Rothbard on the Fall and Rise and Fall of Liberty

By Ryan McMaken

02/08/06 "Lew Rockwell" -- -- George Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four that those who control the present control the past. It would be difficult to prove Orwell wrong, for surely it is not a mere coincidence that the dim picture of history taught in the government schools and the even more vague history repeated incessantly by the public intellectuals, just happen to create a worldview in which governments through the centuries have made possible everything that is good and decent in the world today.

The myth goes something like this: Prior to the rise of the modern States in the modern world, all had been darkness. A backward feudal system existed with bloodthirsty warlords and tyrannical bishops spreading war and despotism across Europe. Then, one day, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment took hold in Europe, breaking the power of the superstitious and ignorant Old Order, and establishing in its place, a rational, enlightened system of States. The States of this new Age of Reason were admittedly not democratic, but they were certainly a vast improvement on the old State of affairs. Over time, the kings gave way to democracy for a few people, and eventually, to democracy for everyone, making the State, at long last, the benevolent servant of "the people." At the same time, the Industrial Revolution took hold, but capitalism exploited the workers and polluted the environment. Fortunately, the State was able to bring the capitalists under control and bring an end to mistreatment of workers, long hours of toil, and widespread environmental degradation. The 20th century provided some challenges to the spread of democracy, but those were conquered, just as we knew they would be, and today, justice, equality, and protection from all enemies of the great democratic order is provided for but a meager sum of tax funds. Civil rights and economic prosperity are improving all the time while foreign enemies are being cleared away, and the day will surely come when the end of history itself arrives, and we will all be thankful that we had such just and powerful governments at our disposal.

Murray Rothbard called this theory of history the State’s "Great March Upward into the Light," and much of his work, especially his newly republished History of Economic Thought, is devoted to debunking it. Always at the center of this march to perfection is the State. For the socialists and the left, the State will bring the society of perfect equality. For the neoconservatives and the right, the State will bring the millennial Pax Americana and the End of History. Few believers of the myth will deny that there have been some minor setbacks, yet they are firm in their contention that there can never be true progress without the State. Without the armies, and agencies, and weapons of the State, humanity would degenerate back into superstition, war, ignorance, and want. Depending on one’s point of view, a world without the State holds the prospect of capitalists, or terrorists, or communists, or Christian theocrats returning humanity to the presumed lowly State of the pre-modern world. The modern defenders of the State never speak in terms of "the State," and they may not even think in such explicit terms. Yet, the end result is the same whether one is explicit about it or not. States are at the center of their world, providing the necessary means to combat the evils of our time, destroying the oppressions of the past, and securing a safe and just future.

Rothbard had little patience for this pat view of human history. The myth of the modern State as freeing mankind from a dark past was particularly insidious to Rothbard. Whether discussing the American Revolution, the Great Depression, or the history of economic thought, we find in Rothbard’s work a thorough insistence that the political and intellectual history of modernity is the history of a battle against the State.

Rothbard’s view of history revolves around at least three central assertions. First, the history of liberty does not begin with the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, or any other modern era claiming to be born out of an earlier, darker age. The foundations of liberty are established much earlier, in an era of increasingly free trade and of weak and decentralized medieval States. The intellectual birth of liberty begins with the foundations of natural law and natural rights laid down by the medieval scholastics. Second, the industrial revolution must be regarded as a good thing. In fact, it should be regarded as one of the best things to ever happen in human history. Third, the material prosperity made possible by the Industrial Revolution, coupled with the ancient ideas of natural law and natural rights, is a potent enemy of the State and the reason that liberty is likely to prevail in the long run.

In his essay "Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty," Rothbard sums up his view of the "Old Order":

The myth held that the growth of absolute monarchies and of mercantilism in the early modern era was necessary for the development of capitalism, since these served to liberate the merchants and the people from local feudal restrictions. In actuality, this was not at all the case; the king and his nation-State served rather as a super-feudal overlord reimposing and reinforcing feudalism just as it was being dissolved by the peaceful growth of the market economy. The king superimposed his own restrictions and monopoly privileges onto those of the feudal regime. The absolute monarchs were the Old Order writ large and made even more despotic than before.


Contrary to the myth, the rise of modernity did not make the State more just or more enlightened. It just became bigger, stronger, and more likely to abuse its power. The States of the Middle Ages had been decentralized, weak, and couldn’t even qualify as "sovereign States." Thanks to overlapping political jurisdiction and the influence of the Church, no king of this era could claim total control over internal affairs. Yet, the absolutist States that heralded the arrival of the modern era were exactly the opposite. They were centralized, vast, powerful, and their rulers could indeed claim total internal sovereignty over their subjects

The political theory of the Middle Ages also constrained the power of the States. In The History of Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, Rothbard focuses on the influence of scholasticism. Associated closely with Thomas Aquinas, scholasticism revolved around theories of natural law that governed all men and all institutions which were in turn expected to adhere to immutable divine laws of justice and governance. Kings and rulers who did not rule according to natural law were subject to morally justified rebellion and even regicide.

Scholasticism, of course was closely associated with the Catholic Church, and as the power of the Church declined in the Late Middle Ages, so did scholasticism and the intellectual rigor it relied on. The rise of the modern State accelerated with the Reformation and with efforts to overturn scholastic critiques of political power. From the German princes in the north to the rulers of the Italian city-states in the south, kings and princes seized on the Reformation as an opportunity to increase their power.

Having abandoned the scholastic tradition, the original Reformers were forced to fall back on proof-texting scripture for guidance on political affairs, concluding that "absolute obedience and non-resistance" was what scripture commanded. At the same time, Niccolò Machiavelli would add to the assault on reason arguing that States and princes should not be restrained by natural law, reason, or any other external force, but only by the arbitrary and often irrational will of the prince himself."

In the wake of this intellectual and political revolution came Absolutism. The new absolute monarchs went to war against the merchant classes that had arisen during the High Middle Ages. Kings used their new bureaucracies to impose taxes, enforce regulations, and wage large-scale wars against their enemies. It was the age of Hobbes’s Leviathan, and it was a great step backward for liberty. Yet, even as the new vast modern States were consolidating their power, theories of natural law and natural rights continued to be developed. Theorists like John Locke and Richard Cantillon would reclaim the natural law tradition and go on to use "rational scholastic methods" and forward compelling defenses of private property, commerce, and human freedom. Thus, by the 18th century, the natural law theories of the scholastics had been revived and were being reworked into liberalism, the new ideology of individualism, liberty, and capitalism.

Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution was spreading across Europe in spite of State attempts to control trade, knowledge, and even the movement of capitalists themselves. The great enemy of the Industrial Revolution, of course, has always been the State, and mercantilism ruled the day with its price controls, tariffs, taxes, regulations, and endless favors for friends of the ruling regime. The "intellectual" justifications for mercantilism were never anything more than irrational appeals to nationalism and privilege, while the liberals maintained that mercantilism was not only despotic and contrary to natural law, but inefficient and crippling to the economy. Naturally, those who ruled also happened to benefit from the largesse of the mercantilist despotism. But slowly, throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, liberalism gained ground. In "The Meaning of Revolution," Rothbard outlines the struggle:

Theories blended into activist movements, rising movements calling for individual liberty, a free-market economy, the overthrow of feudalism and mercantilist statism, an end to theocracy and war and their replacement by freedom and international peace. Once in a while, these movements erupted into violent "revolutions" that brought giant steps in the direction of liberty: the English Civil War, the American Revolution, the French Revolution. The result was enormous strides for freedom and the prosperity unleashed by the consequent Industrial Revolution.

Eventually, liberalism swept Europe as a mass movement putting forth the natural rights of men against the State. Yet, by the early 20th century, liberalism had retreated. Various forms of nationalism and socialism had begun to overtake liberalism in the 19th century, and by World War I, liberalism had disappeared as the dominant ideology of Europe. Liberalism’s intimate connection with capitalism and the industrial revolution was particularly damaging. Communists, socialists, nationalists, romantics, and primitivists all denounced the Industrial Revolution for being exploitive, for corrupting the morals of society, and for breaking down the alleged virtues of the distant past. The drive against the Industrial Revolution was thoroughly anti-intellectual as well, with the opponents of capital pining for the days of yesteryear when men could live by their wits in the wilderness and not be constrained by the evils of the modern industrial world. Rothbard’s writings exhibit particularly enthusiastic scorn for arguments such as these, unleashing a rhetorical torrent of contempt on the romantics and primitivists who had conveniently forgotten that the real history of subsistence farming and the pre-industrial age was one of famine, toil, and death.

In spite of the political revolutions, the Industrial Revolution, and the growing acceptance of natural rights as an immutable restraint on the power of States, the 20th century was a disaster for liberalism. The rise of National Socialism in Germany, Communism in Eastern Europe, and the militarized welfare-warfare State in America did much to destroy the liberalism that had expanded throughout the previous century. Serious talk of global nuclear war, the continued rise of socialism in Europe and the Americas, and the marginalization of liberal intellectuals had all but relegated liberalism to the dustbin of history.

Yet, even in 1965, before the fall of Soviet communism, before the internet, and before the Chinese government decided it preferred industrial revolutions to cultural revolutions, Rothbard was optimistic. In "Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty," he writes:

"What the Marxists would call ‘objective conditions’ for the triumph of liberty exist everywhere in the world and more so than in any past age; for everywhere the masses have opted for higher living standards and the promise of freedom and everywhere the various regimes of statism and collectivism cannot fulfill these goals."

In spite of his long-range optimism, however, Rothbard was always one to emphasize that history is in no way linear. In the High Middle Ages, the fledgling bourgeoisie might have thought that the benefits of free trade and weak States might have lasted forever. But Absolutism and "Enlightenment" intervened. The liberals of the 19th century might have thought similar thoughts. The disaster of the 20th century certainly put an end to that as well. Today, we are left wondering if the 21st century will be more like the 20th or the 19th. It is still too early to tell, but the problem for defenders of liberty is the same today as it has always been. The choice is between the State and liberty; between a free economy and a controlled economy; between peace and war. The myth that modern kings, and democracies, and armies of freedom secure the blessings of liberty for all has been an obstacle to real liberty for centuries. The real history of the State is one of power, war, and domination. Real freedom has advanced in great salvos against the State from political revolutions and from industrial and technological ones. In spite of the 20th century, and the seemingly insurmountable obstacles the State continues to pose against the cause of liberty, freedom has nevertheless erupted at the most unexpected times. Rothbard, knowing the resilience of liberty through the centuries, undoubtedly agreed with Thomas Paine that although "the flame of liberty may sometimes cease to shine, the coal can never expire."

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] Ryan McMaken teaches political science in Colorado.

Copyright © 2006

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