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True Liberalism: A Personal Reflection in Honor of Ralph Raico
In the fall semester of 1980 I discovered the word libertarian. One of my dorm mates knocked on my door and told me to come see what was on his television. It was a Ed Clark for president advertisement in which Clark said that he was the Libertarian candidate for president and gave a description of what that meant.
My friend and I were on the same page politically, but we were very different than most other people in terms of ideology. We would have nothing to do with the major political parties. We sat there stunned and waited a long time for the advertisement to come back on the television so that I could see it from the beginning. We were libertarians!
I guess I was always a libertarian, but I had never heard of the term or the political party. This I wrote about in Walter Block’s collection of essays in which various people wrote about how they became a libertarian.
Immediately I wanted to try to find out more about libertarianism, but there was very little available in those days and of course there was no Internet. Eventually, I found the Libertarian party, the New York State Libertarian party, Laissez Faire Books, the Institute for Humane studies, and the Cato Institute.
I started taking classes in political science and philosophy hoping to learn more about libertarianism, but this approach was not successful. I became an economics major thinking this might be helpful. Here I did find economist Milton Friedman and his book Free to Choose written with his wife Rose. I already opposed the war on drugs, public schools, big government, and taxation, so Milton Friedman was a powerful early influence.
One day, between classes, I came across a little poster that read “Adam Smith was Right: Pass it on.” That caught my attention based on what I had learned in some of my economic classes. I thought Adam Smith was probably a libertarian given what I had read in my history of economic thought textbook. The poster advertised an educational conference that was put on by the Institute for Humane Studies.
Remarkably, I attended that conference the following summer and actually earned college credit for it. It was there that I met Roger Garrison who taught the economic lectures at the conference. Two years later Roger would be one of my professors in graduate school at Auburn University. He was clearly a libertarian in my mind, but many of the people that I met there I would classify as conservatives or libertines, not libertarians.
The following year during the summer, I attended a conference for what is now called Cato University at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Taking a week off during the summer to go to an academic educational conference was a weird thing to do at the time and understandably my friends and relatives thought it was peculiar.
Dartmouth College in the summer was beautiful and the conference lectures were given in the brand new MBA classrooms which were first rate in my experience. We ate our meals in the college cafeteria. The fact that the only students on campus were football players meant that the food was also first rate. At one dinner I actually ate two very good steaks, something that was never even offered in my college cafeteria.
However, by far the most important memory and discovery at the conference was meeting Professor Ralph Raico.
Some of the other lecturers were not credentialed as I had come to expect in college. That is, people with a PhD and a professorship. Ralph had both and I had been told by some of the other students that he had studied with Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and F. A. Hayek. I honestly did not know much about these men and their work, but I knew their names, so that really got my attention.
In other words, I was very impressed by him before I actually was introduced and met him in person. It turned out that we hung out together most nights during the conference. One night in particular, I was with Ralph Raico, Roy Childs, and a couple of other students. It was mostly about drinking, smoking, listening to stories, being asked questions, and occasionally getting to ask a question of my own. All of this took place in an atmosphere of ongoing raucous laughter.
One question, or rather series of questions that I was able to ask one night was about the exact meaning of libertarianism. I said to Ralph, that it seemed weird to me that libertarian conferences would be attended by both a bunch of conservatives and libertines. To which there was an uproar of laughter in the small room.
Ralph stepped forward and began to explain, after the laughter subsided, that the word libertarian was relatively new. He said that the term classical liberalism was also used to describe libertarianism. However, he explained, the phrase classical liberalism was also a modern invention. And then he went on to explain why we should be using the word liberalism to describe the true philosophy of individualism.
Now I was really confused. Nobody had ever referred to the individualist philosophy as liberalism and I understood liberalism and liberals as something rather distinct from my own views, which I had been advertising to people for the last two years. Liberals supported things like welfare, public schools and big government, although they also were against the War on Drugs and the Vietnam War.
Ralph went on to explain that outside the United States liberalism meant freedom and limited government and liberal political parties tended to support limited government. He explained that the term liberalism had been co-opted over a very long time and no longer represented true freedom and individualism. This was especially true in the United States where the term now represented nearly the opposite of its original meaning.
He went on a long diatribe against John Stuart Mill. This was extremely unsettling to me because Mill was used in some of my college courses as the representative example of extreme individualism. While disconcerting to me, I felt like I was making some progress in understanding philosophy and politics in America and that there were some real problems with what I had been taught and even with some of my personal views.
Ralph defined liberalism and then set out to explain its implications. I think he started with free trade and Richard Cobden and Frédéric Bastiat. I think I remember that he was careful to point out that free trade was not just a matter of tariffs and quotas, but that anyone should be free to trade with anyone else whether that was inside one country or between individuals from different countries.
I felt like I was getting a personal lecture from Ralph on the night we discussed these matters. He would describe that liberalism supported complete property rights, religious toleration, a completely free economy, and a very limited government. He said war was the enemy of liberalism, and given what I had seen of the Vietnam War and its effects, I could tell that this was true.
All of this was fascinating to me and it was a really fun time as well. Actually, it was better than the conference itself. I also realized from these discussions that all my formal education had big gaps and several important biases.
Still not being able to get my head wrapped around the difference between modern American liberalism and this new liberalism, I circled back around to ask Ralph about that again to which he responded strongly that “Liberals are not liberal!”
Ralph did not win the battle to restore the term liberalism to its rightful place in our language. We still use the terms classical liberalism and libertarianism, but he never gave up the fight.
Years later, by what I can only describe as an historical accident, I found myself introducing Ralph Raico as the opening lecturer at Mises University. His lecture was on the topic of liberalism in which he would synthesize all of those lessons he taught to me to a much larger group of college students.
I finished my introduction of Ralph by proclaiming him the “godfather of classical liberalism.” I know it must have irked him that I added the adjective “classical,” but instead of getting upset with me for the use of that adjective, he turned the whole thing into a comedy routine. He would begin by addressing me and asking the audience if my remark wasn’t some kind of ethnic slur. Ralph you see was Italian and from New York City and so he was suggesting that I had just called him some kind of mobster from the Mafia.
The classroom audience would get a big laugh at Ralph’s retort and my subsequent bewilderment. Ralph would follow that up with more pokes and jokes at my expense. And I would continue to be the recipient of further pokes and jokes throughout the lecture. None of this was planned in advance but the audience was now enlivened and primed for the very serious nature of Ralph’s lecture. We performed this “routine” for several years, and I will remember it for the rest of my life.
As far as I knew, Ralph was not political, in that we never discussed politics. He was a serious scholar of history and the history of ideas. Anyone interested in libertarian political philosophy, revisionist history, and Austrian economics should make a serious study of Ralph’s written work as well as his recorded public lectures. I was extremely fortunate to meet Ralph in what are sometimes called “the good old days” of the libertarian movement as well as having known him for 35 years. Thanks to scholars like Ralph Raico, the real libertarian movement has made enormous progress.
I applaud Ralph for his long career of teaching generations of students and scholars that our movement has both traditions and principles. We can build upon and improve our understanding of liberalism, but as Ralph would stress, we should never forget our traditions, or discount our principles.
12 min agoMark Thornton
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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