Friday, September 17, 2010

Frankly, Murray Rothbard, I'm Unconvinced

Wow. I don’t even know where to start. Issue 5 consists of only a single article but man, it’s a doozy! It’s written by George Smith and is a response to an article written by Murray Rothbard in his publication, THE LIBERTARIAN FORUM.

In Rothbard’s article, published in the March 1983 issue and titled, “The New Menace of Gandhism,” he goes after the Voluntaryists and denounces their attempt at starting a new movement with new strategies by attacking their interest in studying Gandhi’s methods of non-violence.

After I read Smith’s article, I just had to go and read some of the original piece by Rothbard. Fortunately, the Mises Institute has them all available online as commenter “mudshark” told us in a previous post. (Coincidentally I mentioned as a resource in this week’s newspaper column, and received an email from someone thanking me for sharing that resource so I will consider that as “payment” to show appreciation and support of all they have made available online.)

While looking at the FORUM’S archives, I also found that Wendy published a response in the May-June 1983 issue, Rothbard had another response and even whines that an initial response from Smith was published in yet another publication named UPDATE. This was published by another wing of the party apparently led by Ed Crane and another group Rothbard was not so fond of. Carl even gets into the fray by writing an unpublished “Open Letter to Murray Rothbard which apparently made the rounds. There were even two letters published on the topic in the next FORUM. (Whew. Are you keeping this all straight?)

Apparently it was quite the controversy within libertarian circles for awhile.

The basics of Rothbard’s piece are that he accuses the Voluntaryists of practically worshiping Gandhi. His concern seems to be that they are leading themselves (and others who are investigating Voluntaryist ideas) toward non-violent action to the point of martyrdom. So to stop this, he uses Gandhi’s religious beliefs and personal life inconsistencies to diss the Voluntaryist movement. He wants to paint the Voluntaryists as worshiping Gandhi even to the point of mentioning the c word (cult). In response Smith has this to say:
Rothbard claims that the "nub of Smith's recently formed Voluntaryist movement" is an attempt to bring 'down the State by massive non-violent resistance." No evidence is cited to support this allegation because none exists. The "nub" of The Voluntaryists is twofold: first, to convince libertarian anarchists that electoral politics is an improper and ineffective way to attain anarchist goals; second, to explore various alternative strategies.

Nonviolent resistance is one strategy among many. We believe that libertarians should give it a fair hearing. We should approach it with the same open-mindedness and flexibility that Rothbard has traditionally demanded for his pet strategies. The fate of voluntaryism does not hinge on whether libertarians eventually decide in favor of this tactic. As future articles in this journal will demonstrate, nonviolent resistance should be investigated for its strengths and weaknesses.
Smith claims that Rothbard’s main concern is that the Voluntaryist movement will take people, particularly those of the anarchist view, away from the Libertarian Party. This would greatly affect Rothbard because he was part of the political anarchists in the LP through the Radical Caucus.

It is obvious that Rothbard saw “good” people (meaning political anarchists) leaving the Party and naturally he would be looking for something to use to convince them not to bail. I suppose he even thought he might convince some who had jumped ship already to return. [EDIT 9/19/2010: Originally, I wrote, 'including Carl, Wendy and George' which implies that they were at one time in the Party. I've since been told than none of them were ever actually in the Party, so I've edited that part out.]

All of this is so strange because I feel like it was Rothbard himself that moved me to the thinking needed to get away from party politics. He played a large part in convincing me of the logic and consistency of anarchism.

One of the things Smith says in this article to point out that Rothbard is merely using Gandhi as an easy target to bash the Voluntaryist movement because they are messing up his own plan is his seeming “flip-flop” on Gandhi. Smith tells us of a conversation he had with Rothbard about Gandhi during a 1975 California LP Convention. They were discussing a book, THE HEEL OF ACHILLES which had an essay about Gandhi that focused on his more crazy aspects. Here is how Rothbard reacted, according to Smith:
I vividly recall Murray's reaction. Stating that Gandhi was a "good guy" who was "sound" on British imperialism, Murray emphasized that one's personal life is irrelevant to one's political beliefs and accomplishments. A simple point perhaps, but it sunk in.
Now (in 1983) Rothbard uses the same Gandhi faults as a basis for his views of voluntaryism. Smith spends significant time on this idea of throwing out everything a person does based on inconsistencies in his life. He illustrates how this can be done with anyone by using a favorite historical figure of Rothbard’s, Sam Adams. He proceeds to do the same thing with Adams that Rothbard does to Gandhi. It’s a good read.

This is one of the more interesting aspects of this controversy for me. How do we learn and grow as humans? How do we learn and grow from other humans throughout history? Since we are all have faults and inconsistencies, how could we ever take anything good from anyone in the past if we disregard everything because of inconsistent and/or crazy behavior otherwise? Don’t we have to accept that there will be failings and inconsistencies, yet we move forward because we can study and analyze a person’s life and pull out what seems to be “good” about it?

I think of it as an evolution of sorts. Not of the direct biological kind, but in thought and action. I see the human race as slowly but surely evaluating itself, actions, lives, and beliefs and pulling out the good parts, which sometimes cannot be seen so well without the benefit of time passage and hindsight. Then we build on that, move forward and gradually improve as a whole. And those in the future will do the same with us and our actions.

This is important because I think that’s what the Voluntaryists were exploring at the time by studying Gandhi, his life and his methods of non-violence. Rothbard says they are worshiping the man and everything about him, but I don’t see it. Rothbard says they are heading down the road of martyrdom if they seriously consider non-violence as an action. (He even uses the image of standing in front of a tank, which I found interesting considering the Tianamen square protests had not happened yet.) But I don’t see it.

And of course all three are still with us, so even though I know some civil disobedience is coming up, none of them stood up in front of a tank and sacrificed their life for the cause.

A big part of the Voluntaryist philosophy is improvement of the individual. Educate yourself, improve yourself, become the best person you can be in word and deed. That is not a philosophy that will lead someone to “worship” another human being in total. What it will do is create a person who will seriously study and come to conclusions based on rational thought and consideration of all points necessary.

One more ironic thing about all of this is that as I watch Rothbard try to discount everything about Gandhi due to some of his beliefs is that I almost discounted everything about anarchism and Voluntaryists very early on when I discovered Smith and others were atheists. I almost discounted everything they said because of my irrational and bigoted views at the time on atheists and atheism. But I kept pushing on and found so much that made sense and none of the myths, but that’s a whole other story and it’s time to close this out.

I think you can study a person’s ideas and life and put it all in perspective as you consider how it may work for your own life and goals. You aren’t necessarily worshiping them as Rothbard says.

So, sorry Murray but, as you replied when the Voluntaryists tried to defend their views and actions, I remain unconvinced.

(Photo courtesy Wikimedia)


Lloyd Licher said...

You're right, Debbie, each of us takes what they discern to be the truth from whatever source it comes, integrating those bits and pieces to make up the unique mind that is ours. I know I have bits and pieces of Rand, LeFevre, Smith, Watner, and yes, even Rothbard, among others, in me, and I believe that I have optimized that mix and will hold it up to any new bit of wisdom that comes along and adjust, if rationality and critical thinking call for it. Nonviolence is as right as rain. -- By Lloyd Licher

Scott said...

The history between Murray Rothbard and the Kochs is quite interesting. You can find some good articles detailing the falling out that they had and how it related to the Libertarian Party by going to and using the onsite search engine. Just search for "Kochtopus Rothbard" and you'll get some interesting selections. The articles by David Gordon are the most detailed. I think if Murray Rothbard were alive today, he would not be so enamored of the LP.

I know that the people at Lew Rockwell's web site, who love Rothbard, all call for non-violent approaches and most of them also call for non-participation in the electoral process. I agree.

I visit Lew's blog and Wendy McElroy's every day. They're both very worthwhile, I think.

Your blog is very interesting and well-written, by the way. I hope you get a lot of readers!

Ned Netterville said...

I have the utmost reverence for Ludwig von Mises. Indeed, I account him the greatest scientist of the 20th century, slightly ahead of Albert Einstein. Nevertheless, on the question of anarchy, which he dismissed, I dare say Mises was wrong. Rothbard, a brilliant but definitely lesser economic light than Mises, got it right, embracing anarchy.

Rothbard was an ingenious, stalwart libertarian, but on voluntaryism he got it wrong. Watner, Smith and McIlroy got it right. Unlike what he wrote on economic matters, Rothbard's article in LIBERTY to which you refer is bereft of logic. His attack on nonviolent resistance slanted and misleading. A most un-Rothbardian article riven with emotional hyperbole.

I emphatically endorse everything Lloyd Licher said in his comment, especially that last sentence. My own guru on the non-violence issue is Jesus of Nazareth, particularly as explicated in his Sermon on the Mount. It could be said that Jesus' embrace of nonviolence led to his death and accomplished nothing, but that would be ignoring the long-term consequences of his nonviolent action. In his criticism of nonviolence as a "political" means to a free society, Rothbard fell pray to short-term thinking, which he so carefully avoided in his economic tracts.

Keep it up.

slim said...

Thanks for posting. I found the subject very interesting. I weigh in with whomever thinks the insights are more important than the personality. The insight might be perfect but come from one with personal flaws. I had already read a lot about Gandhi's short comings. But just the insights available from the film," Gandhi", are awesome.