Samuel Edward Konkin III
[This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Samuel Edward Konkin."]
A few weeks ago, in remembering the libertarian career of Vince Miller, I called my readers' attention to a particular group of libertarians — those born between the late 1930s and the mid-1950s — libertarians who now range in age from around 55 to around 72. I called this group "the first generation of modern libertarians," the first libertarians who, if they became interested in ideas when most people do, in their teens, would have found some sort of libertarian movement "already in place to help guide them to the ideas and the people they'd probably be most glad to learn about — a movement that could help make sure they could find the classics of libertarian thought in cheap, reliable editions; a movement that could help make sure new libertarian works of importance were published and made available to as wide an audience as possible."
The natural leaders of this first generation of modern libertarians — those with the talent, the charisma, the vitality, the drive to move, figuratively speaking, to the front of the group and attract attention to themselves and their accomplishments — began to emerge during the 1970s. The 1970s and '80s were a heady time in the history of the modern libertarian movement. The movement had just experienced a massive increase in population, virtually all at once. Suddenly, there were at least two or three times as many libertarians in the world as there had been only a few years earlier. Suddenly, libertarians were everywhere — or so it seemed. Suddenly mainstream publishers were interested in issuing new, hardcover books about libertarianism. In 1970, from Bobbs-Merrill, came Radical Libertarianism by Jerome Tuccille. In 1973 came The Machinery of Freedom by David Friedman and For a New Liberty by Murray N. Rothbard and How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World by Harry Browne.
Suddenly, there were dozens of libertarian publications on the market. There was a joke going around at the time that defined libertarians as people who earned a living by selling magazine articles to each other. It's true that most of these publications had a circulation of no more than a few hundred, at best, and they looked decidedly amateurish when placed next to conservative or left-liberal publications of that era. It wasn't until around 1980 that the movement had three or four professionally designed magazines that reached a readership of 10,000 or more and wouldn't have looked out of place next to National Review or The New Republic on a newsstand. But even in the days when they were still typeset on typewriters and bound with a single staple in the upper left-hand corner of page one, they contained some outstanding writing and some compelling ideas.
This was before the Internet, remember — before email. There were more libertarians than ever before (or so it seemed), but if you wanted to be in touch with them, you had to rely on the US Mail, whichever branch of the telephone monopoly was nearest to where you lived, and simple, old-fashioned going out and pressing the flesh.
This third option was not equally available everywhere, of course. Libertarians tended to gravitate toward certain metropolitan areas. New York was the major center of libertarian social and intellectual activity until sometime in the early 1970s, when the focus of the movement shifted to Los Angeles. For a few years in the late '70s and early '80s, you might say the focus shifted again, this time to San Francisco. The next shift, in the mid-1980s, was to Washington DC and environs — though, by now, the movement had grown by a few more leaps and bounds and was becoming polycentric. New York, LA, and San Francisco retained their status as libertarian centers, while Washington added itself to the steadily growing list.
Libertarians who grew up in small towns or in cities that weren't libertarian centers often picked up and moved to one of these libertarian centers in search of the kind of social life they wanted but simply couldn't find where they were. In the libertarian intellectual and social scene in Los Angeles in the early '70s, everybody was from somewhere else. In my first year in Los Angeles, 1972–1973, three of the most personally important people I met were Roy A. Childs Jr., who had come to LA from Buffalo, New York via Washington, DC and vicinity; George H. Smith, who had come to LA from Tucson, Arizona, though, as an Air Force brat, he'd grown up "all over"; and Lou Rollins, who was originally from Wyoming but had at least had the decency to grow up in LA and environs.
In the libertarian centers, there were endless activities — parties, lectures, supper clubs, meetings of every sort. In Los Angeles in the early to mid-1970s, you seldom saw an entire week go by without at least one opportunity to get together with local and visiting libertarians, especially if you were willing to drive a few miles across town or even into a neighboring county. This state of affairs continued after the advent of the Age of the Internet, but the frequency of the events began to fall off. A week could now go by without at least one opportunity to get together with local and visiting libertarians. Maybe even a few weeks could go by, but seldom as much as an entire month.
The institutions we think of today as the major institutions of the libertarian movement were founded in the '70s and '80s: the Cato Institute in San Francisco in 1977, the Reason Foundation in Santa Barbara (about 85 or 90 miles north of Los Angeles) in 1978 (in 1986 or thereabouts, the Reason Foundation moved to Los Angeles), and the Mises Institute in the Southern college town of Auburn, Alabama, in 1982.
In 1982, a town like Auburn was significantly isolated. You didn't encounter very many libertarians in a place like that, much less any of the intellectual leaders of the libertarian movement. But the day was not far off when, because of the Internet, it no longer mattered where one was, geographically speaking. One could be anywhere, if one was connected and one knew how to make use of the Internet.
But I get ahead of my story. What we regard today as the major institutions of the libertarian movement — Cato, Reason, Mises — were much smaller in those days, and much more modestly funded. Their ability to do good libertarian works was therefore much more limited, as was their ability to offer opportunities for young libertarians who wanted to become full-time libertarian intellectuals or otherwise make a career of working to advance the cause of individual liberty.
Yet there were those who chose to try to make such careers for themselves, even if they were unable to find institutional support for their efforts. One such was a young man from Western Canada — not all the way west, mind you, not British Columbia out on the Pacific Coast, a bit farther inland than that, in the westernmost of what Canadians call the prairie provinces. His name was Samuel Edward Konkin III. He was born in Saskatchewan 63 years ago this month, on July 8, 1947. He grew up in Edmonton, in the neighboring prairie province of Alberta and got his undergraduate education at the University of Alberta, where he first became involved in political activism, serving as head of the Young Social Credit League on campus.
The Young Social Credit League was a student group allied with the politics of the Social Credit Party, a minor Canadian political party founded in Alberta in the mid-1930s and based on the theories, first published in the 1920s, of the British engineer and economist C.H. Douglas. Douglas was what Murray Rothbard used to call a "money crank." He believed — Douglas, that is — that government could enrich and invigorate the economy by giving away money to both producers and consumers. Clearly, in 1967, at the age of 20, Samuel Edward Konkin III had not yet discovered libertarianism.
He would do so in short order, however. He had already discovered the science fiction of Robert A. Heinlein, and when the mass-market paperback edition of Heinlein's 1966 novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was published in 1968, Sam picked up a copy as quickly as he could manage it and sat down to read. This new Heinlein tale, in which colonists on the moon — Luna — stage a libertarian revolution against the tyranny of politicians on Earth, captured Sam's imagination in a way none of Heinlein's other books ever had. He was particularly fascinated by the views of the self-described "rational anarchist," Professor Bernardo de la Paz, the intellectual leader of the rebels on Luna. So when, in the summer of 1968, Sam Konkin moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where he would start as a graduate student in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin in the fall, he was a former advocate of Social Credit newly converted to libertarianism by Robert A. Heinlein, though still somewhat tentative and full of all kinds of questions.
The questions were answered in short order, too. His new roommate, another chemistry grad student, named Tony Warnock, turned out to be a big fan of everything related to Ayn Rand. Through Warnock, Sam was introduced not only to the writings of Rand, but also to those of a couple of economists — Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard — and to those of Robert LeFevre, the real-life anarchist philosopher on whom Robert A. Heinlein had based Professor Bernardo de la Paz. Warnock also steered Sam to the Wisconsin Conservative Club, and Sam found his own way with no trouble at all from there to the University of Wisconsin chapter of YAF — Young Americans for Freedom, the conservative student organization founded in 1960 on William F. Buckley Jr.'s family estate in Connecticut. Sam joined YAF during the fall term of 1968. Within a few months, he had been selected as a delegate to the organization's national convention in St. Louis in August 1969.
As all the world knows by now, the young libertarians expelled from that YAF convention, along with the young libertarians expelled from the SDS national convention a month before in Chicago, became the nucleus of what Sam later called "the libertarian population explosion of 1969." At that YAF convention Sam met Rothbard, Karl Hess, and Dana Rohrabacher. Yes, I refer to the GOP Congressman from Southern California, who is today indistinguishable from any other conservative Republican, but who was something else entirely 40 years ago, when he was, as Sam put it once in an interview, newly "radicalized by Robert LeFevre, who provided him with small funding to travel the country with his [guitar] and [libertarian] folk songs from campus to campus, converting YAF chapters into Libertarian Alliances and SIL chapters." At that YAF convention, Sam Konkin confirmed his new identity as a libertarian.
Back in Madison, he schemed on how to get to New York, where he could build his new relationship with Rothbard and attend Mises's famous seminar at New York University. He transferred to NYU in the fall term of 1970. Almost upon his arrival at his new graduate school he assumed the editorship of the NYU Libertarian Notes, a campus newsletter, quickly renaming it New Libertarian Notes and aiming it at a broader readership. His mission, as he saw it, was to "cover" the newly expanded libertarian movement — to report on its issues and events, and to offer commentary aimed at steering the new movement in what Sam took to be the proper direction.
There was much going on in Manhattan in the early '70s, much libertarian ferment and growth. And it was not all in Murray Rothbard's living room. Over on Mercer Street in the Village, Laissez Faire Books, a new libertarian bookstore, was being established by Sharon Presley and John Muller. The Free Libertarian Party was polarizing libertarian strategic thought between those who believed political action could be used to achieve a free society and those who believed political action was a betrayal of libertarian principle. There were talks, parties, gatherings of every kind. It was a scene that cried out for a journalist with the imagination and (given the still very small market for news of this subculture) the sheer guts to make it his chief subject.
Sam stepped up. When he saw the focus of the movement change from New York to LA in the early '70s, he followed it there. New Libertarian Notes morphed into New Libertarian Weekly and finally into New Libertarian, which was supposed to be a monthly but actually appeared on a monthly basis only in fits and starts and finally fizzled out altogether in the '90s. By this time, of course, the Age of the Internet was upon us. Sam taught himself html and he launched a couple of websites, along with an email discussion group called Left Libertarian. But the '90s proved to be merely the beginning of the long, gradual decline of his once-startling energy and productivity. By the turn of the new century, he had pretty much ceased publishing at all. By 2004, he was dead.
Looking back, it seems clear that the '70s and '80s were Sam's peak years — his time in the sun. He published aggressively during that period — not only New Libertarian but a dozen other newsletters and various pamphlets as well, including his famous New Libertarian Manifesto, with endorsements from both Rothbard and LeFevre.
He attracted funding for his various activities. For a few years in the late '80s, he found enough funding to open a small suite of offices in a downtown office building in Long Beach, California for his own libertarian think tank, the Agorist Institute. The name, "Agorist," was derived from the ancient Greek word agora, meaning open marketplace. Sam attracted a coterie of admirers and fellow revolutionaries during the '70s and '80s, a couple of whom — J. Neil Schulman and Victor Koman — made independent marks as award-winning libertarian science-fiction writers during the '80s and '90s.
Sam was one of the great eccentrics of the libertarian '70s and '80s. You've heard that it's impossible to live in Los Angeles without owning a car, getting everywhere on public transportation the way many New Yorkers do? Sam did it in L.A. for 25 years or more. You've heard that there's never been a libertarian publication that didn't favor the views of one faction or another of the movement? Sam opened his publications to every libertarian point of view. At the top of his masthead, in every issue, he proudly printed the statement, "Everyone appearing in this publication disagrees!"
Sam had a marked talent for neologism. You've heard that there are two types of libertarians, anarchists and minarchists — that is, advocates of very small or minimal government? "Minarchist" and "minarchy" and "minarchism" were all coined in the '70s by Sam. You may have heard that back in the '70s, libertarians who gave up political activism under the influence of Harry Browne's book, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, were called "Browne-outs"? Another Konkin coinage. You may have heard the term "Kochtopus" applied to the group of libertarian organizations funded in the late '70s and early '80s by the Kansas oil billionaire Charles Koch? "Kochtopus" was yet another of Sam's many coinages.
It wasn't only his coinages that attracted attention, of course. It was also his ideas. Younger libertarians today have sometimes heard of Sam Konkin but don't really have a clear understanding of who he was or why he was important. Yet, despite Sam's failure to take proper advantage of the Internet and help assure the survival of his work for at least another generation, I still run into references to him and his ideas in libertarian publications. I ran into one just the other day in an article by Walter Block in the newest issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies. Predictably, the reference was to the most interesting and probably the most enduring of Sam's ideas — his concept of counter-economics and the counter-economy.
"Nearly every action," Sam wrote in the mid-1980s, "is regulated, taxed, prohibited, or subsidized." So "everyone is a resister to the extent that he survives in a society where laws control everything and give contradictory orders. All (non-coercive) human action committed in defiance of the State constitutes the Counter-Economy." The Counter-Economy is, therefore, pretty vast. "The more controls and taxation a State imposes on its people," Sam wrote, "the more they will evade and defy them. Since the United States is one of the less (officially) controlled countries, and the Counter-Economy here is fairly large, the global Counter-Economy should be expected to be even larger — and it is." According to "U.S. government estimates … just the tax-dodging part of the Counter-Economy is twenty to forty million of the population."
That's big, but not big enough to cause the collapse of our official economy. In the Soviet Union, by contrast, Sam noted,
Communism collapsed in no small part due to the Counter-Economy. Nearly everything was available in the Counter-Economy with only shoddy goods and shortages in the official socialist economy. The Soviets called Counter-Economic goods "left-hand" … and entire manufacturing assembly lines co-existed … with the desultory State industry ones, on the same factory floor. Counter-Economic "capitalists" sold shares in their companies and vacationed in Black Sea resorts. Managers of collective farms who needed a tractor replaced in a hurry look[ed] to the Counter-Economy rather than see their kolkhoz collapse awaiting a State tractor delivery.
Nor is this all, for, as Sam pointed out, "Tax evasion, inflation avoidance, smuggling, free production, and illegal distribution still compose only half the Counter-Economy. Labor flows as freely as capital, as hordes of 'illegal aliens' pour across borders from more-statist to less-statist economic regions," and as these people and others begin providing services that are both unlicensed and unregulated.
Most of these people, Sam argued "are acting in an agorist manner with little understanding of any theory." They "are induced by material gain to evade, avoid, or defy the State. Surely they are a hopeful potential?" Sam thought they were. What we libertarians needed to do, he believed, was educate these people, help them to see that getting rid of the state was good for business, good for prosperity — we needed to convert them to agorism. Then, basically, let nature take its course. "The path from here to agora now becomes blindingly obvious," Sam wrote.
As more people reject the State's mystifications … the Counter-Economy grows both vertically and horizontally. Horizontally, it involves more and more people who turn more and more of their activities toward the counter-economic; vertically, it means new structures (businesses and services) grow specifically to serve the Counter-Economy.
Among these services designed to "serve the Counter-Economy," Sam listed arbitrators as an example. But he also commented that
Counter-economic entrepreneurs have an incentive to provide better security devices, places of concealment, instructions to aid evasion and to screen potential customers and suppliers for other counter-economic entrepreneurs. And thus is the counter-economic protection industry born. As it grows, it may begin insuring against "busts," lowering counter-economic risks further and accelerating counter-economic growth.
Eventually, of course, after a period of increasingly rapid change of this kind, the "underground" will break into and displace the "overground"; the state will wither away into irrelevance, its taxpayers, soldiers, and law-enforcement people having deserted it for the marketplace; and we'll be left with a free, agorist society. Or so Sam expected, anyhow.
It's good to know that Sam's vision still excites interest, comment, and criticism, so long after his heyday — the '70s and '80s — has faded into a steadily less and less precisely remembered past. It would be good to see even more attention being paid to his ideas. It would be good to see them playing a larger part in the emergence of whatever turns out to be our future.