Saturday, October 26, 2013

Walter Block: Rothbard Was No Hack

Walter Block sends along part of the current email exchange he had with Chris W. Surprenant:

Dear  Chris:

Is this the same Jason Brennan who thinks that Murray Rothbard, the greatest libertarian ever, was a hack? Surely not. There must be two Jason Brennans. You would never characterize as a “libertarian” the Jason Brennan who thinks that Murray Rothbard, the greatest libertarian ever, was a hack. Or would you? Now, I know why you don’t invite libertarians. You don’t know what that is. If you want to learn, here are a few books you might want to read:

Rothbard, Murray N. 1973. For a New Liberty, Macmillan, New York;

Huebert, Jacob. 2010. Libertarianism Today. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger;

Rothbard, Murray N. 1998 [1982] The Ethics of Liberty, New York: New York University Press.

Block, Walter E. 2008 [1976]. Defending the Undefendable. Auburn, AL: The Mises Institute

Rothbard Was a Hack

So says Jason Brennan. Now if I had to judge Rothbard solely on the basis of people’s opinions, I’d prefer the views of far more accomplished scholars than Jason Brennan — people like Robert Higgs, or indeed Ludwig von Mises himself.

First, Bob Higgs:

Murray Rothbard’s scholarship spanned an enormous range, including philosophy, methodology, economic theory, the history of economic and political thought, economic history, economic policy, law, and contemporary politics. I was well along in my career as an economist specializing in the economic history of the United States when I began to read his work. Once started, I never stopped.

Higgs then recalls the letter Murray sent in response to the manuscript for the now-classic Crisis and Leviathan:
I can still recall the deflated feeling I had after finishing the letter. I knew that I did not have sufficient life expectancy to accomplish what Murray had indicated needed to be done. Sad to say, I couldn’t read that much in a decade, even if I did nothing else, much less incorporate all of it into a coherent book. Never before had I been shown my inadequacies as a scholar in such a well-documented way — after all, even the pathetic manuscript Murray was flogging had taken me five years to draft and rested to some extent on twenty years of study and research.

We are not all destined for greatness. I made a number of revisions of my text and my footnotes along the lines suggested in Murray’s letter. Needless to say, I was not able to follow up on the great majority of his suggestions, and I have no doubt that my book was the worse for that inability. All I can say in my own defense is that the book, such as it is, did get finished and published in my lifetime. And my luck held. When Murray reviewed the book for Liberty magazine in 1987, he praised it extravagantly, breathing not a word about the shortcomings he had spent 24 pages detailing in a private communication written mainly for my benefit….
It is not likely that we shall ever have another scholar of Murray’s breadth. In his letter he referred to well over a hundred sources, many by exact author, title, publication date and publisher, even though he apologized for “not having access to the bulk of my books here in Las Vegas, nor to any decent library, so I will have to wing the citations from time to time.”

I was honored to know Murray Rothbard and privileged to work with him in a number of conferences and programs organized by the Mises Institute. I hold him to have been one of our century’s great intellectual figures, whose neglect by mainstream academicians is inexcusable.

So Bob Higgs, whose contributions to libertarian scholarship need hardly be cited, considers Rothbard “one of our century’s great intellectual figures.”

Mises said of Rothbard’s treatise Man, Economy, and State:

In every chapter of his treatise, Dr. Rothbard, adopting the best of the teachings of his predecessors, and adding to them highly important observations, not only develops the correct theory but is no less anxious to refute all objections ever raised against these doctrines. He exposes the fallacies and contradictions of the popular interpretation of economic affairs. . . 
Now such a book as Man, Economy, and State offers to every intelligent man an opportunity to obtain reliable information concerning the great controversies and conflicts of our age. It is certainly not easy reading and asks for the utmost exertion of one’s attention. But there are no shortcuts to wisdom.

Wisdom from a hack?

Now I assume Brennan also considers Mises a hack, given his contemptuous and uncomprehending treatment of Mises’ methodological work, but since it is not so chic among libertarians to be anti-Mises as it is in some circles to be anti-Rothbard (or, as I have indicated, simply to pretend he does not exist, which is a phenomenon I did not invent, contrary to Brennan’s laughable insinuation), we won’t hear him say so.

But perhaps we’ll be forgiven for giving Rothbard the benefit of the doubt, given these testimonies.

Best regards,


Walter E. Block, Ph.D.
Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics
Joseph A. Butt, S.J. College of Business                   
Loyola University New Orleans


  1. If anything, Rothbard was the world's foremost anti-hack. If he were a programming language he would have been Haskell. A language so pure that just to derive input and output the creators resorted to Monad theory. If he were a vodka, he would have been top shelf Grey Goose five times strained through a Brita filter. One who would call him a hack does not know the first thing about integrity and never compromising, never taking the short cut nor the easy way out. Such a man is condemned to a state of moral blindness, with no capability of recognizing his betters.

  2. No reasonable person could possibly disagree with Rothbard on anything substantial. Brennan must be a statist/crony/fake libertarian.

  3. Until i read this post i had never even heard of "Jason Brennan".
    Surely, there must be a reason for that.

    1. I was just thinking the same thing, Tony.

  4. Most people still cling to Keynesian economics, so of course they're not going to praise any Austrian. They'll marginalize anyone who has a different point of view. At the rate (or less) that you see adoption of Austrian theory, you'll see the acceptance of Rothbard.

    "Hack" still isn't the right word for someone who disagrees with you, but a person who believes in Keynesian economics and central banking isn't exactly going for perfect accuracy, is he?

  5. Jason Brennan is the author of a general book on libertarianism called 'Libertarianism : What Everyone Needs to Know'. Honestly, out of my entire bookshelf of works on liberty and freedom, this is one book I would rather burn than give to anyone.

    Go to the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog where Brennan, Horowitz, Zwolinksi and the rest hang out, and every day you will find a post/argument attacking the non aggression principle, arguments why property rights are not absolute, arguments why intervention by the state is necessary, arguments why re-distribution can actually work, arguments why doctrinaire libertarian ethics leads to bad outcomes.

    The entire time these arguements are couched in beltway style practical libertarianism. Their work attacks the very foundations of Rothbard style libertarianism, attacks the very foundations of rational economics as espoused by the Mises Institute.