Tony D. Senatore
"I'm the spokesman for the OK Boomer generation

Review of Libertarian Autobiographies: Moving Toward Freedom in Today’s World

photo credit : Tony Senatore all rights reserved.

Even though I have a degree in sociology, I often need help accepting the field of social science as a discipline on equal footing with physical science. Social science contains the paraphernalia of the natural sciences, such as technical terminology, mathematical equations, empirical data, and carefully designed experiments. Scientists understand that when it comes to generating reliable scientific knowledge, there is nothing more important than frequent and detailed predictions of future events. While the physical sciences produce many clear and precise predictions, the social sciences still need to. The reason is that such predictions require randomized controlled experiments, which are seldom possible when people are involved. Scientists can be confident that water will freeze and boil consistently at the same temperature.

On the other hand, humans are complex, and our behavior depends on many tightly connected independent variables that are difficult to distinguish and study separately. Finally, moral considerations forbid manipulating humans the way we do inanimate objects; thus, most social science research needs to catch up to the natural sciences’ standard of controlled experiments. Political ideology is a term fraught with problems, called “the most elusive concept in social science.” For this reason, when learning about things that interest me, like why individuals commit themselves to specific political philosophies like capitalism, communism, socialism, or libertarianism, I sometimes prefer a qualitative, ethnography, or autobiographical-based approach rather than a quantitative approach filled with statistics and scientific jargon. My interest in libertarianism led me to Libertarian Biographies: Moving Toward Freedom in Today’s World, which Jo Ann Cavallo and Walter Block edited. Rather than scholarly works, the book contains eighty personal essays written by libertarians of varying degrees of prominence worldwide, from the legendary to those deserving wider recognition. The purpose was to convey their mindset before embracing libertarianism and how it has impacted their personal and professional lives. Block and Cavallo assert libertarianism is the “last best hope for humankind with regard to economics, liberty, justice, prosperity, peace, and thus even survival.” Although not typically linked to libertarianism or mentioned in Libertarian Autobiographies, C. Wright Mills has been highly influential in shaping my worldview, even to a greater extent than Murray Rothbard, libertarianism’s most revered scholar.

Moreover, I am not a Marxist, but Marxism and its key ideas must be understood by anyone who desires to understand the world in which we live. Thus, Marxism and libertarianism have been the focal point of my studies since graduation from college in 2017. Since then, Mills, Rothbard, Milton Friedman, and Marx have been my most significant intellectual influences. 

Mills asserted that to examine a political philosophy, we must study it as an ideology, a statement of ideals, a designation of agency or agencies, and a set of social theories. Thus, a political philosophy such as libertarianism is no different than communism, capitalism, or socialism in specific ways. It is a social reality and an ideology in which certain institutions are justified and others attacked. It is also an articulation of ideals which, on various levels of generality and sophistication, is used to judge men, events, and movements. It designates agencies of action and the means of reform, revolution, or conservation. Finally, a political philosophy contains theories of man, society, history, what constitutes a society, and how it functions. Although I identify as a Milton Friedman-inspired classical liberal, I believe Karl Marx was correct in his view that economic relationships are the basis for all social relationships, including political ones, and political relationships (between rulers and ruled) are rooted in class relationships (between workers and owners). The problem is that there needs to be more debate about who is exploiting whom. The ideas expressed in Libertarian Autobiographies are a good starting point, and the arguments expressed are the antithesis of Marxism and its variants. In libertarianism, the individual takes precedence over the collective. The freedom to make choices and bear the consequences of their decisions is the backbone of libertarianism. In either simple or complex personal narratives, each author depicts the best aspects of libertarianism and how they have either relocated to the United States to achieve prosperity or have used timeless ideas of American-style liberty, justice, and prosperity to transform their homeland. The book is geared towards both general readers and academics. I enjoyed reading the stories and learning what I had in common with the authors.

The book separates libertarianism into five categories: anarcho-capitalism, minarchism, constitutionalism, classical liberalism, and thick libertarianism. Starting with anarcho-capitalism, which seeks to abolish centralized states in favor of stateless societies with no government required and systems of private property enforced by private agencies, each category permits more government in small increments, ending with thick libertarianism. The commonality between all forms of libertarianism is the non-aggression principle (NAP), an appreciation for individual liberty, the rule of law, and free enterprise. There is a vast difference between anarcho-capitalism and thick libertarianism, which incorporates additional concerns such as anti-racism and LGBTQIA + issues. In my view, the former is not compatible in a world comprised of states and governments, and the latter is too reminiscent of the type of progressive politics I despise, in which the working class is divided and pitted against each other in a never-ending battle of oppressed groups with no possible solution other than the end of Western civilization. This vast disparity in opinion when studying political philosophies is not a libertarian-only phenomenon, and the same can be said for our modern-day progressive and conservative political parties. While professing membership and allegiance to any ideology, political party, or formal organization to promote it is something I try to avoid, as I see it as the end of the ability to find objective truth wherever it resides, the classical liberalism of Milton Friedman and Hayek is the type of libertarianism I am interested in, and should be the focal point of America’s Libertarian Party. Space prohibits me from deep-diving into eighty autobiographies preaching the benefits of libertarianism. Thus, I will focus on a few that resonate with me. The late Yuri Maltsev’s story had particular meaning to me.

My maternal grandparents left Russia during World War I. They came to America for the same reasons Maltsev did, having personal experiences with the dangers of socialism and communism. Although both were here legally, my grandmother feared that the Russian government would hunt her down and take her back to Russia. Such was the fear that she had towards her former country, and she felt that way until the day she died, which left a lasting impression on me. Yuri’s story also made me reflect on my lifelong friend Ben Salzano, who, like Maltsev, recently passed away. Ben was a brilliant man and musician who profoundly influenced my life. He grew up in America during the height of the Cold War and was skeptical about the official United States narrative of the evils of communism and the need to stop its spread at all costs. Hans Hermann Hoppe, born in West Germany around the same time as my friend, conveys similar ideas in Libertarian Autobiographies. He believed the “education” of his generation was the result of “Anglo-American propaganda and indoctrination” dictated in the West by the United States. implemented by “hostile foreign occupiers.” On the other hand, I would argue the monolithic “West” does not monopolize propaganda. C Wright Mills believed countries worldwide utilize a vast propaganda network, creating folklore.

In the folklore of capitalism, America is a free country where men govern their affairs. Soviet Russia was an absolute tyranny, monolithic and totalitarian, where men were forcibly held down in a godless land with neither joy nor freedom. In the folklore of communism, the USSR was a great step forward for humanity in the twentieth century. The USA was a reactionary laggard in which the injustices of capitalism were matched only by the hypocrisies of formal democracy. America was run by warmongers, who used the military-industrial complex to expand and consolidate their imperialistic domination. Ben, who was born and raised in the United States, unrelentingly preached the folklore of communism in the forty years that I knew him. His love affair with the Soviet Union was well documented, but this never was an issue to those like me who knew and loved him. Although he visited the Soviet Union many times during our friendship and attended college in Moscow, he remained in the United States. He led an extraordinary life as a musician. He would tell you that he led a blessed life if he were alive today.

On the other hand, Maltsev did not fall for the folklore of his homeland; he defected to the United States in 1989. Ben stopped short of defending his doctoral thesis in Russian literature at Columbia University in the 1960s. He preferred playing tennis, his saxophone, working part-time at the United Nations as a Russian translator, and dating women half his age rather than restricting himself to the confines of a corporate job or academia. Selling his wage labor as a commodity as a means of sustenance whenever he felt like it turned out great for Ben. When comparing and contrasting the lives of my friend Ben, Yuri Maltsev, and Hans Hermann Hoppe, it is interesting that they chose to do it in America when it came to living a life based on liberty and freedom, which was all made possible by a capitalist society. It is also evident that my friend was a libertarian rather than the socialist he proclaimed himself to be. I found much common ground with Michael Rectenwald, who describes himself as a skeptic of full-on anarcho-capitalism and a “hip-Hoppean”- a countercultural, pro-liberty voice in the lineage of Mises, Rothbard, and Hoppe.” Like Rectenwald, I am skeptical of Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism in the same way that I am unsure about full-on communism, which incidentally has never been a part of any modern society. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said that the “defects of capitalism represent the basic flaws of human nature” and that together with unlimited freedom and various human rights, under communism and all moderate forms of socialism, “the identical flaws run riot in any person with the least degree of authority.” Solzhenitsyn’s ideas would also apply to private entrepreneurs who provide all public services in a stateless society despite the fanatics who support anarcho-capitalism with messianic zeal. My message to anyone who believes communism or anarcho-capitalism would result in a superior society is simple: quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur.

Roger Pilon’s autobiography fascinated me, as we are both musicians who play the bass guitar and attended Columbia. In my final year at Columbia University (2017), I emailed Pilon at the Cato Institute to let him know about my interest in libertarianism and how there was almost no discussion whatsoever about it in any way. Upon entrance to Columbia, I told Mr. Pilon that first-year students are given The Marx-Engels Reader and The New Jim Crow like the United States government issues helmets, canteens, and combat boots to new Army recruits, but there was not much talk about libertarianism on campus. Pilon told me I missed out on a Cato Institute-sponsored essay contest about libertarianism at Columbia, where the winner received a substantial sum of money, and that I should enter the competition the next time it is offered. Since my graduation was nearing at the time of our conversation, I would not have the chance. In Libertarian Autobiographies, Pilon says that he started his college career at Syracuse University as an engineering major but soon switched to music, his true love. He dropped out of college for seven years and reinvented himself as a philosophy major at my alma mater, the Columbia University School of General Studies. I am a professional musician who found new life as a Columbia University sociology major after a 40-year career in the music business. Pilon says paying taxes as an independent contractor and insurance salesman was a “formative experience.” Paying taxes was undoubtedly a formative experience for me. At my father’s request, I only worked for cash in my early years as a musician and never filed an income tax return. As a result, I could not acquire credit for many years, and to the government, I did not exist. Once I started paying my quarterly income taxes, I had far less disposable income, and I wondered what would happen to all the money I was sending to the IRS. As an adult, I view taxation as parasitic and agree with Franz Oppenheimer’s ideas regarding wealth acquired through economic or political means.

Libertarian Autobiographies deifies all the individuals you would expect when reading a book about libertarianism, like Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Friedrich Hayek. It is also filled with all the associated buzzwords like freedom, liberty, and limited government. As we venture into this Wittgensteinian wilderness, nebulous definitions of words and concepts make discussions difficult, as the limits of language become roadblocks, and semantics takes on new significance. The words liberty, justice, and freedom take on new meaning when I discuss them with my European friends and view them through the lens of a Marxist perspective. Classical liberals believe in individual liberty, free markets, voluntary exchange, laissez-faire economic policies, free trade, limited government, private property rights, and the rule of law. Marxists/Leninists reject all of the above and believe that society (or the working class or the nation) and not the individual should be the primary concern of the government, which has the power and the duty to reform society to serve the needs of the community; however, they define it, rather than allow individuals to pursue their own “selfish” interests. Marx had provocative ideas about freedom and divided freedom into two categories: negative and positive.

A libertarian or capitalist society is based on what Marx viewed as negative freedom or the lack of forces preventing individuals from doing what they want. Free trade and wage labor are examples of negative freedoms that Marx claimed helped capitalists profit without restrictions. Positive freedom, the hallmark of a socialist society(but also a part of modern capitalist societies,) is a person’s capacity to determine the best course of action and the existence of opportunities for them to realize their full potential. Positive freedoms include child labor laws, legislation limiting work hours, free compulsory education, and public health systems. In essence, positive freedoms allow individuals to develop as human beings. The type of freedom individuals have is determined by the ethical system of the society they are born into, based on the economic relations the society is based on. A Marxist considered the individual, his nature, freedom, and development inseparable from society. The starting point of a Marxian analysis is not the individual but society. The starting point of a libertarian or Randian analysis is the opposite, although classical liberalism has many socialist elements, like public education and welfare payments to people experiencing poverty.

In an anarcho-capitalistic society, a businessman is free to manipulate or exploit wages, but laborers are not free to receive things like education and health care according to what they need, only according to what they can pay. A worker in a capitalist society has the freedom to say whatever he believes but does not have the freedom to live if crippled by a disease, regardless of how much money he has. In terms of the current healthcare debate in America and how to finance it, a system in which the government removes itself entirely from the provision of healthcare so that individuals are permitted to do whatever they deem to be vital for themselves without interference would exemplify negative freedom; providing a public option to ensure that all individuals receive a minimum standard of health care is an example of a government enabling positive freedom. I agree with Block and Cavallo on the benefits of a free enterprise system, division of labor, private property rights, and a limited government. However, that is different from the system we have in America, and Block and Cavallo would agree with me. Transnational corporations do not want limited government and a free market system with zero government interference; the opposite is true, as they rely on federal support, subsidies, protections, and loans to ensure the success of their ventures. American citizens do not have such protections, and the ones they enjoy are under threat.

Additionally, American workers realize that market principles and limited government only apply to the working class. They conclude that if the government is waging wars that might have been avoided via diplomatic efforts, while the individuals who make that decision profit, banks are bailed out, and tax breaks are given to billionaires, they want similar treatment, especially after financing all of the above with their tax dollars and the blood of their children. If actual libertarian ideas are to gain traction in America or elsewhere and nascent Marxist tendencies in the United States squelched, there can be no double standard, and there is currently a massive double standard. Either the government helps everyone or no one. That notwithstanding, Block and Cavallo have edited a magnificent collection of autobiographies that convey what it means to be a libertarian regardless of where you live, and everyone should read it.

About the Author
I was a sociology major at Columbia University, where i received my B.A in 2017, at age 55. My opinion pieces have appeared in the Columbia Spectator, the Tab at Columbia University, and Merion West.
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