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 and into
Polish by Marek Murawski.
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
Ayn Rand: The
Russian Radical, and
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.
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
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
Gisbert Flanz, and, of course, most important, my mentor,
Bertell Ollman who is
an internationally-known Marxist scholar, author of such books as
While an undergraduate, I met
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,
gave me indispensable guidance. I chose to examine the
strike and I used his
structural crisis as a means of understanding labor strife.
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
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,
started to laugh. It seems that in the Summer 1966 issue of
Studies on the Left, Murray published a scathing review of
The Poverty of Abundance:
Nation, the Depression. In it,
attacks Romasco's welfare-liberal ideology, his "failures" and "misconceptions,"
his bibliographic "skimpiness" and "ad hoc,
unsupported and inevitably fallacious causal theories."
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
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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