THE WISDOM OF JOHN HOSPERS – A PERSONAL MEMORY: PART TWO
[This is Part Two of my Festscrifft to the memory of Professor John Hospers (1918-2011), my mentor under whom I gained my doctorate in philosophy, and the first presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party in 1972. Part One was in TTP last Monday (7/27). The concluding Part Three will be next Monday (8/10). It will appear entire as a chapter in the forthcoming book, “Libertarianism and the Libertarian Party at 50 and Beyond,” edited by Stan Oliver and C. Ron Kimberling.]
Entering [Dr. Hospers’] office beaming, I cheerily said, “Hi, John!” to the august professor at his desk. “Welcome!” came his reply. “You look happy.” I gestured with my thumb back towards the door. “Yes, so happy to be here – and I love your cartoon!”
He bade me sit down, and after a while he said, “Let me ask you something – have you heard of what’s being called “anarcho-capitalism”?
I nodded. “Tibor Machan (then an Objectivist graduate student at UC Santa Barbara whom he knew) and I have corresponded about it, particularly an essay launching it by an Objectivist at SUNY Buffalo named Roy Childs: Objectivism and the State: An Open Letter to Ayn Rand. On my Greyhound bus trip to see Von Mises, I went to see Roy in Buffalo – he spent two days trying to talk me into it. He’s really bright and a very nice guy. We got along fine, but I had to tell him in the end, No sale, I’m not a Platonist.”
The Hospers eyebrows arched up into his forehead. “For a Platonist, the ideal is more important, more real in fact, than reality,” I responded. “That’s really dangerous because when reality falls short of your ideal you can hate reality. For an Aristotelian like me, ideals are needed for goals to improve reality, but you have to make sure they really can. The map is not the territory.”
His smile was wistful. “Ayn runs that Platonic risk all the time…” “What about Murray Rothbard?” he then asked, “Ever heard of him?”
“Oh, yes,” I answered, “I have both volumes of Man, Economy and State which I’ve tried slogging through. He claims to be an acolyte of Ludwig von Mises, a claim that makes Professor Mises sad when I asked him. ‘For someone that promising to end up advocating anarchism is…’ he said, and his words trailed off with a dismissive wave of his hand. Rothbard’s the ultimate Platonist. Roy told me the term ‘anarcho-capitalism’ was coined by Rothbard, who used the example of the Pushtun tribe in Afghanistan as a real-world example of a successful anarcho-capitalist society.
“I have to tell you, John, I couldn’t stop laughing when Roy told me this. I’ve spent time with Pushtuns in their villages when I traveled across Afghanistan in 1963, and of course Rothbard hasn’t been 10,000 miles close to them. He knows nothing about how Pushtuns actually live. I told this to Nathan, who as you know despises Rothbard, and he said, “That’s Murray to a T – he lives in his head, not the real world’.”
John mused for a moment. Then: “The Spring (1971) issue of The Personalist will be devoted to social and political philosophy. One theme will be, ‘Is Government Necessary?’ I’d like to suggest your submitting an article on what you see as the flaws in anarcho-capitalism for consideration by the editors.”
I of course accepted. Pouring myself into it, I bugged John for his thoughts and advice often. It was always such a pleasure. It’s often not so conversing with someone of very high intellect. So many things can go sideways – they talk too fast, try to impress you with how smart they are, get impatient when you can’t keep up, get emotional if you disagree, invent extremely clever rationalizations for what they want to believe, insist on convincing you how viable those rationalizations are when they aren’t, and so on.
John Hospers had none of that. You had to be on top of your game when you talked with him, as he could catch a fuzzy thought in a New York second – but how he could gently correct and redirect you was an art form. What struck you most about him was not his immense learning and intellectual rigor, impressive as they were – but his temperament of reason.
You could always go to John if you were having trouble understanding something, and he’d help you work it out, so patiently and reasonably. John Hospers was a master at helping you think clearly and reasonably.
I once asked him what philosopher expressed the greatest amount of wisdom in the shortest number of words. He smiled and answered, “Oh that’s easy, Sir Francis Bacon [1561-1626] in just seven words:
“Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”
I had heard that before, but when John said it, Bacon’s words really hit me, for the more you thought about it, the deeper it got. “You know,” I responded, “those words nuke virtually the entire edifice of modern philosophy.” His palms went up in the air with a shrug. “Well, you asked…”
I couldn’t thank Nathan enough for his foresight in introducing us. I became Nathan’s assistant in his group therapy sessions, and had time to talk a lot with him. “You have really changed my life in getting me to USC and studying with John,” I told him. “He’s such a man of reason, almost the embodiment of philosophical wisdom. It’s so refreshing to meet that in a professional philosopher who respects Objectivism. I think Ayn Rand is an extraordinary genius – but all the rage and bombast is such a turn-off. For all her idolization of reason, she doesn’t live it, she doesn’t have the temperament of reason and wisdom that John has.”
Nathan sighed. “The trauma of what the Communists did to her country, her friends, and most of all her family has never left her. But she wasn’t always this bad. When I first knew her in the 50s she was much more fun loving. She was not a naturally energetic person, however, and the mental-physical strain of writing Atlas Shrugged was enormous – so she started taking 15 milligrams of dexy (dextroamphetamine) every day to keep going. It did but at a cost, which is the constant ‘rage and bombast’ you mention. The dexy really wound her up tight.”
That was a revelation. John of course was the opposite – he exuded a calm that you could feel, so you were at ease in discussing whatever philosophical complexity was puzzling you.
In any regard, I finished my essay, entitled Justice and Anarchy, which was published in the Spring 1971 The Personalist. John’s comment after reading it was, “Well, I think you did it, I think this takes care of the problem.”
Basically, I argued that, granting the Objectivist axiom that force is never justified when initiated but only in retaliation to the initiation, there’s no way an anarchist can stop any amount of retaliation in response to the slightest initiation. It’s deuces wild in violence.
But more fundamentally, a necessary condition for a free market capitalistic society to function is the existence of property rights, which is based on ownership. Yet to own something as other than mere possession requires legality, meaning a government that provides it with courts and enforcement. A monopoly of it within its jurisdiction.
An anarchist has no way of distinguishing between ownership and possession – no one in an “anarcho-capitalist” society can own anything at all, have any property rights at all, because anyone for any reason at any time can create his own code defining what you have as his.
When my first year at USC ended, I took off for the summer to wander around Africa, from Timbuktu to Cape Town to Kilimanjaro to the Nile. One highlight was bribing an Egyptian policeman at the Great Pyramid to let me climb it at the end of the day when no one was around – sitting all alone at the top of the Great Pyramid of Cheops as the sun went down reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is a life-memorable experience.
When I got back to USC in September (1971), John told me, “Something quite interesting happened while you were gone. A group of libertarians have decided to form an actual political party with candidates running for office – the Libertarian Party. They encouraged me to write a treatise on it, and I agreed. Actually, it’s almost finished, entitled Libertarianism: A Political Philosophy for Tomorrow, and it will be in print in the next few months.”
“What will the Rothbardians think?” I asked.
With a bored grimace, he said, “Well, that’s their problem. You and I would be quite happy with a government that just obeyed the Constitution, restricting its activities to only the enumerated powers it specifies. Not Murray. Further, we are pro-defense libertarians, we want to see America defended against her enemies, which actually exist. Murray doesn’t believe they do.”
The Libertarian Party was officially formed that December, held its presidential nominating convention the following June (1972), and given its manifesto was John’s book, nominated John as the LP candidate for President of the United States.
But all that summer I was in the Amazon, back with Tangamashi, chief of the Jivaro headhunters who had adopted me into his clan in 1961 when I was 16. The USC Philosophy School was in quite a furor when I got back in September, with Daphne in particular trying to keep up with all the press calls. “Believe it or not,” she told me, “John keeps getting calls from the Nixon White House, asking for his advice on things… pretty crazy.”
“Don’t you dare call me ‘President Hospers,’ John chided me when I went in to see him. “Everyone else kids me, but not you…” he kidded. “I wouldn’t think of it, Mr. Pres….” I cut off in mid-sentence. We could joke about it, but in all seriousness, we both thought it was a stroke of genius for the LP to nominate a genuine distinguished professional philosopher as it gained so much public awareness of Libertarianism as a respected and bona fide alternative to Democrat welfarism and Republican me-tooism.
The campaign frenzy crescendoed after the election, in which Nixon obliterated McGovern (every state except Massachusetts and over 60% of the popular vote). The Electoral College vote was 521 to 17. Yet when the Electors met on December 18th, Nixon didn’t get that 521st vote. A Republican from Virginia named Roger MacBride cast a “faithless elector” vote not for Nixon but for… John Hospers.
“You’re in the history books, John!” I exclaimed to him at the time. With a smile and a shrug, he said, “But only as an asterisk. I’m happy, though that Tonie has a place in history now.” Tonie Nathan was John’s VP running mate, and he was gratified she would be recorded as the first woman and first Jew ever to get a presidential electoral vote in US history.
John and I both thought that all the publicity his candidacy had garnered might jumpstart the Libertarian Party into a substantive electoral role in US politics – but it was not to be.
John had personally typewritten LP’s original Statement of Principles while at the ’72 convention – and it was thrilling, Randian to the core from the first line: “We, the members of the Libertarian Party, challenge the cult of the omnipotent state, and defend the rights of the individual” to the last: “(Men) should be left free by government to deal with one another as free traders on a free market; and the resultant economic system, the only one compatible with the protection of man’s rights, is laissez-faire capitalism.”
John and I watched with dismay over the next two years as the Rothbardian anarchists gained ever greater sway over the LP. They even got John’s Statement of Principles adulterated at the 1974 convention, deleting any reference to the legitimacy of governments – e.g., from John’s “Since government has only one legitimate function, the protection of individual rights,” to Rothbard’s “Since government, when instituted, must not violate individual rights…”
For some reason inexplicable to John and me was the wimp-out at the end of the 1974 revision, deleting “laissez-faire capitalism” and substituting a less bold “the free market.”
The real tragedy that both John and I saw was the Rothbardian lurch of the LP towards a virulent anti-Americanism. “Has there ever been any instance in which Murray supported the US in any dispute with an enemy of the US?” I once asked him. We couldn’t think of any. This was especially true of the Soviet Union. No matter what, you could depend on Rothbard to side with the Soviet Communists against America, no exceptions.
In the June-July 1972 issue of Rothbard’s newsletter The Libertarian Forum, Roy Childs had written a broadside attacking John’s foreign policy position expressed in Libertarianism. John responded after the campaign was over with “Hospers Replies” in the February 1973 issue, which was immediately followed by “The Editor Rebuts” written not by Roy but Rothbard himself.
I came in to John’s office with my subscription copy in hand. “You’ve seen this, of course,” I asked. He nodded. I shook my head and blurted, “I am really puzzled – he’s not stupid and not uneducated, yet his defense of the Soviets is the rationalization of a religious fanatic.”
His palm went up in the air. “Murray’s religion is anarchism.”
“But how can he say…” I looked down to read, “’Soviet policy has always been the defensive one of hanging on to what they have and waiting for the supposedly inevitable Marxian revolutions in the other countries of the world’? The Soviets whole ideology is the denial of this, it’s Marxism-Leninism, with Lenin saying no waiting for the inevitable, it must be forced upon history by the Vanguard of the Proletariat, namely those who rule in the Kremlin.”
Both his palms went up. “The essence of fanaticism is the denial of reality.”
“Yeah – like his claim the Soviets did nothing to get the colonies of Czarist Russia back when they all declared independence after World War I. Tell that to Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and all of Central Asia.”
Then I kind of lost it. “But John, this is simply demented. He says that one of the main reasons Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and attacked the USSR was Hitler’s ‘hysterical anti-communism which fully matches the equivalent anti-Communism of the American Conservative movement.’ Rothbard thinks we’re like Hitler, John.”
To that, he just closed his eyes and sighed. We had discussed the equivalence of Communism and Nazism more than once before: the former was class-based hate for the rich exploitative bourgeois, the latter race-based hate for the rich exploitative Jews, no essential difference.
Then, with that arched eyebrows-hint of a wry smile of his, he plucked a book out of a stack on his desk. “This is Murray’s latest book – I was sent an advance copy.” It was Rothbard’s “For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto.” He handed it to me. “I think you’ll find his chapter on ‘War and Foreign Policy’ illustrative.”
An initial quick glance caused me to burst out laughing. “Sorry, John, but this is really funny… he starts out saying ‘Libertarians favor the abolition of all States everywhere.’ How pretentious an assumption can you get? Unless you’re an anarchist, you can’t be a libertarian.”
Then I read: “Empirically, taking the twentieth century as a whole, the single most warlike, most interventionist, most imperialist government has been the United States.”
My turn to sigh. “Wow, the wages of Platonism. He hates America so much for failing to be his anarchic ideal that he’ll defend Communist evil against it. In anything and everything, he’ll blame America, it’s always America’s fault, we’re the aggressors always. After this, John, I can’t call myself a libertarian anymore.”
He gave me a look of understanding.
 . After SUNY, Roy moved to LA, where Nathan, Tibor and I often got together with him. I’ll always remember the time in 1971 when Roy and Tibor came to my apartment in Marina del Rey to celebrate Tibor’s clearing the final hurdle of getting his Ph.D, his dissertation defense. Tibor’s first words to me were, “You may now call me Dr. Machan!” Roy was a good friend, and his passing at age 43 (1992) was tragic.
 . The scholarly journal of the USC School of Philosophy, published since 1888.
 . The link is to the Second Edition. The original first edition published by MacMillan in 1973 is not available online.