Libertarian History/Philosophy

City of Liberty

New York's leading lights of libertarianism

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New York City is the celebrated center for many vital aspects of American culture: publishing, finance, and the arts. It rarely has been credited, however, as a cutting-edge leader in political ideologies.

But New York also is the breeding ground for a unique and growing American political tendency — the modern American libertarian movement. It might seem ironic that a city that has been, at various times, one of the most overly governed and poorly governed of American cities should be a launching point for the political philosophy of strictly—sometimes totally—limited government. But it is, because of virtues that no amount of poor, local government can kill.

Three of the five central figures in American libertarianism were, for much of their lives, New Yorkers: Ayn Rand, the Russian émigré novelist and philosopher who inspired more people toward a combined emotional/intellectual commitment to individual liberty than any other figure in the 20th century; Ludwig Von Mises, the Austrian refugee economist whose free-market theories taught or inspired nearly every other libertarian figure; and Murray Rothbard, the Bronx-born gadfly economist, historian, and journalist who took libertarianism all the way into anarchism and whose comprehensive philosophy of liberty and activism energized nearly every major libertarian institution.

Living in New York was no accident, for any of them. Even for Rothbard, a native, life in New York was a conscious choice, one for which any alternative was barely imaginable.

The love and attachment these three libertarian leaders felt for New York spanned the range of what makes the city uniquely attractive and lovable.

Even while pursuing a career as a screenwriter for a while in Los Angeles, for Ayn Rand, New York City was the only city to be in. As her biographer, Barbara Branden, put it, the city was to the "The Fountainhead" author, "the symbol of human achievement, the living, breathing reality of the accomplishments possible to the mind of man. … it was her life's great love." This was despite the fact that she didn't make much use of the city's cultural offerings.

Simply "to know that the great city was there, just outside her window, seemed to give fuel to her spirit." Many busy, super-productive New Yorkers can empathize.

Ludwig von Mises was driven out of Europe in 1940 by the spread of Nazism—the antithesis of all he stood for in politics and economics. In Europe, he was a leading intellectual and the strongest voice for political liberalism in the classic sense.

The first home of his heart was Vienna, the epitome of Old World civilization and grace. To Mises, New York was the only city that could even hope to emulate that style in the New World. He was reluctant to take a teaching job anywhere else, and ended up teaching courses and seminars at New York University for decades and directly teaching the next generation of American libertarian educators.

Murray Rothbard, who learned from Mises at NYU, represented one of New York's more notorious tendencies: its pugnaciousness. He was brash, wickedly funny, self-assured, and to many—including his fellow libertarians, leery of his anarchism—he took things too far. In other words, a New Yorker to the core, who stayed, at least part time, his entire life.

He arose from the same hotbed of brilliant, innovative New York Jewish intellectuals out of which came the first waves of prominent American socialists and then neoconservatives. While his political ideas were very different, he shared their sharp scholarship and equally sharp yen for political in-fighting and blazing rhetoric.

The leaders of libertarianism all had their own reasons for adoring the city. But what was most important about New York in the spread of libertarianism was that it's the sort of city that attracts the people needed to learn the ideas of a Rand, a Mises, and a Rothbard, and build an activist movement out of them.

New York has the magnetic charisma to attract the young, the energetic, and the smart, and those who want to be a vital part of the world and who have the energy to change it. Mises at NYU drew the likes of Rothbard who wasn't even seeking a degree there, his doctorate was from Columbia, and Israel Kirzner, an immigrant from England via South Africa who became a tenured economics professor at NYU.

Rand also trained her most successful disciples in New York. Psychologist Nathaniel Branden was proud to create a headquarters for his Rand-spreading "Nathaniel Branden Institute" in the Empire State Building, a glorious symbol of man's conquest over nature. Rand was also a mentor for Alan Greenspan, later the world's leading wizard of finance who learned his ropes in, of course, New York City.

In Rothbard's case, it was shifting squads of eager young intellectuals in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s who gathered in his living room and at small conferences at Columbia and other city venues to learn libertarianism and who went forth to help build and strengthen a vital, if not completely successful, radical American intellectual movement.

Certainly not all libertarians came out of, or through, New York. And, politically, New York City has never been any libertarian's dream.

But it is, and has always been, a place where you'll witness the glory and the world-changing energy of building something new against great odds and with a winning assurance. So it's not surprising that the founding fathers, and mother, of libertarianism considered it the only American city truly suitable for them.

In its concentration of grand human achievement, in its cosmopolitanism and grace, combined with a winning self-assured pugnaciousness, New York is the living embodiment of the openness, dynamism, and sheer human will that energizes the free markets that libertarians celebrate — and that makes New York the richest, biggest, wildest metropolis in human history.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor for reason, and author of "Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement." This article originally appeared in the June 27, 2007 New York Sun.

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