For some time now I have moderately followed the debate in Catholic circles concerning Austrian school libertarianism. On the one hand, a number of eminent public figures and thinkers have cooperated from time to time with the thinkers and institutions of the Austrian school, while the thinkers and institutions of this school have made undeniable contributions to public discourse. At the same time I have encountered a number of positions advocated by certain adherents of the Austrian school which cannot be reconciled with Catholic teaching or with sound social, political and ethical philosophies.
I have recently encountered certain serious errors in the political thought of Murray Rothbard, perhaps the most significant American exponent of the Austrian school, in a book entitled The Betrayal of the American Right. Elements of the book constitute nothing less than a repudiation of the old order of Catholic Europe and the embrace of revolutionary radicalism. An edition of this work published after Rothbard’s death includes an introduction from Thomas E. Woods and was published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute under the direction of Lew Rockwell, on whose website the entire work can be found. While I have long been critical of aspects of the Austrian school, I must admit that the publication and endorsement of The Betrayal of the American Right is a disappointment. Whatever the flaws of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and its associated figures may be, they have had the virtue of being reliable and consistent defenders of at least important elements of the European old order, most particularly the Royal and Imperial House of Habsburg.
The Betrayal of the American Right is a critique of the “New Right”, a movement which developed during the 1950s, largely influenced by William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk, and in particular by the former’s magazine National Review and the latter’s book The Conservative Mind, arguing that they betrayed what in Rothbard’s opinion was the great tradition of the American “Old Right”. Allow me to make it clear that I am in no way an adherent of the tradition of the New Right and I would welcome a responsible critique of this movement. Such a critique is not, however, to be found in Rothbard’s work, a work which criticizes the New Right for some of its most positive characteristics while seeming to ignore its major errors. Among Rothbard’s major objections to the New Right are that it was influenced by both Catholicism and European conservatism.
It may surprise the average reader today that a thinker who sets himself up as advocate of what he considers to be the authentic “right” would be critical of conservatism. Yet Rothbard is at least largely correct when he writes that:
“It was Kirk, in fact, who brought the words ‘Conservatism’ and ‘New Conservatism’ into general acceptance on the right wing. Before that, knowledgeable libertarians had hated the word, and with good reason; for weren’t the conservatives the ancient enemy, the eighteenth and nineteenth-century Tory and reactionary suppressors of individual liberty, the ancient champions of the Old Order of Throne-and-Altar against which the eighteenth and nineteenth-century liberals had fought so valiantly. Before Russell Kirk, the word ‘conservative,’ being redolent of reaction and the Old Order, was a Left smear-word applied to the right wing; it was only after Kirk that the right wing, including the new National Review, rushed to embrace this previously hated term.”
Both the anglo-conservative tradition of Edmund Burke and the Continental conservative tradition of Joseph de Maistre originated in a defense of the old order of Europe, which in practice largely remained the order of the Catholic Church and Catholic monarchy against the classical liberal and libertarian views which formed the core philosophy of the French Revolution, which had formed the basis of the American Revolution and which was to form the basis of many revolutions in the 19th and 20th centuries. Without addressing either the differences between the Anglo and Continental conservative traditions and without addressing certain errors of which each has been guilty, it can be said that the conservatism originated in the prioritization of order and of tradition over liberty, and that such prioritization was one of its chief virtues. Rothbard is unambiguously on the side of the radicals who overthrew the tradition of Old Europe, including even those whom he refers to as “the much abused Jacobins”.
Rothbard’s criticisms of Russell Kirk are particular telling. He criticizes Kirk because in his thought “there was no fiery individualism, no trace of populism or radicalism” and because Kirk “succeeded in altering our historical pantheon of heroes. Mencken, Nock, Thoreau, Jefferson, Paine, and Garrison… were replaced by such reactionaries and antilibertarians as Burke, Metternich, De Maistre, or Alexander Hamilton” He similarly condemned Kirk because “it was clear that Kirk’s ideal society was an ordered English squirearchy, ruled by the Anglican Church and Tory landlords”, although he clarifies in a footnote that Kirk later converted to Catholicism. It is interesting that Rothbard considers Kirk to be a Tory when Kirk held views much more in line with those of conservative Whigs than with those of traditional High Tories, just as did Alexander Hamilton and Edmund Burke.
Rothbard is generally critical of the Catholic influence on the New Right. He mentions “the curious absence of American Protestants (who had of course been the staple of the Old Right) from the heart of the Buckleyite New Right” while disapproving of “the interest of the new urban Catholic constituency… [whose] main political interest was in stamping out blasphemy and pornography at home and in killing [he could more fairly have said opposing] Communists at home and abroad.”
The Catholics at National Review were, for Rothbard, divided into two major groups. “One was a charming but ineffectual group of older European or European-oriented monarchists and authoritarians: e.g., the erudite Austrian Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn [who actually worked with the Ludwig von Mises Institute]; the poet Roy Campbell; the pro-Spanish Carlist Frederick Wilhelmsen; and the Englishman Sir Arnold Lunn” while the other “were the younger American anti-Communists, most prominently the various members of the Buckley family”. Rothbard is critical of the conservatives for having had “a heated discussion…about the respective merits of the Habsburgs, the Stuarts, the Bourbons, the Carlists, the Crown of St. Stephen, and the Crown of St. Wenceslas; and which monarchy should be restored first”. In regard to the European conservatives Rothbard asks “did Buckley keep this group around as exotic trimming, as an intellectual counterpart to his own social jet set?” Regardless of whether or not it was correct to work for a restoration of any of the royal families just listed at the time when this conversation took place, it remains the case that such conversations can only indicate a healthy sympathy for the old order of Catholic and of monarchal Europe as over and against the principles of revolution, principles with which Rothbard is in agreement. The overthrow of these royal families constituted nothing short of rank injustice based on erroneous principles and, regardless of whether or not their restoration to political power would be justified today, (which in any event would not seem a viable possibility) it remains the case that the infusion of their principles into modern governments is imperative.
As already pointed out I do not consider National Review to be beyond critique. The magazine was, despite Rothbard’s criticisms of it, too influenced by libertarian, classical liberal and Whig philosophies. William F. Buckley wrote in criticism of the institution of British aristocracy. Russell Kirk was positively disposed towards the English “Glorious Revolution” and the Constitution which it produced (both of which constituted a rejection of the Catholic King James II), as well as the English Whig tradition. Buckley’s brother-in-law Brent Bozell left National Review to found Triumph because he considered the former publication and some of its central figures insufficiently committed to, or even dismissive of, elements of Catholicism. (Erik Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Frederick Wilhelmsen and Sir Arnold Lunn were all to contribute to Triumph.)
Though certain figures associated with the New Right, such as Sir Arnold Lunn, did unambiguously embrace the old order of Catholic Europe, such cannot be said of the New Right as a whole. Taken as a whole the New Right can be seen to constitute a step in the direction of such an embrace, perhaps the most significant step in such a direction taken by a mainstream presence in American political life in American history, but only a step nevertheless—which makes Rothbard’s rejection of it together with his active embrace of radical revolutionary movements all the more telling.