Murray Rothbard Day

2 March 2012 at 3:00 pm 6 comments

| Peter Klein |

Today would have been Murray Rothbard’s 86th birthday. Rothbard is widely (and rightly) regarded as the father of the modern libertarian movement, and a driving force behind the “Austrian” revival in the US, beginning in the late 1950s. For this occasion I hope I can be forgiven a bit of personal reminiscence, courtesy of a brief excerpt from the introduction to my 2010 book, The Capitalist and the Entrepreneur:

As a college senior, I was thinking about graduate school—possibly in economics. By pure chance, my father saw a poster on a bulletin board advertising graduate-school fellowships from the Ludwig von Mises Institute. (Younger readers: this was an actual, physical bulletin board, with a piece of paper attached; this was in the dark days before the Internet.) I was flabbergasted; someone had named an institute after Mises? I applied for a fellowship, received a nice letter from the president, Lew Rockwell, and eventually had a telephone interview with the fellowship committee, which consisted of Murray Rothbard. You can imagine how nervous I was the day of that phone call! But Rothbard was friendly and engaging, his legendary charisma coming across even over the phone, and he quickly put me at ease. (I also applied for admission to New York University’s graduate program in economics, which got me a phone call from Israel Kirzner. Talk about the proverbial kid in the candy store!) I won the Mises fellowship, and eventually enrolled in the economics PhD program at the University of California, Berkeley, which I started in 1988.

Before my first summer of graduate school, I was privileged to attend the “Mises University,” then called the “Advanced Instructional Program in Austrian Economics,” a week-long program of lectures and discussions held that year at Stanford University and led by Rothbard, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Roger Garrison, and David Gordon. Meeting Rothbard and his colleagues was a transformational experience. They were brilliant, energetic, enthusiastic, and optimistic. Graduate school was no cake walk—the required core courses in (mathematical) economic theory and statistics drove many students to the brink of despair, and some of them doubtless have nervous twitches to this day—but the knowledge that I was part of a larger movement, a scholarly community devoted to the Austrian approach, kept me going through the darker hours.

I go on to discuss Oliver Williamson’s influence on my research program. Later I include Rothbard among my dedicatees:

Murray Rothbard, the great libertarian polymath whose life and work played such a critical role in the modern Austrian revival, dazzled me with his scholarship, his energy, and his sense of life. Rothbard is widely recognized as a great libertarian theorist, but his technical contributions to Austrian economics are not always appreciated, even in Austrian circles. In my view he is one of the most important contributors to the “mundane” Austrian analysis described above.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Austrian Economics, People. Tags: .

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Richard Ebeling  |  3 March 2012 at 8:37 pm

    I cannot agree more, Peter, about Rothbard’s amazing interdisciplinary knowledge and integration of ideas.

    He also had one of the most persuasive and engaging writing styles of any of those in the classical liberal/libertarian movement.

    I recall the first time I met Murray — it was at the first Austrian Economics conference in South Royalton, Vermont in June 1974.

    I had been reading Rothbard’s books and articles for years. I had created an image of him in my mind, based on my impressions from his writings. I expected him to be tall, thin, and extremely serious.

    What a surprise when, on the first day of the conference, everyone arrives and there is Murray Rothbard: short, “roundly-shaped,” and constantly laughing, joking and telling unendingly funny stories.

    He held court every night during that amazing and most memorable week. He would sing songs, tell stories about famous (and infamous!) libertarians, conservatives, and “lefties” that he had met and known, and have us all laughing late into the night.

    It would only come to an end when his wife would come down from their room and remind him that it was 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, and he was supposed to deliver a lecture at 9 a.m.

    He would insist on finishing the story or joke he was in the middle of telling, and then — reluctantly — when up to bed. And with slightly sleepy he would be up in the morning and delivering a great lecture on praxeology, or the history of early Austrian ideas, or on the theory of money.

    He was truly one of the great libertarian and Austrian thinkers and “characters” of the 20th century.

    Those who had the opportunity to know him will always remember him until they, too, pass away.

    Richard Ebeling

  • 2. Michael Marotta  |  4 March 2012 at 2:36 pm

    I fell for Rothbard in 1971 and ’72. I believed everything he wrote and cheered with those who praised him. Then, in 2005, I had an opportunity to present a “Littleton Lecture” paper of my choosing at a convention of the American Numismatic Association. (Littleton Lectures come with a stipend for the presenter.) I never completed the paper, but I learned to regard Murray N. Rothbard as a faker.

    His academic dishonesty is disappointing and all the moreso because those who sing his praises now apparently never checked his work.

    We checked Newton. No one stands above science.

    I bought A History of Money and Banking in the United States from the Mises Institute. Tracking Rothbard’s sources, I was led to the Adam Smith Society; the folks there put up some resources for me as PDFs because I could not get them through my university library. So, I sent them a check and also bought myself an Adam Smith silk necktie.

    I have owned What Has Government Done to Our Money?” since 1974, apparently. The more I learned about numismatics, the less compelling it became. Oh, he is right in the main: legal tender money of account is problematic. But, ironically, he is ignorant of the history of money.

    Back then, also, I read America’s Great Depression. I have not read it since, but I remember the thesis: government meddling kept making things worse, not better. As much as I believe that, I would not trust any of Rothbard’s claims of fact, but would check them all, or just do my own research. Rothbard just told people what they wanted to hear. He proved nothing.

    I am sorry to say to this to you all on the anniversary of his birthday.

    On a related note, no one gets out alive: Socrates is mortal. But Rothbard famously told Durk & Sandy that freedom comes from revolution against the state, not from taking vitamins. I wish he had taken his. He might be here now. I could buy him a membership in the American Numismatic Association for his birthday…

  • 3. Peter Klein  |  4 March 2012 at 2:54 pm

    Michael, if you’re going to accuse someone of being a “faker” and guilty of “academic dishonesty” you ought to be able to substantiate the charges with something other than ex cathedra pronouncements, offered in your usual rambling, disjointed style.

  • 4. Michael Marotta  |  6 March 2012 at 11:27 am

    I would not make the claim if I did not have facts. Blogging is fine, but I get paid for serious work. And I am flexible. We can work out the terms. I will send you an email. I know the rules and would not have ventured the claims without some confidence. However, allow me at least to ante up.

    A History of Money and Banking in the United States: The Colonial Era to World War II by Murray N. Rothbard, Von Mises Institute, 2002. Pages 119-122 on the Suffolk System. Rothbard begins: “But Dr. George Tivoli, whose excellent monograph, The Suffolk System, we rely on in this study ..” Where does Tivoli’s work end? On page 120 is a footnote 102 to John Jay Knox’s A History of Banking in the United States in support of a quote, Then follows more narrative… Is this a continued paraphrasing of Tivoli? And where is the publication citation for that monograph?

    What Has Government Done to Our Money?, 2nd ed(Santa Ana: Rampart College, 1974.) Section 7, pages 8-10, ending with footnote 9.

    The first coins were electrum, not gold, admittedly mostly likely by “private” individuals if by that we understand that in a Greek democracy, all citizens were the government and that coinage may have come from potential “tyrants” i.e. self-made men on the rise. That said, the first gold coins are unarguably the issues of the king of state, Croesus (Kroisos). Private coinage all but ceased (depending on how we view the issues of generals in the field and certain ad hoc issues such as the silver quinari of Cato the Younger). Rothbard claimed that in the Middle Ages, kings minted coins. Indeed, they did. So did perhaps a thousand others, many, admittedly with royal charters, and many more bishops, counts, et al., without. Kings held no monopolies until much later, then only tenuously. If anything, the Middle Ages were a textbook case of closely competing currencies in a narrow geography.

    However, relying on my faith in Rothbard, I was brought up short in an online discussion via Usenet’s rec.collecting.coins by Francoise Velde, a Federal Reserve economist who authored and co-authored books on medieval economics. While I still disagree with Velde’s theories, I have to accept his facts, which are available to anyone who cares to do the research — which I later did for an article, “Champagne: the Athens of the Middle Ages” for The Celator — and which Rothbard apparently did not.

    “Privately-minted gold coins circulated in California as late as 1848.” (page 10 closing Section 7).
    No mention of actual private gold coins issued by Bechtlers of Rutherford County, North Carolina, (1830-1852). The coins of Wass-Molitor & Co. (1852-1855), Kellogg & Co. (1854-1855), Schultz & Co. (1851), and many others all of San Francisco, would have informed any serious researcher.

    Again… that’s just the ante … I have the resources to stay in the game.

  • 5. Peter Klein  |  6 March 2012 at 11:38 am

    For heaven’s sake, Rothbard was an economist interested in monetary theory, history, and policy, not a coin collector tracking down obscure numismatic trivia.

  • 6. FC  |  11 March 2012 at 6:13 pm

    It’s a trivial point, but binary: François, not Francoise.

    (Blake Edwards, call your office.)

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