Murray's Missing Plan

Column by Jim Davies.

Exclusive to STR

I've been continuing to read the fascinating story of the modern libertarian movement's early years, as told in the Libertarian Forum, edited and often written by Murray Rothbard. It's vast, but very worthwhile – warmly recommended. I've supplemented it recently with a re-read of parts of Justin Raimondo's excellent biography of him, An Enemy of the State.

Despite occasional flaws, my admiration for MNR is undiminished. Single handed, he spotted the weakness in both Ayn Rand's philosophy and in that of his lieber meister, Ludwig von Mises; in different ways each of those had concluded that, terrible though government is in almost every respect, it was not feasible to do without it altogether. So they were minarchists.

Rand thought that a justice system required punishment, and she could not imagine any way to establish in a free society a uniform schedule of punishments without a single authority to decide and enforce it – i.e., government. That was, at least, one of her reasons for not being an anarchist. I think she was right; the two do go together. If you want punishment (retribution), you need government; if you want government, you will get plenty of punishment. She chose both; I choose neither. Murray Rothbard, in a rare lapse of good logic, tried to have one without the other, as explored in this STRticle.

But meanwhile Murray showed, for students of both Rand and Mises, that all the functions of government (like justice and defense) which might be necessary or desirable could well be provided by an unfettered market without coercion, and he did so in detail and with all the authority of a first class scholar. After wrestling with the idea of minimizing the state to perform only vital functions of that kind, the light-bulb went on for him: he saw that if powers like those are granted, eventually there can be no limit to other powers government will take.

This was new ground. It's where he leaped “outside the box” of conventional thinking – and even that of the unconventional thinking of those two giants. He presented his findings in 1970 in Power and Market and in 1973 in For a New Liberty, still the standard work of its kind, and it was well accompanied by works of other authors like David Friedman (The Machinery of Freedom, also 1973), the Tannehills (The Market for Liberty, 1970) and in such more recent books as Wes Bertrand's Complete Liberty (2007) and my own A Vision of Liberty (2006.) All of those derive from Rothbard's original and seminal work, which is why I rate him the #1 champion of freedom in the 20th Century.

Thus, Murray Rothbard took politics out of consideration. Post-Murray, it became possible to think of society working well without any central directorate at all. This was radical, for politics had been a fundamental part of sociology ever since Aristotle. He was that important!

But four decades after For a New Liberty appeared, a zero-government society has not. How come? What went wrong? Where did Murray's Master Plan, if he had one, come unstuck?

The problem is right there: he didn't. I've referred before to his “elephantine” failure to lay out a way to get from here to there, because that task is the elephant in the room. It's all very nice and exciting to dream of a free society, but if there's no known way to obtain one, it's not a whole lot of use. Now, his written output was so prolific that I could be wrong on this; he may have outlined a plan which I've not yet encountered. If any reader happens to know of it, please comment below with a link to it and I'll prepare to eat some or all of my words. But my impression that such a plan is missing is bolstered by noting what he actually did, in those critical years from 1968 through 1984 – as well as what little about it that he did write.

For what he wrote, I searched the Libertarian Forum and the Irrepressible Rothbard for phrases like “plan for liberty,” “strategic plan,” “strategy for freedom,” etc., but struck out. More accurately, I struck out in the sense that I found nothing that I recognized as a strategic plan for achieving a zero government society by a specified, proactive method in some particular period of time. I did find phrases like “strategy for liberty,” but eventually realized that Rothbard meant by it something different from what I knew in the business world.

For example, he wrote a lengthy “Epilogue” to For a New Liberty, which is a guidebook for the new movement, titled “A Strategy for Liberty.” At first sight this seemed to be Murray's missing plan, and it begins very well with the header “Education: Theory and Movement,” but proposes how members of the libertarian movement should best educate each other and present or package ourselves and our ideas to voters. I'd call that more of a policy than a strategy, and if he had a systematic plan to educate every American, he didn't mention it.

A similar, and longer, essay can be read here online as the final chapter in Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty. His perspective is that of how the movement should best position itself, what policies it should emphasize first, etc; the whole assumption is, it seems to me, that it is expected to take its place in a political process. It's a fine homily, but it's not a plan at all – with stated objectives, dependencies, resource listing, timetable, etc.

A minor example: Rothbard was eager that libertarians should present ourselves to the public as respectable, real-world people rather than as long-haired hippies. He always wore a suit, himself. He was impatient even with David Bergland for conveying to Californians an image of LPers as laid-back, live-life-your-way rather than being orderly and well-groomed. He often used the word luftmenschen (air-heads) to demean those more spaced-out and easy-going, and I ran into that myself at the Seattle LP convention in 1987; I happened to prefer Russell Means to Ron Paul and was a bit peeved when MNR called us air-heads. So I made up a lapel button and wore it proudly, for fun: Ich bin ein luftmensch. But I didn't realize that Murray was serious, he thought it awful that the LP might trust its future to a flamboyant, unorthodox American Indian instead of an articulate, buttoned-down physician, economist and politician.

I found one other reference to the subject. In the June 1971 issue of LF (Vol III #5), Rothbard wrote of two streams of libertarian thought about how to “destatize” (a word that has, happily, sunk) -- “the 'left-wing' tends to call for immediate destruction of existing society” while the “'right-wing' tends to be pure 'educationists'. Both strategies are self-defeating . . . . The educationist view tends to hold that as more people are converted, the State will somehow automatically wither away. But how?” If only he had pondered that fair question a little longer!

What he did, on the other hand, is much more eloquent. As a preeminent economics scholar, he would have been perfectly well justified to lay out the theoretical framework for a free society for us, and let others enter the practical grind to cause it to come about; but he didn't. He dove in head-first to the fray, leading charge after charge against statism and all its works.

His choice was to engage in political activism. That was the environment in which he'd been raised – though his uncles were communists, not libertarians. For example, Raimondo recalls how, in 1968, Rothbard “wandered in innocently to a Peace and Freedom Party meeting . . . one can almost hear the mischievous cackle that must have accompanied this statement . . . 'And I was plunged into the vortex of left-wing politics; it was lots of fun, it was a very fun thing . . . .'” -- so he did it without apology.

That's not to say he was eager to start a new party and run for office. At first he was skeptical about what David Nolan and his friends did in 1971, even though the newborn LP tried to nominate him for President; “Your editor came in first in the poll, thus becoming the runaway plurality choice of the 52 people who participated in the voting . . . . [In support] a deluge of five letters and calls came flooding in. It should be clear that, at the very least, any talk of a libertarian party is grossly premature, and will be for many years to come.” Time has proven him only too accurate, even though later on he became the LP's de-facto leader.

Rather, Rothbard's initial activism was to plunge into whatever was the current political scene, getting media attention, to shake it up and get reported; mount demonstrations, write op-eds, get noticed. Support less-evil candidates in elections, from either big party, in the hope that when they won, they would make government a bit less obnoxious.

This failure to reflect and form a rational, strategic plan to bring about a zero-government society is really a colossal failure, a major omission. It's as if Rothbard and his friends were attacking an enemy where he is strongest and best fortified, with pea shooters. He was a David, going up against Goliath without even a slingshot. They were one squad of Marines, assaulting Omaha Beach with a couple of rubber dinghies and one rifle, a revolver and a grenade per person. They did an amazing job, of getting far more publicity than they might have, but it was doomed from the get-go.

Instead he should have obtained answers to some key questions. The State's defenses seem impregnable – but where are their weak spots? On what do they depend? How about the enemy's supply lines? From where come his water, his food, his ammunition? How about telecommunications, where do the phone wires run? Whom does he employ? I don't mean the key people (although as we saw this year in the case of Edward Snowden, if a single well-placed employee quits his job, it can have a devastating effect) but the ancillary staff, the hewers of wood and drawers of water. One persistent strike by garbage workers can bring a city to its knees.

In the case of government, on what support does it depend? Votes? Hardly, until the election turnout sinks to single digits, and maybe not then. Taxes? Perhaps, but not much. Not now that it can fabricate $85 billion of new “money” every month. Employees? Ah, now you're cookin'. Without their support, it can't survive a single day.

In blaming Rothbard for failing to pause and ask these simple, vital questions and form an action plan to fit the answers, I am also blaming myself. I joined the movement in 1980, and it was 25 years before I got around to posing them; and by then, very sadly, Murray had been dead for ten. And I did business planning for a living! So while his omission is tragic, few if any of us can point an accusing finger without three others pointing back at ourselves.

Anyway, his Quixotic assault on government strongholds hasn't worked. Rothbard's original take on the LP's founding proved correct, and as early as 1984, he was writing that the movement, while by no means dead, had “imploded” (LF volume XVIII issues 8-12). Money had been attracted in generous amounts from the Koch brothers, but with the funds came, naturally, control. And in their wisdom, Charles and David Koch decided to place them with people (like the Cato Institute) who would soften the properly hard edge of pure libertarianism that Rothbard favored; they are businessmen, and expect some visible progress for their investments. So here we are, four decades on, and the LP has never won more votes than it got in 1980, when its Presidential team was Ed Clarke and David Koch.

Hence the deep irony, the sad contradiction in Murray Rothbard; he brilliantly pioneered the theory that society can do very well in every way without any political component at all, yet he employed a political method to try to bring that about. Little wonder it failed. Had he devoted his astonishing intellect to the formation of a rational plan for translating theory into practice, instead of plunging into activism with apparently little thought, we'd be in a very different spot.

It's understandable that in the anti-war ferment of the late 1960s he should wish to seize the moment, to join with all enemies of the state including the far Left, to combat government in its time of weakness; nonetheless, the error was tragic. Had he paused, reflected quietly, and planned, I think he could not have failed to begin by describing what government is; of whom it consists. To form a strategy to abolish it, first one must understand its nature.

He'd have had no problem, for all of that is implicit in what he'd already published – perhaps most notably in Anatomy of the State. He might have defined government as “that which prevents the operation of a market.” He'd probably have noted that its members all have a wish to live by force, rather than persuasion. And, crucially, I think he could not have failed to see that in order to abolish it, the one necessary job is to cause its employees to leave their jobs; for he knew that government consists only of those who work for it.

From there, he would have grasped at once that the task was indeed one of education; not only of government workers but also of those who might replace them if they quit; and that the education required would teach not only the repugnant nature of the state but also the nature of a free-market alternative, so that everyone would know how to live in one.

Above, I noted how close he came: he referred to education, but then asked rather scornfully, “But how?” -- how would education of libertarian leaders cause the state to wither away?

It wouldn't, of course. But if he'd only taken the question one stage further, another light bulb would surely have lit up: the needed education is not just for activists and leaders but for everyone. No matter the formidable size of that task; if a free society is to come about, that is what needs to be done, and nothing less. Otherwise, there could be no universal repudiation of government, needed to motivate everyone to avoid working for it. Then, once he had seen that, he'd have figured out a way to deliver the indispensable education.

At least, I think he would, given the power of his intellect; though the task would have seemed far more formidable then, in the 1970s, than it does today now that we have the Internet. He'd have had to propose some kind of correspondence school, as in What Might Have Been. Possibly he'd have seen a way to use TV, with VHS tapes – or even just audio. If he had forgotten how the early Christian Church grew exponentially, his wife JoAnn, a lifelong Presbyterian, would surely have reminded him – and so he would have tumbled to the central idea of one-to-one replication, with its enormous ability to cause rapid growth.

Absence of the Net, and of low-cost CDs, might have slowed down progress a bit; who knows, the process might have taken 40 years instead of a reasonably-projected 28. But since 1970, when Rothbard had all his ducks in a row and had begun his activism, we've had those 40 years. If only he had chosen such a non-political method, to complement the non-political nature of the free society he had just portrayed, we'd be enjoying the result already.

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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?" and in 2016, an unraveling of the great paradox of "income tax law" with "How Government Silenced Irwin Schiff."


Emmett Harris's picture

Excellent article, Jim.
While not a comprehensive strategy for a free society, Rothbard did lay out a plan for a return to sound money in his The Mystery of Banking [pdf].  It starts on page 261 of this linked edition, which you've probably read.  I think you didn't mention it because of its narrower focus, but it's fair to point out that he didn't completely ignore the presentation of a plan, even if it covers only one aspect of how to get to a free society.

Jim Davies's picture

Thanks Emmett. That does happen to be one Rothbard work I haven't read, and yes, he does use the word "plan" in those pages.
In reality it is no such thing. It doesn't even start to be a plan. It hasn't even the elementary structure of a plan. If that represents what Murray Rothard supposes is a "plan", my article ought to have been more critical of his big omission.
It imagines a way in which, if all participants were interested in accomplishing it, sound money could be restored. Arithmetically, it's good. It's an academician's idea of a plan, possibly. Theory.
It states an objective, one can say that in its favor, however narrow and limited (it would take us back, approximately, to 1912) - he wants a gold standard restored. It has no list of dependencies, no timetable, no resource requirements. And no wonder; by implication (only) it makes the ridiculous assumption that government and bankers will go along with it. He fails to say so (and little wonder) but presumably, that means Congress has to be motivated to agree. Ron Paul has recently attempted something similar; note how far he got, even in his own Party.
Nonsense, on stilts.

Jim Davies's picture

(Re-posted as a Reply.)

Emmett Harris's picture

Your correct on this too.  I guess my one quibble would be the degree of specificity required to constitute a "plan."  As one goes into greater details with a plan, it becomes more and more limited to a particular time and set of dependencies.  Certainly, if the plan is to be acted upon at point X, then those details become critical.  If, on the other hand, it's being put forth as a general guide to some future point, then the details are superfluous baggage, any change in which some could use as an argument against proceeding. 

Jim Davies's picture

Fully agree. I've heard that the army's finest battle plan is obsolete the moment after the first shot is fired.
That's why a good plan will name dependencies and will outline possible changes to be made on the fly if certain named contingencies arise. Yes, for the same reason, too much detail is bad.
And above all, the fact that adaptations will very likely be needed while it's being executed is absolutely no excuse whatever for failing to craft it in the first place, to the best of one's ability.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Hi, Jim: I finally finished reading the article and will say more below, but you hit on something here. If the "plan" requires an awareness of contingencies and a kind of either-or decision process repeatedly, obviously this means numerous instances of this either-or decision--very numerous. So it seems you really are hitting upon a kind of "approach" or "viewpoint" that should come into play in analyziing the ever-changing situation before us--some kind of guideline to determining next steps. It's almost a kind of approach that mirrors (but in it's own unique way?) the original Christian pacifism, which created such cognitive dissonance among those who persecuted them. But Christians were somehow able to convey a powerful belief -- an inevitable faith. Perhaps this is how Butler Shaffer approaches thing. But for him, the state will simply choke itself on its own pile of budensome entanglements and rules and waste products. Is that it? Do we just watch it destroy itself?

Alex R. Knight III's picture

Excellent article, as usual, Jim.  :-)  I do want to raise one point, however, where you state (if you'll pardon use of that word) in relation to tax-resistance as a means of eliminating government: "Taxes? Perhaps, but not much. Not now that it can fabricate $85 billion of new 'money' every month."
While I will agree that no final victory can be achieved until no one is willing to work for government, and that the Feds can simply -- at least for maybe another decade or so -- print what they fail to collect in taxes, such is still not the case for "state" and local governments.  True, they can try to hit U.S. up for subsidies, but at the very least this still bogs up the political process and makes them look bad -- at worst they are told by U.S. to get their own houses in order and sent packing with no additional FRNs for their least until the next election cycle.
So, no, tax-resistance is not a full solution by any means, but at the lower levels while the larger process is playing itself out, it can perhaps act as an accelerant.  Just a thought.

Jim Davies's picture

Good point, Alex; states can't print money so if a successful tax strike were mounted they would be vulnerable. Any ideas?
The State of Confusion has 6 million residents and taxes income (by piggybacking the Federal scam), property, sales, road use and profits; with a total grab of $60 billion. Among its victims are 60 market anarchists and 600 lib-symps, but none of those are wealthy. What would be your plan for bringing it to its knees in the next decade?

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Jim, I look forward to reading and benefitting from your article (I am tired and it is late) when I finish it. But there is a minor error that --when corrected--actually reinforces your correct perceptions. When Rothbard used the term luftmenschen, he meant "air men" -- quite literally meaning insubstantial people with no matrix or means of earning a living, who just drift through life with no visible means of support, having no jobs. But you have the gist correct. I also agree that Russell Means would have been more effective in showing the heart and spirit of freedom, not just the geek factor of the economic side. Soul was needed. I am happy to say the Michigan LP voted for Means, despite my appreciation of Ron.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Hello, Jim. This was a very fine article -- linking Rothbard's key role in outlining the shape of the movement but failing to lay out the plan. Maybe that lacuna in itself tells us something about how vicotry will be achieved. Maybe liberty -- so different from all other sea-changes in political thought and perhaps the only real sea-change in political ideas that has ever occurred -- requires a different kind of non-planned plan. But that takes us into a very undifferentiated place. But maybe that's where it is.
If liberty is the ultimate decentralization of power and its bestowal upon each non-violent individual, maybe the plan is something like an anti-plan. But I lose myself. As I pointed out in reference to Butler Shaffer, his conception seems to make him happy. And maybe it will work itself out because it may be in the very nature of things for it to happen? Why? Becuase reality itself seems to rest on "choice" in an ultimate sense -- with the uncertainty principle, the new thinking on chaos theory and swarm intelligence and "emergent systems" thought. In other words, perhaps choice and freedom is the underlying glue of reality, and the statists are simply fighting a battlte they ultimately must lose.
After all, even our DNA is itself dependent upon the accurate transmission of information -- with a possibility of mutation or change, or "choice" if you will. And what are free markets if not the economic expression of the free, uncensored, unimpeded, and accurate transmission and creation of information? The state is opposed to it, yet we all survive and thrive on the transmission of accurate, unblocked, freely shared information. Just as the IP chimera will choke innovation, the existence of the state itself will eventually be seen for what it is -- the enemy of civilization, of advancement, of truth, of the creation and transmission of information in every form -- which includes the processes of life itself. Perhaps we are -- even now -- cathing a whiff of the demise of the state. You said it yourself when you zoomed in on education as a key act. Perhaps, as parents see the toxic effects of education and that realization spreads from central cities to the suburban turnip factories, the wish to protect their children will itself be the driving force behind the growth of market-centered education, of life-giving education.
So the home-schooling and particularly the un-schooling movements may be the outriders of the demise of the propaganda systems that keep bound the minds of so many human beings. And as the lies of the state pile up deeper and deeper in a society that craves and floats on information, its existence will become increasingly untenable. At some point, its naked brutality will be the only thing visible, and even the most credulous boob will view it with distaste--or am I being optimistic? Perhaps one day it will end when people simply stop taking seriously ANYTHING that the psychotic people in Washington, D.C. and its equivalents put out for mental consumption. In essence, I wonder if the state is its own worst enemy and the source of its death throes. Or is this just eschatology bouncing out of my brain?
PS: I love your tale of the luftmenschen. I recall when those of us in Michigan were asking the same question and saying: "What's so bad about luftmenscen?"

Jim Davies's picture

Thanks, Lawrence!
In retrospect, Murray was probably right about Means vs Paul. I favored Russell in the belief that what the LP most needed was media coverage, and he was very good at getting that. His clothing alone had the ability to cause cameras to click.
But we were all wrong, because running anyone for Pres just isn't the way. It is activity inside the political box, and the whole point is to get people outside the box.
On education, if you haven't met it yet try this tool.