Ronald Hamowy, R.I.P.


As noted over the weekend by Reason 24/7, libertarian historian Ronald Hamowy has died. Hamowy was one of the first wave of the second generation of modern American libertarians, a member of the "Circle Bastiat," the group of (mostly) anarcho-capitalists gathered around Murray Rothbard in New York City in the 1950s, along with Robert Hessen, Ralph Raico, Leonard Liggio, and others.

Hamowy had a long academic career, mostly at the University of Alberta, after doing his doctoral thesis under F.A. Hayek at the University of Chicago in the 1960s. At Chicago he founded and helped edit what's still the most impressive student libertarian publication of all time, the New Individualist Review. In it he famously critiqued his own advisor Hayek's theory of coercion.

Hamowy's last academic achievement was editing the newest revised edition of Hayek's 1960 classic The Constitution of Liberty. I interviewed Hamowy about that for the June 2011 issue of Reason.

Hamowy also wrote for NIR a great early essay laying out the distinction between modern libertarian thought and that of the modern Right as represented by National Review:

The great moral principle of individual liberty has been superceded [in National Review] by the arrogance of the pseudo-aristocrat who preserves his civilized airs by exploiting the serf labor of "inferior" people; the libertarian principle of peace and non-intervention has been replaced by the heroics of a barroom drunk who proudly boasts that "he can lick anybody in the room." This posture is rendered tragic by the fact that the National Review group who proclaim "give me liberty or give me death" are willing to cremate countless millions of innocent persons whom they give no opportunity to make a choice.

Hamowy was also the editor who finally finished the long-gestating Encyclopedia of Libertarianism for Sage and the Cato Institute. He was certainly one of the few men with the long and erudite understanding of the movement's people and ideas needed for the job.

His specialty as an intellectual historian was the Scottish enlightenment, yet he kept his eye on the present as well. In March 1966 he was one of the first to note in a major national publication, The New Republic, that there were significant Old Right elements in the New Left (an idea being pushed by his old partners Rothbard and Liggio in their journal Left and Right). He also edited an important early contribution to the libertarian intellectual war on drug prohibition, 1987's Dealing with Drugs: Consequence of Government Control.

David Boaz has a detailed obituary up at Cato. Stephen Cox of Liberty provides a very human and humane account of what is was like hanging out with the acid and hilarious Hamowy. Bryan Caplan notes his passing, focusing on his critique of Hayek. Hamowy gave me one of the most entertaining interviews for my book Radicals for Capitalism, including the most jaundiced assessments of many of his fellow libertarian professionals.

While he embraced libertarianism for both truth and fellowship, he told me he was never expecting its ideas to conquer the world–though he was surprised at how far the movement he and his pals helped launch in the 1950s had progressed by the 21st century.

"I thought we were doomed to fail, if we got 50 people in the world who agreed that would be great," he told me. "I still think we're doomed," he said, laughing. "But now we have more than 50. I really believed [libertarianism] was correct, and I wasn't going to adopt incorrect views because they were popular, but I didn't think we were going to go anywhere." Still, he admitted that one of his and his friends' hopes with New Individualist Review was "We wanted it to, I guess, change the world…We [also] wanted to be taken seriously as a respectable publication and I think we succeeded in that."

Hamowy and his crew of spirited, absurdist buddies that surrounded Rothbard are a large part of the reason there are more than 50 libertarians now. The crew that Hamowy helped Rothbard launch remained the intellectual, personal, and institutional spine of libertarian thought in America through the 1960s and '70s as well (another little-published later member of the Rothbard circle, Father James Sadowsky, also died this month, and is remembered fondly by his friend David Gordon. I can verify Sadowsky's tendency for terse answers to questions, having interviewed him). Anyone who has enjoyed the progress of the movement and the ideas owes Hamowy a debt.