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Something to do with the Search for Truth: How I Became a Libertarian

By Carl Watner

[Not for publication or release without the author's permission.]

[Written May 2011]

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.

My childhood 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 dance (yet).

Another early 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:

“For 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 publications.

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 is wrong.

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 this essay.