Roy A. Childs, Jr. was an essayist, lecturer, and critic. He first came to prominence in the libertarian movement with his 1969 “Open Letter to Ayn Rand,” and he quickly established himself as a major thinker within the libertarian tradition.
George H. Smith talks about Roy’s ideas and personality as well as the people that influenced Roy’s thinking and the people that Roy in turn influenced during his lifetime.
Show Notes and Further Reading
Smith mentions Childs’s essay “Big Business and the Rise of American Statism.” It is available here in four parts.
This is a link to all of Libertarianism.org’s content by or about Childs.
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I am Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is George H. Smith. He was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American history for Cato Summer Seminars, an Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. His fourth book The System of Liberty was recently published by Cambridge University Press.
He’s also a contributor to Libertarianism.org in many ways including his popular weekly column and he’s the co-editor with Marilyn Moore of the Libertarianism.org book Individualism: A Reader. But today we’re here to talk about your friend Roy Childs. You wrote an introduction where you talked about Roy’s ideas and your relationship with him for an ebook Libertarianism.org put out quite a while ago. There was a collection of his works called Anarchism and Justice. So how did you first meet Roy or when did you meet him?
George Smith: OK. Some of this is – just to let listeners know, some of this information will probably duplicate material in that introduction which was published in – posted in five parts on part of my Libertarianism.org series. But in that case, I met Roy in person in early 1971. He had been in New York. He was well-known at the time. He had worked with Jarret Wollstein on The Rational Individualist as it was called.
They later changed the name of The Individual. So it was a very early libertarian magazine. But I thought – I always joked with Roy about picking the word “rational” out. Like we will go for anybody, whether they’re rational or not and anyway, by that time, he had written his very famous and influential article An Open Letter to Ayn Rand. But he and I had corresponded briefly because The Rational Individualist was starting local chapters at colleges. I formed one of the first at University of Arizona. SRI it was called. Later it changed to SIL, Society for Individual Liberty.
We had had some correspondence. They had this sort of nifty little organizational kit for college campuses. It was cheaply done but they had no money and so I had some correspondence with him. He knew of some things that I had written. I knew of him primarily through his article An Open Letter to Ayn Rand and when he came out to California, he came out to attend one of Nathaniel Branden’s therapy group. So it was sort of the thing to do among libertarian types. Well, I went to one or another of Branden’s therapy groups during the time.
Aaron Ross Powell: When was this?
George Smith: I met him in early ’71. He called me on the phone. I don’t know exactly how he got my phone number but he wanted to meet me and I honestly can’t remember our very first meeting but we really got along very well. It was just one of those instant bondings where you just are talking – you meet at 7:00 and you’re talking until 7:00 in the morning and I found him a fascinating character. He liked me I think because I was open to new ideas and interested in learning whatever I could from people who knew more than I did and Roy certainly in many areas knew more than I did.
What finally kind of cemented it, I was living in Englewood near LAX and I had to move and Roy said, “Why don’t you move in this apartment building where I’m living?” It was on Selma Avenue on Hollywood and then we can chat every day.
So they were basically efficiency apartments and I moved into the same building. So we go to the same building for – it was a little over a year until he moved back to New York and we saw each other literally every day. We did everything together. We were both broke writers. It was a classic story of the salad years.
Neither of us had any money. I was working on my first book Atheism: The Case against God. He was among other things writing – not only running books for libertarians which was an early version of Libertarian Review doing reviews. But it was also working on that wonderful series he wrote called Anarchism and Justice. So we would get together every day, sometimes for hours, and talk about what he was working on, what I was working on.
He gave me advice about things in my book. I gave him some feedback about what he was doing and it was – I have to say in terms of just this year [Indiscernible] excitement, it was one of the most exciting years of my life. We were both young. Roy only was a month older than I was. We were the same age. We came from similar but somewhat different backgrounds. He had strong personal connections with Murray Rothbard who at that time I had never met.
It was largely through Roy that I first learned of the ideas of Murray Rothbard. I had read a little bit about him before that. But as with many people, you have to understand the movement at that time which we can get into later if you want. It was very young and very exciting because it just seemed like the sky was the limit.
But he got me very interested in Murray’s ideas. I had converted to the Rothbardian version of anarchism after reading his open letter to Ayn Rand which was published when – I think it was in ’69.
So he didn’t have to convert me to that but he convinced me of a lot of …
Trevor Burrus: Can you talk a little bit about his personality in that sense? Because that’s the sense I got when I – especially when I came to Cato first and started meeting people who knew Roy.
George Smith: Yeah. Did you ever meet him personally?
Trevor Burrus: I did not and people who knew Roy and everyone was very affected by him in many ways, so intellectually and personally.
George Smith: Yeah. He was one of the great personalities of the Modern Movement. The only person would even come close to Roy in personal charisma that I can think of was Nathaniel Branden who was also very charismatic. But Roy was more engaging, more outgoing. It’s just hard not to like him when you first met him. He was – I used to call him – after Star Wars came out, I called him the Yoda [Indiscernible]. He was sort of the guy that kids would cluster around at conferences and ask sort of what I like to call guru questions, kind of open-ended questions like a master, imparts some of your wisdom.
He liked that role and he was very good at it. He was very large physically. That is a problem that eventually caused his severe health problems. When I first met him, actually he was quite trim. He had separated from his wife. He wasn’t in good shape psychologically. So he wasn’t eating that much and he used to swim every day in the pool in that apartment building we lived in. Later of course he started to gain his weight back but his personality was just – I hate to use clichés but it was larger than life.
He really was just a very interesting guy to be around. I also can say I never got bored being around Roy.
Trevor Burrus: It also seemed like there was no intellectual subject that was foreign to him.
George Smith: No. He would talk about anything and he was just – it wasn’t just an exterior of a charismatic personality. He really had a first rate mind. One of the things – we’re very blunt with one another. I was probably one of the few people who wasn’t actually intimated by Roy and I would tell him exactly what I thought. I would jump all over him if I thought he did or did not do something.
One example of that would be when he – he was – you have to understand that this time, the whole anarchism, minarchism controversy – minarchism being a term coined by Sam Konkin for advocates of limited government.
We were both spending a lot of time with both Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. We both wrote book reviews for academic associates which was run by Barbara and Bob Berole, Bob Berole being the rational dancer in the tutelage book [Indiscernible] with Ayn Rand.
Nice people. They were living together at the time. I spent a lot of time in her apartment which ironically I later moved into myself long after she had left that apartment building. He was the go-to guy to argue about the anarchist controversy. It was a much bigger controversy than it really is now. I think it has settled down a lot although I think the issues are still interesting and important.
But everyone in the LA area and LA – Southern California was one of the really active hubs. There were others in San Francisco and New York but I think Southern California, just everybody seemed to be in Southern California. People who would later disperse around the United States but you could go to a meeting of some kind or another once or twice a week easily. So Roy and I did a lot of separate clubs. We gave debates with other people.
But actually Branden, Nathaniel Branden, once suggested a debate, an informal debate on the anarchism-minarchism controversy to be held at Barbara’s apartment on Franklin Avenue not far from the Chinese theatres and I was going along as Roy’s second and Barbara and Nathan. Nathan would be the primary debater on the limited government side and Barbara would be the back-up.
So we met at Barbara’s apartment, had basically a three-hour discussion and then Branden said, “Why don’t we continue this?” and so we went back maybe a week later for another three-hour discussion. Now I brought that up –
Trevor Burrus: That would have been a good thing to have on tape.
George Smith: Yeah, I always regret it. But I have a good memory of it and I don’t know if you want me to tell the story but the reason I brought that up was I thought Roy dropped the ball in the first discussion.
Trevor Burrus: Well, before we go into that actually though because – I would like to go back to sort of parse up some of his ideas on the open letter to Ayn Rand.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, so – I mean that seems to be this – I mean it’s an important text in this early debate. So can you just tell us what was he – what was he responding to and what were his arguments in that open letter?
George Smith: Yeah, I do discuss this on the online Libertarianism.org essay so people can look for more information in there. But basically Roy gave what would become the standard argument against Randian minarchism. I know some limited government people don’t like that term but it has just become part of the lexicon in the libertarian movement.
The basic – he had a number of subsidiary arguments as well but the basic argument was that according to Rand – and she was very specific about this. No government has the right to initiate the use of force and Roy pointed out, “Well, if that’s true, then how can a government claim a monopoly on protection, on justice services?” which I will call protection agencies because in order to keep out competitors, it has to threaten them with force. It has to say if you go in, even if your system is perfectly just, even if we have no complaints with how you conduct yourselves. We have the monopoly on this. So we’re not going to allow you to compete. Therefore how do you keep out competitors? Well, like in any industry, you keep out competitors by threatening coercion against them.
This was the basic as you saw it contradiction in Rand’s attempts of government.
Trevor Burrus: So you’re saying you could either – they could either use force or agree to competition.
George Smith: Yeah, and he would give the example because always – I mean first of all, he pointed out the presumption that government is going to – any monopoly is going to become inefficient. So even if you have a government that’s essentially just, if it has grown fat and lazy and people are unhappy with it, they have to pay too much in tax or in money. Rand opposed taxation in theory. So coercion of taxation really wasn’t an issue.
But suppose you have dissatisfied customers and they say, “Look, we have this other agency over here that’s more efficient, less expensive. We would rather go to them to resolve our disputes.” So, on what grounds can the government say – maybe it uses even the same procedures as the government. Maybe there’s no difference in substance between those two agencies.
Nevertheless, a monopolistic government will say, “No, no, we reserve that right of deciding disputes, legal jurisdiction to ourselves, and we won’t let you go to somebody else.” So now according to Rand – again, this is a theory. She did write some things saying, “I’m against taxation in principle, but …” and then the yada-yada-yada followed, which always follows on those exceptions.
But the problem was what if somebody just refuses to pay for the government. Now according to Rand, you couldn’t force him to pay. So can they go elsewhere? Can they take their money to another service? And Roy’s argument was an objectivist government would not permit that. It would have to initiate force and in so far as it initiated or threatened to initiate force, it would violate Rand’s basic maxim of no one including government has the right to initiate force.
That brought in the whole thing of competing agencies that Murray Rothbard wrote about. Randy Barnett who by the way once told me he was also convinced by Roy’s open letter and he’s in a very influential, very high level intellectual influence on libertarianism. A law professor as you guys know. But …
Trevor Burrus: He has been on the show.
George Smith: Yeah, I heard that as a matter of fact. He and I sat one time at a conference and talked about who was actually converted by that open letter and I don’t remember all the people on it that he knew about and I knew about. But there were quite a few people who were still very active in the libertarian movement who were converted if I can use that term to the anarchistic cause.
I’m sure you want to get into this later but Roy as you know later retreated from that and went back and embraced limited government and that’s a whole another story.
Aaron Ross Powell: Did Rand have a response to this letter? Did she reply to it or if she didn’t, did she have an argument directly against anarchism?
George Smith: Well, that’s the odd thing. Roy later wrote. It was in that papers – I heard also from Roy. Well, his – well, I don’t need to tell you how I got the information. But basically what happened was Roy had a typed scripts or the manuscript and he saw a speech by Rand and he managed to hand her a copy of the manuscript. She didn’t say anything …
Trevor Burrus: Before it was published you mean?
George Smith: Before it was published. The only response he got, he was cut off the Objectivist mailing list and a subscription to the Objectivist.
Trevor Burrus: So they canceled your subscription? It wasn’t like cancel my subscription. It was that they told you your subscription is now canceled?
George Smith: He just got a note in the mail saying – they didn’t tell …
Trevor Burrus: You don’t deserve our newsletter anymore.
George Smith: More like the Spanish Inquisition. You won’t get in many details. You just knew you were in trouble. Now after that, there were various – Rand never replied directly to it. She had written some things. The thing that provoked – and I think Roy dealt with this in the open letter.
I think it was in her article The Nature of Government and she wrote some – I hate to say this but I like Rand. But some pretty lame stuff about anarchism. I mean painting worst case scenarios and failing to explain how government got out of those problems, you know.
And that enraged a lot of us – well, I mean she wrote them before Murray wrote his open letter but that sort of opened the door. Now she never responded directly. But some of the subordinates did in various venues. I think Peter Shorts was one guy and Roy had some unkind things to say about Peter Shorts.
Trevor Burrus: You yourself, you write about this in the introduction but it’s like a – you sat down – your initial thought about the letter was that it was a little bit presumptuous first of all. It was like Miss Rand, you should be an anarchist. Let me tell you why.
George Smith: Yeah, yeah.
Trevor Burrus: From like a 19-year-old kid. Was Roy 19 or so when he wrote it?
George Smith: Twenty.
Trevor Burrus: Twenty. OK. Well …
George Smith: Basically, I want to show you the light sort of …
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. I mean which is hilarious. That’s the attitude she had toward people and if someone would take that attitude toward her, it probably made her upset. But you said, “I’m going to kind of write something about this.” How did that go?
George Smith: Well, I was in Tucson when I got – I had heard about it in advance from some people. Oh, this article – defending anarchism against Rand. What’s the big deal then? You have to understand. That kind of article today has become fairly common and there are so many outlets.
Back then there weren’t many inter-libertarian magazines. The individualist or The Rational Individualist was one of them. So this was a big deal. I mean people were talking about it. I was sort of the leader of my little subculture here in Arizona. I started the students with the objectivism club. So in my – I subscribed to The Rational Individualist when it came or maybe – I’m sorry. It could have been The Individualist by that time. It doesn’t matter but I don’t remember the exact time about the name change.
But Jarret Wollstein started the magazine and so I got it and I read it and it annoyed me. It [Indiscernible] just sort of aggravates you on a basic level but you still know there’s something there and you need to calm down and not just put it aside and not think about it again, which I think is what a lot of objectivists did.
Yeah, but there’s something here. So I thought, well, I’m just capable of writing a refutation on this as anybody. So I was in my bedroom. I have my little, portable, electric typewriter and I had read through the article several times. I typed out some quotations and I even had a title before I started writing. It was called Strange Bedfellows, a reply to Roy Childs’ open letter to Ayn Rand.
Trevor Burrus: Had you met Roy at this point?
George Smith: No, no. We had corresponded because of the connection. I was running the SIL group on campus. So we knew of one another.
Aaron Ross Powell: Who were the strange bedfellows?
George Smith: Beg your pardon?
Aaron Ross Powell: Who were the strange bedfellows?
George Smith: Well, Roy, considering himself sort of not an objectivist but sort of a neo-objectivist. He was trying to incorporate anarchism at the end of the objectivist movement and anyway, I started out with the easier point. Some of his subsidiary points were not that difficult to answer sort of. But I avoided that contradiction point that I explained earlier. I just thought, “Ah, there has got to be an answer to that.”
So I reread Rand’s articles on government. I went through them several times. It was odd because I couldn’t find any awareness of that problem at all, of how do you sustain the monopoly status of a government. So I reread it and I remember very distinctly – I had an old typewriter table with this typewriter. I reread it over and over and I kind of ran through it. Then suddenly I said I don’t – there’s just logically no way to answer that and I remember thinking to myself, “Well, I guess I’m an anarchist.” It wasn’t like some …
Trevor Burrus: Did it hurt? Was that a difficult thought to have?
George Smith: No, and that’s the odd thing. I think I mentioned this again in the introduction to Roy’s writings. It was very simple and I speculate that the reason it was – because I had already accepted the basic premises. It wasn’t until later that I realized that Rand – what Rand had really done is laid down some classic anarchist premises. One of the most important being – is the illegitimacy of course of taxation.
Now once you start that ball rolling, you talk about a slippery slope. This was not something new. I mean you may be familiar with a very good, consistent libertarian in the 19th century named Auberon Herbert.
Trevor Burrus: Oh, yeah, one of our favorites.
George Smith: Yeah. Well, Herbert was in favor of what he called voluntary taxation. That’s a phrase that Rand herself never used. But Spencer disagreed with him on this. Oh, it was totally impractical and he’s never going to sell that program. But the American anarchist at Benjamin Tucker School of individualist anarchists liked Herbert because of his voluntary taxation thing. But Herbert reputed the term “anarchist,” claiming that this was a form of financing government and basically the Tucker [Indiscernible] argument was – I mean maybe technically but you’re not going to be able to sustain a government if you have to actually let people decide whether they want to pay for your services or not and they brought up the same problem. What if competing services want to get in the game?
By that way, that was an early argument. There was a fellow [Indiscernible] wrote a book called Voluntary Socialism, Francis Tandy. Marilyn and I included an excerpt from that book, a privately-printed book which is not well-known. It was mentioned by Nozick at one point.
Tandy comes straight up – a peculiar title Voluntary Socialism to the modern ear but he was an individualist anarchist, free market guy, and he explicitly laid out a plan to take what are now legitimate government services and put them in the private market in the form of insurance companies as a model and went into quite a bit of detail. It’s a very interesting discussion.
But anyway, when I realized that there was no way around this monopoly thing, I just – it was an easy transition. Frankly, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal and I didn’t think – I learned differently when I went back to my little club. There was sort of 10 people, the core of it, and started saying, you know, we really should be anarchists and let’s just say that was not received with universal acclaim among some of the harder core Randians there.
Miss Rand has denounced anarchism. Well, she was wrong. But that wasn’t a good argument I guess.
Aaron Ross Powell: When you had this conversion, was it a purely logical one in the sense of just like – OK, I know I’m opposed to the use of force and any state seems to require it because of this monopoly issue. So therefore, I’m an anarchist. But was there any like concern about, well, but maybe anarchism wouldn’t work?
George Smith: Well, that’s an interesting point because I think one of the great values – people say to me all the time or past years have said, “Well, what’s the point of this? Anarchism is never going to happen in America,” which I have to agree with by the way. So what’s the point of debating it?
Now I think there are a number of answers to that but I think the most important for a libertarian audience is that it got us thinking about alternatives. I had never really considered before. I knew that Rothbard has advocated this sort of thing, but I never really considered before the implications of that in terms of how in fact would you structure a competitive system. Randy Barnett in The Structure of Liberty, he calls it [Indiscernible] sort of a euphemism for anarchism.
He goes into quite a bit of detail about that in some articles he wrote for the Harvard Law Review and stuff he did also. But it got me and a lot of other people thinking. It sort of – we awoke from our dogmatic slumbers and thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” In particular, it got me thinking about justice and what is the element criterion of justice. Could that be maintained in a competitive system? I actually put a lot of that in writing in some early articles I wrote for The Journal of Libertarian Studies. The main one was called Justice Entrepreneurship in a Free Market and the point of that article – which was really an offshoot of my thinking about my conversion to anarchism – was what market forces would tend to work in favor of maintaining justice?
I developed an argument, kind of market incentives that would want justice agencies as I call them, to remain pure so to speak. The selling of the reputation once they became known as an outlaw agency, they would lose customers. More or less it’s standard libertarian argument but I use Israel Kirschner’s [Phonetic] concept of entrepreneurship and applied it to the issue of market forces that would favor justice. Well, conceding of course that you’re always going to have bad eggs in any of these things. I didn’t deny you’re going to have outlaw agencies masquerading as justice agencies and that sort of thing. But that was well-received for the most part in the libertarian community and I still see it referenced sometimes.
Trevor Burrus: But you get this – I mean the idea that we have no sacred dogs in the state. It gets us thinking about other possibilities outside of monopoly and that’s something you write about in the introduction too which I think is really, really interesting when you said there’s a distinction between anarchy and anarchism.
George Smith: Right.
Trevor Burrus: Can you talk a little bit about what that is?
George Smith: Yeah, I came up with those distinctions more or less on my own, just trying to clarify. Many things I had written in past years – I’ve actually written mini essays just to myself. Kind of be clear about distinctions and the point I was making there was that we often – first of all, that if you look up even in standard dictionaries, anarchy, you will find one reference to a society without a state and another definition being political chaos and confusion. So right away, we’re off to a bad start here.
But what I pointed out was that just as an advocate of minarchism doesn’t endorse every form of government, so an advocate of anarchism need not and won’t endorse every type of anarchy. There can be chaotic anarchistic systems. There can be vicious anarchies. So to call yourself an anarchist and somebody says, “Oh, they’ve got anarchy over there in that country and look at all the slaughter going on,” well, what’s the implication there? Supposedly just because you don’t have a government – lack of a government in other words is necessary but not sufficient for a good society in anarchist theory.
Anarchism is a theory, a positive theory. Anarchy is simply the absence of government and you can have all kinds of stuff, good and bad without government.
Trevor Burrus: Well, that’s an interesting analogy you make in there. You kind of just said it too that an anarchist does not endorse every stateless society as being good. Just like a statist, a believer of government doesn’t endorse every form of government as being good and just…
George Smith: Right, exactly.
Trevor Burrus: So you want a system of working peaceful, effective institutions in the – that’s what you’re advocating for, not just Somalia for example.
George Smith: Right. But that’s very common as you may know that when someone – libertarian finds that you’re an anarchist, they go, “Well, they’ve got anarchy over in Somalia,” or wherever or in the Middle East somewhere. So you approve of that and I will say, well – by the way, if you hear tweeting, I have my parakeet I got recently. I covered him up with the sheets, so he would be quiet but I think he’s cheering what I’m saying. I like to …
Trevor Burrus: It’s a good background. It’s fine.
George Smith: All right. Anyway, but it’s like me saying to some objectivist advocate of limited government, it’s just well, you believe in government. Well, look at the government in Iran. So you approve – you’re pro-government. So does that mean you approve of the government of Iran? Of course, no, no, no, I believe in this type of government.
Well, in the same way, individualist anarchists will say, “I believe in this type of anarchy,” a stateless society in which there are in fact mechanisms to enforce justice, that sort of thing.
Trevor Burrus: Now to go back – oh, sorry. Yeah, I was just going to go back to Roy because Roy used autarchy for …
George Smith: Yeah, in his earlier writings. That was under the influence of Robert LeFevre.
Trevor Burrus: Who was – who started the Rampart School, correct?
George Smith: Yeah. He started in Colorado. He and his associates actually built from scratch these wonderful cabins. I never saw them. Roy said it was wonderful. It had a library, a dining hall, rooms for students. I think they were financed originally by – what’s his name? Milliken? He was a textile businessman that LeFevre met.
But anyway, everyone spoke very highly of the courses that were given there. Roy, I think he was a sophomore in Buffalo at college. He went to that. He got a scholarship and they were so impressed with him, that they invited him to become a lecturer. So he quit college and before he could actually start his lecture in a teaching career, there was a terrible flood. I guess his place was in kind of a valley near Larkspur, Colorado and basically they couldn’t dig themselves out of the financial fall. So Rampart which later became – I think called the Freedom School basically moved to Orange County. They just had a suite of offices there. They didn’t have – they did some programs but they didn’t have nearly the facilities of – you know, they weren’t able to do near the – as much as they had done previously.
But Roy was very much influenced by LeFevre and he wrote to him a very important article, an interesting article before he wrote his open letter to Rand.
Now remember, he was like 17, 18 when he wrote these things and like LeFevre who expressly refuted the term “anarchy” or “anarchism,” because he thought it had bad associations essentially. Roy talked about autarchy, not anarchy. I don’t think it was until he wrote his open letter that he started using the term “anarchism”.
But nowhere that I know of – in fact Roy didn’t even discuss it with me. I was largely unaware of his – I knew about his association with LeFevre. But even to the point where – in his early articles, Roy slammed political action by libertarians. He later became a big advocate of the libertarian party.
But he used some of the same arguments that the [Indiscernible] the anti political libertarians including myself later used. That basically you were playing into the government’s hands by – you legitimate it through voting. But he was well aware of that and he – so he was changed in a number of ways including the terminological shift from the term “autarchy” to “anarchy”.
Trevor Burrus: Would you say Roy himself was sort of a combination of LeFevre, Rothbard and Rand? Were those his biggest influences do you think?
George Smith: Well, that’s a good point. I think it was a combination of Rothbard and Rand. Both were very influential. But I don’t – as far as I can tell, his LeFebvrian beliefs pretty much disappeared. I never saw any trace of LeFevre’s writings. I did a public debate at a Los Angeles libertarian separate club. This is probably I guess in the late 70s with Bob LeFevre. A very nice guy, old school gentleman, very gracious man. I liked him a lot.
We debated the issue of retaliatory force because LeFevre was a pacifist and he didn’t believe in the use of violence even basically in self-defense and so as I was prepare for the debate, I talked to Roy who knew LeFevre very well and he coached me. He said, now, he’s weak on this issue. Bring up this example. The example he wanted me to bring up was if somebody shoots a gun at me. Am I – do I have to wait until the bullet hits my body? And then claim ownership of the bullet?
Trevor Burrus: Then throw it back at them?
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, because LeFevre did have this theory as to – if somebody stabbed you with a knife, why you would pull the knife out if it belonged to the other guy. He says, well, once it goes in your body, it basically belongs to you.
Trevor Burrus: It’s kind of a …
George Smith: Well, I did use some of these arguments with Bob and he got visibly annoyed with me which kind of bothered me. I thought, well maybe – because frankly, some of his positions on that were just indefensible. I mean theoretically. But he did have a respect. He wrote a very nice booklet called The Philosophy of Ownership I believe, and he had a really good beat on history. I just thought his theoretical defense of passivism was just not defensible really, even to the point of denying the individual right of self-defense.
He used to talk about a couple of muggers coming up to him on the street and trying to take his wallet and he talked them out of it. Now maybe Bob could do that. He was a very charismatic fellow but it’s not something that I think works very often.
Trevor Burrus: So LeFevre sent Roy to – in some directions but it was really Rothbard and Rand.
George Smith: As far as I can see, Rothbard completely flipped him around. I never saw any trace of LeFevrian influence in Roy except the stress on education but that was a stress that all of the major libertarian figures …
Trevor Burrus: We still do that today. That’s what Libertarianism.org is all about.
George Smith: Right.
Trevor Burrus: It’s always the case. You mentioned some of Roy’s jobs. What were his jobs, some of them, when you were living in the – with him in the same apartment building?
George Smith: Well, I had a bunch of different ones but the – his main activities as I may have mentioned, when we were in that apartment on Selma apartment building were – he was the editor of books for libertarians or at that time was a – kind of one of those fold-over, long sheets folded over. I think they were usually eight pages. He wrote reviews every month for that and he got paid for those.
He had me write quite a few reviews also and I was thankful because I got $25 a review and considering I was living on zero income basically while running most of that book, that meant something. That by the way was also the standing fee for running book reviews for Barbara Branden and Bob Berole’s book news. It was $25 a pop and so I made my extra money that way and he was also working on his Anarchism and Justice series.
He was towards the end of that series by the time I met him. But then he moved on later. Bob [Indiscernible] come on to the East Coast. This kind of fell through. He wanted to expand Libertarian Review.
Roy later became editor of Libertarian Review. I think that was in ’77 to ’81. Then he was a policy analyst from Cato. I made a note before we started. There’s a – sort of reading it, from ’82 to ’84. He then became the editor and chief reviewer for Laissez Faire Books and that was starting in ’84 and that continued until its death in 1992.
Trevor Burrus: And he used to write an astounding number of reviews.
George Smith: Yes, it’s really remarkable. He was a very good reviewer. I know from being around him so much. I mean when you live in the same building and you’re walking down to his place and knocking on the door and he’s typing away and working on a certain review, he would reviews to me.
I thought his reviews were remarkable on a number of levels. Some of them are kind of explained in the article. People can read it on Libertarianism.org. But he was always honest with one exception. I had a big argument with him about it …
Trevor Burrus: The Irving Kristol discussion.
George Smith: Yeah, yeah. I didn’t think – that kind of …
Trevor Burrus: You never resolved that. So the issue – yeah, explain the issue because not all of our listeners have also read the …
George Smith: Well, the problem in my view – and I used to tell him this straight out and he would get kind of pissed. We would have arguments, but we were the type that could argue pretty heatedly and then after it was over, I was like with [Indiscernible]. He was another close friend or Roy’s, very active in the early movement in the LA area.
We would be in shouting matches and then we just – OK, that’s over. Let’s have a beer. It was remarkable to be able to argue with people like that and let it all out and not hold a grudge. But there was a grudge held by Roy on this issue. Roy got political as I used to tell him.
I say, “Roy, you’ve gotten political and it’s affecting your intellectual candor.” That happened when the LP was formed and Roy got very interested in it and if I were to mark kind of a bad turning point in Roy’s life, I would say it was his intense interest in political activity because that took all of his time away from a subset of theoretical issues for the most part, not entirely.
That’s why his earliest, best earliest theoretical writings were early in his career. I said, “Roy, I just think you’re wasting your talent. There are plenty of people out there. They believe in a libertarian party. They can do that kind of work. Your real talent is in theory and history and that’s what you should do.”
Aaron Ross Powell: What did it mean for him to turn political? What kind of stuff was he doing?
George Smith: Well, he was very active with Rothbard initially although they had a falling out and a personal break over issues involving libertarian party. He was very active. He talked a lot about running – I start to laugh when I say this but I knew Roy.
He wanted to run for state senator in California and for senator of California and he was even practicing his – now, don’t take this the wrong way. Well, see this – I hesitate to tell this sort of eccentric stories about Roy because people get the wrong impression. He was a very brilliant guy. He was well-connected to the world but he – when he did something, he went all out.
I walked into his apartment one time and even that early, he was watching a show like on TV, on PBS or something that had Hitler’s feature. He didn’t speak a word of German. I said, “Why are you watching that?” He says, “Well, I want to get an idea. I mean he was a son of a bitch, an evil guy, but he was an effective propagandist for the masses. So when I speak to the masses …”
He was watching his arm movements and all that stuff Hitler did and I actually saw him give a speech not long after that and he went a little overboard with the arm movements. He said, “What did you think?” I said, “Well, the speech was good, but I really think you should cut down on the gestures. This isn’t a mass audience of tens of thousands. This is a separate club with 45 people.”
Trevor Burrus: But he did get the audience at the LP. It was in’79 when he got them to come to the …
George Smith: I think you do. It may be just an audio recording. I don’t think …
Trevor Burrus: It’s a great – they were standing up and cheering.
George Smith: Oh, they were stomping on the floor. I wasn’t there but I heard secondary accounts. He was a great speaker. So maybe – and I’m making fun of him here kind of in a …
Trevor Burrus: In a loving way, yes.
George Smith: Yeah, but for us, it had done him some good. But I always thought he was an excellent speaker and I used to sit on his Cato lectures. He gave the Cato lectures, the first two called The Ethics of Liberty. Later for various reasons, he didn’t lecture for Cato anymore. I took over those two lectures for a while and – but he was very good. He was very engaging. The problem was later in life, he was so heavy, he had trouble standing for any length of time and it was kind of a running joke that he would have an assistant in his lectures and literally she would put like 10 glasses of water on the table and he would drink all of them during the course of his talk.
But he was very quick on his feet, one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard frankly and …
Trevor Burrus: So you were talking about getting political and …
George Smith: Yeah, he just got so wrapped up in politics that he just didn’t have the time or interest and so what happened with Kristol is that – this was before – this was while I was still living in the same apartment building.
He was going to review Kristol’s book. I think it’s called Two Cheers for Capitalism. It’s a collection of his early essays, Irving Kristol being the so-called “godfather of neo-conservatism” and he could talk to me independently. He had won a contest with the best essay which got him a free trip to the Mont Pelerin Society meeting. I don’t know where it was held that year. Maybe Belgium or some place.
So he was supposed to give a speech and Kristol was going to be at that meeting. Anyway, he had developed his grand strategy to convert Irving Kristol to libertarianism and he …
Aaron Ross Powell: To libertarianism or to anarchism?
George Smith: No, to libertarianism generally.
Aaron Ross Powell: OK.
George Smith: Bit of a stretch to take a neo-con and anarchist but – so I was aware of this and he said he was going to review Kristol’s book in the book review periodical when it was still called Libertarian Review, but before it turned into a magazine.
Meanwhile, I go back to Tucson. I had finished my book. I needed to rest up. So I stayed with my parents for a while. So I get a copy of the review and I just thought it was – for the first time, I thought Roy had written a review that wasn’t completely intellectually honest because he praises the book. It’s just full of stimulating insights and got him thinking about a lot of issues.
Then he mentions the chapter on censorship and he calls it – I forget how he put it. He didn’t call it weak but he said it – it would have some problems or something like – some watered down criticism. Well, I ordered the book immediately from Laissez Faire Books, thinking, “Wow, gee, it must be pretty good,” and I was just appalled by the book. I didn’t think any of the essays were particularly good. They certainly didn’t get me thinking new thoughts.
I thought it was just pretty much hackneyed stuff. But when I got to the chapter on censorship and Kristol says this outright. He said unless there had been a mistake, I’m calling for government censorship of not only literature but also movies across the board.
Trevor Burrus: Everything to make people more virtuous and better …
George Smith: Yeah, that’s part of the [Indiscernible] have to have virtue before you can have freedom. So coincidentally, I was getting married and I asked Roy if he would be my best man. He said yes. So I sent him plane tickets to fly out from Hollywood to Tucson and after the marriage, after reception, a small group of people – in fact Michael Emerling – that’s what we called him at the time. He’s now known as Michael Cloud. He was active in a lot of libertarian stuff, party stuff. But he was there and there may be six people sitting in my living room and we got into a discussion of Kristol and his review and at first, I was kind of polite. I said, “Roy, I don’t know how you wrote that review.” I said, “That book is drunk. He’s not just weak on the censorship Roy. He’s an outright advocate of censorship.” It’s not that he has got some mistakes or flaws that are minor. He wants to censor everything basically.
Well, Roy challenged me on that. He said, “I never said that.” I had a copy of LR, Libertarian Review. I had a separate office that I did my work. It was [Indiscernible] in Tucson and it was about a 15-minute drive each way. I got so angry that I drove to my office to get a copy of my review, which quoted him directly and drive back and then I read it to him.
Aaron Ross Powell: This was during your wedding reception?
George Smith: Well, my wedding day – I know, a typical libertarian. My wife …
Trevor Burrus: I have to solve this problem before – hold on …
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah. What did your wife think?
George Smith: Well, she was kind of into it herself. So I brought it back and read it and it said what I claimed it said and Roy kind of puffed himself up and said I was questioning his integrity and I – that was difficult for me. I did go – I basically said that he had kissed Kristol’s ass in the hope of converting him.
He wanted to cozy up to him because if you read the essay he wrote for the Mont Pelerin Society, he also mentioned the distinguished audience and including Irving Kristol and that Kristol had posed one of the most profound problems of the 20th century. How do we maintain a culture of freedom?
Trevor Burrus: Well, yeah, as opposed to being like you’re not a believer in freedom. You should get out of here. That would have been – but maybe that’s what you have said.
George Smith: Anyway, Roy took it as a personal insult and admittedly I was heated up because I didn’t appreciate making a half hour drive just to prove my point.
Trevor Burrus: To prove yourself right but then you liked it at the end of the day.
George Smith: Well …
Trevor Burrus: Because you were correct.
George Smith: It did bother me. We didn’t really talk after that. I didn’t – Roy and I didn’t really talk after that for about two or three years. He was involved with other things. We weren’t in the same city anyway. But we didn’t talk on the phone. We later patched things up and during the last few years of his life, with slight exaggeration, I would say we talked on the phone nearly every day for at least an hour.
It was a normal part of my life then and in some ways, it wasn’t until those later years of our phone conversations that I got to know certain parts of his personality, that I never really got to know before. He knew when he called me. He usually called me and – yeah, sometimes he would be drunk, sometimes not, but usually drunk. Roy was – had a problem with alcohol and – but I never condemned him. I never judged him. He knew that I would listen to him and tell him what I honestly thought. We became very, very close.
I also saw him – the last times I saw him when he was lecturing at the Cato conference in Dartmouth. I remember we had spent a lot of time together. I would watch him with the students and he was in such bad health then that the distance from the dorm rooms, where we stayed with the students, to the cafeteria couldn’t have been more than a five-minute walk, maybe seven minutes.
I usually walk with Roy over there and he always had to sit down and take a rest two, maybe three times, in what would be a five-minute walk. At that point, he was over 500 pounds and could barely walk at all. So it was sad, very sad.
Aaron Ross Powell: I’m curious about the book reviews because it is – I mean he wrote a lot of them. He’s well-known for the book reviews that he wrote for Laissez Faire Books and I should note a couple of years ago, Trevor and I got tasked with it – Roy’s library was given to the Cato institute and we were tasked with going through those boxes of books and organizing them and putting them in the new library on the second floor here at Cato.
Trevor Burrus: It was an interesting way of kind of getting to know someone.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, it is. Yes, it’s …
George Smith: Yeah, it’s very personal.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yes, it’s extremely personal to go through someone’s library and it was an astonishing collection of books and he had very good taste.
George Smith: Right.
Aaron Ross Powell: But – so commented that when he turns towards politics, he stopped doing the theoretical writings that you wish he had done. But did any of that theoretical work emerge in that body of book reviews? Was he kind of doing theoretical thinking behind the scenes by way of reviewing books?
George Smith: In fact I would say there’s a good deal of theoretical work and that’s where I should make an exception to my general statement. He did include a lot of very interesting theoretical comments but if you look at his major essays, both history and theory, most of them were written in the late 70s, late 60s, early 70s. He did write I think around ’75 an extensive critique of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. That was published in the Journal of Libertarian Studies and he was writing what was supposed to be an extensive critique of anarchism and explaining his own conversion to minarchism.
But after he died, that was never published for various reasons. But he never completed it. Joan Kennedy Taylor went through his papers. I think they’re now at Stanford, unpublished papers, and did find a fragment which you guys reprinted in that collection of Roy’s articles. I think it was called – gosh, I can’t remember the title he gave to it.
But that was where he explained that he had changed his mind about anarchism and it converted to limited government and he was going to explain why.
Trevor Burrus: That seems like the big mystery especially for a guy who converted so many people to anarchism.
George Smith: Yeah, that was – I discuss it extensively with him or asked him extensively about it during those last three years. He seemed to have given different explanations to different people, which is not all that unusual but the explanation that I got from him, I said, “Roy, that would be a very significant article and you can figure out some way to write it and get it published.”
He said, well, Bill Bradford at Liberty Magazine – at that point, it was a print magazine. I think it doesn’t exist anymore. I think it’s all online. I’m not sure it exists anymore. He wants to publish it, but I told him I wanted $500 and he said his “policy” was not to pay for articles, which is kind of ridiculous because the policy was what – he was the owner and publisher. I mean it was what he said it was.
Now, I didn’t know Bill. Of course I published some things in Liberty myself but didn’t know him. But I thought that’s really too bad that he didn’t fork up the 500. He could afford it and that article had it been published, would have been very, very significant. But he never did write the thing and if I had the 500 at the time that I could spare, I would have paid him the $500 because it would have been important.
But the impression I got – and I think I explained this in one of those Libertarianism.org posts. I kept asking him. OK, Roy, just give me the essentials of the argument. I don’t need a – I’m curious how you get around your own argument about the monopoly problem. I badgered him quite a bit. Come on Roy. Tell me. Come on.
As I explained in one of those articles, finally – this wasn’t long before he died. He opened up a little bit and he said – I said, “So what’s the basic point you’re making?” and he said to me – and this is an exact quote. He says, “Well, anarchism isn’t practical.” Now, knowing Roy, there was a lot more thought behind that and I should have realized that and said, OK, what – I don’t understand. What do you mean? I’m trying to draw him out more.
But I was in a belligerent mood. I had gotten annoyed because I had had so much time to get him – and I was used to the old Roy who would argue with you until you were – you know, drove you into the ground. I said, “That’s it, Roy? That’s your great secret refutation?”
I called it the secret refutation because it would be secret if you didn’t tell anybody. That’s your secret refutation of anarchism? It isn’t practical? Then there was this long pause and he said, “You’re mocking me.” I said, “OK, Roy, yeah. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry. But anyway, go ahead.” He said, “No, I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
So that’s all he ever told me. I made the big mistake of shutting him down because I think he knew that the people he had converted like myself or Rand and others were very interested in the argument but they would also hold on to pretty high standards because he was touch on minarchists. I mean he didn’t have to take to – drive minarchism to the ground with arguments. He was on the anarchist side.
So I figured he would expect that himself and my honest opinion is that he wasn’t really happy with his own ideas about it. I don’t think he really came across any earth-shattering news behind the usual thing, which even I admit anarchism isn’t practical in terms of current politics. But I think that was probably another influence on him on his interest in politics, meaning by that if libertarians are going to get anywhere in the political world, they got to drop all the talking about anarchism because people are just immediately going to turn off.
Trevor Burrus: That’s generally true, yes.
George Smith: And it is true. I agree that it is true, which is why I’ve always said an anarchist shouldn’t get involved in political movements. First of all, you’re not going to be taken seriously and I understand that. It doesn’t mean you give up the idea. It doesn’t mean that the idea [Indiscernible] but to be practical, if some politicians out there are running on “I’m an anarchist. Vote for me,” well aside from the kind of strange self-contradiction …
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, it is a contradiction.
George Smith: I’m against political power. So give me political power, so I can abolish political power. There are some problems there. But aside from that, we all knew that anarchism – it was something – it was sort of one of those in-house debates where we talk among ourselves and I think theoretically, it’s very significant because it focuses on certain issues about the nature of sovereignty and it also focuses the problem of certain practical effects of government. It’s monopoly status. It does account for a lot of – broadly speaking, for a lot of the inefficiencies and such in government.
But to actually go out and I think – and advocate anarchism in a political movement is just suicide. You can just stab yourself with a knife before you go to the podium and just be done with it because that’s – you’re committing political suicide.
Aaron Ross Powell: Because then at least he will own that knife.
Trevor Burrus: They do own that knife. So I know the answer to this question. But I assume you miss Roy a lot.
George Smith: Me? Oh, yeah. I know. I do. I used to talk to Barbara Branden a lot since I moved to Bloomington 15 years ago. We spoke on the phone a lot and she said that she sometimes thought about Roy almost every day and if not every day, then after all the years, I often think about him. He’s just one of those guys or people that just leaves an indelible impression on you and as I said, life was never boring when you’re with – around Roy.
If he was a remarkable talker, he was also a very good listener. I rarely run across someone who listened as efficiently or intensely as Roy did. If you had a personal problem, if you’re a friend of his, he would listen very seriously and give you his best advice. Sometimes the advice was good, sometimes not so good.
But I took his advice so seriously in a story I related before. We spoke very frankly. He would give me kind of guru advice about my career and at one point he said to me – I don’t remember the occasion but it was while we were in his apartment on Selma. He said, “George, you’re great in theory but you’re tabula rasa in history. You don’t know anything about history and you need to learn history.”
I took it so seriously that within the days, I had resolved that. Once I finished my book, I wasn’t going to read anything except history for five years. That turned into 10 years, at least a decade, maybe more. So that gives you an indication.
When Roy gave me serious advice like, not just joking around but serious advice, I took him very seriously because he was very well-rounded, much more rounded than I was. He had a good grasp of history, certain areas of it.
If you read that, I know that Libertarianism.org has posted this, Big Business and the Rise of American Statism. That was published in early 70s, I think ’71 by Reason magazine in several parts. It was first given as a lecture in 1969 as I recall. That shows you even at the time that very young age, when he was writing Open Letter to Ayn Rand, his view of history was very sophisticated. I recently read the first part of that where Roy gives a philosophy of history.
Frankly it holds up remarkably well even today. There’s nothing that I disagree with but he actually goes into a – sort of a prologue about the meaning that history can have. He criticizes the Marxian view of history. He explains why from a libertarian point of view it’s so important. It’s a wonderful little piece on the philosophy of history and a very early piece.
He was probably what? Around 19, 20 when wrote that? It’s really quite remarkable.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, definitely a remarkable guy. Do you have any – in terms of the most important essays that some – do you think people should read by him – which ones …
George Smith: I think his best overall theoretical piece was Anarchism and Justice, which I think one part of that was never published. There’s some controversy about whether he ever wrote it. I don’t think he did. But I think it was published in four parts.
It’s more like a monograph and I think theoretically, it’s more significant than his open letter to Ayn Rand. It’s written in a calmer, more measured tone and basically what he did was went through the traditional arguments for government. I think he [Indiscernible] one to Rand but I’m not sure and discussed the traditional arguments for the necessity of government.
I do remember one of his later parts. I remember this because he was working on it when we were living in the same building. He was discussing Mortimer J. Adler, the Aristotelian philosopher in a book called The Common Sense of Politics. He reviewed it for Libertarian Review and he told me that he thought Adler’s case for government was the best he had seen and that he points he almost converted him. But he didn’t but I read the book a long time ago and I thought it was a good book. So I would – but I would recommend the Anarchism and Justice. The open letter to Ayn Rand is almost necessary reading just because it’s of historical importance.
The other thing that’s very good and is probably the most sophisticated thing he wrote about the anarchist controversy was the critique of Bob Nozick called The Invisible Hand Strikes Back and it was published in Journal of Libertarian Studies. I don’t recall the year. I think it was 1975. It can be found online and that’s a very interesting and at times humorous discussion of Nozick’s argument for a minimal state as he called it.
Beyond that – it’s hard to think what I wouldn’t recommend. I mean the Big Business and the Rise of American Statism is very important. However, I think that he took Gabriel Kolko of – too much of his word. I later did some research on Kolko and I thought he fudged quite a bit.
I think Kolko – maybe your research – I’m sorry. I mean not even Kolko. It was Gabriel Kolko who was Marxist historian who went against traditional Marxist history, claiming that the progressive era, going from say 1888 through the early 1900s was not a time of increasing monopolies. That the attempts of these large companies in oil and the Rockefeller group and all these people and other industries to form these pools fell apart. In fact there was increasing competition during that period.
That’s what so bothered the really big giants in the industry and that they are the ones who initiated not only antitrust legislation but other government regulation as ways of keeping out the smaller competitors. Today we call that crony capitalism. Kolko gave very extensive statistics to show this. The number of companies that increased in railroads was another one.
I mean much of the railroad legislation was not only backed but proposed by the major railway companies as a means of establishing the status quo, keeping prices up because his competitors are coming in and charging for less.
Trevor Burrus: This was a source for Roy’s statism. But you think he took it at …
George Smith: Well, no. Kolko …
Trevor Burrus: Kolko was the source for Roy on his big business …
George Smith: Yeah, that book basically is a summary of Kolko’s work and he talks about the significance of Gabriel Kolko, how he’s a Marxist and he thinks he’s proving a Marxist case but he’s really not. He’s actually supporting a libertarian case for a free market.
Trevor Burrus: But it sounds like there’s not much that you wouldn’t recommend for Roy in general.
George Smith: Yeah, I guess I gave our listeners almost all his writings. It depends on what your interests are. If I were to recommend only one thing by Roy, it would probably be the Anarchism and Justice articles. Yeah, there’s merit in virtually everything Roy published and he had a lot of unpublished material.
I assume these are with his unpublished papers at Stanford. I kind of hope they are but they were kind of off-topic from a libertarian point of view. One of the first – aside from his book reviews, I don’t think Roy ever wrote a short article. One of the first things he gave me when I met him in California was a 20-page single space manuscript called In Defense of Rational Bisexualism.
Later when Roy decided he was gay, not bisexual, he wrote a long criticism of the Nathaniel Branden’s views on homosexuality, which at that time Branden held fairly conventional views. You know, a psychiatrist at the time. I remember sitting in on at least one argument he had with Branden about this.
So whenever Roy had a strong belief about something, he would sit down and write not a couple of pages. He would write 20, 30-page essays, going extensively into these arguments and I just thought that was a fascinating aspect of his personality.
Aaron Ross Powell: It’s pretty obvious that Roy had a profound impact on you. What has his impact been on the libertarian movement itself, his continuing influence?
George Smith: Well, that’s a difficult question to answer because more and more I’ve found that younger libertarians barely know the name. He’s one of those guys who was very important at the time, influenced a lot of people, but his writings were fairly few, his published writings. He never wrote a book. So his influence has been mainly through what I would call second generation or third generation libertarians.
In other words, without Roy, I don’t think the anarchism-minarchism debate would be nearly as live as it remains. So he established a lot of themes you might say but those themes weren’t so much carried on. Not so much because people directly weed his writings unless the collection that Libertarianism.org did of his writings has become a best seller, which is probably not the case.
People learn about Roy’s ideas through the medium of the people that he influenced. He was a teacher in the best sense. John Stuart Mill once said of Jeremy Bentham that he was the teacher of teachers. I think that applies to Roy. He had a lot of influence. I mentioned Randy Barnett. There are other names, who have then sort of carried on his tradition. So even though his name isn’t super famous, he’s not a name like Rothbard or Rand, but he is – his ideas are very important in terms of being transmitted by people that he directly influenced.
Aaron Ross Powell: Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more about libertarianism and the ideas that influence it, visit us on the web at www.Libertarianism.org.