Review- Rothbard, “Power and Market”

Murray Rothbard, “Power and Market: Government and the Economy” (1970) – I remember being a baby grad student and setting out to read various important German philosophers: your Kants, your Hegels, your Nietzsches, your Heideggers. My enjoyment and comprehension values varied, but between being a historian and, I figure, being an American, I could never get fully “into” them because it just felt like people saying words out of their mouths. I’m not a scientist, I don’t demand data and scientific method from everything, but I guess I just prefer there to be some more backing to the things people say than that it sounds good. Ironically, given his reputation and some of his other statements, Nietzsche was the one who got closest to being at all empirical, with his early career in classical studies. I’ve gotten something out of all the philosophers I’ve named, especially as I got older and realized that everyone, explicit or not, has some sort of non-empirical basis on which to launch their empirical investigations. I came to think that there’s a degree to which the human capacity for thinking these things at all indicates that such things are worth thinking. Our ability to abstract and imagine the infinite points to something more than empiricism can answer for, even if I generally prefer to make my way with the solid groundings of citations and paper trails.

I thought of this while reading Murray Rothbard, and to a lesser extent other libertarian thinkers recently. Rothbard would probably hate being compared to most of these guys, especially Hegel, cast in Rothbard’s day as the arch-philosopher of the dreaded state. I tend to think Hegel et al would return the favor. To me, this is no “both sides” business. At its worst and most abstruse, the continental philosophical tradition (as opposed to contemporary continental philosophy, more of an industry than anything else) represents people bringing their best lights to difficult and essential aspects of what it is to be human. What Murray Rothbard and his cothinkera represent is a wretched provincial charade of the same thing, taking the portentous stakes, philosophical excuses to not bother with the empirical, and pretentious language of the philosophical enterprise to affirm utter crankery… though it’s somewhat of an insult to cranks, some of whom don’t wind up just saying “whatever I imagine rich people to want” over and over again as though it’s capital-T Truth.

In this book, a portion of his 1962 masterwork “Man Economy, and State,” Rothbard practices what he calls “praxeology.” Have you not heard of that? Well, that’s probably because it’s not a real thing. Austrian School economists dug it out of the corpse of classical learning, isolating a bit of Aristotle here and various others there, to create a basis for understanding the world based on “human action,” defined as purposive, goal-oriented, and if not perfectly-informed than reasonably-informed. From this axiom, you derive other axioms, and go on your merry way. “Power and Market” is axiom after axiom after (strawman) objections to axioms he likes followed up axioms disproving the objections. That’s it. He will occasionally throw in a cherry-picked empirical fact, but not often.

Rothbard is both an outlier and something of a bridge figure in the history of libertarianism (it makes sense that libertarians would have bridges to outliers of thought- if only they’d stay there). He went a lot farther than most libertarians did in terms of denying a government role in pretty much anything, including securing a sound currency or maintaining a common defense. All that can be privatized, too, Rothbard insists, making him the father of “anarchocapitalism.” Of course, we know “ancaps” these days by their tendency to join forces with outright fascists, and we know why- because ancap is feudalism with extra steps, and that’s more or less what a stable fascism would degenerate into, Himmler’s fatuous little rural volks-deutsch daydream. Did Rothbard know that? Did he care? Does it matter? To the extent I understand Rothbard’s trajectory, it was one long process of getting back at his neighborhood- he was a conservative geek, a bowtie dipshit from the beginning, which didn’t make him popular growing up in the thirties and forties in Jewish neighborhoods in New York. He had acolytes but he didn’t seem to have friends- he busted up with Ayn Rand, for instance, when neither one would bend the knee to the other. He wound up plonking himself down with neoconfederates and Holocaust deniers at the Mises Institute in Alabama and there he stayed til he popped his clogs in 1995.

For all he was a weirdo, like I say, Rothbard was also a bridge, specifically between the stormy continental pessimism of much of the original Austrian School economists like von Mises and von Hayek and what would become American libertarianism. It might be hard to remember now that it got its lunch money took by resurgent fascism, but libertarianism used to be an optimistic creed. Sooner or later — probably sooner — everyone would see that the free market was the way to go. It was implicit in everything from technology to pop culture, politics just had to catch up. As for Rothbard’s role in all this, let’s put it this way: at his gauziest and dumbest, von Hayek would never have made the sort of promises Rothbard makes for what would be possible if the government would just cease existing. “Good government” was not an oxymoron for libertarians or many other neoliberals before Rothbard. In characteristic American style, various hustlers like Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan and whoever else would use aspects of the privatization-mania Rothbard philosophized to pry apart the public sector, without giving away a scintilla of power. Ancaps could screech but they should have cheered- this is what they were for.

In the end, though, I go back to the book itself and it’s structure. What this “praxeology” business reminds me of is a more pretentious version of what you often see in vernacular philosophizing, including the thought patterns of conspiracy theorists and “sovereign citizen” types, some of whom have vaguely anarchocapitalist notions already. You start with a few things you see around you, and apply a set of mental operations to them. If you come into it with a paranoid and/or anti-authority streak, anyone pointing out that your system has some holes in it is just trying to suppress you and your ideas. The reasoning itself that Rothbard followed in his praxeology reminded me of nothing so much as the “lessons” in “Supreme Mathematics” practiced by Nation of Islam offshoot commonly called the Five Percenters. They like to improvise on various axioms and numerological concepts to come up with “science,” a sort of Kabbalah developed by black kids in the depths of the inner city, the playgrounds and the prison yards. To the best of my knowledge, though, praxeology has never inspired music as good as the Wu Tang Clan, and the Gods and Earths haven’t contributed as much as libertarians have to our current mess, nor do they screech like tea kettles about how their method is the only rational method. I know which I prefer. **

Review- Rothbard, “Power and Market”

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