Rothbard: How a Circle Becomes a Movement
By Bryan Caplan
ever been baffled by Murray Rothbard’s appeal, check out “The Six Stages of the
Libertarian Movement.” It beautifully captures not only his
intellect, but his charm. Highlight: His rich description of how a study
circle becomes an intellectual movement.
We have now
a circle, a group of people, six, seven, eight, nine, whatever, who become
Libertarians and, boy, this is fantastic. And also some ramifications to this.
And they study and they meet on a regular basis as a study group. They read,
they discuss long into the night, and so forth and so on. They get in touch.
They read Libertarian classics. Maybe they put out a little newsletter. They get
in touch with Libertarian groups in other countries or other regions, other
cities. And so we have the circle stage.
I myself was in the circle
stage around the 1950s in New York
City. We had a little group of six or seven hard-core
friends and colleagues and about three or four hangers-on, which we called the
Circle Bastiat. So that was our circle. And I think, again, the circle stage, I
think, happens in every movement, and Libertarianism.
In the circle stage, let’s
say, you have regular meetings. You tend to meet once a week or whatever. And
there are discussions and arguments and theoretical refinements and so forth.
But one thing you must say – I mean, one thing that happens, of course, also
disagreements will occur now. With six or seven people, you’re bound to have at
least eight opinions, OK, if not more.
But one thing among the
differences – first of all, all differences tend to be – how should we put it –
I wouldn’t say unimportant, but lovable… [S]trategy is one problem that never
arises in the circle-stage of development… Nobody worries about betraying
principle because when a movement – you have six or seven usually young and
usually un-influential, unknown people, the problem of selling-out principle
never arises, OK? In fact, it’s usually a non-problem. It’s a matter for a big
joke, a big hilarity. Say, “Hey, we’re going to sell out tomorrow.”
Yes, right, these six or seven people nobody has even heard of.
If the study circle
succeeds, however, all this changes:
There comes a point – stage
five, I guess it is, in this number game here – where something happens to the
circle and the circle stage gets transcended into a movement stage or a
movement-activist stage. The proper name for it – movement-activism is one name
for it, a movement properly so-called, a mass movement in the sense of a
By the way, one sign of
whether you’re in this nationwide movement or not, whether you’re out of the
circle stage, is very simple. I don’t remember the year this happened to me.
The early stages of the movement, there are like six Libertarians in New York, six in California,
or whatever. You know every Libertarian very well in the whole country. I mean,
it’s no problem. So if any Libertarian article comes out, you know who wrote
it. You probably saw the article before it came out and so forth and so on. One
of the hallmarks of a leap into movement-activist, to the mass-movement stage
is when you say, “Hey, this is a pretty good article. Who the hell is
this? Who wrote it”? You don’t know who this Libertarian is who wrote it.
This is a very key significant point.
As the movement stage unfolds, nostalgia for the Good Old Days is only natural:
circle stage, you made one convert a year. Now people suddenly come converting
all the time. People pop up everywhere. “Who are these people who call
themselves Libertarians”? And one of the problems, an immediate problem
with that is, before this, all Libertarians were close friends, OK? It’s an affinity
group or friendship-group situation. Now, all of a sudden, people are popping
up who you don’t want to receive in your own home, right? This is a big
psychological shock – (laughing). See, before this – (laughing) – boy, this
person is a Libertarian, you take him into your home and you wine and dine him.
This is fantastic. Every Libertarian is, ipso facto, a great person, a great
lovable person. As more Libertarians flood in, you begin to find, with a
tremendous – (laughing) – tremendous shock, unfortunate shock this time,
recognition that there are a lot of Libertarians who are not great and lovable
people. Because in the early days of the Libertarian, let’s say, because of the
circle stage, I think, the early stages, one tends to think that all
Libertarians are great, OK? Then, as I say, a shock occurs and you begin to
realize that there are people – and there are a lot of jerks out there who are
Now, I think there’s a
point here – (laughing) – that there’s probably – I think I can safely say
there is no higher proportion of great and lovable people in our movement than
there are anywhere else. I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but I’m going
to say it. I think being Libertarian makes us Libertarians, all right? But it
confers no special grace in other areas of life, all right? Or to put it
another way, the Libertarian movement doesn’t promise us a rose garden. It only
promises us liberty but, by god, that’s enough, OK? So that is an adjustment
I remember, in the first
days, the early stages of the Libertarian movement in the United States,
there was a theory you should always deal with Libertarians in the business
world. You should always hire them. Hire Libertarians first; deal with them in
business because, since they’re Libertarian, they must be rational, able,
capable, and so forth and so on. And that theory was shot down very quickly –
(laughing). So that’s simply a fact as a division of labor, all right? And
Libertarianism, as I say, conferred no special grace for other aspects of life.
We like to think it does, but it doesn’t.
The wise, however, put
All right, so far, I seem
to be painting a pretty grim picture – (laughter) – of what’s involved in the
leap from the circle stage to a large-scale movement. I’m sure many of you are
saying, boy, I’m glad we’re small in our country – (laughter). But I’m not
trying to discourage. As I said, I’m trying to prepare you, who are now in the
circle stage, for the problems to come because you’ll be able to meet the problems
a lot better than we did when we weren’t prepared for it. Because despite the
headaches and the problems and all the grief that may be involved in it, this
leap in being or this leap into a movement stage must be embraced and embraced
with enthusiasm. Why should it be embraced with enthusiasm? It’s very simple.
Because for us Libertarians, Libertarianism is not merely the intellectual
contemplation of a wonderful, true and just political philosophy, it’s not just
the esthetic contemplation of a beautiful ideal, the ideal of a world without
organized aggression, a world of harmony, of freedom, of prosperity, of mutual
cooperation through voluntary activities in free markets. It is, of course, all
of that. Because we become Libertarians in the first place because we fall in
love, so to speak, with the goodness, the truth and the beauty of
Libertarianism. But we Libertarians, it seems to me, are not content with
contemplating justice, with contemplating truth, goodness and beauty. We’re not
playing intellectual games. We mean to change the world. We want to put this
thing into reality.
In order to do that –
because we’re setting out on the noblest task, I think, of all, to dismantle
the leviathan state in each of our countries and ultimately throughout the world.
And in order to do that, in order to put liberty into practice, in order to
bring it out of the closet, so to speak, or out of the library, into the world,
in order to usher in a world of freedom, a world free of the thugs and
organized gangsters that are making so many lives a hell on earth, we have to
organize. We have to become a mass movement despite whatever problems might be
involved. Because to organize anything, whether it’s playing chess or producing
automobiles or advancing the science of physics or whatever, it needs
organization. And so organization is needed in the victory of liberty. And what
I’ve really been talking about is the problem of all organization.
the whole thing. If you’re anything like me, you’ll see a lot of yourself.