Murray Rothbard's America
Returning to the Ur-Text of Trumpism
When I was first trying to understand the Trump phenomenon in 2016-2017, I came across an old article from the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard in his Rothbard-Rockwell Report newsletter, entitled “Right-Wing Populism: A Strategy for the Paleo Movement.” Written in 1992 about the campaigns of David Duke and Pat Buchanan, I found it to be an uncanny prefiguration of Trump’s presidential run with its call for a charismatic, rousing right-wing presidential campaign to “short-circuit” the system:
The reality of the current system is that it constitutes an unholy alliance of "corporate liberal" Big Business and media elites, who, through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic Underclass, who, among them all, are looting and oppressing the bulk of the middle ;and working classes in America. Therefore, the 'proper strategy of libertarian and and paleos is the strategy of "right-wing populism," that is: to expose and denounce this unholy alliance, and to call for getting this preppie-underclass-liberal media alliance off the backs of the rest of us: the middle and working classes.
For Rothbard, the progenitor of this strategy was Joe McCarthy:
The fascinating, the exciting, thing about Joe McCarthy was precisely his 'means"-his right-wing populism: his willingness and ability to reach out, to shortcircuit the power elite: liberals, centrists, the media, the intellectuals, the Pentagon, Rockefeller Republicans, and reach out and whip up the masses directly. And that, above all, was what they hated. And that's why they had to destroy him, why of all the anti-Communists in the country, they had to make his name a dictionary term ('McCarthyism") for political evil.
If Rothbard sounds unusually class conscious for a libertarian, that’s partly because he lived for much of his life in left-wing milieux. He grew up in a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in the Bronx in the 1930s, with many Communist Party friends and family-member. In the 1960s, cast out from the conservative movement for his opposition to their hawkishness and accommodation to the administrative state, he attempted to ally himself with the New Left, sharing their anti-war and anti-establishment stands. He hosted salons at his Upper West Side apartment that brought young Maoists and Trotskyists together with figures from the isolationist Old Right. Suffice it to say, his dalliance with the New Left did not bear much fruit: Some of the younger libertarians he brought with him just became leftists, and Rothbard believed the New Left’s egalitarianism was misguided: as a radical capitalist, he believed that nature (or the market, which is really the same thing) chose “winners” and “losers.” But when he was brought on by the Kochs to write a strategy paper for their new Cato Institute, one of his primary referents was the tactics of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. (Along with Hitler and the Nazis.)
For most of his career, Rothbard was a marginal and eccentric person, pushed to very edges of American political life. He was more than a bit of a crackpot and curmudgeon, and his goal of destroying the state was seen as laughably utopian even by his fellow libertarians. He was even thrown out of the Cato Institute. Rothbard ended up his political career allied with the outsider paleoconservative faction of conservative movement and Pat Buchanan’s quixotic runs against the G.O.P. establishment, which I argue both prefigure the contemporary Republicans in important ways.
Just beneath the surface, Rothbard’s influence and his vision for the country are quite pervasive. Back when the media was very interested in what was then called the “alt-right,” just about every figure interviewed from that movement cited reading Rothbard and his close disciple Hans-Hermann Hoppe, author of Democracy: The God That Failed, as their starting point. Or else, they got their start with Ron Paul, for whom Rothbard was the major philosophical influence. Peter Thiel was invited by Hoppe to address a conference along with figures from the White Nationalist world. And Thiel’s crony and court philosopher Curtis Yarvin has said, “My ideas really came from reading the Austrian School, Mises and Rothbard, and then Hoppe — Hoppe owned a kind of door to the prerevolutionary world for me.”
Even in places where is influence is less directly talked about, Rothbard seems to have anticipated major cultural shifts. When you read Rothbard’s views on the federal reserve, he sounds like a proto-cryptocurrency dude. As Melinda Cooper writes:
From legal tender laws to paper money and fractional reserve bank- ing, Rothbard perceives any departure from the pure gold standard as a descent into fraudulence and legalized counterfeiting (1963: 64–81; 1994a: 27). But his paranoia is extreme when it comes to central banking, an institution, he is convinced, that was created with the sole aim of inflating the money supply and defrauding producers and savers of their hard-earned wealth. In his voluminous writings on money and banking, Rothbard imbues the Federal Reserve with all the malign powers of action-at-a-distance that far-right conspiracy theorists more often ascribe to international financiers and the Jews.
Of course, the great puzzle here is how you get from the absolutist libertarianism of Rothbard to the preference for highly authoritarian solutions. It reminds one of Shigalyev, the revolutionary theorist in Dostoevsky’s Demons, who says, “My conclusion stands in direct contradiction to the idea from which I started. Proceeding from unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism.” There are many conceptual avenues for how you get from libertarianism to authoritarianism, centered on the absolute centrality of property-ownership, the ontological division of humanity into “producers” and “parasites,” and the Calhounian celebration of local autonomy and a “liberty” consisting in the master class’s absolute rule over their plantations, but it might be more instructive to take a look at the thought-processes of his admirers rather than try to figure it all out a priori. Here is Chris Cantwell, who became infamous as the “crying Nazi” around the time of Charlotesville:
In libertarian philosophy, nobody ought to be compelled to associate with anyone else. People should be free to exercise complete control over their own person and property. If blacks are committing crimes, or Jews are spreading communism, discriminating against them is the right of any property owner. The fact that he may or may not miss out on good blacks or Jews is a risk he takes, and the merit of his decisions will be proven out by the market. Since a libertarian society would permit this, it seemed foolish that I should be compelled to support a democratic government policy which did not.
Here is Curis Yarvin, talking about how Hoppe and Rothbard brought him to monarchism:
I think it is natural to look at a hypertrophied, dysfunctional regime and say: there should be less of that. There should be less of the State. To any engineer, spontaneous orders are elegant and seem to work well; competition works well, bureaucracy doesn’t. Easy to start with that.
Then Hoppe points out: we can see the premodern international order as a spontaneous order! It’s actually the ultimate in libertarianism: states are competing sovereign corporations. Above them, there is no government at all — a global anarcho-libertarian paradise of armed ‘sovcorps’.
Yet strangely, in this ultra-libertarian model, states are not libertarian at all! A nation is a land and its settled people. The sovcorp owns both — because who else would? So the state, not as in Anglo-American limited-government theory, but as in Continental sovereignty theory, is absolute. Or rather, any explanation of why it need not be absolute is superfluous — a wart on the model.
Hoppe goes on to point that a hereditary monarchy in the classic European style, far from being a barbaric relic, is simply a sovcorp that’s a family business. Because the time horizon of a family is indefinite, like the time horizon of a state, the hereditary monarch exhibits the least tension between personal and national interests.
An absolute hereditary monarch has no interest in employing a dysfunctional bureaucracy. Since he wants to see his nation thrive, he is more likely to adopt the economic and social system that seems to make nations thrive: libertarian capitalism. So we come full circle, in a kind of layer-cake of libertarianism, then absolute monarchy, then more libertarianism.
So Hoppean theory created a strange kind of bridge between the Anglo-American tradition of political philosophy, which has conquered the world not entirely by force of ideas, and the older Continental or Machiavellian tradition. Wow! And I walked across the bridge.
Some of that is certainly just gobbledygook, but this upshot of viewing the world as a sequence of family businesses is interesting to consider when thinking about the class composition of the Trump coalition Melinda Cooper and I both have written about. This is just sort of the extreme and Dada-Futurist edge of family firm ideology, what I have elsewhere called “bossism.” (In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis-Napoleon, Marx famously lampoons bourgeois revolutionaries dressing up in the costume of French Revolution and the Roman Republic, and so likewise we can see here bourgeois reactionaries dressing up in the costume of the ancien regime.)
Hoppe’s “anarcho-capitalist” anti-democracy treatise imagines the world as divided into “covenant communities”, armed, statelet, basically sovereign gated- neighborhoods. The masters of these covenants would have absolute control over who gets to live there, and this “libetarianism” sounds very authoritarian indeed:
As soon as mature members of society habitually express acceptance or even advocate egalitarian sentiments, whether in the form of democracy (majority rule) or of communism, it becomes essential that other members, and in particular the natural social elites, be prepared to act decisively and, in the case of continued nonconformity, exclude and ultimately expel these members from society. In a covenant concluded among proprietor and community tenants for the purpose of protecting their private property, no such thing as a right to free (unlimited) speech exists, not even to unlimited speech on one's own tenant-property. One may say innumerable things and promote almost any idea under the sun, but naturally no one is permitted to advocate ideas contrary to the very purpose of the covenant of preserving and protecting private property, such as democracy and communism. There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society. Likewise, in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there·can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They-the advocates of alternative, non-family and kin-centered lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism-will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.
Hoppe’s division of humanity gets even more aggressive than this, going from sounding authoritarian to downright Nazi:
A member of the human race who is completely incapable of understanding the higher productivity of labor performed under a division of labor based on private property is not properly speaking a person, but falls instead in the same moral category as an animal — of either the harmless sort (to be domesticated and employed as a producer or consumer good, or to be enjoyed as a “free good”) or the wild and dangerous one (to be fought as a pest).”
In her essay on Rothbard and the alt-right, Cooper makes a very subtle and I think crucial observation: “Although he is otherwise indebted to Locke’s philosophy of natural rights, Rothbard refutes the social contractarian theory of the state out of hand: there was no peaceable transition from the world of primitive exchange to the modern fiscal state, he claims, only a primal act of dispossession that was subsequently repeated over and over again (Rothbard, 2006 : 78).” So in Rothbard’s view, there is no transition from the state of nature into civil society; we remain forever in a Darwinian world. As we see with the rise of mass shootings, the state of nature we are tending toward with corrosion of democratic government is not a Lockean one, but a Hobbesian one, a war of all against all, but this time armed with automatic rifles, punctuated with mini-Leviathans in the form of hyper-armed localities.
Throughout his strange and marginal career, Rothbard pushed for the destruction of the United States (he always preferred the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution) and its replacement with a Balkanized, “anarcho-capitalist” patchwork, ultimately based on an economic model of atomized, self-seeking individuals. It seemed like a farfetched and even insane idea, but now it looks like one plausible end-point of our current trajectory: right-wing populist demagoguery, business dynasties with growing political control, neo-McCarthyite purges of teachers and academics, the country divided starkly into regions, states and localities each with their own legal regimes, the police “unleashed” and licensed to deal out summary punishment, the countryside dotted with heavily fortified communities, and individuals and their families armed to the teeth. More and more each day, we seem to be living in Murray Rothbard’s America.