The Conscience of a Libertarian

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I met Bill Bradford when I was in the ninth grade, and he was in the eleventh. We lived in a small town (about 18,000 people), ‘Traverse City, Mich. It was 1963, and Barry Goldwater was leading a conservative movement to take control of the Republican Party. Bill and I had both read Goldwater’s “Conscience of a Conservative” and were looking for ways to support him.

Those were heady days as Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton fought Goldwater for control of the party. They were days when the entire culture believed strongly in modern liberalism, if not socialism. At least that is how Bill and I saw it.

I doubt that Bill’s political philosophy was particularly well thought out; mine certainly wasn’t. We had both read a number of widely available anti-communist books. Even then, Bill was devouring books voraciously. He was also reading William F. Buckley’s National Review.

We met at a gathering of a local conservative club. The meeting was held in the basement of one of the local businesses. Bill, my brother, and “I were the only people there who were less than 20 years old; it was natural that we struck up a conversation. Bill attended the public high school, while I was still in junior high. We discovered that we lived fairly close to one another, so we agreed to meet again to continue the discussion.

Over the coming months, I often met Bill at his home, and we discussed issues that ranged from religion to politics. These early discussions focused on anti-communism and conservatism. He had read quite a bit of Buckley, and I attempted to study Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind” (a mistake, to say the least). Bill gave me a copy of Whittaker Chambers’ book.” Witness,” which we both thought was extremely well-written. Chambers was a communist who eventually changed sides and accused Alger Hiss, a man of great influence in the government, of being a member of the Communist Party. History has vindicated Chambers (at least on that point), but at the time feelings still ran very high on the issue. It seemed to us that the world split fairly clearly between people who believed that there was an active communist conspiracy and people who did not.

Neither Bill nor I understood economics in any meaningful sense of that phrase, and our notions of liberty were just beginning to form. But soon there was a group of five or six of us that met periodically, followed the Goldwater campaign, and participated when we could. We spent one Saturday hanging leaflets on doorknobs in Alpena, another little town in Northern Michigan; spent days manning a booth at the summer fair; and continually attempted to improve our understanding of the many subjects that interested us.

I have the belief (quite possibly an illusion) that we experienced a completely different type of event from the modern political campaign. At least for us, it was a clash of ideas rather than the slugfest hosted by two C students that the U.S. electorate recently witnessed. Fifteen years later we

became friends with Karl Hess, who wrote. many of Goldwater’s speeches. W e found Karl to be a wonderful, pas- sionate advocate of freedom, and considered it significant that he also (a bit later) wrote speeches for the Black Panthers. How Karl could see a common thread between these wildly different perspectives was a topic that seemed important to us.

n was the campaign of 1963-1964 that brought us into contact with people and ideas we had not encountered before. Most factions within the Goldwater movement cen-

The assistant principal told Bill that if he didn’t believe in public education, he should not be consuming public resources at the school.


tered on anticommunism, but there were also many old-line conservatives, some classical liberals, and a very few people who might reasonably be called libertarians. Participating in this event exposed us to all kinds of ideas and books. A campaign worker from downstate Michigan (if I recall correctly, his name was Jerry Plaas) discussed numerous issues with us. He talked about Orval Watts, a free-market economist who was teaching at the Northwood Institute (a small college in Midland, Mich.). Plaas respected Watts and mentioned that his library included a number of books worth

I still remember the day the instructors required that everyone join in smashing a car with sledgehammers.

reading, including “The Constitution of Liberty,” by Friedrich Hayek, a book valued highly by Watts. That is the only book I remember being explicitly mentioned, but I would guess that he also pointed Bill to the work of Ludwig von Mises.

From that time Bill began seriously exploring classical liberalism, Austrian economics, and conservatism. Just as important, from my perspective, he discussed everything with a small group of us. This was not a formal club, but rather a group of teenagers seeking to understand. It was the midst of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis had just occurred, we were all just a few years away from being drafted, and life seemed quite serious.

I doubt that either conservatism or a desire to support the Republicans ever attracted Bill. I remember a delightful discussion in which we considered whether Goldwater might win, or whether it was even critical that he do so. Bill pointed out that Goldwater had addressed a gathering of farmers, stating that he would abolish farm subsidies, that he had told a group of old people that Social Security had to be rethought and should not be compulsory; and that he had recommended the abolition of the draft to an audience of conservatives. All these positions, Bill argued, would weaken his chances of winning; but he believed that Goldwater was right to have announced them in that way.

Goldwater did get the nomination, and in the acceptance speech he said, III would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Those were pretty powerful words, and I remember vividly the night the speech was made. I was not with Bill; I was with three successful businessmen (a Democrat, a Republican, and a Marxist), who were all equally horrified by Goldwater’s comments. Bill found the words inspiring, but I also suspect that they worried him on pragmatic grounds – he clearly saw Goldwater’s defeat coming.

After that summer, and a few months before the election, I started Traverse City High School as a sophomore, while Bill was a senior. We spent one wonderful year together before he graduated. He introduced me to liThe Exploitation Theory” by Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk, an extract from his major tome “Capital and Interest.” That was the first time economics made any sense to me. I had read “Economics in One Lesson” by Henry Hazlitt, but both Bill and I felt terribly dissatisfied with that book. Hazlitt focuses on issues relating to the unintended consequences of economic decisions. In this he follows Frederic Bastiat, who wrote entertaining essays on the topic. (Bill and I were especially delighted by his petition to the French Chamber of Deputies on behalf of candlestick makers: see petition.html.) One can use this approach to establish that something is being overlooked, but it fails to convey the principles upon which economic reasoning should be based. To understand how it should be done, I would refer you to the early chapters of Murray Rothbard’s “Man, Economy, and State.” Bill would have referred you to Mises’ “Human Action.”

Anyway, when Bill ran across B6hm-Bawerk’s attack on Marx, which allows a real glimpse at the underlying economic issues, he realized that he had found something we had to understand. We started studying the works of the Austrian free-market economists. I forget the order in which we started reading those works, but we found them intensely interesting. I was able to borrow a copy of “Man,

There grew in Bill a deep aversion to Rand’s harsh reaction to opposing views and to Rothbard’s notion of the “The Plumb Line” or absolute standard by which to judge people’s ideology.


Economy, and State” from the Knott’s Berry Farm lending library, and we both read it. While many feel that efforts like that lending library seldom have much impact (and that may be true), to two kids in Traverse City, Mich., it was a very big deal. Rothbard wrote beautifully, and reading the first volume of his great book made Mises much more accessible. This was the first major intellectual step that we took that school year, and it set the stage for the second.

Bill found Ayn Rand at some point that year and gave me “Atlas Shrugged” soon after he had read it; we were both overwhelmed. We came into the experience with a basic understanding of Austrian economics and found the portrayal of the economic issues absolutely riveting. I was religious at the time, and there were a number of issues that I considered hugely problematic, but we moved quickly through all of Rand’s novels. Her ideas rapidly became a focus of interest within our high school crowd of ten to fifteen people. To say that Bill led things would be incorrect; it was more as if he was at the center of things. Eventually, both of us were deeply influenced by Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism.

We were completely out of step with almost all the teachers in our school, although we were both studying constantly. I remember the assistant principal telling Bill that, in his opinion, if Bill didn’t believe in public education, he should not be consuming public resources at the school. Our grades were fine, but we were absorbed in studying economics and political theory, and even attempting serious philosophy. In many ways, it was what college is supposed to be like, but certainly never was for me.

Bill graduated before I did. His parents moved that summer to Grand Rapids, and he spent the summer living at their cabin in near Interlochen, northern Michigan. He went downstate a couple of months later, lived with them, and began his studies at Grand Valley State College.

This may be a good point to summarize the intellectual path that Bill was traveling. He has described it in one of his Liberty observations (February 1999: http://www.libertysoft.comliberty/features/70bradford1.html). I highly recommend this brief note, both because of its relevance to Bill and because it outlines a set of issues that troubled many libertarians of the period. I suspect that some current libertarians might not relate to it, but I find it a lovely summary of the intellectual paths we both wandered during those times.

As I see it, Bill’s intellectual development went through five main stages:

1. In his early high school years, he focused on conservatism and anticommunism. He studied a huge number of fairly obscure works to try to arrive at an understanding of the communist movement.

2. This naturally led to a desire to understand economics. His early exposure was to Austrian economics – especially the works of Ludwig von Mises. This led him to read numerous non-Austrian treatises, but Mises remained at the center of much of his worldview.

3. Then he encountered Ayn Rand. His studies covered everything from her philosophy to her positions on art and psychology. He was deeply inspired by her. He took everything she wrote very seriously. This was a period of integra-

He ran for head of the Michigan Young Republicans on an anti-draft position, and got only a few votes out of hundreds. he then held a victory celebration because “every intelligent delegate voted for me.”


tion and firming up of basic beliefs. One point was especially significant – the “non-aggression principle.” In this quotation from Bill’s words (in the article cited above), I put the nonaggression principle in bold:

Rand and Rothbard begin their political theory by arguing that people by their nature possess inalienable individual rights to life, liberty and property. From this, Rand quickly concluded that “no man has the right to initiate the use of physical force against others.” For Rothbard, the very mean- ing of a right is the obligation it imposes on others not to initiate physical force.

4. The nonaggression principle as formulated by Rand is a powerful and elegant expression of the essence of libertarian thought, as seen by her. Its implications are profound, and they led Bill toward Rothbard’s form of anarchism. As Bill put it,

Rand never realized that the non-aggression imperative led rather quickly to the rejection of government entirely. She maintained a rather primitive faith in the American political system envisioned by the framers of the Constitution, calling for the complete separation of economy and state, but reject- ing anarchism as a system incapable of functioning. Somehow she managed to claim that it was always wrong to initiate force, but tolerated tax-supported programs ranging from the maintaining of a multi-million volume library to the exploration of outer space, suggested that opponents of the Vietnam War ought to be dealt with harshly, and supported the presidency of Gerald Ford despite his broad intervention in the economy.

The modern libertarian movement emerged as Rand’s readers realized, beginning in the early 1960s, that her categorical prohibition of initiated force led to a political theory much more radical than what she envisioned. By the mid- 1960s, they were forming study groups and producing modest publications examining the implications of the non- aggression principle more closely. Many realized that the principle led ineluctably toward the very anarchism that Rand had denounced.

5. Finally, Bill began to be seriously skeptical about the non-aggression principle. Since this was the foundation of many of his beliefs, it was a major effort for him to reconstruct a coherent position. He moved to a position we often called classical liberalism. He described his shift in this way:

“By 1968, as other libertarians were becoming anarchists, I had rejected the notion of inalienable rights, replacing it with the notion that rights are valuable social constructs, but not absolute imperatives. I had embraced a libertarianism based on a rather complicated praxeological analysis of coercive action.”

This is, of course, a somewhat oversimplified and artificial structuring of his development. It leaves out, most notably, his attitudes toward war. However, I do believe that his emphasis on tolerance grew out of these shifts. He clearly understood that he had held and defended positions that he now considered wrong. There grew in him a deep aversion to Rand’s harsh reaction to opposing views and to Rothbard’s notion of the “The Plumb Line” or absolute standard by which to judge people’s ideology. I think that Bill’s attitude was simply “Look, I got it wrong for a while after huge effort. I may still have it wrong. But I’m damned sure that you guys have made some pretty major errors of your own. Let’s stop going nuclear over sincere differences of opinion and try to learn from one another.” Those are my words, but I believe they capture the attitude that would lead him to found Liberty.

We were not in much contact during the year after he moved. He wrote and distributed a newsletter that he called Eleutherian Forum. As I recall, he told me later that he had successfully gotten seven issues out before he ended it.

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