Reply to Rothbard
Samuel Edward Konkin III
N. Rothbard’s vigorous assault is refreshing; I’m not sure even I would
have taken my first major theoretical attempt seriously if it had not
evoked Dr. Rothbard at his trenchant top-of-form. After all, Rothbard
and his neo-Romantic view of Ideas as almost clashing super-heroes and
villains inspired and maintained many, if not most, of us libertarian
activists, most assuredly myself.
Having been offered a field of honour, Rothbard throws the gauntlet
down swiftly: “I believe Konkin’s agorism to be a total failure.” From
then on, it’s lunge, parry and slash.
In fine form, Rothbard, alas, is decidedly short of actual weapons.
His accusation of a fatal flaw—seemingly the fatal flaw—of gorism
is so irrelevant to the basis of agorism that it is barely mentioned
en passant and in a footnote of the New Libertarian Movement
(footnote * p. 21)
Before I dismiss it as criticism of agorism, let me point out that
a real debate is justified here between Rothbard (and many, many others,
to be sure) and myself (and quite a few) on the validity of hiring
oneself out. The necessity of it is in question (cybernetics and
robotics increasingly replace drudgery—up to and including management
activity); the psychology of it is in question (selling one’s
personal activity under another’s direction and supervision encourages
dependency and authoritarian relationships); and the profit in it
is open to question (only the rarest skills—acting, art, superscience—command
anywhere near the market reward of even low-level entrepreneurship).
Having said that, it remains that this debate is irrelevant in the
context of the validity of agorism. Surely, both Rothbard and I would
agree on the desirability of increase of entrepreneurs in our society;
surely we would both desire more entrepreneurs of libertarianism.
Rothbard would simply “let it happen” (laisser passer), finding
the origins of entrepreneurs mysterious. My own experience is that
entrepreneurs are made, not born, and not with that great a difficulty,
so that “entrepreneurizing (the production of) entrepreneurs” is a
But ceteris paribus, as the Maestro says, and let us hold
the number of entrepreneurs constant. How does that affect agorism? It
makes it difficult to convert libentarians to counter-economic
entrepreneurism, but they still can (and ought) to become
counter-economic capitalists and workers—even academics! (George H.
Smith has blazed trails in becoming a largely counter-economic
philosopher!) But when we’re talking about converting maybe two million
libertarians (at present) to counter-economics and forty million or so
counter-economists (already proven to have a strong entrepreneurial
component) to libertarianism, the loss of a few thousand extra
entrepreneurs seems less than crucial. Moreover, a degree of overlap
exists between libertarians and counter-economists-a high degree in my
Again, in passing only, my own observations are that independent
contracting lowers transactions costs—in fact, nearly eliminates them
relative to boss/worker relationships running the gamut from casual
labor with annoying paperwork and records to full-scale Krupp worker
welfarism. But this is an empirical question, one, as Mises would say,
not even for economists but economic historians. Why my Austrian
credentials should be called into question over such an observation is
inexplicable—save as an act of verbal intimidation. En garde,
And wage-labor’s historical benefit may have been as great as the
invention of the diaper—but surely toilet-training (in this case,
entrepreneurialization) is even a more significant advance?
With the side-excursion over, we turn to Counter-Economics,
admittedly the basis of agorism and the New Libertarian Strategy.
Rothbard finds NLM neglecting the “white market”—yet there is one
crucial point on which it is most definitely not neglected, here or in
my other Counter-Economic writing. The agorist imperative is to
transform the White into Black. Nothing could be clearer. To do so
is to create a libertarian society. What else can a libertarian
society mean in economic terms but removing market activity from the
control of the State? Market activity not under control of the State
is black market. Market activity under the control of the State is
white market and we are against it.
To illustrate, slaves building pyramids are white market. Slaves
who run away, deal on the side stones and tools they ripped off, and
otherwise engage in non-slave activity are black market—and free
to that extent. What should the libertarian view be toward white-market
pyramid building? Or, if you think pyramids would not exist in a free
society but aqueducts might, what should our new be toward aqueduct
building on the white market vs. black-market water smuggling?
New Libertarians urge the slaves to screw the aqueduct and go for their
private buckets until such time as aqueducts can be built under
voluntary arrangements. Would Rothbard suggest anything else? Gradual
phasing out of aqueduct construction and hence gradual phasing out of
Rothbard’s abolitionist credentials are not challenged, though my
own treatment on such matters may impel me otherwise, But a mainly
innocent businessman who pays taxes is enslaved to that extent and
surely his going black by dodging or defying the taxes (whichever works
best) is the immediate emancipation of this slave? How can
Rothbard reject any counter-economic moves by a white marketeer that has
less than 100% risk of apprehension without yielding his abolitionist
Rothbard’s listing of counter-economic services and goods are
interesting in one respect: of “jewels, gold, drugs, candy bars,
stockings, etc,” only one—drugs—is mentioned in the Manifesto.
True, Counter-Economic is only now being published chapter by
chapter, but even so, the few examples I gave were anything but a few
service industries or easily concealed goods. Here is a list, sifted
from pages 16 and 17, which were mentioned: “food to television repair;”
an entire country “Burma is almost a total black market”—this does
include heavy industry, although Burma has less than the heavy
industry of India which is mostly black; the large “black labor” force
of Western Europe; housing in the Netherlands; tax evasion in Denmark;
currency control evasion in France; “underground economy” tax-free
exchanges in the U.S.; “drugs including laetrile and forbidden medical
material;” “prostitution, pornography, bootlegging, false identification
papers, gambling, and proscribed sexual conduct between consenting
adults;” trucking (the majority, by the way); smuggling at all
levels; and misdirection of government regulators. All of these are not
petty but, consciously or otherwise, aggregate big businesses!
Automobiles are made counter-economically. Let me count the
ways: shipping them across borders and evading taxes or controls—whether
physically or on paper; illegal alien labor for assembly-line
production; skimming of parts by management, labor, or even with
knowledge of the owners, which then go to produce custom cars; auto
plant executives hired as “independent consultants”; design, research,
engineering, executive and computer “consultants” all paid in partial or
full counter-economic terms; union “corruption” to make sweetheart deals
to avoid labor (State) regulations; OSHA and other inspectors bought off
or misdirected; “unsold” product written off inventory and taxes and
then sold; . . . forget it, I cannot possibly count all the ways.
And next to autos, steel and cement have positively unsavory
reputations—when it comes to “white collar” crime.
But there is a problem of scale here. Large, cartelized industries
can buy politicians and gain their advantages from the State directly.
True, anyone about to be apprehended by the State, can, should, and
does payoff, bribe, and apply “grease” to the State’s enforcers. But
what highly competitive industry with a large number of producers can
effectively buy votes and politicians—and hence be tempted into using
their political clout offensively? Big industry in the
cartelized sense is no breeding ground for libertarian support but
rather for the State’s vested interests. However, there is no need to
confuse large scale of production with oligopolist characteristics, as
Rothbard seems to be doing here.
Finally, as we close out this area, Rothbard accuses me of ignoring
the working class. Considering how often he’s had the charge leveled at
him, one might expect a bit more perceptivity if not sensitivity. What
are plumbers, mechanics, carpenters, welders, drivers, farm workers,
pilots, actors, accountants, engineers, technicians, lab assistants,
computer programmers and just keypunch operators, nurses, midwives,
paramedics and orthomedics (doctors), salesmen, public relations people,
bartenders, waitresses, writers, factory workers, lawyers, executives,
and all types of repairmen if not workers, covering the entire spectrum
All of that list are at least 20% counter-economic and many are
over 50%. If they do not take the first step by becoming independent
contractors toward economic liberty, then their employer does (tax-free
tips for waitresses, off-the-book illegal alien factory workers, agents
handling it for actors, writers, and so on). I challenge Dr. Rothbard
to find any legitimate economic field (not serving the State)
that cannot be counter-economized, ten that cannot be counter-economized
without organizational or technological innovation, or a hundred that
cannot be counter-economized without significant gain in organizational
efficiency and profit. “Konkinism” has plenty to say to everyone who is
not a statist.
Rothbard’s claim that political action is superior and preferable
to civil disobedience in the lightening of the levy is an incredible
distortion of history coming from the one who converted me to
revisionism. There has never been a single repeal of taxation or
significant cut (save a few minor ones in recent years for purposes of
Keynesian tinkering and now Lafferite “less gets more”) that did not
result from mass refusal to pay or the threat of such disobedience.
Furthermore, political action has resulted in shifts in the tax base
and higher total plunder—such as the famously spectacular debacle of
Proposition 13 here in
Rothbard’s agreement with Pyro Egon is ungraciously spurned by Mr.
Egon who informs me that what he sees as my “political-like actiny” (NLA,
MLL) will not generate more entrepreneurs but that entrepreneurs are
indeed “make-able.” Rothbard, in subsequent correspondence, added that
he believes entrepreneurs are born and not made—or at least not
“Successful entrepreneurs are not going to be agoric theoreticians
like Mr. Konkin but successful entrepreneurs period. What do they need
with Konkin and his group?” How about, “Successful businessmen are not
going to be economic theoreticians like Dr. Rothbard but successful
businessmen period. What do they need of Dr. Rothbard ?” Or
“successful engineers are not going to be physics theoreticians like Dr.
Einstein, . .” Or, “successful writers are not going to be English
instructors like Professor Strunk . . .” Need I belablor the Rothbard
Rothbard’s position on libertarians being dichotomized from
entrepreneurs is absolutely monstrous to me. “Libertarian” has nothing
to do with what one says but with what one does. Hence a
libertarian must be more trustworthy and have a more rational
understanding of the market or he/she is not a libertarian
regardless of what they beguilingly profess. This is the basis for my
muckraking for which Dr. Rothbard commends me. And, on the whole, I
find the same lack of black-colored glasses in him, I hasten to add.
And what personal experience or academic study leads Rothbard to
conclude that pre-libertarian counter-economists do just fine without
agorists “to cheer them on and free them from guilt.” My personal
experience leads me to precisely the opposite conclusion—and I have
cancelled cheques of contribution and letters of gratitude to prove it.
Inshort, whatever planet that the good doctor is describing in
contradistinction to my counter-economy sure isn’t Earth.
Rothbard’s statement that violent revolution (what other kind is
there against a ruling class—would he like to mention an Establishment
that stepped down peacefully?) never succeeded in history distorts
either the language or history.
Either he is saying that no revolution has been libertarian enough
to triumph without its contradictions bringing it down (true, but then
irrelevant to bring it up as precedent) or he is saying that no group
overthrew a ruling class using democratic means of oppression. The
latter is not only false but a direct reversal of history. Nearly all
somewhat successful revolutions in recent history have overthrown
precisely democratic trappings: American Revolutionaries vs. the
democratic British Imperialists; Jacobin Revolutionaries vs. the
bourgeous assemblee; Liberal Revolutionaries against the Czar’s
Duma (March 1917) and the Bolshevik revolution against the
Liberals and Social Democrats (November 1917); the falange
against the Spanish Republic (1936); Peron’s shirtless ones against the
Argentine parliament; the National Liberation Front of Vietnam vs.
the South Vietnamese parliament (at least until near the end); the
popular overthrow of Allende’s democratically-elected regime (with
Pinochet co-opting the revolution for the military); and the recent
overthrow of the democratically elected but right-wing president of El
Salvador by a centrist “popular” junta. This list is not exhaustive. A
claim that “violent revolution” has only succeeded in “democratic
countries with free elections” would be nearer the mark, and is often
used by Latin American as justification for preventive coups.
All of the above revolutionary groups have their credentials open
to libertarian question, to be sure—but who has not so far? To close up
this side issue, either Rothbard is saying that all “violent” overthrows
of States were not revolution because they were not libertarian (in
which case the libertarian case is untried) or he is historically wrong.
Rothbard has chutzpah:jJah to demand I separate
libertarianism from counter-economists because the latter don’t need
it—and then turn around and ask why the Russian counter-economists have
not condensed into agoras. Human action is willed action; without
entrepreneurs of libertarianism, it will not be sold. Even so, my
estimation of the Soviet scene matches that of several Russian
a powderkeg waiting to go up. The Polish situation, of course, fits the
agorist paradigm perfectly, right down to the counter-economic workers
being co-opted by the partyarch-like Solidarity union.
Rothbard thus fails to make any substantive case against
counter-economics and hence agorist strategy. He shoots at peripherals
and warps either language or history to make his case. Still, our
disagreement seems to me largely one of misunderstanding, and
misunderstanding of verifiable facts, not speculative theory. This is
hardly surprising since—to my knowledge—we share the same premise and
analytic methods. Considering that I adopted mine from him, it’s even
Rothbard’s critique of New Libertarianism seems to rest on seeing
tips of icebergs and dismissing the vast bases. He sees only the one
percent of the economy thought of as “black market” and not the 20-40%
of the economy the IRS(!) sees as “underground” and double that
to make up the whole Counter-Economy which the IRS ignores as irrelevant
to taxation. It takes a libertarian, educated by Rothbard and
others, to perceive a common characteristic and sum the anti-statist
And the same can be said of Rothbard’s view of my activities and
the hundreds of other New Libertarian Allies around the world. The
small but warranted attention we pay to his few deviations seem
prominent to him and understandably so. The somewhat larger amount of
public criticism we have of the LP and other activities he is most
interested in whether in our publications or at public forums are most
of what interests him and remains with him. The 10,000 people I
conservatively estimate that have called themselves libertarians after
primary or secondary contact with me and my hard-core allies he never
met and hence they are invisible. The network of counter-economic
businesses that we are painstakingly nurturing and the millions of
dollars cumulatively exchanged “invisibly” are again understandably
invisible to him as well.
I for one see no real barrier to re-convergence (“regroupment” a
the Marxists would say) between Rothbard and his “sane, sober, anarchist
center” and us “ultra-left deviationists.” Rothbard’s remaining
criticism is really not that germane to the Manifesto itself,
though it makes up the majority of his article. Yet in some ways it is
the most telling criticism of me personally in that it vitiates his
compliment to my writing ability, when I must have obviously failed to
communicate effectively. Most of his criticisms of me are misreadings
in the latter part, and I will but list and deny them where urgent. Of
course, the Party Question is another problem entirely.
New Libertarianism does have an organizational preference. Other
forms of organization might then be considered non-New Libertarian but
not necessarily “unlibertarian” or non-agorist. What the New
Libertarian Strategy seeks is to optimalize action to lead to a New
Libertarian society as quickly and cleanly as possible. Activities that
lead to authoritarian dependency and passive acceptance of the State are
sub-optimal and frowned on; action that is individualistic,
entrepreneurial and market-organized are seen as optimal.
With that constantly in the reader’s awareness (pages 22, 23,
and 24 of NLM are a long disclaimer to this very point!), it is
obvious that there are no moral (other than individual self-worth)
questions involved in organization and hierarchy. (My “lumping them all
together” that Rothbard decries might be considered integration of
concepts by others.)
Nowhere have I ever opposed joint-stock companies (see page 23
again where they are specifically affirmed). After I penned NLM
I set up precisely that to own New Libertarian magazine. I
assume we both continue to oppose the statist perversion of joint-stock
companies into limited-liability corporations.
I have never suggested “floating affinity groups,” Should Dr.
Rothbard set up a general Libertanan Alliance which runs no candidates
and engages in no statism, I will take out a hundred-year membership
immediately, 1 urge him to “call me out” on this point.
I see fewer problems in orgauization than Rothbard does and
can easily see some organizations not haying any.
There is a bit or irony in Rothbard’s spirited defense of the
“Kochtopus” since his own defection but I’ll let that pass. I have to
mention his secession from and opposition to it because that,
effectively, ends my major objection to it and I find it relatively
harmless and conceivably needing my defense in the near future as the
chorus of opposition swells. To the extent that my early attacks are
responsible for the demonopolization of the Movement I am thankful.
For the record, my aim in as spectacularly drawing attention to the
monocentrism around Koch’s money as I did was a warning. Too many
neo-libertarians think only taking money from the State leads to
dependency and control. True, it is not immoral in a libertarian
sense to become a billionaire’s kept writer or lap-activist but it
hardly serves the movement’s image or substance and hence is
un-New-Libertarian. I knew the rest of the Left would attack
libertarians for being a plutocrat’s tool (as Mother Jones
eventually did) and took action to show the existence of diversity and
independence. Off-hand, I’d say it worked.
I agree with all of Rothbard’s defense of millionaire libertarians
and have a few (not multi-millionaires to be sure) in alliance
with me. His solution to increase competition in the Movement is and
was my solution. I doubt that having Koch compete with himself is a
viable answer, though; even Rothbard seems hesitant about suggesting it.
My being “unfair to Charles Koch” requires a bit of semantic care.
I have never implied that Charles Koch personally was motivated to do
anything. Anybody’ who threw millions into the Movement with a
bit of judgment in buying up institutions would have produced the same
I’ll take Rothbard’s and LeFevre’s—who know him personally—word
that Koch is a great guy. May he profit richly and evade the State
forever! (But may he never buy another politician.) And may he
contribute to his heart’s content to any Libertarian or Libertarian
organization (save the LP). Gee, what a great movement when a poor
activist like me can be so generous to an oil billionaire!
But I’ll go further than Rothbard in my willing recognition
of the positive personal characteristics of the Kochtopus. Roy Childs
may be cranky and unforgiving at times but he’s a fun, erudite person of
superior taste, no more deviationist than Dr. Rothbard. Jeff Riggenbach
remains a friend, associate and sometime ally even working full-time for
Koch’s Libertarian Review. Joan Kennedy Taylor, Victoria Vargas,
Milton Mueller—whom did I leave out?—I’ve had nothing but enjoyable
contacts with them all. Even Ed Crane(Rothbard’s—ahem—bête noire)
is a laugh a minute with a ready handshake and a fast quip who serves
Liberty as he sees best for him and the Movement.
May none of us ever sink to ad hominem.
Finally, the Libertarian Party. Rothbard says he will “assume for
the moment that a libertarian political party . . . is not evil
per se.” I wonder how open he would be to assuming the State is
not evil per se and then continuing the discussion of some
legislation, let us see where it leads him. It seems to lead to the
wonder of repeal of laws.
Now Rothbard’s historical acumen seems to have failed him again.
Since when did the State repeal anything from the Corn Laws to suburban
property tax unless it had authority to maintain that law? First
comes counter-economic scofflawing, then mass civil disobedience, then
the threat of insurrection, and only then repeal. No, I don’t
agree with LeFevre that it is immoral to repeal the draft
(assuming LeFevre would say precisely that) but it is immoral to support
politicians to oppress us because they might relieve one oppression.
For all the money, time and energy that needs to go into electing a
politician good on one or a few issues, how many could be directly freed
and their risk of apprehension reduced in tax evading, draft evading,
regulation evading, and so on? Nor do you need exhort the evaders to
contribute to a noble cause but simply offer—and some sell this for
exorbitant fees! —instruction on how to do beat detection and watch them
go for it. . . . freeing themselves, not being freed by someone
Votes are the “profits” of a political party. A party is an
organ of the State whose overt purpose is to vie for control of the
State and whose covert one is to co-opt support—sanction of the victim.
The number of votes dictates the number of successfully elected
officials and their share of power and plunder and the number of those
still accepting the State’s legitimacy and possible usefulness. Crane
Clark Campaign were only acting in accordance
with their nature qua partyarch. As Frank Chodorov might have
said, “The way to get rid of sell-outs in LP jobs is to get rid of LP
Let’s take up those political parties Rothbard finds admirable. It
is clear that the Democrats were not so lovable in Conceived in
Liberty when, as
Republicans, they fought the Anti-Federalists and co-opted opposition to
the Constitution. Did Jackson, the agent of Nullification’s defeat; Van
Buren, the archetype of boss politics; Polk, the anti-Mexican
imperialist; or Pierce and Buchanan, the defenders of vlavery: redeem
this tainted beginning?
And the British Liberals were condemned by Rothbard for leading
Liberty’s advocates into defense of Empire and World War. Nor did the
moderate minarchists—let alone alone the many anarchists even then—of
the time have any use for Democrats or Liberals. Those minarchist
reformers were then in the Free Soil Party in the U.S. and the
Philosophic Radical Party in Britain, respectively.
It would be gauche of me to remind Dr. Rothbard who invented
the Radical Caucus and then discarded it when it served nothing but
“objectively counter-revolutionary” ends so I’ll pass this section up.
“A militant and abolitionist LP in control of Congress” begs the
question—how did it get there? How could it get there? (George Smith’s
scenario seems far more plausible. In fact, the LP will be in
power during the final stages of agorist revolution tolure awary our
marginal allies and ensnare the unwary with “libertarian” newspeak. The
LP will be put in power as soon as the Higher Circles need it there. I
have no doubt that Dr. Rothbard will be the first to notice and denounce
Can you imagine slaves on a plantation sitting around voting for
masters and spending their energy on campaigning and candidates when
they could be heading for the “underground railway?” Surely they would
choose the counter-economic alternative; surely Dr. Rothbard would urge
them to do so and not be seduced into remaining on the plantation until
the Abolitionist Slavemasters’ Party is elected.
Rothbard’s characterizing me as a “wrecker” is truly surprising to
me considering all the libertarian organizations and publications I have
built up and supported—more than anyone else save Dr. Rothbard himself,
to New York to California, and in nearly every state, province and
country on this globe. Am I supposed to list all the libertarian groups
which have not been subjected to moral attacks by me? How about
every libertarian supper club in Los Angeles and New York? The Society
for lndividual Liberty, Society for Libertarian Life, the old California
Libertarian Alliance and Texas Libertarian Alliance, the British
Libertarian Alliance, the Future of Freedom annual conference, the
Southern Libertarian Conference. Oh, this is ridiculous. Yes, I stopped
beating my wife—even if I’m not married.
The only things I’ve wrecked are the wreckers of our once
party-free movement, defence of partyarchy and compromise of
libertarianism in general. Is Rothbard claiming that he averted his eyes
from those leaving “The Plumb Line” because they might otherwise be
doing good work?
In conclusion, Rothbard and I continue to fight for the same
things—and against the same things. Hopefully we will continue to fight
in our own ways, reaching those the other missed. And most hopefully
may we reduce our time and energy spent on fighting each other to free
resources against the common enemy. I shall let no outstretched hand be
If the New
Libertarians and the Rothbardian Centrists must devote some time to our
differences (“engage in Revolutionary Dialogue”), let it be devoted
first to understanding each other—as
this exchange is devoted to—and then
resolving the differences. Ah, then let the State and its power elite
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