I met Murray Rothbard a few years before he died, sharing a panel with him at a Libertarian event in Toronto. He was a fascinating, but uncomfortable man to talk with (at least on my brief acquaintance). He was an ideological fundamentalist and had no time for those who wanted to “water down” the libertarian message to make it more acceptable to the general public. In Mother Jones, Daniel Schulman reports on the bitter break between Charles Koch and Rothbard not long after the founding of the Cato Institute over exactly that kind of issue:
Long before Charles Koch became the left’s public enemy number one (or two, depending on where David Koch falls in the rankings), some of his most vocal detractors were not liberals but fellow libertarians. None of his erstwhile allies would come to loathe him more fiercely than Murray Rothbard, one of the movement’s intellectual forefathers, with whom Charles had worked closely to elevate libertarianism from a fringy cadre of radical thinkers to a genuine and growing mass movement.
In the 1970s, Charles helped fund Rothbard’s work, as the economist churned out treatise after treatise denouncing the tyranny of government. Rothbard was a man with a plan when it came to movement-building. Where some libertarians had bickered over whether to advance the cause through an academic or an activist approach, Rothbard argued that the solution wasn’t to choose one path, but both. Charles was taken with his strategic vision.
Rothbard dreamt of creating a libertarian think tank to bolster the movement’s intellectual capacity. Charles Koch made this a reality in 1977, when he co-founded the Cato Institute with Rothbard and Ed Crane, then the chairman of the national Libertarian Party. This was a high point for libertarianism, when a busy hive of libertarian organizing buzzed on San Francisco’s Montgomery Street, home to Cato and a handful of other ideological operations bankrolled by Charles Koch.
But the relationship between Cato’s co-founders soon soured.
Rothbard, who was feisty by nature, chafed under the regime of Crane and Koch — the libertarian movement’s primary financier at that time. His breaking point came during the 1980 election, when David Koch ran as the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nominee. Rothbard and his supporters felt that, in a bid for national legitimacy, David Koch and his running mate, Ed Clark, had watered down the core tenets of libertarianism to make their philosophy more palatable to the masses. Americans today would consider their platform — which called for abolishing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and eliminating federal agencies including the EPA and the Department of Energy — a radical one. But to Rothbard and his circle, it wasn’t radical enough. For instance, the Clark-Koch ticket stopped short of calling for the outright repeal of the income tax. And Clark, to Rothbard’s horror, had even defined libertarianism as “low-tax liberalism” in a TV interview.
Following the 1980 election, in which the Clark-Koch campaign claimed a little over one percent of the popular vote, Rothbard did not hold back. He penned a scathing polemic titled “The Clark Campaign: Never Again,” in which he wrote that Ed Clark and David Koch had “sold their souls — ours, unfortunately, along with it — for a mess of pottage, and they didn’t even get the pottage.” Thanks in part to Rothbard’s rabble-rousing, factional feuds and recriminations splintered the libertarian movement just as it was gaining momentum. A few months after Rothbard’s diatribe, Charles Koch and Ed Crane tossed him out of the Cato Institute and voided his shares in the think tank (which was set up, under Kansas law, as a nonprofit corporation with stockholders), a rebuke that turned their libertarian brother-in-arms into a lifelong adversary.
The Rothbard-Koch split was only the biggest of a lot of factional in-fighting in the movement in those days. Even in the outermost fringes of the movement (in Canada, for example), we had lots of splinters-of-splinters micro-movements going on (which is why the Monty Python skit about the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front and the Judean Popular People’s Front “Splitters!” rings so true for me). Some days, we made the Communists/Marxist-Leninists look like sane, sensible co-operative folks.