Floyd Arthur Harper, better known as Baldy Harper, is best remembered as the founder of the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS). The IHS, which Harper founded in 1961, is devoted to research and education in the classical liberal tradition and the promotion of libertarian ideals. An able economist and political theorist, Harper’s main contribution was as a strategist of the libertarian movement, an institution builder, and a mentor to hundreds of classical liberal scholars.

Raised on a farm in Michigan, Harper attended Michigan State University as an undergraduate and obtained a doctorate in economics at Cornell University, where he taught for many years, ultimately as a full professor of marketing. In 1946, concerned about the future of liberal ideals in a world in which socialism was becoming dominant among the intellectual classes, Harper left the academy and joined the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), then run by its founder, Leonard Read. A year later, Harper joined Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, Karl Popper, and other present and future scholars at the founding meeting of Friedrich Hayek’s Mont Pelerin Society at Mont Pelerin, Switzerland, to discuss the future of classical liberal ideas, which were then besieged by those who had embraced the social democratic orthodoxy.

While at FEE, Harper produced a number of significant works. In 1951, FEE published Harper’s powerful antiwar pamphlet, In Search of Peace, in which he argued that the “problems of war—all conflict—are exclusively problems of abolished liberty. Thus the prevention of war, or of the threat of war, must take the form of cutting the bonds on liberty.” In his 1957 monograph, Why Wages Rise, Harper lucidly explained the various causes of the gains in labor productivity that enable the growth of wages—labor unions and government intervention in the business cycle notably not among them. Harper’s most remarkable work, however, was his earlier book, Liberty: A Path to Its Recovery, published by FEE in 1949, in which he laid out his comprehensive, natural law‐​tinged libertarian philosophy. In Liberty, Harper attempts to derive strong individual rights to property and free exchange as corollaries of a right to life. The most original aspect of the book was his emphasis on then‐​current empirical biological science to establish the biological basis of human individuality. Harper argued that individual variations in talent, together with the distinctively human “capacity for independent thought and action,” were the source of all economic and cultural progress. Liberty, which exists “when a person is free to do whatever he desires, according to his wisdom and conscience,” sustained the conditions under which diverse individual types could flourish and the progress of civilization could be realized.

Harper, who, according to Murray Rothbard, had arrived at an anarcho‐​capitalist position in the winter of 1949–1950, became increasingly disenchanted with FEE president Leonard Read, who, in a widely distributed pamphlet, had vigorously defended the government’s power to tax.

In 1958, Harper decamped to become Senior Research Economist at the William Volker Fund near San Francisco, then the main source of financial support for libertarian scholars. Since his time at Cornell, Harper had dreamed of establishing an institute devoted to the interdisciplinary study of human action. In 1961, while at the Volker Fund, Harper, with the help of Murray Rothbard, Friedrich Hayek, and others, drew up plans for establishing the IHS, which was to be handsomely endowed with Volker money and to carry on the mission of discovering, sponsoring, and publishing the works of libertarian scholars while creating a community of libertarian thinkers through conferences and seminars. The idea was to revitalize the study of liberty by providing libertarian scholars an active, well‐​funded alternative to establishment sources of academic support. In 1962, however, the Volker Fund collapsed before it could fund IHS on a permanent basis. As a result, in 1962–1963, Harper became a visiting professor at Wabash College in Indiana. When he returned to Menlo Park, California, in 1963, he set up the IHS on a shoestring budget in his own garage. With the original idea of creating a center for libertarian scholarship fixed in his mind, over the next 8 years, Harper, as executive director, patiently built the IHS into a significant institution capable of holding conferences, publishing books, and supporting students and scholars. During that time, he carried out a vast correspondence while teaching and advising hundreds of students and succeeded in creating a large, far‐​flung network of scholars unified in a commitment to the study of classical liberal ideals that, in somewhat altered form, remains active to this day.

Further Readings

Doherty, Brian. Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. New York: Public Affairs, 2007.

Harper, F. A. Liberty: A Path to Its Recovery. Irvington‐​on‐​Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1949.

———. The Writings of F. A. Harper: Volume I. The Major Works. Menlo Park, CA: Institute for Humane Studies, 1978.

Rothbard, Murray. “Floyd Arthur ‘Baldy’ Harper, RIP.” The Libertarian Forum (May 1973).

Will Wilkinson
Originally published