Mises Daily

Vince Miller and the International Libertarian Movement

[This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode “Vince Miller and the International Libertarian Movement.”]

When the libertarian movement we know today was launched during and just after World War II, the founders were men and women who ranged in age from their 30s to their 60s. They represented, really, two different generations. The first group, born in the 1880s, included Rose Wilder Lane and Isabel Paterson (both born in 1886), as well as Ludwig von Mises (born in 1881). The members of this first group served as mentors and teachers for the members of the second group, who were all born around the turn of the 20th century, and were therefore young enough — or almost young enough — to be the sons and daughters of the members of the first group. Thus Mises was teacher to Friedrich Hayek (born 1899), as Paterson was teacher to Ayn Rand (born 1905). Leonard Read (born 1898) learned from both Lane and Mises, though at a distance, rather than close at hand.

Ayn Rand, the youngest of the founding group, was 38 years old when her individualist novel, The Fountainhead, became one of the founding documents of the new libertarian movement. Rose Wilder Lane and Isabel Paterson were in their late 50s that same year — 1943 — when their books, The Discovery of Freedom and The God of the Machine, became founding documents of the same movement. Friedrich Hayek was 45 a year later, when his book, The Road to Serfdom, became an international bestseller and probably the only book of its type ever to become a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book.

Leonard Read was 47 when he opened the doors of the Foundation for Economic Education, the original libertarian think tank, in 1946. The oldest among the founding group, the Austrian economist and social theorist Ludwig von Mises, was 68 when his magnum opus, Human Action, was released by Yale University Press in 1949.

These people grew up in a world without a libertarian movement, as did the generation that followed, the generation of people born in the 1910s and the 1920s. For people like Robert LeFevre (born 1911), Karl Hess (born 1923), Murray Rothbard and Joan Kennedy Taylor (both born in 1926), and Nathaniel Branden (born 1930), there were no libertarian institutions in existence until they had reached high school or college age or had moved into the working world, and new libertarian books were few and far between before then, too.

It’s only Americans born during and after World War II who grew up in a world in which, by the time they were old enough to become interested in ideas, there was at least an embryonic 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. It’s only Americans born from about 1939 on who grew up taking some sort of libertarian institutional infrastructure for granted, as something that seemed always to have been there.

The libertarian movement that these war babies and babyboomers grew up taking more or less for granted grew gradually through the 1950s and early 1960s. The Foundation for Economic Education and the William Volker Fund were joined by Robert LeFevre’s Freedom School and Rampart Journal, then by the Nathaniel Branden Institute, with its courses on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and Andrew J. Galambos’s Free Enterprise Institute. Thousands of teenaged protolibertarians all over the country had contact of one sort or another with these institutions or their publications; a few made pilgrimages to Colorado and New York City and served summer internships or attended summer seminars, becoming acquainted with the people behind this libertarian infrastructure, meeting other young libertarians from places scattered throughout the United States.

In the 1960s, as this new libertarian generation began percolating through America’s college and university campuses, its members found that while New Leftists had a student organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and young conservatives had a student organization, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), there was no libertarian student organization.

Some of the libertarians drifted into SDS, where they found plenty of people who agreed with them about the draft and the Vietnam War and the marijuana laws, but few who grasped the importance of the free market. More libertarians drifted into YAF, where there seemed to be plenty of enthusiasm for the free market, as long as it wasn’t a free market in marijuana, and where the draft and the Vietnam War were oddly popular among a group who styled themselves as advocates of “freedom.”

“The SIL was the first libertarian institution established by the first generation of modern libertarians.”

Neither alliance could hold for long. By 1969, both had unraveled. The libertarians were purged from both organizations at their separate 1969 national conventions in St. Louis. But the larger of the two newly disaffiliated groups — the members of the former Libertarian Caucus of YAF — attended another meeting right there in St. Louis, before they left town. This other meeting was with representatives from the Society for Rational Individualism, a small Objectivist group with aspirations to national significance, headquartered in suburban Washington, DC.

By the end of this meeting, the Society for Rational Individualism had taken on several of the old YAF Libertarian Caucus leaders as directors and transformed itself into the Society for Individual Liberty (SIL), the first libertarian institution established by the first generation of libertarians for whom the libertarian movement was already a fact of life by the time they got old enough to be interested in ideas — what you might call the first generation of modern libertarians.

SIL grew rapidly at first. Brian Doherty reports in his book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement that within a year of the new organization’s founding — that is, by sometime in the late spring of 1970 — there were more than a hundred SIL chapters on college and university campuses across the country. In November, 1971, which Doherty describes as “probably the high point of its draw,” SIL “threw conferences in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, drawing nearly five hundred in Chicago, slightly fewer at the others.”

But decline set in quickly. The end of the draft and US withdrawal from the civil war in Vietnam killed off support on campus for any kind of political agitation — and killed it off with stunning suddenness. SIL had started out building its approach around student activism, but it ended up engaging in a kind of basic libertarian education that was similar in many ways to the kind of thing Leonard Read’s Foundation for Economic Education had always tried to do. According to Doherty, during the 1970s and 1980s, “SIL … mailed out tens of thousands of small foldover pamphlets explaining libertarian ideas and positions.”

Meanwhile, up in Canada, another story was unfolding. Vincent H. Miller had been born in suburban Toronto late in 1938. Though technically he was born shortly before the outbreak of World War II, he was born late enough that, if he had developed an interest in social and political ideas as a teenager, while he was in high school, there would have been the rudiments of a libertarian movement already in place in the United States to give him guidance. As it turned out, however, Vince Miller was apolitical for the first three decades of his life. He was more interested in running, playing the guitar, and getting rich in business.

Then, in 1971, at the age of 32, he met an actor and former high-school English teacher named Marshall Bruce Evoy. Evoy had been the Nathaniel Branden Institute’s official business representative in Toronto in the ‘60s. In the ‘70s, he would found the Libertarian Party of Canada and a monthly magazine called the Libertarian Option and would become a fixture at libertarian conventions and gatherings, both in Canada and the United States, playing Patrick Henry (in period costume) delivering his “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech.

“In 1982, Vince moved on to building a nonprofit organization to host a series of international libertarian conferences — the Libertarian International.”

I suppose you could say that Evoy took Vince Miller along for this libertarian ride. He gave Vince a copy of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand; then, once it had worked its predictable magic, he began integrating Vince into his various libertarian projects. He made Vince an editor at the Libertarian Option, got him involved in party politics and encouraged him in his decision to run repeatedly as a Libertarian Party candidate for parliament. Before the ‘70s were out, Vince had become president of the LP of Canada. He had also taught himself typesetting and offset printing and had gone into business for himself as a printer, competing with the shops he had once patronized, and often found unreliable, when producing libertarian publications. He worked briefly in the late ‘70s as editor of a libertarian magazine financed by former US Libertarian Party presidential candidate and Rose Wilder Lane-protégé Roger MacBride.

When that project ran out of money, Vince moved on to what turned out to be his best idea yet — a nonprofit organization that would host a series of international libertarian conferences — the conference would be held in a different country each time it took place. This organization could also spread libertarian ideas from the English-speaking world, where they had their largest following, to the rest of the world. It could, for example, arrange for translations of classic libertarian works written in English and their distribution — perhaps even their free distribution — in countries where English was not widely read or spoken.

Vince Miller decided to name the organization the Libertarian International. The first Libertarian International conference took place in 1982 in Switzerland. Over the next few years, subsequent conferences took place in Scandinavia, Paris, Swaziland, and Germany.

In 1989, the Libertarian International merged with the Society for Individual Liberty and became the International Society for Individual Liberty (ISIL). Vince Miller was president of ISIL for the rest of his life — for 19 years all told, until his death two years ago this month in 2008 at the age of 69. Add in his 9 years as president of the Libertarian International, and you see that Vince devoted 28 years, more than half his adult life, to the task of promoting libertarianism to an international audience.

No one who knew him during those years — 1980 to 2008 — is likely to forget him. Vince was genial, good-humored, cheerful, always eager to lend a helping hand — the kind of guy you couldn’t help liking, especially when you learned that his dedication to libertarian principle was as pure, as hard core, as you’d find anywhere. He was a gun enthusiast who loved his weekly, Sunday morning visit to the firing range. “Going to church,” he called it.

As president of ISIL, he oversaw successful conferences during the ‘90s and the early years of the new century in Russia, Costa Rica, Lithuania, Mexico, Athens, Rome, Berlin, and New Zealand, among other locations. He worked to introduce thousands of students in other countries to libertarian ideas. He sponsored translation and publication of English-language libertarian classics in former Iron Curtain countries and in other countries where libertarian ideas had made little headway up to that time.

And, true to the SIL tradition, he published and distributed hundreds of thousands of leaflets, brief introductions to the most basic libertarian issues, succinct overviews of those issues, typically printed on both sides of a single 8 1/2 x 11 sheet; and he distributed these leaflets everywhere. He accomplished a lot in the nearly 30 years he devoted to this work, and, as I say, those who knew him will remember him both long and fondly.

But individuals die in time and their memories with them. Vince Miller is far from the first member of the first generation of modern libertarians — the generation of libertarians born between the late ‘30s and the mid-’50s — to go to his final resting place. And as the rest of us gradually succumb to the inevitable and follow him, though the organization he left behind is still very much with us, Vince’s memory will fade. This is inescapable. It could not be otherwise.

Yet, there’s a sense in which I, for one, lament the loss. Vince Miller was, after all, one of the most notable of those who have worked over the past 60-odd years to maintain and extend the institutional infrastructure of libertarianism that was first built in the 1940s. Those of us who are glad there is a libertarian movement and are glad to be a part of it — we owe people like Vince Miller a debt of gratitude.

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