The late Murray Rothbard was known as an uncompromising libertarian theorist.
But he was also an activist and strategist, and wrote several articles, essays, and memos on the topic of advancing libertarianism. I’m happy to report that some of his previously unpublished work on strategy will be released later this year by the Mises Institute, and will be edited by no less than Rothbard’s biographer Justin Raimondo.
Regarding tactics, Rothbard advocated a two-prong approach:
Hence the importance, for libertarians or for minimal government conservatives, of having a one-two punch in their armor: not simply of spreading correct ideas, but also of exposing the corrupt ruling elites and how they benefit from the existing system, more specifically how they are ripping us off. Ripping the mask off elites is “negative campaigning” at its finest and most fundamental.
This two-pronged strategy is (a) to build up a cadre of our own libertarians, minimal-government opinion-molders, based on correct ideas; and (b) to tap the masses directly, to short-circuit the dominant media and intellectual elites, to rouse the masses of people against the elites that are looting them, and confusing them, and oppressing them, both socially and economically. But this strategy must fuse the abstract and the concrete; it must not simply attack elites in the abstract, but must focus specifically on the existing statist system, on those who right now constitute the ruling classes.
While this approach certainly allows for using electoral politics, it hardly sounds like an exhortation to knock on doors so that Candidate 20% tax might defeat Candidate 25% tax. As usual, radical Murray wants to strike the root rather than chop at the branches.
Libertarian activism is not an oxymoron: on the contrary, it is essential and vital to our futures that all of us engage in action to reduce the size and scope of state power in society. In most instances, action is preferable to inaction. Yet the term “activism” frequently is understood to imply political activism, i.e., participation in political campaigns and the legislative process. Libertarians live in a world of utopian theory, we’re often told, and need to get into the trenches of electoral politics like our Republican and Democrat counterparts. Principles are all well and good, but what use are they if not accepted and implemented by the politicians who rule us?
This criticism relies on a mistaken assumption, namely that politics leads rather than follows. If we define activism more broadly, as the vigorous application of ideas or ideology to improve the world around us, a range of possibilities opens. In this sense, I argue that the Mises Institute is decidedly activist: winning hearts and minds has a far more lasting impact than winning votes for marginal candidates or minor legislative victories. We are a school, a large private library, and a vast (constantly expanding) free website. We are an incubator for young minds, individuals who enter streams of commerce, finance, and academia with a firm grasp of libertarian scholarship. We help young people become smarter, better educated, and more confident in their lives. What could be more activist?
Consider Mises University, our summer program for undergraduate students. Over more than 30 years, thousands of students have come through our doors and left far better equipped to challenge the bad economics and statist assumptions of our times. These students tell us the Mises Institute changed their lives. And they are actively deployed all over the world: as professors, hedge fund managers, corporate officers and directors, business owners, venture capitalists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, scientists, parents, homeschoolers, truck drivers, and military officers, to name a few. (Truth be told, you’d be shocked to know how many Mises U grads are on Capitol Hill, in state capitols, and in DC think tankdom as well…)
Our graduate-level seminars and conferences are like no other learning experience anywhere. Social media, memes, and short videos have their place in sparking interest, but real work is required to build a new generation of libertarian intellectuals and business leaders. A genuine anti-state movement — by definition radical — requires intellectual rigor and well-read, well-spoken advocates. There are no shortcuts to building on the framework of Austrian economics and libertarian scholarship. That’s why a great group of students are here at our Rothbard Graduate Seminar this week, grinding through long sessions as they dissect Human Action chapter by chapter. It’s not an easy week, but they choose to attend — in numbers nearly twice those of last year. They will return to their schools and jobs energized, ready to tackle any intellectual challenge with ease after having spent a week inside Mises’s great mind.
These kinds of programs and experiences aren’t available anywhere else on the planet. But make no mistake, they create and inspire young people — individuals who then go out and engage the world with more confidence and knowledge than their peers.