Rothbard, Dogma And Conservative/Libertarian Camps

Brian Doherty at Reason:

Let’s put it this way: When the likes of F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman died, conservative flagship National Review could and did praise them pretty unreservedly. But when Rothbard died in 1995, his old pal William Buckley took pen in hand to piss on his grave. Rothbard, Buckley wrote, spent his life “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…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.”

Things look a little different now when it comes to Murray Rothbard’s influence, though it’s unlikely anyone at National Review will note it—except maybe in the context of an attack on Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). The rise of Paul and his loud and enthusiastic and young fan base, which Buckley could not have foreseen (I, who was writing an intellectual history of libertarianism from 1996-2006, also failed to see it coming), contradicts Buckley’s contention that Rothbard’s divisive radical intransigence doomed him to irrelevance.

The Paul movement, the largest popular movement motivated by distinctly libertarian ideas about war, money, and the role of government we’ve seen in the postwar period, is far more Rothbardian than it is directly influenced by the beliefs or style of any of the other recognized intellectual leaders or influences on American libertarianism. The Paul crowd is the sort of mass anti-war, anti-state, anti-fiat money agitation that Rothbard dreamed about his whole activist life.

The Paulites stress Rothbard’s key issues of war and money, with that populist hint of what he called “power elite analysis”—and that the uncharitable call “conspiracy theories.” Indeed, as I learned from my reporting on the movement during Paul’s primary campaign, a majority of them are pretty much learning their libertarianism directly from Paul himself, and the Internet communities surrounding Paul. But Rothbard was a friend and influence on Paul, and central to the Paul Internet community is the very Rothbardian Mises Institute website and the personal site of Mises Institute President Lew Rockwell, who was a close partner of Rothbard’s in the last decade of his life.

The Mises Institute has just issued an interesting (though regrettably brief, for this fan) collection of unpublished Rothbard writings. They are essays, letters, and memos written with a specific purpose—to advise various libertarian education and funding groups in the 1940s and ‘50s (mostly the Volker Fund, the most important supporter of libertarian intellectuals in the that era—they funded the academic berths of both Mises and Hayek, sponsored the conferences for which Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom was largely written, and kept Rothbard alive with various grants and tasks) on whether specific works or authors were worthy of promotion as good libertarian education or propaganda (in the neutral sense). Because of this practical purpose, Rothbard’s writing here highlights a still-important faultline in the larger libertarian project, both as an intellectual operation and a sales (of ideas) operation.

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner:

Obviously, Doherty’s allegiances are to Rothbard, and that’s fine. And Buckley may have overstated the case against Rothbard here, particularly for an obit. But Doherty makes it sound like the fault all lies with Buckley, and that’s unfair. The two men had been “pissing” at each other for decades. As Doherty well knows, and acknowlegdes later, Rothbard was hardly above being mean and pissy himself. If the two men had died in reverse order, does Doherty doubt that Rothbard would have poured at least as much invective on Buckley? It’s not a big deal, but reading this passage — saying Buckley was his “old pal” for instance — an uninformed reader would think worse of Buckley (who was unsentimental in a great many eulogies for friends and foes alike) than is warranted.

Jim Manzi at NRO, responding to Goldberg:

I agree — that Brian Doherty essay is extremely interesting. I did a blog post a few months ago at The Daily Dish (guess I’ve already broken the proposed embargo, but I’ll reproduce it here) that tries to describe this fundamental divide within libertarianism, and explain why I think it matters so much:

I’ve been attending a fascinating series of monthly dinners here in Washington, in which liberals and libertarians exchange ideas. One thing that has become clear to me through these dinners is that there are two strands of libertarian thought. In somewhat cartoon terms, one strand takes liberty to be a (or in extreme cases, the) fundamental human good in and of itself; the other takes liberty to be a means to the end of discovery of methods of social organization that create other benefits. I’ll call the first “liberty-as-goal” libertarianism and the second “liberty-as-means” libertarianism. Obviously, one can hold both of these beliefs simultaneously, and many people do. But in my observation, when pushed to develop a position on some difficult issue, most self-described libertarians reveal a temperament that leans strongly in one direction or the other. Again, in cartoon terms, I’d describe the first temperament as idealistic, deductive and theory-based, and the second as practical, inductive and experiment-based. To lay my cards on the table, I fall squarely into the second camp.

Liberty-as-means libertarianism sees the world in an evolutionary framework: societies evolve rules, norms, laws and so forth in order to adapt and survive in a complex and changing external environment. At a high level of abstraction, internal freedoms are necessary so that the society can learn (which requires trial-and-error learning because the external reality is believed to be too complex to be fully comprehended by any existing theory) and adapt (which is important because the external reality is changing). We need liberty, therefore, because we are so ignorant of what works in practical, material terms. But this raises what I think of as the paradox of libertarianism, or more precisely, the paradox of liberty-as-means libertarianism.

Start with a practical question: should prostitution be legal? The canonical libertarian position is that this is a consensual act between adults, and should be legal. The liberty-as-means position is far more tentative. We don’t know the overall effects of legalized prostitution. Some people have the theory that it will make people happier, provide incomes and stabilize marriages. Others think it will lead to personal degradation, female victimization and societal collapse. It is very hard to know which theory is right, or if there is only one right answer as opposed to different best answers for different social contexts, or if the relative predictive accuracy of various theories will change over time as the environment changes. What the liberty-as-means libertarian calls for is the freedom to experiment: let different localities try different things, and learn from this experience. In the best case this is literally consciousness learning from structured experiments, and in the weaker case it is only metaphorical learning, in that the localities with more adaptive sets of such rules will tend to win out in evolutionary competition over time.

Goldberg responds to Manzi:

Often, that impulse drives conservatives to call for limiting or repealing the role of the state. But sometimes it doesn’t (as the revived debate over abstinence education shows). Much of the argument between these meliorists on the right and meliorists on the left boils down to how each side views traditional institutions and arrangements. The meliorists on the left tend to see traditional arrangements as hindrances to social betterment. The meliorists of the right tend to see such arrangements as bulwarks of social order and repositories of social and intellectual capital. Left meliorists think they’re smarter than the spontaneous order, right meliorists think the spontaneous order has much to teach us. Obviously, these are sweeping generalizations.

My own view is that the Right is intellectually healthier and more creative because its dogma remains unsettled (yes, I’ve written about this a zillion times). The Right is divided between those who are (in Irving Kristol’s formulation) anti-left and those who are anti-State. Those who believe that the government is bad because it’s working from leftist assumptions, and those who believe that the government is bad because it is the government. (Most conservatives share both outlooks to one extent or another, but usually fit more into one camp than the other. If you’re wholly in the government-is-bad camp you’re more properly a libertarian, but still on the right). There are those who believe that liberty is an end and those who believe that liberty is a means. For more than a half century now, modern conservatives have been debating and redebating the question of where to the draw the lines between freedom and order, liberty and virtue. And because that line continually needs to be redrawn given the evolution of attitudes, changes in technology, etc, conservative intellectuals (though not necessarily conservative activists, politicians and the like) are constantly revisiting first principles and philosophical assumptions or are at least capable of acknowledging the good faith of their philosophical opponents). I do not think you can say the same thing about liberals (again, as a wild generalization). What unites most, if not all, factions of the Left, from socialists to DLC moderates is a dogmatic acceptance that the government should do good when it can and where it can.  Hence the debates on the left tend to be procedural, wonkish, and technical or rankly political. The Right has such arguments as well, of course. But they do not define and dominate political discussions the way they do on the left. And that’s because our dogma is still unsettled.

E.D. Kain at The League:

I like thinking of conservatism in these terms – as an “unsettled ideology.” This gets at the bohemian conservatism I was talking about last week.  Russell Kirk was a self-described “bohemian Tory” and I think the intellectual wing of the conservative movement, with its distrust of centralized power and so forth fits that term nicely, if the red-meat activist wing does not.  The “unsettled dogma” concept seems so far removed from the conservative movement’s attempts at purity tests and activism that it’s a bit hard to reconcile the two.  And of course I’ve always been more attracted to the intellectual struggles within the ideology than with the political processes themselves, healthcare blogging notwithstanding.  But I think this can also be a trap for conservative intellectuals, or at least for bloggers with an intellectual streak (I am not really an intellectual as far as I know). More conservatives need to focus on policy and wonkishness if only to provide their ideas with a tangible foundation, but also because the effort to dismantle or reinvent the welfare state – to really limit big government – requires if anything even more policy and wonkishness than the other side.

Addendum: I’d like to point out that I in no way endorse some of the more caricatured views Goldberg expresses here vis-a-vis liberals.  Gross generalizations are not really my cup of tea, whether they can be applied to certain people within the larger group or not.  I will, however, note that so far the conservative and liberal response here has been hostile.  That means I’m doing something right.  Re: purity tests and so forth, it’s not so much that ideological groups shouldn’t set out some standards for membership, but that the standards become awfully silly and rigid in a political climate like the one we now have.

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