Misunderstanding Murray (Again)
Melinda Cooper is professor of sociology at the Australian National University, and in her article “The Alt-Right: Neoliberalism, Libertarianism and the Fascist Temptation” published in the journal Theory, Culture and Society in 2021, she has some remarkable things to say about Murray Rothbard, remarkable, I fear, in that they are grievously in error.1 In this week’s column, I’d like to discuss some of her comments.
As she points out, Rothbard was during the early 1990s politically allied with a group of “paleoconservatives.” Rothbard’s alliance with them was, she says, “uniquely powerful” because “it offers a workable response to libertarianism’s intrinsic contradictions. By pairing freedom from the state with the assertion of absolute servitude in the realm of private, interpersonal relations, paleoconservatism resolves the contradiction between economic freedom and property rights in a way that no other political position can match” (pp. 30–31). If you are like me, you will rub your eyes in astonishment when you read this: How can property rights contradict economic freedom? Doesn’t the structure of property rights constitute economic freedom? Further reading of the article discloses that by “economic freedom,” Cooper means the supposed right of welfare recipients and others to resources seized from other people by the state. In other words, some people not only want what others have but claim a right to it, and Cooper proposes to show us how Rothbard used ideas from the paleos to resolve this “contradiction.” Why she calls the fact that people make conflicting claims a “contradiction” I do not pretend to fathom, but in what follows, I’ll try to set forward the supposed contradiction and its resolution.
In her effort to understand Rothbard, she does not get off to a good start. She says,
Right up until his death in 1995, Rothbard remained faithful not only to Austrian economics, the most marginal of currents in American neoliberalism, but also to the most abstruse and unfashionable of methods within this current, the deductive apriorism of Ludwig von Mises…. A trained mathematician, Rothbard was nevertheless convinced by his mentor that mathematical models and statistical evidence were irrelevant to economic reasoning and developed, instead, an intricate, almost scholastic philosophy of market exchange that derived economic freedom and property rights from Lockean natural law. From this foundation, he built up an uncompromising and (in the eyes of many) unrealistic vision of libertarian politics, which would tolerate nothing less than the complete dismantling of the state, the abolition of central banking and a return to so-called honest money, that is, the commodity-money of gold and silver. (p. 31)
Cooper does not understand the difference between Austrian economics, a purely descriptive science of human action, and political philosophy. The moral basis of property rights is a separate issue from Mises’s deductive science of human action.
The confusion deepens in this passage:
From his Austrian mentors Ludwig van [sic] Mises and Carl Menger, Rothbard inherited the idea that the subjective determination of value—a key insight of the marginal counter-revolution to which Menger contributed—must be counterbalanced by some perfectly stable money-token. This Rothbard locates in the commodity money of precious metals—the hard money whose immutable weight would appear to vouchsafe for its honesty as a bearer of ever shifting evaluations of price…. As long as it circulates outside of state control, Rothbard seems to suggest, commodity money can’t help but express the underlying value of economic relations and can therefore be relied upon to ensure the proper distribution of spoils amongst productive and non-productive participants in a market economy. (p. 32)
Evidently Cooper’s studies in Austrian economics have been somewhat lacking. According to Austrian theory, people’s subjective preferences explain prices: it is nonsense to claim, as Cooper apparently does, that unstable subjective preferences have to be “counterbalanced” by stable money. Subjective preferences explain prices in a barter economy, where no money exists.
Cooper does no better in political philosophy. She correctly points out that Rothbard views the state as parasitic, extracting resources from the productive, and also correctly says that he supports the right to own guns for self-defense, but somehow she draws from these views the claim that he wants to gun down welfare recipients, especially those from racial minorities!
Rothbard also argued that the state had transgressed on the natural rights of individuals and had therefore triggered the right of every individual to arm himself in self-defence. Indeed, Rothbard’s thought process seems to lead to the logical conclusion that productive citizens should take up arms not only against the state but also against the many parasites who feed off its largesse—the non-producers and the welfare recipients. After all, aren’t they the modern beneficiaries of the special privileges and unearned income once reserved for the feudal elite…. It is impossible to read Rothbard’s reflections on anti-state violence without being aware of the relentless identification between state parasitism, black welfare queens and undocumented migrants in right-wing American political discourse. And it is difficult to read his repeated invocations of John C. Calhoun without also hearing the states’ rights and white supremacist arguments that Calhoun’s name has so often justified. The studiously neutral language Rothbard uses to denounce the state doesn’t make the threat less legible or menacing. Yet remarkably, in his earlier work, Rothbard does stop short of translating his indictment of the welfare state into a call for white supremacist terrorism and instead advocates a rigorous questioning of the economic status quo, to determine whether the origins of any given property title are legitimate or not. (pp. 34–35)
Of course Rothbard isn’t calling for shooting welfare recipients but rather for ending taxation, and his praise for Calhoun’s division between tax producers and tax consumers hardly commits him to agreement with Calhoun’s belief in “white supremacy,” as Cooper calls it, or with terrorism directed against blacks. Is she aware that Rothbard condemns slavery?
Avid to seek out “contradictions,” Cooper finds another. Rothbard supports equal rights, yet at the same time thinks that people have different natural abilities.
This tension leads him to affirm, on the one hand, that libertarianism must break with all inherited privileges and all hierarchies of social status … and, on the other, to assert with equal conviction that “inequality … is rooted in the biological nature of man” and hence (one must assume) inheritable…. The contradiction is flagrant but ultimately insoluble within the terms of economic libertarianism itself. Why, after all, would the transmission of privilege cease to be problematic when it is authorized on biological rather than political grounds?
Cooper cannot understand that Rothbard believes that all rights are property rights and that there is no right to “economic freedom” apart from property rights. It is the right to own property, which includes the right of bequest, that authorizes people to transmit their property to others. Everyone has the same rights, but because of the nature of human beings, equal rights will result in unequal holdings of property. This inequality isn’t a “privilege” authorized by biology.
Cooper has read a number of Rothbard’s books and articles, but the convoluted and confused categories she uses to interpret them prevent her from understanding what he is saying. Fortunately, her incoherent ramblings will limit her audience.1. I am grateful to Professor Walter Block for calling my attention to this article.