Liberty senior editor Bruce Ramsey has written the first real biography of Garet Garrett (1878-1954), an important precursor of today’s American libertarian movement. There was an earlier attempt at biography, Carl Ryant’s “Profit’s Prophet” (1989). That was a brief, primitive, naive effort. Ramsey is so far from naive as to stipulate that his book is only a “kind of a biography,” because many of the documents on which a “fully fleshed-out” history of his subject would be based – letters, diaries, financial papers, and so on – have so far not been discovered (ix).
But Ramsey is too modest. True, he can’t answer every biographical question. He can’t say, for instance, why Garrett turned up, at some period of his life, missing a few of his fingers – an odd fate for one of America’s leading journalists. But Ramsey has done an extraordinary job of putting his story together – pursuing documentary evidence, contacting people who knew Garrett or who knew people who knew him, gathering and learning from Garrett’s millions of words of fiction, history, and journalism. For several years, Ramsey has been bringing out edited volumes of Garrett’s newspaper and magazine writing – “Salvos Against the New Deal” (2002), “Defend America First,” (2003), and “Insatiable Government” (2005). Now, drawing on many years of research, he caps his achievement with the current volume.
But energy and devotion are only partial qualifications for a good biographer. Equally important are taste and judgment, and Ramsey shows both in abundance. He knows how to gather evidence, but he also knows how to weigh it, how to speculate beyond it, and how to keep speculation from going too far. He communicates the known facts (usually known because he has found them) and lets readers make their own informed judgments about debatable issues. Another qualification for biographical writing, one that is usually helpful but always dangerous, is a primordial sympathy with one’s subject, the kind of sympathy that feels its way into motives and intentions that only people who share them may be able to identify and explain. Many biographers are conquered by their sympathies; they write not about their subjects but on behalf of them, as mere spokesmen and apologists. Ramsey never does this. He maintains the same objective distance from Garrett that Garrett tried to maintain in his own assessments of the world.
At the start of “Unsanctioned Voice,” Ramsey discusses his puzzled first acquaintance, at age 16, with Garrett’s “The People’s Pottage.” He discovered it in a rightwing bookstore; yet it appeared to be a work of the ideological left, criticizing America’s transformation into an “empire.” On second thought, however, it didn’t seem to fit on the left side of the aisle: “the language was wrong.” Much later, Ramsey knew why; he identified Garrett’s positions as libertarian (1-3).
My first acquaintance with Garrett was puzzling too. I bought one of his books because R.W. Bradford, the founder of this journal, told me it was interesting. It was the same book, “The People’s Pottage.” What struck me was that the author had a peculiar name and wrote in a peculiar style. The essays that comprised the volume had titles like “The Revolution Was” and “Ex America.” It was as if the author were slapping the English language to see whether it was still alive. Although the book was supposed to be about the intricacies of 20th-century American history, it began in a purely philosophical landscape, as naked as a desert: “A time came when the only people who had ever been free began to ask: What is freedom? Who wrote its articles the strong or the weak? Was it an absolute good? Could there be such a thing as unconditional freedom, short of anarchy? Given the answer to be no, then was freedom an eternal truth or a political formula?” I didn’t know how I would respond to those questions. I didn’t know which “people” had been asking them, or to what purpose. Garrett’s approach put me off.
I did understand the title of his book. It was a biblical allusion, and a good one. In Genesis 25:29-34, Esau “despise[s] his birthright” and sells it to Jacob for a mess of pottage. In the same way, Garrett argues, Americans sold their birthright of liberty for the material benefits, the pottage, of the welfare state. But I was mystified by what the author said about himself in the packaging of the book. He said that he dwelt in “a cave on a riverbank at Tuckahoe, New Jersey” (4, 249). That was too biblical for me. I wasn’t sure that I wanted anything to do with a prophet who lived in a cave, and bragged about it. I couldn’t know, before Ramsey explained it, that the “cave” was what Garrett called his study.
The false impression was Garrett’s fault, not mine. Or was it a fault? Garrett was a man who published what he thought, in the way he thought it. The price of that privilege might be an occasional misunderstanding in the mind of a teenage boy, or the minds of other inattentive people, and a consequent loss of audience. But Garrett must have thought it was worth it, and he may have been right. Few really attentive readers would want him to write in any other way. The price of my own inattention was many years without the enjoyment of Garrett’s unique literary gifts.
More about them later. First, the man. Ramsey’s writer was the scion of a midwestern farm family, among whom he was known by the generic name of Edward Peter Garrett. “Garet” was a pen name he gave himself at some point, and “waited too long to abandon” (21). At an early age he absconded from the humble home from which all good American writers are supposed to abscond, bummed around, then somehow landed a job with a newspaper. After that, he had many jobs with magazines and newspapers. By the time he reached early middle age, they had become very good jobs – member of the editorial council of The New York Times, managing editor of the New York Tribune, manager of the editorial page of the Saturday Evening Post, the premier journal of the American middle class.
Garrett specialized in financial reporting, and for more than two decades was the confidential crony, unofficial adviser, and sometimes secret messenger of high-level politicians and financiers (AS 218-25). He wrote books about economics and technology; he also wrote novels with economic and technological themes. His interest, and besetting concern, was the economic flourishing of the United States, which he believed could happen only in the context of limited, and normally minimal, government. His fear of foreign involvements and the influence of European political systems made him an isolationist. He opposed America’s entry into World War II and had to leave his last good job when the Post repented of its isolationism. He spent the final years of his life meditating on America’s past and future, and sometimes writing about it. His final book, posthumously published, was a history of America, “The American Story.” It is actually an anthology of essays summarizing his thoughts about economics and history.
In the 1950s and 1960s, what remained of Garrett’s popularity crystallized in obscure parts of the conservative and anticommunist Right. That is where it stayed until Ramsey began introducing him to a wider intellectual audience. Ramsey’s work is an important part of a larger project, the continuing work of many hands: the reconstruction, in detail, of the early history of libertarianism. After H.L. Mencken, Garrett was probably the most prolific American author with radical libertarian ideas. He was even more prolific than Isabel Paterson, whose newspaper columns alone came to about two million words. And in his good years, Garrett was probably the most prominent American of libertarian leanings – again, after Mencken. He was more prominent than Paterson, more prominent than Albert Jay Nock, and much more prominent than Rose Wilder Lane. When, on Jan. 18, 1930, Garrett was shot three times by a bandit in an exclusive speakeasy in New York – he had contemptuously confronted the holdup man, exclaiming, “What’s this? What’s this all about?” – the affair was front-page news (139-43). The remarkably detailed reporting featured Garrett, “one of the best known authors in America on financial and economic themes,” hospitalized and in “considerable pain, becom[ing] angry at some of the questions put by detectives” and “throwing a small porcelain cuspidor” at one of them (“Garet Garrett Shot in a Cafe Attack,” New York Times, Jan. 19, 1930; “Hunt Bandit Suspect in Garrett Shooting,” New York Times, Jan. 20, 1930). When, later in that year, he went to Los Angeles and was hospitalized for indigestion, he again made national news: “Garet Garrett Is Ill”; “Garet Garrett Recovering” (New York Times, July 23, July 25, 1930).
Sinclair Lewis, who was by no means sympathetic to “rightist” or pro-capitalist ideas, nevertheless had good judgment about Garrett’s character and stature. In “It Can’t Happen Here” (1935), Lewis’ novel about the coming of an American dictatorship, Garrett is one of 13 journalists who have the honor of being arrested because they refuse to become “little disciples” of fascism (Lewis 264) . A few years later, according to Time magazine, Garrett’s editorials were read like the Bible by American isolationists (196).
Of course, his writings have never been anything like the Bible to libertarians; libertarians have never had a Bible. Before Ramsey started writing about him, most late-20th-century libertarians had never heard of him. Further, as Ramsey observes, Garrett was far from “a doctrinaire libertarian” (3). He accepted the Federal Reserve System, conscription when “necessary,” an ideal of national autarky, which he hoped would prevent war, and government direction of the economy in case war did break out. (It’s poetic justice that, during World War II, one of his monographs, an attack on the New Deal, ran into problems because his publisher’s supplies of paper were limited by the War Production Board .) Unlike many of today’s libertarians, Garrett was alarmed by the possibility that immigration would destroy American institutions. He was afraid that “the copper woman,” the welcoming Statue of Liberty, would turn out to be an opponent of the freedom she symbolized (AS 396).
But it’s time to admit the truth. Very few of the people to whom today’s libertarians trace their origins – very few of the people who stood for individual liberty against the state, when the state was almost universally acclaimed and individualism was regarded by almost all thinking people as the wave of the past – were without some shocking divergence from 21st-century libertarian orthodoxy (or momentary opinion). Paterson and Lane came very close to orthodox positions, indeed contributed mightily toward creating them. Nock, however, was an advocate of the economic and political theories of Henry George, who wanted to limit the size of government but held that, ultimately, individuals have no right to own real property (see Cox, “Albert Jay Nock”). Friedrich Hayek, who had no substantial influence in America before his “Road to Serfdom” (1944), said in that book that “there is no incompatibility in principle” between individual liberty and “the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance” (Hayek 121).
He also failed to be politically correct on the immigration-and-welfare issue (Hayek 120). It isn’t clear to what extent Garrett considered himself a theorist of liberty, like the people just mentioned. If, as a chronicler and sometimes a practitioner of American politics, he fell short of today’s ideals, he still understood, as few people have, the power of economic and psychological individualism, the dangers of state power, and the virtues of minimal government. His career as a financial journalist, and as an astute observer of human life, had taught him those things. And even when he wasn’t being a libertarian, he had interesting reasons for the positions he took. For instance, he was not opposed, at first, to the federal income tax, because it “made the people conscious of how much government cost” – not a bad insight. (Another was the idea that the tax shouldn’t just hit the highest earners, because any such policy “punished success” [31, 33].)
One of his unorthodox ideas is more important and interesting than the others. Unlike many doctrinaire libertarians, he declined to believe that every significant issue presents a contrast between good and evil, black and white. Of the Covenant of the League of Nations – which from a pacifist point of view was actually a compelling document, one that might deserve admiration from libertarians who considered war “the health of the state” – Garrett said, “In an ideal world it would have been a perfect moral contract; only, in that kind of world it would have been perhaps unnecessary. In a world with right always on one side and wrong always on the other, a clear line between, it still would have been a grand commitment. But what did we know to be true of the real world?” (AS 218-19).
Garrett wasn’t saying that we don’t know anything, that we can’t make any decisive judgments. Far from it. He didn’t hesitate to use the word “wicked” when he found himself on firm moral ground (e.g., at AM 226). That word, in fact, grew frequent with him. It’s refreshing to find a writer on economics and history using such words, instead of insinuating his ethical judgments as if they were written in a spirit of pure amorality. It is somewhat less refreshing to see modern libertarians exhausting their store of adjectives, once they’ve used up their supplies of “wicked” and “heroic.” Every religion – even the pure cult of the Manichees – has honored moral ideals and the elect who are thought to attain them, but it has also acknowledged that most people cannot or, perhaps, should not try to do so. A powerful ideal is a powerful temptation, to all kinds of bad conduct. And some of our ideals may, just possibly, be mistaken.
What do we know to be true of the real world? It was Montaigne’s question, long before it was Garrett’s. We know some things, but we can’t know everything, and in our lust for sainthood we may destroy our own cause. Garrett had seen many causes destroy themselves. Some of them he had endorsed, only to find out better. As he grew older, he became more vigorous in advocating unpopular notions, but also more inclined to identify purism as the enemy of justifiable ideals.
In “The American Story,” he discusses America’s “devastating” disappointment with World War 1. He knew what he was talking about: he had fervently supported the war effort, once America joined the war. He presents his own devastating history of our involvement (AS 195-213). Yet there is another point he wants to make. He is concerned that people like him – intellectual idealists, mostly – can go too far in criticizing patriotic fervor. There are genuine ideals that they may fail to discern, ideals that rise up behind the sordid facts of chauvinism and obscurantism and provide the only perspective from which such things can rightly be condemned. After the Great War, he wrote, “Intellectualism turned cynical and destructive. The foundations of belief began to erode; all the admirable myths with which the people had lived happily from the beginning of their national life were submitted to objective treatment, the question being not whether they were good or bad, but whether they were factually true. Heroes back to Washington, the motives of the Founding Fathers, the story of the Constitution, the legends of patriotism, were all alike, as the word was, debunked” (AS 227).
Garrett was not calling for a larger production of lies or a repudiation of objectivity; he was calling for the preservation of a national idealism that respects the “good,” even when it expresses itself in “myths.” The Apollonian myth was admirable; so was the myth of the Founders – although, as Garrett knew and said, that myth was mainly true.
One of Ramsey’s canny observations is this: “Garrett would not follow an idea for the sake of consistency.” This may not sound quite right. Consistency is akin to honesty. How can you embrace A and not reject not-A? But then Ramsey quotes a letter from Garrett to his friend Bernard Baruch: “Intelligence … wants to solve all the problems at once; it is wisdom that knows better” (188). That puts a brighter light on it. You may be faced with a fact; let’s call it A. Another fact appears; call it notA. You don’t know how to reconcile the apparent contradiction. Should you pretend to do so, and call your work a theory or an ideology? Are you willing to attract followers on that basis? No, surely not. Wisdom waits. It may seem feckless, but it waits. That may be one reason why Garrett, unlike some other libertarian thinkers, didn’t try to attract disciples. He didn’t want them. He was content with whatever facts he found, and whatever judgments he could make of them, subject to revision. (Disciples never want revisions.) Writing to Lane about certain problems of metaphysics, he says, “1 am the measuring worm that comes to the top of the stalk, feels into space, then turns and goes down again – to its rational world” (244). The rational person knows that some questions may never be answered. He doesn’t mind admitting it.
The “measuring worm” comment was about philosophy and perhaps religion. Politics and economics were something different. In those fields, his thought could more easily locate a “rational world,” a world susceptible of understanding and improvement by individual, rational minds. The main objective of the armies of words he wrote was the documentation and defense of a social order in which individuals are allowed to climb whatever stalks they want. He portrays that order as the source of wealth unbounded. He also portrays it as a realm of excitement and imagination, a place where wonders of invention are always being wrought and problems of space and time are always being miraculously solved, as by an invisible hand.
Garrett never got over his admiration for “the wonders of America’s physical achievement” (AS 227). He never lost his interest in finding out how things are made and done, and in talking to the people who make and do them. That, together with his superlative intelligence and his distinctive, self-assertive style, made him a great financial journalist. He was also, as I have noted, a novelist – not a very good one, in terms of novelistic technique, but an interesting one intellectually, because, in Ramsey’s words, all his fiction “is about work, industry and making a living” (123). He showed how intellectually interesting these purportedly mundane things are. He also showed some of the conclusions that might be drawn from them. There are few finer tributes to minimal government than the chapter on laissez faire in “The American Story.”
If Garrett was an American nationalist, as Ramsey indicates, he was also a vigorous anti-imperialist, just as one would expect from his commitment to minimal government. Nationalism, to him, would mean an advocacy of the American national values of self-respect, self-determination, and self-responsibility. When America, as he thought, stopped understanding these concepts, he wrote the republic’s obituary, not its justification (“Ex America”). The nation, he wrote in one of his many elegies for a libertarian America, had surrendered its wildness: “Tame grass is sweet poison. From the eating of it the way of life on the plains is soon forgotten.” Tame grazers are easily herded – but their “gentle,” social-democratic “herders are rough with the few who try to start a stampede” (Garrett, “Pottage” 114).
About some issues – including his (pessimistic) assessment of America’s future – Garrett was one-sided, or just plain wrong. Ramsey recognizes this (e.g., 210, 233), thereby confirming his own status as Garrett’s ideal interpreter. The ability to admit the mistakes of one’s favorite author – an ability that is in notably short supply among the disciples of Ayn Rand and Rose Lane – is crucial to making a plausible case for that author’s virtues. I greatly respect Garrett, and now that I have some literary sense I greatly enjoy his work, but I think there are areas he would have done much better not to have visited.
One is religious history. Garrett had the curious idea – common among Eastern literary folk but very uncommon among the midwesterners with whom he originated – that Christianity was on its way out in the 1800s, the very age of America’s great evangelical revivals. “Humanitarianism,” he says, “was the new religion,” as if the second faith had replaced, not supplemented, the first (AS 95).
He also makes serious mistakes about American political history. He claims that until the Missouri Compromise (1820), Congress outlawed slavery from the territories. No, not from the Old Southwest it didn’t. He asserts that “Lincoln had never imagined” allowing black people to vote. No: read Lincoln’s speech of April 11, 1865 (AS 171, 93, 117). Garrett is far from clearheaded about American territorial expansion. “The American Story” associates “manifest destiny” with the imperialism of the late 1890s, not with America’s expansion to the Pacific during the 1840s. The term “manifest destiny” originated in 1845, and it was good enough in its time: by 1846 it was manifest that America would expand to the Pacific. And when something is virtually unstoppable, it is destiny. But America’s destiny to occupy the Philippines was anything but manifest.
Other mistakes resulted from Garrett’s interest in autarky, or economic self-isolation. As Ramsey, with his gift for clear expression, summarizes the idea, Garrett thought that wars happen when industrial countries compete and “try to sell each other the same things” (90). Well, wars sometimes have happened in that way, but they have also happened when countries tried to isolate themselves economically. The solution, which most countries have now discovered, is simply to specialize in different things from those that other people specialize in. There is no reason, beyond nationalist reasons, why every industrial country should compete with every other in steel production; all that’s needed is that at least one free nation should be making steel. There is no reason, beyond hysterical reasons, why every country should be its own rice bowl. And why should Cuba try to sell snow to the Eskimos, when it can sell them sugar instead? That this idea seems never to have occurred to Garrett, who was a very good economic journalist, is a tribute to the power of ideês fixes.
When, however, Garrett stops writing economic theory and starts writing economic history -whether the history developing around him or the history of the distant past – he is unsurpassed at evoking its events and situations. If you don’t know anything about the fluctuations of American agricultural prices, or the depression of the 1890s, or even the depression of the 1930s, Garrett will tell you, and he will show you a world in every grain of sand.
Describing the run on gold at the New York Subtreasury office in 1895, he pictures a “writhing line” of people that, like a snake, “moved steadily forward by successive movements of contraction and elongation,” thrusting “its insatiable head inside the doors” until “each day at three o’clock the Subtreasury, slamming its doors, cut off the monster’s head. Each morning at ten o’clock there was a new and hungrier head … ” The “integrating principles” of the monster were “greed and fear … Human beings were the helpless cells … Its writings were sickening. The police handled it as the zoo keepers handle a great serpent. If once it should begin to coil the panic would be uncontrollable” (18).
Garrett writes from a personal perspective. He maintains his distance, but he never loses his warmth of observation. And although the people he observes may look like “cells,” he knows that, “helpless” or not, they’re always much more than that. They are whole beings, and as warm as he is. But he knew their dismay and bewilderment, and he found the right words to evoke it, whether it was the bewilderment of farmers and small businessmen in America’s Great Depression, or the malaise of the British in the years following World War I, when he described them as “totally absorbed in the act of taking [their] own pulse” (163). Among the bewildered were the rich and powerful as well as the poor and weak. Garrett understood the economic value of rich people, people who can concentrate capital and make capital investments. He met them, he lunched with them, he drank with them, he enticed their thoughts. He liked them. Yet he never succumbed to them. Mentioning one of their watering holes, the Detroit Athletic Club, he wrote that “it’s fine for reasons it does not know” (187).
Its patrons were, perhaps, finer than the politicians. Garrett recorded the fact that he tried to give advice to Alf Landon, the Republican candidate for president in 1936, but, as he said, it was “like dropping it down a dry well. There is no splash.” He told Lane that politics was “a parade of competitive masks and images. The people are not so much fooled; but they have to vote, wherefore they vote cynically, or as parasites, and the thing goes on” (177-78).
Some individuals appeared without a mask, and to them Garrett the writer gravitated, like a comet to the sun. Here is Henry Ford in 1914: “He is a wisp of withering nerves, no one of which lies amicably against another. He can not be still. He neither smokes nor drinks, nor eats very much, having found a man in a book who lived to be 104 on fourteen ounces of simple food a day. While talking he twists his watch chain, pinches his lips or his nose, and strokes his face. His hands are always moving. They reflect the mind which can hardly wait for a question to be finished. Its decisions are nervous and sudden” (35). You can look a long way in books without finding a more perfect union of summary and fact, sympathy and ironic distance (“having found a man in a book”).
Certainly Garrett knew human beings, and human life. And certainly he knew how to represent them in words that were common and colloquial, yet fully original in their use. He describes a representative specimen of American manhood as someone who is “always much tanned and about to be drunk” (43). He describes his boss, Adolph Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, as a person who opposes getting involved in World War I but doesn’t understand his own motivation: “He wants to think he is for peace with honor, because honor is a word he likes, but really (there is no doubt of this) he is for peace at any price” (55).
Around Garrett’s character sketches, as around his ruminations about historical fact, there is often a sheen of speculation. I don’t know whether he ever read Plato’s “Symposium,” in which Aristophanes speculates that love is a desire for the other half of yourself, the half that the gods have violently rent away, but his own view of love is similar. What it lacks is the optimistic turn that Plato managed to give it, in his account of love’s ascent from the partial to the final. Garrett’s soul remains riven: “A man wants only one woman. Everything he has in the world he would give to find her – that one, the other part of himself. But she either does not exist or has been so widely scattered by the life accidents of a million years that he finds her in fragments, a glimpse of her here and a thought of her there and never enough in anyone place to be satisfied with” (86).
More than Garrett’s speculations, domestic or public, Ramsey emphasizes his style, and he is right to do so. If it weren’t for that style, Garrett would not have won his place as a writer of distinction, or as a progenitor of the libertarian movement. As John Chamberlain observed, America’s early libertarians weren’t the people one would expect to found a political movement. They weren’t, for the most part, economists or businessmen. They weren’t political office holders. Mainly, they were authors and critics (Chamberlain 136). Their influence depended on their style and approach. Nock led his readers through an adventure land of wry allusion and self-obscuring irony, until they reached a clearing where plain words were suddenly applied to plain, and often shocking, facts; the effect, sometimes, was unforgettable. Mencken was the scholar and master of what he called “the American language” – brisk, colloquial, freighted with ingenious terms of abuse, but genial in its marriages of adjectives and nouns. Somewhere he mentions a friend who came East for an ecclesiastical conference – “a Methodist orgy of some sort.” Paterson joined her mastery of the colloquial language to an instinct for classical rhetoric – for exclamation and allusion, affirmation and interrogation, and all the ways of joining verbal pairs and triads until they mount to an insuperable intellectual climax.
Garrett, like Mencken, Paterson, and Nock, had a style that could not be mistaken for anyone else’s. This is an unusual literary accomplishment – when the style is good. Even a fool can write differently from other people. Dr. Johnson, speaking of James Macpherson’s absurdly popular poems, said that “a man might write such stuff for ever, if he would abandon his mind to it” (Johnson 183). A personal style is more than self-abandonment. It is not just being oneself; it is becoming oneself by. becoming one’s subject, by seeing it and communicating it so intensely that other people can also make it their own, even when it is evoked as no one but you could possibly have evoked it. The early libertarians weren’t the equivalent of today’s op-ed writers, telling readers what to think, in “styles” completely indistinguishable from one another. They were fighting for intellectual survival. They had to have a genuine style.
Garrett’s was one of the most memorable – a style abounding in inversions, truncations, biblicisms, and, as Ramsey says, “familiar words in unfamiliar senses” (249-49). Then there were images, images, images. Francis Parkman took nine volumes of rotund sentences – each of them wonderful in its way, and an enduring manifestation of Parkman’s own sense of style – to depict the audacity and fragility of the French empire in the New World. Garrett simply says, “New France was pure adventure, an explorer’s dream, a canoe empire, capsizable” (AS 7). He knew there was more to say on the subject, just as there is more to say about the “x” and the “y” in “x + y = 10.” You can go to Parkman and find all the “x’s” and “y’s.” But Garrett has already given you the capsizable canoe, and that is what you are most likely to remember.
Chamberlain was correct when he said that Garrett could “make a single image or metaphor do the work of a whole page of statistics” (38). He could also make a handful of statistics do the work of a whole page of metaphors. Garrett reports that “in the balance sheet of the Ford Motor Company there is no entry of the item, ‘Henry Ford,”’ although that “one man’s mind” was the source of the company’s 2,400% profit (42). Garrett’s attention to luminous details, including some that are almost universally forgotten by professional historians, makes his accounts of America’s entry into the Great War, of the vexed issue of the European war debts, and of Franklin Roosevelt’s dealings with financial markets irreplaceably lucid introductions to these subjects (AS 195-213, 256-64; Garrett, “Bubble”).
In its turn, “Unsanctioned Voice” provides a peculiarly lucid introduction to Garrett’s way of thinking, seeing, and imaging the world. But if a book engages your attention, as Ramsey’s does, you’ll obviously find something about it that you want to quarrel with. My most important reservation has to with “the Old Right.” Ramsey uses the phrase very lightly in his text, giving it no particular emphasis, but it’s also there in his subtitle, which says that Garrett was “of the Old Right.” The phrase is worth talking about. What was the Old Right? When was it born? Who was in it? And why does it matter?
The Old Right is, as some people think, the genus of which early American libertarians were the species. The name was popularized by economist and historian Murray Rothbard (1926-1995), an editor of this journal and an esteemed libertarian activist. (I knew Murray, and at his best, which was frequent, there was no conversationalist in the world like him, no writer of greater felicity, and no thinker of greater clarity and force.) The idea’s best exposition is an article by Sheldon Richman (Richman, “New Deal”). In clear and persuasive prose, Richman argues for the significance of a group of public figures who in the 1930s dissented from. the prevailing obeisance to state power. Richman lists about three dozen individuals: Garrett, naturally; H.L. Mencken, the culture critic; Herbert Hoover, the former president; Charles Beard, the historian; Louis Bromfield, the novelist; Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand, novelists and theorists of individualism; and several members of Congress, such as William Borah and Robert Taft. So long a list makes the Old Right seem substantial indeed. It sounds yet more substantial when Richman refers to “a group” and “a distinctly identifiable political coalition” (2).
Yet few of these people were friends or associates. Some of them weren’t even chance acquaintances. Many of them loathed most of the others, and had reason to do so. Paterson, for instance, never tired of attacking Hoover, claiming, as was true, that his administration had originated most of the key economic policies of the New Deal. She amused herself by writing vigorous political attacks in the margins of books by her former friend Louis Bromfield. She had put up with the disgust for capitalism that suffuses his novel “The Green Bay Tree” (1924; for the title’s allusion see Psalm 37:35-36), but he finally became too much for her.
To take another core sample from Richman’s list, consider Charles Beard. As Richman acknowledges (3), Beard was a social democrat, and that’s a long, long way from libertarianism. Beard’s intellectual biographer, Bernard Borning, shows that throughout his career he “fought the advocates of laissez faire.” When Hayek published “The Road to Serfdom,” Beard wasted no time in attacking it (Borning xvi, 33, 89, 99, 191-92). Writing as a sympathizer of the New Deal, he proclaimed that capitalism had been “rejected” by “history” (Beard 170). His own, very influential, contribution to history was “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution” (1913), which argues that the Constitution should be regarded largely as an attempt to safeguard the personal property of the men who wrote it and got it ratified through undemocratic means. A generation later, conscientious historians discovered that Beard’s book was incompetently researched, grossly biased, and full of “outright misrepresentation of evidence” (Brown 111). Nevertheless, it was one of those books that had, as Garrett said, “debunked” the motives of the Founding Fathers, in the minds of millions of college-educated people. It continues to exert its influence.
In what sense can Charles Beard be considered a member of an Old Right grouping, genetically related to libertarianism? Only in the sense that he, like Garrett, Paterson, Lane, and Rand, opposed America’s involvement in World War II. Indeed, the only thing that appears to unify the list of Old Rightists is their opposition to an interventionist foreign policy. This accounts for the omission, for example, of Lewis Douglas, Roosevelt’s one-time budget director, who courageously broke with him and provided one of the era’s most libertarian treatises on economics and public policy, “The Liberal Tradition” (1935). The problem with Douglas, presumably, is that he later became an architect of NATO and the Marshall Plan (Cox, “Woman” 207-9). Yet he has as much reason to be called a Rightist as most of the other people on the “Old Right” list.
The sad truth is that the Old Right was born, not in the 1930s, but in the 1980s, in the minds of libertarian intellectuals. But why does it matter? In certain ways, it doesn’t. Some libertarians will honor this affiliation with the Right, and some will resent it, but virtually no one will be either more or less attracted to ideas of liberty just because he thinks that Herbert Hoover or Senator Borah shared those ideas.
Yet in some respects the idea of the Old Right does matter. The first is that, literally, it’s not true. Literally, there was no “Old Right.” The second is that discussion of the idea can nevertheless have some good effects. By positing the existence of such a group, whose members, though diverse, had at least one connection with libertarian thought, Rothbard, Richman, and now Ramsey have drawn attention to the possibility that libertarians can make useful alliances with people either to the Right or to the Left of them, on one issue or another. This is an important thing to keep in mind. Had such alliances actually been made in the 1930s, American politics might have assumed a different shape.
Another reason why the idea of the Old Right matters has to do with libertarianism as such. When today’s libertarians feel isolated, when they feel that they are the sole living exemplars of America’s tradition of limited government, they may be cheered by the realization that other people have felt that way too – and that these people have been active and influential, even if they were many fewer than advocates of the “Old Right” account of history suggest.
Very few people were involved in the origins of the modern libertarian movement. They tended to exist in small clusters. One cluster centered on the great emigre economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Another centered on Isabel Paterson, who had as her intellectual proteges John Chamberlain and Ayn Rand, with Rose Wilder Lane as a sometime friend and distant interpreter of Paterson’s concept of creative “energy.” A third paid its devotions to Albert Jay Nock, who mixed his anarchist libertarianism with uncritical devotion to the single-tax theories of Henry George. One of Nock’s disciples was the brave journalist Frank Chodorov (one of whose own friends would turn out to be William F. Buckley, Jr., assembler of the modern conservative – not libertarian – movement [Judis 88, 118- 19, 130]). Other clusters existed: associates of the du Pont family, illustrious forever because of their contributions to the repeal of Prohibition (Wolfskill, “Revolt”); Leonard Read’s Foundation for Economic Education, with links to Paterson and most of the rest of them; R.C. Hoiles, the Orange County, California, newspaper publisher, a group in himself … But they were not many, and they knew it. None of them seems to have suspected that he or she was surrounded by an “Old Right.”
These men and women weren’t presidents or senators, or leading historians. Most of them suffered for their unpopular ideas, some of them greatly. If they lived long enough, as Hayek did, they could see a potent movement gathering around them. Most of them didn’t live that long. But they weren’t mere historical precedents or examples of intellectual trends. They were nothing so dull as that. They were individual men and women whom one can admire for their independence of thought and their ability to continue learning and teaching in a hostile intellectual environment.
How does Garrett fit into this picture? He was a friend of Herbert Hoover. He read Mises and Hayek with respect. He had a love affair with Lane. He published an article by Paterson. Otherwise, he was just Garet Garrett, thinking his own thoughts and writing what he wanted to write. Even if the Old Right had actually existed, he wouldn’t be interesting because he was a member of it. He would be interesting because he gave fascinating expression to important concepts and experiences.
I’ve dissented from Ramsey, and from prevailing libertarian opinion, about the Old Right. I want to emphasize another dissent from him: I don’t regard his book as only a “kind of a biography,” no matter what its author says. The book does what a biography should do: it tells us who its subject was, and it shows us how he was. With this book in hand, no one will be able to misunderstand Garrett, as I once misunderstood him; and no one will be able to forget him, either.
Ramsey complains that sources are missing for a full biography (ix), but I believe that “Unsanctioned Voice” will prove magnetic. It will draw new sources out. Somewhere, in libraries that don’t index all their holdings, in attics that haven’t yet been exposed to eBay, in the files of friend-descendants who haven’t yet learned to place any value on Garrett’s peculiar handwriting, important documents exist. Many of them. They will emerge. When that happens, aided no doubt by Ramsey’s own inquisitions, he will write the ultimate version of Garrett’s story, and that will be even more interesting than this, the penultimate one.