History + Comedy = Rothbard
By Bryan Caplan
For centuries, the State (or more strictly, individuals acting in their roles as “members of the government”) has cloaked its criminal activity in high-sounding rhetoric. For centuries the State has committed mass murder and called it “war”; then ennobled the mass slaughter that “war” involves. For centuries the State has enslaved people into its armed battalions and called it “conscription” in the “national service.” For centuries the State has robbed people at bayonet point and called it “taxation.” In fact, if you wish to know how libertarians regard the State and any of its acts, simply think of the State as a criminal band, and all of the libertarian attitudes will logically fall into place.
–Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty
If anything is simultaneously obvious and brilliant, it is Rothbard’s insight that governments are glorified gangs of criminals. How can anyone who knows the basic facts of history disagree? If you strip virtually any chapter of world history down to a postcard, it’s a story of vicious murderers killing each other in order to enslave nearby civilians. Nearly every guy nicknamed “the Great” was a serial killer on a massive scale – and not the nice kind, either.
If all this is so obvious, why don’t most works of history have a Rothbardian flavor? The answer, in short, is that most historians are serious. When they tell the story of William the Conqueror, for example, they take a considered, pompous tone, and treat all the key historical players with respect. They’ve usually got their facts straight, of course. But they don’t want to write the “story of William the Mass Murderer,” so they briefly mention his body count, then move on to William’s land titling policy.
It is because of these shortcomings of traditional history that I enthusiastically recommend the complete Cartoon History of the Universe series by Larry Gonick. While he relays the same facts as an orthodox historian, Gonick is a comedian who freely ridicules the great and powerful. When an historical figure makes an inane mistake, Gonick draws him as a doofus. When an historical figure murders millions, Gonick draws him as a blood-soaked tyrant. And when an historical figure puts out the eyes of his predecessor… well, you get the idea. Gonick is the ultimate Actonian, for he never stops reminding us that, “Great men are almost always bad men.”
But wait, there’s more! Cartoon history also turns out to be excellent pedagogy. I’ve read many traditional works of Chinese history, but nothing sticks. Gonick’s cartoon history of ancient China, in contrast, is so vivid that it has a real chance of becoming part of my mental furniture. If I had my way, every elementary school in the country would dump traditional “serious” history in favor of Gonick cartoon histories. Not only would our children actually learn the material; they’d learn to treat history’s “great leaders” with the respect they deserve.