Murray Rothbard’s Ontology and the Alt-Right

There have been several criticisms of my piece on Murray Rothbard for the Baffler. I did not, it is alleged, fully address the diversity of the man’s own thought. True enough—I felt like there was a case to be made that he had a coherent thrust to his conceptions throughout his life, eccentricities aside. Another criticism is that I glossed too rapidly over his New Left period, and also didn’t address in careful enough detail the time after his New Left period, when he was at the Cato Institute and then at the Mises Institute. Instead, I gave too much weight to his Paleo period, where he openly embraced Pat Buchanan, David Duke, and “unleashing the cops.” Yet another criticism is that I did not prove—to some people’s satisfaction—that his ideas had a significant influence on the alt-right, that they had not internalized any specifically “Rothbardian” ideas. According to those critics, I showed just his attempts at fringe-y political maneuver, which they contend are totally unremarkable for some reason I don’t quite understand, and, however interesting they might be from a historical perspective, somehow those decisions are not really related to the central project of his life’s work. And even if I showed how much interest alt-rightniks have professed in his writing, I did not adequately demonstrate that they incorporated anything significant that could really be called Rothbard’s own thought. From this perspective, his political writings do not rise to the dignity of The Idea—only the hardcore of abstract economics and praxeology is the “true Rothbard,” and since alt-rightniks are supposed to be mostly uninterested in laissez faire economics they are not really taking anything from him. On the whole, one could summarize all the criticisms roughly as saying, “Rothbard the Reactionary or, Rothbard the Conservative Revolutionary, Rothbard the Proto-fascist, is not an accurate depiction of the man’s life and work.”

New Left and Old Right

First off, Rothbard’s New Left period did not involve any renunciation of what he understood to be his key concerns. Instead, he tried, and failed, to convert the New Left into a libertarian movement. He brought the Old Right tradition to the attention of Leftists to show them how much they had in common with the anti-globalism and anti-statism of the Old Rightists. His encounter with Ron Radosh is particularly revealing. At the time Radosh was a libertarian socialist and anti-war activist. Together he and Rothbard edited A New History of the Leviathan: Essays on The Rise of the American Corporate State. In the preface, Rothbard does not hide his Old Right credentials:

Murray N. Rothbard is one of the intellectual leaders of the new “right-wing libertarian movement” — a movement that has emerged out of what has come to be called the Old Right, the American libertarian tradition beginning with Jefferson and Paine and continuing in the twentieth century in the thought and politics of such people as H. L. Mencken, Garet Garrett, Oswald Garrison Villard, John T. Flynn, and Senator Robert A. Taft.

And it was Rothbard’s introduction of this Old Right canon to Radosh that lead the latter to write his book Prophets on the Right. Mencken was always close to his heart.

“Against the ontological structure of reality itself”

Part of what ended his involvement with the New Left was the insistence on egalitarianism, which is well, basically the left wing idea. In 1970, he wrote Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor, basically his parting shot at the New Left. Here is Rothbard on the hopeless idealism of the New Left:

It is the egalitarian attempt by the New Left to escape the Iron Law of inequality and oligarchy that accounts for its desperate efforts to end elite leadership within its own organizations. (Certainly there has been no indication of any disappearance of the power elite in oft-heralded Cuba or China.)

To Rothbard, this egalitarian striving is contrary to the laws of nature itself, the libertarian’s true charge is to allow its proper course to run:

If, then, the natural inequality of ability and of interest among men must make elites inevitable, the only sensible course is to abandon the chimera of equality and accept the universal necessity of leaders and followers. The task of the libertarian, the person dedicated to the idea of the free society, is not to inveigh against elites which, like the need for freedom, flow directly from the nature of man. The goal of the libertarian is rather to establish a free society, a society in which each man is free to find his best level. In such a free society, everyone will be “equal” only in liberty, while diverse and unequal in all other respects. In this society the elites, like everyone else, will be free to rise to their best level.

He refers to his belief in a “natural elite” that’s been unfairly held back to an old favorite, H.L. Mencken:

The libertarian view of freedom, government, individuality, envy, and coercive versus natural elites has never been put more concisely or with greater verve than by H.L. Mencken: All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him.

Mencken is a frequent touchstone for Rothbard, maybe close to as influential as Mises in shaping his worldview, and came in earlier in his intellectual development.

There is, of course, a little problem with the concept that there is a natural aristocracy being oppressed by supposedly inferior men: the ones on top have been “naturally selected,” too. And what is “nature” except what actually happens? Hidden essences that are only revealed to the initiated few sounds a lot like the Romantic fairy tales Rothbard mocks in that same essay. But logical consistency is not important for an idea to capture the imagination. The notion of a true elite being held down by this inferior-superior hybrid beast is a political myth in the guise of a natural ontology of human society: it is normative and rhetorical, meant to excite the political passions, “ an injustice has here been done.” It is, as I’ve said of Rothbard on the whole, more than a bit self-pitying and grandiose in its pretensions. Nietzsche, I imagine, would be the first to point it’s a little suspicious for the guy on bottom to be saying he’s should be the guy on top, had circumstances been fairer.

This conception of nature, as the Social Darwinists realized a century before, perfectly accords with laissez faire—when the free market is fully unleashed, only then can we see the true mettle of man. In 1974, he continued his jeremiad in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, this time setting his sights on feminism:

…if, indeed, men have succeeded in dominating every culture, then this in itself is a demonstration of male “superiority”; for if all genders are equal, how is it that male domination emerged in every case? But apart from this question, biology itself is being angrily denied and cast aside. The cry is that there are no, can be no, must be no biological differences between the sexes; all historical or current differences must be due to cultural brainwashing.

This strikes me as a strange position for an anarchist to take. Surely the same argument could be applied to the state: since historical societies almost always have some form of state, isn’t that just proof of its naturalness and superiority? What makes Rothbard so sure that women are not one of those “natural elites” that has toiled under a “coercive oligarchy?” Rothbard may not have been totally unaware that the picture of nature he imagined contained a contradiction, because he created a mechanism to prevent the accidental ennoblement of the merely successful. In The Ethics of Liberty he introduces the concept of the “parasite,” an “unnatural” creature:

Now the man who seizes another’s property is living in basic contradiction to his own nature as a man. For we have seen that man can only live and prosper by his own production and exchange of products. The aggressor, on the other hand, is not a producer at all but a predator; he lives parasitically off the labor and product of others. Hence, instead of living in accordance with the nature of man, the aggressor is a parasite who feeds unilaterally by exploiting the labor and energy of other men.

This is something Hoppe picked up and ran with in Democracy the God That Failed:

A member of the human race who is completely incapable of understanding the higher productivity of labor performed under a division of labor based on private property is not properly speaking a person… but falls instead into the same moral category as an animal — of either the harmless sort (to be domesticated and employed as a producer or consumer good, or to be enjoyed as a “free good”) or the wild and dangerous one (to be fought as a pest).

Keep in mind that this is characterization could extend to anyone who has achieved their living “politically,” say like campaigning for labor laws that “exploit” producers.

Egalitarianism to Rothbard, like the parasitic man, was against nature at a fundamental level:

The egalitarian revolt against biological reality, as significant as it is, is only a subset of a deeper revolt: against the ontological structure of reality itself, against the “very organization of nature”; against the universe as such. At the heart of the egalitarian left is the pathological belief that there is no structure of reality; that all the world is a tabula rasa that can be changed at any moment in any desired direction by the mere exercise of human will — in short, that reality can be instantly transformed by the mere wish or whim of human beings.

But “the ontological structure of reality itself” was completely self-evident to Rothbard, requiring no mediation though any process of scientific discovery: he thought natural law was totally revealed through apodictic axioms. He thought that Mises was mired in a Kantian epistemological position, but he would go farther and make a claim about ontology, what is, rather than just what we can think:

Whether we consider the action axiom “a priori” or “empirical” depends on our ultimate philosophical position. Professor Mises, in the neo-Kantian tradition, considers this axiom a law of thought and therefore a categorical truth a priori to all experience. My own epistemological position rests on Aristotle and St. Thomas rather than Kant, and hence I would interpret the proposition differently. I would consider the axiom a law of reality rather than a law of thought, and hence “empirical” rather than “a priori.” But it should be obvious that this type of “empiricism” is so out of step with modern empiricism that I may just as well continue to call it a priori for present purposes. For (1) it is a law of reality that is not conceivably falsifiable, and yet is empirically meaningful and true; (2) it rests on universal inner experience, and not simply on external experience, that is, its evidence is reflective rather than physical;7 and (3) it is clearly a priori to complex historical events.8

Apodictic certainty about the nature of reality traveled quite far down the chain of universals to particulars for Rothbard. In his review of the Bell Curve, he calls differences in racial intelligence an “almost self-evident truth.” One can imagine a new, nightmarish American creed: “We hold these truths to be almost self-evident, that as Charles Murray has convincingly shown, not all men are quite created equal.”

Self-ownership, laissez faire, and the alt-right

If one was to summarize the alt-right’s beliefs quickly, I don’t think it would be overgeneralizing to say that they are united in the belief that white men are the intended masters of the earth, and that only the imposition of an unnatural rule, through enforced democracy and egalitarianism has impeded them taking up their proper role. In the state of nature, they contend, their superiority would be revealed.

For instance, here is Chris Cantwell, the weeping Nazi and someone whose path to the alt-right included much reading of Hoppe and Rothbard, dismissing his critics: “Those people are not fit for survival in the absence of the state. So I don’t argue with people who call me a fascist anymore, because essentially these people are products of the democratic state.” So is Cantwell on one might add, but whatever.

He also understood his racism as being given sanction through libertarian ideas about self-ownership:

In libertarian philosophy, nobody ought to be compelled to associate with anyone else. People should be free to exercise complete control over their own person and property. If blacks are committing crimes, or Jews are spreading communism, discriminating against them is the right of any property owner. The fact that he may or may not miss out on good blacks or Jews is a risk he takes, and the merit of his decisions will be proven out by the market. Since a libertarian society would permit this, it seemed foolish that I should be compelled to support a democratic government policy which did not.

This is cribbed straight from Hoppe—”There would be little or no ‘tolerance’ and ‘openmindedness’ so dear to left-libertarians. Instead, one would be on the right path toward restoring the freedom of association and exclusion implied in the institution of private property.”

So the structure of Rothbard’s ontology lives on, parasitically I’m tempted to say: there is a natural order of hierarchy, it is repressed by the oligarchy of the parasitic unworthy, and it must be destroyed to allow true nature to run its course.