A Tale of Two Libertarianisms

“Accidents of intellectual and institutional history have linked as “libertarian” a set of thinkers with deep disagreements on important questions of both the preferred role for government and the intellectual justification for their political and ethical beliefs. All of them were bound by opposition to the post–New Deal Keynesian consensus of government spending and planning; all were linked in a community of affinity and intellectual engagement, through organizations such as the Volker Fund, the Mont Pelerin Society, and the Foundation for Economic Education. But as Rothbard makes abundantly clear here, very important differences exist between the fallibilistic, utilitarian, limited-government thinking of Hayek (and Friedman, and to a great degree Mises) and the natural rights–based anarchism of Rothbard. (Rothbard, along with Hayek and Mises, did believe that a free society would be the richest and most option-filled of arrangements, and thus defendable on pragmatic grounds. But he also believed, like Rand, that there was an objective moral order discoverable by reason that made human liberty right, whether or not in any particular case it would tend to work out for the best in some practical sense.)”

– Brian Doherty, from “A Tale of Two Libertarianisms,” which appears in the March 2010 issue of Reason.

This article is a book review of a newly published collection of Rothbard writings entitled, Rothbard Versus the Philosophers (Public Affairs), which is edited by the Italian political scientist, Robert Modugno. On its own accord, the article illuminates a fascinating divide between the more extreme and pragmatic intellectual cornerstones of the libertarian movement, specifically during the mid-20th century. As salient as Rothbard’s visionary contributions have proved to be, perhaps the most intriguing element of his agenda was his rigorous PR saavy. Here was an anarcho-capitalist intellectual who had no qualm being ironically (though, smartly) influenced by Marxism’s ability to affect real political and social change. Hence his tireless rallying cry, captured in this book, against seemingly kindred thinkers like Hayek, who he was convinced would damage the influence of libertarian causes around the globe by compromising its relatively absolutist, anti-Statist ethos.

Doherty also does a great job putting Rothbard’s influence into modern perspective, making sense of Ron Paul’s effectiveness during the last couple years of American political life.

A highly-recommended morning read.