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Anthony Flood

Posted July 1, 2008


Murray Newton Rothbard:

Notes toward a Biography

Anthony Flood

Murray Newton Rothbard was born in the Bronx on March 2, 1926. His father, David Rothbard, a shoe­maker’s son, was raised in Vishigorod, Ukraine, 40 miles north of Warsaw on the Vistula.  David, who had attended Hebrew school as a child, abandoned Juda­ism because its scriptures told of a God who had instigated the violent behavior of the Israelites, and that horrified him.

Murray grew up mostly in Manhattan at 107th Street and Broadway.  (He may have spent a year on Staten Island).  As young adult he lived at 370 Central Park West until January 1953, when he married JoAnn Beatrice (“Joey”) Schumacher (1928-1999).  They had met in 1949, the year she graduated from the University of Virginia.  She had been engaged to two of his friends, one of them (according to James Sadowsky) the philosopher Paul Edwards.  They set up home in a two-bedroom apart­ment overlooking 88th Street off Broadway, their living room window framed by a pediment atop the building’s entrance.  There they lived together for nearly forty-two years until his death; it remained her residence thereafter until her passing in 1999.

Rothbard happily attended Birch-Wathen, a private school founded by two women early in the 20th century.  In an effort to increase the ratio of boys to girls, the school offered a scholarship, and his winning one enabled him to attend.  Young Murray loved the daily singing of hymns in the chapel.  JoAnn believed he was a “ham” who “always went out for the class play,” kept score at games, and played a musical instrument or two.  Ronald Hamowy, who lived on Cen­tral Park West at the time, says Rothbard went to junior high school with George Reisman, through whom Hamowy met the Rothbards.

Rothbard entered Columbia University in the Fall of 1942, age 16, graduating in 1945, and then receiving his M.A. degree a year later, just as his former fellow undergraduates were receiving their bachelor’s degrees.   They were all “4-F,” however, which exempted them from the draft during the Second World War.  Rothbard concentrated in mathematics during his undergraduate years, and apparently excelled in it enough to attract the attention of recruiters for the Manhattan Project.  It is not known whether that effort led to a job offer.

It was his passion for justice, however, not his mathematical talent that was going to center his life. David Rothbard’s anarcho-communist radicalism, which saturated the intellectual atmosphere Murray breathed for his first two decades, is his chief influence here.  His “vital interest in liberty began in childhood,” he recalled, and until his “twenties, it seemed to me that [his father] was the only other libertarian in the world” (The Ethics of Liberty [EL]).

Outside the Rothbard household, in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s America, there was little nourishment for young libertarian minds.  One turn­ing point for Murray was his reading of Frank Chodorov’s Taxation Is Robbery. This pamphlet, which had a “big impact” on him [George Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America [CIMA], 18), was published by Human Events in 1947. Murray had discovered Chodorov’s analysis the year before, and the pamphlet (originally en­titled Socialism via Taxation) appeared serially in its February, March, and April numbers. [A later version was published in Fugitive Essays: Selected Writings of Frank Chodorov, Char­les H. Hamilton, ed., Indianapolis, IN: Lib­erty Press, 1980, pp. 267-86.] Rothbard drank deeply not only from Chodorov’s literary springs, but also those of Albert Jay Nock and H. L. Mencken.  Leonard Liggio recalled that Rothbard especially liked Mencken’s The American Language and his attacks on Roosevelt, but there is no evidence he approved of Mencken’s views on religion. Mencken was the subject of Rothbard’s first pub­lished essay (analysis, August 1949), a review of A Mencken Chrestomathy.

Soon thereafter Rothbard was given a pamphlet that George Stigler, one of his Columbia University professors, had written with Milton Friedman (of The University of Chicago) the effects of rent control. Rothbard tracked down its publisher, the Foundation for Economic Education (F.E.E.), and this led to his fateful introduction to the writings of Ludwig von Mises, especially Human Action. “To the present writer, who had the privilege of reading the book on publication [September 14, 1949], it was an achievement that changed the course of his life and ideas.”  (MNR, The Essential Ludwig von Mises, LvMI, n.d., p. 32) Soon after, Rothbard reviewed Human Ac­tion for analysis from F.E.E.’s limited-government perspective.  He wasn’t yet the anarchocapitalist he would be very soon thereafter.

Such delights were still purely extracurricular, however: inside academia there was precious little to encourage a student who dissented from the dogma of economic interventionism.  In all his years at Columbia, he knew of only one other Republican!  His dabbling in politics consisted of supporting Senator Harry Flood Byrd’s State’s Rights Party at Columbia University in 1948.  His inability to please (then-Professor, later Federal Reserve Chairman) Arthur Burns ground his academic pace virtually to a virtual halt.  It would be ten years from the awarding of his Masters degree before Columbia would grant him his doctorate.  Burns, who lived in the same building as Rothbard, had told Joseph Dorfman, Murray’s revered doctoral advisor, that “(Burns) expected much more from Rothbard.”  Calling on Murray one day, JoAnn found him sobbing at the doorstep to his building, devastated by what he had heard.

When in 1952 the William Volker Fund commissioned Rothbard to produce a textbook on Austrian economics, he put his dissertation aside to do so.  It was intended to be a popularization of Mises’ Human Action, but it grew to become Man, Economy and State, rivaling the earlier tome in sizeRothbard’s association with the Volker Fund, which paid him to seek out, evaluate, and assist libertarian scholars, lasted ten years.  [The several hundred book reviews he wrote for the Fund, each from one to fifteen pages of typescript, single-space, were surveyed by Sheldon Richman in Man, Economy, and Liberty [MEL] are archived at the Atlas Foundation.]  Some of these reviews found their way into National Review, Left and Right, and The Ethics of Liberty. 

JoAnn Rothbrad estimated that at his busiest, her husband earned about $6,000 a year from Fund.  The money paid for a decent standard of living, but the Fund’s practice of paying its writers by checks, which in those days might take up to two weeks to clear, was a source of anxiety.  The Fund “collapsed in 1962,” as Rothbard put it; Liggio says it fired its staff that year and, as a result, the “program imploded” and then hobbled along at a reduced level until, according to Margrit von Mises, it “went out of exis­tence in 1964.”

In 1961, the Volker Fund endowed the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS). The Fund effectively expired with its endowment (Sheldon Richman, MEL, 377, n. 5).  In 1962, the Fund fired its staff, including Kenneth S. Templeton, Jr., its liaison officer. This is the “collapse” Rothbard referred to.  It barely functioned at a severely reduced level until 1964. After Volker let Templeton go, he became Vice President of Research for the Indianapolis-based Lily Endowment.  Templeton approached his consultant, Leonard Liggio, with the idea of a one-volume history of the United States, the project that eventually became a five-volume Conceived in Liberty (four of which were published, the text of the last is still imprisoned in the memory of a recording device that no one has yet figured out how to play back). Templeton asked Liggio to read every relevant scholarly journal article in the preceding ten or so years to assess the state of contemporary scholarship on the subject.  Although without formal training in American history, Rothbard was to be the principal author. (JoAnn said thought this division of labor was ill-advised.) Once immersed in the material, Murray became fascinated with the many stories he discovered.  

Rothbard and Liggio were constrained by the limits of a two-year grant.  Liggio wanted to focus on the struggle against mercantilism.  Rothbard’s scope was more broadly libertarian: he wanted to leave no story out of the picture if it advanced his pedagogical aim.  This difference of emphasis would bog both authors down.   Liggio left the project after the narrative reached the 1760’s.  Murray agreed with Liggio that the latter's s name should have appeared with his on the second volume.  It didn’t, however, because while Rothbard was in California, Arlington House (the project’s publisher) assigned the project to a new editor who apparently was not aware of this agreement.

Georgetown University student Leonard Liggio had come into Rothbard’s life in the spring of 1953, having read Human Action the previous summer at Ralph Raico’s suggestion.  Liggio had taken the last class given by Father John Toohey, SJ, the author of the privately published Notes on Epistemology that Rothbard admired and cited in several of his writings, including in The Ethics of Liberty.  Liggio says Roth­bard was “well versed” in the humanities through  a course entitled “Contemporary Western Civilization,” Columbia University’s counterpart to Chicago’s “Great Books” program.

*     *     *

It is another blot on American academia [Rothbard recalled in his tribute to his mentor, Ludwig von Mises] that I had gone through all the doctoral courses at Columbia University without once discovering that there was such a thing as an Austrian school, let alone that Ludwig von Mises was its foremost living champion.  I was scarcely familiar with Mises’s name . . ., and was therefore surprised to learn in the spring of 1949 that Mises was going to begin a regular seminar at NYU I was also told that Mises was going to publish a magnum opus in the fall.  “Oh,” I asked, “what’s the book about?”  “About everything,” they replied. [MNR, The Essential Ludwig von Mises, LvMI, n.d., p. 65].

Rothbard wrote that he “was privileged to join the Mises seminar in its first session in 1949.”  (MNR, The Essential Ludwig von Mises, p. 62).  Margrit von Mises remembers him as perhaps the “best known of all of Lu’s American students today . . . . He came to the seminar in 1949 and became one of the most devoted and able advocates of Lu’s teaching.  Lu may not have agreed with all of Rothbard’s views, but he always considered Rothbard to be one of his most gifted students” (My Years with Ludwig von Mises, p. 136).  Whereas she says that the seminar began in 1948 and that Rothbard joined it in 1949, he remembers having heard in the spring of 1949 that there was “going to be” a seminar later that year, and that he was to “join” it “in its first session in 1949.” Given the reliability of the two sources, it is hard to explain this discrepancy.  [According to Guido Hülsmann, Mises' biographer, the seminar began in 1945.  Perhaps Rothbard had in mind a seminar on Human Action, which was published in 1949.--Anthony Flood, July 1, 2008]

“Those of us who came to know Mises in his NYU period,” Rothbard recalled, “never once heard a word of bit­terness or re­sentment pass from his lips” (Ibid., p. 39).  “Mises did his best to replicate the conditions of his great Vienna Privatseminar, including repairing after the end of the formal session at 9:30 p.m. to Childs Restaurant to continue informal and animated discussions” (MNR, The Essential Ludwig von Mises, p. 63).  This eatery was a few blocks from City Hall, not far Trinity Place, where the seminar was held in an old building whose elevators reminded him of “crematoria.”  When Murray found that the material was becoming repetitive, he attended the seminars less regularly.

Mises scholar Bettina Bien Greaves recalls that, unlike the Vienna seminar, its NYU counterpart was conducted after, not before, dinner from 7:25 to 9:25 p.m. every Thursday.  The half-dozen or so students who would gather afterward for conversation would therefore order little more than coffee and cake. (Leonard Liggio, for example, remembers snacks at the Lafayette Café on 8th Street and University Place.)  Mrs. Greaves first heard Mises speak during the summer of 1951 at a seminar sponsored by The Freeman on Washington Square.  This led to her registering for and attending the NYU seminar that fall.  She took shorthand notes of the lectures, at first struggling to penetrate Mises’ Aus­trian accent.  She recalls the seminar format as being essentially a lecture before an average of 20 students.  Several of these were from university's graduate school who took the seminar for credit.  The experience of hearing Mises lecture, however, would convert some of them to free market economics.  (There were, of course, some who showed up only for the first and last sessions, the only times Mises took attendance.)

Rothbard and his friends would, of course, be already philosophically “on board,” and his brilliant contributions to the evening’s discussion, notably his reports on various economic topics, were virtually a staple of seminar while he attended.  (Greaves has kept copies of many of those reports.)   Mises couldn’t understand how such a brilliant thinker as Rothbard could be an anarchist, Greaves recalls, since a system of cooperation, to be viable, must have a way of dealing with non-cooperators. (Rothbard agreed, of course.  He just did not be­lieve that doing so required one to make an exception to the nonaggression axiom, which acceptance of a state apparatus commits one to making, in his view.) Mises also didn’t believe in natural rights, as did Rothbard, but believed that governments ought to treat citizens as if they had such rights.  (One may ask why.)  

Mises also disagreed with Rothbard’s judgment that monopoly profits were no different from entrepreneurial profits, insisting that even if the difference between the two was not empirically detectable, at least we ought to distinguish theoretically between (a) the profits that accrue to one who is the only seller in a given area and who could therefore withhold part of his supply from the market and charge higher prices for the rest; and (b) the profits that accrue to one who charges as much as possible for a product that the market is currently undervaluing.

*     *     *

Criticism of the “Imperial Presidency” didn’t begin with Watergate.  When Rothbard “read in the New York Times that [Senator Joseph] McCarthy was destroying the morale of the executive branch, he was delighted.” [Nash’s interview with Rothbard, March 23, 1972, in CIMA]  Since that branch had long ago over­stepped its Constitutional limits, it had no right to any morale.

Around 1954-55, Rothbard took an interest in the Congress for Freedom, the creation of Robert Lefevre and Thaddeus Ashby (editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette & Telegraph and Faith and Freedom). William F. Buckley’s new National Review, however, survived this dark period of the American Right, but not before jettisoning individualists like Rothbard whose detested the warfare state as much, if not more, than the welfare state.  He no doubt had the National Review crowd in mind when he wrote about the American Right in 1968:

Something has gone wrong: the right wing has been captured by elitists and devotees of the European conservative ideals of order and militarism, by witch hunters and global crusaders, by statists who wish to coerce “morality” and suppress “sedition.” (“Confes-sions of a Right-wing Liberal,” Ramparts, p. XX)

“For the first few years of its existence,” Rothbard wrote in the famous Ramparts article, “I moved in National Review circles, attended its editorial luncheons, wrote articles and book reviews for the magazine; indeed, there was talk at one time of my joining the staff as an economics columnist.” (“Confession,” Ramparts, p. 51)  He met Neil McCaffrey “in the late fifties, under the auspices of Na­tional Review. . . . [Rothbard] was one of [Frank Meyer’s] pet reviewers on economics” (MEL 395). Although Rothbard and McCaffrey’s friendship was strained by their differences over the Cold War, it was salvaged their love of ‘20’s and ‘30’s jazz, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 permitted them to enjoy a period of renewed closeness before they died within a month of each other five years later.

While Meyer had worked with Rothbard for Volker Fund, his Cold War-related allegiances motivated him to smear libertarians, notably Rothbard, as naïve about Communism.  Meyer also attacked Rothbard implicitly in “The Twisted Tree of Liberty,” National Review, Jan. 16, ’62. Rothbard in turn assessed Meyer as a libertarian “manque.” [MNR, “Frank S. Meyer: The Fusionist as Libertarian Manque,” The Modern Age, 25, Fall 1981; reprinted in Freedom and Virtue: the Conservative/Libertarian Debate, George W. Carey, ed., Landham, MD: University Press of America, 1984.]

Throughout Rothbard’s adult life, the Cold War (1945-89) dominated his strategic thinking.  Whatever other foolishness or mayhem the State is guilty of, it pales in comparison with nuclear war. Nuclear weapons, he wrote, “are ipso facto engines of indiscriminate mass destruction.  (The only excep­tion would be the extremely rare case where a mass of people who were all criminals inhabited a vast geographical area.) . . . [T]he use of nuclear or similar weapons, or the threat thereof, is a crime against humanity for which there can be no justification.” (EL, 191)  Thus the Rothbardian precept that the prime directive of libertarians is, as it were, to pressure “their own” State to confine as much as possible its aggression “to the area which it monopolizes, and not to aggress against other State-monopolists—particularly the people ruled by other States.” (EL, 193)

For just as murder is a more heinous crime against another man than larceny, so mass murder—indeed murder so widespread as to threaten human civilization and human survival itself—is the worst crime that any man could possibly commit. . . . Or are libertarians going to wax properly indignant about price controls or the income tax, and yet shrug their shoulders at or even positively ad­vocate the ultimate crime of mass murder? (EL, 191)

According to George Nash, tensions between pro- and anti-cold War fac­tions on the American Right

burst forth in 1954 and 1955 in a series of po­lemics in the conser­vative press.  In Faith and Freedom, Rothbard debated William Henry Chamberlin and William Schlamm, a former advisor to Henry Luce . . . . the United States had not been attacked, said Rothbard. . . . Later, writing in the New Leader, Chamberlin charac­terized as “appeasement” Rothbard’s suggestion that the United States trade with the Communists and abandon all its foreign bases . . . . (Nash, CIMA, pp. 125-26; see notes for original references.)

“Four factors account for this remarkable development,” i.e, the transition to the conservative movement’s Cold War interventionism, in Nash’s opinion.

First, as Rothbard has noted, the hard-core “isolationist” Old Right was weakened by attrition in the 1950s. Senator Taft died in 1953; the anti-imperialist journalist Garet Garrett (one of Roth­bard’s heroes) died a year later; Frank Chodorov suffered a paralyzing stroke in the late 1950s.  Leonard Read and his colleagues at F.E.E., after venturing into the Korean War debate, withdrew, Rothbard said, into their more conventional, non­political activities. Rothbard himself drifted away.  After supporting Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois for president in 1952 (he considered Senator Taft a com­promising “Socialist sellout”), Rothbard left the Republican Party when Eisenhower “stole” the nomination from Taft.  In the mid-1950s, despite his debates on foreign policy, he exerted no significant influence on the Right. (Nash, CIMA, pp. 126-27.)

Given the relatively minuscule size of the American Right in those days, it is not clear what sense to assign the notion of “exerting significant influence on the Right” and hence to Rothbard’s inability to exert any.  In 1958, his letter defending Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged appears in Na­tional Review [5 (Jan. 25, 1958), p. 95].  Was his brief association with Objectivists an expression of the “drifting away” Nash referred to?  [Rothbard’s gravitation, and later revulsion, toward Ayn Rand; Branden’s subsequent charge of “plagiarism” against Rothbard’s “The Mantle of Science”; the documented refutation of the charge as recounted in “My Break with Brandon and the Rand Cult” (Liberty, September 1989) and his later “Analysis of the Ayn Rand Cult.”]

*     *     *

In 1956, his the dissertation was finally accepted and was published six years later with the title, The Panic of 1819: Reactions and Policies. Ronald Hamo-wy called him from C.C.N.Y. to congratulate him.

In the mid-‘fifties Rothbard used the pen name “Aubrey Herbert.” [In 1958?] George Resch learned of this when he asked Dr. F. A. “Baldy” Harper to introduce him to Rothbard and Aubrey Herbert.  A liaison officer from F.E.E. [Templeton?] had invited Resch in 1959 to attend summer conference on monop­oly theory.  Resch did what many of Rothbard’s admiring readers had done and would do through his life: look up his published number and call him “out of the blue.”  As a typical of his generous nature, Rothbard had heard of Resch’s interest and sent him a nine-page letter on the conference topic.

In 1959, Resch contacted Ralph Raico, who had heard of Resch through Rothbard and Dr. Harper. They attended a Conference on Freedom and Com­petitive Enterprise at Claremont Men's College in California. Raico once light-heartedly referred to Resch as “a crazy guy” who want to know “What does Murray think?” Resch thinks that on this basis he is entitled to be known as the “first Rothbardian.” Resch had arranged to take a six-month private tutorial with Rothbard after February 1950 when Resch would have been finished with graduate work.

After a conference in the summer of 1959(?), Resch spent a weekend in New York City.  Raico explained to Resch how to take the subway to his Bronx home.  After issuing some provisos, Raico called Rothbard on Resch’s behalf.  Rothbard asked, not entirely unexpectedly, “Why don’t you both come to Manhattan?”  Resch was struck first by Rothbard’s openness and then by his candor.  The talk lasted well into the night.  One of the topics was the father of modern revisionist historiography, Harry Elmer Barnes.  (Liggio recalls Rothbard’s critical reference to Barnes’ “control freak” persona.)  Raico recalls being at that apartment, per­haps also with Resch, to watch televised coverage of Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s visit to New York.  To the scandal of the American Right as defined by Buckley’s National Review, Rothbard’s “crowd” welcomed the reduction of international tensions that the visit represented.

A “few friends and I became Stevensonian Demo­crats in 1960” (Ramparts, p. 47), that is, supporters of Adlai Stevenson.  Consistent with Rothbard’s phi­losophy that the worse thing the State can do is to kill the people it is supposed to protect, let alone kill other innocent people as well, Rothbard supported the anti-war Reform Democrats despite their pro-welfare platform.  Rothbard was second to none in renouncing John F. Kennedy and all his works; thus his support for Stevenson in the primaries.  The thread running through all of Rothbard’s politics, captured pithily eight years later in that Ramparts essay, is that events pushed him left­ward without his moving an inch:

Twenty years ago I was an extreme right-wing Republican . . . . Today, I am most likely to be called an extreme leftist, since I favor immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, denounce U.S. imperialism, advocate Black power and have just joined the new Peace and Freedom Party.  And yet my basic political views have not changed by a single iota in these two decades! (“Confessions of a Right-wing Liberal,” Ramparts, p. 47)

In 1960, during spring break from classes at the University of Chicago, Fordham University history professor John McCarthy met Rothbard for the first time at a social gathering of rightists in Greenwich Village.  It was organized by Rosemary McGrath, the leader of the Young Americans for Freedom in New York City.  After a Clancy Brothers concert, McCarthy joined the get-together with his cousin.  He remembers Ralph Raico and Ronald Hamowy as well as National Review writer Noel E. Parmentel being among the party’s attendees. Rothbard, 34, impressed McCarthy as already an authoritative figure with well-formed opinions on “everything.”  McCarthy at the time considered himself a mainstream conservative, but in a few years he would be one of the student editors of The New Individualist Review, publishing five of Rothbard’s essays.  (McCarthy fondly remembers that the day he was awarded his Ph.D., Murray and Joey greeted him on the campus, holding aloft a sign with “Congratulations Dr. McCarthy!” emblazoned on it.)

For over two decades (1963-1985) Rothbard taught economics to engineering students at Polytechnic Institute of New York, not far from Borough Hall in Brooklyn.  Professor Helmut Guber, who chaired the Social Sciences Department as well as taught history there, offered Rothbard the job in the misguided hopes that he would attract grant money.  (Guber had been understandably impressed with Rothbard’s work for independent research tanks, but drew the wrong conclusions.)  From 1982, the Ludwig von Mises Institute, which he served as Vice President for Academic Affairs, provided him with many opportunities to mold the next gen­eration of free market economists, especially during its “Mises University” summer sessions on the campus of Auburn University.  The S. J. Hall distin­guished professorship of economics at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, however, was the long-overdue academic post that allowed him to engage young minds all year long.


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