After spending many years in the libertarian movement, I’m enormously pleased to know that it has grown so large and that it continues to attract so many bright young people. It warms my heart to see so many wonderful people at libertarian gatherings all over the world. I’d like to muse a bit about what motivates us to do what we do, and about the various shapes that our action has taken over the years.
In the early 1970s, I was active in organizations and even causes that are no longer around. In late 1971 I joined the Young Americans for Freedom, read some libertarian works, and joined YAF’s remaining libertarian faction. I became a state officer. In 1974, I ran a statewide Republican youth campaign on behalf of H.L. “Bill” Richardson’s Senate candidacy, then quit the conservative movement and never looked back. Of much greater significance for my life was the fact that I managed to meet some libertarians who were more visionary than others and — this is really the key — more effective and more linear in their thinking.
One of those people was Ed Crane, whom I met at a libertarian meeting in 1973 in southern California. Ed went on to found the Cato Institute. It was at a libertarian meeting
at UCLA shortly after that, I think, that I met R.A. Childs, Jr., a truly brilliant libertarian writer, as well as the economists David Henderson and Harry Watson, and others whom I admired greatly. That year I started my studies at the University of Southern California and had the honor of learning (if only a little and inadequately) from John Hospers, the philosophy professor who had been the 1972 presidential candidate of the then-brand-new Libertarian Party. John served as campus adviser to our Campus Libertarian Society, which campaigned for tax cuts, marijuana legalization, and elimination of the draft, much to the confusion of leftists and rightists who couldn’t quite “get” us. During my time in high school and then my early entry (at 16) to USC I met and became friends with such interesting people as the late Priscilla “P.K.” Slocum, who was a pioneering libertarian bookseller and a wonderful libertarian mentor, Tibor Machan, Murray Rothbard, George H. Smith, Manuel Klausner, Wendy McElroy, and others, most of them still very much alive and still valued friends.
It was an exciting time. The world seemed ready to embrace our ideas. The state was clearly on its last legs. To characterize some enthusiastic libertarians of the day, Murray Rothbard, the economist and libertarian political theorist, deployed the term Luftmensch (“air person”), which could be translated as “someone who floats through life without connection to anything substantial.” The label was appropriate for more than a few. There were some rather colorful people around.
In any event, I pursued my passion for liberty as a youthful organizer, making trouble for “the state,” and driving all over California to visit high school and college campuses, try- ing to spread the ideas of liberty and hasten the collapse of the welfare-warfare regime. I helped set up libertarian clubs, worked for marijuana decriminalization, campaigned against the draft and militarism, organized antitax rallies, and so on. In 1975, after a stint writing copy for an advertising agency, I started working full-time as one of two employees of the Libertarian Party — Linda Webb was the other. Our base was the party’s national office at 550 Kearney Street, San Francisco. We were a convenient two blocks away from the office of Ed Crane, who was then party chairman. I had an apartment on Larkin Street for which I paid $100 a month. When I opened the bed, there was literally no place to stand.
What was the cause of my enthusiasm for the libertarian movement? Books were a major inspiration. I had read Lane and Rand and Rothbard, Bastiat and Hazlitt, and Mises and Hayek (but did not appreciate Hayek at the time as much as I did later), and I wanted to change the world, to rid it of communism, fascism, socialism, and all other forms of oppression. (I also tried to read various conservative and socialist books, but found the disconnection from basic principles of economics — indeed, of the ideas of cause and effect — too jarring.) In high school I had subscribed to The Freeman, from which I learned a great deal, and had also bought from its
Nixon brilliantly combined many things for a friend of liberty to hate: prosecution of a pointless war, wage and price controls, fiat money and inflation, illegal exercises of power.
publisher, the Foundation for Economic Education, Mises’ “Planned Chaos,” “Human Action,” and other works. I sent tons of money to Laissez Faire Books, Books for Libertarians, and Academic Associates — a book and audio recording review and sales service that Nathaniel Branden and others set up. I remember how impressed I was when I preordered George H. Smith’s book “Atheism: The Case Against God” from Academic Associates; after my check was cashed, the firm went broke, but I got what I ordered and it came out of the individuals’ own pockets. That devotion to paying their debts made an impression on me.
Loathing for Richard Nixon was another inspiration. He was the great political presence in the late 1960s and early ’70s in America, and you loved him or hated him. By 1973–74, more and more people seemed to hate him. He brilliantly combined so many things for a friend of liberty to hate: prosecution of a pointless and destructive war; wage and price controls; fiat money and inflation; illegal and arbitrary exercises of power. The collapse of the GOP seemed the perfect moment for the growth of a new party, a new political alignment, and a libertarian movement that would put an end to coercion, war, theft, censorship, and oppression. Well, we made a good start, I think. The world might be a lot worse if we hadn’t made our best effort.
Knowing the interesting people of the libertarian movement was also important. I worked with Ed Crane on a number of projects, including the presidential campaigns of Roger MacBride in 1976 and of Ed Clark in 1980. In 1982 I was statewide campaign manager of the Dan Dougherty for Governor campaign in California. In 1975 I was on the Libertarian Party’s platform committee and got to work with a lot of interesting people — including Rothbard; Walter Grinder, then teaching economics and later involved with the Institute for Humane Studies and other organizations; Williamson M. (Bill) Evers, now at the Hoover Institution; and Robert Nozick, whose 1974 book “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” would have a huge influence on academic understanding of libertarian thought — to craft what we considered a definitive statement of libertarianism. (Rothbard in his newsletter had backhandedly congratulated Bob for winning the National Book Award for his “quasi-libertarian inquiry into political philosophy, ‘Anarchy, State, and Utopia.’ ” Bob autographed his copy for me with the question whether autographing an unread copy of a book would induce the reader to read it. It did.)
I recall defeating a proposal to include a denunciation of circumcision, on the ground that outlawing religious communities didn’t sit well with libertarian thinking, regardless of what one might think of the practice. But most of the topics covered were major issues of public policy, such as nuclear weapons, foreign policy, taxes, and even environmental policy, by establishing property rights in fisheries and oyster beds, for example — leading to the quip that we were defend- ing the virtues of shellfishness.
Those attempts to formulate and, more significantly, to apply libertarian thinking to concrete issues were later much expanded and improved in the outstanding “White Papers” and position papers issued in 1980 by the Ed Clark for President campaign. The documents were edited by a team that included a number of thinkers who were later involved at Cato and other organizations, people such as Crane, Childs, David Boaz, Sheldon Richman, Tyler Cowen, Joan Kennedy Taylor, and Earl Ravenal (memory fails to provide the complete list). The documents were significant steps forward for the libertarian movement. Articulating libertarian principles is important, but not really very valuable if you can’t show how to apply them, or if you can’t produce any kind of road- map to their implementation.
I knew all the founders of Cato, which was established in 1977. Ed had gotten acquainted with some businessmen who were devoted to liberty. There was, for instance, a remarkable circle of libertarians in Wichita, including many involved with Coleman Lanterns, Love Box Company, and other firms, and they had put out some really radical antiwar libertarian publications in the 1960s. Notable among Ed’s associates from the world of business was Charles Koch. Charles had been involved in libertarian activities for years. He was, and is, a passionate defender of liberty and foe of war, violence, and coercion. After his involvement with Cato, he has continued his support for liberty through the Institute for Humane Studies, the Mercatus Center, and other groups. Ed was fond of telling him, “Charles, with your money and your brains, you and I could go far.”
Charles helped to launch Cato financially, with the idea that it would become independent of his funding. Ed realized that dream brilliantly, and created what I consider the single most important libertarian institution in the United States and quite probably the world. I was invited to work there in the summer of 1978, as one of the first three summer interns. We three, Ross Levatter, David Lips, and I, were known as the “Cato Clones.” Our supposed clonishness caused some paranoia at the first Cato University Summer Seminar on Political Economy, held that summer. I remember one participant ask- ing “Who are the Clones, and why are they here?”
I also recall sitting in the institute’s fabulous conference room in San Francisco with Rothbard and others as we came up with the reading lists for the seminar — an absurd project that generated a gigantic stack of books and photocopied readings on everything from Earl Ravenal’s writings on the contours of U.S. foreign policy, to Robert Carneiro’s sociological theory of the formation of the state in the coastal valleys of Peru, to Ludwig von Mises’ theory of the dynamics of interventionism, to a historian’s description of the usurpation of the land rights of the mestizo population of New Mexico. All had to be included. None was too minor to be left out. The movement had to be informed . . . on everything! Stacked together, they were enough to fill a gigantic box for each participant. We’ve since learned how to be a bit more selective.
I later worked in Cato’s academic affairs department, which was subsequently moved to the Institute for Humane Studies, then located in Menlo Park, California. (I ended up working at IHS in 1984, after it moved to George Mason University, and launched some adventures there.) After the MacBride for President campaign, I entered St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland for an education. After tutorials and seminars and reading groups I spent hours standing at the payphone at the end of the hall of my dormitory, calling libertarian students and professors around the country on behalf of Cato’s campus speakers bureau, study guides, and other programs. That was before Facebook. Before the internet. Before the mobile phone. Before the personal computer. Before the fax. Before the era when students could have phones in their rooms. Put like that, it seems like a long time ago, but it really wasn’t. It was just a few years ago — but technology has changed the world so much, and with it, both the means the state uses to coerce us and the means we use to fight against it.
Just to give you an idea of how primitive the world was then, let me tell you a little more about how we communicated. When I worked for the Clark campaign in 1979 and 1980 as assistant director for communications, we had a “Mailgram machine.” It was huge. In those days, to send out a press release or to reach people quickly, you sent them letters. You typed a letter directly onto a piece of paper, folded it, put it in an envelope, added a stamp, then gave it to a uniformed agent of the U.S. government. Eventually, it might arrive at the right address. With this machine, however, you could actually send a letter over the phone lines to a Western Union office in or near the city of the intended recipient, and Western Union would print it out, fold it, put it in an envelope, add a stamp, and give it to a uniformed agent of the U.S. government. That cut delivery time down, so it was worth the effort.
The Mailgram machine had a big black-and-white screen with a blinking white cursor, and you would type on it — very laboriously — every name and address of every recipient, along with the letter you wanted to send. The machine
Our attempts to apply libertarian thinking to concrete issues were later expanded and improved in the “White Papers” issued in 1980 by the Ed Clark for President campaign.
had no memory — at all. So if you bumped it or jiggled the power cord, it would “lose” all the information you had so painstakingly entered. Hours and hours of work. Gone. Never to be retrieved. If anyone went near the power cord, he was in mortal peril.
Here’s another anecdote to tell you how far libertarian message work has come. Back in San Francisco, Cato had a really advanced IT department, as I suppose it would have been called, if the phrase had existed then. It had machines that allowed you to print out personalized letters, using either long paper tapes that had the letter content encoded in little holes punched in the paper that you would feed as a belt into a machine to control the sequence of keys striking the ribbon on the electric typewriter, or information that was encoded on magnetic cassette tapes of the kind used in Sony Walkman machines, which did the same thing. The manager worked two full-time jobs, of which this was one (he slept two or three hours a day).
One day when I was showing visitors around I introduced them and he told them, “Oh, it’s a delight to work with Tom. He’s one of our best content originators.” This led me to consider the division of labor, and the role of pride in one’s work, a bit more closely. He took pride in his work, without which mine would have been without effect, and he was generous to mine. Each colleague in the libertarian movement contributes to our common goals, whether as a writer, or building manager, or speaker, or data entry specialist, or accountant, or analyst, or editor, or receptionist, or petitioner, or conference organizer. And each should take pride in that contribution to our common goals.
Cato’s San Francisco offices were cool and in one of the coolest cities in the world. I used to take the cable car to work, before they made it illegal to dangle by one hand on the post and swing-out as the car quickly turned a corner. Working at Cato during the summer of 1978, I loved hanging out at the City Lights bookstore at night, reading anarchist beatnik poetry and having coffee at the Italian cafes in North Beach. Ed
didn’t hang out at City Lights, but he also loved San Francisco and, after moving Cato to D.C. in 1981, he remarked that satellite photos of the U.S. landmass clearly showed his fingernail marks as he was dragged eastward. The national media,
After Ed Crane moved Cato from San Francisco to D.C., he remarked that satellite photos of the United States clearly showed his fingernail marks as he was dragged eastward.
the Congress, the administration, and the Supreme Court are based in Washington, and if you want to influence public discussion and opinion, to put libertarian reforms on the national policy agenda, and to influence the courts, it certainly helps to be where the media are and the three branches of government deliberate.
After that cool summer, I did a lot of other things in the movement; but all that time, wherever I was, I kept in touch with Cato. I wrote lots of book reviews and studies on many topics: public goods, infrastructure and private roads, public choice analysis and regulatory policy, U.S. foreign policy in El Salvador and Chad, and so on and so forth. I edited a few publications (Dollars & Sense, the monthly paper of the National Taxpayers Union, Update, a political newspaper on the libertarian movement, and some others) and wrote articles for various libertarian mags, as well as the Washington Star, the Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. I had some fun focusing attention on “industrial policy,” indicative planning, and national foresight capability.
You see, Rep. Newt Gingrich had proposed creating a special government office tasked with predicting future technologies — a job that, I pointed out in a Wall Street Journal article, was absurd, since if you know what knowledge you will have in the future, you already have it now. Warren Buffett wrote to the Journal to denounce me. I also caused a stir, and made a tiny footnote in the history of public choice, when I toted up for a piece I published in the Journal the number of full- time professional public relations specialists employed by the federal government to lobby the public for more money for their agencies; I think I got to over 1,000, almost all of them disguised under other job titles. I explained in an essay in The New York Times that taxation is legalized theft and that the IRS’s claim of “voluntary compliance” is an absurdity.
I worked as a reporter, a lobbyist, an editor of newsletters on politics, government, tax policies, and the libertarian movement, a troublemaker, a political researcher and organizer, an academic organizer for the Institute for Humane Studies, a smuggler of books, fax machines, and photocopiers into communist states, and a few other jobs I’ve forgotten. I started working with European libertarians in the early 1980s and traveled to Austria a few times to collaborate with libertarians there, after which I moved to Vienna to work with the now defunct Carl Menger Institut to find and help libertarians in communist states hasten the demise of those states and — very importantly — to promote institutions and attitudes
conducive to the realization of freedom. IHS supported my initiative to move to Austria and start the “Eastern European Outreach Program,” in conjunction with many other groups. When I worked in Austria I helped Cato set up its first conference in the USSR, held in Moscow in 1990.
I helped to fund the translation into Russian of Mises’ “Socialism,” Hayek’s “The Fatal Conceit,” and many other books and essays by buying rubles from people leaving the USSR and giving them cash in the West. Instead of going by the absurd official rate (which was dangerous, in any case, as you had to show receipts for what you had spent your rubles on), I figured a better way. People leaving the USSR were allowed to take only a suitcase and 100 rubles with them, enough to buy a sandwich and a drink in Vienna. Some flights on Aeroflot from Moscow to Vienna would contain me and a lot of departing Jews. I remembered how Jews got their money out of the Third Reich — having foreign businessmen give them cash in the United States, or France, or England, and then having their relatives in Germany give them their Reichsmarks. So I made arrangements with a family of engineers (we had elaborate flow charts to show what money would go where) to deliver dollars to relatives in the United States, and their cousins would deliver their life savings of 30,000 rubles to me in Moscow. It worked.
I was in Prague during the collapse of the state and gave lectures at the universities when the students had expelled all of the professors. I assisted in the establishment of the still-functioning Liberalni Institute in Prague. I had smuggled out a single typed copy (on carbon paper) of a Czech translation of Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” and made 100 stapled copies in Vienna, which I then smuggled back in, along with a photocopier and 5,000 sheets of paper. It was a bit unnerving, as I was detained by the Czech police and arrested at the border train crossing. I flourished my official invitation (with a red stamp) from the Academy of Sciences of the Czech and Slovak Federal Socialist Republic and insisted on talking to the chief. He listened, realized he didn’t want problems in case Comrade Bruzek was disappointed to discover that his invited guest speaker was detained, and told the soldiers to load my luggage on the train, all carefully camouflaged with layers of gifts for Czech friends, mainly toys and ladies’ cosmetics, which were scarce in communist countries.
As they oofed and grunted, lifting the heavy suitcases, I was pretty sure they were asking in Czech, “What the hell is in this?” Luckily, they didn’t find out. I learned the same lesson when taking photocopy machines into the USSR: never admit anything; produce official documents — even if outdated — that have red stamps on them; and talk the officials to death. They will finally realize that this guy might have friends, and they don’t want to end up reassigned to the Tajik-Afghan border. When asked why I had two photocopy machines, I said that I always traveled with two, as I had to make lecture notes for the students, since I had an official invitation from the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and would give lectures at Moscow State University.
I was in Bucharest right after the Ceaucescus were executed, and helped Maria Valeanu organize the first libertarian seminars in Bucharest and in Transylvania. I was on one of the first flights to Tirana from Budapest when the Albanian regime collapsed and became deathly ill from the decaying,
slippery food that Albanians had to eat at that time. On that flight, I was befriended by the first Russian protocol officer to be sent to Tirana since the split between the USSR and Albania. He was very kind, gave me his card, and encouraged me to eat only in the Hotel Dajti, the “hard currency” hotel for foreigners. I asked why, and he said, “Well, I cannot really recommend the cuisine very highly, but under normal circumstances you can usually keep it down.” I could not take his advice, but wished on a number of occasions that I had.
Speaking of dinners, after some lectures and seminars in Lublin, Poland, I invited the attendees to a dinner; we went to the poshest restaurant in town, at the Hotel Urania, which seemed primarily a state-run brothel for Arab clients to meet Polish women. I paid $5 to the cacophonous rock band to stop playing and go home, after which the various guests stood and introduced themselves. I recall a line of bearded professors who were identified by the dignified chair lady of the philosophy department in ways like this: “Professor X was in labor camp under the Nazis, then was free for a short time, and then was sent to labor camp under the communists, then was free, and was jailed again and was recently released, so we’re pleased to have him with us this evening.”
I spent a lot of time driving about Bulgaria in a tiny East German Trabi, with my knees under my chin. It ran out of gas on the way to the airport (there was a serious nationwide gas shortage), so I had to walk the rest of the way with my luggage. I had to be driven to the Tirana airport by the Minister of Light Industry, who later left the country, as there was no private transportation in the country and the public transportation had all broken down. I flew from Tirana to Bucharest on a little plane that had only a few big swivel seats; a chain-smoking Transylvania German lady from Hermannstadt (Sibiu in Romanian) was the only other passenger. We had two flight attendants with little 1960s flight attendant hats; instead of just talking to us about the flight, as they were only a few feet away, the attendant spoke into a microphone that issued in a malfunctioning little speaker that was dangling by wires from the ceiling. When we flew over Bucharest and I saw that it had electricity, which Tirana did not, it was like landing in Paris. That’s how it was in those days.
One of my proudest accomplishments was arranging the publication of what was often the first non-Marxist economics textbook that some countries had seen since the communist takeovers, Paul Heyne’s outstanding “The Economic Way of Thinking,” which I arranged to have translated and published in Czech, Russian, Hungarian, Romanian, and Albanian. I also arranged publication of books by Hayek, Mises, and Friedman into Russian, Estonian, Czech, Hungarian, and several other languages. (Arranging translation and publication of such works remains a project of mine; lately, I’ve focused on getting the works of Frédéric Bastiat into publication in numerous languages, including Swahili, Hindi, Bahasa, Arabic, Kurdish, Persian, Russian, Japanese, Nepali, Azerbaijani, and Vietnamese.)
Upon returning in 1995 to the United States from England, where I was working on my doctorate in politics at Oxford, I was offered a very cool job: coming to work full-time at the Cato Institute as Director of Special Projects. I could tell you all the projects I worked, on, but, of course, I’d have to kill you later. One project that it’s permissible to reveal was the internship program, with which I have been very proudly involved ever since. The other was Cato University, which I also still direct. I got to work on expanding Cato’s influence worldwide, in Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Persian, and other languages. After we libertarians failed to stop the juggernaut to war, and the United States invaded Iraq, I decided to see what could be done to promote liberty there and gave lectures and held seminars and meetings in Iraq a number of times, as well as in other countries in the region. I made friends with some remarkable people. At the beginning of last year we moved those programs to the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, where they are flourishing. I’m Vice President for International Programs at Atlas and a Senior Fellow at Cato, and our programs at Atlas still work closely in partnership with Cato, but we’ve been able to expand them significantly at Atlas and to integrate them with the international network of classical liberal thinktanks and related organizations. It’s very rewarding work.
I’m still on the road a lot. I just got back from Kabul, Mazar- e-Sharif, and Dushanbe, where I helped to launch two new libertarian thinktanks, Cato’s granddaughters, in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. I met people in government, the media, and academia, and I gave lectures on individualism, civil society and pluralism, toleration, the political theories of limited government, property rights, externalities, economic development, the successes of the economic reforms in the Republic of Georgia, and how the Georgian libertarians helped to transform a nation from a disastrous failed state to a growing liberal democracy.
But I know that you do work like this, too. You make the case for liberty regularly with friends and family and co-workers. You know why you want to be free, and you know how to explain the benefits of liberty.
What is harder to explain is why we promote liberty for others, often at great cost to ourselves. We donate to causes and organizations. We work long hours. We rock boats. We’re
I learned the same lesson when traveling in the USSR: never admit anything, produce official documents, and talk the officials to death.
promoting a classic public good — even the paradigm case of a public good. Liberty is nonrivalrous in consumption: when you have more liberty, it doesn’t mean that I have any less. And it’s costly to exclude people from enjoying liberty: indeed, taking actions to exclude others is precisely the opposite of what a libertarian would do. But standard economic analysis tells us that public goods are underproduced, that no one has any incentive to produce them if everyone can free- ride on the efforts of others. So why do we do it?
It’s a harder question than it might appear. But here’s a stab at answering it.
We value our identity. Each of us wants to become and to be a certain kind of person. We establish our identity through our acts and our affiliations. Cato and Atlas sponsors whom I’ve met around the United States and the world typically identify themselves in this way: “I’m a member of the Cato Institute” or “I’m a member of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.” To speak precisely, those groups don’t have dues-paying “memberships,” but that’s one of the ways in which people have constituted their identities. They’re the kind of people who stand up for freedom, who stand up for peace, who stand up for the persecuted, who not only live and let live but also want to persuade other people to do so. It’s not only good; it’s right. And that act of standing up for liberty as right is a part of their identity. It’s who they are.
Liberty is our cause. It is our passion. We will live free. And we will die free. Our cause is the cause of justice. Of truth. Of peace. Of life itself.
I was introduced to the ideas of the Brazilian liberal abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco by former Cato intern and now Atlas colleague Diogo Costa. Nabuco dedicated his life to eradicating the evil of slavery from his country. Here is how he put the matter:
Educate yourself, educate your children in love for the freedom of others, for only in this way will your own freedom not be a gratuitous gift from fate. You will be aware of its worth and have the courage to defend it.