Rothbard Lectures on American History: Lost and Found
As Jerome Tuccille famously wrote: “It usually begins with Ayn Rand.”
For me, it began in my senior year of high school. I took a year-long “Advanced Placement” course (for college credit) that offered an in-depth survey of American history, from the colonial period to the modern era. My early political views, shaped by both relatives and influential teachers, always tended toward a pro-free market stance. Invariably, the contentious discussions I was having in class were shared at home with my family. One afternoon, after listening to my tirades concerning the current events of the day, my sister-in-law told me that she’d been reading a novel called Atlas Shrugged, and that a lot of what I was saying seemed to echo the themes in this book. When she showed it to me, I took one look at it and saw that it was more than a thousand pages and said: “I have homework. I’ve got no time for that! No way!”
But as I thumbed through the back pages of the book, I noticed that there was an advertisement for a collection of essays by Ayn Rand, Nathaniel Branden, Alan Greenspan, and Robert Hessen called Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. So in lieu of the hefty novel, I bought a copy of that much shorter book — and as I began reading it, I was completely stunned. Here was the most stylized moral, practical, and historical defense of the free market that I’d ever read. So, before I stepped foot into college — and in place of reading a 1,000+ page novel — I swiftly devoured all of Rand’s nonfiction works before reading a single work of her fiction.
Perhaps the greatest revelation of Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal was the vast free-market literature referenced by its contributors. Austrian-school economist Ludwig von Mises was prominently cited throughout the essays, and in the bibliography, no fewer than eight of his classic works were listed. In addition, there were citations to classic works by Frédéric Bastiat, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, and Henry Hazlitt, along with books by such Old Right thinkers as John T. Flynn and Isabel Paterson.
I had learned that Ludwig von Mises had once given seminars at New York University’s Graduate School of Business, and I had applied to New York University partially because of my knowledge that there was actually a program in Austrian economics that had taken shape there. Even though my intended major was history, I eventually took on a triple major in economics, politics, and history. One of the first talks I heard on campus was given by Richard Ebeling, who gave me further insight into the remarkable diversity within the libertarian and Austrian scholarly community. It didn’t take me long to register for courses with one of Mises’s finest students: Israel Kirzner. Courses with Mario Rizzo, Gerald O’Driscoll, Stephen Littlechild, and Roger Garrison would follow later, as did attendance at regular sessions of the Austrian Economics Colloquium (which met weekly) and the once-a-month Austrian Economics Seminar, where I was privileged to see presentations by everyone from Ludwig Lachmann (also a member of the NYU economics department) and Murray Rothbard (on “The Myth of Neutral Taxation”). It was at these and other sessions that I met such folks as Don Lavoie, Larry White, George Selgin, Joe Salerno, Roger Koppl, Ralph Raico, and David Ramsay Steele. For me, it was as if I’d stepped into Scholarly Nirvana. Even between classes, I could just walk on over to the corner of Bleecker and Mercer Streets and thumb through the literature on display at Laissez Faire Books. And when the academic year was over, there was always a whirlwind summer weekend libertarian conference to go to, sponsored by either the Cato Institute or the Institute for Humane Studies.
History remained my deepest passion. By the spring of my sophomore year, I had been an active member of the NYU Undergraduate History Club and enrolled in the History Honors Program. Hand-in-hand with my scholarly studies, I was a co-founder of the NYU chapter for Students for a Libertarian Society (SLS). With the Soviets bogged down in Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter was calling for a return to draft registration. It was fortuitous that on April 30, 1979, the House Military Manpower Subcommittee voted unanimously to have the House Armed Services Committee consider the resumption of Selective Service registration. A planned protest in Washington Square Park on May Day became that much more prescient, as SLS joined a diverse coalition of groups to resist the growing political support for conscription.
Time spent as a growing libertarian activist took nothing away from my deepening academic studies. When I returned in the fall of 1979, the beginning of my junior year at NYU, I had already taken courses with some of the finest historians that the department of history had to offer, including Richard Hull and colonial historians Patricia Bonomi and Gloria Main. Simultaneously, my acquaintance with Murray Rothbard had developed into a collegial friendship; Murray’s work had an enormous impact on my growing libertarian perspective and he never hesitated, in countless phone conversations, to provide me with insightful guidance and advice on the development of my professional course of study (see “How I Became a Libertarian”). Virtually every term paper I wrote — covering everything from the Colonial era to the Progressive era, from the “war collectivism” of World War I to the Great Depression, from the New Deal to World War II and the postwar emergence of the welfare-warfare state — reflected a maturing libertarian perspective, informed by Rothbard’s unique interpretation of American history. This work culminated with my first professional article published in The Historian (the NYU undergraduate history journal) in 1980 on “Government and the Railroads in World War I” and in my undergraduate senior honors thesis, directed by labor historian Daniel Walkowitz, “The Implications of Interventionism: An Analysis of the Pullman Strike.”
In fairness, many years later, I criticized aspects of Rothbard’s work in a full scholarly exegesis of its scope, as a segment of my doctoral dissertation, from which I derived Part II of my book, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, the culminating book of my “Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy” (which began with Marx, Hayek, and Utopia and Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical). That critique, however, is itself evidence of the impact that Rothbard had made on my libertarian studies — since it was simultaneously my attempt to make visible, and to grapple with, his many contributions, something that too many contemporary scholars had simply ignored.
It was in part my commitment to making those contributions visible that I approached Professor Richard Hull in the fall semester of 1979. At the time, Professor Hull was the amiable advisor for both undergraduate students of history and The Historian. I told him that there was, indeed, considerable interest among the members of the Undergraduate History Society in Rothbard’s iconoclastic approach and I urged him to extend a departmental invitation to Murray to speak before students and faculty of the department of history. The result of that invitation was Murray’s talk on “Libertarian Paradigms in American History,” a lecture that he gave on December 4, 1979 at 4:00 p.m. in room 808 of the Main Building. Professor Hull encouraged me to introduce Murray to a standing-room only crowd of well over 200 people. I highlighted virtually all of Rothbard’s historical works, in particular, while cautioning the crowd that it would not be easy to pigeonhole him as a New Right or New Left historian; clearly, I suggested, Murray Rothbard was forging a unique interpretive approach to the study of history. Virtually all of the department’s historians were in attendance that afternoon; Murray knew many of them personally, and after the lecture, he exchanged some warm words with Gloria Main, since he had referred to Jackson Turner Main, her husband, whose work on the Antifederalists he recommended highly.
The central theme of Rothbard’s lecture was the conflict between “Liberty” and “Power” throughout history. He did not deny the complexities of historical events and did not disapprove of alternative approaches to the understanding of history. Drawing from Albert Jay Nock, however, he believed that the contest between “social power” (embodied in voluntary institutions and trade) and “state power” (in which certain interests used the coercive instruments of government to expropriate others for their own benefit) was central to understanding the ebb and flow of historical events. Social power, which reached its apex in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, breeds prosperity, civilization, and culture; state power, which came to dominate the twentieth century, produced the most regressive period in human history — as government expanded its powers through warfare and a maze of regulatory agencies, central banking, and welfare-state bureaucracies. Throughout his talk, he drew on the pioneering scholarship of Bernard Bailyn on the ideological origins of the American Revolution; Jackson Turner Main on the role of the Antifederalists in restraining, through the Bill of Rights, the “nationalist” forces that forged the counter-revolutionary Constitution; Paul Kleppner, who provides an enlightening take on the struggle between “liturgical” and “pietist” cultural forces, the latter viewed as a key element in the emergence of the Progressive Era and the growth of government intervention; and Gabriel Kolko, whose revisionist work on the role of big business in the move toward the regulatory state explains much about the rise of corporatist statism in the twentieth century and beyond.
The entire 90-minute talk, which included a brief question-and-answer session, is peppered with that edgy Rothbardian wit, which entertained as much as it informed. By the end of the lecture, Rothbard was given a standing ovation.
So enthralled was I by the success of that December 1979 lecture that in September 1980, I extended an invitation to Murray to be among the speakers featured in a nearly week-long “Libertython” sponsored by the NYU chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society — dedicated to exploring the politics, economics, and philosophy of freedom. On September 23, 1980, he gave the second of six scheduled lectures that day. His lecture focused on “The Crisis of American Foreign Policy,” wherein I introduced him to a slightly smaller audience than the event sponsored by the history department. The size of the audience didn’t matter; for Rothbard, there was nothing more important than the issue of war and peace. As he put it, libertarians were usually quite good in opposing the regulations of OSHA or criticizing the destructive effects of price controls. But when faced with the role of the warfare state as the single most important factor in the expansion of government power: “Blank out” — a turn of phrase he used, giving credit to Ayn Rand — was the typical response he’d witnessed from far too many libertarians. By not focusing enough attention on the role of “war and peace,” all the other issues concerning price control, free will and determinism, and so forth, become “pointless … if we’re all washed away” as a species.
With a bit of gallows humor, he couldn’t resist criticizing the US military’s plan that would whisk away politicians to safety as nuclear warfare becomes imminent such that the “goddamn government” will go on in bomb shelters, while the rest of us perish. As the antidote to war, he cited W. C. Fields, who, when asked by the Saturday Evening Post how to end World War II, remarked: “Take the leaders of both sides or all sides, in the Hollywood Bowl, and let them fight it out with sackfuls of guns.” The Post didn’t publish the comment, Rothbard says, but he yearns for a world that gets back to jousting between the leaders of warring governments, rather than a policy of what Charles Beard once called “perpetual war for perpetual peace,” in which twentieth-century technology had made possible mass murder on an unimaginable scale.
Some will have difficulty accepting Rothbard’s argument that in any clash between “democratic” and “dictatorial” countries, the latter is not necessarily the source of contemporary conflict. In fact, Rothbard argues, the foreign policy of the “democratic” United States has been at the root of many of the global conflicts in the post-World War II era.
During the Q&A session, folks who are familiar with the voice of Don Lavoie will recognize him instantly. Included here as well are several self-acknowledged “digs” that Rothbard takes at the Libertarian Party’s 1980 presidential candidate, Ed Clark, with some surprising comments on subjects such as immigration policy.
Except for those who were present at these two events, these two lectures have not been heard by anyone since 1979–1980. I had been the only person with recorded copies of these Rothbard lectures and it is remarkable that these recordings survived. Indeed, an apartment fire in October 2013 nearly consumed my library — and my family. Fortunately, we survived, as did most of my books, audio and video cassettes, and other recordings. The “lost” Rothbard lectures were found under two feet of ash and sheetrock. I later digitized them for the sake of posterity and have donated these materials to the Mises Institute, which has become a repository of so much of Rothbard’s corpus. I am delighted that they will now be heard for the first time in nearly four decades.
Chris Sciabarra is the author of three scholarly books on freedom's philosophical foundations — Marx, Hayek, and Utopia; Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical; and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism — as well as several shorter works.