“Taxation Is Robbery.” Upon seeing these words, the title of a Frank Chodorov pamphlet printed in 1947, a young Murray Rothbard was stunned. “This was it. Once seeing those shining and irrefutable words, my ideological outlook could never be the same again,” Rothbard writes in Chapter 7 of Betrayal of the American Right.
All libertarians have moments in their lives that they remember as being defining in their philosophical developmentâ€”landmarks that radicalize their thinking, after which they will never return to their previous statist traps. For Rothbard, the influence of simply seeing Chodorov make these radical libertarian arguments was decisive. For the rest of us, the long-term significance could hardly be overstated. For here we have the moment when the father and synthesizer of modern anarcho-libertarianismâ€”the synthesis of natural rights, Old Right anti-imperialism, classical liberal class consciousness, praxeological economics and individual anarchismâ€”himself became radicalized in his moral opposition to the state, and thus a moment that changed the history of the libertarian movement forever.
Conservatives talk the talk when it comes to tax cuts and reductions in social spending, but it is uniquely libertarian to see taxation across the board for what it is: grand larcenyâ€”the appropriation of wealth through threats of bodily violenceâ€”mass extortionâ€”armed robbery writ large. Rothbard quotes Chodorov:
If we assume that the individual has an indisputable right to life, we must concede that he has a similar right to the enjoyment of the products of his labor. This we call a property right. The absolute right to property follows from the original right to life because one without the other is meaningless; the means to life must be identified with life itself. If the state has a prior right to the products of one’s labor, his right to existence is qualified . . . no such prior rights can be established, except by declaring the state the author of all rights. . . . We object to the taking of our property by organized society just as we do when a single unit of society commits the act. In the latter case we unhesitatingly call the act robbery, a malum in se. It is not the law which in the first instance defines robbery, it is an ethical principle, and this the law may violate but not supersede. If by the necessity of living we acquiesce to the force of law, if by long custom we lose sight of the immorality, has the principle been obliterated? Robbery is robbery, and no amount of words can make it anything else.
The profound implications of this insight are breathtaking. This means that all state activity funded through taxation is thus funded illegitimately. It leaves little room for a defense of the state whatever. Rothbard digested this early on and later refined the comprehensive body of thought known as libertarianism, but it is exciting to see such radical, pure libertarian thought expressed by his own mentors. Indeed, the postwar chapters inBetrayal offer an intimate glimpse into Rothbard’s thought, a sort of autobiography on an idea â€” but a good idea, Rothbardianism, rather than a ghastly one like neoconservatism.
Chodorov alone didn’t turn Rothbard into an anarchist, however. I must admit joy at the thought that he arrived at the conclusion in a similar way that I did, many years later: arguing with college leftists. Upon being confronted with the contradictions of minarchism by his peers, he “realized in a flash that their logic was impeccable, that laissez-faire was logically untenable, and that either [he] had to become a lib-
eral, or move onward into anarchism. [He] became an anarchist. Furthermore, [he] saw the total incompatibility of the insights of Oppenheimer and Nock on the nature of the State as conquest, with the vague ‘social contract’ basis that [he] had been postulating for a laissez-faire government.”
Thus did modern libertarianism begin to flower in the mind of an Old Right contrarian who realized then, as he would many other times, that there was indeed something untenable and rotten at the core of conservative thinking. The liberals were right, at least about the conservatives being wrong and inconsistent.
Yet back then what passed as the establishment Right had a lot going for it. “It was the extreme right, particularly well represented in the House, and including such men as Rep. Howard H. Buffett of Omaha, Rep. Ralph W. Gwinn of New York, Frederick C. Smith of Ohio, and H.R. Gross of Iowa (virtually the only one of the group now remaining), who were solidly isolationist and opposed to foreign wars and interventions, and roughly free-market and libertarian in domestic affairs.”
The “rightwingers” of the time opposed conscription, socialism, aggressive war, foreign meddling, price controls, and the central state imposing its will on domestic localities and foreign would-be colonies of the new empire. The “Left” at the time was defending the collective security of Truman and soon, minus the Commies, signed on to the Cold War effort. To the extent that Republicans like Robert Taft accepted statist compromise, they were seen to be selling out to liberalism, to leftism.
How fascinating. For it was in this brief interlude of the 1940s, from World War II to the eve of the Korean War, that the “Right” was most libertarian and the “Left” was most its opposite. This schematic would persist for many decades, but never with the justification it had in those days, those golden times when the Right opposed aggressive, undeclared wars, including in the name of fighting Communism, and the Left had a consistently anti-liberty, pro-central state agenda. Nothing so clear cut has characterized the political spectrum since.
In Chapter 9, Rothbard does a great job demonstrating the Old Right anti-imperial stance, with focus on Garet Garrett, whose libertarian critiques of Truman’s foreign policy are alone worth the effort of reading this book, and many of which would apply all to well to current affairs. In Chapter 10 he discusses the decline of the Old Right, signaled by the ascension of “liberal” Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
There is other great history in these postwar chapters, especially on the institutional history of financing for free market and libertarian scholarship, the Volker fund, FEE and so forth. I will just advise readers to see the book for the details, but I must back up and comment on something from Chapter 7. Certainly one of the most important episodes the reader is treated to concerns Rothbard’s development on the path toward more and more radical free market thinking, from picking up insights from Friedman and the Chicago school to embracing the Misesian tradition in Austrian economics. Of course, this story is of unsurpassed importance in Rothbard’s life, for it was in Austrian economics that he found an intellectual home in economic thought that was systematically consonant with everything else. “No positive system seemed to make sense or to hang together,” he writes. “But in Mises’s Human Action I found economics as a superb architectonic, a mighty edifice with each building block related to and integrated with every other. Upon reading it, I became a dedicated “Austrianâ€ and Misesian, and I read as much Austrian economics as I could find.”
Indeed, with the mainstream free marketers to this day railing on about maximizing utility for society and ideal inflation rates, it is often difficult for people new to libertarianism to understand how this is all supposed to be integrated with such basic and universal principles as natural law, spontaneous order and property rights. In discovering Mises, Rothbard found a crucial piece of the puzzle that would fit together with anarchism and moral opposition to the state and thus be able to build the foundations of modern libertarianism.
I focused first, however, on the Chodorov passage and the short glory days of the Old Right to illustrate Rothbard’s crucial journey in political thought and evolution as a political strategist. It is inspiring to think that the Old Right really was such a wonderful movement, shining bright and standing alone in opposition to the FDR-Truman agenda of collectivism at home and abroad. And it is even more inspiring to think that as it died, something else, something even better and more long-lasting, grew from the ashes: Libertarianism. As the central state continued to go on the offensive against individual liberty, against the Bill of Rights, it is an uplifting fact to consider the anti-statist response likewise went on the offensive. No longer would the freedom movement only think about avoiding the next war, but rather now it would question all statist war. No longer would all effort be put in resisting the new tax increase; for now there was the intellectual basis for questioning taxation itself. The Old Right barely survived World War II and was able to put up quite a fight in the few years afterwards. But as it died there was something even grander, not just reacting to the newest totalitarian bureaucracy, but a new idea pointing the way to a world without statism of any sort. And the glorious movement that has lived and thrived since then owes so much to the historical peculiarity whereby Rothbard first grappled with the earthshaking notion that “taxation is robbery.”