Like classical liberalism and modern American conservatism, libertarianism holds that the best model for political economy is that characterized by the most limited interference in the decisions of citizens, low taxes, and light to no regulation beyond preventing and punishing murder, assault, robbery, theft, fraud, rape, persecution, and conspiracy. Conservatives may call this being guided by the Ten Commandments; Libertarians might consider it plain common secular sense.
The Austrian school was the most radically minimalist in its view of the appropriate role of government. And that minimalism was taken to its radical extreme in the work of Mises’ disciple Murray Rothbard, who posited that government wasn’t even necessary for police and defense, as these services could be bought and sold on the free market just like bread and haircuts.
In 1963, Rothbard wrote a book on the Great Depression that I consider absolutely required reading for anyone wanting to know just how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did NOT save the country from the Great Depression but rather worsened the crisis, and how Herbert Hoover was no free-market, laissez-faire pro-capitalist president. In the same book, Rothbard also wrote the most clearly articulated presentation of Austrian business cycle theory (or the theory of booms, busts, and crashes), a theory to which the financial crisis of 2008 fits like a textbook case.
The two dominant branches of Libertarianism in America today are represented by the Cato Institute on the one hand (based in Washington D.C. and focused on practical, policy-oriented research and lobbying) and the Mises Institute on the other, deliberately based away from the centers of power in Auburn, Alabama in order to remain more purely focused on theory and academic freedom. While Murray Rothbard and Mises Institute president Lew Rockwell have carried Mises’ theoretical torch forward in many ways admirably, in many other cases they have made assertions that Mises never did and probably never would have–and have done so dogmatically and intolerantly.
My infatuation with Rothbard ended abruptly when I read the op-Ed piece that he had written at the conclusion of the Reagan Administration. “Eight years, eight dreary, miserable, mind-numbing years of the Age of Reagan, are at long last coming to an end,” he groaned in a piece titled ‘Ronald Reagan, an Autopsy’ — fifteen years before the Gipper’s actual passing. It was a litany of accusations worse than Thomas Jefferson’s indictments of King George III in the Declaration of Independence. Nancy Pelosi could not have penned a more bitter diatribe. The only thing Rothbard gave credit to Reagan for was lifting the 55 mph federal highway speed limit.
Now, Ron Paul is derived from Rothbard, and in many respects in a good way. It was Rothbard who first penned the academic “The Case Against the Fed,” from which Paul’s more populist “End the Fed” is derived. I am mostly in agreement with these positions on domestic economic issues–as is John Allison, current president of the Cato Institute, bank president for 25 years, and author of “The Financial Crisis and the Free-Market Cure.”
So again, while I am wary of extremists of any stripe, my only quarrel with Libertarianism as such is the role and character of America’s diplomacy and armed forces in the world; on the latter, I stand firmly with Ronald Reagan. Otherwise, I look forward to the day when we’ll say that “We’re all (conservative) libertarians now.” That’s much better than being all Keynseyans, or progressives, or all socialists. Maybe the young people can help us bring that about.