Mises Daily

Total Freedom

As a senior in high school, back in 1977, I was introduced to the writings of Ayn Rand. Rand’s work had a huge impact on my intellectual development. That impact was not merely philosophical. In her essays, Rand celebrated the enormous contributions of the Austrian school. Not too long thereafter, I discovered such thinkers as Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, and Murray Rothbard.

Entering New York University in the Fall of 1977, I eventually triple majored in history (with honors), politics, and economics. NYU offered me an intense and exhilarating education in the Austrian tradition. I took classes with Israel Kirzner, Gerald O’Driscoll, and Roger Garrison, and attended weekly Austrian colloquia with such participants as Ludwig Lachmann, Murray Rothbard, Mario Rizzo, Joseph Salerno, Stephen Littlechild, Don Lavoie, Larry White, and Richard Ebeling. By 1981, I was on the staff of the Austrian Economics Newsletter, and deeply involved in the campus libertarian student group of which I was a co-founder.

My involvement with that student group, the NYU chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society, enabled me to get campus sponsorship for several Rothbard lectures. Murray spoke on everything from American history to foreign policy. I struck up a cordial relationship with him, and learned much from his work. And when I entered the undergraduate history honors program, he gave me indispensable guidance. I chose to examine the Pullman strike and I used his business cycle theory as a means of understanding the history of labor strife.

His influence on my honors thesis was immeasurable. Though I sailed through the honors program, however, I didn’t anticipate the kind of resistance that I eventually experienced from one of the three academics who sat on my oral defense committee. He was the Chairman of the Department of History, Albert Romasco. When Romasco started questioning me about my “ideological” approach to history, he became almost hostile toward me for my reliance on Rothbard’s work. Though I ended up receiving an award for best record in the history honors program, Romasco was so disenchanted with my thesis that he told me: “Maybe you ought to go into political theory instead of history!” I guess I took him seriously, since I turned to political theory in my graduate and doctoral studies.

In any event, when I related the story of my oral defense to Murray, explaining how hostile Romasco was, Murray started to laugh. It seems that in the Summer 1966 issue of Studies on the Left, Murray published a scathing review of Romasco’s book, The Poverty of Abundance: Hoover, the Nation, the Depression. In it, Murray attacks Romasco’s welfare-liberal ideology, his “failures” and “misconceptions,” his bibliographic “skimpiness” and “ad hoc, unsupported and inevitably fallacious causal theories.” Murray figured I became the whipping boy for Romasco; here was Romasco’s chance to strike back at Murray Rothbard, by extension. Well, it was my first lesson in the politics of scholarship, even if it provided Murray with a hearty laugh. I sure wasn’t laughing in front of that committee!

Eventually, through my efforts, the Department of History invited Murray to speak on “Libertarian Paradigms in American History”—a virtuoso and entertaining lecture extending from the colonial to the modern era—and it was one of the most well-received and well-attended seminars ever presented under the department’s auspices. In later years, Murray was less thrilled with some of the criticisms I made of his work, but he was always cordial and supportive. I’m only sorry he didn’t live to see my work on Rand, which greatly interested him, or my Total Freedom, which devotes half of its contents to a discussion of his important legacy.

My doctoral education took me more deeply into the study of Marxism, with one of the most important Marxist scholars of this generation: Bertell Ollman. My encounter with Ollman was fateful, for Bertell knew Murray Rothbard personally and had joined with him in the Peace and Freedom Party in opposition to the Vietnam War. Ollman had deep respect for the Austrian and libertarian traditions. He encouraged me to develop a doctoral dissertation on Marx, Hayek, and Rothbard that served as the basis for a trilogy of books that have followed: Marx, Hayek, and Utopia (SUNY, 1995), Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (Penn State, 1995), and my newest volume, Total Freedom (Penn State, 2000).

That trilogy, almost twenty years in the making, focuses on how the key thinkers in the modern libertarian tradition have embraced an emphasis on the wider context of social inquiry as they move toward an enriched understanding of freedom: its dynamic and systemic preconditions and effects. I call this focus on the wider context a movement toward a “dialectical libertarianism,” and I believe that it is a radical and revolutionary alternative to Marxism.

In Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, I examine the provocative convergence of Marxian and Hayekian critiques of utopian thinking. I argue, however, that Marxism itself succumbs to a form of utopianism, and that Hayek’s keen understanding of constructivist rationalism can help us to formulate a legitimate radical alternative.

In Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, I argue that Rand too contributes to this new radicalism, steeped as she was in the lessons of Russian dialectics. Such a dialectical approach demands that we examine culture, sexuality, politics, economics, psychology, and pedagogy as mutually reinforcing factors in the fight for freedom.

In Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, I aim to recover fully the dialectical tradition in the name of liberty. Part One focuses on Aristotle as the father of dialectical inquiry; it also concentrates on the dialectical contributions of such great liberals as Herbert Spencer, Carl Menger, and Ludwig von Mises. Part Two of the book is devoted almost exclusively to Rothbard’s contributions to this dialectical understanding. Though I criticize certain aspects of Rothbard’s thought as being in conflict with a dialectical project, I view his understanding of structural crisis and class dynamics as crucial to the dialectical-libertarian enterprise.

It is my hope that my work will further our discussion of freedom—and the necessary conditions that make its achievement possible.


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