The Good Old Days: My Very First Serious Publication

Late last night, on a whim, I discovered — to my delight and also somewhat to my horror — that my very first “serious” publication is available on the web:  “The Future of Capitalism: Manifest Destiny on the New Frontier.” The Freeman 27/3 (March 1977).

I hadn’t even thought about that possibility until last night, and hadn’t read the piece in many years.

I’m delighted because, well, the power and reach of the web astonishes me and because seeing the article again reminded me of pleasant times.  Among other things, it won me a substantial cash prize, especially for that period, as well as an all-expense-paid two weeks in the United Kingdom in 1976 that included participation in the biannual meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, which was held that year at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland.  For a week there, I got to rub shoulders with such people as Friedrich von Hayek, Martin Anderson, and Milton Friedman.  This was a heady experience for somebody in his early twenties.

I remember one late-night session in the hallway of a St. Andrews dorm where some of us argued U.S defense policy with Murray Rothbard, who coined the phrase “anarcho-capitalism” and, for that matter, pretty much embodied it.  He was contending that America didn’t really need federal-government military forces, but that — on the analogy of the privateers who served the role of an American navy during the Revolutionary War — free associations of citizens could, if they wanted, band together and purchase ICBMs of their own.  (I’m not altogether sure that he was joking.  I envisioned a neighborhood in West Covina deciding to take out, say, Alhambra or South Pasadena over a bad call in a high school football game.)

I spent a couple of hours used-book shopping in St. Andrews with the future Nobel laureate George Stigler, and devoted one morning to a walking tour of the town and of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews with the journalist and business historian John Chamberlain, whom I greatly admired.

The Royal and Ancient

Another morning, we boarded a bus and headed off to Kirkcaldy, to pay our respects at the site where Adam Smith wrote his great book on The Wealth of Nations, which had been published precisely two centuries before, in 1776.  (I still have the cameo portrait of Smith that was given to all of us at the meeting that year.)  When we arrived, Professor von Hayek stood before us to make some formal remarks and to place a wreath on our behalf.  But nobody had actually brought the wreath.  So, after returning that evening, we went out on the ramparts of the ruined castle of St. Andrews, and he tossed the wreath into the sea, confident, he said, that the “invisible hand” — students of economics and readers of Adam Smith will catch the reference — would take the wreath where it needed to go.

 The ruins of St. Andrews Castle

One evening, my next-door neighbor in the university dorm where we were staying — an economist from Colorado, I think, whose name I’ve forgotten — suddenly dragged me off to a late-night gathering of something called “The Invisible Hand Society.”  There were about ten of us there, including Milton Friedman and a few others.  He had warned me at the last minute to put on the Adam Smith necktie that each attendee at the Invisible Hand Society was supposed to wear.  This was lucky for me, because one poor soul showed up without it and was immediately fined ten pounds by the chair.  (And he had to pay.)  At one point, each of us in the room had to tell what we had done during the past year for the cause of the free market.  I felt hopelessly inferior, because I was just an undergraduate student (in classics, no less), and all I had done was to write my essay.  But that was deemed sufficient, and I passed.  Another member of the group reported that he had debated John Kenneth Galbraith at Princeton.  He was fined twenty pounds for mentioning Galbraith’s name.

The main point of that meeting seemed to be alcohol and bonhomie, but it brings me back to the essay.  I say that finding it online is a bit horrifying, as well as a delight.  Why?  Well, as I say, it was probably my first “serious” publication — that is, apart from articles in my high school and college student papers and the annual journal of the BYU Honors Program — and the prose strikes me as a bit overwrought, over-earnest, pompous.

A couple of things in it amuse me, though.

First, there’s a reference to California’s “New Politics governor.”  That was Jerry Brown (aka in those days as “Governor Moonbeam”).  Could anybody have imagined then that he would go on to become mayor of Oakland and state attorney general, and that he would then be reelected governor again in 2011?  (I had feared, to be honest, that he was going to be president of the United States.)*  The state — my home state — may well deserve what’s happening to it.

Second, I note that I referred to Mao’s remark that political power flows from the barrel of a gun.  A few weeks ago, I commented somewhere that taxes differ from tithes in that the former are mandatory, compulsory, forced, while the latter are voluntary.  One of my more extreme critics challenged the distinction on the grounds that Mormons are pressured by fear of damnation into paying tithes — his challenge seems to me the most transparent kind of equivocating sophistry, by the way — and confidently alleged that I had stolen the idea that taxes are extracted by coercion, backed ultimately by guns, from some right-wing radio host (or something like that) of whom I’ve never heard.  (This guy is always confident about my motivations and the sources of my ideas, and, curiously, his explanations always make me look stupid and dishonest.  I’m sure that’s just coincidental.)  But, in fact, I got the idea from Mao, and there he is, cited already in this old 1976 paper — thirty-six years ago — to that general effect.  What distinguishes the state from, say, General Motors or Walmart is that, at least in a properly constituted society, government has a legal monopoly on the use of force — and such force should be used very sparingly.

Even I myself found some things about the young Governor Brown quite endearing, though.  When Democratic Governor Brown appointed the newly elected Republican S. I. Hayakawa, a noted semanticist and college president, to the U.S. Senate a few days early, in order to give him a jump in Senate seniority, the two emerged from their meeting to a bank of reporters.  The first question was “What were you two talking about?”,  presuming that they had been discussing matters of policy.  “We had a great conversation about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” Governor Brown replied.  And, in fact, his answer may have been true.  Now, how many pairs of American politicians could you say that about?

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