It Usually Ends with Murray Rothbard
[Excerpted from I Chose Liberty (2010)]
I vividly recall the event that set me on a long and winding road to libertarianism and Austrian economics. I was 12 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 anticommunist 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 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 as they say!).
I quickly became an ardent anticommunist 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 anticommunism 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 exclaimed, "Salerno, you beautiful anticommunist, 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-1960s, 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 anticommunist 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 the 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 cohorts 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 antiegalitarian and protradition 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 nonmoralizing 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 pregraduation tradition at St. Joseph's in which the senior class presented a burlesque show 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 tony 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 (YAF), 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 — the squishy-soft liberal president of BC had declared attendance to be "optional," with midterm 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 and was 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 antistate mentality by demonstrating how specific government policies exploited and victimized them and disrupted their families and communities had actually been 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 antiestablishment 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 1950s. 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 US 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 unique and glorious thing about McCarthy was not his goals or his ideology, but precisely his radical, populist means. For McCarthy was able, for a few years, to short-circuit the intense opposition of all the elites in American life: from the Eisenhower-Rockefeller administration to the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex to liberal and left media and academic elites — to overcome all that opposition and reach and inspire the masses directly. And he did it through television, and without any real movement behind him; he had only a guerrilla band of a few advisers, but no organization and no infrastructure.
The strategy of directly appealing to the exploited middle- and working-class masses and short-circuiting the entrenched political and media elites is what later led Rothbard to support the presidential candidacies of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan.
The academic year following that of the student strike was my junior year. The concurrence of a number of events marked it as a pivotal year in my intellectual development. To start with, soon after my return from summer break I discovered that a chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom had begun operating on campus. Its eclectic membership included Buckleyite traditionalist conservatives, fusionist libertarian-conservatives, laissez-faire capitalist Randians, and a few nearly pure libertarians. Although I do not believe I joined the organization immediately, I began spending my spare time in their office participating in informal discussions and debates. This marked the first time that I had interacted with a group of my peers whose political philosophy even loosely paralleled my own, and I found the experience exhilarating. Also, the friendly verbal sparring with thoughtful young "conservatives" of various stripes helped clarify my own thinking and propelled me toward a progressively more consistent and radical libertarian position.
My transformation into a full-fledged libertarian was completed when, at the start of my second semester, I read in a white heat the cover article of the New York Times Magazine entitled "The New Right Credo — Libertarianism" (1971). The authors, Stan Lehr and Louis Rossetto Jr., were seniors at Columbia University, and their article presented the first comprehensive account that I had read of the unadulterated libertarian political philosophy, carefully differentiated from both establishment liberalism and conservatism, as well as from the New Left, whose positions it shared on the abolition of the draft and all drug laws, and an immediate US withdrawal from Vietnam.
The article also portrays libertarianism as a vital and flourishing political movement that draws inspiration from Rand and science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein, whose novels I had been reading since I began college. Jerome Tuccille and former Goldwater speechwriter Karl Hess, unfamiliar names to me at the time, are identified as leading publicists and pamphleteers for the movement and their writings cited for their defense of radical libertarianism. More significantly, from the standpoint of my academic interests, the article refers to "economists of the Austrian School" — a school I had never been introduced to in my two-and-half years as an undergraduate economics major — as having demonstrated that recessions and depressions were not inherent defects of the free market but the result of government and central bank manipulation of the money supply.
The article later quotes a passage from Man, Economy, and State by Murray N. Rothbard, explaining why state management of an economy deprived of market prices is inevitably chaotic. As with the Austrian School in general, I had never heard Rothbard's name mentioned by any of my economics professors and had no idea who he was. By the time I finished reading the article I had been converted to the pure libertarian position — a position the authors designated by the then-novel term anarchocapitalism — and my curiosity about Austrian economics had been piqued.
Back at the YAF office I mentioned my discovery of Austrian economics to my comrades. Shortly thereafter, one of them, Gerald Uba, produced and placed in my hands an odd-sized "minibook" (measuring 3.75" by 5") written by Rothbard and entitled Depressions: Their Cause and Cure. After reading Rothbard's 30 pages of clear and scintillating prose, I knew I had learned more in one hour about business cycles or "macroeconomic fluctuations" than I had absorbed from two semesters of listening to lectures in Principles of Macroeconomics and Intermediate Macroeconomics and of poring over the jargon-filled, opaquely written, deadly dull textbooks assigned in these courses. Moreover, my deep interest in economics was now transformed into a burning passion for the subject.
Serendipitously, in the same semester that I was introduced to Rothbard and modern Austrian business-cycle theory, I was enrolled in a history-of-economic-thought course taught by Robert Cheney, SJ. Father Cheney was a superb, if somewhat low-key, teacher and near the end of the course he introduced the topic of the marginalist revolution. Referring to the early Austrians — Carl Menger, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, and the latter's brother-in-law, Friedrich von Wieser — he characterized the formation of the Austrian School as a "unique event" in intellectual history. Never before, he declared, had such brilliant men worked so closely together to develop a common approach to economic phenomena. Father Cheney's enthusiastic endorsement of the older Austrian School further bolstered my interest in learning more about the school.
As soon as I arrived back home that summer I began to devour all the libertarian and Austrian books I could lay my hands on. Through my local bookstore I ordered Jerome Tuccille's Radical Libertarianism: A Right Wing Alternative. Although some of its illustrations are now a bit dated and it contains a few minor "lifestyle libertarian" confusions and deviations, it served, and still serves, as a compelling introduction to the radical-libertarian philosophy and movement.
I next began to scour public libraries in the suburbs of central New Jersey for books by Rothbard and the two Austrian business-cycle theorists he had referred to in his booklet, Mises and Hayek. Needless to say, I did not have much luck at first. Desperate, I then decided to venture into the Plainfield Public Library. Plainfield was a small city that, like Newark, had been torn by race riots in 1967. A city policeman chasing looters had been set upon by a black mob and beaten to death with a shopping cart. The National Guard, which had then been sent in to quell the riot, conducted an indiscriminate and warrantless house-to-house search for weapons that inflamed even the most peaceful black residents and left lingering bitterness and racial hatred.
Anyway, by the summer of 1971, "white flight" from the beautiful Victorian houses and Dutch colonials that encircled the once thriving shopping district of the city was almost complete, leaving the large, well-stocked library, housed in a new glass-walled building next to the increasingly rowdy high school, nearly always deserted. It was there one late spring evening that I finally located musty copies of America's Great Depression, The Theory of Money and Credit, Human Action, Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle, and Prices and Production. Despite the fact that I was an out-of-towner I somehow or other finagled a library card from the sympathetic and lonely librarian and was able to withdraw the books.
That summer I worked as a janitor at an engineering facility for AT&T. I always completed my assigned tasks quickly and distinctly recall spending a great deal of time ensconced in a stuffy broom closet with a naked overhead light bulb reading America's Great Depression. Although the Mises and Hayek volumes presented more of a challenge because of some unfamiliar terminology and stylistic idiosyncrasies, by summer's end I had grasped enough of the substantive theory to consider myself a reasonably well-informed student of Austrian business-cycle theory.
As my senior year began, I discovered the Books for Libertarians catalogue and ordered Rothbard's Man, Economy, and State, Power and Market, and What Has Government Done to Our Money? as well as the first modern anarchocapitalist treatise, The Market for Liberty by Morris and Linda Tannehill.
The most memorable course my senior year was Political Economy taught by Professor Barry Bluestone, a young Marxist economist and member of URPE (Union of Radical Political Economists), newly hired by the department. Professor Bluestone knew and had worked with David Friedman on an antidraft coalition and was familiar with Rothbard's writings. He was also somewhat conversant with the radical libertarian position. One day, while explaining this position to the class, he stated with a smirk that some libertarians actually believed that law could be enforced through private competing police agencies, although even they conceded that the functions of lawmaking and the judicial system would have to be monopolized by the State. I immediately raised my hand and pointed out that there were libertarians, myself included, who would relegate even these functions to private competition. I went on to explain why, under competition, honest courts would drive the corrupt and biased courts, such as he had told us existed in "Amerika," out of business. A good speaker and teacher, never at a loss for words, he was momentarily struck speechless.
After graduation from Boston College, I proceeded on to the graduate program in economics at Rutgers University, just ten minutes away from my parents' home in New Jersey. Graduate school was hugely entertaining owing to the eclectic mixture of the Rutgers graduate economics faculty. The most noteworthy among the faculty included Paul Davidson, the prominent post-Keynesian who taught macro and monetary theory; Hugh Rockoff, a Chicago PhD and eminent economic historian who published a number of seminal articles on the free-banking era in the United States; Alexander Balinky, a Marx scholar, who claimed the distinction of having been Joseph Schumpeter's last graduate assistant and whose office was occasionally picketed by the Maoist Progressive Labor party over some arcane point of Marxist dogma; Marc Miles, a student of Arthur Laffer's, who later coauthored an international-economics textbook with Laffer and also published a book on supply-side monetary theory and policy; and the prolific international economist, H. Peter Gray, a former student of William Fellner's at Berkeley and a strict, but tolerant and well-read, Keynesian who was to become my dissertation adviser. To Professor Gray, I owe a debt of gratitude for introducing me to the classical "monetary" approach to the balance of payments and exchange rates, an approach that was later revived and elaborated by Ludwig von Mises and that I investigated in my dissertation.
Overall, I was quite pleased with my experience at Rutgers. The diversity among the faculty led to my exposure to a broad range of literature and also to toleration of my vigorously expressed Austrolibertarian views by my professors and peers alike. My dissertation committee comprised a Keynesian, a monetarist, and a supply-sider. Perhaps as important, the transmogrifying of economics into a branch of applied mathematics, which had begun in the 1960s in American economics, had not yet progressed very far at Rutgers. Indeed, it was this trend that led to my enrolling at Rutgers. After I had received my GRE (graduate record exam) results in my senior year at BC, I went to see my faculty adviser to discuss my prospects for graduate education. Having scored in the 99th percentile in the verbal part of the exam and just below the 90th percentile in the economics part and on track to graduate with honors from BC, I thought I could write my own ticket to graduate school. I asked him what he thought of Princeton, where he had received his PhD. He took one look at my mediocre score in the math part (76th percentile), smiled indulgently, and said, "With that score you won't get into Princeton and if you do, you won't make it through. I suggest you apply to a school just up the road, Rutgers University." Although I was stunned and dismayed at the time, I remain grateful today for his straightforward advice.
It was while I was attending graduate school that I met Murray Rothbard. Shortly before my first semester began I was involved with the founding of the New Jersey Libertarian Party, of which I was subsequently elected treasurer. Our first convention was scheduled for February of 1973 and we required a keynote speaker. In November 1972, the president of the NJLP Bob Steiner and I attended a libertarian conference in New York City whose featured speakers included Rothbard, Bob LeFevre, and Karl Hess, among others. It was the first time I had seen any of these giants of the nascent libertarian movement in person and I was excited especially at the prospect of hearing Rothbard speak. Rothbard followed LeFevre on the program and, although I do not recall the precise topic of his talk that day, I was extremely impressed with the joyfulness, affability, and sense of humor he projected. The latter was especially on display during the question-and-answer period following his talk. When someone asked him his view of the extreme pacifism of LeFevre's "autarchist" philosophy — which prohibited any form of violence even in self-defense — Rothbard replied, "Well, if someone was brandishing a mallet at me and I had a gun, I'd plug him."
We subsequently invited Rothbard to give the keynote address at the NJLP convention, and he graciously agreed to do it for the rubber-chicken dinner and paltry $75 we were able to offer him. Prior to his talk, I introduced myself to him and we spoke for a while about libertarian issues before I mentioned that I was a graduate student in economics and was going through Frank Fetter's articles, the references to which I had gleaned from reading Man, Economy, and State. I never expected his reaction to my casual remark. His eyes immediately lit up and he seemed like he could barely contain his enthusiasm. He feverishly searched for a pen and asked me for my address and phone number and told me that he would pass on this information to people in New Jersey who had formed an Austrian reading group.
The following Monday I received a call from a student member of this group who invited me to attend the meetings of this reading circle, which was directed by Walter Grinder and included another one of my libertarian heroes, Walter Block. In the year-and-one-half that followed, I enjoyed increasing personal contact with Murray Rothbard, including visits to his home, meetings with him in his office at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, and arranging for him to address the graduate economics faculty and students at Rutgers. Rothbard also encouraged me to write a review essay on David Friedman's book, The Machinery of Freedom, for the Libertarian Forum, and this became my first publication. Thus when I disembarked from Don Lavoie's car in South Royalton, Vermont in June 1974 to attend the first Austrian economics conference to be convened in the United States, I, like Don and most of the other attendees, had arrived by way of Murray Rothbard.