Bryan Caplan  

EconLog Book Club: For a New Liberty, Chapter 1

The Best Policy Regarding Bank... Block Owes Me a Buck...

Here's my plan: I'll lead off each discussion of Murray Rothbard's For a New Liberty with (a) a brief summary of the chapter of the week, and (b) some critical comments.  But this is your book club, so in the comments feel free to not only to discuss my summary and critique, but any thoughts you had on the chapter at hand.

Since this book appeared in 1978, it's hardly surprising that Rothbard tries to pull readers in by discussing the recent electoral success of the Libertarian Party.  But this is only a hook - before you know it, he's giving you a quick libertarian revisionist history of the United States:

How, then, explain the amazing growth of a new party which is frankly and eagerly devoted to ideology?

One explanation is that Americans were not always pragmatic and nonideological. On the contrary, historians now realize that the American Revolution itself was not only ideological but also the result of devotion to the creed and the institutions of libertarianism.
The next several pages cover America's colonial and revolutionary history.  Rothbard defends the view that has since become standard in libertarian circles: The American revolutionaries subscribed to an explicitly libertarian political philosophy of "life, liberty, and property," which in turn led them to radical anti-government views:
Thus, the well-known theme of "separation of Church and State" was but one of many interrelated motifs that could be summed up as "separation of the economy from the State," "separation of speech and press from the State," "separation of land from the State," "separation of war and military affairs from the State," indeed, the separation of the State from virtually everything.
The subtext, of course, is that libertarians are the rightful modern spokesmen for the Founders, and that modern American political thought has betrayed its noble origins.  Rothbard then recounts the story of the Fall - how the American libertarian experiment failed to endure despite its intrinsic merit:

Slavery, the grave antilibertarian flaw in the libertarianism of the Democratic program, had arisen to wreck the party and its libertarianism completely.
The compromise with slavery leads to the Civil War, which soon redefines the political landscape.  The statist Republicans become the new agenda setters, and socialism becomes the voice of radical opposition to the status quo.  The decaying libertarian intellectual movement falls into moderation, gradualism, and utilitarianism, and loses its practical and intellectual influence.  But now it's back from the dead, and ready to get America and the world back on track:
We have seen why libertarianism would naturally arise first and most fully in the United States, a land steeped in libertarian tradition. But we have not yet examined the question: Why the renaissance of libertarianism at all within the last few years? What contemporary conditions have led to this surprising development? We must postpone answering this question until the end of the book, until we first examine what the libertarian creed is, and how that creed can be applied to solve the leading problem areas in our society.
Critical Comments
It's easy to see why libertarians love this kind of history.  "We're not pushing some weird new idea.  We just want to fulfill the promise of the American Revolution."  And when you read the writings and speeches of the era, they sure sound a lot more like modern libertarianism than they sound like modern liberalism or conservatism. 

My concern is that this affinity is mostly rhetorical.  Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson give rousing speeches on behalf of human liberty.  But slavery wasn't just a "grave antilibertarian flaw"; it made the whole Revolution absurd.  Of course, every revolutionary didn't own slaves; but even to make common cause with the slaveholding philosophers of freedom to fight against minor British taxes is a libertarian travesty.

The consequences of the Revolution were as flawed as its origins.  In practical terms, its main effect was to open up Indian lands to colonial genocide.  A nationalist might manage to awkwardly applaud despite the ugly facts; but a libertarian?

Still, if Rothbard's only point is that 18th-century political thought discovered many important truths, and modern libertarianism revives and refines these truths, I'm on board.  But don't expect me to cheer for the likes of "libertarian" Andrew Jackson, architect of the Trail of Tears.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (33 to date)
Blackadder writes:

It seems to me that Rothbard vastly overstates the libertarian nature of the American Revolutionaries and the American Founding Fathers. No doubt they believed in a more limited role for government than many people today, but by that standard George III was a libertarian too. You can see the cracks beginning to shine through Rothbard's veneer when he is forced to exclude first the Federalists and then the Jeffersonian Democrats (once they gained power) from the realm of libertarianism. He also tries to gloss over some of the unlibertarian aspects of early American politics (i.e. protectionism, established churches, anti-sodomy laws, etc).

Jeff H. writes:

Forget about empty rhetoric and self-interested motives for a moment--did not the Founding Fathers achieve a system of government based on relatively liberal principles? And did that system not become a template for the liberalization of other governments? Was the "main effect" of the Revolution really just the genocide of Indians?

Jacob Miller writes:

I enjoy this chapter more than any other of this book. There are so many cogent stand-alone paragraphs that make it so compelling.

Wasn't the American Revolution the most radical libertarian idea that any government had tried for thousands of years? I would cut them a little more slack.

Renato Drumond writes:

Even the rethoric is problematic. Let's see, for example, the Declaration of Independence, a 'radical' text, which says that:

"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

The Founding Fathers were gradualists, contrary to Rothbard's characterization.

Or consider the 'radical' Thomas Paine, aways misquoted by libertarians, who proposed on his Book 'Rights of Man':

"First, Abolition of two millions poor-rates.

Secondly, Provision for two hundred and fifty thousand poor families.

Thirdly, Education for one million and thirty thousand children.

Fourthly, Comfortable provision for one hundred and forty thousand aged persons.

Fifthly, Donation of twenty shillings each for fifty thousand births.

Sixthly, Donation of twenty shillings each for twenty thousand marriages.

Seventhly, Allowance of twenty thousand pounds for the funeral expenses of persons travelling for work, and dying at a distance from their friends.

Eighthly, Employment, at all times, for the casual poor in the cities of London and Westminster."

And if you read some of Jefferson letters, you see that he was worried, for example, about the political instability caused by 'extreme' inequality of wealth, a central theme of modern liberalism.

The Founding Fathers wre much more ideologically complex than some famous quotes seems to sugest.

Finally, when Rothbard tries to equate the Radicals with laissez-faire movement, it's simply inaccurate. Radicalism was better understood as a movement toward more democracy, not necessarily more economic freedom( as you can see here ). The Utilitarians that Rothbard latter criticized were the most known names of Radicalism.

Bill R writes:

"A nationalist might manage to awkwardly applaud despite the ugly facts; but a libertarian?" Compared to what?? Most likely the British Empire would have continued to conscript us into its other imperialist wars. And I wonder if a more powerful Empire wouldn't have eventually scrapped the Proclamation of 1763 anyway. I also think we'd be more likely to war against other empires on the Crown's behalf.

Also slavery wasn't going anywhere soon so the choice wasn't emancipation vs lower taxes. It was the status quo vs lower taxes and avoidance of further oppression.

But yeah overall I think Rothbard found the whole enterprise a failure. That's probably an empirical reason why Rothbard turned against a Misesian limited state and became an anarchist.

Arare Litus writes:

I typically discount opening chapters, as they are prone to hyperbole and feel good-ism and are not reflective of the meat inside. However, despite the strained argument of a glorious past that we can and must reclaim (isn’t this “great past” a conservative viewpoint?) I was pretty impressed. I did not know the origin of “left-“ and “right-wing”, and I found tidbits and points scattered throughout this intro chapter that got me thinking and wanting more. A lot of comments were from a different enough perspective to reinforce ideas I had, or challenge assumptions and promote thought. The description of the government as a cartel enmeshing business reminded me of American dismissal of Japan for this very reason, but the difference is only a matter of degree and not kind. It got me thinking: is it even possible to have a stable cartel without the government backing it? The exchange of status and treasure with “elites” for legitimacy. The danger of conceptual frameworks (social Darwinism, utility) in blinding one to reality (libertarianism? The stylized history presented here, and apparent acceptance of “punctuational change” theory of evolution directly after discounting acceptance of evolutionary mechanisms with little support other than bias/assumption supplied). The clear identification of our celebrated “mixed market” (new corporatist statism) as essentially a gang with their fingers in every pie.

scott clark writes:

Um, I wouldn't cut them anymore slack. If Rothbard can postulate that conservatives changed their rhetoric to remain the aristocracy in charge, then it seems equally as plausible that some amount of libertarian rhetoric was posturing on the part of the early American statesmen. The Louisiana Purchase, slavery, indian genocide are pretty compelling reasons to believe their libertarianism only went so far. They may have only believed that there were things that the gov't should not be doing so as the govt would have more resources to do other non-libertarian misdeeds. I think the chapter is a well crafted for its purpose, but there is a bit too much jumping about in the centuries, a little too much use of the shoehorn to make the facts tell Rothbard's story, so that you can't say this makes it an open and shut case in favor of Rothbard's interpretation.

cvd writes:

So can we count Professor Caplan among the Monarchists/Reactionaries?

I don't see who, besides us, could make the same critiques of Rothbard.

Bill R writes:

"The Founding Fathers were gradualists, contrary to Rothbard's characterization."

The Declaration was ultimately a propaganda statement...keep in mind that the Founders were courting the aid of the French Monarchy. To suggest all monarchies everywhere were to be abolished wouldn't have served their radical immediate end. In the conclusion of FNL Rothbard makes one of the most interesting points on strategy and "division" between gradualism and radicalism. He addresses this at the end of FNL but his quote of William Lloyd Garrison is better in Ethics of Liberty:

As Garrison carefully distinguished: “Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may, it will, alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be, we shall always contend.” Otherwise, as Garrison trenchantly warned, “Gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice.”

He bridges the concepts pretty well... I don't know think we want to get into the efficacy of his strategic insights at this point..that's the entire last chapter. To the general point: Rothbard didn't see a distinction gradualist programs toward radical ends. He continued to be involved in politics as a means but always toward anarchy as the end.

Unit writes:

Slightly off topic: this was the first time with Rothbard for me and I have to say his writing doesn't do it for me. Too "written as spoken" somehow. Caveat: I'm looking at the 1973 edition.

Franklin Harris writes:

The problem I've always had with Rothbard's account of the Revolutionary War is how unrevolutionary the war actually was. The Founding Fathers may have adopted the more absolutist rights language of Locke, but they saw themselves mostly as standing up for their rights as Englishmen, which they enjoyed under English common law until the Crown and Parliament started infringing those rights.

They didn't abolish their state and local governments; indeed, it was the states, through their designates, which decided to secede from the British Empire. They didn't seek to remake civil society, as the French and Russian revolutions did (which is why those revolutions failed and led to even greater tyranny).

Rothbard seems to understand this later, when he attempts to defend the South's secession from the Union and draws parallels between the Confederacy and the Thirteen Colonies, but he doesn't note the ramifications of this for his theory of the Revolutionary War -- i.e., it means the Revolution was, like the Confederacy, conservative, in the most basic sense of that term. The radical ideas of "life, liberty, and property" were already part of the common law tradition, albeit in a much less rigorous sense, by 1776.

Blackadder writes:

One other point. I found it interesting that Rothbard took pains to describe libertarian as a left-wing, progressive, radical movement, and to describe modern liberalism as conservative. It's clear that the intended audience for the book wasn't a bunch of Republicans.

David writes:

I found it odd that Rothbard would include the loss of a state's rights to secede in his long list of libertarian things lost after the Revolution AND fail to mention that his "libertarian" hero Andrew Jackson opposed Calhoun over that very issue--Jackson opposed a state's right to secede, did he not?

David writes:

Here's a link to Jackson's Proclamation regarding Nullification:

Zac Gochenour writes:

It always confuses me how psyched Rothbard was about the Libertarian Party. But, I was ultimately confused and alienated by his stance on immigration, so maybe there's just something about Rothbard I don't get.

Historical Context writes:

To Blackadder's observation - there is a political reason for the libertarian description. At the time of the writting of this book a group of libertarians (of which Rothbard was a member) were attempting to align their movement with the "New Left". During the late 60's and early 70's the "New Left's" rheotoric sound similar to the Libertarians. There were some in the Libertarian movement who thought there was some common ground that could be used to build a larger movement around Libertarian principles. It was only later that the Libertarians understood was that the only thing they had in common was a dislike for the current political government. However their desired ends where diametrically opposed. Ultimately the Libertians realzied that they was no common ground with the "New Left" and abandoned any further efforts in this area. If you are interested in a review of the recent history of the Libertarian movement in the US you may want to read - "Radicals for Capitalism".

Hume writes:

It would be worth reading the founding state constitutions to get a better idea of the nature of the revolutionary ideology. Many of these documents explicitly declared that it was the State's duty to protect the "morality" of the people, as well as religious oath requirements to serve in government. Perhaps these men were opposed to a powerful centralized federal government, but they (like most statists) were quick to defend their own territorial authority.

Jim Chappelow writes:

I think Rothbard glosses over too many of the anti-liberty elements of Revolutionary sentiments and policies, many of which have already been mentioned. It is apparent that he is trying to appeal to modern liberals by portraying the Founders, and by implication libertarians, as denizens of the left. This goal goes a long way toward explaining his glossing over of the Founders leaks, because most of their deviations from libertarinaism are toward the right, e.g. slavery, state churches, subjugation of the natives.

Given that he wrote this while Nixon was in power and the Vietnam War was dragging on, it's not suprising that he takes this tack in appealing to the left. It seems to be natural for libertarians to appeal to whoever is not in power at the time as those who are typically quickly abandon liberty (in practice if not always in their rhetoric).

ian dunois writes:

I think the use of Jackson was for his image as the President who shut the central bank at the time. Something much like the Acton Institute's use of Lincoln as a proponent of freedom in their movie the Birth of Freedom. If the audience likes something, you use it to your advantage. Did Rothbard's audience know Jackson as the President who opposed the central banking system? I have no clue.

For a brief history of libertarian thought, I found the first chapter rather weak. Definitely not the highlight of his work for me.

Bill R writes:

I'm sure Rothbard goes into quite the detail these 4 Volumes.

"Writing in the 1960s and 70s, Rothbard proposes that it is the struggle for human liberty that is at the heart of the history of the United States.

In this detailed narrative history (1,668 pages) of the struggle between liberty and political power, Rothbard offers an alternative to the two conventional interpretive devices. Against those on the right who see the American Revolution as a "conservative" event, and those on the left who want to invoke it as some sort of proto-socialist uprising, Rothbard views this period as a time of accelerating libertarian radicalism."

Thats the thing about Rothbard he makes unpopular arguments but man does he back them up. 4 volumes!

Zac writes:

Really, this whole chapter revolves around the sentence: "There is far more fertile soil in this country than in any other for a resurgence of libertarianism." Is this true, though? Way back when I really agreed, and was heavily involved in activism. If you believe this, then a lot of what Rothbard did - Libertarian Party activism, embracing gradualism - makes sense. If you don't believe this, it makes a lot less sense. Is there more fertile soil anywhere in the world? Is a small society or city-state more appropriate, because in theory those governments should have more freedom to experiment with alternative institutions - especially if they're not a democracy? Is the only way to get fertile soil to create more soil (seasteading)?

Jeff Hummel writes:

But Brian, you seem to overlook the fact that it was the American Revolution that brought about the outright abolition of slavery in Vermont, Massachusetts (which included Maine), and New Hampshire, and gradual emancipation in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, along with slavery's prohibition in the Northwest Territory. In contrast, Britain did not finally fully abolish slavery in Canada until the 1830s, at the same time as in the West Indies.

In addition, the American Revolution saw the relaxation of restrictions on manumission in some southern states. White Virginians consequently freed 10,000 slaves, more than gained their freedom by decree in Massachusetts. All the southern states save Georgia also abolished the slave trade.

Finally, the radical spirit of the Revolution really initiated the worldwide abolitionist movement. It inspired the French Revolution, which in turn brought on the Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave revolt in history. Eventually, the nineteenth century would become the century of emancipations. Does none of this figure in evaluating how libertarian was the American Revolution?

Bryan Caplan writes:

Here's a short reply to Jeff Hummel. In preface, let me acknowledge that Jeff's knowledge of historical fact vastly exceeds mine. That said:

But Brian, you seem to overlook the fact that it was the American Revolution that brought about the outright abolition of slavery in Vermont, Massachusetts (which included Maine), and New Hampshire, and gradual emancipation in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, along with slavery's prohibition in the Northwest Territory. In contrast, Britain did not finally fully abolish slavery in Canada until the 1830s, at the same time as in the West Indies.
What probability do you assign to the possibility that the northern abolitions would have happened on roughly the same time table without the revolution? Also, correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that northern slave-holders largely responded to "abolition" by selling their slaves further south.
In addition, the American Revolution saw the relaxation of restrictions on manumission in some southern states. White Virginians consequently freed 10,000 slaves, more than gained their freedom by decree in Massachusetts. All the southern states save Georgia also abolished the slave trade.
Freeing slaves is genuinely laudable, but that seems a like a small number compared to the body count of the revolution - 50,000 plus according to most accounts. (How does this compare this to the number of slaves freed per death to the Civil War, of which you aren't exactly a fan?) As for the slave trade, correct me if I'm wrong, Jeff, but wasn't this more a case of rent-seeking by current slave owners (the value of domestic slaves goes up if you abolish the slave trade) than ideological opposition to slavery?
Finally, the radical spirit of the Revolution really initiated the worldwide abolitionist movement. It inspired the French Revolution, which in turn brought on the Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave revolt in history. Eventually, the nineteenth century would become the century of emancipations. Does none of this figure in evaluating how libertarian was the American Revolution?
I believe that the American Revolution greatly increased the chance of the French Revolution. But with a death count in the million-plus range for the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, and at best a mixed bag of policy changes, I'd take this as another strike against the American Revolution.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Thanks again for running this.

History is politics, and no more so than in this chapter. Rothbard is interesting but it is merely an interpretation motivated to support a political view. Interpretations are usually easy to pick holes in, depending on the importance to the reader of the factors the author chooses to emphasize or elide. I don't see the need to justify libertarianism as a historical force, unless one's goal is to justify a new revolution along the lines of the original.

Being generally a Boortzian strong-defense libertarian, I found most of chapter's philosophy to be very strong and some quite worrying.

Philosophically, I found the "separation" paragraph to be very strong, so too the para about the "belief that power is evil". It seems obvious to me that the framers understood this, put these limitations in place, that legislators have attacked now for two centuries.

The para that talks about "antimonopoly" worked for me - that in the name of minor flaws or non-flaws in the laissez-faire system, natural statists of the left or right will gladly intervene.

The para "the new breed of intellectuals was rewarded with jobs and prestige" reminded me very much of the global warming science industry.

His interpretation of the military-industrial complex is slightly worrying to me. However he is undeniably correct that a military establishment is horribly expensive, self-justifying, and potentially cynically patriotic. But it is hard to imagine anybody treating our boys over there as a mere profit center, and it is hard to believe that we do not face genuine threats. More contemplation required here.

Overall it is a strong statement of libertarian othodoxy, but which I doubt would reach the heart of, say, a socialist or even a conservative. The problem being, good people of either persuasion would mostly agree with Rothbard except when non-intervention is unthinkable, such as in the abortion debate for the latter, or in the treatment of "the poor" for the former. A half-dozen issues like this and you are back to big, intrusive government that nobody wants.

Jason writes:


Your last point is extremely well put and I think explains much of the problem with our current government.

Floccina writes:

From the declaration of independence:

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

Seems to me like classical liberalism was forced on them, except some of the Anabaptists who for example in Pennsylvania refused to use violence to collect taxes.

Mick writes:

The founding fathers lived in a world just climbing out the Middle Ages, remember, barely 100 years before Galileo was arrested for heresy.

Slavery was at the time an ancient worldwide institution, and its abolition was a modern creature. After all, the slave traders bought their workers from native slave drivers who didn't see the moral predigament.

wintercow20 writes:

The main difficulty I have with invoking the founders is that holding anyone up as a messianic figure is dangerous, and dilutes the importance of the ideas about to follow. For example, Rothbard himself was aware that John Locke was not the man many of us have him cracked up to be. In his long History of the US, doesn't Rothbard describe a time in colonial North Carolina that Locke was hired to pen a document intended to virtual enslave the local population there?

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Thanks, wintercow, that is the formulation I was groping for. Good ideas stand on their own, whether they are ancient or novel. The first chapter, then, is really just preaching to the choir.

Isaac K. writes:

I started reading this independently after asking a question of Lew Rockwell re: government.
As most of you have pointed out, Rothbard flouts a fantastic rhetorical pen, but his logic is fundamentally weaker.

I think this was Bryan's primary point in mentioning that rothbard presents a "revisionist" history:
one based upon rhetorically presenting a desired perspective from limited sources rather than a more objective and comprehensive view.

I am presently in debate with an even more libertarian friend of mine on certain key points in Rothbardian doctrine (in this domain, I have done more reading than he) that are particularly troubling me on a practical rather than ideological level.
But those will have to wait for a later chapter.

Jeremy H. writes:

One sometimes overlooked, radical aspect of the American Revolution was the breakdown of various social hierarchies. While some libertarians tend to scoff at this in general, it is often a primary concern for left-libertarians. A great history of the social aspect is Gordon Wood's Radicalism of the American Revolution.

In response to Hume's comment on state constitutions, I recommend Marc Kruman's Between Authority and Liberty, a critique (of sorts) of Wood's first book. Kruman examines the pre-Constitution state constitutions and finds that the skepticism about state power (even for democratically elected governments) was already present in the individual states.

Craig writes:

1) You might try actually reading the Declaration. The revolution was about much more than taxation; it was about self-government, or at least about government by consent.

2) As for slavery, without the revolutionaries (and the broader European enlightenment) we would lack the moral vocabulary to even criticize it. And most of the founders, even the southerners, thought that it was on its way out.

3) You are on much stronger ground with Native Americans. However, I checked out the link to your earlier post and was taken aback. Are you seriously suggesting that unwittingly carrying infectious diseases (the cause of the vast majority of Native American deaths) is morally equivalent to actually slaughtering people - something which, by the way, Native Americans were pretty good at doing to one another before the Europeans arrived. Indeed, many of them, both north and south of the Rio Grande, were eager to ally with the Europeans in order to better subdue their tribal enemies (read-up on the role of the Mohegans in the Pequot wars).

Publius writes:

Intellectuals always like dressing their opinions in the trappings of tradition. Of course, if tradition stood in clear opposition to their opinion, they wouldn't change their mind, yet they still feel compelled to found their position on tradition when at all possible.

There is a great disconnect between the libertarian notion of "state" and what revolutionaries opposed. The former is abstract and ideological. The latter is concrete and specific to the federal government.

Calling revolutionaries libertarians for their opposition to federal government is like calling George Bush a libertarian for his opposition to a global government.

It is silly. Revolutionaries wanted governments with military power, religious influence, etc. - they just wanted it to be a different level than the anti-federalists.

Of course, all of this is besides the point, since libertarians' beliefs are in reality completely disconnected from whatever historical tradition there might be.

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