Rothbard on Karl Polanyi

I have previously noted that Rothbard presents us with a cartoon version of Rousseau. I am now reading K. Polanyi's The Great Transformation for a class I am teaching with the same name, and I just noticed Rothbard gets Rousseau wrong in a review of that very book. So what did he have to say about Polanyi?

Shockingly (although I really shouldn't be shocked by this anymore!) Rothbard gets Polanyi even more wrong than he gets Rousseau. With Rousseau I figured that he had the excuse that he had never read him, but only read about him, but here he's actually reviewing Polanyi's book! And he attributes to it a "Worship of the Primitive" that "permeates the book."

Well, I was already halfway through Polanyi's book, and I can assure you, the thought had not once occurred to me anywhere in my readings that I was in the presence of the least bit of "worship of the primitive." Yes, occasionally Polanyi will mention this or that aspect of some primitive tribe he thinks is/was admirable, but there just is nothing even resembling "worship" present at all, let alone permeating the book.

A couple of other quick notes:

"Polanyi seems to think that he has scored a great coup on free market economists when he says that trade first developed in international and interregional channels, and not from first local and then international. So what? This is certainly not in any sense a refutation of free market economics."

But Polanyi certainly doesn't present this as any sort of "refutation of free market economics"! He presents it as a refutation of the ideas that markets began locally and spontaneously spread out from their local origens.

"Polanyi angrily criticizes those, like Mises..."

So, I looked through all of the pages mentioning Mises. Here's the kind of fierce anger I encountered: "And a century later Mises was still reiterating tthat labor and money were no more of a concern of the government than any other commodity on the market."

In short, Rothbard appears to have been so flummoxed by Polanyi's book that he basically could not read it at all. I picture him reading two sentences, throwing the book across the room in anger, picking it up a few minutes and ten pages later, reading another sentence, hurling the book, etc., then sitting down to write a review of what he imagined Polanyi was writing about.

UPDATE: Alasdair MacIntyre on Polanyi: "see Karl Polanyi The Great Transformation... still the single most illuminating account of the inception of institutionalized modernity..."

But all Rothbard could find in this single most illuminating account was "a farrago of confusions, absurdities, fallacies, and distorted attacks on the free market." Sigh.


  1. Anonymous4:54 AM


    you have criticized rothbard a lot over his works on history, philosophy, etc., but what about his economics? do you see any major flaws in it as well?

  2. Harry6:50 PM

    Well, rothbard was a second rate intellectual after all. HOWEVER callahan and polanyi are fourth rate so they should keep their mouths shut.

  3. Harry posts the Rothbardian ideal of intellectual debate: keep your mouth shut!

  4. I came across a funny thread re historical scholarship.

  5. Thanks for your reasonably balanced assessment of Rothbard's incredibly unbalanced reading of Polanyi.

  6. I see that you wrote this some time ago. It is pertinent to my current reading, however. I am just reading The Great Transformation for the first time and have much appreciated the acumen of the analysis and the wit of the argument. I am amazed that I had not read Polanyi before. Since he seems to fall between the warring camps of liberals versus Marxists he seems to have had limited impact on contemporary debate. That is too bad.

    I think your reading of Rothbard’s screed is about right. He seems to have read enough to see that it contained a picture of the world different from his idol von Mises and that was enough for him. Make up a caricature of your opponent (“A Rousseauian, mein Gut!) and then shout “Hail Hayek”. Polanyi’s critique of liberalism must have hit pretty close to the heart to elicit such a frantic and incoherent reaction. Or maybe not, as your last lines suggest, just Murray going off the rails again.


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