Promoting Natural Rights Instead of Conservatism: Looking at Rothbard and Jaffa

This is the story of a man, an intellectual, born after World War I, who spent studying his university years in New York and became acquainted and studied under German Jewish émigré who fled the Nazi regime in Germany, later becoming mentor and protégé.

That man belonged to the political Right, taught in two different universities during his lifetime, the first one in the Eastern United States, the second in the Western part of the country, was cast out of more mainstream institutions, save a few that still supported their occasional work, and was at the center of the split of the school of thought to which he belonged, with his followers founding and funding an institution of their own to promote his work.

For us at the Mises Institute, this would be the story of one of our founders, and one of the prime intellectual influences of our thought: Murray Rothbard, but there is another man who also fits this description, one that belongs to what could be considered belongs to the opposing side in the American Right, who could have each of the words in the opening paragraph describing his life and work. That man was Harry V. Jaffa.

Usually, the pieces published by the Mises Institute, written about Jaffa, his work, his followers or their work, are highly critical for a number of good reasons, such as constitutional interpretation, the Lincoln issue, or the state of the contemporary American Right, with David Gordon and Thomas DiLorenzo, both senior fellows at the Institute, as his main two opposers in the Austro-libertarian corner.

But this essay is not intended to be another brick in the wall that separates the Right in various self-containing groups, it is rather an attempt at building a bridge between our different institutions by pointing out the similarities in our founding intellectual figures, without falling in the mistake of making demigods out of them.

Both Jaffa and Rothbard were born to Jewish families in New York City right after World War I, the former a mere month before the official armistice between the warring parties in 1918, and the latter some eight years later, right in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, and while both were New Yorkers by birth, Jaffa chose to pursue his undergraduate studies at Yale, Rothbard chose to stay and get his bachelor’s degree from Columbia, making both of them Ivy League graduates.

Jaffa then returned to New York to pursue his graduate studies at the New School for Social Research, where he became acquainted with Leo Strauss, a German Jewish intellectual émigré who had left Germany around the time the Nazis had taken over, and who had spent a period teaching in England at Cambridge before coming to the United States.

Similarly, Rothbard, who had never left New York, pursued his doctoral studies in another university of the city, NYU, where he became acquainted, among others, with Ludwig von Mises, another German-speaking (although an Austrian national) Jewish intellectual émigré who, after leaving his country after the Nazi takeover, spent a few years teaching in a foreign country, in his case, in Switzerland at the Graduate Institute of International Studies, before also coming to the United States.

In the same vein, both Rothbard and Jaffa were men of the Right when it comes to their politics, with each of them under the patronage of institutions that promoted their work, such as the Volker Fund and the American Enterprise Institute, respectively, and with both of them becoming involved in politics at some point of their lives, with Jaffa becoming an advisor and speechwriter to Barry Goldwater during his presidential campaign in the 60s, and Rothbard supporting Senators Strom Thurmond and Robert Taft before flirting with the New Left’s anarchism and becoming active in the Libertarian Party from the 60s to the 80s, a point where he returned to his radical roots and embraced his populist side and supported the campaign of his fellow member of the John Randolph Club, Pat Buchanan, under a “paleo” (referring to the American, decentralist Old Right) umbrella.

Both Rothbard and Jaffa were first and foremost intellectuals, and as the intellectuals they were, they taught, in many places and to many students, with Rothbard beginning his academic life teaching at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, where he stayed for some twenty years before moving West to the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and with Jaffa teaching first at Ohio State University before also moving West to teach at the Claremont Colleges, both Claremont McKenna College and Claremont Graduate University, where he taught for also twenty years.

They both also wrote extensively about their disciplines and their political philosophy, with their writings published by some of the flagship journals of their respective leanings, with Rothbard himself, under ostracism from mainstream publications, founding and editing two of the best libertarian publications of their time, Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought and The Libertarian Forum, and Jaffa relying on his friend’s William F. Buckley’s National Review, a liberal-conservative magazine that would prove itself influential enough in the years leading to the election of Ronald Reagan to the American presidency.

Finally, both Rothbard and Jaffa found themselves at the center of a split in their respective schools of thought, and Rothbard, for instance, broke with what had become a more mainstream and tepid version of the Austrian School of economics, led by students of F. A. Hayek (who also studied under Mises) and influenced by British empiricism and Chicago School monetarism, and embracing the radical apriorism of Mises with a strong natural rights philosophy developed from the works of classical liberals such as John Locke and individualist anarchists such as Albert Jay Nock and Gustave de Molinari

Conversely, Jaffa broke with many people in conservative spheres, such as Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver over the importance of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy, and most importantly, was at ground zero for the split between the students of Leo Strauss into the two groups now called East Coast and West Coast Straussians, with his students siding with him and adopting a radical perspective based on natural rights and their interpretation of equality as a conservative principle, and his critics siding with his former friend and fellow Strauss graduate student Walter Berns, for whom their so-called prudence and moderation had made their interests align with the neoconservative administration of Bush the Second and his vizier Dick Cheney.

At last, another similarity between Rothbard and Jaffa is that their followers and them founded and still run and fund institutions of their own to promote their work, with Jaffa’s legacy upheld by the Claremont Institute, an organization known for his statesmanship and political philosophy study programs, and with in-house names such as Larry P. Arnn of Hillsdale College and Michael Anton, a National Security advisor in the Trump administration, and with Rothbard’s intellectual inheritance championed by his brainchild, the Mises Institute, which he cofounded with Lew Rockwell and Burton Blumert and with the help of Ron Paul, which is, without any doubt, the most important institution in the world for the study of Austrian economics and classical liberal and libertarian philosophy.

A good way to end this account of two similar lives would be to remind ourselves that the legacy of Rothbard and Jaffa coincides in many ways, from the fight to reduce the size of government (although in different levels), a call to end foreign intervention, a cautious liking of both populism and nationalism, and the perspective of the American experiment in self-government as a groundbreaking political revolution in thought and application, even if Jaffa and his students where in opposing sides with Rothbard and his on the Lincoln issue (as demonstrated by the DiLorenzo-Jaffa debate in 2002).

And as I previously disclosed, this essay is nothing but my attempt to build bridges between two institutions and two intellectual figures who, as of now, are the most important thought forefathers of the American Right as it currently stands, between nation and freedom, between the right use of power and the virtue of liberty, for Jaffa’s quote of “extremism in defense of liberty” being “no vice”, and “moderation in pursuit of justice” being “no virtue,” written for Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech for his Republican nomination to the 1964 election could also mean what Rothbard said in The Ethics of Liberty, that “absolute freedom need not be lost as the price we must pay for the advent of civilization; men are born free, and need never be in chains. Man may achieve liberty and abundance, freedom, and civilization.

By Ugo Stornaiolo S. Via