Monday, January 25, 2010

The Books that Formed Murray Rothbard

By David Gordon

Few scholars approach Murray Rothbard’s immense learning in economics, history, politics, and philosophy. From all the books he read, Rothbard singled out a few that had most influenced him. His list, together with brief comments, is contained in a letter, dated January 24, 1994, with the heading "Books That Formed Me." The list tells us much about this remarkable mind.

As all readers of Rothbard know, he wrote in a sparkling, punchy style, ever alert to take the battle to the enemy. Here his model was H. L. Mencken, who he calls "my favorite single writer as a writer." He mentions in particular the collection A Mencken Chrestomathy, which he terms "a hilarious blockbuster." Mencken combined "social wit and libertarian social analysis," and this is just what Rothbard aimed at in his own work. Mencken wrote with clarity and force, in contrast with the woolly circumlocutions of most mainstream "social scientists." One of the worst offenders in this regard was Thorstein Veblen; and Rothbard found Mencken’s mordant demolition of Veblen, both as thinker and stylist, to be "one of the funniest and most perceptive essays on social science ever written."

Mencken wrote from an explicitly libertarian point of view, a fact that figured strongly in Rothbard’s admiration for him. He called attention to "Mencken’s marvelous essay on ‘The Nature of Liberty’ in one of the Prejudices, a very funny story dissecting how the courts have weakened the right of free speech and personal liberty. (And this in the 1920s!)"

Another writer rivaled Mencken in wit. Rothbard rated S.J. Perelman "an incomparable humorist. . . . No one was as funny a linguist and as masterly in twisting and inverting clich├ęs. See, in particular, in The Best of S. J., the parodies of Odets (‘Waiting for Santy’), of Dostoevsky, of Maugham, of tough-guy detective stories, and of science fiction."

Given his liking for witty dialogue, it is no surprise that he thought Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of being Earnest "the perfect play." He also liked George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara and In Good King Charles’s Olden Days.

Rothbard says that his "major interest in fiction is espionage fiction" He recommended John Buchan’s The 39 Steps and Greenmantle; these "pioneered, and are still among the best of the genre." But his taste in fiction ranged more widely, and he liked Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, a "scintillating satire attacking egalitarianism"; Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint; and John Dos Passos’s The Grand Design, "a bitter anti-New Deal novel from Dos Passos’s right-wing period." In poetry, he "blushed to say" that there was only one item on his list: "e.e. cummings, ‘i sing of olaf,’ a powerful libertarian indictment of the State’s oppression of an anti-war individualist."

Of course Rothbard was not primarily a literary critic, and he concentrated his recommendations on works of economics, political theory, and American history. In economics, he confines himself to one name: Ludwig von Mises. He describes Human Action as "a monumental work; in economic theory and in political economy, it had the greatest single influence on me." Mises’s Theory of Money and Credit is a "superb work of monetary and banking theory." Rothbard’s great work Man, Economy, and State was the foremost product of Mises’s influence on him; it developed and extended the economics of Human Action.

Continue reading about the rest of Rothbard's favorites here.

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