A Biography of Murray Rothbard

0001_murray_rothbardDr. Murray N. Rothbard was an economist, historian, political theorist and from time to time a political activist. Dr. Rothbard spent most of his lifetime within a subway ride from his boyhood home in the Bronx, but as an intellectual traveler he seldom rested for long. In all matters Rothbard went where logic led, sometimes into the most sparsely populated of neighborhoods. Geometry had Euclid. Libertarianism had Murray Rothbard.

Dr. Murray Rothbard was primarily a libertarian author and a popularizer of free-market thinking as presented by the discipline of Austrian economics. Dr. Rothbard wrote 25 books, of which Man, Economy, and State was among the best received, being a kind of primer of Misesian thinking. In Power and Market, published in 1970, Rothbard explained how an economy would function with no government at work. Rothbard found common ground between the economics of the free market, which focused on economic efficiency, and the ethical absolutism and rejection of the state espoused by radical American individualists of the nineteenth century, most notably Lysander Spooner. “There is… a scientific explanation of the workings of the free market (and of the consequences of government intervention in that market) which individualist anarchists could easily incorporate…” Rothbard was instrumental, with Lew Rockwell, in setting up the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a free-market think tank that has assumed a preeminent position on the Internet.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Dr. Rothbard was active in the Libertarian Party. Within the party, he opposed the “low tax liberalism” of presidential candidate Ed Clark and Cato Institute president Edward H Crane III. Rothbard abandoned the Radical Caucus at the 1983 Libertarian convention and joined what he called the “rightwing populist” wing of the party, in which Rothbard included Lew Rockwell and Ron Paul. In 1989, Rothbard left the Libertarian Party and began describing himself as a “paleolibertarian.” At that point he saw the post-Cold War anti-interventionist right his natural allies. Rothbard’s minor career as a politician was unapologetically impolitic. He found no point in shading his views for public consumption.

Dr. Rothbard saw aggressive foreign policy and war in general through a free-market lens. Being government programs, such activities were inherently wasteful and destructive. Moreover, they were engines for the growth of state power. Rothbard criticized the government’s claim to monopoly power in issuing money as destructive and immoral. He characterized the Federal Reserve‘s issuance of fiat money as “legalized counterfeiting” and institutionalized embezzlement.

Background: Dr. Murray Rothbard received a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics and economics from Columbia University in 1945 and an M.A. degree the following year. Ten years later Rothbard received a Ph.D. in economics from the same institution. While studying at Columbia, Rothbard encountered Austrian economics serendipitously in the course of obtaining a pamphlet on rent control (written by George Stigler and Milton Friedman). The pamphlet was published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and it was through FEE that Rothbard met Ludwig von Mises. Human Action, Mises’ magnum opus, was published shortly after the two met. It was reading Human Action, with its rigorous defense of an unregulated free economy, that drew Rothbard to praxeology and Austrian economics. During the early 1950s, while still completing his Ph.D. work at Columbia, Rothbard attended von Mises’s seminars at New York University.

The methodology of Austrian economics is focused on axioms of human action. Dr. Rothbard argued that all of Austrian economic theory is logically implied by the fact that human action is purposeful. Having identified this axiom as both factually correct and logically sufficient for the conclusions of Austrian economic theory, Rothbard reasoned that every service – without exception – would be provided most efficiently by a free market. This left no place for government to provide any service whatsoever, not even public safety or military defense.

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