Stephan Kinsella, libertarian anarchist, has begun a series of polls on Facebook, starting with one asking libertarians to select their “biggest influence.”
How best to parse the different kinds of influence that people have had on your own thinking?
Robert Nozick’s first book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, was the first libertarian book I read, not counting John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, or the Declaration of Independence. Nozick didn’t convince me of libertarianism, on that first reading, but he did
- Impress me that it was worth considering,
- Convince me that mainstream interventionism is a crock, and
- Solidify my basic approach to politics as that of establishing a framework for experiments in human betterment — that is, as constitutional, broadly speaking, and not that of piecemeal social engineering, today’s dominant model.
So Nozick was a huge influence. But I was not a libertarian — and even scoffed at the doctrine — for another three years.
When I finally got around to really considering libertarian ideas, I quickly read
- Rothbard’s FOR A NEW LIBERTY and other books and essays
- Hayek’s INDIVIDUALISM AND ECONOMIC ORDER
- David Friedman’s MACHINERY OF FREEDOM
- Lysander Spooner’s NO TREASON: THE CONSTITUTION OF NO AUTHORITY
- Ludwig von Mises’ PLANNED CHAOS and THEORY OF MONEY AND CREDIT and ULTIMATE FOUNDATION…
it was the latter book that made me realize how central and useful liberty was in solving the value diversity problem. I became a libertarian at that time.
But was Mises my biggest influence?
I was not convinced of a unitary method to doing social science. And in normative matters, I believed my new libertarian friends simplified too many problems out of existence, or didn’t fully confront issues of ideal and expediency in social change with any thoroughgoing method. They seemed careless, haphazard, and dogmatic all in one.
So when I found Herbert Spencer — who at least attempted to address such issues — I was impressed. I had pretty much set the tone of my political philosophy before ever reading one sentence of his works, and yet I felt such a respect for his aim, and for parts of his method, and for the breadth of his vision, that even today I list him as my major influence. And that’s who I selected for Kinsella’s poll.
But in a sense, reading Destutt de Tracy concurrently with Carl Menger taught me more about the theory of marginal utility than any other writer, though Rothbard and F.W. Taussig helped. But it was Destutt de Tracy’s errors as much as his successes in speculation that influenced me, more. And sometimes, as Nietzsche put it, the errors of great men are more important than the truths of little men. So, Bentham’s and Sidgwick’s errors were as important to my education as Spencer’s successes.
Among contemporary thinkers, philosophers Loren Lomasky and Jan Narveson are the two philosophers I feel closest to…. though they, too, didn’t influence me much, either. Same for Thomas Szasz, whose basic attitude towards liberty in society is so very close to mine: liberty is freedom from coercion (or “interference”) plus responsibility. And we live in a society where the division of responsibility has shifted away from individuals and towards groups. We live in a society of status, where my station and its duties define life, rather than in a society of contract, where one meets obligations and accepts and rejects new ones based on uncoerced action.
In looking over Kinsella’s list of possible influences, it is gratifying to see such a long one, and to note that no longer is it the case that “It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand.” I was an outlier in the libertarians of my generation, in not having read much Rand, and never having been influenced by her. My former boss R. W. Bradford (on the list! — and no, he was not an influence for my political philosophy) used to ridicule the idea that there could be libertarians like me. Because i was influenced by Nozick and Rothbard and even Tuccille, her influence of them meant I was influenced by her, if indirectly. But then, the same can be said for Isabel Paterson, who tutored Rand in liberty.
Bradford’s prioritization of Rand seemed strange to me. Why select her out as the one to be pumped up, when so many others meant more to me, and so many others influenced her?
And the gray eminence of Thomas Jefferson was there from my childhood; the green eminence of Henry David Thoreau; the deeply ironic and critical traditions of the Hebrew Bible, especially the prophets — all these counted as influences to my selection of freedom as paramount. A study of Church history surely didn’t help me admire men with power. And a reading of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, at age 16 — before I heard of Nozick — suggests to me that influences come from everywhere, at least for some of us, and just as King Arthur, on his last battlefield, realized that the problem was territory, borderlines, I realize, today, that selecting just one influence among many encourages just the kind of thinking that leads to political ruin. Diversity saves; diversity nurtures. The unitary idea prejudices young souls to accept the weird, twisted hierarchy of the State. Or accept one guru as one’s own cult’s Maximum Leader.
P.S. I really enjoyed Stephan Kinsella’s poll, in part because he included “obscure” figures and, apparently in jest, non-libertarians like “Gingrich,” “Clinton,” and “O’bama.”