Rothbard in the New Yorker

Here’s something you don’t see every day: A discussion of Murray Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism in the New Yorker, in a broader review of books on “anarchism” emerging from the Occupy movement. Author Kelefa Sanneh writes:

In fact, there is one anarchist who could be considered influential in Washington, but he wasn’t among the activists who participated in the Occupy movement—he died nearly twenty years ago. His name is Murray Rothbard, and, among small-government Republicans, he is something of a cult hero. He was Ron Paul’s intellectual mentor, which makes him the godfather of the godfather of the Tea Party. Justin Amash, a young Republican congressman from Michigan and a rising star in the Party, hangs a framed portrait of him on his office wall.

Rothbard was an anarchist, but also a capitalist. “True anarchism will be capitalism, and true capitalism will be anarchism,” he once said, and he sometimes referred to himself by means of a seven-syllable honorific: “anarcho-capitalist.” Graeber thinks that governments treat their citizens “like children,” and that, when governments disappear, people will behave differently. Anarcho-capitalists, on the contrary, believe that, without government, people will behave more or less the same: we will be just as creative or greedy or competent as we are now, only freer. Instead of imagining a world without drastic inequality, anarcho-capitalists imagine a world where people and their property are secured by private defense agencies, which are paid to keep the peace. Graeber doesn’t consider anarcho-capitalists to be true anarchists; no doubt the feeling is mutual.

“Cult hero … among small-government Republicans” seems a real stretch. But maybe among Ron Paul and Justin Amash, which is more congressional fans than most economist-philosophers have. Author Sanneh no doubt learned about Rothbard when he wrote a long and fairly sympathetic profile of Ron Paul on the campaign trail.

At Aaron Powell examines the New Yorker’s examination of anarchism, both capitalist and anti-capitalist. Also at find out more about Murray Rothbard, including some exclusive videos.

Posted on May 13, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

President Ashcroft

President Obama has drawn some fire for telling Ohio State University graduates, among other things:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.

His critics included my colleagues Roger Pilon in the Wall Street Journal, who deplored Obama’s conflation of the family and the federal government, and Gene Healy in the Washington Examiner, who noted the president’s attempt “to reframe skepticism toward overweening federal power as “cynicism.’”

I was reminded of another political official’s warning back in 2001:

To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists - for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies.

That was attorney general John Ashcroft testifying before Congress on the Patriot Act and the Bush administration’s exercise of power after 9/11. It’s a standard theme of those in power: If you question our actions, if you protest the expansion of government and the loss of freedom, you’re aiding the enemy. You’re undermining our faith in government.

The Founders of this nation had a different view. James Madison warned us that since men are not angels, we can’t entrust them with unlimited power. And Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Kentucky Resolutions against the Alien and Sedition Acts, 

that it would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights: that confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism–free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power: that our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which, and no further, our confidence may go….In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.

That’s the spirit of freedom and self-government: Jealous of our rights and liberties, confident in our Constitution, and skeptical about power and about the men and women who seek it.

As for the president’s much-quoted attack on “individual ambition,” I addressed that in the Wall Street Journal back in 2008 when he made a similar argument to Wesleyan grads.

Posted on May 9, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Capitalizing on Big Government

The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating “political intelligence” firms that promise to give investors advance word of what Congress and regulators may do next. A continuing Washington Post investigation reports:

Antonia Ferrier, a spokeswoman for [Sen. Orrin] Hatch, said the senator is aware that his staff participates in such events [as an investor phone call on Medicare and private insurers, organized by a Washington consulting firm] and that communicating with these types of groups is not unusual given the technical nature of the issues the committee handles.

“Staff members meet with stakeholders on every side of an issue as a means of better crafting policy solutions,” Ferrier said. “What information they share is the same information that Senator Hatch shares in an open and transparent way with his constituents. Senator Hatch has a zero-tolerance policy for anyone who would take advantage of privileged information, and he’s confident that no one on his staff has done that.”

This is just one more inevitable facet of the system we live under. As long as the federal government spends trillions of dollars, and reallocates more trillions through taxes and regulation, and issues bans and mandates on everything from contraception to local speed limits, you’re going to see a lot of money spent to control how those decisions are made. Which includes spending money to find out what the decisions will be, in order to make appropriate investment choices. 

I’ve been writing about this for years, apparently to no avail. I focused on why money flows to Washington way back in 1983 in the Wall Street Journal:

Business people know that you have to invest to make money. Businesses invest in factories, labor, research and development, marketing, and all the other processes that bring goods to consumers and, they hope, lead to profits. They also invest in political processes that may yield profits.

If more money can be made by investing in Washington than by drilling another oil well, money will be spent there.

Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek explained the process 40 years ago in his prophetic book The Road to Serfdom: “As the coercive power of the state will alone decide who is to have what, the only power worth having will be a share in the exercise of this directing power.”

As the size and power of government increase, we can expect more of society’s resources to be directed toward influencing government.

We can pass all the laws we want, launch insider training investigations – but as long as the federal government is acquiring and redistributing so much wealth, businesses and investors are going to go to great lengths to figure out where it’s going and how to get a piece of it.

Posted on May 6, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Prophets of the Communist Police State

In a review of five books on the Soviet police state, David Satter notes this prophetic volume:


By Nikolai Berdyaev, et. al (1909)

The year was 1909. Terrorists were murdering not only czarist ministers but provincial officials and police. It was in this atmosphere that “Landmarks” was published in Moscow. The contributors, all of them Russian Orthodox believers, called on the intelligentsia to reject materialist moral relativism and return to religion as a means of grounding the individual. Their essays, with stunning foresight, described all of the characteristics of the coming Soviet state. The religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev explained the roots of its contempt for the individual. He said that the revolutionary intelligentsia hungered for a universal theory but was only prepared to accept one that justified their social aspirations. This meant the denial of man’s absolute significance and the total subordination of spiritual values to social goals. Bogdan Kistyakovsky wrote that the intelligentsia’s predilection for formalism and bureaucracy and its faith in the omnipotence of rules were the makings of a police state. A hundred years later these essays are still among the best arguments ever made against revolutionary fanaticism, political “correctness” and the drive to create “heaven on earth.”

Sounds like a book I should have heard of before now. 

Posted on May 4, 2013  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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