It Usually Ends With Murray Rothbard:My Long and Winding Road to Libertarianism and Austrian Economics

I vividly recall the event that set me on a long and winding road to libertarianism and Austrian economics. I was twelve years old and my parents, who were both first generation Italian-Americans, were hosting some of my mother's relatives, including a distant male cousin who had traveled from Italy to visit relatives residing in Rhode Island and New Jersey. His visit to our home was proceeding pleasantly if uneventfully that day when the subject of politics came up and the cousin revealed that he was a card-carrying member of the Italian Communist Party. My father was still a New Deal Democrat at the time, but also a devout, Jesuit-trained Catholic and staunch anti-Communist who had voted for Kennedy in the presidential election the year before. A ferocious argument immediately erupted between my father and the cousin that enthralled me – not because of the issues debated, which I did not understand, but because of the passion with which the two men expressed their views. The argument came to an abrupt halt when my father, who was a formidable presence with an appearance and booming voice that suggested the actor Anthony Quinn in his prime, roared a threat to throw the Commie out of our house. Naturally I was eager to see what would ensue and would have permitted events to take their course if I had my druthers, but my mother's untimely intervention succeeded in negotiating a shaky truce between the two combatants that held until the visit ended. That night I decided that I would learn all I could about the subject that had roused such volcanic passion in my father. I soon began scouring the local library for literature on Communism and over the next year devoured everything I could lay my hands on related to the subject. These were mainly Cold War polemical tracts with grizzly titles like Masters of Deceit and You Can Trust the Communists (to Do Exactly What They Say).

I quickly became an ardent anti-Communist but knew little else about politics or political philosophy until Barry Goldwater began to campaign for the Republican nomination for President when I was 13 years old. His firebrand anti-Communism greatly appealed to me at the time and after reading an article about him in Life Magazine in late 1963, I became aware of the conservative-liberal political spectrum and immediately proclaimed myself a conservative, much to my father's chagrin. My conservatism was reinforced by reading Goldwater's book Conscience of a Conservative and his biography, Barry Goldwater: Freedom Is His Flight Plan by Stephen Shadegg. A voracious reader of science fiction and political fiction, I also discovered the novels of Ayn Rand and read Anthem and Atlas Shrugged at about the same time. By the time I entered high school, I was a full-blown Goldwaterite conservative and Cold Warrior, who, inconsistently, believed in the inviolability of the rights to liberty and property.

I attended St. Joseph's High School, an all-boys Catholic institution, where, in the fall semester of my freshman year, my teacher for both English and Speech was a young former marine, Bill Murray, who also passionately detested Communism. After I delivered a speech to the class mocking the military capabilities of the People's Republic of China, he was so enthusiastic he expostulated: "Salerno, you beautiful anti-communist, you." During the same semester, in my American History class, the teacher organized a debate between the supporters of Goldwater and the supporters of Lyndon Johnson. I was one of the seven students who self-consciously fidgeted on the Goldwater side and faced down the horde of thirty or so Johnson partisans, but we gave as a good as we got, at least according to the teacher's assessment.

My interest in political issues and my conservative convictions intensified during my high school years. It was the mid-1960's, the era of free speech and Vietnam War protests on college campuses, and just a few miles down the road at Rutgers University Eugene Genovese was dismissed from the faculty for having publicly dissented against the Vietnam war. The atmosphere at my high school was highly charged politically. A few of the younger members of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, the order that administered and staffed the high school, were deeply committed to Vatican II liberal Catholicism and New Frontier-Great Society political liberalism, as were some of the younger lay faculty. They were also very eager to debate the issues in the classroom and encouraged the airing of opposing points of view. But the faculty was by no means ideologically monolithic and, in my sophomore year, the school hired as head varsity basketball coach and English teacher a hardcore member and chapter organizer of the John Birch Society. Bill Schreck was very charismatic and articulate and influenced Mr. Murray, the anti-Communist English teacher, to become a Bircher too. Mr. Schreck also openly propagated his views to my class as our study hall proctor. He eventually persuaded me and some other conservative students to attend a meeting of the local chapter of the Birch Society. However, I quickly lost interest in Birchism when I heard that Mr. Schreck had asserted in another class that the Beatles' music was manufactured by a communist computer secreted in the English countryside with the aim of corrupting the minds and morals of American youth. My English teacher in my sophomore year, Mr. Walko, although he had no apparent association with Mr. Schreck or the Birchers and revealed no political biases in class, initiated an extracurricular reading club that I joined. The first book we discussed was None Dare Call It Treason by Bircher John Stormer.

By my junior year, I had become recognized among the faculty as one of the most outspoken of the group of conservative students informally known as the "Lower Ten Percent." This label emerged from a debate in Religion class over the Catholic view of the Vietnam War wherein I called Pope Paul VI's position on the war "quixotic" and another conservative referred to it as "asinine." This infuriated our Religion teacher who abruptly halted the debate. The next class the Brother informed us that there would be no more discussion of current events in class, noting cryptically that in some bushels of apples the "lower ten percent" begins to rot prematurely and threatens to spoil the rest. Of course we conservatives perversely seized on his words and proudly touted them as our new moniker.

Late in my junior year I tried to foment a petition drive among my fellow students in the A class to protest the rumored integration of the A, B, C and D classes in our senior year. When my cohort had entered as freshmen, we had been placed according to our scores on special placement exams. Each class moved from subject to subject (except for languages, I believe) en bloc. One significant result of this rigidly hierarchical system, which had existed since the founding of the institution, was that the classes competed ferociously with one another in intramural sports. Most importantly the A class, which took mostly accelerated courses, was supposed to have its grades more heavily weighted in calculating grade point average for the purpose of class ranking in senior year. Needless to say my anti-egalitarian and pro-tradition petition drive was ruthlessly quashed by the administration, and a few of the smarter B class kids were seeded amongst us in senior year. However, the administration did continue its policy of more heavily weighting grades for accelerated courses, while we "native" A class students employed informal methods of persuasion to ensure that the integrity of our intramural teams was not breached.

It was early in my senior year when I first became acquainted with the science of economics. My economics teacher was an enthusiastic young adherent of Great Society liberalism and the improbable brother-in-law of the Bircher Mr. Schreck. Mr. Mautner assigned us to read John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society and then parts of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. Completely unacquainted with economics and distracted by Galbraith's relentlessly sententious and laboriously styled prose, I could not follow and did not care much for The Affluent Society. The Wealth of Nations was another matter. I was enthralled by Smith's straightforward and non-moralizing analysis of the free market economy and its social benefits. It dawned on me that economics offered a scientific argument for the free society that complemented the moral argument in its favor. By the time I finished reading the assigned passages in Smith's book, I knew that I wanted to be an economist and I never really deliberated upon the matter again.

There was a pre-graduation tradition at St. Joseph's in which the senior class presented a burlesque amiably mocking the speech, dress and mannerisms of its favorite – and not so favorite – teachers and the faculty returned the favor by bestowing frivolous legacies on selected seniors. My legacy read: "To Joseph Salerno, leader of the Lower Ten Percent, we leave a pair of binoculars with which to look down upon your fellow man."

In 1968, I enrolled – or rather my father enrolled me – in Boston College, a Jesuit institution of higher education, which was actually a university not located in Boston but in the toney suburb of Chestnut Hill. In my freshman year I squirmed through the typically dreary two-semester principles of economics course taught by a graduate student from Samuelson's Principles of Economics, 7th edition. However this experience did not deflect me from my career goal and I declared economics as my major sometime during my freshman (or sophomore) year. That year I also began reading the New Guard, a periodical published by the conservative Young Americans for Freedom, where I encountered for the first time the schism in the conservative movement between "traditionalists" and "libertarians." I was impressed by the arguments presented by the libertarian contributors and in short order jettisoned the Goldwater-Buckley conservatism of my early adolescence and adopted the libertarian positions to abolish the draft, legalize drugs and other victimless "crimes," and immediately end the Vietnam War. In my sophomore year I began to read Rand's nonfiction works including Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. It was in the latter work that I first saw a reference to Ludwig von Mises, although I did not realize his significance at the time.

It was in mid-April of my sophomore year that a general student boycott of classes at Boston College began as a protest against a large tuition increase. Leaders of the campus SDS quickly gained control of the amorphous movement and by early May the boycott metamorphosed into a general student strike against the draft and the Vietnam War. A few hardy souls defied the strike and continued to attend classes – which attendance the squishy-soft liberal president of BC declared to be "optional," with mid-term grades being the default final grade for those who chose to strike – while most earnestly participated in the innumerable informal "teach-ins" conducted by clueless liberal faculty on the war, women's liberation, racism, ecology etc. I did neither. A select group of more entrepreneurial students carrying midterm grades of B or higher alertly seized the essentially "costless" opportunity to frolic and carouse with like-minded students of other striking colleges, along the Charles River, in the Boston Gardens and amidst other landmarks of lovely springtime Boston.

The break from course work did not preclude me, however, from learning a very important lesson concerning radical political change, although its importance and relevance for libertarian strategy was clarified for me only many years later by Murray Rothbard. One day during the strike, a coalition of left-wing organizations called for a march to the Boston Commons where assorted Yippies, peaceniks, and left-wing academics were to address an antiwar rally. Abbie Hoffman was there as, I vaguely recollect, were Noam Chomsky and Jerry Rubin. Despite my deep personal disdain for these men and for the mainly leftist hippie students who would turn out for the demonstration, I participated because I was opposed to the war and because I anticipated that many coeds of like mind would participate. The march commenced on the outskirts of Boston composed mainly of disheveled, although reasonably well-behaved, college students but as the crowd swept down Commonwealth Avenue, a main artery into the downtown area, I noted young middle-class adults pouring out of residences and office buildings to join us. As the demonstration was swelled by what Murray Rothbard would later call "real people," – people with real jobs and family responsibilities – a palpable change occurred in the demeanor of the police monitoring the march. Initially coldly detached if not mildly hostile, they began to appear progressively anxious and forlorn, unsure of their positions as representatives of a State whose legitimacy was suddenly being seriously questioned by tens of thousands of ordinary Americans. Some of the younger officers even seemed as if they would have liked to shed their uniforms and join us. At the rally itself the greatest response from the crowd occurred when the clownish but charismatic Abbie Hoffman pointed to the John Hancock building looming over the Commons and roared "John Hancock wasn't an insurance salesman, he was a f—–g revolutionary."

The ability of charismatic leaders to imbue ordinary middle-class Americans with a radical anti-state mentality by demonstrating how specific government policies exploited and victimized them and disrupted their families and communities was actually brought home to me a year earlier when I attended a rally for George Wallace at the same Boston Commons in the waning days of the Presidential campaign of 1968. Campaigning on an anti-establishment third party ticket Wallace roused the crowd by hammering on the absurdity of the despotic and unconstitutional judicial mandate that prevented white and black students in Boston from attending schools near their homes and coercively bused them to schools in strange and distant, and sometimes dangerous, neighborhoods. At the end of his talk the feisty Wallace waded into the dispersing crowd to shake hands and engage a gaggle of leftist student hecklers in good-natured repartee. I was standing a few feet away from Wallace when he jovially suggested to one of the students, "Why don't you bring your sandal over here, hippie, and I'll autograph it for ya." After the laughter abated Wallace surprised and disarmed his erstwhile hecklers by standing among them and amiably responding to their questions and criticisms.

I was deeply impressed by these two episodes, although at the time I could not have articulated the reasons why, let alone recognized their general implications for a coherent libertarian strategy of political change. It was only many years later that I was enlightened on this matter by Murray Rothbard's analysis of the Joe McCarthy phenomenon of the early 1950's. Rothbard delighted in standing the established view of McCarthy on its head. The entire political and academic establishment, from New Deal/Truman Democrats to Eisenhower Republicans, from moderate liberals to moderate conservatives, concurred in the necessity of waging a Cold War to contain the alleged Soviet conspiracy to take over the so-called "Free World" and therefore were in explicit agreement with McCarthy's ultimate goals. What they detested, they said, was McCarthy's means. Rothbard, in sharp contrast, never believed that the Soviet Union, albeit a bloody and repressive dictatorship, had the ability or intention of taking over the West. Rather he argued that the Cold War was a ruse devised by the American ruling elite to justify the continuation and expansion of the massive, tax-consuming, welfare-warfare state built up during World War II at home and to rationalize postwar U.S. imperialist ambitions for assorted military interventions abroad. While dismissing McCarthy's ridiculous and contrived Cold War ideology – which, to repeat, he shared with most of his respectable establishment detractors – Rothbard had a profound appreciation for the means McCarthy employed. According to Rothbard (The Irrepressible Rothbard, 2000, p. 13):