The major theme of Conceived in Liberty, which also applied to his
other historical work, was the idea of Liberty versus Power. Throughout
history, there has been an eternal battle between those who wield the
coercive power of the State apparatus, and those who wish to resist it.
Throughout most of human history, to quote the famous words of Thomas
Hobbes, life was “nasty, brutish and short.” Tyrants of all stripes, emperors,
kings, feudal barons, and warlords, subjugated the masses and ruled
over them with an iron fist. The dominant economic system of this ancien
régime was mercantilism, where government subsidies and other forms
of protectionism were granted to favored businesses and other special
interests. Then suddenly, in Britain and the American colonies in the 17th
and 18th centuries, this changed, and much different forms of government
were created — ones that were more limited in scope and allowed for
greater liberty. The American colonies in particular cast off the oppressive
shackles of their royal governors, and then later the British government
completely in the American Revolution, in favor of a far more limited government
and laissez-faire economic system that the people directly controlled.
The fight was not over however, as those fighting for liberty and
limited government continually clashed with those wishing to expand the
size of government in the 19th century.
How did this occur? How were the ideas of Liberty versus Power disseminated
to the broad populace? Why, for so long, did the public stand
the depredations of their rulers in the ancien régime? Why did they later
revolt against this dispensation and fight for liberty? And fast forwarding to the Progressive Era, why did the pendulum shift back to statism and
acceptance of increased state rule?
The answers to all of these questions involve the role of ideology and
intellectuals filtering these messages down to the public. Throughout history,
there have been two types of intellectuals. The first are the court intellectuals,
originally the priests and the clergymen. Their job was to convince
the public of the righteousness and legitimacy of the ruler through
religious means (such as “The King is Divine”) and to truckle to his predations.
In return for these necessary public relations, the court intellectuals
were to receive their fair share of the pelf taken from the public. This
relationship was the famous Alliance of Throne and Altar that existed
throughout most of history in various forms. On the other hand, there
are the radical and revolutionary intellectuals who were out to spread the
message of liberty and fight against the coercive order. They were not in it
for power or prestige but instead liberty and justice.
The principal transmission mechanism during the American Revolution
was the natural rights theory of John Locke. While Locke’s work provided
the ultimate theoretical edifice, it was very abstract, and the message
was instead distributed to the public through the much more popular and
easier readings of Cato’s Letters, written by John Trenchard and Thomas
Gordon.10 Here were the works that instilled in the public a radical libertarian
ideology that emanated in various ways in subsequent years. The
importance of intellectuals in filtering ideas to the public, statist or libertarian,
would be a major theme of Rothbard’s historical work.
The Progressive Era, pp. 19-20