Monday, July 24, 2006

James Valliant on Murray Rothbard

I am posting a series on James Valliant's book The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics which was published in 2005. Since this book has prompted some people to reevaluate their view of Ayn Rand and the Brandens, I think it is appropriate to discuss the book's scholarship. Incidentally, I do not claim to be an expert on the life of Ayn Rand, nor am I a supporter of the Brandens. I have never met either and my only contact with them consists of a brief email exchange with Nathaniel Branden on an unrelated issue some years back. I have never contributed to The Objectivist Center and have never attended its conferences.

I'm now on chapter three, entitled "Mullah Rand?" Here Mr. Valliant discusses the claim that Rand was an authoritarian who demanded complete allegiance, thus provoking several followers such as Murray Rothbard, Edith Efron, the Blumenthals, the Holzers, and the Smiths to "split" with her.

I'll turn first to Murray Rothbard. Rothbard and Rand broke in 1958. Mr. Valliant repeats the claim that Rothbard "plagiarized" Rand. Here is Mr. Valliant:

"Murray Rothbard (43), apart from being an anarchist, was clearly using ideas he got from Rand in scholarly articles without crediting his own source for the material, and he continued to do so throughout his career. (44)".

He adds that when Rothbard discussed something that Rand also discussed, "[his] own first source for the point was invariably (and quite obviously) Rand." (pages 70-71.) He accuses Rothbard of "plagiarism" and "intellectual larceny."

Rothbard met Rand in the early 1950s and died in 1995, writing until the end. Mr. Valliant apparently contends that Rothbard had been stealing from Rand's for approximately 40 years without attribution. In footnote 44, Mr. Valliant gives his only examples: a work called "Individualism and the Methodology of the Social Sciences" (particularly on the "validation of free will") and also chapter one of Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty, particular the phrase "the fusion of matter and spirit" in production. Mr. Valliant does not give any sentences from Rothbard's works that were allegedly lifted from Rand's writings.

The claim that Rothbard plagiarized Rand's ideas has been raised before, but generally revolves around Rothbard's 1958 essay "The Mantle of Science" and a claim this essay borrowed from Rand's ideas generally and Barbara Branden's master's thesis on free will specifically.

Mr. Valliant appears to be confused here. There is no essay by Rothbard entitled “Individualism and the Methodology of the Social Sciences.” Cato however did publish a booklet entitled Individualism and the Philosophy of the Social Sciences which contains “Mantle” and an essay called “Praxeology as the Method of the Social Sciences.” In any event, Mr. Valliant seems to be referring to the discussion of free will in “Mantle” but neglects to mention that Miss Branden was the alleged principle victim of Rothbard's supposed plagiarism.

Plagiarism is a strong claim. It does not mean using a few ideas without attribution but literally stealing words. So Mr. Valliant should present the evidence that Rothbard copied material from Rand if he is going to make this allegation.

PARC came out in May 2005. Mr. Valliant did not have the benefit of hearing George Reisman's August 2005 speech at the Ludwig von Mises institute in which he discussed this incident. Reisman was on friendly terms with both Rand and Rothbard at the time. According to Reisman, Rothbard did not plagiarize from Rand or Branden, but should have mentioned that he first heard certain ideas from Rand. However, by the time PARC came out, Joseph Stromberg's discussion of the plagiarism allegation was available on the web and also Justin Raimondo's 2000 biography of Rothbard entitled An Enemy of the State which has the most extensive discussion I'm aware of Rothbard's relationship with Rand and the Brandens. Unfortunately, neither is mentioned.


Anonymous said...

Whether the term "plagiarism" is used as narrowly as you would like it be, the fact is that Rothbard did a grave injustice to Rand. Don't you agree, Neil?

Rothbard himself admitted that it was Rand who converted him to "natural rights," and it is obvious that his view of Aristotle was revolutionized by his contact with Rand, and his own published defenses of Atlas Shrugged in the wake of its publication make its impact on him clear, and his treatment of economic production representing the "fusion of matter and spirit" could have come straight from the pages of Atlas Shrugged, and his argument for free will is downright Brandenian... somebody stop me(!)

The "Individualism" pamphlet that I cited was published in Murray's lifetime and with his permission. It makes clear inside its pages that it is two previously published essays -- going way back in Murray's career. "The Ethics of Liberty" was published much later. Together they show -- without any recourse to other sources -- this profound influence through his career.

I had a charming dinner a couple f weeks ago with George and Edith Reisman, so I hate to disagree with, but -- whatever George thinks -- Murray's treatment of Rand was a gross injustice.

Let me also say that I personally knew and studied under Rothbard. He, too, was a brilliant and charming man. This does not make his treatment of Rand any less shabby.

Whatever other sources Rothbard later dug up, it was just plain wrong to let personal bad blood cause him to act so unjustly to Rand.

Neil Parille said...


Are you backing off from the claim that Rothbard "plagiarized" or committed "larceny" against Rand? Do you have any examples of sentences or paragraphs that were lifted?

To determine whether Rothbard committed any offense against Rand, one would have to study Rothbard's papers and determine where he was in his intellectual development at the time he met Rand.

Rothbard was born in 1926. Raimondo's biography doesn't make it clear when he first me her, but apparently he didn't get involved with her circle until 1954. That means he was 28 at the time so he had been thinking a lot about these issues. (He got his doctorate in 1956.) Are you claiming that Rothbard had no familiarity with natural law theory or epistemological realism prior to the time he met Rand?

As I'm sure you know, many people are converted to capitalism, realism, natural law or whatever from Rand but later come to the conclusion that there are better defenses available of these positions than Rand's. Maybe they should mention the role of Rand in their thought, but that doesn't make it plagiarism.

Anonymous said...


Have you read that "fusion of matter and spirit" stuff in Rothbard? That's a specific imagery and anti-dualism applied to industrial economics like you've seen, where else...?

No, Neil, it was Rand who converted him to a very specific view of natural rights... and it's not just natural rights, as I indicated. SO much influence, on such a profound scale -- so much of the entire book 'The Ethics of Liberty'! -- without a whisper?

I'm not sure that there's another more fitting word than "larceny."

Neil Parille said...


It's a common theme in Isabel Paterson's The God of the Machine, published in 1943. See page 282 for one example.

Anonymous said...

Even if I were to agree that Paterson is making the same point in the same way -- which I do not -- where's then the citation for Pat?

You pick Rand's one-time, and co-revolutionary buddy?

I think you will need to find someone not associated with Rand herself for me to be satisfied, and preferably not someone who still exhibits such dualistic tendencies...

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