Leonard Liggio, R.I.P.


Leonard Liggio, a great libertarian scholar and institutional activist, has died.

Liggio was quite literally one of the first mere handfuls of youngsters that arose in the 1950s to advocate and spread modern American libertarian ideas, as a leader in a pro-freedom group called Students for America and as part of a small gang of young radical libertarians led by Murray Rothbard called the Circle Bastiat.

As part of his personal libertarian education, Liggio attended Ludwig von Mises's New York University seminars and was briefly part of Ayn Rand's circle. He worked for the only libertarian funding institution of the 1950s, the Volker Fund. Volker served to keep those ideas alive and its advocates eating during a period of such fallowness in libertarian ideas that Volker had to go out and find libertarian thinkers to support and fund, rather than wait for people to come to them.

Liggio served during his over six decades of libertarian scholarship and educational activism as president of the Mont Pelerin Society, the Philadelphia Society, and the Institute for Humane Studies, and more recently executive vice president of academics at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. He played some role in nearly every institution pushing libertarian ideas from 1950 to now; see his resume.

Liggio allied with Murray Rothbard in a mid-sixties attempt at finding common cause with the American left on peace and anti-imperialism and anti-corporatism in the fascinating journal Left and Right. Because of his willingness to reach out and speak to the left he became, I'm pretty sure, the only future president of Mont Pelerin to be condemned in Barron's (inaccurately, to be sure) for being part of a dedicated conspiracy to "overthrow…our form of government by Socialist seizure of state power."

Personally, Liggio was one of the faculty at the first libertarian conference I attended, an Institute for Humane Liberty and Society seminar in the summer of 1988. He was the least outwardly colorful and voluble of the faculty (which also included George Smith, Randy Barnett, and Leonard's old pal from Students for America and Circle Bastiat days, historian Ralph Raico). But his calm erudition helped even raw, green undergrads grasp and value that there were layers and layers to this set of libertarian ideas, that they were not just bracing wild radicalism (though they were that, and all the better) but also deeply rooted in the history and ideas of Western civilization, a truly humane, yes, approach to the social order that promised not just liberty per se but also peace and wealth. Liggio was also of immeasurable help as I researched my 2007 history of the libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism.

Liggio never wrote as much as his fans and students would have wanted; would that all he knew had been laid out on the page! When contemplating the rise of formerly obscure and derided ideological notions to prominence, though, it's worth remembering that it takes a very special type of person to hack a path through thickets of contempt and derision, launching institutions that clear fresh space in the ideological landscape, in contrast to the (often certainly very skilled and admirable) types who can then slot themselves into institutions and spaces that those pioneers created.

Liggio was a pioneer, and while many may not remember his name, what he did to cement and spread libertarianism will echo in American and world history for a very long time to come. Liggio had, as one admiring student of his once told me, a vast thousand-year vision of the slow spread of liberalism across the globe, one that allowed him to contemplate both past and present with equanamity, neither despairing for liberty's future nor being unrealistically enthusiastic about its imminent victory. He was the man I met and was impressed by in 1988: inspired and inspiring but calm and steady in the promotion of these ideas, and the organizing and aiding of students and intellectuals who wanted to understand and promote them better.

Liggio writing about his own intellectual history.

A thorough interview he gave to Students for Liberty in 2010 discussing his role in studying and promoting libertarian ideas.

The Liggio Living Legacy Project.