This article originally appeared on the site of LewRockwell.com and was subsequently published as part of the book, edited by Walter Block, entitled I Chose Liberty: Autobiographies of Contemporary Libertarians (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010, Chapter 67, pp. 327-29). This essay has been translated into Hindi by Nikol Barton.

HOW I BECAME A LIBERTARIAN

By Chris Matthew Sciabarra

 

Chris Matthew Sciabarra is the author of the "Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy," which includes Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism.  He is also a founding co-editor of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.  A Visiting Scholar in the New York University Department of Politics for twenty years (1989-2009), check out his homepage and his Notablog.  

 

 

Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, born to a Greek and Sicilian family, I had some conservative predilections as a young high school student.  One of my earliest high school teachers had a big influence on me; his name was Ira Zornberg. He was a faculty advisor of a social studies newspaper called Gadfly that I edited. He was the first teacher to bring the study of the Holocaust to high school students. He very much encouraged me in my conservative politics, even though I was never completely comfortable with the conservative social agenda, especially with regard to issues of abortion and sexuality. It wasn't until I read Ayn Rand in my senior year in high school [John Dewey High School] that I was able to sort those issues out.

 

Being an outspoken political type in high school, I had been involved in some pretty terrific battles with the Young Socialists of America who had buried the school in their propaganda. My sister-in-law had been reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and she said, "I think you ought to read this woman, you'll find some similarities between what you're saying and what she advocates." I wasn't a big fiction reader, so I started reading Ayn Rand's nonfiction first---Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, The Virtue of Selfishness---and it was as if I had found a whole new world. At the time I was in an advanced placement course in American history, with another great teacher, Larry Pero, and I was able to bring to that class so many of the insights that Rand had on the history of capitalism. Rand also helped me deal with some pretty difficult personal health problems I'd been experiencing. Here was a woman who talked about heroism and potentials rather than limitations. It was an articulated philosophy that gave me encouragement not to wallow in self-pity and dismay, but to make the most of my potentialities. So on a personal level, her writings had a tremendous impact on my life---while also leading me to the works of every major libertarian writer, starting of course with Ludwig von Mises.

 

By the time I got to NYU, as an undergraduate, I chose a triple major in economics, politics, and history [with honors], so I had a lot of great teachers. In economics, I took many electives with those who were in Austrian theory and enjoyed courses and lectures with people like Gerald O'Driscoll, Roger Garrison, Stephen Littlechild, Israel Kirzner, and Mario Rizzo. I interacted with many of the newer generation of Austrian theorists, including Don Lavoie. In history, where I did my senior honor's thesis as an undergraduate, I studied with the great business historian Vincent Carosso and also a labor historian, Dan Walkowitz. In politics, on the undergraduate, graduate, and eventually the doctoral level, I studied with Gisbert Flanz, and, of course, most important, my mentor, Bertell Ollman who is an internationally-known Marxist scholar, author of such books as Alienation and Dialectical Investigations.

 

While an undergraduate, I met Murray Rothbard.  I was a founding member of the NYU Chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society. We got Rothbard to speak before the society several times. I struck up a cordial relationship with Murray, and learned much from my conversations with him. He was a real character, very funny, and quite entertaining as a speaker. When I went into the undergraduate history honors program, Murray gave me indispensable guidance. I chose to examine the Pullman strike and I used his theory of structural crisis as a means of understanding labor strife.

 

Murray gave me some very interesting pointers about how to carve an intellectual niche for oneself. He told me if I invested lots of time investigating the Pullman strike and other labor topics, I'd have a virtual monopoly among libertarians in the analysis of labor history. You end up thinking and writing more about a single subject than anyone else, and your work becomes indispensable to future research on the subject. It was good advice especially when one is compelled to defend one's thesis: you've spent more time on the subject and know more about it than most others. You've written the book, so who better than you to defend it?!

 

Well, I didn't continue my research in labor history, but I sure did focus on one subject---dialectical libertarianism---in the years that followed. Of course, I seemed to have picked a topic with which few would even want to associate themselves, so there doesn't seem to be any danger of losing my intellectual niche any time soon! 

 

I should point out that Murray's influence on my honors thesis was significant. And I pretty much sailed through the honors program. What I didn't know, however, was that I would face resistance 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---that's a real buzz-word---he became almost hostile toward 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. 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 remarkable 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, I don't think Murray was too thrilled with some of the criticisms I made of his work, but he was always cordial and supportive. Ironically, Bertell Ollman, who had known Rothbard personally because they were both members of the Peace and Freedom Party in the 1960s, encouraged me not only in my student radicalism, but also in my desire to write a doctoral dissertation on Marx, Hayek, and Rothbard.  I'm only sorry that Murray didn't live to see my published work on Rand, which greatly interested him, or my Total Freedom, which devotes half of its contents to a discussion of his important legacy.

 

And so: that's not only how I became a libertarian... but also how I've become a libertarian scholar.

 


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