the button-down individualist
November 11, 2010 Leave a comment
We came for the freedom and stayed for the good life. We built businesses, families, fortunes, homes—so many homes—and in the first years of the new millennium we could be forgiven for believing that here, in a city built on flirtation with the forbidden, we owed our success to the glory of having been left alone. The rest of the country paid lip service to the American dream; we lived it. Lady Liberty resided in New York Harbor, but she had a floorshow in Vegas.
Somewhere between our arrival and the bruising election of 2010, Nevada gained a reputation as national ground zero for anti-government fervor. The reputation is misleading; the election was a perfect media storm of the most powerful man in an unpopular Senate facing off against brutal economic times and a nationwide nihilist movement. Traditionally, we Nevadans like government out of our business, except when it is helping us to do business. As a well-regulated land of self-made men and women, we dislike meddling but don’t mind partnership. Even in the wake of the Great Tea Party Tempest, it bears repeating that Nevada’s libertarian streak—especially here in Las Vegas—is more about lifestyle and civic self-image than about ideological consistency. We’ve always believed that the holier-than-thou elites are out to get us, but we’ve never really been out to get them.
It’s possible, of course, that this autumn of discontent foreshadowed some kind of paradigm shift, and that our inveterate frontier defensiveness is morphing into ideological libertarianism. But let’s pause to think about what that would mean. Real libertarianism (as opposed to Tea Partyism, which cribs from the libertarian playbook but hasn’t really read the thing) is an ideology of radical experimentation. It calls not only for lower taxes and gun rights, but for gay rights, an end to the drug war, and a foreign policy restrained beyond President Obama’s wildest dreams of restraint. Libertarianism’s insistence on restraining government in all its forms and supporting economic and personal freedom in all their forms creates awkward alliances and weakness at the ballot box.
The libertarian movement is diverse and argumentative; many purist libertarians will have nothing to do with the Libertarian Party, which after all wants to participate in the taboo sport of governance. But libertarians share an almost scholarly commitment to exploring the implications of 18th-century natural rights and 19th-century laissez-faire economics. The theoretical end game of libertarianism is peaceful anarchy, in which mutual interest, contractual cooperation and unfettered creativity ensure a higher standard of living.
At the heart of libertarianism is a simple and seductive logic: Governments get what they want through force. Markets, on the other hand, are networks of voluntary contractual relationships between individuals. That is, they are created by choice. A society should be built around consensual exchange rather than the unequal relationship between state power and citizen. Individuals negotiate; the state expropriates.
Libertarianism is a romantic ideology. It recognizes the unity of the haunted spirit and the audacious dreamer. The fantasies of the free man are inspired by his dark awareness that he is unfree. Like Nevada itself, libertarianism is ornery and visionary and in a state of perpetual argument with a spectral Establishment. It is an ideology of struggle. This is the story of its partisans.
(2) The Happy Warrior
In the autumn of 1990, Doug French was working in commercial real estate lending at Security Pacific Bank and pursuing a master’s degree in economics at UNLV. He needed a course to fill out his schedule, but the only one available, a classmate assured him, was being taught by a kook. Reasoning that no grad student gets through school without communing with a kook or two, French enrolled in Murray Rothbard’s History of Economic Thought class.
“I took Murray and I was struck by lightning,” says French, who is now the president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank at Auburn University. “My life was changed forever.”
The “kook,” as it turned out, was one of the most prominent living practitioners of Austrian economics, a school of thought that had been brought to the postwar U.S. by Mises and eventual Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek. In the intellectual crucible of mid-century New York City, Rothbard helped put Austrian economics at the center of the emerging libertarian discourse. He was, for a time, part of Ayn Rand’s inner circle, but her tendency to seek worship rather than drop-the-gloves intellectual debate sat poorly with a man who loved rough-and-tumble argument above all else.
For Rothbard and his fellow Austrians—the followers of Mises called themselves Austrians whether they were Austrian or not—economic liberty was at once a moral category and the practical key to prosperity and innovation. Liberty creates wealth, and wealth creates. Through the power of markets, society spontaneously organizes itself without the guidance of government. If individuals, understanding their wants and needs better than anyone else, make mutual choices for mutual benefit, then any force that interferes with those choices decreases the sum of human happiness.
To those who argued that the cooling hand of government was needed to tame the passions of the market, ensure the justice of its networks of exchange, and guide economic development in desirable directions, the Austrians had a simple answer: How the hell do you know? The Austrians believed that economic planning is folly; Rothbard railed against the mathematical modeling favored by mainstream economists. The hand of government neither cools nor guides nor stimulates: It can only distort the natural interplay of individual choices. No expert or committee of experts should arrogate the right to steer natural processes whose outcome is unknowable. The Federal Reserve was one of Rothbard’s favorite targets—he believed that its artificially low interest rates in the 1920s produced the Great Depression; to make matters worse after the crash, Herbert Hoover called on industrialists to keep wages artificially high. The economy couldn’t find its footing when government kept telling it where to step.
Rothbard worked on his masterpiece, Man, Economy, and State, throughout the 1950s; not until 1970 was its third and final volume published, but Rothbard’s constant flow of articles had long since put him at the center of libertarian politics. In the cultural crucible of the 1960s and ’70s, Rothbard dealt with everyone from counterculture libertines who wanted government out of their medicine chests to industrialists like the Koch brothers of Kansas, oilmen who for years poured their money into libertarian think tanks—their cash founded the Cato Institute—in an attempt to make a defiantly anarchic movement do their bidding. (The Kochs have more recently placed their bets on the Tea Party.) Rothbard, a button-down individualist, was pleased with neither the wild-eyed hippies nor the Napoleonic business executives.
“Murray never quite found a home,” says French, “but he was always searching.”
Above all, Rothbard was an intellectual happy warrior, the fun fellow who could carry on a ferocious policy argument for decades. He was a man who might have been a grand presence in some endowed Ivy League chair. But though Rothbard had earned his doctoral degree from Columbia and published feverishly, he was unable to find an academic appointment in the Keynesian-dominated economics faculties of New York City—and he wasn’t willing to leave town. For two decades he taught at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. And then, in 1986, UNLV came calling, and Rothbard, 60 years old and ready at last for a change of scenery, headed west.
(Jeffrey Tucker has made the relevant portion of the PDF available here.)