Rothbard’s Red Pill
Waking up to the nature of the State
By Dan Sanchez
I remember when the scales fell from my eyes, and I saw the State for what it truly is, and has always been. I was sitting in my car in San Francisco, listening to a Mises.org audiobook of For a New Liberty by Murray Rothbard. My perception of the world would never be the same again.
The experience was similar to a great scene in the film The Matrix. The character Neo knows that something is deeply wrong with the world, but is unable to identify it. He asks the mysterious Morpheus about something that has been haunting him. What is the Matrix?
Morpheus answers, “It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”
“What truth?” asks Neo.
“That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.”
Morpheus then offers Neo a choice between two pills: one red, and one blue.
“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill: the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill: you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
Neo takes the red pill, which awakens him from the virtual reality dream he had been living all his life: a dream that has been uploaded directly into his brain while, in reality, his body has been a host to parasitic machines. These machines cultivate and feed off of the bodies of billions of dreaming humans in vast factory farms.
Rothbard was my Morpheus, as he has been to countless libertarians, and his writings were my Red Pill. Reading them woke me up to the fact that I, like Neo, was born into bondage: bondage to the State, which is a life-sucking, human-farming parasite that hides its true nature under a veil of normalcy and legitimacy, and through lies that it has force-fed my mind since I was a little child.
Rothbard’s analysis of the State followed in the tradition of Lysander Spooner, Franz Oppenheimer, Albert Jay Nock, and Frank Chodorov. This tradition built up a theory of justice that made no exceptions for the state, and a sociological analysis of the state that revealed its true nature and function.
Whatever expansive and benign functions state-worshipers have granted it, and whatever limited function that even liberal “social contract” philosophers like Locke have allowed it, those who actually wield the apparatus of state power have their own purposes. It is their use and development of the state that determines its true function. And that function has not been to, as Gouverneur Morris put it, take part of its citizenry’s property “for the security of the remainder.”
No, the state does not tax so it can protect. It (ineptly) protects so it can tax. It is an uncommon criminal who says to common criminals, “Hands off, those are my victims.” It is a “monopoly of crime,” in the words of Nock: a “highwayman,” in the words of Spooner, except even worse than a highwayman, who, for all his faults, at least “does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.” It is a conquering horde, as Oppenheimer explained, settling in and making itself at home, and prudentially limiting its extractions so as not to kill its host.
Rothbard built on and systematized these analyses, especially in his For a New Liberty (1973), Anatomy of the State (1974), and The Ethics of Liberty (1982). Rothbard showed how “the State is nothing more nor less than a bandit gang writ large…” One of his most important contributions to this tradition was to integrate with it the insights of Étienne de La Boétie, David Hume, and Ludwig von Mises to explain how such “bandit gangs” hide their criminal nature with a veil of legitimacy weaved by Court Intellectuals and draped, Matrix-like, over our eyes by public schools and state-dominated media. These lackeys bamboozle and indoctrinate the public in exchange for a share in the pelf.
Thus, the State is a provident predator, prudentially progressing to parasitism, propped up by propaganda.
Morpheus wisely warned Neo, “Remember. All I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.” After all, the truth can be an awful thing to wake up to. Neo’s virtual life of office work, internet lurking, and clubbing was swept away as he awoke to a hellish reality of prison-pods and killer robots.
It may not be quite as visually dramatic as that, but Rothbard’s Red Pill also packs one hell of a punch, and can send you reeling. It is deeply unsettling to see the veils of legitimacy and euphemism lift off of formerly cherished institutions.
That precious public school you drive by each day stands revealed as an indoctrination and sedation camp, with creepy droning pledges of submission, and the inculcation of worshipful reverence for the State’s most blood-soaked past leaders.
The heroic cop in the car behind you stands revealed as a highway robber, slave catcher, and fascist brutalizer, who will mug you the first chance he gets, shackle and cage you for profit if you have the wrong kind of herbage on your person, and may beat you into the pavement or put a bullet in your head if you somehow piss him off.
The freedom-defending wars you see covered on cable news, even the “good wars” in your history textbook, stand revealed as a corrupt atrocities of mass murder and terrorism.
The “good guys” become bad guys, and many “bad guys” become victims, as your whole world inverts.
In The Matrix, the character Cypher deeply regrets not having taken the Blue Pill and actively seeks to rewipe his mind so he will forget reality and return to the dream. “Ignorance is bliss,” he says longingly. Similarly, the true nature of the State is far too harsh a reality for some to accept, even for many libertarians. Such people will often have a viscerally negative reaction to Rothbard, because he always gives you the Red Pill straight, with no adulteration or soft-pedaling.
For others, like Neo, living a pleasant, but deeply suspect lie is far more agonizing than looking reality, awful as it in some ways is, square in the face, and doing the hard work necessary to change it. Such individuals will even become invigorated by the moral clarity that naturally comes with dropping double-standards. This may partially explain Rothbard’s own ready joyous cackle (a far cry from Neo’s perpetual hangdog demeanor) and love for life as well as liberty.
Like Morpheus’s, Rothbard’s Red Pill offers the truth, and nothing more. But for many, the truth gives a natural high unlike any other.