By |Published On: August 14th, 2020|Categories: Libertarianism, Murray Rothbard, Strategy|

When the Mises Caucus was founded in late-2017, it marked a huge turning point in my life. For the first time in years, arguably decades, a beacon of the light began to cast through a sea of darkness in the Libertarian Party. By that point, I had already become a voracious reader and writer, while my fascination with economics and history proliferated into topics such as philosophy, psychology, geography, and so on. What I lacked, however, was an outlet to disseminate these ideas far and wide, ideas rooted in principles. And therein lies the problem: principles, in the realm of politics, tend to be supplanted by what proves to be more politically expedient. Murray Rothbard not only saw through this façade, but he also left behind invaluable—and might I add timeless—pieces of advice that he garnered through two specific instances in his life: 1) his relationship with the Libertarian Party and 2) his fallout from the Cato Institute.

The Libertarian Party

The formation of the Libertarian Party on December 11, 1971, didn’t excite Rothbard initially. “In the first place,” he wrote in April 1973, “it has been my usual experience that when more than five libertarians (or five anyone-else, for that matter) gather together to meet, it is high time to look for the nearest exit.”[1] It wasn’t until the spring of 1973 that he decided to embark on a relationship with the party and its constituents, and by that time Rothbard already had some accomplishments under his belt which gained him some notoriety.[2] Little did he know that he would soon be on the radar of a well-known billionaire, Charles L. Koch of Koch Industries.

From the onset of these new affiliations, problems began to arise mostly due to differences in approach. In terms of what approach to take, “it seemed to Rothbard that the strategy of submersion or ‘entryism’ in a larger movement was no longer necessary” because in terms of who to recruit “he came out solidly in favor of orienting toward “Middle America” which he expounded on in the final chapter of For A New Liberty.[3] Left and Right, the Prospects for Liberty (1965) was an earlier work of his in which he denounced the sectarianism of the Left and the opportunism of the Right, and he couldn’t stand gradualism.

Kenneth S. Templeton once opined in an internal policy memo to George Pearson in 1974 that Rothbard’s “proposal to establish a scholarly journal to advance libertarian scholarship” was unpersuasive, while he also “accused Rothbard of seeking to build a coterie of followers” while “promoting an ideological movement”—what people like Templeton favored instead was “infiltration and cooperation.” “The Templeton meme,” noted Raimondo, “epitomizes everything Rothbard disliked about academia: the phony façade of ‘objective’ or ‘pure’ scholarship, allegedly ‘value-free,’ like physics or the study of biology; the implicit snobbery, that looked down its ‘scholarly’ nose at grubby ‘activism.’”[4] Rothbard was having none of this. And so he fought back, relentlessly.

The Cato Institute

The Koch empire, in terms of their funding of libertarian causes, was unparalleled in its reach (or at least potential reach). The Institute for Humane Studies, Students for Liberty, and Americans for Prosperity are just a few of the countless organizations that Koch Industries has either funded or took part in creating outright. Rothbard, who was soon awarded a grant to write The Ethics of Liberty in 1974-75 (which was subsequently published in 1982), also become a co-founder of the Koch’s soon-to-be most prized free-market organization: the Cato Institute, which opened in January 1977. Unbeknownst to many, even Senior Fellows of Cato, the name of the organization owes its thanks to Rothbard as well. Indeed, only the erudite mind of Rothbard in conjunction with his precipitous reading ability would’ve managed to stumble upon an obscure set of essays—from the 1720’s nevertheless—such as Cato’s Letters by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon.[5]

Rothbard, again, was a master of strategy. Having been so well-read, he could at any moment reference names, dates, books, historical events, all of which were complemented by his constant flow of original ideas. One of Rothbard’s most remarkable achievements was a 178-page privately circulated memo titled “Toward a Strategy for Libertarian Social Change” which made the rounds in April 1977.[6] To say that he was at the top of his game while writing this would still be an understatement—his clarity, quite frankly, was insurmountable. For example, “it seemed axiomatic,” Raimondo mentioned, “that any book that quoted Lenin and objectively analyzed the strategic and organizational methods of both Marxism and right-wing authoritarians (as well as the American revolutionaries, classical liberals, and others) was bound to offend all the wrong people.”[7]

It wasn’t long before National Review and the Buckleyites were making Murray out to be a communist, and these erratic caricatures were slow to die down and, in some cases, intensified. Kenneth S. Templeton for instance chastised Murray’s idea to establish a scholarly libertarian journal, and I could give you several examples of the little quarrels he’d get into with others. Murray of course was ruthless–if you wanted a fight, he’d always get the last word in. Fast forward to 1980, and the election campaign of Ed Clark was heavily berated by Murray, and for good reason. It was embarrassing that Ronald Reagan was offering drastic reductions in State power, more so than Clark who identified as a “Low-tax liberal.” This was impossible to overlook for Murray, who was a “No-tax anarchist.” His beef with both the Libertarian Party and the Cato Institute can be summed up as such: Rothbard stuck to his principles, unlike his opponents, and it was only a matter of time before the rising tension culminated into a grand finale.

Robbed in Broad Daylight

Cato’s five original shareholders were Murray Rothbard, Ed Crane, Charles L. Koch, Roger MacBride, and George H. Pearson.[8] On March 5, 1981, Murray was informed that it was desired of him that he “yield his Cato shares to Crane & Co.,” which wouldn’t have been so problematic except for the fact that Murray didn’t receive the message until March 11. His shares were essentially just sitting in an office in Wichita where he thought they were safe. Murray’s lawyer went back and forth with Crane’s lawyers, and on March 27, 1981, in an ultimate showdown, Murray was flat out told that his “shares had been canceled.” But what does that mean? It meant what it sounds like it: Murray was kicked out of the Cato board meeting, and if he ever wanted to see those shares again, then he’d have to wage war against the Koch empire and their billions (keep in mind that Murray had used his own money to fly to San Francisco for the meeting.) After some back and forth action, everyone in the room eventually turned silent while Ed Crane, having ignored Rothbard’s legal concerns, instructed Rothbard to leave. These were Rothbard’s last words as he stormed out of the meeting: “this action is illegal . . . therefore any further decisions taken at this meeting are illegal.”[9] But it was game over, and he was never going to see those shares again. They robbed him in broad daylight.

Principles over Politics

There are so many pertinent lessons that Murray Rothbard can teach us. Many of them are hidden deep within his works, sometimes within his more obscure pieces, but what sparked my interest to write this was another Rothbard essay I stumbled across titled “Sell Out and Die” which was originally published in July-August 1980 for the Radical Caucus of the Libertarian Party.[10] Rarely does a short essay grab me as this one did in particular (and in all honesty, I probably read it four or five times in a row).

Rothbard began by reflecting on the shift in focus and the change in direction that the LP had taken in the spring of 1979—Rothbard considered it a “classic leap into opportunity betrayal of our fundamental principles”:

The early, pre-1976 days of the modern libertarian movement suffered from having no strategic vision at all. For that reason, it scarcely deserved the name of movement; the guiding concept was what I call “educationism”: that libertarians write, lecture, teach, and spread the word, and that somehow the victory of liberty would one day magically be achieved. From 1976 on, in contrast, the movement began to flourish under a movement-building, or cadre-building, perspective; the idea was to concentrate on building a movement of knowledgeable libertarians, of men and women who would be deeply committed to hard-core libertarian principle.

The “cadre would get involved in single-issue coalitions where the particular issues advanced the libertarian cause (anti-draft, drug law repeal, tax-slashing, or whatever).” The problem is that “this course requires a lifelong commitment to what Mao aptly called a “protracted struggle”; it is no movement for those who rush in and burn out in a few months.” Murray continued by reminiscing about what the Libertarian Party had devolved into:

In any ideological movement, the temptation to take quick shortcuts, the lure of betraying principle for supposed short-run gain, can become almost irresistible. But usually sellouts have occurred after the movement has taken power, or else when it is teetering on the brink of power. But it is surely rare for an ideological movement to sell out when it merely sniffs the faintest whiff of possible power someday in the future. Surely this is gutlessness and venality of an unusually high order.

And what is the purpose of the Libertarian Party? What is the main goal? To Rothbard, it was “to educate the public . . . Presumably, to libertarian principles.” Regarding the media and its role in spreading ideas, the opportunists, who Rothbard held in low regard relative to purists like himself:

have targeted as their constituency young, middle-class liberals, the sort of articulate people who tend to mold voter opinion, the sort of people who read the New York Times and watch CBS News . . . In short, young, middle-class, liberal media people.

The opportunists “are simply not interested in which stand on any given issue might be consistent with libertarianism and which is not.” Rothbard, once again taking a jab at the opportunists, proclaimed that they had “given up talking about basic principles (too radical)” in order to “talk only about what he will do in his first year in office (Huh?).” For Rothbard, a “party of principle” had to be the rule, and not the exception. Amidst all the pain and struggles, Murray Rothbard endured it all; he was a model scholar and strategist, and the Mises Caucus (along with the entire Libertarian Party) stands to gain an endless amount of insights from his work. Never sacrifice your principles.


[1] Murray N. Rothbard, “Present at the Creation,” The Libertarian Forum 5, no. 4 (April 1973): 1-2.; Quote originally found in Justin Raimondo, An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (New York: Prometheus Books, 2000), 201.

[2] His magnum opus Man, Economy and State (1962) had been released over a decade prior, while America’s Great Depression (1963), What Has Government Done to Our Money? (1964), Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty (1965), and his soon-to-be published For A New Liberty (1973) were just a few of his early works which began to gain him some notoriety. This list doesn’t include his countless contributions spanning from his columns in Reason magazine, to The Individualist, to Human Events, to one of his most cherished journals, Libertarian Forum.

[3] Justin Raimondo, An Enemy of the State, 202.; Continuing on with the quote: “This was in marked contrast to left-libertarians, such as Hess, who still looked to the counterculture as the vehicle for libertarian social change.” This was also contra the ideas of Ayn Rand who “imagined that reality would replicate the plot of Atlas Shrugged, in which heroic businessman go on strike and, as the novel’s dust jack proclaims, ‘stop the motor of the world.’”

[4] Justin Raimondo, An Enemy of the State, 213.; For more insights on strategy, see Murray N. Rothbard, “From the Old Curmudgeon: My New Year’s Wish for the Movement,” Libertarian Forum (December 1975).; Also see Murray N. Rothbard, “Libertarian Strategy,” pts. 1-5, Libertarian Connection (February 10-August 9, 1969).

[5] Justin Raimondo, An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard, 218.

[6] Murray N. Rothbard, “Toward a Strategy for Libertarian Social Change,” April 1977.; While this is a phenomenal read on its own, being able to read a photocopy of what Murray wrote on his typewriter certainly adds to the “wow” factor.

[7] Justin Raimondo, An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard, 220.

[8] Luke Mullins, “The Battle for the Cato Institute,” The Washingtonian (May 2012).

[9] Murray N. Rothbard, “It Usually Ends with Ed Crane,” Libertarian Forum 14, no. 1-2 (January-April 1981): 965-969.; Also see David Gordon, “Why the Koch Brothers Went After Murray Rothbard,” (March 10, 2011),

[10] Murray N. Rothbard, “Sell Out and Die,” (April 18, 2013),; The remaining quotes in this article will be derived from “Sell Out and Die.”

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