Murray Rothbard: The Simple Lives Behind Some Great Minds by James E. Miller, Ludwig von Mises Institute
What does it take to change the world? Do you need to launch an intellectual revolution, such as Martin Luther? Must you commit murder in the name of egalitarianism à la Joseph Stalin? Is it possible to make a difference while living a humble life?
A new book review by New York Times book editor Dwight Garner invoked these existential questions. In reviewing a biography of Harper Lee, the reclusive author of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, Garner is none too impressed. It’s not that he’s let down by Lee’s ability for storytelling; but that the Alabama novelist leads a fairly uneventful life. The book Garner appraises — Marja Mills’s The Mockingbird Next Door — portrays Lee as an easy-going Southern hermit with an affinity for cheap fast-food. Garner takes no measures to hide his disgust, as he writes:
The Mockingbird Next Door conjured mostly sad images in my mind. Ms. Lee has a regular booth at McDonald’s, where she goes for coffee. She eats takeout salads from Burger King on movie night. When she fishes, she uses wieners for bait.
All of these average, purely American tastes irk Garner to no end. In To Kill a Mockingbird we witnessed the moral dilemma of institutionalized racism in southern states. Lee’s beautiful writing brought the story of Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson, and “Boo” Radley to life. The book was widely heralded, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1961. The novel is still considered a classic of American literature.
The fact that Lee continues to live a simple life in obscurity flies in the face of how authors of iconic works are generally regarded. Ernest Hemmingway was a boisterous, larger-than-life character who famously took pleasure in masculine activities. Charles Bukowski lived as his alter-ego Henry Chinaski: a womanizing drunkard with a penchant for blacking out.
In contrast, Harper Lee doesn’t turn to booze or sexual promiscuity. She seems perfectly fit to live in “plain sight” in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama. Yet, Granger is terribly disappointed; a feeling I assume is driven by some idealistic view of humanity.
Harper Lee’s placid lifestyle may come off as uneventful, but her work is proof that dullness can still produce the extraordinary. So what does this have to do with Austro-libertarianism? The men who developed the theoretical foundations of praxeology, individual methodology, and logical deduction when it came to economics didn’t live grandiose lives by choice either.
Ludwig von Mises was one such individual. As the leading theorist of the Austrian method of economic thought, Mises was once a revered intellectual in Vienna. With the rise of Nazism came the threat of persecution, as Mises was both of Jewish ethnicity and an ardent supporter of free market capitalism. He was forced to flee to America and was in a precarious economic situation until Henry Hazlitt obtained for him an adjunct teaching position at New York University. He never received an official faculty position at the University, and he was paid through the philanthropic Volcker Fund. During this time, Mises wrote his magnum opus Human Action along with smaller works Omnipotent Government and Bureaucracy. Though already the author of major works such as Socialism and The Theory of Money and Credit, these new offerings brought him little prestige from mainstream academia. When Mises passed away in October of 1973, his acquaintances were, according to economist and biographer Jörg Guido Hülsmann, “only a small circle of admirers and disciples …” From this close-knit group of intellectual allies, Mises’s ideas have since reached a larger audience across the globe.
Mises lived an extraordinary life, but not because he sought out a wild and unstable lifestyle. His expatriation was an act of necessity; not desire. Had he stayed in Europe, he would have likely kept toiling away at disproving the efficacy of socialism and central planning. Mises was by most accounts a humble but driven man, who accomplished intellectual feats that should put many other men to shame.
Murray Rothbard is another individual of the Austrian School tradition who made a large mark on millions of people while shying away from the high-life. Early on, his work was overshadowed by economists who adhered to more orthodox standards.
In the early 1960s, Rothbard produced three works of significance. His magnum opus Man, Economy, and State is a rigorous work in economic thought while America’s Great Depression is by far one of the best, most accurate accounts of the biggest economic slump in American history. And The Panic of 1819, Rothbard’s doctoral thesis, is still widely considered the definitive account of the event. Rothbard wrote these three monumental works while teaching undergraduates at an obscure college known as Brooklyn Polytechnic.
These three books are still engaging to the modern reader. Unlike the white papers and textbooks normally attributed to the dismal science, Rothbard wrote in a manner, as Gary North put it, that communicated “sophisticated ideas in language accessible to anybody who had any comprehension of economic cause-and-effect.” After a veritable library of writing, Rothbard’s enormous output of polemics and treatises continues to inspire today. Every now and again, what constitutes the mainstream economic press will make mention of him. It’s not always in a positive light, but the fact remains: Rothbard’s intellectual framework and prodigious body of work is still a force to be reckoned with.
By various accounts, Rothbard’s personal life was marked by an insuperable sense of joy and camaraderie with like-minded thinkers. For much of his intellectual career, he lived in a small Brooklyn apartment. His guests all recount the warmness of Rothbard and his wife when they hosted guests. Not only would much intellectual discussion go down in the Rothbard abode, but also lighthearted activities such as playing board games and watching movies. This wasn’t champagne socialism or strange deviant behavior. It was a playful, almost bourgeois, pleasure; nothing massive or awe-inspiring. And yet, from the atmosphere of humble delight came an intellectual tour de force that continues to influence political debate.
Mises and Rothbard are exemplars of what can be considered a modest life that bore remarkable fruit. Like Harper Lee, they devoted their gifts of prose to a task larger than themselves: elucidating reason and morality. Their achievements were large, even when their egos were small. They made a difference for good, without five-star cuisine or first-class travel. May their path be one that others aspire to follow.