Libertarian History/Philosophy

Spotlight: Tender of the Tradition


"A gentleman and a scholar." The phrase came up so many times in discussions about Leonard Liggio, it was obvious that his friends and associates have already reached a firm consensus about the man. But friends and associates are only one category of opinion givers; a writer can often find out more about a person from detractors and critics. Not with Leonard Liggio, though; for everybody seems to like him. Perhaps that's why he's been able for years to act as peacemaker between factions and figures within the group of people broadly dedicated to individual liberty.

When the old, more enlightened right of the '30s and '40s began to give way to the conservative movement of the present, with its bent toward foreign adventurism, trade protectionism, and selective welfare for business, Leonard Liggio was among the few young people who held forth the earlier ideals. They taught and talked and published during the dreary '50s, seeking to build the groundwork for a rejuvenation of classical liberalism and the old right, of laissez faire in personal, economic, and foreign affairs.

Liggio was a member of the Circle Bastiat, a group that met in New York City during that time "to talk about libertarian ideas and generally carouse," according to Murray Rothbard, who was also a member with Ronald Hamoway, Ralph Raico, Robert Hessen, and George Reisman. A history buff, Liggio went on to study history at Georgetown University, international relations at Fordham University, and law at Columbia Law School. The Circle Bastiat was one element of a large group of people inspired by novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand and her uncompromising defense of laissez-faire capitalism and a government limited to protecting its citizens' human rights. When the group of people around Miss Rand started splitting apart in the '50s, Liggio and Murray Rothbard became guiding lights to many youthful devotees of what was soon to become known as libertarianism.

Around 1952 Liggio had developed a friendship with F.A. "Baldy" Harper and was frequently traveling to Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, where Harper was working at the Foundation for Economic Education with Leonard Read. In the early '60s Liggio began working with the William Volker Fund, which was setting up the Institute for Humane Studies in Menlo Park, California, with Harper as president. Liggio began giving lectures at IHS seminars, especially on historical matters.

Most of the period's leading defenders of classical liberalism were associated with the institute. Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, Rothbard, and Ben Rogge are just a few. Under Harper's leadership, IHS went about the business of schooling new minds in the philosophy of freedom. According to Liggio, the movement died out in the '50s because the spokesmen of the philosophy had died out. The old right never invested in developing and promulgating the intellectual underpinnings of liberty, and those who did understand and put forth the ideas never prepared young intellectuals to take their places. The Institute for Humane Studies was dedicated to fulfilling that role, via a program of publishing, research support, and seminars and conferences.

While continuing to participate in IHS programs, Liggio was, through the '60s and '70s, working with Rothbard on his first two volumes of his American history series, Conceived in Liberty, and then teaching at City College of New York and SUNY College at Old Westbury. In 1977 he took up a position with the newly founded Cato Institute, where he directed one of its projects: Literature of Liberty, a quarterly that provides abstracts of recent scholarly articles on or related to individual liberty.

When the Cato Institute began to cut back on its less policy-oriented programs in 1979, Literature of Liberty—and Leonard Liggio—found a home back at the Institute for Humane Studies. With the death in 1973 of Baldy Harper, who had inspired much of the support for IHS and provided it with a guiding vision, the institute had been going through a period of search for new financial backing and a clear-cut direction. Liggio was appointed president in 1979 to bring back some of the vitality that was evident while Harper was at the helm. Among IHS's recent activities are support for Austrian economics at Stanford University and a continuing program of conferences, seminars, and publishing.

When asked about the goals of the institute, Liggio points to Hayek's widely reprinted essay, "Intellectuals and Socialism." The socialists talk about the masses, notes Liggio, but they invest in swaying the opinions of the elite, of policymakers and intellectuals. IHS's efforts, too, are directed toward those who put forth and act on ideas. Or, as Liggio says, they're "investing in human capital."

Although Liggio is generally optimistic about the prospects for liberty, he says the process has only just begun. Most people, he insists, are already libertarian; they just don't know it. "The role of the libertarian movement is to help people understand. The problem is that some libertarians want people to change. They denounce people for not being libertarian. They want to confront them instead of helping them."

Leonard Liggio puts his own words into action. He is in the business of helping people to understand. Because he has not been involved in dramatic confrontations or electoral efforts, many people may never appreciate how fundamental his influence has been. A "nice man," a "gentleman and a scholar"—those words were used to describe Baldy Harper, and they are now being used to describe Leonard Liggio. We could use a few more.

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.