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Tony D. Senatore
"I'm the spokesman for the OK Boomer generation

The ‘Radical’ Ideas of Murray N. Rothbard

In 2017, as an undergraduate at Columbia University, I wrote an article in the Columbia Tab defending capitalism and America. I wrote that the experience of living life and my pursuit of autonomy and self-sufficiency had led me to a newfound respect for conservative and libertarian ideas and the realization that capitalism is the cornerstone of a free society. Recently one of my classmates read it for the first time. He pointed out that there are significant differences between Libertarians and Republicans. He considered Libertarians as individuals that read Atlas Shrugged in the morning and smoked marijuana in the evening.

Moreover, he argued that despite their disdain for big government, the neo-conservative faction of the Republican Party loves to spend taxpayer money on their never-ending quest for American exceptionalism worldwide via bullets, bombs, and regime change. While I found his characterization humorous, he had a point. I told him that, in retrospect, my article did not have the depth of thought befitting of a Columbia University student. It read more like a reiteration of the Cato or American Enterprise Institutes talking points. I told him that as I emerged from the 2020 pandemic reeling from the injustices brought upon America by a government infused with power hitherto unknown, I felt like I was living my last days in a dying civilization. I have tried hard to make sense of current world events on my own rather than put my faith in the surface-level analysis of some highly paid television pundits and their guests.  Like many Americans, I have emerged from the pandemic with a great deal of anger toward not only American politicians but all world leaders, regardless of geographic location. Citizens worldwide face the same problems as their American counterparts: economic hardships, unprecedented crime,  war, and death resulting from irresponsible and inept leadership, all financed with the money and the blood of ordinary people who only wanted to live in peace. 

 While many Americans spent 2020 shaming others for not wearing a mask or crying about losing their guns and freedoms, I found the answers I was looking for via a thorough investigation into the work of anarcho-capitalist economist Murray N. Rothbard. Rothbard has been called “The State’s Greatest Living Enemy” by his detractors. On the other hand, to those of us that admire Rothbard, it is undoubtedly a term of endearment. After reading his ideas, which are most generously available at Mises.org, I have concluded that perhaps the State and not Murray Rothbard deserves the radical designation. Additionally, I fully understand why World War III is a genuine possibility, who brought us to this point, and why. Rothbard’s views, while challenging, were quite sensible and traditional when taken to their fullest extent. As Lew Rockwell, the founder of the Mises Institute, so aptly noted, “ once you are exposed to Rothbardianism (Rothbard’s particular brand of libertarianism), you can not forget it, and it becomes the indispensable lens through which we can see events in the real world with the greatest possible clarity.” Mr. Rockwell was a student and colleague of Rothbard’s. He defines Rothbardianism as “ a system based on self-ownership, strict private property rights, pro-market, and anti-state in every conceivable respect. A pro-family stance and devotion to Western culture are integral to Rothbard’s vision. He believed individuals would naturally gravitate toward those things if the State did not try to undermine them. In pursuit of my sociology degree, I have read a great deal of the work of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman,  Karl Marx, and Vladimir Lenin. Understanding their ideas has been integral in helping me to understand how the world works. I was not surprised to learn that Murray Rothbard thought they were important too. I would argue that Murray Rothbard conceived Rothbardianism from what he liked and disliked about the ideologies of the thinkers mentioned above.  Choosing one of many examples of things Rothbard liked, the nonaggression axiom, which states that “no man or group of men may aggress against the property of anyone else, is an integral part of  Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. 

Rothbard was not interested in merely reducing government, and the American welfare-warfare state like Milton Friedman hoped to do. He wanted to terminate it altogether.

Rothbard shared Friedman’s faith in the free market but ultimately renounced him, claiming he functioned “not as an opponent of statism and advocate of the free market, but as a technician advising the State on how to be more efficient in going about its evil work.”

In the 1960s, Rothbard hoped to bridge the gap between libertarian purists and “sellouts” who were willing to accept small amounts of statism to advance libertarian goals. The goal of adhering to the correct line and flexibility of tactics; adapting the tactics of one’s movement to the historical stages and conditions in which they found themselves were two ideas Rothbard adapted for use from Vladimir Lenin. 

It might seem illogical that Murray Rothbard, a champion of private property rights and the free market, could have anything in common with individuals like Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx. Purity of principle, steadfast adherence to revolutionary goals, and disdain for the State were areas in which a mutual agreement existed. On the other hand, their personal definition of precisely what constituted the State was quite different. German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer defined the State as the “organization of the political means.” To Oppenheimer ( and Rothbard and Ayn Rand), there are two ways to acquire wealth. The first was by economic means via production and exchange via men using their minds to transform nature’s resources to provide sustenance for all participants. The second was through political means, a parasitic system of theft (taxation) that subtracts rather than adds to production. Rothbard defined statism as a “massive system of the productive many by the parasitic ruling few.”

Rothbard believed that in America, statism was a joint venture between the business groups and labor unions who gain privileges, cartels, and subsidies galore from the State and the intellectuals and technicians who form the State controlling bureaucracy and receive subventions from its coffers.” My preferred depiction of the State is from Albert Jay Nock, an anarcho-capitalist who influenced Rothbard: The State claims and exercises the monopoly of crime… It forbids private murder, but itself organizes murder on a colossal scale. It punishes private theft, but it lays its unscrupulous hands on anything it wants, whether the property of a citizen or alien. The State is entirely dissociated from moral considerations. Like the old time King, it stands alone, outside any ethical code, with no responsibility but to itself; it is its own judge of its own acts.

  In Rothbard’s concept of the State, the problem was not between the men engaged in free and voluntary enterprise, the factory worker, or the factory owner. The problem resided within the parasitic State,  specifically the political and bureaucratic classes, which derived sustenance from the productive individuals involved in peaceful and harmonious production and exchange. In contrast, Lenin believed that the free competition that Rothbard thought was so desirable gave rise to the concentration of production, which, in turn, at a certain stage of development, led to monopoly. Finance capital led to the development of monopolies. Thus, monopolist principles, specifically the utilization of “connections” for profitable transactions, took the place of competition on the open market. Lenin asserted that the State was a tool of the bourgeoisie not only to control and maintain the external conditions of production but also to keep the exploited class in the conditions of oppression as determined by the given mode of production(slavery, serfdom, selling of wage labor).

There was some overlap between the goals of the Marxists and those of the libertarians under Rothbard. Both wanted to desanctify and eliminate the state. The difference was contrasting views on the use of violence and who the protagonist and antagonists were. Nevertheless, Rothbard eventually pursued a political rather than an ideological alliance with the New Left in anti-draft actions and opposition to the Vietnam War Rothbard’s unwillingness to compromise is another commonality between himself and Ayn Rand. In many ways, Rothbard was like Howard Roark, the hero of The Fountainhead.  Rothbard’s vision of what libertarianism should be(and what America could be) was off limits to statists that wanted to dilute it. Like Roark’s Cortlandt, Rothbard would never permit his ideology to be used by inferiors who hoped to infuse it with egalitarian elements or to use it in a way that he felt was unacceptable.

 As I mentioned earlier, the nonaggression axiom, which is justified based on natural rights, is central to Rothbardianism. Also important is the idea that the State arrogates the right to a monopoly of violence. However, if racketeering is a crime, it is no less criminal if the racketeers call themselves the State. Rothbard believed that common moral structures and evaluation standards that apply to the average citizen should also apply to the State.

Moreover, the operation of the “democratic” State is just as nefarious and criminal as the State under any other name. Rothbard believed that the history of America had much in common with Fascism, Communism, or Stalinism. The differences were superficial. The idea that America operates from a self-professed moral high ground is central to its modus operandi. I can express Rothbard’s main argument in one sentence. Taxation is theft, conscription is slavery, and war, the veritable health of the State is mass murder made legal.

In the America that Rothbard envisioned, private companies and free markets would replace the inefficient services that the government provided. This society, based on voluntary action, and entirely unhampered by violence or threats of violence, would rely on contracts between individuals as the legal framework which would be enforced by private police and security forces as well as private arbitrations.

 

Last week, I set up a meeting with my much younger Columbia classmate to discuss my article and my newfound desire to embrace so-called “radical” ideas. At 60, I can safely say there are not many advantages to growing old. The only potential upside is that if you’ve been paying attention and utilizing what you’ve learned in academia and in the course of living your life, you might find that some of the answers you have been searching for are right before your eyes if you are brave enough to embrace them. Thus, with a concerted effort to refrain from #okboomer rants, I proceeded to state my case.

I told him that even as a child, I knew that if one hopes to stay in good standing within our community and our nation, some things can never be challenged without repercussion. One of these things was religious faith. When I entered the confessional, I often wondered if reciting the Hail Mary three times was enough to atone for my sins. When Father Ken placed the Sacred Host in my hands at Holy Communion, I pondered whether what I put in my mouth was indeed the body of Christ, a symbolic representation, or merely unleavened bread. The other was faith in my country and those that govern us. When I was in 6th grade, my teacher asked the class what we thought of the United State’s departure from Vietnam. One of my classmates proudly raised his hand and said that Henry Kissinger deserved a medal.

No one in the class had any further commentary because our understanding of the war was superficial. Although I have vivid memories of American troops coming home in body bags, I did not understand the intricacies of the war at the time. I knew something was fundamentally wrong, as many in my circles opposed it. As an American, I assumed that our leaders had our best interests. In matters of God and country, one could either have blind faith or hold those who comprise our religious and government institutions to the same standards as everyone else. The Catholic Church sex scandal profoundly impacted my faith in organized religion, but not my faith in God.

Similarly, the Vietnam debacle forever altered my feelings about the American government, but not my faith in America and the good nature, generosity, and decency that reside in the American people’s spirit. Faith is a firm belief in something for which there is no tangible proof. It is the cornerstone of all religion and perhaps its most crucial element. While it is essential to have faith in those who govern us, it is not enough. We must make them accountable when they betray our trust. As the Declaration of Independence reminds us, “whenever any form of government becomes destructive…” we must challenge it. Four U.S Presidents, from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson, systematically lied to the American people. Publicly, they promised to end the war, but privately, they expanded it. Nixon and Kissinger gave China everything they could have asked for in their negotiations with China. The most crucial concession was the one-China policy in which the United States acknowledged that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan was part of China.

On the other hand, China was not forced to renounce its role in supplying arms and assistance to North Vietnam, while the United States unilaterally gave up Taiwan. China was brought out of isolation and was poised to take its place on the world stage. Mao Zedong got his one-China policy, his special relationship with the United States, and a continued free hand if he wanted it in his relationship with North Vietnam. The one-China policy has been the bedrock of the relationship between the United States and China. At the time of its declaration, the policy’s primary proponent, President Nixon, should have negotiated primarily for the welfare and well-being of his troops, who were in harm’s way. Instead, the result of Nixon’s negotiations was a one-sided deal that benefitted a nation that had helped to kill over 50 000 of his nation’s youth, thousands under his command at the time to pave the way for the advent of offshoring. All of this demonstrates to me that the State is far more concerned with preserving its own power than in defending the rights of its private citizens, regardless of their geographic location.

Conscription (draft) is the mandatory enrollment of individuals into the armed forces. The United States has been an all-volunteer since 1973. However, an act of Congress could still reinstate the draft in a national emergency. As we have seen in America’s war on terror and its response to the pandemic, our political leaders sometimes prioritize that national emergencies have no foreseeable end. The Selective Service System is the agency that registers individuals and is responsible for running the draft. All men ages 18 to 25 who are U.S citizens or immigrants living in the U. S are required to register for Selective Service. In 1980 during the Iran Hostage Crisis, I was the first of my generation to register. My friend stated that you would think that after Vietnam, American politicians would be hesitant to wage wars in foreign lands, and American citizens would be reluctant to fight them, but that is not the case. I replied that American presidents use virtues like loyalty, patriotism, obedience to authority, and courage to manipulate men to use these virtues toward misguided ends, like US imperialism. NATO is a military alliance under the supreme command of the United States established in 1949 to counter the threat posed by the Soviet Union at the time. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, it follows that NATO, having accomplished its goal, would be dissolved. Rather than being dismantled, NATO was expanded by the neoconservatives. As a result of the Bush Doctrine, a strategy based on preemptive intervention and exporting democracy to Africa, South America, and the entire Islamic world, post-Soviet Russia was increasingly encircled by NATO troops. The United States attacked and waged war against Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Serbia, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria. The United States also orchestrated coups in Ukraine and Egypt. If one thinks some nations hate America simply because they hate our way of life, they should reconsider that idea.

As America continues its proxy war with Russia, Senators Bob Menendez and Lindsey Graham push for war with China by declaring Taiwan a major non-NATO ally. The Washington Post’s neoconservative columnist Josh Rogin believes America can multitask. His latest opinion piece, entitled “The Skeptics are Wrong: The US Can Confront Both China and Russia, ” lays bare the fact that interventionism is alive and well in Washington. Americans know from experience that none of this will increase national security at home or abroad. Instead, it will increase the chance of devastating nuclear weapons exchange. These plans do not represent Americans’ needs. They benefit the military-industrial complex’s business plan. When the people who craft and shape public policy appear on television have a financial stake in the companies that manufacture the arms they urge us to send to defend Ukraine, it is disingenuous and dangerous.   

My elementary school friend passed away many years ago. If he were alive today, I would tell him that neither Henry Kissinger nor the warmongers behind the Project for the New American Century deserve medals. They should be put on trial. Regarding individuals who should be put on trial, or at the very least remain silent,  Dick Cheney comes to mind. Cheney is arguably the person most responsible for America’s bad reputation in world affairs. His decision to make a video warning of the dangers former President Donald Trump brings to the world stage is unbelievable and surreal.  

My story about the war hawks in Washington deeply impacted my friend. He works for a right-wing think tank that crafts, recommends, and advocates particular policy objectives to influence politicians, businesses, and special interest groups. It is not as if he was unaware of what I was saying. He never really gave it much thought. The irony is that he is a Bernie Sanders supporter and worked for the Sanders organization as a volunteer. He only took his current job because he had difficulty finding work after college.  Also ironic is the fact that while I would never have voted for Bernie Sanders had he become the nominee of the Democratic Party in 2016, I was definitely “feeling the Bern” after the white-collar criminals on Wall Street almost destroyed the world’s economy in 2008. and Bernie went after them. So many of my conservative friends despise Bernie, even though he is one of the few politicians that care about the everyday problems of average Americans, including theirs. Far too many Americans are willing to ignore the nefarious deeds of Wall Street and Washington’s military-industrial-big Tech-big Pharma complex for their right to have a bazooka at their bedside or for the right of a biological male to compete in women’s sporting events. These single-issue voters have been a significant impediment in the quest for an America that is more responsive to the needs of its citizens. The idea of a political alliance between progressives and libertarians is exciting and potentially very powerful.

I believe the Wall Street Crash of 2008 and subsequent taxpayer bailout was the most egregious and blatant misuse of government power in American history. Much like the Rothbard/New Left alliance, the crash united two of the most disparate politicians, Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul. Paul introduced a measure to audit the Fed included in a financial regulatory bill passed by the U.S. House. In addition to an effort to block Ben Bernanke’s second term as chairman of the Federal Reserve, Sanders united with Paul in an attempt to force the Fed to disclose the names of firms that received almost $2 trillion in emergency loans in 2008. Paul and Sanders, like Lenin and Rothbard, were miles apart on the role that the State should play. Sanders wanted more regulation and tighter supervision, while Paul wanted bankruptcy to serve as the great regulator and a return to the gold standard, which libertarians call “sound” money. Sanders did not share Paul’s faith in free markets. Paul does not understand why progressives like Sanders have problems with business-created wealth. One thing is sure. The mess the United States finds itself in is a bipartisan effort. Democrats and Republicans love Wall Street, War, and using their offices to enrich themselves and their families at the taxpayer’s expense.

Nevertheless, there is common ground between individuals hoping to start a revolution and break the status quo. That commonality is a disdain for corporate welfare funded by U. S taxpayers. In 2022, nothing changed despite the efforts of Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul. No one wants to drain the swamp. They want to be a part of it. Ideas like “vote for me next year and everything is going to be ok” are crap, and we should say they are crap.

As my friend and I parted ways, I hoped that I convinced him of the dire situation the world finds itself in today and how Murray Rothbard provides the diagnosis and the remedy, the complete elimination of the government. Even though I think that I was able to convey that Rothbard was a scholar worthy of much wider recognition, I handed my friend a copy of The Criminality of the State by Albert J. Nock to reinforce Rothbard’s contempt for the State. He promised to read it when he got home, but I insisted on reading aloud the last two paragraphs. 

No “democratic” state practice is nothing more or less than state practice. It does not differ from Marxist State practice, Fascist State practice, or any other. Here is the Golden Rule of sound citizenship, the first and greatest lesson in the study of politics: you get the same order of criminality from any State to which you give power to exercise it, and whatever power you give the State to do things for you carries with it the equivalent power to do things to you. A citizenry which has learned that one short lesson has but little more left to learn.

About the Author
I was a sociology major at Columbia University, where i received my B.A in 2017, at age 55. My opinion pieces have appeared in the Columbia Spectator, the Tab at Columbia University, and Merion West.