Murray Rothbard was one of the first people whose work I read, along with Hayek and Nozick and Milton Friedman and RAW, when I first began to engage with libertarian ideas as an adolescent. The creativity and range of his thought have always impressed me enormously, and it's certainly shaped my perception of what a credible libertarianism might amount to.
But I am not, for all that, a Rothbardian, and I find the growing affection for the Right that marked Rothbard’s later years unfortunate. My reaction is hardly unique among left libertarians, and will surprise no regular reader of this blog. Still, I couldn’t resist commenting on the following passage from a 1986 letter, which struck me as particularly troubling:
"It seems to me that a lot of our literature is geared to 'free spirits,' to people who don't want to push other people around, and who don't want to be pushed around themselves. In short, the bulk of Americans might well be tight-assed conformists, who want to stamp out drugs in their vicinity, kick out people with strange dress habits, etc. And, if so, we won't win if we make our pitch exclusively to a minority of free spirits whom we ourselves may culturally or esthetically agree with, and thereby lose the right-assed majority."
—Murray N. Rothbard, letter to David Bergland, June 5, 1986, qtd. Justin Raimondo, An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus 2000) 263-4.
In this paragraph, Rothbard appears at best to be trivializing as a matter of aesthetic or cultural preference what I would regard as the moral center of libertarianism. I don't much want to be part of a movement made up of people who want to push others around. Why would he?
I don’t pose this rhetorical question to prompt a flood of responses from people who want to detail Rothbard’s strategic posture in the mid-’80s. I just want to register my own conviction that the desire to avoid being pushed around, and to avoid pushing others around, is at the heart of what it means to value freedom. Of course, what matters most is the absence of violence. But while “anything peaceful” may be (surely is) better than “anything aggressive,” aggression-free relationships can still involve a lot of pushing around. And the same concern to avoid being pushed around at gun-point rightly animates the desire not to be pushed around by HOAs and corporate bosses. The sort of counter-cultural free-spiritedness from which Rothbard wished (at least in 1986) to distance libertarians seems to me to be one of the things that matters most about the libertarian movement. I hope that, without damning Rothbard or seeking to bury him, we can opt, not to dismiss it but to nourish and celebrate it.