Murray Rothbard's Memory; Or, Why I Don't Measure Up
Tea Party Economist
by Gary North: How
To Win a Tariff War
my Ph.D. in history. My specialty was colonial America. Yet when
I pull down a copy of one of Murray Rothbard's four-volume history
of colonial America, Conceived
in Liberty, to do a little "light" reading, I
am always astonished. Page after page will relate incidents I have
never heard of.
Now it's in
one fat volume.
this book as a side venture. He was an economist by training, with
a mathematics minor as an undergraduate. He had zero formal training
as a colonial American historian.
How did he
do it? Prof. Richard Ebeling provides insights. This is from a May
1, 2012 email.
told me that once when he was visiting and staying with Murray
and Joey in their New York apartment, Murray and he were in the
living room, each reading a book.
that Murray seemed to be rapidly scanning and turning the pages
of the book in his hands. He asked Murray how he could understand
and remember anything going through a book that quickly?
the book over to him and said, "Roy-chik, pick any page and
I'll tell you what's on it." Roy opened the book, began reading
out loud, and Murray stopped him, and picked up where Roy had
left off summarizing the rest of the argument in that part of
me he said, "Well, you were just looking at the book and
you just happen to have read that part."
waved at the ceiling-high bookcase behind where Roy was sitting
and said, "Roy-chik, pick any book, any book from that bookcase,
and open it to any page."
up to one of the upper shelves, pulled down a book on aesthetics
that had a thin layer of dust on it, and which clearly had not
been looked at in a long time.
began to read from the book. After two or three sentences, Murray
said, "OK, that's enough."
to summarize the rest of the author's argument, and explain why
the author was wrong because he had clearly not read books "X,"
"Y," and "Z," in which those authors explained
Murray could do that with virtually every book in his massive
library that filled the rooms and hallways of his apartment.
other men who have comparable memories, did not let his enormous
supply of recalled facts and opinions paralyze him. He had an interpretive
framework Austrian economics so he was able to integrate
Here is another
example. This is from Prof. Robert Higgs, who has established a
cottage industry with his books on the connection between war and
centralized government. His first book on this topic, Crisis
and Leviathan, was published by Oxford University Press,
a major accomplishment for any academician. More astounding, it
remains in print over a quarter century later.
In the book,
(1995), Higgs offered this recollection.
encounter with Rothbard the economic historian, however, came
off the record. Early in 1985 I submitted to the Pacific Research
Institute a manuscript that, after several more revisions and
some additions, was eventually published as Crisis and Leviathan
by Oxford University Press in 1987. Pacific asked several eminent
scholars, including Murray, to review my manuscript. Murray's
review went far beyond what one might have expected, taking the
form of a letter to Pacific's Greg Christainsen, dated May 27,
1985. It runs 26 single-spaced pages, probably over 12,000 words.
Over the years, I have seen a lot of reports by referees and reviewers,
but never anything that came close to this remarkable epistle.
began with two pages of praise for my manuscript. Murray liked
my general approach. "Perhaps without realizing," he
wrote, "Professor Higgs approaches history from the Misesian
praxeological viewpoint, knowing and applying the truths and laws
of economics, but also realizing that ideological and other factors
are also of crucial importance." He appreciated what he described
as my "critiques of Chicagoite cliometrics and public choice
history-both of which try to sum up all of history with a few
equations, or with a one-dimensional simplistic approach."
Murray lauded my work for not being value-free." We have
suffered for too long," he wrote, "from a dichotomy
in which essayists and pamphleteers, who are unscholarly, are
hard-hitting and value-laden whereas scholars are evasive, garbled
writers who hide behind a careful cloak of value-freedom."
He delighted that I was "calling a spade a spade and not
a 'triangular implement for digging.'"
that "Higgs's values are my values," applauding my realization
that war and militarism are "the major cause and embodiment
of intervention" in the market and the suppression of liberty
and free enterprise. My hostility to conscription and my natural-rights
objection to it as opposed to a neoclassical efficiency
objection pleased him mightily. My comments on the gold
standard garnered his approval, too.
Had I stopped
reading after the first two pages, I might have considered myself
a certified damned fine scholar. Any such temptation, however,
was decisively punctured by the next 24 pages.
a minutely detailed yet broad-ranging critique, along with scores
of suggestions for what needed to be added to my text and what
additional books, articles, and dissertations I needed to read
to correct my misapprehensions and flesh out my knowledge.
points, Murray prefaced his criticism by noting, "Professor
Higgs is nodding here."
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.
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.
We are not
all destined for greatness. Indeed! Rothbard was. He took his skills
and put them to productive use. He had great skills. He was very
North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible.
2012 Gary North
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