Spotlight: John Hagel


One weekend in early March, a group of distinguished libertarians assembled at Harvard Law School to discuss issues of crime and punishment. Their conference would have been like many other high-powered libertarian gatherings—except for the presence of other luminaries as well. For two days, leading libertarian intellectuals such as John Hospers and Murray Rothbard rubbed elbows and ideas with Professors James Q. Wilson, Edward Banfield, Walter Kaufman, and other prominent non-libertarian theorists.

The possibility of such an exchange might have been remote a few years ago. Today, however, a brilliant young libertarian named John Hagel is actively searching for opportunities to make libertarian ideas heard in left and right-wing academic circles. As president of the newly formed Center for Libertarian Studies, with an annual budget approaching $150,000, he has forged a vehicle to encourage cross fertilization among some of the finest minds around, libertarian and otherwise. His Center has played a key role in organizing such events as the Libertarian Scholars Conference, sponsored last year by the Liberty Fund, as well as the Harvard Law School gathering. It also publishes papers covering a number of disciplines, puts out a new scholarly journal every four months called the Journal of Libertarian Studies, and offers a newsletter on the progress of libertarians in academia.

The idea for the Center was born in the living room of Murray Rothbard in September, 1975. With the help of Walter Grinder, now executive director of the Center's full-time staff of three in New York, Hagel sought to test a new strategy for promoting libertarian thinking. Rather than attempt immediate conversions, the Center aims for acquainting sympathetic non-libertarians with explicitly libertarian stands on issues, in an atmosphere that underscores similarities rather than differences. "We are the first explicitly libertarian scholarly organization," Hagel says. "Our strategy in dealing with academics in general is to emphasize areas of agreement, and build on them when possible. We are not trying to be exclusionary in our approach to scholars."

So far, the approach has been paying off. As a result of the conferences, a diverse group of left and right-wing theorists has become excited by the new thinking it has found among libertarians. Carl Oglesby, an early president of SDS, and Dr. Earl Ravenal, a well-known proponent of non-interventionism at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, profess to greatly like what they have seen. Ravenal, a member of the advisory board, is now preparing a major monograph on foreign policy for the Center. The widely respected conservative sociologist, Robert Nisbet, who was featured at the Libertarian Scholar's Conference last fall in New York, has also agreed to become a member of the Center's advisory board, joining Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek, Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, and former Washington Post editor Felix Morley. A measure of the seriousness with which Hagel's efforts are being taken is that two publishing houses leaped for rights to the proceedings of the Harvard conference on crime and punishment. Ballinger's, the publisher chosen, has agreed to publicize the book extensively.

Hagel's own approach to libertarianism has been as eclectic as that of his advisory board. At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1972, he had the distinction of belonging to Young Americans for Freedom and the Students for a Democratic Society—simultaneously. (Both had been taken over by libertarians.) In addition, he was elected president of the student government, and helped run the college newspaper.

After winning a major scholarship award, Hagel moved to Oxford University for graduate studies, researching the Algerian government's initiatives in raising the world price of oil. He plans to incorporate the research into a forthcoming book that will double as a Ph.D. thesis. "Technically, I am still a Ph.D. candidate at Oxford," Hagel says. "If the book is accepted as a thesis, then I become a Ph.D." It will not be Hagel's first time in print. Praeger, a major New York publishing house, contracted with him to produce a book that was released in 1976. Titled Alternative Energy Strategies: Constraints and Opportunities, it discusses approaches for increasing the role of market forces in national and domestic policies.

Although pursuing a Harvard Law degree, a Harvard business degree, and an Oxford Ph.D. at the same time would seem likely to exhaust anyone, Hagel still has time to spend 10-15 hours per week on the Center for Libertarian Studies. He has other pastimes as well. For the past three years, he has spent summers working for the Developa Corporation, a company negotiating large construction projects in the Mideast, and continues to consult for them while at Harvard. Hagel regularly reads publications in Arabic and Italian, has a grasp of Swahili, and is fluent in French and Spanish. What spare time is left he spends scuba diving, or contributing occasional articles to libertarian publications.

The remarkable range and depth of Hagel's activities seem likely to continue. Once he graduates with a joint degree from Harvard next year, he intends to become a consultant on international energy problems, while helping the Center for Libertarian Studies to grow. And his Ph.D. from Oxford will leave open the possibility of someday becoming a full-time scholar. "My decision not to be an academic was based on the fact that to be a libertarian academic now is usually to be an embattled, lonely person," he says. Thanks to Hagel and his Center, these circumstances increasingly seem likely to become a part of the past.