Murray Newton Rothbard was a polymath who wrote 26 books, thousands of articles, and found the time to found and lead the libertarian movement. It was in his living room that the leading lights of the “liberty movement,” as we know it today, gathered to discuss, debate, and – yes! – sing songs in the late 1950s and 1960s, when they styled themselves the “Circle Bastiat.”
Oh, those were glorious times, with Rothbard, the happy warrior, presiding over his salon of eager young libertarians, who were few in number but made mighty by the power of sheer exuberance: Ralph Raico, Leonard Liggio, Ron Hamowy, George Reisman, and others less well-known, most all of them students at the famous seminar given by Ludwig von Mises, who imbibed the wisdom – and the jokes – of the man whose intellectual vision laid the foundations for the revival of the pro-liberty trend in American politics and intellectual life.
I won’t reiterate the details of his amazing life here, since I’ve already done that in my 2000 biography, An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, New York). Suffice to say that, without Murray – yes, I was on first-name terms with him while he was alive – the libertarian movement would have existed only as a subset of the much larger conservative movement, and then only in a radically reduced anodyne form, a mere shadow of the vital and growing force it is today.
What fascinated Rothbard, I think above all else, was the history of ideas – not just economic ideas, but in a more general sense the trends and ideologies that shape the minds of men. His great work, really the capstone of his storied career, was his History of Economic Thought, which dealt with much more than economics. For Rothbard saw that history as a vast mosaic of human invention and belief, with the one overwhelming influence on human civilization to be that of religion. Now Murray was, himself, not a religious man: I would classify him as an agnostic bordering on outright atheism. Yet that did not affect his view that the influence of religion on socio-economic and political thought was not only enormous, but also largely misunderstood or else completely ignored. The reason, of course, was that secular intellectuals in the West had nothing but contempt for religion, all religion, and so missed important trends or else misinterpreted their origins and meaning.
For a good part of his life, Rothbard worked on the volume I will be dealing with today, The Progressive Era, the purpose of which was to “trace the origins of the current welfare-warfare state in America in what is loosely called the ‘Progressive Period,’ from approximately the mid-1890s to the mid-1920s.” Therein he charts the rise of the two groups intent on seizing and maintaining power in the US, and whose legacy persists to this day:
1) Certain big business types – oligarchs in our present lexicon – who wanted to overthrow the roughly laissez-faire economic setup and institute a series of cartels – the Sugar Trust, the Railroad Trust, the Iron and Steel Trust – in the name of “efficiency” and, of course, in pursuit of their own profits.
2) The intellectual class, with the pietist Protestant evangelists leading the charge, who were tasked with rationalizing, explaining, and selling this concatenation of mystic revelation with “scientific” theories that justified the new order.
This latter group, the intellectuals, started out as the promulgators of “morality” – their morality – which was based on the Protestant fundamentalism that was enjoying a major revival at the time. The “Great Awakening,” which shook the religious communities of that era, emphasized the eschaetological aspects of Christian doctrine, which supposedly foretold the return of Christ to the world and the establishment of God’s Kingdom on Earth. The evil sinners would meet their fate, and the righteous would ascend into Heaven and sit at the Deity’s right hand.
The Great Awakening involved the spread of what we refer to as post-millennial pietism, a strain of Protestant Christianity that believes Christ’s return is imminent – but only if we here on earth make him welcome, so to speak. They believed, indeed, that the day of Christ’s return was not preordained but could be moved up due to human intervention: all we had to do was to create the Kingdom of God here on earth so that He could return and take His place on the Heavenly Throne. What this meant is that sin had to be stamped out, completely and entirely, and what better instrument for this formidable task than the government?
And so the pietists, concentrated in New England and the immediate borderlands in Ohio, upstate New York, etc., moved on every front to beat the Devil on his own turf and turn the sinful highways and byways of the wild West into the pathway to Heaven. Their program was the imposition of blue laws, prohibition of alcohol, observing the Sabbath, and the establishment of public schools to “Christianize the Catholics,” opposition to immigration, advocacy of women’s suffrage, and dozens of “social uplift” schemes that invariably invaded the private lives and predilections of a free people and turned them on the path to righteousness.
Opposition to all immigration was a major plank in the pietist platform, which was embodied, politically, by the Republican party. They opposed immigration because the immigrants were overwhelmingly Catholics, who had their own schools, and their own laissez-faire attitudes toward such things as alcohol (the Italians loved their wine, while the Germans preferred beer). This was intolerable as far as the pietists were concerned, and they campaigned tirelessly to keep the new immigrants in their place by outlawing their private schools, funneling their children into public institutions, and setting up the Know-Nothing (American) Party, which sought to keep immigrants out of the country, or at least keep them in their proper place.
Another problem for the pietists was that these immigrants were voting, and especially in the big cities their votes defeated pietist (Republican) candidates and instituted a more easygoing regime. The pietists struck back by launching the women’s suffrage movement, which was predicated on the assumption that the immigrant women were too tied to home and hearth to bother voting, while the proto-feminist busybodies of the WASP set would march to the polls without being exhorted to do so.
Rothbard’s volume – really a collection of his writings on the progressive movement, much of it previously unpublished – is much too complex and long for me to cover in a single review – although the material is so fascinating, and in unexpected ways, that the temptation to do so anyway is very great. However, I must resist it and go on to focus on the foreign policy aspect of all this – really the deadliest consequence of the progressive-pietist trend in American politics, and the most tragic.
As Rothbard shows, the early pietists were the forerunners of the later progressive intellectuals and publicists who inaugurated the era of “reform”: increasing government intervention in the economy, and in the daily lives of Americans, i.e. Prohibition, child-labor laws, regulations that allowed big business to cartelize the economy (or try to do so, with limited success). By this time, the explicitly religious aspect of this movement was downplayed by increasingly secularized intellectuals, who had left God behind in their zeal to create a utopia on earth. Thus the Social Gospel was born.
And it was inevitable that, having succeeded to a large extent in this country, the Social Gospelers would turns their eyes abroad: the whole world must be uplifted! As Rothbard puts it:
“Most of these intellectuals, of whatever strand or occupation, were either dedicated , messianic postmillennial pietists or else former pietists … who, though now secularized, still possessed an intense messianic belief in national and world salvation through Big Government.”
This, combined with a “scientific” devotion to the social sciences, formed the basic character and temperament of the War Party at the turn of the century.
World War I created a pietist paradise in the United States – and a bloody charnel house in Europe, where the war was fought. The whole world was their oyster, as Rothbard points out, and they took full advantage of the opportunity to crack down on their enemies at home: the Germans, mostly Catholic, were demonized. The playing of German music in the symphony halls was forbidden, and the private German language schools were closed down. Prohibition, their favorite hobbyhorse, was imposed with new force: our soldiers, they cried, must be protected from the horrors of “demon rum.” They succeeded in passing the 18th amendment to the Constitution outlawing alcohol on a national scale, in December 1917.
Women’s suffrage was another wartime victory for the pietist-progressives, with the Prohibition Party being the first major organization to come out in favor of it. The idea behind this was that the “liturgical” (i.e. Catholic) immigrant women would not bother to vote, and this would give the progressives a major advantage at the polls. The progressive women’s contingent played a major role during the war to cartelize the food supply, in the name of avoiding “waste” and encouraging “conservation.” Government control of the food supply was hailed by progressive “reformers” such as Ida Tarbell as part and parcel of the great crusade to “make the world safe for democracy.” These women set up the National League for Women’s Service which was organized along military lines, with a local “Commander” in charge of seeing that government regulation of the kitchens and the fields was observed. They even wore uniforms and identifying badges as they badgered their neighbors and reported “traitors.”
As we ascend into the higher reaches of the progressive intellectual firmament, we reach the Olympian heights of what Rothbard deemed “the New Republic collectivists,” i.e. the clique of writers, reformers, publicists, and high society types who gathered around that storied magazine, which had been recently founded by Willard D. Straight, a partner in the firm of J. P. Morgan & Co., and his wealthy wife, heiress Dorothy Whitney. Here the wealth of the oligarchical House of Morgan, and the intellectuals who developed Teddy Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” into a creed of perpetual war abroad and cartelization at home, met and merged into a formidable powerhouse of progressivism. The leading light of this group – which included Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann, who had been a leader of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society – was John Dewey, a professor at Columbia University and the progenitor of “pragmatism,” a philosophy that sounds like what it is. Dewey dropped his pacifism the moment the guns sounded in Europe and agitated for US entry into the war on the grounds that it would turn the country toward socialism. “Force, he declared, was simply “a means of getting results” – and he and his fellow progressive intellectuals knew precisely what results they expected from the war that destroyed European civilization. “This war,” he happily announced, “may easily be the beginning of the end of business.” “Capitalism, private property” and the traditional byways of the old America would be destroyed, to make way for the “industrial democracy” that would inevitably take their place.”
Dewey, an old pietist-gone-secular, saw the Kingdom of God in the very near future, and the glorious rule of “democratic integrated control” would pave the way. And his comrades at The New Republic were even more explicit. Here is the evil Lippmann, later to become the Grand Old Man of American “liberalism”:
“We who have gone to war to insure democracy in the world will have raised an aspiration here that will not end with the overthrow of the Prussian autocracy. We shall turn with fresh interests to our own tyrannies – to our Colorado mines, our autocratic steel industries, sweatshops and our slums. A force is loose in America. … Our own reactionaries will not assuage it. … We shall know how to deal with them.”
Conscription was the main political crusade of the progressives, who insisted that the poor bedraggled cannon fodder in flyover country be forced into the service of the war god, but as for they themselves – why, they were needed on the home front to direct the war and make sure the peons stayed in line. Thus, Lippmann argued – successfully – that he would best serve the cause by working for the War Department. The chickenhawk is not a new species.
During the war, the entire society was mobilized to defeat the Satanic Kaiser and his unholy minions: churchmen, intellectuals, housewives, social workers, professionals in every area of expertise were mobilized for victory – as was the economy, which was placed at the disposal of the military without question or debate. When the war was over, however, and the chains of regulation were relaxed if not broken, the progressives and their allies tried to preserve the new system, with mixed results. Rothbard cites Rexford Tugwell, who would go on to become the most radical of the New Dealers’ “brain trust,” to this effect:
“Looking back on ‘America’s wartime socialism’ in 1927, Tugwell lamented that if only the war had lasted longer, that great ‘experiment’ could have been completed; ‘We were on the verge of having an international industrial machine when peace broke,’ Tugwell mourned. ‘Only the Armistice prevented a great experiment in control of production, control of prices, and control of consumption.’”
This marked the end of the old liberalism – the liberalism of Randolph Bourne, Oswald Garrison Villard, Albert Jay Nock, and others – who saw the liberal order as the instrument for the expanding freedom of the individual, and the beginning of “modern” liberalism – the streamlined war-making authoritarian liberalism of the New Deal, and its mutant descendant of today. Rothbard’s contribution in this book – and there is much more there than I have space to describe – is to show the intellectual-theological genesis of what is wrong with our society. And that is a remarkable achievement indeed.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.