Jeffrey Tucker has kindly asked me to liveblog The Betrayal of the American Right, the new book by Murray Rothbard now available at the Mises Institute. I have begun reading it and, I have to say, as much as I knew I’d enjoy this and get something from it, my expectations have been far surpassed already.
Some very good scholarship and polemics have emerged in the last couple decades exploring the Old Right, and I was wondering how much Rothbard would address in this book that I hadn’t seen elsewhere, including in his writings. Sure, I could pick up some more details, some more who’s who — which is always great, and Rothbard is a wonderful source for this kind of intellectual history. But how much would my deeper comprehension of the ideas of the Old Right, its historical significance, be moved? In particular, I’ve been amused for several years about the controversy as to whether the Old Right was really on the “right.” Were they the aging leftists that some saw them as, that they might have seen them as? I knew they were no conservatives, whether of the New Right or neocon variety. But I’ve wondered what the case actually is for describing them as on the right at all.
Well, I think I’m beginning to see this in a whole new way, and Betrayal is truly advancing my understanding of this whole era in the classical liberal heritage. Rothbard has plenty of nuance in this book, sometimes referring to a figure or institution as “conservative” in the truly old sense â€“- the sense of privilege and power. This lines up very well with his description of it in “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty.” In Chapter 1, Rothbard discusses
the age-old political philosophy of Conservatism, that philosophy which formed the central core of the originally labeled “Conservatismâ€ of early nineteenth-century Europe. In fact, it is the philosophy that has marked genuinely conservative thought, regardless of label, since the ancient days of Oriental despotism: an all-encompassing reverence for ‘Throne-and-Altar,’ for whatever divinely sanctioned State apparatus happened to be in existence. In one form or another, ‘God Bless the Establishment’ has always been the cry on behalf of State power.
And yet later in the book, anti-prohibition, anti-New Deal figures such as John Davis are described as “conservative Democrats.” There was a time I would have wanted this all to be reconciled, but I am starting to get the sense that in fact left and right and liberal and conservative really are situational terms, whose meaning shifts with time. It takes big events or a passage of considerable time for these terms to take radically different meanings, but they do. Further, just as the state is riddled with moral contradictions, the ideologies circling the state, promoting it and attacking it to varying degrees, often have some paradoxes. Far from running away from this nuance and web of varying, sometimes confusing facets of ideological and intellectual change in politcs, I think we libertarians should try to understand it all. Things do not fall simply into one sense of left or one sense of right, with libertarianism being more consistently at home at one place or the other. No, the Old Right was not quite on the WWI-era individualist left, but not quite on what we consider the right today. No, it was indeed the Old Right — something very special, something unique to its time. Aspects of it we might see alive today, but there will always be ways in which the Old Right is a relic of the past. I am ecstatic to delve back in and let Dr. Rothbard tell me the rest of this story, a story I feel has always been there, a crucial stepping stone in the development of the liberal and libertarian traditions, and yet one of which my understanding has always been sorely lacking. We needed this book, I can tell already.