September 19, 2012 columns

Remembering Roy Childs

Boaz pays tribute to Roy Childs

When I got involved in the tiny libertarian movement back in the early 1970s, I had the impression that its two leading intellectuals were Murray Rothbard and the much younger Roy Childs. Rand, Mises, and Hayek were out there as great thinkers; Milton Friedman was regarded with some skepticism as a “Chicagoite”; but the fledgling movement seemed centered around Rothbard and Childs.

Rothbard, of course, had published many books by then. Childs was best known for a few essays such as “Open Letter to Ayn Rand” and “Big Business and the Rise of American Statism,” both of which had had the effect of moving a lot of Ayn Rand-influenced people to a more radical position.

In two stints as editor of Libertarian Review and as editor of Laissez Faire Books, Roy brought his keen insight and radical vision to a dazzling range of topics: the nature of rights, neoconservatism, foreign policy, Third World land reform, Iran, Ayn Rand’s influence on libertarianism, and much more. He seemed to have read everything and to know how it fit into his overall worldview. And he knew everybody. What fun it would be to read his correspondence – or better yet, listen to his phone calls – with Rothbard, Friedman, Nathaniel Branden, Barbara Branden, Thomas Szasz, and Robert Nozick. You can read his formal interviews with some of those people in the Libertarian Review archives.

All of us who knew Roy Childs were inspired by the breadth of his thought and by his fierce independence. He never finished college, and that obviously affected his career opportunities. Like many great scholars of the past, Roy rarely worked for a university or any other formal institution. He also struggled mightily with his weight, which eventually led to his far too early death. But despite his financial and health problems, he had an amazing capacity for finding joy in life. His friend David Henderson urged him to write a book on “the joy of capitalism,” since he was so good at conveying it. Sadly, he never managed to write a book. But ask him why Maria Callas was so controversial, or how Toscanini popularized classical music, or how you could get everything you needed delivered to your apartment inManhattan, and he could expound at length. 

He gave great lectures at the Cato Institute’s Summer Seminar in Political Economy (a forerunner of Cato University) on the ethics of liberty, the history of the libertarian movement, and the future of liberty. At the biggest Libertarian Party convention ever, in Los Angeles in 1979, he was selected to deliver the keynote address. He brought the crowd to its feet repeatedly with excoriations of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates and stirring rhetoric:

We mean to change the course of history. Our ancestors came to this country because they wanted to build new lives for themselves as free men and free women. They came here because they would not bow down before kings and before tyrants. Yet tyranny is here, and submission is a crime. Let us build a new and decent party, based on individual rights, free from the dead hand of coercion and violence. And if they ask us, by what right do we resist, we will answer, “we are the American people, and we will not bend before the power of the state!”

The ebook being published today, Anarchism & Justice, represents just one of his many interests, and one he largely gave up in his 20s. It’s good that it’s now available again. But to get a better sense of Roy Childs’s wide-ranging interests, read the collection published after his death, Liberty Against Power, or the essays in Libertarian Review.