following story is part of Walter
Block's Autobiography Archive.
I Became a Libertarian
up in Brooklyn, New York, born to a Greek and Sicilian family, I
had some conservative predilections as a young high school student.
One of my earliest high school teachers had a big influence on me;
his name was Ira Zornberg. He was a faculty advisor of a social
studies newspaper called Gadfly that I edited. He was the
first teacher to bring the study of the Holocaust to high school
students. He very much encouraged me in my conservative politics,
even though I was never completely comfortable with the conservative
social agenda, especially with regard to issues of abortion and
sexuality. It wasn't until I read Ayn Rand in my senior year in
high school that I was able to sort those issues out.
an outspoken political type in high school, I had been involved
in some pretty terrific battles with the Young Socialists of America
who had buried the school in their propaganda. My sister-in-law
had been reading The
Fountainhead and Atlas
Shrugged, and she said, "I think you ought to read this
woman, you'll find some similarities between what you're saying
and what she advocates." I wasn't a big fiction reader, so I started
reading Ayn Rand's non-fiction first – Capitalism:
The Unknown Ideal, The
Virtue of Selfishness – and it was as if I had found a whole
new world. At the time I was in an advanced placement course in
American history, with another great teacher, Larry Pero, and I
was able to bring to that class so many of the insights that Rand
had on the history of capitalism. Rand also helped me deal with
some pretty difficult personal health problems I'd been experiencing.
Here was a woman who talked about heroism and potentials rather
than limitations. It was an articulated philosophy that gave me
encouragement not to wallow in self-pity and dismay, but to make
the most of my potentialities. So on a personal level, her writings
had a tremendous impact on my life while also leading me
to the works of every major libertarian writer, starting of course
with Ludwig von Mises.
the time I got to NYU, as an undergraduate, I chose a triple major
in economics, politics, and history, so I had a lot of great teachers.
In economics, I took many electives with those who were in Austrian
theory and enjoyed courses and lectures with people like Gerald
O'Driscoll, Roger Garrison, Stephen Littlechild, Israel Kirzner,
and Mario Rizzo. I interacted with many of the newer generation
of Austrian theorists, including Don Lavoie. In history, where I
did my senior honor's thesis as an undergraduate, I studied with
the great business historian Vincent Carosso and also a labor historian,
Dan Walkowitz. In politics, on the undergraduate, graduate, and
eventually the doctoral level, I studied with Gisbert Flanz, and,
of course, most important, my mentor, Bertell Ollman who is an internationally-known
Marxist scholar, author of such books as Alienation
an undergraduate, I met Murray Rothbard. I was a founding member
of the NYU Chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society. We got
Rothbard to speak before the society several times. I struck up
a cordial relationship with Murray, and learned much from my conversations
with him. He was a real character, very funny, and quite entertaining
as a speaker. When I went into the undergraduate history honors
program, Murray gave me indispensable guidance. I chose to examine
the Pullman strike and I used his theory of structural crisis as
a means of understanding labor strife.
gave me some very interesting pointers about how to carve an intellectual
niche for oneself. He told me if I invested lots of time investigating
the Pullman strike and other labor topics, I’d have a virtual monopoly
among libertarians in the analysis of labor history. You end up
thinking and writing more about a single subject than anyone else,
and your work becomes indispensable to future research on the subject.
It was good advice especially when one is compelled to defend one’s
thesis: you’ve spent more time on the subject and know more about
it than most others. You’ve written the book, so who better
than you to defend it?!
I didn’t continue my research in labor history, but I sure did focus
on one subject — dialectical libertarianism — in the years that
followed. Of course, I seemed to have picked a topic with which
few would even want to associate themselves, so there doesn’t seem
to be any danger of losing my intellectual niche any time soon!
should point out that Murray’s influence on my honors thesis was
significant. And I pretty much sailed through the honors program.
What I didn’t know, however, was that I would face resistance from
one of the three academics who sat on my oral defense committee.
He was the Chairman of the Department of History, Albert Romasco.
When Romasco started questioning me about my "ideological" approach
to history — that’s a real buzz-word — he became almost hostile
toward my reliance on Rothbard’s work. Though I ended up receiving
an award for best record in the history honors program, Romasco
was so disenchanted with my thesis that he told me: "Maybe you ought
to go into political theory instead of history!" I guess I took
him seriously. In any event, when I related the story of my oral
defense to Murray, explaining how hostile Romasco was, Murray started
to laugh. It seems that in the Summer 1966 issue of Studies on
the Left, Murray published a scathing review of Romasco’s book,
Poverty of Abundance: Hoover, the Nation, the Depression.
In it, Murray attacks Romasco’s welfare-liberal ideology, his "failures"
and "misconceptions," his bibliographic "skimpiness" and "ad
hoc, unsupported and inevitably fallacious causal theories."
Murray figured I became the whipping boy for Romasco; here was Romasco’s
chance to strike back at Murray Rothbard, by extension. Well, it
was my first lesson in the politics of scholarship, even if it provided
Murray with a hearty laugh. I sure wasn’t laughing in front of that
through my efforts, the Department of History invited Murray to
speak on "Libertarian Paradigms in American History" — a remarkable
lecture extending from the colonial to the modern era — and it was
one of the most well-received and well-attended seminars ever presented
under the department’s auspices. In later years, I don’t think Murray
was too thrilled with some of the criticisms I made of his work,
but he was always cordial and supportive. Ironically, Bertell Ollman,
who had known Rothbard personally because they were both members
of the Peace and Freedom Party in the 1960's, encouraged me not
only in my student radicalism, but also in my desire to write a
doctoral dissertation on Marx, Hayek, and Rothbard.
I’m only sorry that Murray didn’t live to see my published work
on Rand, which greatly interested him, or my Total
Freedom, which devotes half of its contents to a discussion
of his important legacy.
so: that's not only how I became a libertarian... but also how I've
become a libertarian scholar.
Matthew Sciabarra [send
him mail] is the author of the "Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy,"
which includes Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian
Radical, and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism.
He is also a founding co-editor of The
Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. A Visiting Scholar in the New
York University Department of Politics, his homepage is at: http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sciabarra.
© 2002 LewRockwell.com