story is part of Walter
Block's Autobiography Archive.
Meeting Murray Rothbard On the Road to Libertarianism
took my first steps down the road to libertarianism during my junior
year in high school (19621963), when, within about one month’s
time, I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas
Shrugged and subscribed to The Freeman – the latter
in hopes of reading more by and about the 19th Century
French journalist Frederic Bastiat, whose writings I had discovered,
to my delight, in the packages of information and intellectual ammunition
provided to high school debaters by the Foundation for Economic
Education. A few months later, the first issue of my Freeman
subscription arrived, and in it I found a definition (offered by
a writer named Leonard Read, of whom I had never heard) of a word
that was also new to me: the word libertarian. With something
of a start, I realized that this word described me. I was
a "libertarian" – and not, as I had thought, a conservative.
this realization was to have profound implications for my thinking.
At the time, though, it did nothing to dampen my burgeoning enthusiasm
for William F. Buckley, Jr.’s 1963 collection Rumbles Left &
Right: A Book About Troublesome People & Ideas and U.S.
Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1960 polemic The Conscience of a Conservative.
Nor did it prevent me from signing up (albeit rather briefly) with
the local branch of Teenage Republicans for Goldwater during my
senior year, early in 1964.
was during this period also that I read my first issues of The
Objectivist Newsletter, edited by Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden
(whose book Who
Is Ayn Rand? I read during the summer between my junior
and senior years), and attended my first Nathaniel Branden Institute
lecture at the Rice Hotel in downtown Houston. At the University
of Houston, where I spent the later part of the 1960s, I became
involved in a campus Ayn Rand club and there met people who introduced
me to other writers and other works – Max Stirner’s The
Ego and His Own, Robert Le Fevre’s This Bread is Mine,
Murray Rothbard’s Man,
Economy, & State. The seeds planted in my mind by these
authors and their books would bear fruit a few years later. But
for now, my chief intellectual influence was Ayn Rand.
Society of New Intellectuals (SNI), as our campus group was rather
pretentiously known, published a tabloid newspaper, The SNI Alternative,
which was distributed free at the U of H and at one small, off-campus
bookstore whose proprietor was a conservative teetering on the edge
of libertarianism. I served as editor and principal writer, analyzing
current issues from an Objectivist perspective. I had planned to
go on to graduate school after finishing up at the U of H, but when
the time came I decided I simply couldn’t tolerate any more schooling.
For most of a decade, all of the books and ideas I had found most
exciting and compelling were ones I had encountered outside of school.
And when I attempted to talk about Objectivism or libertarianism
with my professors, I ran into a stone wall of ignorance and hostility.
I decided I’d had enough formal education. I decided to forget about
becoming a professor; I’d pursue a career in journalism instead.
I had worked my way through college as an evening newsman at a local
radio station, KNUZ. I began looking for better jobs in more interesting
1972 I had moved to Los Angeles to take my first job at an all-news
radio station – KFWB. On the side, I continued my education in libertarianism,
scouring the local used bookstores (so much bigger and more numerous
than the ones in Houston!) for copies of libertarian works I had
heard of but had had trouble finding. I was particularly successful
with regard to the works of Robert LeFevre. I found The
Nature of Man and His Government, The Philosophy of Ownership,
and perhaps most important of all, several back issues of the
Rampart Journal, the quarterly LeFevre had edited in the mid-1960s
when he was running Rampart College in Colorado. In one of these
I found an amazing essay called "The Anatomy of the State"
by a writer I had known up to then only as an economist, Murray
N. Rothbard. Here, Rothbard was writing not about economics but
about history and political philosophy, and what he told me shook
me to my foundations.
still thought of myself at this time as a Student of Objectivism
and as an advocate of Ayn Rand’s version of limited government.
Reading Bob LeFevre and attending his lectures (he too now lived
in Southern California) had piqued my interest in individualist
anarchism and left me struggling for arguments against his position,
but they had not converted me to that position. When I read "The
Anatomy of the State," however, I felt the first pangs of conversion.
I followed up the leads in Rothbard’s essay. I read Albert Jay Nock’s
Enemy, the State. I read LeFevre’s Pine Tree Press edition
of Lysander Spooner’s No Treason VI. Then, in search of more
information on Spooner, I read James J. Martin’s Men
Against the State. Within months, I was an anarchist.
1972, the year I arrived in L.A., I had been writing for Objectivist
and libertarian publications that had a little further reach than
the confines of the University of Houston campus. My byline was
appearing in Academic Associates’ Book News (an Objectivist
monthly edited by Barbara Branden), Roy Childs’s Books for Libertarians
(soon to evolve into The Libertarian Review), and Reason
(then in Santa Barbara, where its editors – Bob Poole, Lynn Kinsky,
Tibor Machan, and Manny Klausner – had only a short time before
been University of California graduate students). I continued to
write regularly for Reason throughout the '70s and '80s.
From 1984 to 1990, I was listed on the magazine’s masthead as a
contributing editor. Earlier, from 1978 to 1982, I had been Roy
Childs’s editorial second-in-command at The Libertarian Review
(LR). Then, from 1982, when LR merged with Inquiry,
to 1985, when Inquiry ceased publication, I was a contributing
editor of Inquiry. From 1977 to around 1990, when (amid continual
promises to resume regular publication) it effectively ceased publication,
I was a contributing editor of Samuel Edward Konkin III's New
my career in mainstream journalism was coming along nicely. Over
a nearly twenty year span (19771995) I freelanced for newspapers,
including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times,
USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco
Chronicle, and the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News,
among others, publishing more than three hundred bylined articles,
mostly Op-Eds and book reviews. During the mid-’80s, I worked as
an editorial writer at the Oakland (Calif.) Tribune,
as an editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County (Calif.)
Register, and as the daily (Mon.–Fri.) economics commentator
for CNN Radio. Whenever possible, I did pieces, whether for newspapers
or for radio, that promoted libertarian ideas. And throughout the
’80s, I was able to put my expertise as a broadcaster in the direct
service of those ideas by producing and syndicating the daily radio
program Byline for the Cato Institute. This award-winning
program, which was heard Monday through Friday on more than two
hundred stations coast to coast between 1979 and 1990, featured
commentary on current issues and events from liberals and conservatives
who were sympathetic to certain libertarian positions (Howard Jarvis,
Nat Hentoff, Nicholas von Hoffman, Tom Bethell) as well as commentary
from conscious libertarians like Ed Crane, Joan Kennedy Taylor,
Susan Love Brown, Robert Hessen, Tom Hazlett, and me.
I moved up to San Francisco in 1978 to join the staff of The
Libertarian Review and began producing Byline for the
Cato Institute, I had an opportunity to meet and work directly with
several legendary figures in the movement, first among them Murray
N. Rothbard. Murray was living on the peninsula south of San Francisco,
about forty miles out of town. But he spent a day or two each week
in his office at the Cato Institute, and about once a week he showed
up at the somewhat less impressive building down the street where
the offices of The Libertarian Review, Students for a Libertarian
Society, and the Libertarian Party of California were to be found.
He was always available for conversation – about economics, history,
the movement, strategy, tactics, whatever anybody wanted to talk
I regret not having taken the time to engage in more of those conversations.
I was young and expected to live forever. Naively, I thought Murray
would always be there – oh, maybe not in the next office, but within
easy reach by telephone or the U.S. Mail. Had I had more of the
common sense the young so often lack I would have taken better advantage
of the opportunity I’d been afforded: I’d have had more of those
spur-of-the-moment conversations with Murray. The ones I remember
best focused mostly on historical issues, and they left me with
a cornucopia of tips for further research that I still haven’t exhausted.
back, I realize now that my earlier enthusiasms – for the political
works of Ayn Rand, for example, and for the works of Bob LeFevre
– though they taught me much, were really just way stations along
a road that would eventually lead to a fully coherent and systematic
grasp of both libertarianism itself and its implications for the
humanities and social sciences. The thinker who finally provided
me with the basic elements of that sort of understanding of libertarianism,
I have belatedly come to realize, was Murray N. Rothbard.
Riggenbach [send him mail]
is the author of In Praise of Decadence. He is a contributing
editor of Liberty magazine and of The
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