By Bryan Caplan
Laugh if you must, but I’ve always enjoyed the Journal of Libertarian Studies. Last week, I came across another great read in a recent issue: John Payne’s “Rothbard’s Time on the Left.” It’s a fascinating account of Rothbard’s “strategic alliance” with the radical left during the 60’s, and though I’ve heard the whole story before, Payne’s written a great short history of the affair.
It all started with Frank Meyer‘s editorial in National Review, which made it clear that isolationists like Rothbard were no longer welcome. Afterwards:
There was now no returning to the Right for Rothbard, at least for the foreseeable future… For the next five years, the war in Vietnam would only escalate, along with the National Review Right’s bellicosity; the war ended any possibility of reconciliation between Rothbard and the mainstream right. The decision to reach out to a new audience was a clear one, but to whom, exactly, would he reach?
Rothbard found common ground with a small group of New Left historians on the issue of historical revisionism, and he sought to ally himself with them.
Predictably, this “alliance” didn’t last. Payne puts the most favorably spin he can on it:
Politically, the 1960s were a roller coaster ride for everyone involved, and, everything considered, Rothbard’s strategic alliance with the New Left fared relatively well. The alliance ultimately failed, but strategic alliances are, by definition, temporary.
Or as Pee-wee Herman says, “I meant to do that.”
I had a very different reaction. Payne’s article reminded me of my recurring thought as I read Rothbard’s biography: “I can understand why two deeply incompatible movements would ally if one has 49% of the vote and the other has 2%. What I can’t understand is why two deeply incompatible movements would ally if one has .01% of the vote and the other has .001%.”
In other words, I can see why someone would sacrifice principle for political advantage, though I wouldn’t do it myself. But I can’t see why someone would sacrifice principle when – even after the sacrifice – he’s still hopelessly outnumbered. (Think Rothbard didn’t sacrifice principle as a result of his alliance? Check out his monstrous obituary for Che Guevara.)
But perhaps Rothbard’s main goal wasn’t to change policy, but to poach recruits from his allies? Payne suggests as much:
And certainly, the Radical Libertarian Alliance was a terrible flop, but it is equally certain that the libertarian movement as a whole ended the 1960s far larger than it was when the decade began. It is impossible to say exactly how large an impact the alliance had on the libertarian movement, but it certainly seems that a great many libertarians were culled and/or created from the ranks of SDS and unaffiliated Vietnam War protestors.
“A great many”? I seriously doubt it. Ayn Rand novels, not SDS rallies, were the fountainhead of libertarian converts. In any case, it’s clear that the poaching went in both directions, so the net effect was even more dubious. The real story of Rothbard’s alliance with the radical left – like practically all of his “strategic alliances” – is that he fell prey to a simple fallacy:
Something must be done.
This is something.
Therefore, this must be done.