On Autobiography

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One of the (very few, perhaps the only) problems I have with the publication output of Murray N. Rothbard is that he never wrote his autobiography. Don’t ask me which of his articles or books I would wish not to have been written, so as to leave room for this non existent autobiography. Given that there are alternative costs of time in the very nature of things, such a work could only have been written at the expense of one or more of his actual publications, on the assumption that the part of his life he devoted to writing is otherwise fixed. I regard this as an impertinent question, and refuse to answer it.

Although denigrated by some, autobiography is an important part of literature. Often, it can even help to make substantive ideas of an author such as Murray "come alive." For many people, knowing about the life of a scholar — whether a Mises or a Keynes — can focus attention on his substantive contribution. But autobiography is not merely an aid in promoting understanding of and interest in scholarly output. It is also of intrinsic value besides, also inspiring the next generation to greater efforts.

These remarks, unfortunately, cannot rectify matters regarding Murray. He lives, now, only in his own writings, and in the minds, hearts and thoughts of all those whose lives he impacted. (Hint, hint: while no autobiography of him can now be forthcoming, matters are far different with regard to biography. The more of these the better, as far as I am concerned.)

There are numerous auto and biographies, seemingly, written by and about every Marxist, interventionist, feminist, politician, gay activist, etc., known to man, and some not, in this category. One of the problems with libertarians and Austrians, in my opinion, is that we have under-allocated intellectual resources to this end. In order to remedy this lacunae, I should like to make a "modest proposal" to the members of this list: that a bunch of us, followers and students of Murray, resolve to let the world become acquainted, not with the intellectual stories of our entire lives, merely with the beginnings of them. Specifically, I invite all those who have been heavily influenced by Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard, either personally or through their writings, to write up a bit of their autobiography, focusing on how they first were introduced to this philosophy. If we can no longer have this autobiographical information from Murray, perhaps we can from the rest of us, and this can in some small way make up for that lack.

In order to prime the pump on this matter, I shall offer my own story in this regard. If enough people also write up their stories and send them to me, also to be published on LewRockwell.com, the following two things will occur: One, Lew will publish an ebook of these histories, under my editorship (see other LRC ebooks); and two, I will seek an outside publisher for the hard copy or book-book version of this compilation. Here, then, is my own recollection on this matter.

Born in 1941 in Brooklyn, I was brought up amongst Jewish liberals (almost a redundancy) and naturally fell into this mode of thinking. Everyone around me could hardly be wrong, especially to a teenager who had never read, nor even heard about, any alternative philosophy. I went to grade school, high school and then college, always pretty secure in these beliefs. In 1963, when I was a senior at Brooklyn College, Ayn Rand came there to give a lecture. I attended, along with about 3,000 of my fellow mainly leftish students, in order to boo and hiss her, since she was evil incarnate. Afterward, the president of the group that had invited her to campus announced there was to be a luncheon in her honor, and anyone was welcome to take part, whether or not they agreed with her ideas. Not having had enough booing and hissing at Ayn in her formal lecture, I decided to avail myself of this opportunity to further express my displeasure with her and her views.

When I arrived at the luncheon, I found that the group was sitting in "pecking order": Ayn Rand at the head of the table, Nathaniel Branden and Leonard Peikoff, first along the two sides of the table, and the lesser lights ranged alongside. I was of course relegated to the foot of this august assembly, whereupon I turned to my neighbor, a neophyte as it turned out, and tried to argue the socialist side of a debate against capitalism. He replied that he really wasn’t very knowledgeable about this issue, but that the people located at the other end of the table certainly were. At this point I betook myself there, stuck my head between Ayn’s and Nathan’s, and announced that there was a socialist here who wanted to debate someone on economic issues pertaining to capitalism. (I was a bit of a chutzpanick in those days). They politely asked, Who was this socialist, and I replied that it was me.

Nathan very graciously offered to come to the other end of the table with me for this purpose, but he imposed two preconditions: first, I would be honor bound not to allow this conversation to lapse with this one meeting, but would continue with it until we had achieved a resolution: either he would convince me of the error of my ways, or I would convince him of his. Second, I would read two books he would later recommend to me (Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt). I agreed, and we spoke for an hour or so upon that occasion, followed up four or five times more for a similar duration at his apartment, where some of the other Randians took part, including Ayn, Leonard Piekoff, Barbara Branden and Alan Greenspan.

At the end of this process I was converted to libertarianism. I devoured both books and became a strong adherent of what I now know as the limited government libertarian position or minarchism. I began attending Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI) courses first at various hotels, and then in the basement of the Empire State Building.

I was a philosophy major, but when I graduated, I couldn’t decide whether a master’s degree in economics or philosophy would better enable me to learn more about, and eventually be able to professionally contribute to, my new love and passion. Not knowing which was better, I pursued both: a masters degree in philosophy at Brooklyn College, and a masters in economics at City College of New York. I would take 5 courses each semester, sometimes 3/2 favoring the one, sometimes the other. Finally, just when I was on the verge of almost completing both courses of study, I decided upon economics, and applied to and was accepted by the PhD program at Columbia University. (As a philosophy major undergraduate, I had had only two economics courses; my part time graduate study in economics, I think, was the equivalent of an undergraduate major in the dismal science).

During this time I continued to attend NBI courses, but was quickly becoming disaffected. The economics and political philosophy (laissez faire capitalism) was good, but there was all too much insisting upon the fact that "A was A" and that Brahms was better than Mozart. I wasn’t much interested in objectivist metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics or culture. Then, too, I had noticed a certain robotic adherence to the hierarchy. Hardly anyone would vouchsafe an opinion in an uncharted area without first checking up the line in the pecking order. The term "randroid" became a reality for me. I continued to attend NBI, since they were still the only people in town known to me to favor free enterprise, but less frequently and with less enthusiasm.

My first year as a graduate student at Columbia University was a disaster. They kept us so busy with work that it wasn’t until late in the spring that I realized that I hated economics and was bored by it. What was taught there under that rubric had very little connection to the content of Economics in One Lesson. Most of it consisted of statistics, mathematical economics, econometrics and matrix algebra. I stuck it out since I had a student deferment from the Vietnam war, and neoclassical economics, as boring and stultifying as it was, seemed far better than that alternative. One bright spot in my first year was Professor Gary Becker. His insistence on applying economics to all sorts of weird things it had not been applied to before (family, marriage, crime, discrimination, etc.) seemed like a breath of fresh air. However, while he had a reputation as a free enterpriser, I was disappointed at the level of his moderation. I remember once arguing with him that the minimum wage should be abolished. His view, in contrast, was that it should be frozen in place, and then inflation would dissipate the real value of it. When I replied that inflation, too, was immoral, and that as long as the minimum wage in real terms was greater than zero it would create forced unemployment for all those with marginal revenue product below that level, and that was illicit, he looked at me, appalled, at the extremist I was already becoming.

In my second year of graduate school Larry Moss entered Columbia University as a first year graduate student. He immediately saw an affinity between what he and I were saying in class. He offered to introduce me to one Murray Rothbard, but I declined. For one thing, I was far too busy. They were still piling work on us to an incredible degree. For another, Larry made Murray sound like some sort of weirdo, at least to my ears as they were then. Imagine: government not needed at all! Why … that would be anarchy. Preposterous.

One highlight of my third year at Columbia was the Industrial Organization course that Larry and I took along with several Randians. The professor, Donald Dewey, started off the semester by stating that there were three respectable views on anti-trust, and called for a show of hands of those who supported each. First were those who advocated much more stringent anti-monopoly laws and penalties. No takers. Second, there were those who opted for the status quo. Again, no agreement. Third, and finally, there were some, derisively dismissed by Dewey as free market extremists, who wanted to actually reduce the coverage and severity of these laws. Much to his consternation, again there was no support. Not a single solitary hand was raised in behalf of this option. Flustered, Dewey finally came up with a fourth alternative, which he said no rational person would defend: complete abolition. At this, the entire class raised their hands, with a grin. Great moment.

The second highlight of this academic year for me was an event that changed my life forever: I finally met Murray. Larry, and his then roommate Jerry Woloz, ganged up on me. Using on the government the same Hazlittian arguments about profit and loss, the weeding out process of inefficient entrepreneurs, that had convinced me of the merits of private vis–vis public provision of all other goods and services, they shook me up on this anarchism business. (I had previously thought, only, that it wouldn’t work, that it couldn’t work, not that it was morally wrong.) After I met Murray, it took him probably all of 15 minutes to convert me to the same anarcho-capitalist position I have held ever since.

Austrianism was entirely another matter. In retrospect, before I had met Murray, I was nine tenths of the way toward embracing laissez faire capitalist anarchism; all I needed was a little push in the same direction I had already been going for some time. But with regard to praxeology, this was not at all the case. For one thing, my philosophical training, such as it was, was centered on logical positivism. The idea that truth could be attained in the absence of empirical evidence, seemingly in the face of empirical evidence, was anathema to me. For another, I had had an intellectual investment of several years duration, now, in mainstream economics; I was now writing my dissertation and was well on the way toward attaining the Ph.D. degree. To embrace Austrianism would be to reject all that I had learned in the past half-decade and more. Further, there were praxeologists who were not anarcho-capitalists. When I criticized Murray for having a picture of one such on his wall, Mises by name, as it happened, he only smiled.

Murray was always exceedingly kind to me, tolerant of my foibles, endlessly patient. By now I was reading Man, Economy and State. I had this weird reaction to the experience of reading the book by day, and seeing the author, regularly, at night. On the one hand, MES was wonderfully written, excruciatingly brilliant. To me, the economics of it was as beautiful as Bach, Mozart and Handel, my three favorite composers, all rolled into one (and this is before I became an Austrian). To compare this to neoclassical economics was to contrast a plough horse with a thoroughbred. On the other hand, this guy, the author of this book, was actually friendly to me, a punk kid who had done nothing to be worthy of it. (He kept telling me to call him "Murray," not "Prof. Rothbard," something that was very difficult for me). How could I ever deserve such treatment? The only thing I could think of was to attack him. If I could successfully criticize him even on one small point, then, perhaps, his treatment of me could be justified; I could then become worthy of at least being in the same room with him.

Fortunately, there were others there, too, to take some of the pressure off, that I had placed on Murray with this sort of behavior. Even saints have their limits, and I’m nothing if not a world class nudge. Who were the other people I met through Murray, who became my guides, friends, who counseled me through the thickets of laissez faire capitalism, revisionist history, Austrian economics, anarchism, etc? They were, in addition to Larry Moss and Jerry Woloz, Leonard Liggio, Joe Peden, Ralph Raico, Ron Hamowy, Walter Grinder, Fr. James Sadowsky, Art Carol, Bob Smith. Later on, some younger people joined us, including Jerry O’Driscoll, Mario Rizzo, Frank Richter, Larry White, Roy Childs, John Hagel, John Sotirakis, Murray Sabrin, Bob McGee, Dale Grinder, Chuck Hamilton, Joe Salerno, Wilson Clark, Jerry Tuccille, Don Lavoie, Richard Ebeling, Richard Fink, Jack High. Out-of-town honorary members of this group included Roger Garrison, Bill Evers and much later, for a time, Karl Hess. Walter Grinder, in particular, became my mentor in all these things, particularly in Austrian economics. Also important in my Austrian education was a Human Action seminar, where we read and discussed this book chapter by chapter, the most regular attendees of which were Richard Ebeling, Don Lavoie and myself.

It took me a matter of hours to be converted to libertarian minarchism. It took a matter of minutes, I was so ready for it, I had invested so much into the preliminaries of it, to see the light on anarcho-capitalism. Austrianism took months, maybe years; in a sense, many years later, now, I am still working on it. Such is the story of my beginnings in the movement.

Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans.

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