Bryan Caplan  

Rothbard: How a Circle Becomes a Movement

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If you've ever been baffled by Murray Rothbard's appeal, check out "The Six Stages of the Libertarian Movement."  It beautifully captures not only his intellect, but his charm.  Highlight: His rich description of how a study circle becomes an intellectual movement.

We have now a circle, a group of people, six, seven, eight, nine, whatever, who become Libertarians and, boy, this is fantastic. And also some ramifications to this. And they study and they meet on a regular basis as a study group. They read, they discuss long into the night, and so forth and so on. They get in touch. They read Libertarian classics. Maybe they put out a little newsletter. They get in touch with Libertarian groups in other countries or other regions, other cities. And so we have the circle stage.

I myself was in the circle stage around the 1950s in New York City. We had a little group of six or seven hard-core friends and colleagues and about three or four hangers-on, which we called the Circle Bastiat. So that was our circle. And I think, again, the circle stage, I think, happens in every movement, and Libertarianism.

In the circle stage, let's say, you have regular meetings. You tend to meet once a week or whatever. And there are discussions and arguments and theoretical refinements and so forth. But one thing you must say - I mean, one thing that happens, of course, also disagreements will occur now. With six or seven people, you're bound to have at least eight opinions, OK, if not more.

But one thing among the differences - first of all, all differences tend to be - how should we put it - I wouldn't say unimportant, but lovable... [S]trategy is one problem that never arises in the circle-stage of development... Nobody worries about betraying principle because when a movement - you have six or seven usually young and usually un-influential, unknown people, the problem of selling-out principle never arises, OK? In fact, it's usually a non-problem. It's a matter for a big joke, a big hilarity. Say, "Hey, we're going to sell out tomorrow." Yes, right, these six or seven people nobody has even heard of.

If the study circle succeeds, however, all this changes:

There comes a point - stage five, I guess it is, in this number game here - where something happens to the circle and the circle stage gets transcended into a movement stage or a movement-activist stage. The proper name for it - movement-activism is one name for it, a movement properly so-called, a mass movement in the sense of a nationwide movement.

By the way, one sign of whether you're in this nationwide movement or not, whether you're out of the circle stage, is very simple. I don't remember the year this happened to me. The early stages of the movement, there are like six Libertarians in New York, six in California, or whatever. You know every Libertarian very well in the whole country. I mean, it's no problem. So if any Libertarian article comes out, you know who wrote it. You probably saw the article before it came out and so forth and so on. One of the hallmarks of a leap into movement-activist, to the mass-movement stage is when you say, "Hey, this is a pretty good article. Who the hell is this? Who wrote it"? You don't know who this Libertarian is who wrote it. This is a very key significant point.

As the movement stage unfolds, nostalgia for the Good Old Days is only natural:

[I]n the circle stage, you made one convert a year. Now people suddenly come converting all the time. People pop up everywhere. "Who are these people who call themselves Libertarians"? And one of the problems, an immediate problem with that is, before this, all Libertarians were close friends, OK? It's an affinity group or friendship-group situation. Now, all of a sudden, people are popping up who you don't want to receive in your own home, right? This is a big psychological shock - (laughing). See, before this - (laughing) - boy, this person is a Libertarian, you take him into your home and you wine and dine him. This is fantastic. Every Libertarian is, ipso facto, a great person, a great lovable person. As more Libertarians flood in, you begin to find, with a tremendous - (laughing) - tremendous shock, unfortunate shock this time, recognition that there are a lot of Libertarians who are not great and lovable people. Because in the early days of the Libertarian, let's say, because of the circle stage, I think, the early stages, one tends to think that all Libertarians are great, OK? Then, as I say, a shock occurs and you begin to realize that there are people - and there are a lot of jerks out there who are also Libertarians.

Now, I think there's a point here - (laughing) - that there's probably - I think I can safely say there is no higher proportion of great and lovable people in our movement than there are anywhere else. I know that's a terrible thing to say, but I'm going to say it. I think being Libertarian makes us Libertarians, all right? But it confers no special grace in other areas of life, all right? Or to put it another way, the Libertarian movement doesn't promise us a rose garden. It only promises us liberty but, by god, that's enough, OK? So that is an adjustment shock.

I remember, in the first days, the early stages of the Libertarian movement in the United States, there was a theory you should always deal with Libertarians in the business world. You should always hire them. Hire Libertarians first; deal with them in business because, since they're Libertarian, they must be rational, able, capable, and so forth and so on. And that theory was shot down very quickly - (laughing). So that's simply a fact as a division of labor, all right? And Libertarianism, as I say, conferred no special grace for other aspects of life. We like to think it does, but it doesn't.

The wise, however, put nostalgia aside:

All right, so far, I seem to be painting a pretty grim picture - (laughter) - of what's involved in the leap from the circle stage to a large-scale movement. I'm sure many of you are saying, boy, I'm glad we're small in our country - (laughter). But I'm not trying to discourage. As I said, I'm trying to prepare you, who are now in the circle stage, for the problems to come because you'll be able to meet the problems a lot better than we did when we weren't prepared for it. Because despite the headaches and the problems and all the grief that may be involved in it, this leap in being or this leap into a movement stage must be embraced and embraced with enthusiasm. Why should it be embraced with enthusiasm? It's very simple. Because for us Libertarians, Libertarianism is not merely the intellectual contemplation of a wonderful, true and just political philosophy, it's not just the esthetic contemplation of a beautiful ideal, the ideal of a world without organized aggression, a world of harmony, of freedom, of prosperity, of mutual cooperation through voluntary activities in free markets. It is, of course, all of that. Because we become Libertarians in the first place because we fall in love, so to speak, with the goodness, the truth and the beauty of Libertarianism. But we Libertarians, it seems to me, are not content with contemplating justice, with contemplating truth, goodness and beauty. We're not playing intellectual games. We mean to change the world. We want to put this thing into reality.

In order to do that - because we're setting out on the noblest task, I think, of all, to dismantle the leviathan state in each of our countries and ultimately throughout the world. And in order to do that, in order to put liberty into practice, in order to bring it out of the closet, so to speak, or out of the library, into the world, in order to usher in a world of freedom, a world free of the thugs and organized gangsters that are making so many lives a hell on earth, we have to organize. We have to become a mass movement despite whatever problems might be involved. Because to organize anything, whether it's playing chess or producing automobiles or advancing the science of physics or whatever, it needs organization. And so organization is needed in the victory of liberty. And what I've really been talking about is the problem of all organization.

Read the whole thing.  If you're anything like me, you'll see a lot of yourself.

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COMMENTS (2 to date)
Glen S. McGhee writes:

This is the sociology of movements, intellectual and social. Even social network theory, and Randall Collins' theory of interaction ritual chains, offers insights into what survives and why. IRCs produce charisma, not the other way around.

Conflict with other groups also serves to draw observers into the attention space being created. Nazis did this in obvious ways, dominating about two hundred other, similarly positioned groups in Weimar Germany. Even failure can add to the emotional energy of a group.

Current thinking along these lines holds that new ideas are the product of interaction ritual chains, as when individuals inherit intellectual capital from earlier IRCs, and redeploy it in combination with ideas flowing through the network chains (Collins, 1998).

John S writes:

Love him or hate him, Rothbard was one hell of a charmer. If it wasn't for his bizarre anti-fractional reserve banking crusade, I think his influence would have been far greater.

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