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It is easy to imagine the libertarian icon Murray Rothbard (1926–1995) modeling himself on his mentor, the Old Right icon Frank A. Chodorov (1887–1966), in the same manner as Chodorov undoubtedly looked to his mentor, Albert Jay Nock (1870–1945). As a young grad student Rothbard stumbled across Chodorov’s pamphlet Taxation Is Robbery. His reaction: “I shall never forget the profound thrill — a thrill of intellectual liberation — that ran through me.” As a voice of the Old Right, Chodorov advocated the free market, individual rights, free trade, isolationism, and a perpetual skepticism toward the state. He and Rothbard were a perfect fit.
In a 1967 tribute to the recently deceased Chodorov, Rothbard described their subsequent meeting at a cocktail party where the intelligentsia of the American right wing engaged in “windy rhetoric” about the free market. Meanwhile, “on the back stairs they dicker[ed] with the brokers of Big Government for an increase in their subsidies and privileges.” Chodorov “stood out like a blaze of radiant light.” He was “the only person alive … amidst the whole gaggle of one-dimensional and identical men around him. There he stood, his tie askew, his balding head disheveled, the ashes from his beloved pipe flying all around, his intelligent and merry eyes twinkling as he scored some outrageous, logical, and beautifully penetrating point to some clod who couldn’t tell the difference between the host of cardboard ‘individualists’ and this one genuine article.”
Sans the pipe, that could describe Rothbard and his intellectual blaze of light. Through a fusion of Austrian economics, Old Right foreign policy, the radicalism of 19th-century individualist anarchism, and natural-law theory, Rothbard forged a path to modern libertarianism in the 1960s. In this achievement, few influences were as important as Chodorov.
Who was he? Fishel Chodorowsky was born to Russian Jewish immigrants in the Lower West Side of New York City. As a young man, the anti-statism of anarchism intrigued Chodorov, but he stumbled over the collective mentality of left-anarchism, which was his exposure to the tradition. He gravitated instead toward Georgism — the political philosophy of Henry George — to which Nock also adhered. George is sometimes viewed as a heretic within libertarianism because he advocated a “Single Tax” on land. He believed the mere act of owning or claiming land rendered no productive service and that one man’s claim was as valid as another’s. Otherwise, George was a staunch advocate of traditional capitalism. In adopting the Single Tax position, however, Chodorov argued for enforcement on a municipal level because centralizing it could strengthen the state at the expense of the individual.
In 1937, at the age of 50, Chodorov became the director of the Henry George School of Social Science. In the same year, he and Nock revived Nock’s then-defunct 1920s periodical, The Freeman, under the school’s aegis. Thus began Chodorov’s remarkable career as a publisher of periodicals and an active contributor to them. His many articles in The Freeman eloquently argued against war and the resulting statism that he believed was the greatest threat to freedom and human happiness. Arguably, he became the most effective voice of isolationism.
Chodorov is often remembered for his hardcore advocacy of the free market and his vigorous criticism of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” But he should be remembered most for two positions about which he was passionate: his opposition to America’s entry into World War II and his early rejection of Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare.
Chodorov, anti-war crusader
Every day we must repeat to ourselves as a liturgy, the truth that war is caused by the conditions that bring about poverty; that no war is justified; that no war benefits the people; that war is an instrument whereby the haves increase their hold on the have-nots; that war destroys liberty.
— Frank Chodorov, “When War Comes”
Ralph Raico — a member of Rothbard’s inner circle and a historian specializing in the two world wars — called Chodorov “the last of the Old Right greats.” Raico was referring specifically to Chodorov’s foreign-policy stance of “isolationism.”
In chapter 11 of his last book — Out of Step: The Autobiography of an Individualist (1962) — Chodorov explained the term. “Isolationism has been turned (by our politicians, our bureaucracy, and their henchmen, the professorial idealists) into a bad word.” It had been twisted to mean Americans should ignore the broader world. Quite the opposite was true. “Long before interventionism became a fixed policy of the government, American students went to Europe to complete their education and immigrants introduced their exotic foods to the American table. But these were voluntary adoptions….”
The key word for Chodorov was “voluntary.” Embracing different cultures was part of the American character, and isolationism did not mean America should become provincial. It meant America should not impose its policies or self-interest on other nations, especially not through military force. Nor did America accept such impositions from other nations. This was a moral principle for Chodorov, but it was also a realization of human nature. “Isolationism is inherent in the human makeup,” he explained. “It is in the nature of the human being to be interested first in himself and secondly in his neighbors.” If one neighbor should not trespass on the property of another or make threats rather than requests, then neither should nations. That was the core of the political isolationism, which Chodorov distinguished from the economic.
Economic isolationism made Chodorov distance himself slightly from America First — an isolationist organization that sought to avoid American involvement in World War II. Chodorov wrote, “One flaw in the America First program was a tendency toward protectionism; the anti-involvement became identified with ‘Buy American’ slogans and with high tariffs — that is, with economic, rather than political, isolationism.” Free and unfettered trade, not protectionism, was true economic isolationism.
Interventionism is the mirror image; it occurs whenever one nation uses political interference, tax money, or military might to secure a political or financial benefit from a second. Interventionism is interference with the domestic affairs of another nation through force or bribery.
In 1933, the interventionist Roosevelt assumed leadership of a nation with a strong tradition of isolationism. In his 1796 Farewell Address, George Washington had warned that a nation “prompted by ill will and resentment sometimes impels to war the government contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes … adopts through passion, what reason would reject; at other times it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations has been the victim.” Washington believed that official attachments with or animosity toward other nations would lead to foreign-policy blunders and damage freedom. In 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams famously declared, “[America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
Roosevelt also inherited a competing tradition of interventionism, however. He economically intervened immediately on entering the White House by prohibiting the private ownership of gold. And then there was his New Deal for America. This Deal consisted of a series of economic programs, public works, drastic financial reforms, and labor regulations revolving around the three “Rs”: Relief, Reform, and Recovery. It constituted the greatest rise of statism and violation of economic freedom that peacetime America had ever experienced.
Roosevelt also wanted to politically intervene during World War II. America was no stranger to war. From the American Revolution to World War I, it had fought in no fewer than six wars. But World War I (1914–1918) had left many Americans weary of conflict and disillusioned with European politics. After the war ended, an enthusiastic Woodrow Wilson had tried to “sell” the United States on membership in the League of Nations (1920) — the first worldwide intergovernmental organization. He met such stiff resistance from the American public and isolationists within Congress that the United States did not officially join. Roosevelt’s desire for America to enter World War II faced the same obstacles; he was able to enter it only after a direct military attack on American soil — the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Chodorov spoke out loudly against the economic interventionism of the New Deal and the political interventionism of entering the war. In 1942, he was forced to resign as director of the Henry George School because of his anti-war views. He later admitted to being so distraught that he might have committed suicide if not for the comforting presence of Nock. Instead, Chodorov poured his anti-war passion into a new periodical, analysis (sic), a four-page monthly broadsheet of which Chodorov was the owner, publisher, editor, distributor, and the source of most material. Rothbard considered analysis (1944–1951) to be one of the best “little magazines” ever published in America. Certainly, it was the publication of which Chodorov was most proud, calling analysis “the most gratifying venture of my life.”
This article was originally published in the June 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.