The appearance of the famous (and massive) volumes of Rothbard’s History of Economic Thought in a new edition is cause for great celebration. They have been out of print for many years, and were previously only available at a price exceeding $200 for the set. They are at last accessible again, in beautiful hardcover, and at an affordable price.
In Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, Murray Rothbard traces economic ideas from ancient sources to show that laissez-faire liberalism and economic thought itself began with the scholastics and early Roman, Greek, and canon law. He celebrates Aristotle and Democritus, for example, but loathes Plato and Diogenes. He is kind toward Taoism and Stoicism. He is no fan of Tertullian but very much likes St. Jerome, who defended the merchant class. Now, that takes us only to page 33, just the beginning of a wild ride through the middle ages and renaissance and modern times through 1870.
Classical Economics offers new perspectives on both Ricardo and Say and their followers. The author suggests that Ricardianism declined after 1820 and was only revived with the work of John Stuart Mill. The book also resurrects the important Anglo-Irish school of thought at Trinity College, Dublin under Archbishop Richard Whatley. Later chapters focus on the roots of Karl Marx and the nature of his doctrines, and laissez-faire thought in France including the work of Frederic Bastiat. Also included is a comprehensive treatment of the bullionist versus the anti-bullionist and the currency versus banking school controversies in the first half of the nineteenth century, and their influence outside Great Britain.
When these volumes first appeared, they were celebrated in Barron’s and by top scholars around the world. They succeeded in changing the way people think about economic doctrine: the beginnings (not Adam Smith, but the Spanish theologians), the dead ends (Marx), the great triumphs (Bastiat, for example), and the truly great minds (Turgot and many others he rescued from near obscurity).
Rothbard read deeply in thinkers dating back hundreds and thousands of years, and spotted every promising line of thought — and every unfortunate one. He knew when an idea would lead to prosperity, and when it would lead to calamity. He could spot a proto-Keynesian or proto-Marxist idea in the middle ages, just as he could find free-market lines of thought in ancient manuscripts.
Many scholars believe this was his most important work. The irony is that it is not the work it was supposed to be, and thank goodness. He was asked to do a short overview of the modern era. He ended up writing more than 1,000 pages of original ideas that remade the whole of intellectual history up through the late 19th century.
Once Rothbard got into the project, he found that most all historians have made the same error: they have believed that the history of thought was a long history of progress. He found that sound ideas ebb and flow in history. So he set out to rescue the great ideas from the past and compare them with the bad ideas of the “new economics.”
His demolition of Karl Marx is more complete and in depth than any other ever published. His reconstruction of 19th-century banking debates has provided enough new ideas for a dozen dissertations, and contemporary real-money reform. His surprising evisceration of John Stuart Mill is cause to rethink the whole history of classical liberalism.
Most famously, Rothbard demonstrated that Adam Smith’s economic theories were, in many ways, a comedown from his predecessors in France and Spain. For example, Smith puzzled over the source of value and finally tagged labor as the source (a mistake Marx built on). But for centuries prior, the earliest economists knew that value came from within the human mind. It was a human estimation, not an objective construct.