EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW
Lew Rockwell on von Mises, Ron Paul, Free Markets and the Future of Freedom
By Anthony Wile - February 21, 2010

Introduction: Lew Rockwell is a seminal proponent of the modern free-market movement and a chief orchestrator of the Austrian economic resurgence in America and abroad. Rockwell was Ludwig von Mises' own editor in the 1960s and later served as Congressman Ron Paul's chief of staff. He is founder of the Auburn, Alabama-based Mises Institute and the highly successful blog LewRockwell.com. Together, these entities are among the highest-frequented free-market Internet sites in the world.

Daily Bell: You have almost singlehandedly led a revolution in thought that has changed the world. How does that make you feel?

Rockwell: Well, thank you, but that's not how ideas work. Without donors, faculty, students, collaborators, distribution media, and the division of labor, we are all just isolated scribblers. That has always been true, from the ancient world and today. We like to say that one person can make a difference, but it is only true to some extent. All forms of production, including in the world of ideas, require as much cooperation with others as possible. And while we were making great progress before 1995, the advent of digital media has made a vast difference precisely because it has dramatically expanded opportunities for communication and cooperation.

Daily Bell: Can you familiarize our readers with the depth and breadth of the organizations you have founded and that offer services – especially on the ‘Net.

Rockwell: I founded the Mises Institute in 1982 to try to make sure that the influence of Mises and other Austrian economists would grow. Today Mises.org is the largest economics website on the planet that is not-for-profit, and a teaching and publishing powerhouse. I founded LewRockwell.com in 1999, mainly because I had lots of information to share with others, and I got tired of using email lists. I figured that I might as well post what I found interesting, in every area, on a public website. Today, it is the best-read libertarian site on the web.

Daily Bell: Did you ever dream of this level of success?

Rockwell: Neither I nor any of my mentors, like Rothbard or influences like Mises, could have imagined such a thing. Of course, reaching minds is what liberty is all about. The default position of the world is despotism. In the sweep of things, liberty is the exception. What makes the exception possible is ideological work, that is, spreading the ideas through every possible means.

Daily Bell: You attribute some of your success to your father. Can you tell our readers about this unique man?

Rockwell: He was a surgeon and a man of great strength of character, a man of the old world of the sort we hardly meet anymore. He wasn't a complainer, didn't whine when things didn't go his way. He was incredibly smart, and he loved liberty in the way that the men of the Enlightenment loved liberty: he didn't believe that the state could do anything better than people can do for themselves. He was a man of the Old Right who despised FDR, in whose deliberate war my older brother was killed, and an admirer of Robert Taft, not least because of his non-interventionist foreign policy. My father worked hard until the last moment he possibly could. So should we all.

Daily Bell: Can you provide us with a brief history of how you became interested in free-markets and decided to make them your life's work?

Rockwell: As with most people, it began with the observation that something was profoundly wrong with the conventional wisdom, which even from grade school seemed to presume that wise masters at the top knew more than anyone else and so should be in charge of everyone and everything. That supposition seemed to lack empirical evidence, so far as I could tell. I discovered the literature of freedom hiding in the library and realized that truth was something I would forever have to dig for. It wouldn't be given to me by network news anchors, politicians, nor the leading lights in establishment academia. When I discovered what was true, I could not resist acting on it, and telling others. It really isn't any more complicated than that.

Daily Bell: Is the logical outcome of Austrian economics the disappearance of the state?

Rockwell: Mises didn't think so; neither did Hazlitt. Sudha Shenoy argues that of all the people who entertained the possibility of society without a state in that generation, Hayek comes closest to embodying the anarchistic temperament. In any case, the man who made the real difference in the Austrian School in this regard is Rothbard. It was he who pushed the theoretical apparatus "over the edge," so to speak. Hardly any modern Austrian today is not an anarchist. This is also thanks to Rothbardians such as Walter Block, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, and David Gordon, of course. At one time Rothbard was denounced for his views, for having allegedly marginalized the School. Now, of course, his anarchism is probably the largest part of the legacy he left for the world. It is very appealing to young people, unlike the statism of regime economists.

Daily Bell: Is it reasonable to believe that the state will ever wither away or does reality instruct us that the best that can be done is to limit its power?

Rockwell: To me, that's like asking if we can imagine a society without robberies and murders. Maybe it won't ever happen, but we must have the ideal in mind or else we'll never get closer to it. Without the ideal, progress stops. To some extent, then, whether reality will finally ever conform is not the critical question. What counts is what we imagine can and should exist. I like to imagine a society without legally sanctioned aggression against person and property.

Daily Bell: Are you worried that your organizations will come under significant attack as the free-market movement continues?

Rockwell: No, I don't worry about it. On the other hand, it is completely normal for radicals to be under attack from every quarter, so this would not be a surprise.

Daily Bell: Take us back in time. You founded Imprimis. Were you bitter when you left?

Rockwell: Not at all! I admired George Roche, and still do. But my work at Hillsdale was done, and I moved on.

Daily Bell: When did you decide to found the Mises Institute? Was it when you became allied with famous Austrian economist Murray Rothbard?

Rockwell: I had been Mises's editor at Arlington House, Publishers, in the late 1960s. After his death in 1973, it became increasingly clear to me that no idea in this world stands a chance for success without an infrastructure of support. Misesians did not have that in the universities nor think tanks. Mises himself dealt with the lack of support by leaving Austria and moving to a wonderful institute in Geneva. I wanted to found an institute in the United States that would be a sanctuary for free thought in the Misesian tradition. First I approached his widow, Margit von Mises, who gave me her blessing and agreed to serve as our first chairman. Then I asked Murray, whom I had also known, to guide our scholarly affairs. He was thrilled as well. He was a natural ally not only because he was Mises's greatest student, but also because he was being shunned as too extreme, too radical, insufficiently willing to play the game — just as Mises had been. I take very seriously his example, and the trust he reposed in me by making me his executor, and executor. In many ways, he was the critical force behind our growth and success. His spirit still surrounds us today.

Daily Bell: What would Rothbard think of what has happened? Would he be surprised?

Rockwell: Well, mostly he would be thrilled. But remember that he was the greatest optimist for liberty. He was filled with hope and hated despair. Nor was this just a disposition. It was real hope rooted in the firm belief that if we did the right thing, we could make a difference. In this sense, I don't think he would be surprised that we have more student applications than we can accept, that more and more scholars seek us out, that our Member programs sell out, that our audio files are being downloaded by the millions, that our books are selling faster than we can print them, and all the rest.

Daily Bell: There has been a resurgence of Randism. Are you surprised? Do you approve?

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Rockwell: I met her and heard her lecture, and was always impressed. Recall that when Atlas Shrugged came out, Mises and Rothbard both wrote glowing reviews. Her works of fiction are profoundly effective in promoting the capitalist message, and this is all to the good. But there are some critical errors. I don't think she fully understood the cooperative nature of the capitalist social order, for example. She had less regard for the consumer than the capitalist, and in this respect she was only half right. But in general, if her books can disabuse people of canards against the free economy, that is great.

Daily Bell: Can you give our readers a very brief overview of Antiwar.com and how it is related to your enterprises, if at all?

Rockwell: I would say that AWC specializes in one aspect of Rothbardian thought. But while it is an ideological cousin of LRC and Mises.org, there is no direct relation. Rothbard's children are everywhere, of course. One reason has to do with his special way of communicating with people. He spoke to anyone at length about his or her own intellectual interests. If you loved news, he would talk news. If you love the history of ideas, he would talk the history of ideas. If you were dedicated to the partitioning of Belgium, he would talk to you about this cause. He was a gigantic personality and intellect. No one penchant or interest or cause can sum up his life.

Daily Bell: How is fund-raising going? Has it diminished since the financial crisis?

Rockwell: Not at all. If anything, people are even more dedicated to the idea of freedom and the propagation of the truth. Austrian ideas are getting far more attention than ever before, in the wake of a crisis that conforms so closely to the Austrian paradigm.

Daily Bell: Are you seeing a steady increase in people willing to fund free-market efforts?

Rockwell: Here too, we see great progress.

Daily Bell: What is the future of the Ron Paul freedom movement in your view?

Rockwell: This much is clear: the Paul movement has made a huge difference in bringing people to libertarian ideas. In some way, there is an element of tragedy in that it takes politics to wake people up. Ideally, people would discover the ideas of liberty through other means. Ron Paul agrees with this observation, by the way. He sees himself as an educator first. He chose politics because, for him, it was an effective route for his larger and more important goal. And what an extraordinary job he has done, in his writing and speaking and personal example for almost four decades. He has brought vast numbers of people into the light. That was always his dream. I should add that his early support was very important in the Institute's success. We are honored to have him as our Distinguished Counselor.

Daily Bell: Will your educational organizations become more involved in political efforts or not?

Rockwell: I would say no to that. Unless you are Ron Paul, politics is a dangerous business, and tempts people to say and do crazy things. Success is fleeting, whereas we are in this for the long term.

Daily Bell: How is the free-market movement spreading overseas?

Rockwell: Wonderfully. One might compare Austro-libertarianism to Marxism in the extent of its international reach. This is very exciting. Human liberty is a universal desire, so of course there can be no libertarian movement that isn't truly international.

Daily Bell: Are you hopeful that growth will continue at the pace that it has over the past decade?

Rockwell: The future is always uncertain, but we have the tools and the energy and the ideas. Just in the last few years, we brought back to print virtually the whole of the Austrian and libertarian libraries. Our downloads are immense, especially among young people. If you must predict the future, look to the ideas held by young people and you will come close to finding it. In this sense, I'm certain that our movement will continue to grow long past my own life.

Daily Bell: Have you noticed increased resistance to your efforts coming from organized governmental entities?

Rockwell: One hears rumors, but nothing is known for sure. Government these days has many enemies, and all the usual bureaucratic problems in keeping up with them all.

Daily Bell: Where does the US government and its allied power structure go from here? We think they are bleeding credibility and influence.

Rockwell: Yes, and compare today's anti-government feelings with the way things were just after 9/11/01, a massive state failure the state used to promote itself. Today we see anti-state feeling growing, picking up where it left off in the 1990s. But here is the problem. The left hates some aspects of the state and loves others. The right is the mirror image. The job of the libertarian is to get both sides to see that the other guys are half right. Think of the Tea Parties, for example. The crowds roar disapproval of socialism even as they cheer for socialistic military invasions.

Daily Bell: Is it possible to return the United States to a more republican form of government? Can history be repealed?

Rockwell: We have a history as a radically decentralized nation, and this memory has not entirely evaporated. It could be that the path to liberty in the U.S. is through secession. And I am looking forward to Tom Wood's forthcoming Nullification Handbook. Or the decentralization may be de facto as more and more people discover means of individually seceding from specific sectors of statism: using alternative currencies, homeschooling their children, reading alternative media, circumventing the pharma-industrial complex, starting an unofficial business, smoking whatever substances they want, or refusing to return to a military assignment. Rebellion can take many forms. We have to learn to welcome them all.

Daily Bell: Do you expect in your lifetime to see gold competing with the US dollar as currency.

Rockwell: Technology makes this possible as never before. Gold is not going away, but the dollar's life is limited.

Daily Bell: Do you expect the Fed to be audited?

Rockwell: This might happen, though as Ron Paul notes, transparency is only one step towards what must be the ultimate goal: shutting down the central bank.

Daily Bell: What do you think of Ellen Brown's theory that the state historically has created money, and that banks, including the Fed, ought to be nationalized and operated by "the people's" government. Some say that the oversight that Ron Paul wants Congress to have over the Fed is somehow an endorsement of the Brownian position.

Rockwell: I am not very familiar with it, but the Fed is the government's central bank, the audit bill gives no monetary power to other parts of the government, and the banks are already in cahoots with the regime. That's why we have a Fed and officially enabled fractional reserves.

Daily Bell: We are well aware that Ron Paul seeks a gold standard and in a perfect world the end of the Fed. Can you reaffirm this position for our readers?

Rockwell: Yes, though he does not seek a monopoly for anything, including gold. He wants money to be rooted in market experience. It is not complicated.

Daily Bell: We have noted what we think is a softening of an institutional position regarding the gold standard – and the possibility that free-banking would be a considered option as well. Is this a correct observation of your organizations' stance?

Rockwell: I wouldn't say that we have an official position. There are many ways to move to free-market money and non-inflationary banking. I would never want to close off any viable path. One problem with the Misesian plan for a gold standard is that it relies on the idea that the people in charge will do the right thing. This is a charming, old-world idea, but I don't think it holds true in our times. We need to be open to the possibility that reform will never come from the top.

Daily Bell: Are you sympathetic to a private gold-and-silver standard or is a gold standard always preferable?

Rockwell: I am all for competing metals. But a true specie standard is always private, and it always leaves room for competing currencies.

Daily Bell: One of the hardest issues to resolve from a free-market point of view is ownership of intellectual property. Can you tell our readers where you come down on this difficult issue? In a free-market, would individuals be able to claim and enforce intellectual property rights with any prospect of success?

Rockwell: Rothbard condemned patents but not copyrights. Mises and Machlup saw patents as government grants of monopoly, but neither condemned them outright. Hayek was against copyrights and patents, but didn't write about them much. It is digital media that have brought the issue into focus. The key thinker here is Stephan Kinsella. He and Jeffrey Tucker have done the heavy lifting and convinced most all of us that intellectual property is an artifice that has no place in a market economy. There are incredible implications to this insight. The infinite reproducibility of ideas means that we stand a great chance for success. The fact that ideas are not scarce goods means that they need not be controlled. This is a wonderful thing. There is much work left to do in this area. The whole history of invention needs revision, and our theory of markets needs to take better account of the central place of emulation in social progress.

Daily Bell: Do you think the military industrial complex in the United States will gradually erode as the free-market movement gathers even more strength, or is the power structure hell bent on empire?

Rockwell: It has to erode. The empire is insanely overextended. At some point, we'll go the way of Britain and Rome. We can only hope that the U.S. takes this path in wisdom and not in desperation.

Daily Bell: Where do you go from here? Do you have other organizational changes in the works? Expansions?

Rockwell: There are expansions every day. We are looking at marvelous things, things that are bigger than anything we've yet done. But I don't want to spoil the surprise.

Daily Bell: What is your future personally? What intellectual endeavors are you focused on?

Rockwell: I want to keep working, especially on my website, and to keep pushing the boundaries of ideas and technology. I never plan on retiring, and neither should anyone else. There is too much work to do.

Daily Bell: Can you give our readers any advice as to what publications and information to seek out on your web sites – where do they start?

Rockwell: We always begin with our passions, whatever they are. No two people are alike. This is what search engines are for. But let me say that at some point, everyone should aspire to be a serious student of Mises and Rothbard. No education is complete without that.

Daily Bell: If readers wish to learn more about your organizations, where is the easiest starting point? Can anyone attend Mises seminars, etc?

Rockwell: The websites are a great starting place, but of course we love to have new people come to our conferences. We are working to create more opportunities for that.

Daily Bell: Where would you recommend that a young person go for higher education in the United States?

Rockwell: You mean education or college? They aren't always the same. You can get a good education online today. For university degrees, I would suggest the least-cost investment. But remember that the opportunity costs of formal education are very high. After four to six years in college, a person can discover that he or she has no skills. This is the worst way to enter a workforce.

Daily Bell: Thank you for your time and insights.

Rockwell: You're welcome.

After Thoughts

In an era of Lilliputians, there are few truly important men. Lew Rockwell is one of them, in our opinion. He started the Mises Institute at a time when Misesian thought was being actively repressed in America and throughout the world. Today, at some points, there are more mentions on the Internet of von Mises than the muddled socialist economist John Maynard Keynes. This phenomenon is directly attributable to Rockwell who can fairly be said to have midwifed the formal free-market economic movement of the 21st century — through energetic American entrepreneurship and a devotion to the truth.

Rockwell is regularly attacked by those who are enemies of freedom. And of course he invites those attacks with his uncompromising stances and the unapologetic intellectual rigor with which he approaches the science of free markets. But what is most interesting from our point of view about Rockwell is that he started a revolution in thought that has literally turned the established canon of 20th literature on its head. Today's intellectually aware youth are bound to discover free-market thought (mostly via the ‘Net) whereas in the 20th century no matter where they looked they would have found only socialist paradigms.

We recall conservative-writer Jonah Goldberg's famous quip back in the early 2000s that Rockwell and his libertarian colleagues could fit into a "phone booth." Well, today, fortunately, it is a mighty big phone booth. Ron Paul is the most influential libertarian congressman since Thomas Jefferson (in our opinion anyway) and Misesian thought, thanks in large part to Rockwell, has truly swept the world. In the meantime, the National Review, for which Goldberg is editor-at-large, is virtually a non-entity in the larger scheme of things.

In fact, Conservatism itself, from our point of view, is largely a spent force. It is really at this point the religion of the state, the last bastion of military formalism. There is no doubt that Bill Buckley did a great deal in his lifetime to retard libertarianism and to stifle the conversation of freedom that Rockwell et al. have so notably promoted.

It is getting harder these days to be a progressive, let alone a socialist, because there are simply no arguments to make, historically or economically, in support of either ideology. American "conservatism" (despite its status as a failing ideology in our opinion) is a more formidable opponent because it has the backing of the entire Western governmental apparatus, and the US military industrial complex as well.

The Daily Bell is devoted to the coverage of the power elite's dominant social themes – those fear-based memes that a handful of powerful families and individuals promote in order to confuse people about their own ability to take human action – to take care of themselves in other words. But today, it is most interesting to watch the flailing of the power elite as they seek an ideology of sufficient ideological rigor to combat the growing phenomenon of free-market thinking.

This is the secret conversation that rages – unspoken and unpublicized – throughout the world today. There are too few of the elite and too many of everyone else. It is absolutely necessary that the elite purvey an ideology that the ruled can consent to. But today the elite in aggregate seems perplexed and even increasingly desperate. Every new free-market thinker degrades the ability of the elite to frighten and intimidate the masses into believing that society will descend into anarchy if a Tony Blair or Bill Clinton is not available to steady the ship of state.

Seen from this point of view, conservative thought is a kind of last-chance ideology, an intellectual pseudo-discipline that mimics free-market thinking except in the critical area of militarism. The distinct and undeniable difference between classical (Jeffersonian) liberal thought and conservatism – as advanced in the US especially – is that the government must be minimal in all ways except militarily. From a military standpoint, most "conservatives" seem to be willing to accept almost every excrescence of the modern state, from gigantic standing armies, to trillion-dollar budgets, to never-ending war for never-arriving peace and, now, even torture and rendition.

It is a moral and intellectual contradiction to be anti-state and pro-war. War is the "health of the state" – and every war that is waged only further empowers those who are involved with the state and stand behind the state. Indisputably, In the West, the formal journalistic conversation is increasingly a conservative one because this is the final shred of intellectual drapery with which the power elite can clothe itself. That what passes for conservative thought is actually a distorted and perverse remnant of free-market thinking is only one of a number of ironies in today's socio-political discussion.

Nonetheless, the elite persists. Rupert Murdoch has famously created Fox News to purvey "conservative" rhetoric. Thus we have the spectacle, constantly, of Fox's more famous talking heads damning big government while embracing proponents of "big warfare." Program host Glenn Beck is an increasingly obvious representative of this sort of syndrome. He can educate people one day about the follies of progressivism and advocate the next that the US interrogate and then murder a captured Afghanistan Taliban-Pashtun leader. He is apparently oblivious to the contradictions between laissez-faire capitalism and state-sponsored torture and murder, which are antithetical to the sustenance of the former.

In truth, conservatism has little in the way of an intellectual pedigree. We once participated in an article that traced back its roots as an intellectual movement, but found that the first mentions were about 400 years ago. Compare the "conservative" movement then to classical liberalism – the idea of limited government – that one can trace back to the ancient Greeks and beyond.

Conservatism, in fact, means to conserve, and one can make the argument that conservatism is ultimately agnostic about what to retain. One can be a 21st-century conservative and wish to conserve American values circa 1950, which would include militarism and hyper-federalism. Or one can be a post Civil-war veteran wishing to conserve a pre-war America that would include a Jeffersonian, laissez faire approach – one somewhat antithetical to 1950's America. Thus we see conservatism as more of a reminiscence than a coherent political philosophy.

Isn't freedom a very simple affair? Over and over again throughout history we find that the great states mentioned in the history books got their starts as disparate regional entities where the same language was spoken but the same rulers were not in charge. This meant that if one political entity began to become oppressive, citizens could up and leave for an adjacent "nation" and pick up their lives without undue disruption. This wonderfully concentrated the minds of those in charge and helped make sure that the nation-states in aggregate were not overly oppressive. And this in turn, gave rise to the serial golden ages that have humankind's progress in all manner of scientific and artistic disciplines.

The Greek golden age can be seen as partaking of this model, as Athens, Sparta, et al. were nation-states, competing with each other. But prior to this we have the example of Egypt with its upper and lower nations, and China, too, before its aggregation, when the land was divided into different regions that shared some common cultures and to a degree a common language.

We recently did some research on Rome and found, as we suspected, that the seven hills of Rome were ruled disparately and that the commonality occurred when citizens from the seven hills would gather together in various sporting events or religious ceremonies. This gradually laid the framework for what eventually became the Republic of Rome. Italy's Renaissance featured separate city-states. The American exception began with separate states, each with its own culture and political process, but all sharing a common tongue.

It is not a coincidence that the power elite seeks global cohesion – economically and otherwise. Yet as we can see, a more "closely knit" world is not something that is to be desired if you are a friend of freedom. The move toward such a global order is basically an Anglo-American vision, and it is one reason why the United States now has upwards of 1,000 military bases scattered throughout the world. The vision may have been birthed in Britain (and Europe) but America is to be its ruthless enforcer.

This vision however, has come under unexpected attack in the 21st century. It is the Internet itself – a facility invented, ironically by the Pentagon's DARPA (though the marketplace did the heavy lifting) – that has provided the platform for Lew Rockwell and the Mises Institute to help launch an intensive re-education. This has happened before, as we have often pointed out, most notably when the Gutenberg press was invented and eventually undermined the entire social order of Europe and Britain.

What the Gutenberg press did then, the Internet is doing to the power elite's socio-political structure today. There is not in our opinion a single meme that will be left standing by the time the Internet has done its work. Global warming is truly just a "warm up." This is not to say, of course, that the power elite and its mischief making will vanish. But as before, it will be forced to take a step back. The vision of world government will likely disperse, exposed for the ephemera that it is.

Yes … the Internet's "damage" is already done. Thanks to Lew Rockwell (and others, increasingly), free-market thinking has taken firm hold throughout the world, especially among millions of young people. The movement is so much stronger today even then in Thomas Jefferson's time because of the economic structure provided by Austrian economics which has given us such unimpeachable verities as marginal utility and Say's law. What is very clear is that every regulation and law passed by government is a price fix and price fixes inevitably result in a queue, an industrial inefficiency or a distortion of the marketplace and diminution of competition.

This is the reason the elite hoped desperately that the world would not discover Misesian thought and Austrian economics. This is the reason Mises was ignored and shunned by the establishment during his lifetime. Austrian economics makes an unimpeachable case that government rules and regulation are never positive and always damage the market and retard living standards. There is no other conclusion to reach if one follows the ironclad arguments provided by the invisible hand and marginal utility to their logical conclusion. This is why those who follow Austrian economics inevitably end up as anarcho-capitalists, maintaining (along with those who espouse classical liberalism) that the best state is the one that governs least.

Free-market thinking, as Rockwell understood before almost any of us, is a generous discipline, but powerful and pitiless as well. In time, it will (at least temporarily) degrade the sophistries of "conservatism" and the hypocrisy of those who hide behind state power while pretending to support individual human action. Thus, we will close in honor of Mr. Rockwell with an excerpt of a poem that is entirely appropriate from our point of view as the 21st century opens before us in the vastness of optimism, with all progress that unfettered human action promises.

I met a traveler from an antique land,

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!' …

(- From Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley)

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