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The H. L. Mencken of Economics

For centuries the State has committed mass murder and called it “war”; then ennobled the mass slaughter that “war” involves.

While reading biographical accounts of Murray Rothbard, one thing becomes clear to me: He was very true to himself, more than most thinkers I have ever read of. Murray Rothbard was an honorable exception in a profession where even blind idealists find themselves being tempted to play by the rules. There was of course, a terrible price for being the greatest entertainer in the history of economic thought. Because, Manu Joseph’s take on Delhi is all the more true of the Economics profession: “Delhi, often, confuses seriousness with intelligence and humour with flippancy. People will not be taken seriously here if they are not, well, serious.”

If you have to be taken seriously by fellow academics, you have to be as dry, boring and confused. Rothbard’s lectures on the contrary, as Bryan Caplan opined, might as well have been named “The joy of Econ”. One of Bryan’s blog posts had an apt title, “History + Comedy = Rothbard”, because he was “Haha funny”. Then, as someone had said, he’d rather have a good laugh than a Nobel Prize.

Rothbard believed that an individualist born in this world “marked by fraud, folly and tyranny” has three ways to deal with it: Retire into one’s own cocoon, set out to reform the world or take immense delight in the nonsense he sees around. Rothbard , it seems, was among the very few who had a driving desire to reform the world and take delight in the spectacle of folly at the same time. He lacked the pessimism of H.L. Mencken who was not too much of a reformer. Mencken knew that his barbaric fellow beings were hopeless and beyond repair and reform. Even when Rothbard writes about the worst of tyrannies, it appeared that like H.L. Mencken, he felt far more delight than indignation. As readers, we feel nothing but amusement even when he cheerfully quotes the listing of monstrosities in the diary of a slave owner who imagined himself to be a kind taskmaster.

I never understood libertarians who “want to make a difference”. If the primary motive of someone in approaching a science, philosophy or profession is reforming the world, I think it is a person who is in all likelihood unfit for the job.  The common good and the destiny of the world are way too uninspiring notions in the long run. These are motives which almost never drive a person to man the barricades to achieve the goal. The prospective benefits of liberty to the self too are hardly inspiring as the prospect for liberty in our lifetime is bleak. In conventional terms, the costs of being a libertarian intellectual are unspeakably high.

So, why be a libertarian? What is in it for me? Rothbard believed that a passion for justice will be “the armor that will sustain us in all the storms ahead, not the search for a quick buck, the playing of intellectual games or the cool calculation of general economic gains.” I have to disagree. For mere mortals, the passion for a justice which they will never reach in their lifetime is also hardly inspiring. It takes a Jihadi to go against his instincts and pay heavy penalty. Being a libertarian intellectual takes more than a love for liberty and justice. It also takes a genuine love for the intellectual game and the craft of writing. When we read Rothbard, we feel that he enjoyed every moment of the game. In a manner reminiscent of Mencken, Rothbard’s prose was “rollicking and ferocious”. It was laugh out loud funny.

I came across the works of Rothbard seven years back.  I started reading, and I was soon relishing his ridicule of conspicuous compassion: “Winter is here, and for the last few years this seasonal event has meant the sudden discovery of a brand-new category of the pitiable: the “homeless.” And what of next year? Are we to be confronted with a new category, the “unclothed,” or perhaps the “ill-shod”? And how about the “thirsty”? Or the candy-deprived? How many more millions are standing in line, waiting to be trotted out for consideration?”

To many who read such passages which are sprinkled throughout his works, Rothbard could come off as “mean”. But, as William Manchester would have it, “Sometimes words should hurt. That is why they are in the language. When terrorists slaughter innocents, when corporation executives betray the trust of shareholders, when lewd priests betray the trust of little children, it is time to mobilize the language and send it into battle.”

So, what makes reading Rothbard nothing but joy? Bryan Caplan has an explanation. Most historians are as serious as cancer. They give historical figures undeserving respect. Even when they get the facts right, they prefer to tell the story of “William, the conqueror” when there is a far more honest and entertaining story of “William, the mass murderer”. Rothbard would have none of these. He pokes fun at fools, tyrants, useful idiots and glorified criminals without any scruples. He could be harshly sarcastic. He could be mean.

Unlike establishment historians who consider the state as an innocent error, or as Mencken rightly put it, “as a benevolent father or even as a sort of jinn or god”, Rothbard did not think that the state is the “apotheosis of the society” or even that it is a “benevolent institution”. He did not hesitate to call a spade a spade. He was willing to call a criminal gang a criminal gang.  Nothing summarizes the state better than these words of Rothbard: “For centuries, the State has cloaked its criminal activity in high-sounding rhetoric. For centuries the State has committed mass murder and called it “war”; then ennobled the mass slaughter that “war” involves. For centuries the State has enslaved people into its armed battalions and called it “conscription” in the “national service.” For centuries the State has robbed people at bayonet point and called it “taxation.” I agree with Caplan that this insight is obvious and brilliant at the same time. If this is not obvious to someone with a casual acquaintance of human history, I do not know why.

Murray Rothbard said truths which most economists of even our generation (And it includes libertarian economists) hesitate to state. His take on compulsory public schooling is still considered an unspeakable truth: “True to the common hatred of individual superiority and distinction, the passion for leveling an enforced equality proclaims: this is good; let every child be forced to learn about “life” and be forced to associate with the lowest types of humanity. The envy and hatred toward the potentially better and superior child is apparent in this position.” His short book on education strengthened my position that homeschooling is a vastly superior alternative.

When he aptly summarizes Harvard Professor Edward Banfield’s “The Unheavenly city”: “Upper- and middle-class members tend to be future-oriented, purposeful, rational, and self-disciplined. Lower-class people, on the other hand, tend to have a strong present-orientation, are capricious, hedonistic, purposeless, and therefore unwilling to pursue a job or a career with any consistency.”, anyone who has observed the lower-class with a tint of honesty will have to agree, or at least admit that this is all true.

His views were eccentric. But often, at the root of it, he was by and large, right. When he writes on a wide variety of subjects from “women’s liberation” to banking, cracks like this are plenty:

“Why have men been running the culture over eons of time? Surely, this cannot be an accident. Isn’t this evidence of male superiority?”

“It is men, not women, who are more likely to be the oppressed class, or gender, in our society, and that it is far more the men who are the “blacks,” the slaves, and women their masters. In the middle-class neighborhood in which I live, I see them, these “oppressed” and hard-faced viragoes, strutting down the street in their mink stoles to the next bridge or mah-jongg game, while their husbands are working themselves into an early coronary down in the garment district to support their helpmeets. In these cases, then, who are the “niggers”: the wives or the husbands? The women’s libs claim that men are the masters because they are doing most of the world’s work. But, if we look back at the society of the slave South, who indeed did the work? It is always the slaves who do the work, while the masters live in relative idleness off the fruits of their labor. To the extent that husbands work and support the family, while wives enjoy a kept status, who then are the masters?”

“One motif now permeating the entire movement is a strident opposition to men treating women as “sex objects. Woman as “sex objects”? Of course they are sex objects and, praise the Lord, they always will be. Just as men, of course, are sex objects to women. It would seem banal even to bother mentioning this, but in todays increasingly degenerate intellectual climate no simple truths can any longer be taken for granted.”

“The Women’s Libs may claim that models are exploited, but if we consider the enormous pay that the models enjoy—as well as their access to the glamorous life—and compare it with their opportunity cost foregone in other occupations such as waitress or typist—the charge of exploitation is laughable indeed.”

Unlike most academics who play the status game, Rothbard wrote books instead of journal articles. As Gary North had said, hundred years from now, people will read Rothbard for pure entertainment. We cannot, of course, say the same of the latest issue of The American Economic Review. One of the biggest wastage of the skewed incentive structure in the academia is that many academics spent their lives writing journal articles that rarely contribute anything to the world in terms of fun or intellectual excitement.  His Economics aside, one of the most important lessons of Rothbard is that reading and writing about ideas can be loads of fun. Part of the intellectual gains from reading Rothbard is to end up being convinced that even economics can be written beautifully, and that it is the way it ought to be done.

It is an inside secret of the dismal science that most economists cannot write a decent sentence. Murray Rothbard, however, was a master of the art. As even intelligent laymen can enjoy and appreciate his work, he is considered less intellectually interesting than mediocrities who wrote incoherently. Many think that the biggest threat to the libertarian movement is the search for purity and extremism, not the fact that many of them have accepted the collectivist arguments lock, stock and barrel. Many feel that absolutism, persuasion and sarcasm are worse than cowardice and violence. But, as hard as it is for many to admit this obvious fact, it takes enormous talent to be an innovator and entertainer at the same time.

The world that wants its intellectuals to be serious, obscure and timid had a really difficult time admitting that with all his wit, clarity and stylistic prose, Murray Rothbard could also be one of the greatest thinkers in the history of mankind. Perhaps, Ayn Rand was right: “The sound perception of an ant doesn’t include thunderstorms. When you see a man casting pearls without getting even a pork chop in return–it is not against the swine that you feel indignation.”

Murray Rothbard died 17 years back, on this day. But, I often think that it would have been wonderful if he were blogging today.

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