McElroy on Liberty

An interview with Wendy McElroy, posted on, November 14, 2000

Wendy McElroy, author and lecturer, is one of the most visible and prolific libertarian intellectuals working in the Austro-Rothbardian tradition. She is the author of Freedom, Feminism, and the State, which is now in its third edition, The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival, among many other works (see bottom on page for articles online). She is also editor of and a frequent contributor to She was interviewed before her seminar at the Mises Institute, November 14, 2000, in which she discussed "The Individualist-Anarchist Tradition: The 19th-Century American Contribution." Apart from your scholarly work, you are carefully editing the tapes of Rothbard’s lectures from the 1980s and 1990s.

McElroy: When you read Rothbard’s books, you get a sense of his amazing mind at work. You get the integration of theory, history, and profound moral vision. But what you miss from the printed word alone is the charm and humor of the man and his ability to so completely inspire people.

I remember so many times sitting with Murray when hours would fly by as he regaled us with history and ideas. He was constantly throwing out research topics and references, suggestions for dissertations, and ideas for investigation. I think you get a sense of that from these lectures. In editing, I deliberately leave in all the spontaneity of the original so that people can have a sense of what it is like to study under him.

And when you hear him, you gain a sense of how galvanizing he was, of how much fun he made the business of liberty. He made you want to join the battle of ideas, always on the side of the "good guys," which meant, of course, the forces of liberty, and against the evil forces of power.

Of course, his style is infectious. After I listened to the tapes, I ended up using some of his words and phrasings, even in areas having nothing to do with political economy. I would march into the kitchen and ask my husband "where do you stand on the salt question?" Or I would announce that "on this dish, gravy is key!" Or some such. We clown around with this sort of Rothbardian talk, but it really is true that Rothbard always had that effect on people. The libertarian movements owes so much to him and his personal influence. The tapes, and now the MP3 files on, help preserve that personal influence. Why do you think having fun with scholarship is so key?, to use Rothbard’s word.

McElroy: It goes without saying that ours is an uphill battle. There are so many setbacks along the way. We have a difficult time cutting through the biases of just about every major institution, whether the media, or academia, or any other. You have to develop a sense of humor, a sense of joy, about the mission, or you can lose heart. And there really is something to be joyful about: the Rothbardian paradigm helps you understand the world, and for a person who is curious about how society and state work, this is extremely important. Did you read Murray before you met him?

McElroy: Yes, and it was Murray who made me an anarchist. When I was 18, I read a piece he wrote called "Do You Hate the State?" The context was some struggle within the Libertarian Party. Murray said that the difference between a person who wanted to limit the state and someone in the anarchist tradition of Bejamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner was that the latter had a visceral reaction against the idea of power being imposed against anyone for any reason. The proponents of limited government regard the state as a garden that needed to be weeded, while the thinker in the tradition of Tucker and Spooner believed that it is an evil that should be plowed under. But why should that make a fundamental difference? After all, both are working toward the same end in the short run, that of curbing power.

McElroy: It makes a huge difference when you consider the definition of the state that Rothbard used. The state is the institution that wields unjust power against person and property. Now, eliminating this injustice is of paramount importance. If you are a minarchist, however, you really don’t believe the state is unjust. And if you do not understand the core problem, your criticisms will not be couched in moral terms but rather be limited to practical terms. Even from a strategic point of view, consistent moral arguments carry unrivaled rhetorical power.

To be sure, the anarchist idea is not some utopian dream. It doesn’t envision some never-never land in which human nature is changed or we enter into some mythical new phase of history. The idea of justice in the anarchist sense is that nothing is punished except violence. And nothing is taken to the court system that isn’t resolved in some form of restitution. Once you have that, you have justice. That is the goal to work toward. It is a principled and very clear position.

The minarchist is crippled in other ways. He may favor cutting taxes ten percent or curbing foreign-policy adventurism. But in the end, the final authority and power is left in this thing called the state, which decides how its power will be used. And the state cannot be limited; it always and everywhere seeks more power. What is the alternative? The institution we need to make final decisions and to govern society is the market, the nexis of voluntary exchange, not an institution that its unjust in its very structure.

If you are an anarchist in the Rothbardian sense, you see the state and the market as incompatible institutions. You see that one exists only to the detriment of the other. You can claim that we can come to some sort of compromise, but it doesn’t hold up because such a mix always be unstable. There will always be a struggle between power and liberty, and all that anarchism hopes for is that liberty will be the victor in this struggle. In the Rothbardian legacy, you are the main thinker who has carried out his research program to investigate the American anarchist tradition.

McElroy: I became interested in Benjamin R. Tucker and Lysander Spooner because of him. And I recall that the first time I read Rothbard’s writings on these two thinkers, I was very skeptical. I wondered about his claims because they seems so definitive and he always presented their thought with such levity.

After that, I began to investigate from the original sources. And what do you know: Rothbard was spot on, again and again. He captured the beauty of their political writings, many of which appear in a publication called Liberty which was published continuously from 1881 to 1908. And my next book will provide the first full-scale accounting of this periodical and its importance in the history of ideas in America. What was the unique contribution of these thinkers?

McElroy: Before Tucker and Spooner, there were many good American political thinkers who saw the essential struggle between the state and the individual. They recognized the need to contain the state. But there hadn’t been much serious thinking about how society should and can be organized in complete absence of the state.

But Tucker produced some of the most sophisticated analysis that we have about the practical implementation of the fully free society. He wrote about courts, and free-market defense agencies. He discussed in great detail question like, in a free market will we have trial by jury? He always came up with very surprising conclusions. He was also unique in radical history of arguing that to bring about justice, we don’t need to create an institution; we have an institution and it is the market society. We need to take away an institution, namely the state. And this makes the case for freedom very practical.

McElroy: It is a very different picture than one you get from the socialist literature, which imagines a time when lions will lie down with lambs, we will all become transformed, and the like. For example, if you read Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which galvanized everyone when it appeared in 1887, you get this picture of a society that has no connection to reality. There will be no more poverty, no more crime, no more selfishness, and food will fall from the trees. This vision is not believable. The anarchists of the Tucker-Spooner school provide a realistic but still radical alternative to this. Your work ranges from high theory to very applied journalism. This is a very Rothbardian combination.

McElroy: Well, theory must be applied. And it is impossible to fully understand the power of theory without having an intense interest in the history of political life. With the right theory, you can have this god’s eye view of the sweep of things, look down at the geography of the world, and you can see how every event, whether local or international, is profoundly touched by the struggle between liberty and power. And unless you have this sense of things, I don’t believe that you can really understand the events of today or even what you read in the newspapers. So what is the individualist-anarchist take on the present electoral confusion?

McElroy: I haven’t smiled this much in years! If this works to de-legitimize the government–and I hope it is and I think it is–those of us who constantly wield the sword against this hydra-headed monster called the State can’t help but be pleased.