The Mises Institute, lewrockwell.com, and FFF all had cool articles mixed in with some not so cool stuff, and I stuck with these sites for a while after opening the floodgates. The fact that these sites are more combative, more dogmatic than other libertarian organizations probably played a role in my reluctance to branch out too far into other spheres of influence. I was a product of the public school system and a relatively strict religious upbringing and, as a result, my mind was mush. The combativeness spoke to me. It seized me in its grasp and led me forcefully down a path I knew I needed to take. This personal intellectual journey was complemented by my foray into formal education. My professors, too, were combative but not in the same way as the paleo-libertarian websites I would frequent. They pushed me, hard. The cool thing about Cabrillo College was a combination of the weather, the girls (me and the Banana Slug broke up shortly after our arrival in Santa Cruz), the PhDs teaching there, and the fact that most of the classes shrunk in size to about 12 people (more or less) in a matter of weeks. I was getting a first-rate education from great teachers who happened to be married to the California Teachers’ Union. After one semester at Cabrillo College, I was reluctantly ushered into its fairly challenging Honors program, where a transfer to Cal or maybe even Stanford was all but guaranteed.
My go-to websites began to change. The Independent Institute, where Anthony Gregory was officially employed, and Liberty, which published occasional essays by a French-American scholar who happened to live in Santa Cruz, became more influential. FEE’s smorgasbord of scholars overwhelmed me with libertarianism. Cato’s devout, firebrand non-interventionism emboldened my heart. EconLog and Cafe Hayek were too wishy-washy for me at the time. They had no oopmf. Reason was cool but it was too bubbly, too pop-culture for me. Tyler Cowen’s name began to pop up in places. I also came across Peter Boettke and Steve Horwitz via a brutal intralibertarian squabble at the Mises Institute’s website. These were scholars I earmarked as possible sources of knowledge, but their blogs were too informal for me. They reminded me of my college classes, and I already had enough of those on my plate as it was. I wanted – needed – my libertarianism to be sure of itself, formal, and able to reinforce my thoughts about the world at large. Just like Ron Paul.
I decided to spend the summer of 2009 traveling not around Europe or Ghana, but around the United States in order to attend seminars that various libertarian foundations put on for undergraduate students.
I attended four seminars that summer. The first one was up the road from Santa Cruz in Oakland at the Independent Institute. It was a strange way to be introduced into the world of formal libertarianism. First, they had no idea I was coming. I had signed up for the seminar, and I remember paying for it because I had found out that the Independent Institute offered seminars during the summer long after I had already bought my plane tickets for the other three, so I bummed the money from my dad in order to squeeze in a week at my favorite libertarian think tank. Mary and David Theroux were nonetheless ecstatic to have me there and offered to waive the fee. I politely declined their offer and paid up on the spot. (I was a libertarian now and not some freeloading socialist.) My situation was probably helped by the fact that there were only 4 or 5 other students attending the seminar, and most of them were high school students forced to attend for an assortment of reasons.
I was especially excited about the lineup of scholars the institute had cobbled together. Robert Higgs could not be there (I would see him later, at different seminar), but Anthony Gregory and Fred Foldvary would both be there, as would three guys I had never heard of before: Brian Gothberg, James Ahiakpor, and José Maria J. Yulo.
The two things that brought me into libertarianism was its non-interventionist foreign policy and its internationalist worldview. I have always been attracted to other ways of life, and Ron Paul’s 2008-2009 campaign perfectly encapsulated these two attractive -isms. That James Ahiakpor, an economist from Ghana, and José Maria J. Yulo, a philosopher from the Philippines, were to be teaching me about libertarianism, in person, was perfect. Ahiakpor lectured on Adam Smith, and Yulo on Plato, two dead white guys whose thoughts I had never been introduced to before (though I knew both of their names). Ahiakpor’s lectures were actually a bit of a dud. He was not able to fathom, or entertain, the notion of an economy without a central bank. He appealed to Adam Smith on the matter, and that was that. Dr Yulo’s lectures were quite different. They were rich and socratic. They were peppered with personal anecdotes, both funny and serious. They were conservative, too. Dr. Yulo’s lectures eviscerated my aversion to conservatism. He made conservatives human and worthy of my time and attention. Anthony was Anthony and Fred was Fred. The star of the seminar was undoubtedly Brian Gothberg.
Gothberg’s passion for liberty oozed out into the makeshift classroom (this makeshift classroom was one of the many charms connected with attending the institute’s seminar). Gothberg had been a California liberal, a technocrat rather than a socialist like me, and his intellectual journey sounded, to me at the time, a lot like my own. He used basic economic reasoning to show how prices could help save the environment, and how the Robber Barons captured their rents. Most of all Gothberg used every opportunity he could to engage me personally. I am an introvert and I just showed up on the institute’s doorstep with apparently no heads up. Brian went out of his way to make me feel welcome, to help me voice my thoughts aloud, and to get to know me.
I spent my nights in San Francisco that week, sleeping on my best friend’s couch. I brought him all of the books I would receive from the seminar. My friend and I marched together in San Francisco. He was attending San Francisco State at the time. We had heated but mostly civil discussions about liberty and American politics. He and I went to the same schools in the same town. We both had the same worldview of civics up until Ron Paul crashed the party. Looking back, those discussions represented the flowering of our intellectual capacity to think for ourselves. We were teasing out ideas and confronting stark intellectual challenges to our conceptions of the world. The books I gave him ended up in his garbage can. When I was again sleeping on his couch, in Austin, in 2016, he had voted for Gary Johnson. (During those hot summer nights in Austin, we both revealed what turned out to be a shared disgust in our fellow anti-war protestors. Those people were not marching in San Francisco to protest the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq; they were marching against the Republican Party and, by extension, democratic politics.)
Next up were two of FEE’s venerated seminars, one in Midland, Michigan and the other in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. The Midland seminar, located at Northwood University, was a breath of fresh air. The topic of the seminar was “History & Liberty,” and lecturers included Lawrence Reed, Robert Higgs, Brad Birzer, Burton Folsom Jr., and Stephen Davies. Unlike the seminar in Oakland, this one was well-organized and well-funded. I was put up in a dorm and all of my meals were comped. These were also well-attended seminars. I met people from all over the world, though Midwestern Americans formed a slight majority. My roommate was none other than Vincent Geloso, 2017’s hottest libertarian blogger. In 2009, though, Vincent was already something of a star. A Quebecer, Geloso spent his free time either trying to get into the pants of an outgoing Guatemalan student whose name escapes me or watching Star Trek reruns on his laptop. He organized a boycott of Robert Higgs’ remaining lectures for the week after Dr. Higgs haughtily suggested that World War II was not worth the effort. Vincent also praised Paul Krugman’s academic work while bemoaning his blog at the New York Times, something I was not yet accustomed to libertarians doing. At Mises and FFF (and at the lectures of these summer seminars), Krugman was nothing more than a punching bag, not somebody you could learn from.
Burton Folsom made everybody laugh, and Larry Reed made everybody feel good. Stephen Davies lectured on Paraguay, and its lessons have stuck with me over the years, but Brad Birzer’s intelligence and loquaciousness impressed me the most. Brad Birzer loves history. There are two events I remember most clearly about that first FEE seminar in humid Midland, Michigan. First: I remember seeing Sheldon Richman at a table by himself eating breakfast and reading at the same time. The man lived and breathed liberty. I remember thinking to myself (I dared not interrupt his breakfast) that he was probably reading some obscure work of Böhm-Bawerk or something. Second, I was dropped off at the airport a full day before my flight was scheduled. I tried to find a field to sleep in, but was instead picked up on the side of some god forsaken road by an airport employee on her way home, and she let me meet her family, dine with them, and crash on her couch for the night.
The Irvington-on-Hudson seminar was an introductory course on “Austrian economics.” I don’t remember much about the lectures. Lawrence Reed was there again. He told different stories than the ones he told in Midland, and they were equally good. Sheldon Richman lectured, too. An economist named Paul Cwik lectured. He was funny, but unremarkable. I don’t think I learned anything new at this seminar.
There was an Asian girl from Stanford, an economics major, who attended the seminar. She stood out because she was a she, she was Asian, and she attended an elite school. I remember her asking Sheldon Richman, after one of his forgettable lectures, a question about economics and him becoming flustered by the questions. The Asian girl actually put up her hands at one point and said “woah.” She backed away slowly and I never heard from her again. This seminar had less Midwestern Americans in it. There were more Europeans. I don’t remember who my roommate was at Irvington-on-Hudson but I do remember going to the city not once but twice. The first time I went with a Dane and a Swede, both of whom were business students. The Empire State Building blew them away. I went a second time to the city with two Italians, brothers Claudio and Adriano Gulisano. The brothers stayed out late and pretended to enjoy the nightlife. I could see in their eyes, though, that NY’s nightlife was a perfunctory for them; a duty to be performed as a European in the United States. The Brothers Gulisano were, and are, brooding individualists concerned only with the next move of their enemy (the state), and NY’s shallow nightlife rudely illuminated the chains of their social obligations.
The highlight of the Austrian Economics seminar was not the old FEE building or New York, but Lode Cossaer, a Belgian libertarian whose passion for liberty was unlike anything I had ever seen before. He freely gave the Americans history lessons about their own country. He told the Eastern Europeans to beware of clever authoritarian traps nestled in their Hoppeanism. He explained to the Guatemalans why their university, Francisco Marroquin, was such an important institution for global liberty. Cossaer did all of these things with the worst haircut in the world, too. (He had one of those little boy bowlcuts that just makes you want to puke when you see a grown man sporting it.)
The final seminar of that eventful summer brought me, full circle, back to northern California. The Institute for Humane Studies was an institute I hadn’t heard much about. There wasn’t a lot of writing on its website, but it was obviously libertarian and the seminar had some great topics (I think it was “liberty & economic development” or something along those lines). I had to write an essay and wait around to be rejected or accepted. The seminar was at Cal, a school I still didn’t think I could ever get in to. IHS set itself apart from FEE and the Independent Institute before the summer even started.
The students were different, too. Elite research universities and expensive liberal arts colleges adorned most of the nametags. The majority of the students were from the eastern seaboard or the upper South. There were more Californians; two attended Cal, one attended UCSD (and whose boyfriend was from my hometown), and Rick Weber, my favorite economist-blogger. The lecturers had no public presence that I was aware of, except for one of them, who was officially was part of the Coordination Problem group blog but hardly ever wrote anything there. The IHS seminar had more of a university feel to it, overall, while the other three had more of a Fellowship of the Rings vibe to them. There were more leftists and fewer foreigners. My roommate was an older undergraduate who was attending Georgetown. He had just gotten out of the Navy. The lecturers included an anthropologist, two economists – one from France and one from the United States – and a philosopher.
The economists were forgettable, except for the French one’s contempt for his home country, but the anthropologist and the philosopher were excellent. Susan Love Brown lectured on planned societies and their many failures, and Andrew I. Cohen actually brought leftists to tears with his rigorous logic. So defeated were these leftists that they had no recourse other than to do what their mommies and daddies had taught them to do: cry about it. This was a phenomenon that I had never witnessed before.
The lecturers and the students would party together after dinner. At one point the organizers, the 24 year-olds responsible for overseeing the day-to-day affairs of the seminar, asked us as a group to be aware of the fact that a big-time donor would be at one of the lectures for half of the day. Many of the non-Californian students, as well as the lecturing American economist, ignored me once they learned that Cabrillo College was a community college rather than an obscure liberal arts college in the redwoods. Dr. Cohen reached out to me, as did Dr. Brown, but the overall atmosphere kept the vibe bittersweet. IHS at Cal was nothing like FEE or the Independent Institute in Oakland.
Altogether, the IHS experience was more rewarding precisely because it was more alarming. Berkeley taught me that libertarian people as well as libertarian organizations are fallible, something that I think FEE and the Independent Institute tried to ignore or gloss over. There are careerists in the libertarian movement. There’s an entire cottage industry dedicated to professionalizing libertarian thought, strategy, and outreach. I tried to hitch a ride with one of the Cal students up to Sacramento, where I could take a bus to Placerville, but he didn’t have any room in his car. I took a train instead, from Berkeley to Sacramento, and a bus from Sacramento to Placerville. I spent the next two weeks on my mom’s couch, and then it was back to Santa Cruz for the fall.
Next: from Santa Cruz to Los Angeles