The following story is part of Walter Block's Autobiography Archive.

Murray, the LP, and Me

by David Bergland

I was introduced to Murray Rothbard the economist long before I came to know him as a radical libertarian anarcho-capitalist activist. Reading Rothbard, beginning in the early 1960s, was a great experience for me, but that was not my introduction to libertarianism.

I have been asked many times when I became a libertarian. After answering the question in different ways, I finally decided the right answer was June 4, 1935, the day I was born. Now, that’s a flip answer but it does give one a platform from which to launch any number of oral essays, and it is fundamentally true. Some of us are simply more temperamentally suited to liberty than others. We are comfortable with anarchy, the unknowable future, and whatever spontaneous order might develop out of freedom’s chaos. We don’t feel insecure in the absence of a state-created social safety net and we welcome the opportunities that maximum liberty brings. I believe (based on a great deal of published research by neuroscientists and psychologists) that our temperament is a complex combination of tendencies, or predilections, that are largely innate.

Given a relatively free context in which to develop, and access to the writings of people like Rand, Mises, Rothbard, Hayek, et al., it was a damn good bet that I would find classical liberalism most congenial and certainly preferable to the New Deal philosophy that prevailed when I was a kid. Indeed, I can recall that during my adolescent years, long before encountering libertarian writing, whenever political discussions arose in school or among my young friends, I invariably analyzed my way to positions that I now recognize as libertarian. It all seemed sensible to me at the time, though I was no doubt perceived as politically loony, hopelessly so, by my teachers and classmates.

After two years in the U.S. Army, a couple of years of undergraduate study as an English major, getting married and starting a family, I found myself on the Los Angeles City Fire Department as a fire fighter. I had for years been enjoying science fiction and someone recommended Atlas Shrugged, a novel set in the future. As with many libertarians, Atlas was one Aha! experience after another for me. Not everyone liked it. An LAFD Battalion Chief saw my copy and commented that it was the worst book he had ever read. We discussed it a bit and it emerged that he viewed all the Rand heroes as villains and Rand’s villains as victims of the horrible Rearden, Galt, et al. Dagny was "that broad who slept with everybody." So, even though I was delighted to find an author who so eloquently stated the case for liberty and humanity, I was also aware that Rand and I belonged to a very small minority.

In the early sixties, Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden began publishing The Objectivist Newsletter. It was a lifeline of sanity that I read avidly each month. It must have been there that Rand recommended Mises’ Human Action. I bought it and dove in. Now, this is weird. Without any formal education in economics, I loved that book. The experience of learning so much in a conversation with a great mentor was exhilarating. I was most impressed by its logical order. Over and over again, as I read, a question would arise in my mind and Mises would address that question in the next paragraph. Realizing that I could learn much of value from further study in economics, I sought out other authors. And that’s how I first found Rothbard’s Man, Economy and State. The more I read, the more I was motivated to return to my formal education. My preference would have been to study economics, but I already had two years invested as an English major so, pragmatically, I decided to finish that course of study and go on to law school. With a wife and three kids, it was the right decision.

During the completion of undergraduate studies at UCLA, I did take some economics courses. What I had learned from Mises, Rothbard and Hayek helped me in critiquing the Keynesian pap contained in the standard texts such as Samuelson. UCLA’s economics department had not yet become the market-oriented school that developed later. The questions I raised in class frequently puzzled the professors who seemed eager to move on without dealing with them. Maybe they were just dumb questions. Nah! But, by comparison to economics, the silliness encountered in the humanities classes was really entertaining. I took a class entitled Intellectual History of the U.S., in which most of the readings were Marxist oriented. Bellamy’s Looking Backward was representative. I recall the professor making a big deal about Little Orphan Annie being the last fascist comic strip. But, I digress.

My time at UCLA was interrupted somewhat by Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential Campaign. Rand was a big Goldwater supporter and that influenced me. My wife and I got very involved in the campaign and that took a bite out my studies, probably slowing my graduation by a semester. I also continued my reading, including Mises’ Socialism, Omnipotent Government and The Anti-Capitalist Mentality. And more Rothbard, including Power and Market and America’s Great Depression. Finally, I graduated in 1966 and entered USC Law School that fall.

During the sixties, Rand, Branden and the Objectivists were a big factor in my libertarian education, although they didn’t call themselves libertarians. Living in Southern California, I could not attend the New York-based Nathaniel Branden Institute lectures until they came out on tape. Some may recall the way that was done. An authorized agent of NBI would rent a space and make contact with the usual suspects who could then sign up to attend the taped lectures. It was valuable education, but the meetings were deadly serious. Some of us would gather afterwards for coffee and further discussion. I recall that a friend and I, neither of the deadly serious persuasion, had fun, enjoyable discussions, with copious laughter. Others were offended by our lack of seriousness. That made it even funnier. All in all a very positive experience.

Another positive influence was the local newspaper, the Santa Ana Register, published by R.C. Hoiles, about as hardcore a libertarian as one could find. For example, during WWII he editorialized against the internment of Japanese Americans, a truly courageous stand. Lincoln would have jailed him. The Register’s editorial policy was pure libertarian. My public school teacher friends were appalled that I liked the paper. R.C. Hoiles is gone now, but he remains one of my heroes, and what is now the Orange County Register, continues to hew to the libertarian line editorially.

I did meet Rand, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, sometime about 1965. That would have made me about 30 at the time. They were the main attraction at a major Objectivist event in Los Angeles and I was a Senior Fire Inspector with the L.A. Fire Department with responsibility for public assemblages. So I showed up at their event in my official role. It was packed to the rafters, with exits blocked and various other life hazards violating the Fire Code. Barbara Branden spoke to me, asking if they could pay a fine and go on with the show. Very New York. I told her that would not be necessary, I was an Objectivist and on their side. We went to work unlocking the exits, clearing aisles, etc., and the show did go on. I had brief conversations with Nathaniel and Ayn Rand during the intermission and was thrilled to meet them and tell them how much I appreciated their work. For me, very memorable.

Many will recall that, ultimately, things went badly in Objectivist-land. Rand and Branden split in 1968 and all Objectivists were called upon to choose sides. Branden came to Southern California and was a guest lecturer in philosophy at USC, having been invited by John Hospers, the new head of the Department of Philosophy. I just happened to be in my last year at the USC Law School and was Editor in Chief of the Southern California Law Review. I contacted Professor Hospers and reintroduced myself to Nathaniel. Then I arranged for Nathaniel to publish an article in the Law Review. Fortunately, it was not difficult for him to produce it. He used a chapter from his forthcoming book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, modifying it to fit the Law Review article format. I considered publishing the article quite a coup, but some of the professors at the Law School were upset, as were some of the other Law Review editors. Delicious. I was the alpha dog with the final call. For me, it also meant a continuing friendship with Nathaniel Branden, which I cherish.

The late sixties and early seventies were a very busy time for me, getting through law school and then working at a large LA law firm while helping raise a family. Consequently, I was not really keeping abreast of libertarian movement activities. I was unaware of the formation of the Libertarian Party or of John Hospers’ 1972 LP presidential candidacy. Then, in 1973, I was contacted by someone who told me that there was a new political party that I should join. He invited me to a founding meeting of the Orange County chapter of the California Libertarian Party. Some of the people there were my old Objectivist acquaintances. Not a large group, you understand, maybe a dozen. I attended my first LP convention the next year, the California LP Convention in Berkeley. What a rush. Here was a room full (maybe 75 or 80) of articulate young people, debating libertarian platform planks. Everyone who spoke sounded great to me. In attendance were some of the early LP heavyweights, Ed Crane, Ed Clark, John Hospers, Karl Bray and many more I am sure. The Convention nominated John Hospers to run for Governor and I was nominated as the Attorney General candidate. The party did not have ballot status, so we were all write-in candidates.

Here’s my favorite story from that campaign. The Attorney General candidates, including me, the write-in Libertarian, were all invited to a debate on a San Francisco PBS TV station. Not long before, the Symbionese Liberation Army (remember them?) had kidnapped Patti Hearst and, as ransom, demanded that the Hearst family deliver food to the poor. The Hearsts sent trucks of food to poor minority neighborhoods where crowds gathered to receive the loot. At the debate, the moderator asked what each of us candidates would have done about the situation if we were AG. I answered that all the people lining up at the trucks were receiving stolen property and I would prosecute them for that crime. The moderator nearly choked. "But, but, but, they are POOR," he squawked. I still think I gave the right answer.

I believe it was also in 1974 that I read Rothbard’s For a New Liberty. The experience was exhilarating. This is probably the one book of Murray’s best suited to be read by people without much formal education in economics or political philosophy. It’s a great text for LP activists who need some foundation in the freedom philosophy. It sure helped me in that way.

It is important to understand what the LP was in those early days. The total number of people who really knew libertarianism-Objectivism-classical liberalism, and counted themselves as adherents to that philosophy, might have been a few hundred. But some of them, Dave Nolan being the ring-leader, started a new political party to advance the libertarian philosophy by using the political system to spread the word. (Naive, yes. But the LP is still going, after 30 years.) The LP was a social organization as well as political. At state and national conventions, libertarians could hang out with philosophical brothers and sisters for a few days, make contacts and plans for activism and then go back to the real world where most of them were solitary, isolated lovers of liberty. It was rejuvenating and energizing to be with other libertarians. And damn near all of them were young! Which helps explain why I was the LP’s Vice Presidential candidate in 1976.

At the LP presidential nominating convention in New York in 1975, the convention had nominated Roger MacBride as the presidential candidate. It got complicated when it came to the VP nomination. One of the leading candidates was John Vernon, a good-looking, articulate successful restaurateur who also happened to be gay. MacBride opposed having him on the ticket, afraid that the campaign would bog down on the gay issue. (More naiveté. Precious few were going to pay attention to the LP presidential campaign in 1976.) Many of the delegates were furious at Roger and, consequently, no decision was made that day. I was not then at the convention. My friend Karl Bray called me at home and persuaded me to grab the redeye from LAX to seek the nomination the next day. So I did.

Being one of the few people in attendance over 35 (as the Constitution and the LP Bylaws require to be Vice President), I had at least that going for me. Also, there was the libertarian cultural divide. The LP had many Objectivist business school-former conservative-coat and tie types. It also had the anti-war-flower child-free love and dope types. Roger MacBride, a former Republican state legislator, was clearly associated with the former group. I was perceived as more aligned with the latter. Maybe it was because I had long hair at the time (there are no surviving pictures, I hope). Anyway, the delegates apparently saw Roger and me as a balanced ticket and I was nominated.

I took a few campaign trips in 1976 (limited funding allowed very little travel) and spent most of my actual campaign time on talk radio. Very educational. I learned that I didn’t know nearly enough to answer all the questions, at least not succinctly and in a way that satisfied listeners. More importantly, I learned that no one had ever heard of libertarianism or the Libertarian Party. In fact, I was told on several occasions that there were three parties in America: Democrat, Republican and Communist. If you weren’t a Democrat or Republican, you were a Communist – no matter what you called yourself. So I learned that we had a Hell of a long way to go. The experience motivated me to learn more.

One turning point for me was the issue of money. I had gone pretty far on the road to being 100% libertarian, but I had not figured out how money would work in the absence of government to organize the system and make the rules. Murray Rothbard came to the rescue with his pamphlet, What Has Government Done to Our Money? Some time later I read Hayek’s Denationalization of Money and became completely comfortable with the idea of a free market in money. Cool. I was an anarchist.

In 1977 I was elected National Chair of the LP. Let’s put this in context. Up until that time, Ed Crane had been the National Chair and an extremely effective autocratic ruler. It really was his show and he ran it well. Crane had a substantial advantage in that he was tight with Charles Koch and other members of the ultra-wealthy Koch family who were major funders for the LP and other libertarian causes. Charles Koch was on the LP National Committee. But, in 1977, The Cato Institute was founded with Koch money and with Crane as its President. Cato was a new libertarian think tank. Murray Rothbard and Bill Evers joined Cato, Murray as a founding board member who even named the institute. For a few years, there was considerable overlap between Cato and the LP leadership.

But Murray and Crane fell out and Murray was kicked out. Thereafter Murray referred to the Cato libertarians as "Craniacs." He was good at such memorable labeling and loved doing battle. I also recall him explaining that the LP had been affected by the Koch money in the same way that the economy is affected by inflation. The Party had an easy money period and grew rapidly until Cato was created and the Koch’s directed their funding away from the LP. The Party fell on difficult financial times and its growth slowed. Boom and bust.

As LP Chair from 1977–1981, and thereafter, I came to know Murray quite well as we were both on the LP National Committee, off and on, until the mid to late eighties. Another good friend on the NatComm was Bill Evers. Let it be known that Murray and Bill were the main architects of the LP Platform. Over a number of years, particularly at national conventions (where the delegates debate and vote on platform planks) they did the key drafting and debating. It’s a great platform and a powerful tool for educating new libertarians and keeping LP candidates in line. I view what they did to make that platform what it is as a major contribution to our movement.

In 1980 the Koch money came back into the LP, temporarily, with the appearance of David Koch as the VP candidate on the Ed Clark presidential ticket. As a candidate, under the federal election laws, David could make unlimited contributions to the campaign. He anted up over $2 million as I recall. And with no fund raising expense. Some great things happened. Probably the most significant was obtaining 50 state ballot access in that election. It set a standard for all future LP presidential campaigns. The bad news was that it was boom and bust again. After the campaign, LP activists had to look into their own pockets to keep the Party going. They weren’t used to that and didn’t do it very well.

In 1984, I was the LP presidential candidate. The nominating convention was in New York in 1983 and I was a last minute candidate for the nomination (again). We had tremendous help from Bill Evers, Murray, and Burt Blumert. It was the last hurrah of the Cato group (Murray’s Craniacs) in the LP. Their candidate, Georgetown professor Earl Ravenal, was viewed as a moderate with good inside the Beltway connections. This time I was perceived as the hardline radical, lacking the necessary pragmatism (too damn principled) to be an effective candidate. I won the nomination on the fourth ballot by one vote.

One significant factor in the outcome was Murray’s research on Ravenal (who truly was a gentleman and a scholar) which disclosed his membership in the Council on Foreign Relations, among other things. Ravenal’s history did not sit well with many of our more right-wing conspiracy theorist delegates. (Yeah, the LP has some of those.) After Ravenal lost the nomination, the Craniacs left in a huff. The good news is that they all have done great work at Cato since and the movement has certainly benefited from that. They have even come back to calling themselves libertarians. For a while they wanted to be known as "market liberals."

The 1984 presidential campaign was a great personal experience for me. Because we were so underfunded (relative to the 1980 campaign) I decided the best strategy was for me to spend my time educating journalists about the libertarian philosophy and the Party. It was still the case that most people, journalists included, knew next to nothing about us, and what they did know was wrong. My objective was to counteract that ignorance to the fullest extent possible, at least with media people. It went fairly well, considering the starting point.

One other accomplishment in 1984 was that I wrote a book: Libertarianism In One Lesson. It is now in its eighth edition, the changing world circumstances requiring updating from time to time (e.g., no more Cold War). It has sold about 250,000 copies and continues to be used as a basic introductory text in the movement. One thing I did with the book was to include an extensive bibliography (books I had actually read). I had discovered in my travels that many people (victims of public schools) are amazed when first confronted with the libertarian position on issues. They think you just made it up to shock them, that there is nothing to back it up. The bibliography helps to counteract that initial reaction.

One benefit of campaigning as a libertarian is all the great people one meets. For example, Lew Rockwell invited me to speak at Auburn University and I think it was there that I first met him. Later, Lew, Murray and Burt Blumert were all on the LP National Committee, as were I and my wife, Sharon Ayres. That led to some excellent socializing along with doing the Party business. Truth to tell, Murray was a rather quiet person on the National Committee. He was not temperamentally suited to the spontaneous debate format of such bodies. But, he would quietly get his ducks in a row and line up support, usually from Bill Evers, and then come out on the winning side once the dust settled.

In 1988, Ron Paul was the LP presidential candidate, with Lew running his campaign and Murray, Burt and others playing major roles. I thought it was an excellent campaign, particularly because of Ron’s moral persona and his extensive knowledge of the money and banking issues. But, as you know, Ron went back to being a Republican Congressman. And in 1989, Murray, Lew, and Burt left the LP to devote their time to such things as the Rothbard-Rockwell Report and the Mises Institute. A few brickbats were exchanged after the parting. But, as anyone who knows Murray, Lew, and Burt might expect, they were successful, and the movement has benefited by their choices and efforts.

One more story about what I did in the war. In the early nineties I was teaching at Western State University College of Law in Irvine, California. There was no course in Jurisprudence so I persuaded the Dean to allow me to create a seminar for senior students. Since there was no available text, I selected all the readings. We opened with an onslaught on the concept of the state with a selection from Oppenheimer’s The State, followed by Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty, the section where he describes the period in Pennsylvania when there was no government.

Later on, when learning about natural law, the students enjoyed relevant material from Hayek’s Law, Liberty and Legislation. The course covered the history of prevailing jurisprudence from natural law, natural rights (the basis of the Declaration and Constitution), positivism, law and economics, and some of the more recent silliness: critical legal studies, black legal studies, and gender based jurisprudence. Most gratifying was the response from the students at the end of the course. Some said it was what they expected from law school and wished they’d had it in the first year. I also asked them which theory they found most satisfying and useful. To a one they answered: natural rights. Damn, that felt good. In the great, unending battle for liberty, it was a minor skirmish that ended with a win for the good guys.

At the 2002 LP National Convention in Indianapolis, I was on a panel of old-timers (John Hospers, Tonie Nathan, Ed Clark, and me) who were there to recount stories from the earlier days of the Party; giving the newcomers some institutional history. During my presentation, I took the opportunity to give thanks to some no longer with us. I was grateful to be able to fill these new libertarians in on the profound and lasting effects of Murray Rothbard’s contributions to the Party and the movement. He will be remembered.

December 25, 2002

David Bergland [send him mail] lives in Costa Mesa, California, with wife Sharon Ayres. Retired from the active practice of law and now doing business as Cornucopia Consulting, he conducts workshops for business and other organizations on self-discovery, communication, and team building using multiple-model temperament and personality theories. He is also a martial arts and self-defense instructor.

Copyright © 2002


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