We’ve just completed another successful Mises University, the summer instructional seminar for students hosted by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Interest in Austrian economics continues to grow: we could accept fewer than one-third of qualified applicants.
Although the students are widely read, they share a particular fascination with the works of Mr. Libertarian, Murray N. Rothbard, whose books and articles are far more widely read today than they were in his lifetime. Rothbard — economist, historian, philosopher — produced an astonishing body of work in defense of liberty. Why are these young people so captivated by him? Read him yourself and see.
With Mises University 2013 behind us, I thought this was an opportune moment to look at Rothbard’s major works and suggest a program for reading them. It is not strictly necessary that you read them in my recommended order, of course, but I think in terms of difficulty level and subject matter, the following program makes sense.
1. What Has Government Done to Our Money? This little book, which has been translated into countless languages, has been the entry point into sound money for more people than any other work. It’s also an excellent entry point into the writings of Rothbard, because it showcases so many of his outstanding qualities. You discover not just the range of his economic and historical knowledge but also the clarity of his prose and his ability to explain complicated matters simply and briefly.
In fewer than 100 pages, you will learn what money is, where it comes from, how government comes to monopolize its production, and how government debases it. You’ll learn some American economic history as Rothbard reviews the twentieth-century process by which the gold standard in the US was transformed into the fiat paper system of today.
You may want to read it in the Mises Institute’s special edition, which also includes Rothbard’s essay The Case for a 100 Percent Gold Dollar.
2. Economic Depressions: Their Cause and Cure. This is not so much a book as a lengthy essay, but Joe Salerno, our academic vice president at the Mises Institute, credits it with getting him interested in Austrian economics. It is a layman’s overview of the Austrian theory of the business cycle — in other words, it’s a free-market explanation of why the economy experiences booms and busts. The theory has undergone some development and elaboration in the decades since this essay, but it will give you a good grounding in the basics of the business cycle and the role of the central bank in causing it.
3. Making Economic Sense. This is a punchy and entertaining collection of Rothbard’s short articles on economics, covering a wide-ranging series of topics. Rothbard is at his most entertaining when doing this kind of writing. By showing you how economic insights can shed light in so many different areas, these articles can help train you to think like an economist.
4. The Anatomy of the State. This essay appeared in Rothbard’s collection Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays, and the Mises Institute has since released it as a stand-alone publication. Now that you’ve read Rothbard on basic economics and have seen the sharpness of his mind and the persuasiveness of his arguments, it’s time for something more challenging. Here Rothbard explains the true nature of the state.
I’ll give you a hint: the state isn’t a benign institution that provides for the common good.
Once you’ve read this essay, you may also enjoy the other essays in the Egalitarianism book, particularly “War, Peace, and the State,” Rothbard’s derivation of nonintervention from libertarianism’s nonaggression principle.
5. For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. Intended for a general audience, this is Rothbard’s case for libertarianism. He shows how the libertarian framework applies to welfare, the environment, foreign policy, and much more.
But Rothbard goes beyond the traditional introduction to libertarianism by extending his analysis to the provision of security and dispute resolution, and indeed to the production of all goods and services in society. Much specialized literature has been published since that time in support of stateless approaches to matters like these, but Rothbard was the pioneer.
6. America’s Great Depression, 5th ed. Rothbard wrote this book half a century ago, in 1963. It remains the definitive Austrian work on the Great Depression in the United States. (For an Austrian look at the European side of the Depression, see Lionel Robbins’s book The Great Depression.) The conventional wisdom that blamed “capitalism” for the Depression is systematically dismantled.
Rothbard accomplishes several important things with this book.
First, he explains the Austrian theory of the business cycle to the general public, and discusses the shortcomings of alternative theories.
Second, he shows that the 1920s really were an inflationary period in terms of money creation. The price level remained stable, he said, because the monetary inflation prevented it from falling, which is what it should have been doing at a time of great productivity increases. Focusing on the price level, as opposed to the level of money creation, gives a misleading picture.
Third, Rothbard’s historical work on the presidential term of Herbert Hoover makes quick work of the claim that the Depression was prolonged because of the chief executive’s dogmatic adherence to laissez-faire. Hoover was an interventionist from whom Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal would later extrapolate.
The non-specialist should not be concerned if chapter 4 seems technical or difficult. Scholars will want to examine Rothbard’s evidence in this chapter, but the layman does not need to master the details regarding the process of inflation and various features of the financial world of the 1920s in order to absorb the book’s thesis.
Note, finally, that Milton Friedman, too, says the Fed caused the Great Depression. But Friedman’s view is that the Fed didn’t do enough — hardly a free-market analysis. Rothbard’s position is that the Fed did too much, and that the 1920s, a period in which Friedman perceives no fundamental problems that should have yielded a depression, were the years in which the Fed sowed the seeds of the later catastrophe.
7. The Irrepressible Rothbard. This is a collection of Rothbard’s commentaries on politics and culture from late in his life. In these writings we encounter Rothbard at his most joyous — and, when necessary, at his most biting and devastating.
8. The Mystery of Banking. This is Rothbard’s textbook in money and banking. It’s a systematic, Austrian-inspired overview of money and banking, along with copious doses of political, legal, and economic history. If time is at a premium for you, The Case Against the Fed, Rothbard’s shorter book covering similar material, can substitute for The Mystery of Banking.
9. Man, Economy and State: A Treatise on Economic Principles. This is Rothbard’s magnum opus. It takes you from the most basic principles, involving an economy with only a single person, all the way through production, consumption, monopoly, interest rates, money, and much more. It is a systematic treatise on economics from the Austrian perspective.
This is a long book. It’s even longer if you read it the way it was intended to be read: with Power and Market. Power and Market originally formed the last part of Man, Economy and State, but the publisher feared it was too radical and urged that it be published as a separate work. In our Scholar’s Edition of Man, Economy and State, the Mises Institute has integrated Power and Market back into Man, Economy amd State, so you can read the text the way Rothbard himself envisioned it.
Again, reading Rothbard’s treatise is a major undertaking, if only because of its great length. But Rothbard is an outstanding teacher, writing in clear prose that the intelligent reader can understand. I recommend using our Study Guide, which can help you understand complicated issues and which explains the significance of Rothbard’s insights and advances within the context of the history of economic thought.
10. The Ethics of Liberty. Here Rothbard derives and defends the principle of self-ownership, and applies it to a host of important issues, including animal rights, lifeboat situations, and criminality and punishment.
Rothbard wrote numerous shorter works and thousands of articles, and edited the journals Left and Right, The Libertarian Forum, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, and The Review of Austrian Economics (now the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics). His short books Education: Free and Compulsory, and Wall Street, Banks, and American Foreign Policy may be read at any time and without any prior knowledge.
11. Economic Controversies. Formerly the two-volume Logic of Action, this is a collection of Rothbard’s articles in scholarly journals, from the American Economic Review to the Review of Austrian Economics. This book may be read either before or after Man, Economy and State. Some of the material is accessible to the intelligent reader without any prior background, while some of the economic articles assume some grounding in the Austrian School.
Can academic articles really be so interesting to read? When they’re Rothbard’s, absolutely.
Let me conclude with a couple more titles, neither of which requires prior knowledge, and which people interested in American history may find especially valuable.
Conceived in Liberty, originally a four-volume history of colonial America and now available from the Mises Institute as a large single volume, was Rothbard’s spare-time project in the 1970s. His command of the historical literature is clear, and his interpretations challenging and exciting. As he indicates in the introduction, he tells the story of history through the lens of the ongoing struggle between liberty and power.
A History of Money and Banking in the United States: The Colonial Period to World War II. Published posthumously, this book collects articles and book chapters by Rothbard that cover the monetary history of the US. Do not skip over the important introduction by Professor Joseph Salerno.
The Panic of 1819 was Rothbard’s doctoral dissertation at Columbia University. It applies Austrian insights to the first of the nineteenth-century panics. It was very well received in the scholarly community and received excellent reviews in the professional journals.
Don’t forget, too, the Rothbard archive here at LRC.
A tremendous intellectual experience awaits you. Enjoy!