Jacob Jensen is an historian of modern America with special interests in the intellectual history of the public sector. He is a postdoctoral fellow at the Saxo Institute of the University of Copenhagen. His fellowship is part of the “Key Actors – Peopling the Neoliberal Economy” project, which examines how imaginary characters like the consumer, the entrepreneur, the investor, and the debtor have been articulated as role models of social behavior to legitimize the neoliberal economy.
He spoke to Elsa Costa a contributing editor about his essay, “Repurposing Mises: Murray Rothbard and the Birth of Anarchocapitalism,” which appeared in the JHI (83.2).
Elsa Costa: The “myth of the American frontier” occupies an ever greater position in Rothbard’s imagination over the course of his career. I was reminded, while reading your account, of recent journalism and scholarship on the connections between Rose Wilder Lane, who co-wrote the Little House on the Prairiebook series with her mother Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the libertarian right. Wilder Lane has even been called one of the “founding mothers” of libertarianism along with Ayn Rand, with whom she corresponded for about a decade. The association between the pioneer era and radical libertarianism is, in other words, larger than just Rothbard, and appears to have been circulating as early as the 1930s, when Wilder Lane wrote her Credo, and certainly by the 1950s. Yet Rothbard does not appear to have settled on homesteading as the central image of his philosophy until much later. Instead, your piece speaks of a sustained engagement with the highly cosmopolitan Mises and, in the era of Left and Right, a tendency to focus on urban issues. Did Rothbard’s interest in homesteading predate the manifesto of 1973? And how do you think he came to see it as reconcilable with Mises?
Jacob Jensen: This is a terrific question. As you point out, the myth of the frontier serves an important ideological purpose within libertarian thought. Rose Wilder Lane is an important early example. The current libertarian fascination with seasteading is a more recent one. Libertarianism is a very American body of thought in the sense that it relies so heavily on an idealized image of rugged individualist settlers. This also points to an important difference between neoliberalism and libertarianism. Neoliberals emphasize entrepreneurship and universalized conceptions of entrepreneurship, meaning that everyone has the potential for innovation. Their concern is with market processes and their extension to all spheres of life. Libertarians rely on a more heroic vision of homesteaders claiming their land. Their concern is not really with markets. They are concerned with property rights – to individuals’ right to possession of land and material goods, on the one hand, and to individuals’ right to their own body, on the other. Property rights were also a cornerstone in Mises’s work, but for a very different purpose. Mises responded to interwar Viennese debates about the collective ownership of the means of production. Though they overlapped in their concern with property rights, Mises’s intention was to prove the superiority of free enterprise compared to public production. By contrast, Rothbard came to homesteading in the early 1970s in response to the egalitarian thrust of the New Left. Whereas he was enthusiastic about Black Nationalism, the anti-war movement, and aspects of the counter-culture (especially the call for free drugs), he despised the egalitarianism of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement. These movements sought a leveling of social hierarchies that went against Rothbard’s biological individualism. He believed that nature determined inequality. This emphasis on nature, I think, ultimately led him to homesteading as the core expression of individual property rights. It allowed him to isolate the individual in an unregulated frontier setting where only the strongest would survive.
EC: Following up on my first question, you clearly show the degree to which Rothbard’s commitments stayed substantially unmoved following his conversion to libertarian anarchism around 1950. However, there seems to be some internal tension in Rothbard’s belief system, as well as those of his successors, between the individual or family unit and the community unit, as well as some ambiguity in how the latter is circumscribed. The racially-defined community shows up early in Rothbard’s thought, in his approbation for both the Black Panthers and for the white power movements which opposed them. Rothbard appeared to believe that both movements were hardly political movements at all, but were rather accessing a simple truth about the human tendency to assort into self-governing ethnic communities. However, at other times, Rothbard seems to have imagined the community in terms of neighborhood governance rather than racial movements, which is a different heuristic, however much the two may have seemed compatible during Norman Mailer’s 1969 bid for Mayor of New York. Both conceptions of community, the racial and the hyperlocal, also appear to clash with the family unit in the ‘homesteading’ model, which has very little patience for community. How did Rothbard, and how do his intellectual heirs, deal with that tension?
JJ: I think this reflects a general, and very productive, tension within liberal thought. Recall Margaret Thatcher’s infamous refrain about society: “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families.” Similarly, Melinda Cooper’s groundbreaking work shows the affinities between neoliberalism and the new social conservatism in their concern with family values. Rothbard and his heirs did not really deal with this tension. I think it speaks more to the different contexts in which his thought developed. In the 1960s, his hopes were high for neighborhood governance, which would allow ethnic communities to regulate their own affairs free from government interference. But as the 1960s came to a close, he became ever more concerned with the civil rights, women’s, and gay movements’ calls for egalitarianism. Whereas he saw in Black Nationalism a call for segregation similar to his own, the call for leveling social hierarchies was a direct challenge to his conception of individualism. That is why, I think, he went from emphasizing the isolation of the individual in ethnically defined nations, or communities, to emphasizing the isolation of the individual within the parameters of the household. Against the women’s rights movement, the man reigned supreme in this oikos.
EC: If I read it correctly, The article concludes that Rothbard was in large part responsible for the tendency of modern radical libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and members of the alt-right to substitute the “covenant” among members of a small, ethnically linked community for the traditional institutions of society: law, government, and even perhaps for the market itself. “Covenant” is here a secularized religious term and also recalls the Mayflower Compact, as well as the charters of the joint-stock companies, such as the Massachusetts Bay Company, which first colonized New England. Arguably, these early modern corporations were in turn economized versions of medieval corporate forms such as the confraternity or religious order. Rothbard’s persistent interest in communities and the ties which bind them, over and against the state, is often reminiscent of a neo-medieval corporatism, with race or ethnicity substituted for religious affiliation (for example, a confraternity’s devotion to a particular saint). This would explain his fascination with the Black Panthers. Yet this conflation of community ties with racial ties is far from natural or intuitive, and it is unclear how Rothbard would circumscribe ethnic identification (going by the simple black-white divide, the ensuing communities would be impossibly large). Nor does race seem to have any intuitive link with individualism, despite Rothbard’s insistence on deriving the latter from biological inequality. Can you speak a little on how Rothbard’s beliefs came to be so heavily racially inflected?
JJ: The point about the similarities between the libertarian covenant and neo-medieval corporatism is brilliant. As you point out, the intellectual origins of the covenant spring from the myth of the American frontier. In the absence of a state, the covenant becomes a crucial element in the maintenance of order. This seems like an odd position for a thinker who barely left New York because of an anxiety disorder. But I think it was a reflection of the very racially divided neighborhoods of that city, and the urban riots of the 1960s led him to the conclusion that the best thing would be for communities to divide along racial lines and govern their own affairs. Rather than having the central, or city, government intervene, he saw segregation as the way forward. His emphasis on biological inequality reinforced this position. The resort to biology is quite common among economic liberals, and it reflects the paradox of competition. On the one hand, for competition to work, competitors need to start from the same position. On the other hand, competition needs to result in an unequal outcome. Some liberals recognize that government intervention is necessary to level the playing field to make competition meaningful. Others, like Rothbard, simply point to spurious theories of biology to avoid opening the Pandora’s Box of government action. In that sense, they do not really care about competition. That is why he ends up emphasizing the frontier where land, in his idiosyncratic version of history, was plentiful and unused (sidestepping, or perhaps even celebrating, the violent appropriation of native land). In this vision, homesteaders banded together in contractually binding communities to protect their property. It is a vision that only makes sense against the background of the myth of the American frontier.
Elsa Costa is a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, where she also received her Ph.D in 2021. Her research focuses on the evolution of theories of sovereignty in the early modern Ibero-American world, and she has published on a range of topics in the history of European and Latin American philosophy. She begins as Assistant Professor in Atlantic history at Fulbright University Vietnam in 2022.
Edited by Tom Furse
Featured Image: Murray Rothbard. GNU Free Documentation License