Bryan Caplan  

Unstrategic Alliances

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Laugh if you must, but I've always enjoyed the Journal of Libertarian Studies. Last week, I came across another great read in a recent issue: John Payne's "Rothbard's Time on the Left." It's a fascinating account of Rothbard's "strategic alliance" with the radical left during the 60's, and though I've heard the whole story before, Payne's written a great short history of the affair.

It all started with Frank Meyer's editorial in National Review, which made it clear that isolationists like Rothbard were no longer welcome. Afterwards:

There was now no returning to the Right for Rothbard, at least for the foreseeable future... For the next five years, the war in Vietnam would only escalate, along with the National Review Right's bellicosity; the war ended any possibility of reconciliation between Rothbard and the mainstream right. The decision to reach out to a new audience was a clear one, but to whom, exactly, would he reach?

Rothbard found common ground with a small group of New Left historians on the issue of historical revisionism, and he sought to ally himself with them.

Predictably, this "alliance" didn't last. Payne puts the most favorably spin he can on it:

Politically, the 1960s were a roller coaster ride for everyone involved, and, everything considered, Rothbard's strategic alliance with the New Left fared relatively well. The alliance ultimately failed, but strategic alliances are, by definition, temporary.

Or as Pee-wee Herman says, "I meant to do that."

I had a very different reaction. Payne's article reminded me of my recurring thought as I read Rothbard's biography: "I can understand why two deeply incompatible movements would ally if one has 49% of the vote and the other has 2%. What I can't understand is why two deeply incompatible movements would ally if one has .01% of the vote and the other has .001%."

In other words, I can see why someone would sacrifice principle for political advantage, though I wouldn't do it myself. But I can't see why someone would sacrifice principle when - even after the sacrifice - he's still hopelessly outnumbered. (Think Rothbard didn't sacrifice principle as a result of his alliance? Check out his monstrous obituary for Che Guevara.)

But perhaps Rothbard's main goal wasn't to change policy, but to poach recruits from his allies? Payne suggests as much:

And certainly, the Radical Libertarian Alliance was a terrible flop, but it is equally certain that the libertarian movement as a whole ended the 1960s far larger than it was when the decade began. It is impossible to say exactly how large an impact the alliance had on the libertarian movement, but it certainly seems that a great many libertarians were culled and/or created from the ranks of SDS and unaffiliated Vietnam War protestors.

"A great many"? I seriously doubt it. Ayn Rand novels, not SDS rallies, were the fountainhead of libertarian converts. In any case, it's clear that the poaching went in both directions, so the net effect was even more dubious. The real story of Rothbard's alliance with the radical left - like practically all of his "strategic alliances" - is that he fell prey to a simple fallacy:

Something must be done.
This is something.
Therefore, this must be done.


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TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/558
The author at Asymmetrical Information in a related article titled Don't just do something! Stand there! writes:
    Bryan Caplan diagnoses the logical fallacy in Rothbard's decision to ally himself with the radical left. It sweetly sums up a wide swathe of inadvisable human action: Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, this must be done.... [Tracked on September 10, 2006 4:46 PM]
COMMENTS (6 to date)
Fabio Rojas writes:

Let me be a little sociological here - Rothbard probably viewed the New Left as a group of similar position as libertarians. Both are miniscule, intellectual marginal groups - especially in relation to bigger movements such as broader Left of 60s and the rising conservatives/Nixonites.

It's not a wide spread occurence, but you do see this "marginal marries marginal" phenomena in politics from time to time. For example, Pat Buchanan ran for president on the Reform ticket with radical leftist therapist Leonora Fulani as vice president. It was a loony team up.

So I would say there is a psychological and rational component to this phenomena. On the psychological front, I'd say "misery loves company." Rothbard probably enjoyed complaining with his New Left buddies.

On the economic front, there is usually some exchange going on. In the Buchanan/Fulani team up, Fulani had a lot of funds and Buchanan had more repsectability in mainstream politics. I'd guess that Rothbard maybe thought that he could reach a an audience of leftists he could convert. And even if libertarians are .001% and radical leftists are .1% - it's still .1/.001 - a 1000 fold increase in audience.

Alcibiades writes:

refreshing to see an even-handed approach to rothbard...

David writes:

A fundamental appeal of libertarianism is social isolationism. That is, it is a system in which a person is both pragmatically and morally justified -- no, not only justified but correct -- in ignoring the interests of other parties. Therefore, it is more natural to look for potential libertarians among those who oppose a foreign war than among those who support it.

The unnecessary paranoia on the right and the comically high hopes among leftists (many of whom still feel keen disappointment and bewilderment) show that it was common at the time to drastically overestimate the political coherence of the antiwar movement. Credit Rothbard with being one of the few to see the situation clearly and profit from it.

John Thacker writes:

Credit Rothbard? But doesn't his accomplishment pale in contrast to that of Milton Friedman and the other libertarian economists who got the draft abolished by working with the Nixons?

David writes:

He realized where the potential libertarians were, realized that they were part of a movement led and spoken for by the left, and he put himself in a position to speak to them. He did not make the mistake (as so many did) of believing that opposition to the war sprang out of leftist convictions or an embrace of hippie values. In fact, he realized that the opposite was true: the left's organized opposition to the war and other sins of the government established credibility and exposure for leftist ideologies, and libertarianism could benefit in the same way.

Barkley Rosser writes:

But, what I want to know is, did Rothbard
park a BMW illegally while praising Che?

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