Something to do with the Search for Truth: How I Became a Libertarian
By Carl Watner
publication or release without the author's permission.]
Walter Block has recently compiled
a book of autobiographical essays by well-known limited government and
free market libertarians, titled I Chose Liberty
(2010). Mildly irked by the absence of any significant number of voluntaryists,
and pleased by the opportunity to discover what environmental and/or
hereditary factors have influenced others, I determined to write down
my own story of how I became a libertarian.
I was born June 27, 1948, into
a family of upper-middle class Reformed Jews and business people. On
my maternal side, my mother, from Brockton, Mass, had completed 4 years
at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, graduating just before I
was born. Her mother came from a family of Russian Jewish immigrants
turned junk peddlers and lumber yard entrepreneurs in New England. The
Grossmans were the Home Depots of their day. My maternal grandfather
ran his own lumber and hardware business in Brockton. On my Dad's side
of the family, his father hailed from Annapolis, Maryland, and he eventually
moved to Baltimore, where he helped start the American Transfer Company
(early 1920s), Meadowridge Memorial Park (early 1930s), and bought the
Baltimore Colts football franchise (early 1950s). My father became sole
owner of the transportation company, after returning from the Army at
the end of World War II. He was a successful businessman, and an active
speculator in the stock market (following the path of his father). He
loved to ride horses and owned a few Thoroughbreds which raced on the
local tracks. He was a partner in an outdoor ice skating rink, held
a small, limited partnership interest in Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas
when it was built in 1966, and had managed to maintain ownership of
the cemetery, even though my grandfather had mortgaged it to Chase Manhattan
bank. Obviously, I was raised in an environment of business people.
was routine, attending public schools in the Pikesville neighborhood
where my father had grown up, and attending Sunday religious school
at Har Sinai, the temple which my paternal grandmother's family had
helped found in the 1850s. I was a near straight-A student, but there
were early signs of “trouble” to come. For example, I was hardheaded.
If my mother wanted me to wear long pants because it was cold outside,
I would insist on wearing Bermuda shorts. During the summer of 1957,
when I was 9, I went to summer camp in Androscoggin, Maine for about
two months. Was I ever homesick! When I got back to Baltimore, I got
off the train and the first words out of my mouth were, “I'm never
going back summer camp,” and I never did. Another “battle” raged
around classical dancing lessons. My family belonged to the Suburban
Country Club where young teenagers were offered group lessons in ballroom
dancing. I went to two classes and then point blank refused to attend
any more. Dancing was simply not my “thing.” What a waste of time!
I married when I was 38, and my poor wife has still not gotten me to
experience sobered me on any kind of politics. I was voted president
of my 9th grade class (1962-1963). I hated doing things by
committee, and by the end of the year I vowed I would never hold another
elective office. (And let me add, I never did, nor, in my whole life,
have I ever registered to vote in any public election.)
Family business was a continual
topic of discussion in our household and around the family dining table.
At a very early age, I would go into work with my father on Saturday
mornings. During the summer breaks from school, I would usually work
half a day, every week day. My father stayed abreast of the news by
subscribing to the Wall Street Journal.
For whatever reason, I started
reading their editorials. One summer day I found an article about
Ludwig von Mises, part of which I will reproduce below (I still have
the original clipping!):
An Honor for a Philosopher
Of all the academic honors bestowed this month, as tradition prescribes,
one struck us as particularly noteworthy. It was presented by New York
University to Ludwig von Mises, the Austrian-born economist, long since
U. S. citizen, now 81 years old. The citation is self-explanatory:
his great scholarship, his exposition of the philosophy of the free
market, and his advocacy of a free society, he is here presented with
our Doctorate of Law.”
[I]t is interesting in an age of increasing regimentation, that it was
given specifically with reference to von Mises' philosophy. For one
of his greatest contributions is his demonstration that socialism, or
the planned economy by any other name, cannot provide a rational substitute
for the functions of the free market. More than that: the free market
and the free society are indissoluble.
In this sense von Mises is the champion not merely of an economic philosophy
but of the potential of Man. [June 17, 1963, p. 10]
For making it possible for
me to “discover” that editorial and von Mises we can blame my father.
As I recall, I went to the Enoch Pratt Free Library in downtown Baltimore
and got some of Mises' books. At least one had the imprint of
the Foundation For Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.
In my scrapbook, I have a letter signed by Bettina Bien, dated August
7, 1963, in which she sent me information about FEE, and a list of their
For the next “discovery”
we can blame my mother. During the summer of 1963, she gave me a copy
of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged when I asked her for something to
read. I spent several weeks engrossed in it. Between Rand and Mises,
I began formulating my take on capitalism and the free market. My dad
also read the newsletter started by C. V. Myers in 1967, titled Myers
Finance Review. Like Franz Pick, Myers was a hard money - gold and
silver - man, and my father followed their advice. Gold and silver were
relatively cheap, but they were REAL. I remember my Dad buying gold
coins from a man in Texas, quite a few years before gold ownership was
legalized in 1974.
During the school year of 1964-1965,
I was in the 11th grade. As a select honors student I had
the opportunity to set up my own independent study program for one period
each day for one full semester. What did I choose for my independent
study subject? Nothing less ambitious than Human Action.
As I read through the book, I found much of it beyond my comprehension,
but some of it sunk in! It was during that school year that I concluded
that high school was a waste of my time, and that public schools were
socialism at its worst, since they were run and funded by the local
governments. If I was to attend college, as my parents desired, then
I was determined to skip my senior year. I applied to Raymond College,
a three year degree program, operated under the auspices of the University
of the Pacific, and went to Stockton, California in the Fall of 1965.
There I encountered the same teaching of collectivism that I found in
my local high school. Here are my first term comments from Mr. Wagner,
who taught me “Introduction to the Modern World” (I did, however,
earn a “Satisfactory” in his course):
Your case is tragic.
You are obviously unusually bright and dedicated to tenacious work.
You could be a brilliant scholar. Regrettably, you are unteachable.
You are so thoroughly ideology-bound that you distort all ideas and
information into a support of your ideology or a subversion of it. Even
the effort in this letter is being wasted for it will not be seen as
an effort to release your potential but an attack on your ideology.
I am sorry, Carl.
I left Raymond College after
the academic year ended in the Summer of 1966, and then enrolled in
New York University, Washington Square where I attended liberal arts
classes and audited the Mises graduate seminar in the Fall of 1966.
That was my last and final semester of college attendance. I returned
to Baltimore, traveled for a few months in South America, and then lived
at home and worked at American Transfer until my mother sold the company
to Preston Trucking. The sale was completed in December 1973.
What prompted the sale of the
trucking company was my father's death in mid-June 1970. I was a capable
manager but we had a union feather-bedding issue that I refused to compromise
on with the Teamsters. One of our dock helpers could hardly read or
write, but due to his seniority he had to work before more qualified
freight handlers. (Not being able to read makes it difficult to distinguish
written addresses and destinations.) When I refused to arbitrate the
grievance according to the National Teamster contract, the local union
initiated a walk-out August 13, 1971. The business could not operate
without Teamsters, so my mother (and I) capitulated to the union demands.
It was then I decided that I no longer wanted to run the business. She
owned it legally, and decided to offer it for sale. This was several
years before trucking deregulation took place, and American Transfer
held valuable ICC rights to deliver freight between Baltimore and the
southern parts of Maryland, so the company had significant value (including
its rolling stock and freight terminal).
In the meantime, beginning
with my “discovery” of von Mises, Rand, and the authors and academics
associated with FEE in 1963, I embarked on a quest to understand capitalism,
limited government, and Austrian economics. By April 1970 I had read
and digested Linda and Morris Tannehill's The Market for Liberty.
I still have a copy of a letter I wrote Morris on April 19, 1970 in
which I told him that I agree with free market anarchism and that seeing
those ideas in the full context of his book had convinced me of their
correctness. “Government is [as] unnecessary as any other evil,”
I wrote. In April 1971, I bought a set of The Collected Works of
Lysander Spooner. It took me a while to plow through those six volumes,
but by August or September 1972, I had written an article titled “Lysander
Spooner: Libertarian Pioneer,” which was published in the March 1973
issue of Reason. That was followed by “California Gold,”
(written January 1975 and published January 1976) and “Les Economistes
Libertaire” (mainly about Gustave de Molinari; written October 1975
and published January 1977) (both in Reason). I wrote and published
my monograph, Towards A Proprietary Theory of Justice, in the
summer of 1976.
What inspired me to read and
write, become a libertarian, and express my views? Certainly no
one in my family or circle of friends was a free market anarchist or
advocated the abandonment of coercive government, though my father never
had any love for the Internal Revenue Service. One time he showed me
a letter from the I.R.S., dated June 25, 1966, that his father's estate
still owed over $ 386,000 in back taxes, even though he (my grandfather)
had passed away in 1961. Although I think you could say my father was
critical of government, he did have a conniption fit when I told him
I was planning to refuse to report to my draft board when I received
an induction notice. Neither my mother nor my father were libertarians,
so if anything, it had to be my search for truth and consistency that
dictated my political orientation.
Reading some of Leonard Read's
books and articles from FEE certainly focused me on the issue of intellectual
integrity, of matching one's actions to one's rightful understanding
of the world. For whatever reason, Read never moved past the limited
government views in his book, Government - An Ideal Concept (1954).
However, his article “E is for Excellence,” (Notes from FEE,
November 1963) did strike a cord within me. It highlighted Hanford Henderson's
essay, “The Aristocratic Spirit” (The North American Review,
March 1920), in which Henderson defines “the aristocratic spirit as
the love of excellence for its own sake, or even more simply as the
disinterested, passionate love of excellence.” Add “truth” to
“excellence” and you are probably describing my primary motivations.
My attitude, taken from Ayn Rand, was that if one was to survive and
thrive, one must not only understand how the world works and what is
real, but also have a standard by which to judge what is right and what
The basic ideas presented by
Murray Rothbard had a tremendous impact on me. The axioms of self-ownership
and homesteading, which he identified and wrote about extensively, formed
the basis of a proprietary theory of justice, a standard of right and
wrong which was independent of the determination of government courts,
apologists, and/or propagandists. Rose Wilder Lane's and Bob LeFevre's
emphasis on “freedom as self-control” led me to conclude that ultimately
I am responsible for what I choose to do, even if I am threatened by
outside coercive actors. I came to agree with the ancient Stoic outlook,
that there are some actions which one cannot perform, even if one is
to be imprisoned or killed for not doing them. “Obeying superior orders”
was no justification at the Nuremberg trials. Only those with a strong
conscience and independent mind can say, “No. I will not do this.
It is wrong.”
On my 13th birthday,
in June 1961, my father had applied for and received my social security
number. He wanted me to have one so he could put me on the payroll at
American Transfer. On May 6, 1978, I wrote the Social Security Administration
in Woodlawn, Maryland (a suburb of Baltimore) that I no longer had further
use of the social security number they had assigned me.
I wish to formally renounce any and all right, title, interest, or claims
that I may have had against the Government of the United States and/or
its Social Security Administration to any benefits either due me in
the past or coming due to me in the present or future.
This renunciation is based upon my personal belief that a system of
retirement, disability and death benefits administered under Government
compulsion is wrong.
Please acknowledge that my name has been withdrawn from your rolls.
Of course, I heard nothing
from the Social Security Administration, although I still have the return
postal receipt for my letter. My search for truth, consistency, and
personal integrity had led me to do this. However, this was neither
the beginning nor the end of my confrontations with the federal or state
internal revenue departments. More on that in the next installment of