CJay Engelcomment One Commentaccess_time 11 min read
What did Murray Newton Rothbard write about? Wrong question.
Right question: what didn’t Murray Rothbard write about?
Lew Rockwell, writing the introduction to a collection of Rothbard’s essays written at the end of his life stated: “Summing up the work of Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995) and noting its stunning range, philosopher David Gordon once wondered “if there are really three, four, or five geniuses writing under his name.” Aside from his remarkable academic writing, Rothbard had numerous essays as a cultural critic, a movie reviewer, a Jazz critic, and the like. The breadth of his knowledge was impressive, to say the least. Besides all that, I have gathered and posted below a list of his most important works, for anyone who wants to start, for the first time on the works of one of my favorite political and economic philosophers. All of these (except Raimondo’s book) are available for free online. Everything is highly recommended; the books with the (**) are especially highly recommended as an introduction to Rothbard.
Before I list Rothbard’s works, I’ll mention two others about him:
The Essential Rothbard, by David Gordon. This is a summary of the thought of Rothbard. It is itself quite impressive; to take all the works listed below and summarize them succinctly into a short volume. It really is only something that could have been done by David Gordon.
An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard by Justin Raimondo. This is the biography of Rothbard, and one of the works that made me fall in love with the mind of Rothbard. It is classic Raimondo, who still (unpopularly) praises the paleo years (the first half of the 90’s) of the libertarian movement. The most interesting portion to me was his explanation of why Rothbard dismissed the Ayn Randian movement as a “cult.” It explains Rothbard as a member of the Old Right, who with his father dissented from his family’s Jewish New York socialism. It explains his disappointment with the fact that the Old Right died when it was taken over by the New Right.
And now to the works of Murray Rothbard:
Man Economy and State: This is Rothbard’s Magnum Opus. He originally started writing this as a summary of Ludwig von Mises’ economic system. It became a massive economic treatise in its own right.
Power and Market: This was originally written with Man, Economy and State (MES) but the first publisher decided to keep it out because it is so critical of government intervention into the economy. The Mises Institute has since published them together. It begins where MES ends. If MES describes the laissez-faire economy, Power and Market explains what happens specifically whenever and wherever government (force) intervenes into the free exchange sector (market).
Making Economic Sense: This is a collection of economic essays on current events, trends, policies, and academic blunders that occurred during Rothbard’s life. Look through the Table of Contents for something interesting!
The Mystery of Banking (**): This is a great book that explains both how banking works under free market conditions and how it works under the centralized banking model of the Federal Reserve System. While Rothbard takes the full-reserve perspective in the fractional reserve debate (as do I), he also demonstrates that, ignoring the fraudulent nature of fractional reserve banking, a free banking system that does not require 100% reserves will actually be pretty close to a 100% reserve system anyway. Banks, because they must compete with other banks, can’t just do whatever they want; they have to please the customers. I personally don’t think this book gets the attention it deserves. With the exception of Betrayal of the American Right (below), it is the only Rothbard book I have read more than twice.
Economic Controversies: This was originally published as a two-volume set called “The Logic of Action.” It might be seen as a follow up to his Man, Economy and State. He addresses critics and controversies and clarifies the Austrian position on numerous issues.
The Case Against the Fed: This book, which has a similar title to Ron Paul’s “End the Fed,” explains the nature and history of the Fed as a sinister organization. It is the engine of economic failure since the 1913 Federal Reserve Act.
History and Historical Economics
America’s Great Depression: Included in this classic work of Austrian analysis of the Great Depression is an overview of the Austrian view of the money supply. Austrians claim that that economic cycles are sourced in central banks manipulating the money supply. But what constitutes the money supply and what relevance does this have in modern history? If you get the Great Depression wrong, you won’t understand modern depressions either. While Ben Bernanke is considered an expert on the Great Depression, the reason why his term at the helm of the economy was such a failure is because in improperly understanding history, he didn’t know what to do following the collapse in 2008.
What Has Government Done to Our Money? (**): This is one of the most important and highly recommended books written by Rothbard. It is short and simple and remarkably engaging. He explains why governments for thousands of years have a desire to control money and to monopolize its production. But in doing so, they destroy the foundation of the economy.
The Betrayal of the American Right (**): This is the closest that Rothbard ever came to writing a biography. He describes his intellectual journey as well as his various strategies throughout the years. It is a sad book in some ways because he describes the Old Right as a glorious moment in the the post-progressive world that stood up to impending fascism; and then it died a swift death with the rise of the New Right and Bill Buckley, who hated Murray Rothbard.
The Panic of 1819: Rothbard’s PhD dissertation and really the only academic work on the historically important Panic of 1819. Rothbard points to government intervention into the contractual agreement between bank and customer as the source of the panic. The banks knew they could expand their money supplies because the government would allow them to default on their promises to redeem currency with the money (commodity) that backed it.
Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought: Another huge two volume work. Rothbard looks at the history of economics and, while the common view is that economics largely began with Adam Smith, Rothbard looks back to the Greek philosophers, Church Fathers (Augustine) various Scholastic thinkers (Aquinas), and the post-Reformation as well. One important school of thought that is largely neglected today are the French Physiocrats, whom Rothbard praises as pre-Austrians.
Conceived in Liberty: Rothbard’s four volume tome on the roots of the American experiment in liberty. It is a gigantic work. And the analysis extends from the early American Puritans and Pilgrims to the American Revolution. He finds much of the roots of liberty in the American Baptists like Roger Williams and Isaac Backus who opposed the authoritarianism of the Presbyterians in charge.
History of Money and Banking in the United States: I like Joe Salerno’s summary of this book: “Rothbard employs the Misesian approach to economic history consistently and dazzlingly throughout the volume to unravel the causes and consequences of events and institutions ranging over the course of U.S. monetary history, from the colonial times through the New Deal era. One of the important benefits of Rothbard’s unique approach is that it naturally leads to an account of the development of the U.S. monetary system in terms of a compelling narrative linking human motives and plans that often-times are hidden and devious, leading to outcomes that sometimes are tragic. One will learn much more about monetary history from reading this exciting story than from poring over reams of statistical analysis.”
The Ethics of Liberty (**): This is Rothbard’s formal political theory work. Economics is descriptive, it is value free. It does not dwell in the realm of “ought,” but remains in the “is.” Thus, political philosophy is distinct from economics, because it addresses what “ought” to be and what people “ought” not do. This is Rothbard making the Natural Law case for libertarianism. I like most of it, but dissent from his justification of “ought” propositions. Anything I do agree with, can better be justified from the Bible. But I am not to be misunderstood, this is a valuable volume to me. Hans Hoppe wrote the introduction and it is also worth mentioning. Hoppe also technically disagrees with Rothbard’s Thomism. But with Hoppe, I agree that foundations aside, its a wonderful book.
It sets a plethora of libertarian definitions of crime, aggression, contract, property, and so much more.
For a New Liberty: If the Ethics of Liberty demonstrated the theory of political philosophy, the question then becomes: “okay so how does this all work in the real world? How do we apply it?” This book answers these questions.
The Irrepressible Rothbard: This is a very fun one. I read this when in the need for some entertaining literature. This includes Rothbard at his finest (and most controversial to the left-leaning libertarians of modern day). It includes cultural commentary, paleo-libertarianism, movie reviews, political strategy.
The Volker Fund Memos: Notes and memos that Rothbard took during his time employed by the Volker Fund (which no longer exists). The Volker Fund gave grants to liberty-oriented scholars. Without it, many libertarian and Austrian works would not have faced the light of day. Rothbard has comments on an array of philosophers and thinkers in his day.
Fascinating historical note: The Volker Fund was the source of the grant that was given to Calvinist philosopher Gordon Clark when he wrote his book on Karl Barth’s Theological Method. I asked David Gordon, who edited this Rothbard Memo book, if he was aware of any time that Rothbard had read anything by Clark because Clark was approached by the fund during Rothbard’s time there. David Gordon, who himself is interested in Gordon Clark as a philosophical historian, said he wasn’t aware of any connection.
Wall Street, Banks, and American Foreign Policy (**): Classic, classic Rothbardian analysis. A highly interesting read that takes a look at the cozy corporate relationships between policy makers and policies that were put forth from the Progressive era to the 1980’s. A very short and broad sweeping overview of the “Power Elite” that exists in America.
War Collectivism: War is good for the State. It unites the citizenry against “some other enemy” and distracts them from the growing State itself. In war, everybody forgets about liberty and the State prospers enormously from this.