By the time he gets to foreign policy, Rothbard has been on such a jihad against the state, and the U.S. government in particular, that he goes berserk and accuses the United States of being the bad guys in the (then ongoing) Cold War. In the First Edition (1973) he went so far as to attribute to Stalin a libertarian foreign policy, alleging the USSR practiced non-interventionism. When it was pointed out to him that the USSR invaded Finland, Rothbard added to his Second Edition a defense of Stalin’s attack, arguing that Stalin only wanted to reclaim traditionally Russian Karelia and liberate all the Russians supposedly living there. All of that is a-historical nonsense and Rothbard simply invented it. The Soviets planned to capture all of Finland and had even assembled a new Marxist government they hoped to install in Helsinki. The areas Stalin invaded are not “traditionally Russian.” But even if Rothbard’s interpretation were true, how can Rothbard justify on libertarian grounds the bloodiest dictatorship in history attacking a free country in an effort to get “its” land and people back? It makes no sense, but Rothbard’s only concern is to defend his indefensible claim that the United States surpasses the rest of the world in doing evil. Unfortunately for Rothbard, long before the First Edition came out there was ample evidence that the Stalin and other Soviet leaders engaged in interventionism all around the world, often quite bloodily (Katyn Forest anyone?) Rothbard’s “libertarian” defense of Stalin is despicable and intellectually dishonest — and that’s the real problem with this book. Rothbard pretends that he’s doing careful analysis and finds the state wanting while showing that his own anarcho-capitalist system shines. But in fact, no argument is so bad, no intellectual sleight-of-hand too dishonest, if it will get Rothbard to his pre-chosen conclusion.
How often do we see the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” error among even pretty smart people – and Rothbard was not a stupid man. I have come across some libertarians who, out of an entirely rational desire to be wary of state adventurism, moral panics and so on, bend over backwards to play down threats and problems that statists talk about even when those threats and problems might actually be real. (This can be seen sometimes on issues such as Islamic terrorism or, for that matter, on environmental issues.) This can undermine the credibility of the argument. Far better for the libertarian to say: “Yes, I agree that X or Y is serious and cannot be ignored but a free society such as the one I favour is a far better position to deal with it than your Big Government-model one.”
Rothbard, it also should be said, was also an enthusiastic stirrer and practical joker: I think he enjoyed being outrageous for the sake of being outrageous; his pranksterism sometimes became an end in itself. (Sometimes those on the receiving end deserved it.) But this sort of behaviour carries its costs. It also leaves one with a sneaking sense that the joker might use the “but I was only joking!” defence as a ploy in case he or she was actually serious.
As Charles Steele writes in the same piece, this is all a great shame given that Rothbard could also be right on a lot of issues. I can recommend Brian Doherty’s Radicals For Capitalism, which gives Rothbard a lot of detailed treatment.
I think it was Rothbard who once came out with the crackerjack line: Say what you like about Marx, but at least he wasn’t a Keynesian.