story is part of Walter
Block's Autobiography Archive.
My Libertarian Life
Roderick T. Long
been fortunate enough to have spent over half my life in the libertarian
movement, and I am very grateful to have received so much in the
way of friendship, insight, intellectual stimulation, emotional
support, and material assistance from its members over the years.
owe my libertarianism to two women: my mother, and Ayn Rand.
mother, Jorie Blair Long, comes from a family of individualists
and independent thinkers, and I absorbed those values early on.
From her I learned that people should rely on their own judgment,
seek out their own destiny, and not dictate one another's goals
or poke their noses into one another's business.
mother's political convictions were individualist as well her
family were all staunch Roosevelt-despisers of the "Old Right" tradition
but it was initially at the personal rather than at the political
level that I was influenced by these values. Indeed, as a child
I was thoroughly apolitical. Admittedly, I do recall being shocked
and incredulous when, at the age of eleven or so, I discovered that
the federal government considers a privately built or bought mailbox
to be federal property. (My first episode of libertarian outrage!)
But for the most part I was utterly ignorant of and indifferent
to politics, and barely even knew who the President was; the political
leaders who interested me were Agamemnon, and King Arthur, and Aragorn
son of Arathorn.
result of this indifference was that despite having fairly stern
moral principles, I had really no political principles
whatsoever. I recall, for example, writing essays for my high school
social studies class in which I maintained that moral constraints
do not apply in war, that a profession's right to strike is inversely
proportional to its social usefulness, and other such drivel. In
my defense, I can say only that I at least held these views with
no particular strength of conviction: I had given the questions
little thought, because I found social studies an unbearably boring
subject to think about. I had enjoyed reading books like 1984,
Farm, and Brave
New World, but I hadn't seen them as calling into question
the political institutions of our country.
I had never been interested in exploring the political application
of my personal values, the seed had been sown by my upbringing.
The harvest came in 1979, when, at the age of 15, I read an article
in Starlog magazine called, I think, "The Science Fiction
of Ayn Rand." (Incredibly, this now virtually unknown article was
illustrated by the famous fantasy artist Boris Vallejo.) Its descriptions
Shrugged were intriguing, and as an avid science-fiction
reader I decided to give them a look.
me, as for so many 15-year-olds before me, Atlas Shrugged
was a turning point. Rand's vision hit me like a magnesium flare
dispelling murky vagueness; she converted me not just to libertarianism
but to philosophy as such. I quickly moved on to reading all of
Rand's other books, both fiction and nonfiction (several of which
my mother turned out to own already), then to reading authors Rand
recommended, and authors those authors recommended, and so
on. My libertarian education had begun.
entered Harvard in 1981, certainly planning to study a bit of philosophy,
but still entertaining thoughts of majoring in French or theatre
or creative writing instead. In my senior year of high school I
had taken a course at Dartmouth on continental philosophy, which
I found to be an intellectual emetic; in light of Rand's grim view
of contemporary academia, I had little reason to expect any better
of analytic philosophy. But after my first analytic course at Harvard
it was Roderick Firth's "Types of Ethical Theory" I was hooked.
I soon realized that no other subject had any chance of luring me
away, and I became a philosophy major. Though I was still a quasi-Randian,
I had never brought my mind entirely into captivity to Rand (I reckon
I would have lasted in her Collective just about as long as Rothbard
did), and I soon began integrating the insights I had gained from
Rand with the new ideas I was learning from mainstream philosophy.
My foremost interests were ethics, philosophy of science, and Greek
philosophy especially Aristotle, who was beginning to displace
Rand as my chief philosophical muse.
my libertarian education continued as well; in the library stacks
I was hunting down works by John Locke, Adam Smith, the Founding
Fathers, Frederic Bastiat, Herbert Spencer, Ludwig von Mises, Henry
Hazlitt, Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, Murray Rothbard, Robert
Heinlein, Tibor Machan, Milton Friedman, David Friedman, George
Reisman, and Robert Nozick. (No Hayek, for some reason my
introduction to spontaneous-order theory came instead via the physical
sciences, through courses on "Space, Time, and Motion" and "Chance,
Necessity, and Order" by astrophysics professor David Layzer.) I
also learned a great deal by writing for Harvard's libertarian and
conservative student newspapers, as well as for the M.I.T-based
Objectivist periodical ERGO. And nearly everything I know
about constitutional law I learned from my libertarian/conservative
roommate Mark DePasquale. (I never took a course from Nozick; his
"Best Things in Life" course, focusing on love, sex, and
I am not making this up ice cream, sounded too touchy-feely
to me. Nozick's worst book, The
Examined Life, was a product of that course, so I probably
was through an ad in the Harvard Libertarian that I discovered
the Institute for Humane Studies. In 1986, my first year of graduate
study at Cornell, I attended my first IHS conference. The lineup
of lecturers was, for me, a fantastic feast of brain candy: Randy
Barnett, Walter Grinder, Israel Kirzner, Don Lavoie, Leonard Liggio,
Ralph Raico, and George Smith. (I remember Ralph asking me "Are
you a Randroid?" To this I replied "I don't think of myself as a
Randroid" which, as he quite reasonably pointed out, did not
answer his question. But then again, since neither a Randroid nor
a non-Randroid would admit to being a Randroid, it surely follows
that Ralph's very question was some sort of violation of conceptual
grammar.) The IHS was to be an enormous influence in my life; I
am grateful in particular to the loyal support of Walter Grinder,
the Institute's academic director at the time.
the next few years, my continuing association with the IHS had several
beneficial results (in addition to the welcome financial aid!):
it introduced the ideas of Friedrich Hayek into my intellectual
evolution; it plugged me into an invaluable network of libertarian
academics and institutions; and it radicalized me politically. (Yes,
the IHS was radical in those days.) In 1987, thanks to a
combination of IHS influence, Jonathan Kwitny's excellent book Endless
Enemies, the grotesque GOP primary debates (Bush-Dole-Kemp-Haig-DuPont-Robertson,
ugh), and my increasing attraction to the cultural left, I was finally
shaken loose from such Randian-style bad habits as hawkish foreign
policy and the Republican Party. I joined the Libertarian Party
on Thanksgiving Day, 1987.
1991, during my first year of teaching at UNC Chapel Hill
and in the face of the insanity surrounding the Gulf War
I had also come to reject the necessity of the state. I had initially
resisted anarchism, convinced by Isabel Paterson's God
of the Machine that liberty could be secured only through
a constitutional structure; after years of wrestling with the idea,
I now came to see that market anarchy is such a structure.
I had become what might be called a "left-Rothbardian." (How big
a change this was I'm not sure. When told of my conversion to anarchism,
my mother and my ex-girlfriend both replied: "Oh? I thought you
already were an anarchist.")
began to develop a moral and political philosophy that synthesized
what I took to be the major insights of the Greek philosophers,
the mediaeval Scholastics, Rand, Hayek, Rothbard, mainstream analytic
philosophy, and the cultural left. (Admittedly, a stew unlikely
to be precisely to anyone's taste but my own.)
the IHS network I had come into contact with Fred Miller and his
Social Philosophy and Policy Center. Now Fred invited me to spend
the 199192 academic year there, on leave from Chapel Hill,
to finish up my doctoral dissertation on Aristotle and indeterminism;
this enabled me to receive my Ph.D. from Cornell that spring. While
in Bowling Green I sat in on Fred's graduate seminar on rights theory,
which sparked new directions in my thinking. (All the seminar participants
tried their hands at constructing deductive arguments with numbered
steps deriving libertarian rights from Randian self-interest. Mine
had the distinction of being the longest and weirdest.) In subsequent
years, Fred was to prove an enormous help to my career, generously
guiding many conference invitations and other opportunities my way.
Fred's seminar I had championed the "flourishing" over the "survival"
interpretation of self-interest. One welcome bit of fallout from
this was that David Kelley, who had led the exodus of the sane and
nice people out of the Randian movement, invited me to his Institute
for Objectivist Studies to give several lectures critiquing Rand's
ethics and epistemology from my own post-Randian point of view;
these lectures eventually became my book Reason
and Value: Aristotle versus Rand.
was during my Chapel Hill years that I met Richard Hammer, a North
Carolina engineer who sent me his manifesto Toward
a Free Nation. Both inspired and frustrated by the history
of attempts to found a new libertarian country, Rich had become
convinced that such projects had failed, not because of a lack of
potential inhabitants or resources, but because of the absence of
believable descriptions of the relevant institutions. Impressed
by his level-headed approach to what is all too often a half-baked
project, I became involved in Rich's Free
Nation Foundation, a small think tank devoted, in effect, to
libertarian constitutional design. Writing for FNF and discussing
issues with the other members helped me to work out a more fully
developed anarcho-capitalist political theory.
1997 I was denied tenure at Chapel Hill. Though it certainly didn't
seem so at the time, this was one of the best things that ever happened
to me for in 1998 I came to Auburn, the coolest philosophy department
in the world. Here I soon found myself part of two different families
of crusading, brass-knuckled rationalists. On the one hand, there
were my new colleagues, from whom I would learn more than I'd learned
from any philosopher since grad school. On the other hand, there
was the Auburn-based Ludwig von Mises Institute, at the forefront
of radical libertarian scholarship, in whose programs Lew Rockwell
generously invited me to participate.
two new influences were about to converge in a crucial way. Through
Kelly Dean Jolley, one of my departmental colleagues, I became interested
in the philosophical approach of Ludwig Wittgenstein (which I had
previously dismissed as an obscurantist variant of positivism);
through Guido Hülsmann and others at the Mises Institute, I
became interested in Mises' "praxeological" attempt to establish
economic law on an a priori rather than an empirical basis.
I soon began to see how these two projects connected in interesting
ways both to each other and to my standing interest in Aristotelean
ethics and moral psychology. This three-way connection is currently
the centerpiece of my philosophical research, and serves as the
unifying theme of my website, Praxeology.net.
there's my story: a Randian at 15, an LP member at 23, an anarcho-capitalist
at 27, and a praxeologist at 36. (And despite all of the above,
tenured at 38!) What the future holds I can't say (kaleidic, you
know), but it's a safe bet that whatever I'm working on will have
something to do with the Science of Liberty.
T. Long [send him mail]
is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Auburn
University; author of Reason
and Value: Aristotle versus Rand; Editor of the Libertarian
Nation Foundation periodical Formulations;
and an Adjunct Scholar of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute. He maintains the website Praxeology.net,
as well as the web journal In
a Blog's Stead.
© 2003 LewRockwell.com