good friend Walter Block has asked me to contribute to his series on
"How I Became a Libertarian," so here goes.
always an individualist, probably because I spent my childhood and adolescent
years playing competitive sports. I grew up in a small town in Western
Pennsylvania where all the local governments were run by small-time versions
of the Soprano family. It was understood by all that the only reasons anyone
would become a mayor, city councilman, alderman, or other local political
"office holder" was to accept bribes, pass laws and regulations
that would financially benefit you and your friends, hand out "do nothing"
patronage jobs to friends and family, or plunder the treasury. Sound
familiar? That is what government was for, and everyone knew it. Our
politicians may have been a gang of crooks, but they were not liars and
education progressed I read more and more literature about how government
supposedly existed to serve "the public interest," to cater to
"the will of the majority," to "save the earth,"
"help the poor," "feed the hungry," and other
absurdities, which created in me a sense of indignation over the blizzard of
lies thrown at us by the government and the educational and media
all of the adult males that I knew growing up were second-generation
immigrants from Italy, Russia, or Poland who worked very hard all their lives
as laborers, tradesmen, or small merchants. They all had a great work ethic
because they and their families were so thankful to have the opportunities
that America afforded them. With the advent of the "Great Society"
welfare programs in the 1960s all of these men became deeply resentful of the
growing presence of young, able-bodied men and women who were signing up for
the dole and receiving free lunches, free university educations for their
children, and other handouts at their expense. It was grossly unjust,
and it was also obvious to all that the welfare state was causing human
degradation by destroying the work ethic and breaking up families. I can
still recall how, in the late 60s, my older brother’s best friend
divorced his wife not because they wanted to separate, but because they could
collect a larger welfare check that way since they had a child.
older brother was mugged once during the ‘60s and suffered a laceration
of his head. The police arrested the culprit but the judge refused to convict
him because – and I can still recall his words – that would
"create racial tension" in the city. "These people must be
handled with kid gloves" is exactly how he put it. In the 1960s
government was busy destroying the work ethic, the family, and the criminal
justice system as well.
born in 1954 and only became eligible for the draft as the Vietnam War was
ending, but I was old enough to witness how the warfare state disrupted or
ruined the lives of some of my older friends and relatives. One older
neighbor who was a great natural athlete and destined to be an NFL
quarterback or wide receiver fled to Canada to avoid the draft and never made
much of himself. He had the same kind of athletic ability as Joe Namath, Joe
Montana, Tony Dorsett, and Dan Marino, who all grew up within 35 miles of my
hometown. There’s obviously something in the water there.
of my friends became addicted to drugs by polluting their bodies with LSD and
other hard drugs for weeks or months prior to their military induction
physicals in hopes of flunking them. Others went to Vietnam and returned with
grizzly stories of mass killing, but most could not bring themselves to speak
a word about their experiences. Their very silence spoke volumes, however.
a few people I know got married in order to avoid the draft. At the time,
married men still had a deferment. Most of these marriages turned out to be
hated government by the time I was 18, at which point I entered college and
discovered some of the libertarian literature that began to put it all in
perspective. During my first semester in college I took Principles of
Microeconomics. My professor used a standard textbook and a book of readings
by Milton Friedman entitled "An Economist’s Protest." It was
a compilation of Friedman’s Newsweek columns. At the time, he
and Paul Samuelson took turns writing op-eds in the magazine. I immediately
read as many of them as I could, and concluded that Friedman was a genius who
had government all figured out, whereas Samuelson was constantly trying to
pull the wool over our eyes. I also loved Friedman’s clear-as-a-bell
writing style and worked at imitating it.
about the same time I discovered The Freeman in the library and set
about reading as many back issues as I could. This introduced me to the whole
world of libertarianism and for the rest of my college career I would spend
as much time as I could reading some of the great libertarian authors that The
Freeman had brought to my attention.
had a favorite professor who was familiar with the literature of public
choice, and so I investigated that area as well. I was so interested in it
that I chose to attend graduate school at Virginia Polytechnic Institute,
where James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock were on the faculty.
is where I was introduced to Austrian Economics. Just as my first semester in
college introduced me to Friedman and the Chicago School, my first semester
in graduate school introduced me to Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian School.
The two main texts for the first graduate micro class were Human Action and
Friedman’s Price Theory in a
course taught by Richard Wagner. I devoured Human Action, hung on
every word that Professor Wagner said in his lectures, earned the top score
in the class on all the exams, and pursued more of the Austrian literature.
This is what economics is all about, I decided while reading Human Action.
This conclusion was bolstered by the fact that all my other classes
consisted of the usual cloud of math and "models" that did not
always seem relevant.
economics department at VPI held weekly seminars with guest speakers, and at
the end of the academic year a "big shot" was brought in to deliver
a series of lectures over two days. In that year (1976) Professor Wagner was
in charge of the seminar series and he chose Murray Rothbard as his "big
shot" lecturer. There was talk of what a "crank" this guy was,
and how his talks would be more entertainment than substance, but in fact
they had more substance to them than all the other seminars combined. I
decided to start reading Rothbard and am still at it.
was plenty of exposure to Austrian economics at VPI in the 1970s, but the
real emphasis in the department was public choice. This was the heyday of the
public choice center, where more than a dozen faculty members were doing
public choice research; there was a steady stream of international visitors
doing the same; and many of the advances in the field were being presented at
the weekly public choice seminars at the center, which was in the old
president’s house on campus.
my classmates were libertarian oriented, but a few of us were especially
hardcore because we were so influenced by Professor Wagner and his
introduction to us of Human Action and the Austrian School. Professor
Buchanan’s book, Cost and Choice, was
also hugely influential among a small core of my fellow students.
long been convinced that: 1) the best way to understand how the economic
world works is to educate yourself in the insights of the Austrian School;
and 2) one cannot fully understand economics without also understanding the
interaction between the economy and the state. That’s where public
choice comes in and, just as importantly, that’s where the work of
Murray Rothbard is so important. Murray never hesitated to combine economics,
history, history of economic thought, political philosophy, sociology, and
statistics to get at the truth – whether he was writing about
America’s Great Depression, welfare policy, regulation, or any other
topic. His relentless pursuit of the truth is what always impressed me most
about him, and it is a model that ought to be followed by all libertarians.
by Thomas DiLorenzo
J. DiLorenzo is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the
author of The Real Lincoln; Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed To Know about
Dishonest Abe and How Capitalism Saved America. His
latest book is Hamilton’s Curse: How Jefferson’s Archenemy Betrayed
the American Revolution – And What It Means for America Today.
© 2009 by LewRockwell.com