Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Murphy at His Best: On Rothbard’s "Man, Economy, and State" at 50

 Bob Murphy has written an out-of-the park appreciation of Murray Rothbard's Man, Economy and State. Murphy begins:
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1962 publication of Murray Rothbard’s grand treatise, Man, Economy, and State (MES). I was humbled when asked to write an appreciation of this indispensable work of Austrian economics. Rather than discussing the book’s obvious role in the modern revival of Austrian ideas, I decided to focus on the book itself.

Rothbard originally intended his work to be a textbook treatment of Ludwig von Mises’s own magnum opus, Human Action, which had come out in 1949. Indeed, Herbert C. Cornuelle, president of the Volcker Fund, was the one to pitch this idea to Rothbard that very year. Rothbard prepared an outline and a sample chapter on money, then received the blessing of Mises himself to go forward.

However, as Joseph Stromberg chronicles in exquisite detail in his introduction to the Mises Institute’s Scholar’s Edition of MES (2004), upon embarking on the project Rothbard eventually realized that a mere textbook would not be adequate. Cornuelle had visited Rothbard and asked if he thought the work should become a treatise in its own right. Rothbard pondered the question and eventually wrote in response (in February 1954):

The original concept of this project was as a step-by-step, spelled-out version of Mises’ Human Action. However, as I have been proceeding, the necessary elaborations on the sometimes sparse framework of Mises has led inevitably to new and original presentations. Now that I have been proceeding to the theory of production where the whole cost-curve situation has to be faced, Mises is not much of a guide in this area. It is an area which encompasses a large part of present-day textbooks, and therefore must be met, in one way or another. . . . A further complication has arisen. A textbook, traditionally, is supposed to simply present already-received doctrine in a clear, step-by step manner. But not only would my textbook fly in the face of the doctrine as received by 99 percent of present-day economists, but there is one particularly vital point on which Mises, and all other economists, will have to be revised: monopoly theory.

Thus we see that Rothbard eventually realized that he was writing a brand new treatise, resting on the Misesian edifice to be sure, but one that was Rothbard’s own. Not only did Rothbard differ from Mises on certain key points (some of which will be discussed below), but even where their treatments were compatible, Rothbard’s was the clearer and more systematic.

The fundamental difference between Human Action and Man, Economy, and State is that the latter is completely self-contained. The intelligent layperson with no prior exposure to any economics can read just Rothbard’s treatise and walk away understanding the core of orthodox Austrian theory. In contrast, Mises’s classic work assumes a great deal of background knowledge on the part of the reader, including Kantian philosophy, the classical theory of value, and Böhm-Bawerkian capital and interest theory (!). None of this is meant to belittle Mises’s work, but merely to underscore that I personally always point the dedicated newcomer to MES first, and only then to Human Action.
Read the rest here.


  1. Hey Bob what are your thoughts on this paper?

  2. I read Hazlitt and Schiff and Ron Paul before, but it was MES that really turned me into a true austrian and anarcho-capitalist. The reviewer really captures the true essence of Rothbard in this review. And he hits the nail on the head with Rothbard's monopoly-theory.

  3. I read Reisman's Capitalism first, then Human Action, then Man, Economy and State w/ Power & Market.

    I have always wondered how my experience of the ideas and the works themselves would be different if I had read them in a different order or at different times in my intellectual development (that's presuming I could characterize myself as having had an "intellectual development", of course).