My Life as a Libertarian

The following story is part of Walter Block’s Autobiography Archive.

by D. T. Armentano by D. T. Armentano

I was born in the North End of Hartford (CT) in 1940 and I’ve been a libertarian for as long as I can remember. I never went through any sort of messy political transformation like some others did. I was never a Marxist or a socialist or even a warm and fuzzy liberal. When I first became interested in political economy in my early teens, individual responsibility and mistrust of governmental authority just seemed natural and right to me. They still do.

How did I get started down the libertarian path? Perhaps it was my very negative reaction to being interned in Catholic school for my first 6 educational years. To put the matter bluntly, I hated the entire experience with a passion. I disliked the regimentation, despised the bossy nuns, and resented being strapped on the hands by a smug Father Bannon for talking in class or thinking impure thoughts or whatever the hell I was NOT supposed to be doing at age ten. A shrink might say that I transferred my anger from the authoritative parochial school to the super-authoritative federal government at some point later in life. Maybe so; I really can’t rule that out. (Only kidding).

Or perhaps I got my initial libertarian leanings from my parents, otherwise hard-working, honest, middle-class folks who survived the Depression and the War and who never asked anyone in authority for a handout. Perhaps, but I doubt it. Both my parents were New Deal Democrats who never, never talked intelligent politics in the home and never doubted that government existed to help the little people. My libertarianism was a total mystery to them – still is – so, no, I absolutely did NOT catch the liberty fever from my family.

As best as I can recall, two very different personal experiences may have acted as a catalyst. When I was a young kid looking to earn extra money, I used to do landscape work and move rocks for a next-door neighbor named Jack Harris. Jack was a professional welder by trade, a quiet and precise man, who gave me minimal instructions and then left me free to do the work to the best of my ability. I always admired Jack’s own confident demeanor and his trust in my integrity to do the job well. Jack never watched me and he never gave explicit instructions on how to do things. He simply told me what he wanted and he trusted me to do it.

One day when I went to get paid, Jack's wife said “Hold on. I want to give you a book to read that Jack treasures and that I think that you will enjoy.” And then, of course, she handed me a hardcover of Ayn Rand’s, The Fountainhead. Everything that I had always felt intuitively about life I now found explicitly detailed in Rand’s wonderfully romantic fiction. Jack and I never spoke about the ideas in that book. I’m not even sure that he could have articulated them. But he lived them (from what I could tell) and those ideas and Jack’s real life example made a lasting impression on me.

A second event occurred in early 1958 when I was watching The Armstrong Circle Theater on television. This was a live television broadcast and the subject being debated was the reality of the UFO phenomena. I’d prepared a report on UFOs in a high school science class so I knew something about the subject. The government/Air Force position (then and now) was that there was nothing in the nature of the reports that represented anything extra-ordinary or a threat to national security. The Air Force mantra was that UFOs were balloons or mirages or hoaxes and that no information to the contrary was being withheld. Yea, right.

The “other side” in the debate was represented by Donald E. Keyhoe, who was then the executive director of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomenon in Washington, D.C. Keyhoe, a feisty retired ex-Marine Major, spoke in support of the reality of the phenomenon and of an Air Force cover-up of inconvenient facts such as 90 degree turns and evasive action when pursued by our jets. At one point in the program Keyhoe suddenly broke away from his prepared remarks, looked at the camera and said: “And now I am going to reveal something that has never been disclosed before…” but his microphone abruptly went dead. The live t.v. audience saw his lips moving (me included) but his audio had been terminated by CBS and the U.S. Air Force under prior agreement. I think that I became a radical libertarian at that very moment.

While still in high school I attended one of the Foundation for Economic Education seminars in Irvington, New York, and still remember Leonard Read lighting his candle in a dark room. (Later I would become a Trustee of that fine organization). When I got into college, a good friend and I formed an Objectivist Study Group and I wrote articles for the college newspaper on Rand and her ideas. I began to argue with my professors about monopoly and unemployment and the proper role of government. I was reading Friedman and Hayek and especially Hazlitt by that time and frequently asking “outrageous” questions in class. There were never any serious answers, of course, only smirks and ridicule. I would often make appointments to meet professors after class to pursue issues, but few ever showed. Indeed, what I remember most about those undergraduate years is the almost complete “liberty blackout” in economics classes.

None of my economics professors seemed interested in free market theory or were even aware that there was another viewpoint aside from religious Keynesianism. No reading list from my undergraduate days EVER had a Friedman or Hayek citation, let alone von Mises or Murray Rothbard. My only brush with classical liberal ideas and libertarianism came in courses on political philosophy, where we explored the ideas of Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke and Mill and took seriously the conflict between liberty and power.

Graduate school (1962–1966) was a slightly better intellectual experience. Graduate classes were smaller and the cadre of students and professors were more committed to serious pursuits. We all hung out together and constantly debated free market theory, the Great Depression, tax policy, the history of child labor and, of course, the Viet Nam War.

Joel Dirlam, an iconoclast industrial organization professor at the University of Connecticut, sparked my early interest in antitrust law, though our policy views could not have been more different. Dirlam was the first professor to send me off to read “original” documents and trial record material in order to really understand what went on at court in antitrust cases. And Bill Snavely, who taught comparative economic systems, formally introduced me to the ideas of Ludwig von Mises and the socialist calculation debate. Later Bill would ask me to contribute a chapter to his book, Theory Of Economic Systems (Merrill, 1969) on that important subject and it became my first important publishing achievement. It was also my first formal introduction to Mises and to Austrianism generally. I was hooked.

I received my Ph.D. in economics from the University of Connecticut in 1966 with a dissertation on the political economy of the brilliant, late 19th century classical liberal, William Graham Sumner. Sumner taught at Yale between 1870 and 1905 and his ideas and his unflinching attitude toward enemies of the free market had a tremendous influence on me. Sumner was a brilliant writer, lecturer, and debater. Moreover, he had a fierce and fiery tongue and never gave an inch to enemies of liberty on either the left or right. He became my first intellectual hero.

Sumner angered Yale’s Republican friends by opposing tariffs and quotas of any kind for any reason. In addition, he strongly opposed the rise of U.S. Imperialism and Empire and wrote and spoke eloquently on why the Spanish/American war was a fatal mistake for American civil society. He opposed any and all welfare programs of government; as he put it bluntly, a drunk was in the gutter where he belonged. Indeed, in almost every area of political economy (save public schools), Sumner anticipated late 20th century libertarian thought at every turn. That he has been forgotten (like his own “forgotten man”) and unappreciated by current academics is a sad commentary on the current teaching of intellectual history.

Since I always had a flair for the dramatic – I was in several plays in grade school and high school – teaching economics at the college level came naturally to me. I fell in love with teaching during my first class as a graduate assistant in 1964. I just loved the performing and the give and take with the student audience. And I loved to put words to paper. I had been writing stories since grammar school (one teacher, the very special Leo Cohen, even made extra time for me so that I could write “my stories”) and I won an award for a short story in high school with the encouragement of my favorite English teacher, Mrs. Kind, who’s spirit and support I remember with great fondness. Thus an academic life seemed ideal for me and for my new wife, Rose LaFont. (We married in 1966, and are still strongly merged; I could not have accomplished what I have without her). Thus we began our long journey into the heart of intellectual darkness!!

I taught full-time at the University of Connecticut in 1966–67 and then went to teach at the private University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut, in the fall of 1967. Before I arrived in Hartford, I published my first article for cash ($75) in a slick trade magazine for the direct mail industry. An editor at the magazine had seen a “letter to the editor” in the Wall Street Journal in which I had argued that a private post office would be more efficient that a government monopoly. He asked me to write a longer historical piece on the subject and it appeared as “Do We Really Need A Post Office?, Reporter of Direct Mail Advertising (March 1967). Seeing my name on an article in print for money had a profound effect on me! I had found my calling.

When I arrived at Hartford, I was immediately handed the Government & Business course (senior level) to teach and had to quickly find a textbook. The standard text at the time was Clair Wilcox’s Public Policies Towards Business (Irwin) then in its umpteenth edition, and I adopted it my first year. As I prepared to teach the antitrust section of the course, however, I discovered a disturbing anti-business bias in the Wilcox text (and other supplementary texts) and the almost complete absence of any historical information about product prices, outputs, and business innovation.

Wilcox et. al. simply assumed that government antitrust policy promoted the “public interest” and that the firms convicted under the Sherman Act had actually raised prices and reduced outputs as standard monopoly theory predicted. Certainly the students who studied the Wilcox text had no way of knowing what actually transpired from an economic perspective in the classic antitrust cases since the author chose not to tell them. At the end of my first year of teaching, I decided to write an antitrust book to fill in the story that Wilcox and other textbook authors had omitted.

The Myths of Antitrust: Economic Theory and Legal Cases (Arlington House, 1972) was an attempt to do a major “revisionist” history of antitrust theory and policy. The State of Connecticut had an excellent law library in Hartford and so I buried myself in legal decisions and trial record material for almost 4 years. (We had no “research assistants” at the time; I did ALL of the research for Myths myself and wrote every word of text. If there are errors or omissions, blame me.) My intention was to discover what actually happened in the classic antitrust cases from an economic perspective. Did the firms abuse consumers and was antitrust a legitimate response to monopolization? Additionally, I wanted to tell the story of the classic antitrust cases in the context of the actual historical development of the industry.

How, for example, did the market concentration in petroleum or tobacco actually arise? Why did firms merge and were there so-called barriers to entry that unfairly kept new competitors out? Absent some historical discussion, the monopoly and price fixing cases made little sense and the actual intent and effect of antitrust regulation remained obscure. Thus, explaining the antitrust decision against Standard Oil of New Jersey (1911) in the context of the history of the petroleum industry would give a unique understanding to my antitrust and monopoly discussion and sharply separate my book from the competitors. And after more than 30 years in print in various editions, I still think that the perspective that I adopted and the analysis that I attempted in that first book holds up reasonably well.

Myths attempted to break several areas of new ground. (I was bold and brash at 32!) It systematically attacked the dominant “structure/conduct/performance” paradigm that dominated industrial organization theory and public policy in the 1960s. Myths presented an alternative quasi-Schumpeterian theory of open market competition to replace the orthodox perfectly competitive model. (Israel Kirzner at NYU would lay out a far more systematic theory of market process in Competition and Entrepreneurship which was published in 1973, a year after Myths appeared.)

Myths exposed the soft underbelly of the “public interest” theory of antitrust by demonstrating that the firms indicted and convicted in the classic monopoly cases had actually been increasing outputs and lowering prices. (Where available, I stuck the prices and industry data right in the text.) And in its most radical chapter on price fixing, Myths argued that even business collusion was a myth since high fixed costs and legally open markets encouraged price cheating and secret discounts to customers. It even showed that the infamous electrical equipment conspiracy of the early 1960’s didn’t really work. Myths concluded that antitrust was a complete public policy hoax, that most cases were brought by private firms against their rivals, and that absent any legitimate rationale, the entire legal framework hurt consumers and should be repealed. So there!

The immediate reaction to my book in the business and academic world was…. underwhelming. Despite some important favorable reviews (especially one by Donald Dewey at Columbia in the Business History Review) book sales were modest and the antitrust intellectual establishment did not come crumbling down or even tremble noticeably. Indeed, most economists and law professors in the 1970’s simply ignored what I had written or called, instead, for more “vigorous” enforcement of antitrust law and even new laws to limit industrial concentration.

There were at least two exceptions. At Chicago and at UCLA, various scholars (such as Yale Brozen and Wesley Liebeler) were reasonably sympathetic to my arguments and published their own important critiques of antitrust policy. The Chicago crowd was always lukewarm, however, since I had attacked the “perfect competition equilibrium ” model and had argued that even prosecuting price fixing was a mistake. But a second group of supporters, the Austrians, led by Murray Rothbard, were very enthusiastic about my work and I was soon drawn into their world in a more systematic way.

My fist formal interaction with the world of Austrian Economics came with an invitation to the South Royalton Conference in 1974. There I met several of the Austrian luminaries for the first time and I was blown away by how seriously the youthful audience took theoretical controversies. At the end of the Conference, I boasted to George Pearson (Koch Industries) that I could organize and chair an equally successful conference at Hartford in the near future if they were so inclined to put up the money. That’s how the Austrian Economics Conference at Hartford came about in the summer of 1975.

What is notable about that event, aside from some path-breaking papers by John Hagel and Walter Grinder, among others, is that F.A. Hayek was in attendance for several days. I remember driving him around Hartford in my small Honda. Sadly, although Hayek had recently been awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics, I could not convince either of Hartford’s two newspapers to send a reporter up for an interview. Such was the dismal intellectual state of the world in 1975!

Murray Rothbard was also at the Hartford Conference and he became an important intellectual influence on my thinking in the 1970s. His Man, Economy And State and Ethics of Liberty were, in my view, two of the most important books ever published while his For A New Liberty was a breakthrough book in popularizing libertarian political economy. Murray was brilliant, funny, supportive, and the fountainhead of the serious libertarian movement. I loved the guy and still miss him terribly to this day. His intellect, spirit, and capacity for work have proven irreplaceable.

A sabbatical leave in the fall of 1977 found my wife and I at the Institute for Humane Studies in Menlo Park, California. It also found us often in San Francisco at the newly created Cato Institute on Montgomery Street. I did several book reviews for Cato’s flagship magazine, Inquiry, (one was the first published review of Robert Bork’s The Antitrust Paradox, then in galley proofs) and I became friendly with its entrepreneurial president, Ed Crane, and Cato’s financial angel, Charles Koch. Crane and Koch and I would work together on several projects including the nationally syndicated public affairs radio program, Byline. I wrote and recorded over 150 Byline shows over the next 7 years on all sorts of public policy issues. The challenge of explaining rent controls or Federal Reserve Policy in 90 seconds on the radio prepared me well for the many dozens of op/eds that I would write in the coming years.

The 1980s found me speaking, writing, chairing conferences, and receiving an occasional award for contributions to free enterprise. Along with fellow economist and friend Gerald Gunderson at Trinity College, I was awarded the Valley Forge Freedoms Foundation Award for “excellence in private enterprise education” in 1980. In the early 1980s I revised and expanded Myths and it was published as Antitrust & Monopoly: Anatomy Of A Policy Failure by a “legitimate” New York publisher, John Wiley and Sons, in 1982. The book is currently published by The Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and has been in print in one form or another for more than 30 years. My thanks to David Theroux.

My controversial positions on antitrust regulation and on the so-called energy crisis led to many radio and t.v. opportunities and frequent invitations for campus talks. I appeared several times on the nationally syndicated PBS television show “Economically Speaking” and did numerous radio shows in Hartford and many other cities. And over the years I gave upwards of 100 professional talks to academic and business audiences on various public policy matters.

In 1982 I conceived and directed a two-week conference (and college credit course) titled “New Directions in Economic Policy." This brought me in contact with such free market superstars as Tom Sowell (who keynoted the conference), Yale Brozen, Walter Williams, Julian Simon and many others. I also stirred up the pot a bit by inviting John Kenneth Galbraith from Harvard, who received cat calls and boos from the students for recommending wage and price controls as a solution to the then ailing U.S. economy!! The New Directions Conference attracted national attention and put the University of Hartford Economics Department on the map for a brief moment.

I wrote several important journal articles in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Predatory Practices and the Competitive Process” appeared in the Review of Austrian Economics (Fall 1989). In that piece I argued that so-called predatory practices were simply “competitive” practices and ought to be totally immune from antitrust regulation. Several colleagues at the University of Hartford (Hartford is the so-called “insurance city”) got me interested in insurance industry regulation and I published “Antitrust and Insurance: Should the McCarran Act be Repealed?” in the Cato Journal (Winter 1989). The McCarran Act exempts insurance companies from the bulk of antitrust law and I argued that the exemption was economically efficient and ought to be continued. I summarized my criticism of the entire antitrust legal framework in an article titled “Time to Repeal Antitrust Regulation” that appeared in the antitrust establishment’s favorite academic journal, the Antitrust Bulletin (Summer 1990). The article caused a minor stir and elicited a dissenting reply from Appellate Court Judge Douglas Ginsburg. My response, “A Reply to Judge Ginsburg,” appears in the expanded issue of that same journal.

In 1983 I approached David Boaz at the Cato Institute with an idea for a new antitrust book. The plan was to write a smaller, more “popular” account of my antitrust text material while at the same time incorporating some then-current antitrust controversies. The book titled Antitrust Policy: The Case For Repeal was published by Cato in 1984. Thanks, David. (I am now an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.)

Years later Lew Rockwell of the Mises Institute approached me and asked me to revise and expand the Cato book with special attention devoted to the then on-going Microsoft antitrust case. With Lew’s generous support, that book was published by the Mises Institute in 1999 as Antitrust Policy: The Case For Repeal, and has had some college adoptions and some modest success.

One of my favorite journal articles was written as a response to an attack on my antitrust theories by Professor Frederick M. Scherer. Professor Scherer, a nationally recognized expert in industrial organization and the author of the most influential textbook in the area, pretended to “review” the 1990 edition of my Antitrust & Monopoly in a new and interesting journal, Critical Review. His review, however, was filled with errors of commission and omission and he distorted my positions at almost every turn. (Our feud goes back to a decade-old Hillsdale College luncheon that was particularly unpleasant; the Critical Review hatchet job was payback, apparently.) There is not sufficient space here to explain all of the problems with Scherer’s analysis of my antitrust positions nor all of the problems associated with Scherer’s own antitrust views. Suffice to say, for those who are interested in such matters, see my “Anti-Antitrust: Ideology or Economics? Reply to Scherer” Critical Review (Volume 6, No.1, 1992) for my definitive thoughts on the Scherer affair.

My scholarly writing was always important but I most enjoyed writing op/ed articles for newspapers. I have been a regular writer of op/eds for over 35 years (I continue to write for the Press Journal in Vero Beach, Florida where I live) and have probably written many hundreds by now. My articles have appeared in publications such as The New York Times (articles on legalized gambling and merger policy), The Wall Street Journal (an article on allowing the air carrier industry to collude on prices), the London Financial Times, the National Post (Canada) and many other newspapers in this country and abroad. While teaching at the University of Hartford, I wrote many op/eds on such topics as the selective service system, banking deregulation, antitrust policy, and the tax system in Connecticut. These appeared regularly in The Hartford Times and, after the Times folded, The Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published newspaper in America.

I am most proud of a series of articles that appeared in The Hartford Courant just prior to Connecticut’s adoption of a state income tax in the early 1990s. Professor Jack Sullivan, a colleague of mine, and I wrote four detailed critiques of the proposed state income tax and these articles were extremely well received around the state. We had done our homework. We knew that the Connecticut’s state budget process had been out of control for years and that more taxes would not fix it. We knew what happened in other states when a state income tax was adopted: their economic growth rates declined. We knew that state income taxes did not “fix” budget deficits. Indeed, the states with the highest state income taxes had the highest deficits! So here was a once in a lifetime opportunity to actually prevent government from expanding its power if we could only defeat the demonic state income tax.

After the articles were published, I (and others) spoke before a crowd estimated at 25,000 that gathered on the lawn in front of the State capital building in Hartford to protest the imposition of any new state taxes and to demand that the legislature (and the evil Governor Lowell Wicker) control state spending instead. I gave several talks around the state in opposition to the proposed tax and I testified against the adoption of any state income tax at a special legislative hearing on the matter. For months the battle raged, a lopsided intellectual battle really, since we had all of the facts, all of the arguments, and all of the public support, while the other side had only one mantra: We want the money.

AND WE LOST! The General Assembly caved in and rammed the tax down all of our collective throats. The Governor, the state legislative politicians, the state unions, the teachers and other interest groups that live off of the state, threw their support to the state income tax and it became law. John Rowland, Connecticut’s current governor, had pledged to repeal the monstrosity but it still exists and it still steals property.

Losing the income tax battle was emotionally tough for me. Being a libertarian in this society is generally rough enough but this tax defeat bordered on the absurd. For here I had witnessed first-hand the CREATION of government’s most awesome power…the power to tax. I had seen the entire process from start to finish with my own eyes and was terribly disappointed at our inability – despite the evidence and general public support – to short circuit the process and kill the creature born from that process. It brought home a painful message that I really did not want to hear again: We libertarians have a long, long, LONG way to go in terms of real world political change.

I have certainly seen some modest “progress” in the antitrust area (perhaps my writings have helped at the margin) but the tax and spending policies of government at every level (and U.S. foreign policy) are devastatingly irrational and immoral. On my black days it is difficult to see, given the public choice calculus, how those of us who support liberty can make any reasonable progress in these areas in the near future.

A personal footnote on the income tax affair. In the early 1990s I had been thinking of an early retirement from teaching and a move to a warmer climate. When Connecticut adopted its 4.5% state income tax, I decided that they would NOT tax me. I would pack up and leave for a friendlier state without a state income tax and with a Constitutional Amendment that prohibits one. Hullo Florida! So far so good.

Another factor that led to my move from Connecticut was the increasingly difficult teaching atmosphere at the University of Hartford and in higher education generally in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For decades I had been teaching the capstone course in the MBA program, “Business and Society," with great student evaluations. The course explored some business case histories, some regulatory analysis and legal cases, and more and more over time explored the ETHICS of certain business practices and the government's attempt to regulate them. I lectured for roughly half of the course and the graduate students presented cases (which I evaluated) in the second half. My interest in ethical analysis led me to publish “The Ethics of Anticompetitive Practices” in the Mid-Atlantic Journal Of Business (March 1991).

“Business and Society” was probably the most popular course in the MBA program. The students worked hard but they loved the challenges. In the early 1990s, however, a faculty backlash developed concerning my theoretical and ethical approach to teaching this course. Some non-economist faculty members in the Barney School of Business began to object to my free market analysis, to my so-called deregulation “crusade," and to the contrasting natural rights vs. utilitarian perspective that I and my students employed to “analyze” business practices (insider trading, for example) and government regulation. Having increasing “trouble” with “my” students in their classes, they attempted to strip the course from me, from the Department of Economics, and eventually strip it from the MBA program itself.

As some of us know, these curricular “wars” were (in part) insidious manifestations of the silly political correctness nonsense prevalent at the time and were a blatant attempt to dumb down academic standards generally. They were propelled forward in business schools by radical feminists and psycho-babble Management professors at various universities in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Nonetheless, though the process proved acrimonious, I dug in my heels and defended my principles and the efforts to deconstruct “Business & Society” failed. When I finally left the University in 1994, I had taught the course every semester for a total of 27 years, exposing thousands of students to classical liberal theory and public policy. Although I retired from full-time teaching in 1994, I have continued to publish widely. I wrote many articles on the Microsoft antitrust debacle for Investor’s Business Daily, for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, for the Cato Institute, and especially for the Independent Institute. I wrote a “Viewpoint” for The New York TImes (January 19, 1997) titled “Don’t Punish Microsoft For Its Brand of Competition” and my article “Or Broken Trust?” appeared in the May 4, 1998 issue of National Review. At present, I continue to write on antitrust and other many other regulatory matters for journals, newspapers and internet web cites.

I truly enjoyed the process of teaching and this bio-essay would not be complete without mentioning my debt to the excellent students that I had over the years. Their desire to learn inspired me to search for the truth and to communicate it as effectively as I could. The almost daily intellectual interaction with students kept my mind alive. Without them the process of teaching would have been a sterile monologue. Two of my best students were Roy Cordato and his wife, Karen Palacek, who both went on to earn Ph.D.s in Economics and who continue to make continuing contributions to our field of study. (Roy’s critical work on the Coase Theorem is particularly important). Both had planned careers as base fiddle musicians before they took my courses in economics. Talk about unintended consequences!

Finally, let me close by noting my most personal “unintended consequence” of all. My son, Paul Armentano, born in 1972, has worked hard to become a leading national spokesman for the legalization of marijuana in the U.S. Paul, a Policy Analyst at the National Organization for the Reform of the Marijuana Laws in Washington, D. C., has already written hundreds of articles and op/eds on the inefficiency and immorality of state and U.S drug laws. I could not be more proud.

Interestingly, Paul’s libertarianism was never consciously instructed by either me or my wife. We never “lectured” him on the subject nor instructed him to read certain materials; he would have rebelled sharply against all of that, anyway. Instead, we just set good life examples and let him discover the importance of political liberty on his own. (Leonard Read was certainly right on that one). It will now be up to Paul, and like-minded academics and activists, to continue the struggle for liberty and justice against entrenchments of power.

Dom Armentano is professor emeritus in economics at the University of Hartford and author of Antitrust: The Case for Repeal (Mises Institute, 1999). He lives in Vero Beach, Florida.