As I noted at the beginning of this introduction, Roy Childs and I got along famously after we met in the summer of 1971. But there was a problem: I had made plans to return to the University of Arizona to finish my undergraduate degree. Indeed, I had already quit my job as a warehouse foreman in Montebello, given notice on my apartment in Inglewood, and packed up most of my books.
Roy did not want to lose his partner in conversation, so with all the persuasion he could muster—which was considerable, as anyone who knew Roy will attest—he attempted to convince me to cancel my move. I replied that my plans were set, that however much I disliked the idea of taking the usual academic route, I disliked my other options even more.
Within a week of my scheduled departure, I got a call from Roy. He asked if I would stay if he could get a contract for me to write a book on atheism. I replied: “Sure, Roy, I have no academic credentials, and I’m leaving in five days. Sure, get me a book contract, and I’ll stay.” (Roy was familiar with a sixty-page monograph, The Case for Atheism, that I had self-published two years earlier, under the auspices of the UA Students of Objectivism.)
Roy called me the next day. “I’ve been talking to Ed Nash at Nash Publishing, and he wants you to call him about a book on atheism.” Unbeknownst to me but not to Roy, Nash was looking for someone to write a book on the subject.
Things moved quickly after that. Within days, with Roy at my side in the Nash offices on Sunset Blvd., I signed a book contract. One result was Atheism: The Case Against God (finished in August 1973 and published in 1974). Another result was a close friendship of many years with Roy Childs, until his untimely death on May 22, 1992, at age forty-three.
In late 1971, I rented an apartment in the same building in which Roy lived. This launched one of the most intellectually exciting periods in my life. As writers are wont to do, Roy and I were always looking for things to do other than write. Thus, in addition to going to movies and haunting bookstores, we spent endless hours discussing the fine points of libertarian theory, Objectivism, philosophy, and history. Scarcely a day passed for nearly a year without Roy and me engaging in an intense discussion or argument about something or other.
It was during this time that Roy wrote the last part of “Anarchism and Justice,” which discusses “in depth” Mortimer J. Adler’s criticisms of anarchism and his defense of government. Roy and I had many discussions about “Anarchism and Justice,” especially the part he was writing at the time, and I vividly recall his comment that he found Adler’s arguments, as presented in The Common Sense of Politics, difficult to rebut. Indeed, Roy said that Adler had nearly won him over to the pro-government point of view.1
Another project that kept Roy busy was the SIL Book Review and Books for Libertarians. (After two issues—May and June 1972—SIL Book Review morphed into Books for Libertarians, which later became Libertarian Review.) In these monthly eight-page newsletters, we see Roy’s industry, ability, and integrity as a writer.
Roy and I had written reviews for Book News, the book service established by Barbara Branden and Bob Berole after the infamous “split” with Ayn Rand in 1968. I had read other reviews by Roy as well, but not until I saw Roy on a daily basis, witnessed him in action and talked to him about writing reviews, did I fully appreciate the thought he gave to them.
To this day Roy is widely regarded as the finest book reviewer in the history of the modern libertarian movement, and with good reason. His output alone almost defies belief, especially when we take into account the fact that Roy was never content with skimming a book and always read the books he reviewed.
The first issue of SIL Book Review contains fourteen reviews, most of which are 500 words or more. Of these, I wrote one, and Jarret Wollstein wrote one and co-authored one with Roy. The remaining eleven reviews were written by Roy.
Roy wrote six reviews for the June issue of this periodical, seven for the July issue (the month it became Books for Libertarians), and nine for the August issue. Roy must have been taking a break for the October issue, for he only wrote the lead review—a substantive discussion of A New History of Leviathan. But it was back to the races in the October issue, which contains eight reviews by Roy. And so it went month after month, as Roy covered an enormous range of books on philosophy, economics, history, psychology, and more. (Roy, a great lover of classical music, later wrote numerous music reviews. He once told me that those were the reviews he most enjoyed writing.) Having observed Roy at work many times and having read a number of his essays and reviews in typescript, I can verify the following observation by Ronn Neff, a friend and colleague of Roy who met him around seven months before I did.
Roy was one of the fastest typists I ever knew. He composed on one of the early-generation IBM Selectrics (without the correction key and tape), usually on flimsy yellow paper…. [H]e composed as he was typing. His drafts contained almost no spelling errors, no corrections, no strike-throughs, and no rewritings….Essays were organized as they appeared on paper. When he was writing “Anarchism & Justice,” each section was written in a single, discrete burst of creativity over the months of their publication. Writers who have experience only with computer keyboards and word-processing software may not realize what a feat that was. It means that the problem with getting Roy to finish things was not getting him to sit down and actually finish them; it was getting him to sit down and start them.2
Roy never wrote a book. His writings appeared in newsletters, magazines, journals, and anthologies; and he distributed manuscript copies of some of his unpublished writings. In 1984 Roy began working for Laissez Faire Books as its chief reviewer, and his later reviews show the same sparkle and depth of analysis that we find in his earlier reviews. Quoting Joan Kennedy Taylor:
[H]is vast reading, which he often used to place the book he was discussing in a wider context; his willingness to point out disagreements he had with a book he was recommending; above all, his unquestionable enthusiasm, all of these won him a multitude of fans. After he died, many people wrote Laissez Faire some variation on the following, received from a subscriber in India: “I had so much respect for him that only the books he chose to review were considered worth reading by me.”3
Even though Roy normally wrote reviews for the purpose of selling books, he rarely pulled his punches. Rare is a reviewer who will trash a book that he hopes to sell, but this is precisely what Roy did in a review (SIL Book Review, May 1972) of It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand, by Jerome Tuccille.
Roy had a wonderful sense of humor, but he hated Tuccille’s satirical skewering of Ayn Rand and other libertarian figures. This “book should never have been published,” he wrote. Tuccille “shows that he does not take the libertarian movement—or the tiny band of heroes at its apex—seriously and that he does not respect them, or honesty.” Roy continued:
Consider the fact that libertarianism is vitally important for man—a life-or-death matter. Consider the fact that Rand and Rothbard are the Jefferson and Paine, the Garrison and Spooner, of our tiny movement. Then consider the fact that it is these people—among others—whom Tuccille attempts to ridicule. It is not, you see, that he wants to demolish them—he just wants them not to be taken seriously. At least that is the impression one gets while reading this book, which makes both look like eccentric nuts.
Roy’s scathing review of It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand was a rare exception.4 Roy normally had good things to say about a book, but even here he typically expressed his disagreements forcefully and unequivocally. Consider this passage from Roy’s review (Libertarian Review, August 1973) of For Reasons of State, a collection of essays by Noam Chomsky.
Chomsky is brilliant at focusing his critical intelligence on the flaws, errors and evasion of others—he is particularly good at dissecting arbitrary assertions—but apparently he has not bothered to turn that intelligence on his own unacknowledged and unsupported assertions. And as if that were not enough, Chomsky exhibits the closest thing I have seen in print to a tabula rasa mentality in his ridiculous and moronic claim than anarchism is a subset of socialism, a voluntary subset, but a subset nonetheless. This is asinine.
Roy’s early reviews provide valuable insights into the sources that influenced him, and they sometimes give us condensed versions of ideas and themes that he developed more fully in essays. No fully adequate account of Roy’s ideas has yet been written, unfortunately, but if one should ever be written, it would need to take into account his many reviews. Although Roy made his living for many years by writing reviews, he rarely wrote them mechanically; they almost always reveal something about the man and what he was thinking at the time.
For example, in his review (SIL Book Review, June 1972) of Thomas Kuhn’s influential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Roy quoted a passage from “Rothbard’s account” of the same book.5 But, as we find with many of Rothbard’s leads, Roy developed his own approach. Whereas Rothbard applied Kuhn’s theory of paradigms specifically to the history of economics, Roy applied the same general approach to what he called the “paradigm of statism”– as we see, most notably, in his 1974 article “Liberty and the Paradigm of Statism” (published in The Libertarian Alternative, an early collection of libertarian essays edited by Tibor Machan).
Roy exhibited his interest in paradigms as a methodological tool as early as 1971, in what is perhaps his most popular and widely read essay, “Big Business and the Rise of American Statism.” In his discussion of historical paradigms and their relevance to American history, Roy wrote:
Needless to add, many contemporary Marxists have responded to the challenge with ever new wings being added on to classical Marxist theory to “explain,” in an ad hoc fashion, the events which do not fit into classic Marxist paradigms. Historically, whenever defenders of some classic paradigm, in any field, begin to confront problems which conflict with the basic theory, they begin increasingly to modify the particulars of the theory to conform to fact without ever questioning the basic paradigm itself. But sooner or later any such imitation of the path taken by the followers of Ptolemy must end in the same way: the paradigm will collapse and be replaced by a new paradigm which explains all the known facts in a much simpler manner, thus conforming to a fundamental rule of scientific methodology: Occam’s razor.6
Roy’s reference to Occam’s Razor—a principle found in a number of his theoretical works — is another example of how his early book reviews can shed light on the sources of his thinking. The relevant source here is The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes (1967), by Mortimer J. Adler, an Aristotelian philosopher for whom Roy had great respect. In his review of Adler’s book (Libertarian Review, August 1972), he called it “a model of philosophical analysis” and praised Adler’s presentation of Occam’s Razor as a “masterpiece of philosophic method.”
Although this review appeared after the publication of “Big Business and the Rise of American Statism,” and although Roy was undoubtedly familiar with Occam’s Razor from his earlier studies of philosophy, I know from conversations with Roy during this period that it was Adler’s treatment that impressed upon him its significance and potential. Indeed, it was Roy who suggested that I quote from Adler’s account of Occam’s Razor in Atheism: The Case Against God (1974).
Southern California was a hotbed of libertarian activity during the 1970s; lectures, discussion groups, and debates abounded. As Jeff Riggenbach, who was himself involved in many of these activities, observed: “In Los Angeles in the early to mid-1970s, you seldom saw an entire week go by without at least one opportunity to get together with local and visiting libertarians, especially if you were willing to drive a few miles across town or even into a neighboring county.”7
This frenetic activity was not confined to the Los Angeles area; it was also going on in other cities, especially New York and San Francisco. As Riggenbach notes: “The movement had just experienced a massive increase in population, virtually all at once. Suddenly, there were at least two or three times as many libertarians in the world as there had been only a few years earlier. Suddenly, libertarians were everywhere—or so it seemed.”
Suddenly, there were dozens of libertarian publications on the market. There was a joke going around at the time that defined libertarians as people who earned a living by selling magazine articles to each other. It’s true that most of these publications had a circulation of no more than a few hundred, at best, and they looked decidedly amateurish when placed next to conservative or left-liberal publications of that era. It wasn’t until around 1980 that the movement had three or four professionally designed magazines that reached a readership of 10,000 or more and wouldn’t have looked out of place next to National Review or The New Republic on a newsstand. But even in the days when they were still typeset on typewriters and bound with a single staple in the upper left-hand corner of page one, they contained some outstanding writing and some compelling ideas.8
It was during the 1970s that I participated in public debates with John Hospers (on anarchism), Robert LeFevre (on retaliatory force), Tibor Machan (on anarchism), David Friedman (on natural rights versus utilitarianism), and Robert Poole (on abolitionism versus gradualism). These internecine debates made the early libertarian movement an exciting place to be, even when it wasn’t moving anywhere. And they inspired many libertarians to explore new frontiers in libertarian theory—a vital development, generated by the competition of ideas, that might never have occurred if only one person, such as Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard, had dominated the movement.
Roy also participated in a number of debates during his time in California; and though I cannot recall all of them, I do recall a debate in which Roy and I teamed up to debate the topic of free will versus determinism with two philosophy graduate students from USC.
Roy was a superb speaker, engaging and charismatic, and his lectures for the Cato Summer Seminars are fondly recalled by many who were fortunate enough to hear them. According to Joan Kennedy Taylor, “One of Roy’s speeches so impressed Charles Koch that he bought Libertarian Review from Robert Kephart to turn it into a national magazine that Roy would edit.”9
Roy delivered the keynote address at the National Libertarian Party Convention in 1979, and the following contemporary account gives some indication of the enthusiasm he could generate in an audience:
Childs’s speech had the audience pounding the tables, shouting responses to rhetorical questions, continually breaking in with applause. “Let the governing classes be put on notice that we mean to change the course of history,” he warned. “We have had enough and we are going to resist.” Terming the LP the party of individual liberty, peace, and prosperity, he challenged delegates to build “a new and decent party, a party of hope, a party of the future….Finally, building to a crescendo, he thundered, “If they ask, ‘By what right do you do this?’ we will answer, ‘We are the American people, and we will not bend before the power of the State!’” And that brought down the house.10
Excerpted from the introduction to Anarchism & Justice, by Roy A. Childs, Jr., published by Libertarianism.org Press.
In his review of The Common Sense of Politics (Books for Libertarians, July 1972), Roy said that Adler’s defense of government “is more convincing than almost any other work I have read….Although it is wrong, this is the best statement of a revised Aristotelian-Thomistic political philosophy that I have seen, and I have profited from it a great deal.” ↩
“Roy Childs on Anarchism,” Part 3, http://www.thornwalker.com/ditch/eboa_preface_3.htm. I cannot recommend Neff’s multi-part article too highly. It contains a good deal of information about Roy and his writings on anarchism that I do not discuss in this Introduction. ↩
Taylor, xviii. ↩
Roy’s review of Tuccille’s book was offset by a more favorable review by Jarret Wollstein in the same issue of SIL Book Review (May 1972). Wollstein called It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand “candid, impious, and frequently hilarious.” ↩
Roy did not cite the source, but the passage quoted in Roy’s review is from Rothbard’s article “Ludwig von Mises and the Paradigm of Our Age,” published in Modern Age ( Fall 1971, 370-379). This article was reprinted in the first edition of Rothbard’s anthology, Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays, published by Libertarian Review Press in 1974. Roy edited and wrote an introduction for this edition. ↩
Taylor, xvi. ↩
Frontlines: Reason’s Newsletter for Libertarians 2, no. 2 (October 1979), 2. Roy’s role as keynote speaker had been vehemently opposed by Murray Rothbard. For an account of the bitter controversy that occurred over this issue during a meeting of the LP National Committee (May 5-6, 1979), see Frontlines 1, no. 10 (June 1979). I mention this controversy because it reflects the animosity that had developed over the past several years between Roy Childs and Murray Rothbard, two former friends and colleagues. I should note, however, that the lion’s share of personal animosity came from Rothbard. Roy regarded Rothbard as his most important mentor, and he always retained a high regard for his work, despite their later conflicts. A fair number of Rothbard’s friends and admirers, including me, eventually squabbled with Rothbard and went their separate ways. Such internecine conflicts are the rule in ideological movements, especially during periods of rapid growth. The libertarian movement in the late 1970s and early ‘80s was no exception. ↩
George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith's fourth book, The System of Liberty, was recently published by Cambridge University Press.