Sy Leon, R.I.P.

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The late 1950s and early 1960s were the formative years for what has since become known as u201Clibertarian thinking.u201D Those of us who rejected the state, and collectivism in general, were as rare throughout America then as they are today in the District of Columbia. Murray Rothbard was fond of saying that, in those early days, all libertarians would fit inside his New York City apartment. There was more realism than humor in his remark. It was not uncommon for someone to say to another something like: u201CI’m going on a business trip to Cincinnati,u201D and to have the other person respond with: u201Cbe sure to look up Wally Ballew: he’s a libertarian.u201D u201CWe have a libertarian in Cincinnati? That’s great!u201D It was a time when most libertarians knew one another either personally or by reputation.

These were the days when many were engaged in serious introspection and self-questioning. Atlas Shrugged was a beginning point for a lot of us. As the title of Jerome Tuccille’s classic work accurately observed, the process u201Cusually starts with Ayn Rand.u201D For those seeking a deeper understanding of liberty — instead of just a new religion — the quest took numerous paths. For some, there was a focus on u201Cwhat shall we call ourselves?,u201D as though a label conferred genuine insight. u201CIndividualists,u201D u201Canarchists,u201D u201Cautarchists,u201D u201Claissez-faire capitalists,u201D u201CObjectivists,u201D u201Clibertarians,u201D and, later, u201Canarcho-capitalists,u201D were some of the more common labels thrown out for consideration. My late friend, Jim Martin, even suggested u201Cme-istu201D for consideration.

It was during these intellectually and politically turbulent years that I met Sy Leon. He and I were teaching at Robert LeFevre’s Rampart College in Colorado, one of a number of organizations devoted to broadening an understanding of individual liberty. LeFevre had been successful in getting men and women in all age groups to pay to spend one to two weeks in Colorado studying the philosophy of freedom. Such an effort took a great commitment of both time and energy from our students, an effort one finds, today, at Mises University in Auburn, Alabama.

Sy and I, along with his wife Riqui and my wife Jane, thus found ourselves at one of the centers where libertarian thinking was being explored. Others who taught at Rampart at the time included the economist Bill Hutt, historian Jim Martin, and a gangly teenager by the name of Roy Childs. Others who came there to share their ideas included Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Harper, Frank Chodorov, Rose Wilder Lane, Bruno Leoni, Leonard Read, Gordon Tullock, and Milton Friedman. It was a vibrant place within which to develop one’s thinking.

Sy’s sense of humor made him an effective teacher. So had his World War II experiences as a B-17 bombardier. Unlike far too many veterans of war, Sy saw the immorality and fundamental indecency of warfare and refused to gratify his ego with lies about its noble character. A talk he gave at Rampart College was one of the most moving condemnations of war and the state that I have ever heard.

He was also adept at promoting the cause of liberty to wider audiences. He formed an organization, u201CThe League of Non-Voters,u201D to critique the voting process as an illusion by which we are led to believe that we are controlling the political system. His ideas resulted in a book that received a good deal of attention: None of the Above. Through the League, he actively promoted the inclusion of u201Cnone of the aboveu201D as an alternative to listed candidates for every office. While his ideas have led a few states to include such an option as a non-binding statement — particularly in primary elections — Sy had a far more powerful thought in mind. If u201Cnone of the aboveu201D received the majority of votes for any office, that position would remain unfilled until a candidate more suitable to the electorate could be found.

Sy ran Rampart College after it moved to southern California; organized speaking tours for Harry Browne thus helping to stimulate Harry’s marketplace popularity; organized a number of libertarian programs; and was a frequent interviewee in the media. A few years before we met Sy, Jane and I traveled to Chicago to hear a talk given by Ayn Rand, a program we later found Sy had organized. He was a promoter in the healthy sense of the word; someone who worked effectively to accomplish worthwhile projects.

No matter how many friends you have, there is that small handful of very special people with whom you share an unmatched closeness. For Jane and me, Sy and Riqui were among such people. The four of us shared a common passion for Dixieland jazz, and often found ourselves driving from Rampart College to Denver on weekends to hear the Queen City Jazz Band. The Leons were also the ones who, a few years later, introduced us to the work of J. Krishnamurti, a philosopher who had the most significant influence on my thinking in the latter half of my life, and whose talks we listened to in Ojai, California, when he spoke there each spring. Krishnamurti reminded us that it is u201Cthe movement of thoughtu201D that underlies all of the conflict we have within our own lives and with others. It is introspection — the same process of self-examination that brought us to libertarian thinking in those early days — which, alone, can extricate us from the structured insanities that our minds have created.

Riqui died a few years ago. Shortly thereafter, Jane and I lost contact with Sy. Efforts to locate him proved futile. A few weeks ago, I learned that he had fallen ill, and didn’t want others to know of his condition. He died this past spring.

It is fitting that our acquaintance with Sy should end in the same state of mind in which it had begun: through an exploration of our own minds and behavior to discover why we persist in following our self-destructive conditioning. There was a sign that overhung a road at Rampart College, with a message penned by the late F.A. Harper: u201Cthe man who knows what freedom means, will find a way to be free.u201D I know that such words were of great significance to Sy.

The libertarian philosophy has developed through the introspective efforts of a great number of people, including Sy Leon. The next time you hear someone extol the idea of having u201Cnone of the aboveu201D on ballots, think a kind thought of Sy, who did so much to popularize this alternative to modern politics.

As for myself, and remembering Sy’s wonderful sense of humor, I will choose to remember him in words that I know he would have appreciated. They are those that H.L. Mencken selected for his own epitaph: u201CIf, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner, and wink your eye at some homely girl.u201D

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.

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