Murray Rothbard, Edmund Burke and Intellectual Myopia


There is nothing so sad as to watch someone mistake a parody of his character for a complement. I suppose there are three ways to respond to people having fun on your behalf. The first, and most endearing, is to accept the joke for what it is and laugh along with it. The second, and rather less endearing, is to get very mad at the person making the joke. The third, and obviously the worst, is to think that the joker is actually praising the less than praiseworthy aspects of your character.

Murray Rothbard — a somewhat silly and all-round angry man — strikes me as someone who would often respond to parody in the vein of a certain méconnaissance, thereby reenforcing and doubling the original parody. Typical of this is Rothbard’s crowning achievement of Burkean scholarship ‘A Note on Burke’s Vindication of the Natural Society‘.

The short essay deals with the Irish conservative philosopher Edmund Burke’s essay ‘A Vindication of the Natural Society‘. In the essay Burke tries to show that the criticisms levied against the Church and against organised religion could easily be turned against any and all social institutions. He tries to show this by engaging in biting satire of the type that was the hallmark of Irish intellectuals of the day — a style that could also be found in Jonathan Swift and George Berkeley.

The object of his satirical irony is Lord Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke was an English statesman and writer. He had an enormous influence at the time but a perusal of his writings shows them to rather shallow and poorly strung together. They used a rhetorical strategy to debunk religion that is still popular today: basically, you chronicle all the evils of the world and then pin them on religion. Burke’s satirical genius was to use this same rhetorical strategy against the institution of government; something that Bolingbroke held quite dear. The idea here is to show up the vacuity of the rhetorical strategy by demonstrating that it could be applied to basically anything.

It is well-known that Burke’s essay was a satire. At the time some mistook it for being serious. But Burke quickly pointed out that it was a joke. Rothbard, however, thinks that Burke was just trying to cover up his true motivations. He writes:

A less conservative work could hardly be imagined; in fact, Burke’s Vindication was perhaps the first modern expression of rationalistic and individualistic anarchism…  Careful reading reveals hardly a trace of irony or satire. In fact , it is a very sober and earnest treatise, written in his characteristic style. (p1)

Of course, it is well-known that Burke’s essay is not “written in his characteristic style” at all. As I have already said, Burke mimics Bolingbroke’s style in the essay. Because Burke published pseudonymously many critics of the day actually thought that the work was by Bolingbroke. This was part of the joke. But this is completely lost on a man so blind to what he does not want to see as Rothbard.

So, why does Rothbard read it as being serious? Simply because he cannot see what more sophisticated readers can: namely, that Burke’s arguments are so obviously ridiculous. You see, Rothbard is a sort of self-parody. He makes extremely poor, emotionally-driven arguments of the sort that Burke parodies. He takes an institution — namely, the state — and then highlights all that is negative about it. He never tries to take a balanced view because such a view would undermine his extreme black and white worldview. Such a worldview is characterised by what psychologists call ‘splitting‘. That is, dividing the world up into purely good and purely evil entities and then spending one’s time attacking the evil entities and upholding the good. When Rothbard was confronted with a parody of this he simply could not deal with it. He is wholly unable to take an ironical view of himself because such psychological processes block out irony altogether.

So why is it that Burke’s parody was obviously ridiculous in his own time but today does not seem so ridiculous to some intellectuals? I think the answer to this is obvious: intellectuals today no longer hold the power in society that they held in the past. Men like Burke and Bolingbroke actually had to hold power. They had to engage in the day-to-day processes of government. Men like Rothbard, on the other hand, do not hold any responsibility at all. They thus display a sort of teenager-like immaturity. They wrap themselves in Utopian fantasies and hide themselves from the world.

While the more extreme variations of this tendency manifest in the anarcho-capitalism of Rothbard, less extreme variations can be found across the humanities today in various forms. Much of contemporary economics displays the same childish naivety, minus the Good-versus-Evil psychological splitting. Only in a few disciplines, such as Law, does academia remain directly tied to the real world. This is very sad and accounts, I think, for the stagnation of political society that we see today. Society cannot move forward because those that are supposed to generate new political ideas are disengaged from the political process. This is giving rise to somewhat worrying tendencies in, for example, Europe today.

Knowledge thus becomes a sort of simulation of knowledge. It unmoors itself from reality and floats off into the ether. The last time we saw something this extreme was probably in the Middle Ages when the Scholastics ran the academies. Then too the process gave rise to a sort of static society where nothing moved and nothing changed. Out of this comes pure power-grabs by those who can manage it. This, again, is what we see today; and this accounts for much of the income inequality and so forth. Faced with this radicals can read Rothbardian fantasies, while non-radicals can do problem sets on expected utility or some other such nonsense. Meanwhile the political situation in Europe deteriorates rapidly and everyone braces themselves for the political turmoil that will be unleashed when the financial system melts down once more.

Update: Someone has said that I should give an example of Burke’s essay that clearly shows his humorous intentions. Here is one of my favourites (again, note that Rothbard actually read this thinking it to be “sober and earnest”):

How far mere Nature would have carried us, we may judge by the Examples of those Animals, who still follow her Laws, and even of those to whom she has given Dispositions more fierce, and Arms more terrible than ever she intended we should use. It is an incontestable Truth, that there is more Havock made in one Year by Men, of Men, than has been made by all the Lions, Tygers, Panthers, Ounces, Leopards, Hyenas, Rhinoceroses, Elephants, Bears, and Wolves, upon their several Species, since the Beginning of the World; though these agree ill enough with each other, and have a much greater Proportion of Rage and Fury in their Composition than we have. But with respect to you, ye Legislators, ye Civilizers of Mankind! ye Orpheuses, Moseses, Minoses, Solons, Theseuses, Lycurguses, Numas! with Respect to you be it spoken, your Regulations have done more Mischief in cold Blood, than all the Rage of the fiercest Animals in their greatest Terrors, or Furies, have ever done, or ever could do!


About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
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6 Responses to Murray Rothbard, Edmund Burke and Intellectual Myopia

  1. The idea of a supposed expert arguing seriously that Burke was advocating anarchy is pretty amazing. And I love the “careful reading” ploy to support the position.

    But I would suggest a different explanation than just intellectuals not having any skin in social power. Many great political writers, like Thomas Paine, were completely on the outside of power. Many more great political writers and thinkers had some wealth and connection to power, but never actually held political power.

    Your point about how the intellectual quality of humanities (and social sciences too) has withered, with the study of law being a last refuge of sound reading and writing, reminded of Mortimer J. Adler’s book, <a href = ", first published in 1940. (The link is to the 1966 edition.) Adler in fact made the same complaint about the declining quality of reading and writing, even to the point about the law schools being the last (and slowly declining) bastions of the sort of reading and argument that flourished among the thinkers of the Classical and Middle Ages. (I think Adler would have pointed out that Scholasticism covered a huge period of time, and the Scholastics were far more productive than modern characterizations would suggest. Also, whatever their failings, their works demonstrate the sort of reading that Rothbard can’t handle.)

    Adler’s argument was that schools, especially in the Progressive era, had stopped teaching the sort of deep reading that was common in Europe for centuries. He wrote:

    This is the issue in a nutshell. First things should come first. Only after we are assured that we have adequately accomplished them is there any time or energy for less important considerations. That, however, is not the way things are done in the schools and colleges today. Matters of unequal importance are given equal attention. The relatively trivial is often made the whole of an education program, as in certain colleges which are little better than finishing schools. What used to be regarded as extracurricular activity has seized the center of the stage, and the basic curricular elements are piled up somewhere in the wings, marked for cold storage or the junkman. In this process, begun by the elective system and completed by the excesses of progressive education, the basic intellectual disciplines got pushed into a corner or off the stage entirely.

    In short, we’ve lost a culture of reading and discussion that produced the sorts of readers and thinkers we can only marvel at today. Our schools from start to finish are cranking out the sorts of intellectual lightweights like Rothbard.

    • I’m not sure that we can say that Paine was disengaged. He took part in many of the revolutionary struggles of his time.

      Regarding the point on Scholastics; yes, I am aware that much good work was done in the Schools. But it was detached from the real world. I think that was the key problem. This was particularly acute in, for example, medicine. But it was reflected everywhere.

      I agree on the rest, for the most part.

      • Thanks for the reply, Philip. About Paine, I agree that he was engaged—quite certainly—but my point was that he, like most philosophers, never held power unlike Burke and Bolingbroke.

        Perhaps instead of wielding power, the issue is accountability which can be connected to power as well. If someone like Burke made a jackass of himself by either willfully or childishly misreading a work like Burke’s, no one would take them seriously for long. Today, it’s too easy for fools and charlatans, especially of the academic species, to hide behind “academic freedom” or on our short attention spans when they get caught. And the reading skills of the public in general, as we agree, is rarely up to the task of catching the culprits in the first place.

        About the Scholastics, I think the key is detachment from the world. The great thinkers of that time may have been the sort of marvelous readers Adler praises, but their detachment from the world, and their single-minded focus on textual interpretation, especially of theological and metaphysical issues, guaranteed intellectual staleness eventually. (Debating issues like “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”, a question that I know was literally asked but is illustrative nonetheless, gets tiresome at some point.)

        Ironically, that staleness and intellectual sterility lead to the rise of the scientific method to which economics so wrongly claims allegiance and birthright. As you’ve pointed out so well, it’s now the economists who have wandered into the intellectual desert of scholasticism by refusing to abandon their ringing crystal spheres for empiricism.

        And here is where I think the crux of the matter lies. We abandoned the sort of masterful reading of the Middle Ages when we abandonded scholasticism, arguing that the scientific method rendered such thinking obsolete. But that was wrong. Scholasticism failed because of its narcissistic inward focus. The reading it engendered was quite valuable, but that value was wasted eventually on the lack of concern for the greater world. I think that describes modern economics quite well today.

  2. Dantey says:

    “It unmoors itself from reality and floats off into the ether. ”
    Could not have put it better! Beautiful choice of words!

  3. Pingback: Un relámpago en la niebla: Cataluña y el Reino de España tras el escándalo Pujol

  4. I think you’re completely missing the history lesson in the theory of anaclyosis with regards to what many see as potential that creates the piqued interest in Rothbard. If we are to assume there is truth in this theory – that governments transition over time into more malignant forms and and that man’s folly left to his own devices creates a nation of fools, it lends credibility to the notion we will eventually transition into a more tyrannical form of governement via mission creep and adds further credibility to Nozick and even Rothbard’s ideas regardless of where positions originated.

    Also, there appears to be some intelectual myopia here on your behlf in regards to thinking about what can be versus what is in the moment where you have given it the label of “fantasy.” In my view, this demonstrates lack not only vision but living in your own proverbial intellectual myopia of which you are essentially accusing Rothbard. This rasises the question: Was Adam Smith, John Locke or Emmamul Kant thinking about what is at the very moment or what can be or should be? Are we all operating under much of what both Adam Smith and John Locke opined many years before? Could those too perhaps have all been fantasies? Would this fantasy world include John Rawls? Certainly we can agree there is the philosophical realm and the application realm but we will have to disagree that Philosophy hasn’t played a role in the now which is the very intellectual myopia you’re working from.

    With regards to dogmatic, it was both Rothbard and Albert Ellis that called out Ayn Rand in a song for being so dogmatic. And With regards to Albert Ellis and his connections to Rorhbard, your inference to psychological issues piqued my interest but not in a way you likely hoped to convey. I have to disagree with that assertion as well. I think you have listened to too much Sam Seder and Robert Reich – both angry, silly men.

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