Murray Rothbard on How We Can Win

At the wonderful and historic 40th Anniversary Conference of the Mises Institute, our Academic Vice-President, the great scholar Joe Salerno, gave a speech about Murray Rothbard that taught even experienced Rothbardians something new. He showed that Murray had come up with a brilliant theory of how we can win in the columns he wrote for the Rothbard-Rockwell Report. It was my great honor and privilege to work with Murray on that Report. Joe plans to write an article based on his speech, and I’m sure we will all learn from it. In this week’s column, I’d like to explore some of the insights Murray wrote about in the Triple R.

The most important principle in Murray’s political action strategy was that there is a division between the elite and the masses. The elite is evil and the masses are the good guys. “I return to a key strategic question: who are the major bad guys, the unwashed masses or the power elite? Very early I concluded that the big danger is the elite, and not the masses, and for the following reasons. First, even granting for a moment that the masses are the worst possible, that they are perpetually Hell-bent on lynching anyone down the block, the mass of people simply don’t have the time for politics or political shenanigans. The average person must spend most of his time on the daily business of life, being with his family, seeing his friends, etc. He can only get interested in politics or engage in it sporadically: The only people who have time for politics are the professionals: the bureaucrats, politicians, and special interest groups dependent on political rule. They make money out of politics, and so they are intensely interested, and lobby and are active twenty-four hours a day: Therefore, these special interest groups will tend to win out over the uninterested masses. This is the basic insight of the Public Choice school of economics. The only other groups interested full-time in politics are ideologists like ourselves. . .

A second crucial point: society is divided into a ruling elite, which is necessarily a minority of the population, which lives off the second group—the rest of the population. Here I point to one of the most brilliant essays on political philosophy ever written, John C. Calhoun’s ‘Disquisition on Government’. Calhoun pointed out that the very fact of government and of taxation creates inherent conflict between two great classes: those who pay taxes, and those who live off them; the net taxpayers vs. the tax-consumers. The bigger government gets, Calhoun noted, the greater and more intense the conflict between those two social classes. By the way, I’ve never thought of Governor Pete Wilson of California as a distinguished political theorist, but the other day he said something, presumably unwittingly, that was remarkably Calhounian. Wilson lamented that the tax-recipients in California were beginning to outnumber the tax-payers. Well, it’s a start.

If a minority of elites rule over, tax, and exploit the majority of the public, then this brings up starkly the main problem of political theory: what I like to call the mystery of civil obedience. Why does the majority of the public obey these turkeys, anyway? This problem, I believe, was solved by three great political theorists, mainly but not all libertarian: Etienne de la Boétie, French libertarian theorist of the mid-sixteenth century; David Hume; and Ludwig von Mises. They pointed out that, precisely because the ruling class is a minority, that in the long run, force per se cannot rule. Even in the most despotic dictatorship, the government can only persist when it is backed by the majority of the population. In the long run, ideas, not force, rule, and any government has to have legitimacy in the minds of the public.

But we still haven’t solved the mystery of civil obedience. If the ruling elite is taxing, looting, and exploiting the public, why does the public put up with this for a single moment? Why does it take them so long to withdraw their consent? Here we come to the solution: the critical role of the intellectuals, the opinion-molding class in society. If the masses knew what was going on, they would withdraw their consent quickly: they would soon perceive that the emperor has no clothes, that they are being ripped off. That is where the intellectuals come in. The ruling elite, whether it be the monarchs of yore or the Communist parties of today, are in desperate need of intellectual elites to weave apologias for state power. The state rules by divine edict; the state insures the common good or the general welfare; the state protects us from the bad guys over the mountain; the state guarantees full employment; the state activates the multiplier effect; the state insures social justice, and on and on. The apologias differ over the centuries; the effect is always the same. As Karl Wittfogel shows in his great work, Oriental Despotism, in Asian empires the intellectuals were able to get away with the theory that the emperor or pharaoh was himself divine. If the ruler is God, few will be induced to disobey or question his commands. We can see what the state rulers get out of their alliance with the intellectuals; but what do the intellectuals get out of it? Intellectuals are the sort of people who believe that, in the free market, they are getting paid far less than their wisdom requires. Now the state is willing to pay them salaries, both for apologizing for state power, and in the modern state, for staffing the myriad jobs in the welfare, regulatory state apparatus. In past centuries, the churches have constituted the exclusive opinion molding classes in the society. Hence the importance to the state and its rulers of an established church, and the importance to libertarians of the concept of separating church and state, which really means not allowing the state to confer upon one group a monopoly of the opinion-molding function. In the twentieth century; of course, the church has been replaced in its opinion-molding role, or, in that lovely phrase, the ‘engineering of consent,’ by a swarm of intellectuals, academics, social scientists, technocrats, policy scientists, social workers, journalists and the media generally; and on and on. Often included, for old times’ sake, so to speak, is a sprinkling of social gospel ministers and counselors from the mainstream churches. So, to sum up: the problem is that the bad guys, the ruling classes, have gathered unto themselves the intellectual and media elites, who are able to bamboozle the masses into consenting to their rule, to indoctrinate them, as the Marxists would say; with ‘false consciousness.’

What can we, the right-wing opposition, do about it? One strategy, endemic to libertarians and classical liberals, is what we can call the ‘Hayekian’ model, after FA. Hayek, or what I have called ‘educationism.’ Ideas, the model declares, are crucial, and ideas filter down a hierarchy; beginning with top philosophers, then seeping down to lesser philosophers, then academics, and finally to journalists and politicians, and then to the masses. The thing to do is to convert the top philosophers to the correct ideas, they will convert the lesser, and so on, in a kind of ‘trickledown effect,’ until, at last, the masses are converted and liberty has been achieved. . .

Of course, ideas and persuasion are important, but there are several fatal flaws in the Hayekian strategy: First, of course, the strategy at best will take several hundred years, and some of us are a bit more impatient than that. But time is by no means the only problem. Many people have noted, for example, mysterious blockages of the trickle. Thus, most real scientists have a very different view ofsuch environmental questions as Alar than that of a few left-wing hysterics, and yet somehow it is always the same few hysterics that are exclusively quoted by the media. The same applies to the vexed problem of inheritance and IQ testing. So how come the media invariably skew the result, and pick and choose the few leftists in the field? Clearly; because the media, especially the respectable and influential media, begin, and continue, with a strong left-liberal bias. More generally, the Hayekian trickle-down model overlooks a crucial point: that, and I hate to break this to you, intellectuals, academics and the media are not all motivated by truth alone. As we have seen, the intellectual classes may be part of the solution, but also they are a big part of the problem. For, as we have seen, the intellectuals are part of the ruling class, and their economic interests, as well as their interests in prestige, power and admiration, are wrapped up in the present welfare-warfare state system. Therefore, in addition to converting intellectuals to the cause, the proper course for the right-wing opposition must necessarily be a strategy of boldness and confrontation, of dynamism and excitement, a strategy, in short, of rousing the masses from their slumber and exposing the arrogant elites that are ruling them, controlling them, taxing them, and ripping them off. . .

And so the proper strategy for the right wing must be what we can call ‘right-wing populism’: exciting, dynamic, tough, and confrontational, rousing, and inspiring not only the exploited masses, but the often shell-shocked right-wing intellectual cadre as well. And in this era where the intellectual and media elites are all establishment liberal-conservatives, all in a deep sense one variety or another of social democrat, all bitterly hostile to a genuine right, we need a dynamic, charismatic leader who has the ability to short-circuit the media elites, and to reach and rouse the masses directly. We need a leadership that can reach the masses and cut through the crippling and distorting hermeneutical fog spread by the media elites.”

Murray looks to the great Joe McCarthy as someone able to speak to the masses and scare the elite: “The unique and the glorious thing about McCarthy was not his goals or his ideology but precisely his radical, populist means. For McCarthy was able, for a few years, to short-circuit the intense opposition of all the elites in American life: from the Eisenhower-Rockefeller administration to the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex to liberal and left media and academic elites—to overcome all that opposition and reach and inspire the masses directly. And he did it through television, and without any real movement behind him; he had only a guerrilla band of a few advisers, but no organization and no infrastructure.”

What concrete program for right-wing populism should we favor? Murray tells us: “A right-wing populist program, then, must concentrate on dismantling the crucial existing areas of State and elite rule, and on liberating the average American from the most flagrant and oppressive features of that rule. In short:

Slash Taxes. All taxes, sales, business, profits etc., but especially the most oppressive politically and personally: the income tax. We must work toward repeal of the income tax and abolition of the IRS.
Slash Welfare. Get rid of underclass rule by abolishing the welfare system, or, short of abolition, severely cutting and restricting it.
Abolish Racial or Group Privileges. Abolish affirmative action, set aside racial quotas, etc., and point out that the root of such quotas is the entire ‘civil rights’ structure, which tramples on the property rights of every American.
Take Back the Streets: Crush Criminals. And by this I mean, of course, not ‘white collar criminals’ or ‘inside traders’ but violent street criminals-robbers, muggers, rapists, murderers. Cops must be unleashed, and allowed to administer instant punishment, subject of course to liability when they are in error.
Take Back the Streets: Get Rid of the Bums. Again: unleash the cops to clear the streets of bums and vagrants. Where will they go? Who cares? Hopefully; they will disappear, that is, move from the ranks of the petted and cosseted bum class to the ranks of the productive members of society.
Abolish the Fed; Attack the Banksters. Money and banking are recondite issues. But the realities can be made vivid: the Fed is an organized cartel of banksters, who are creating inflation, ripping off the public, destroying the savings of the average American. The hundreds of billions of taxpayer handouts to S&L banksters will be chicken-feed compared to the coming collapse of the commercial banks.
America First. A key point, and not meant to be seventh in priority. The American economy is not only in recession; it is stagnating. The average family is worse off now than it was two decades ago. Come home America. Stop supporting bums abroad. Stop all foreign aid, which is aid to banksters and their bonds and their export industries. Stop gloabaloney; and let’s solve our problems at home.
Defend Family Values. Which means, get the State out ofthe family; and replace State control with parental control. In the long run, this means ending public schools, and replacing them with private schools. But we must realize that voucher and even tax credit schemes are not, despite Milton Friedman, transitional demands on the path to privatized education; instead, they will make matters worse by fastening government control more totally upon the private schools. Within the sound alternative is decentralization, and back to local, community neighborhood control of the schools.”

Murray wrote this years ago, but you couldn’t improve on it today. Let’s all profit from his wisdom.

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