk about degrees of pain or degrees, making this purely objective measurement. In fact, Nozick had a paper where he defends measuring interpersonal utility. Of course, Rothbard said no, you couldn’t do that. That was one issue and then they differed very much on the Middle East. Nozick was very pro-Israel and Rothbard was very much the other way and then they had some differences on particular candidates in the Libertarian Party. They tended to support different people. Murray was very involved in Libertarian Party politics and I didn’t keep up with that at all, but he would have particular people that he’d support. He would be very upset with people who supported a different group from the one that he wanted.
JD: David, even some of Murray Rothbard’s close friends and associates, like Ron Hamowy, for instance, have remarked about his intransigence. Do you think if he had been a little less intransigent, a little smoother around the edges, let’s say, would he have been a more effective libertarian?
DG: Well, I don’t know that I’d agree with that, really. The thing about him was, it was just among the libertarians that he insisted on what he considered to be the correct position. Say, if someone wasn’t a libertarian, he would be very, very tolerant about whatever they said. For example, one of his best friends who was also a great friend of Joey Rothbard as a couple: Leonard Lieb and his wife. Leonard Lieb was a historian who wrote mainly about the Netherlands and Leonard Lieb was very much a conventional leftist, but they got along perfectly well. But the thing was, if you were a libertarian, then Murray expected you to have the right position and again, it would be alright if you didn’t have the right position as long as you didn’t insist on arguing with him and I think to some extent, it’s true that he was very intransigent.
He would insist on what he believed was right, but I think the thing that’s sometimes overlooked is that the people who opposed him tended to be very insistent on what they thought and they kept arguing with him and wanted to insist on what they thought. It was only if they kept after him that he would eventually lose his temper. I remember there was one case where George Smith and Wendy McElroy, who were very prominent libertarians in the L.A. circles, were interested in nonviolent resistance to the state and they became very interested in thought of Mahatma Gandhi and wrote on him and Rothbard had some very negative comments on Gandhi. He gone through his career and he had a lot of negative comments on him. One thing about Gandhi — I forget whether Murray included this in his what he wrote about him — was during World War I, Gandhi, giving recruiting speeches in India for the British Army, which you wouldn’t expect, but that was true, so after he wrote this, then Wendy McElroy wrote a reply defending Gandhi and then Murray was perfectly alright with that. But then George Smith wrote another very much sharper criticism of Rothbard, then Rothbard got very upset and I think that broke up their friendship, at least for awhile. So you had to provoke Murray to get him upset with you, but I think, to answer your question more directly, I think if he had been smoother around the edges, it wouldn’t really be Murray. That was his personality. He was very much like the hero or the main character in Ibsen’s play Brand who said the devil is compromise. That was really essential to Murray to state the truth as he saw it.
JD: David, I’d like to touch upon Rothbard’s atheism. He was born into I guess a secular Jewish family in Brooklyn in the early part of the 20th century. Talk about how is atheism shaped his worldview and his career.
DG: Well, I think he was an atheist, not out of hostility to religion. It was more that he didn’t find the arguments for the existence of God very convincing. Now toward the end of his life, I think he just said something like “if there is a God, it would be a being that we really can’t know anything about or would be completely different to anything we would understand.” So I think with him, it’s more of an intellectual matter. He just didn’t find the arguments convincing. For him, it wouldn’t be kind of an emotional thing. But I don’t think that — say, like the Randians would say, if you’re not an atheist, you’re really irrational. He would not take that view. He was very tolerant, whatever people thought. That was just his understanding. One of his great friends was the Jesuit libertarian Father James Sadowsky and certainly Sadowsky, being a Jesuit, it never affected their friendship and I think that the existence of God or atheism wasn’t really a central issue for Rothbard.
JD: But he was able to construct his entire defense and theory of natural rights without reference to a theist deity.
DG: Yes, that’s right. He didn’t — in doing that, though, that’s in the natural law tradition. I mean, you can remember Aquinas was a great authority on natural law, thought natural law is what can be established purely by reason, so it’s consistent with being a theist to support natural law in Rothbard’s way of doing it.
JD: David, as we wrap this interview up, any last thoughts on Murray Rothbard’s enduring legacy now that he’s been gone 20 years?
DG: I always viewed Murray as a second father. He really meant a lot to me and I think he’s had similar effects on a lot of people. At the Mises Institute, we try to promote Rothbard’s legacy and I think he’s really the one who is, by far, the most important person in libertarianism. I often wish when issues come up today, I wish I could call Murray and find out his views on things so he would always have a tremendously analytical and informed judgment on everything, so I think he’s the one you really have to study if you want to understand libertarianism.
JD: David Gordon, thanks very much for your time today. It was great having you in the studio. Ladies and gentlemen, hope you enjoyed the interview. Have a great weekend. We’ll see you next week.