Libertarian America: A conversation with Sheldon Richman

A series of interviews with prominent libertarians that seeks to gain insight into their lives and minds. Photo: Sheldon Richman/Future of Freedom Foundation

MADISON, Wisc., April 28, 2013 ― Sheldon Richman, a native of Philadelphia and a now-Arkansas resident, is a life-long libertarian. According to Richman, “I was attracted to the idea of individual freedom from my earliest days. I met libertarians in my high-school years and realized I already was one.”

A 1971 graduate of Temple University, Richman has worked tirelessly his entire adult life to spread the message of freedom, primarily with his pen.

SEE RELATED: Libertarian America: A conversation with Julie Borowski

For many years, Richman was the editor of The Freeman, the flagship publication of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). He recently started a new chapter in his career, becoming the Vice President of the Future of Freedom Foundation (FFF). In his role at FFF, he edits their monthly publication, Future of Freedom, and also writes multiple pieces every week, including in his column, TGIF (“The Goal Is Freedom”).

Richman is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America’s Families, in which he proposes government should have absolutely nothing to do with education. Instruction in private schools and homeschooling are better alternatives. In his own words, “I favor a free market in education and schooling, but I’m partial to homeschooling. My three children were homeschooled. I am partial to ‘unschooling’ that is child-driven without curriculum. The point of homeschooling is not to recreate the school at home, but to exploit what that flexibility gives you.”

I spoke with Mr. Richman recently about a wide variety of things; our conversation follows.

Joseph S. Diedrich: You often associate yourself with the concept of “left libertarianism”? What exactly do you mean by that? How does it differ from “right” or “neutral” libertarianism?

SEE RELATED: Libertarian America: A conversation with Mark Thornton

Sheldon Richman: It’s a matter of emphasis and nuance. I believe that the historical concerns of good-faith leftists regarding the poor, minorities, immigrants, and vulnerable wage-workers, which I share, can be achieved only by market-anarchist means. There’s a story that reaches back into history. Frederic Bastiat, a great favorite of libertarians everywhere, sat on the left side of the French legislature. This is where the terms left and right come from. The left were the people who were opposed to the old regime and were forward-looking. The right were the defenders of the old regime who wanted to restore the monarchy. Bastiat favored a forward-looking progressive view that the free market represents.

If we jump to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the most active libertarians were the people around Benjamin Tucker. He published the magazine called Liberty, including in it [the writings of] Lysander Spooner. They called themselves socialists — they saw the left as an umbrella for any opposition to corporatism or state favoritism to business. We have this heritage that comes from the left. What modern left libertarians are trying to do today is to reach out to leftists and say you can achieve your ends through market means. At the same time, we’re trying to reach out to standard libertarians and explain to them that there is a leftist heritage which they’re not aware of.

JSD: You’ve been partial to libertarianism your entire life. Is there a book that has had a great influence on you?

SR: Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind. It clarified a lot for me—things I already pretty much believed. One of the things that Gilbert Ryle does in that book is clarify how you can think of human action (which is entirely consistent with Mises). It’s the idea that human action is something you can analyze in terms of a mental component and a physical component, but that you can’t — in the real world — separate them. In other words, it’s not a particular frame of mind plus outward behavior. It’s really something that cannot be reduced any further. I recommend the book. It’s a very readable book.

SEE RELATED: Libertarian America: A conversation with Jeffrey Tucker

JSD: Has there been a source of cognitive dissonance or inner struggle in your intellectual life?

SR: My relationship to the religious tradition into which I was born and from which I’ve broken, Judaism. I dislike religion and, even more, tribalism. I am a universalist. I prefer Athens to Jerusalem. This brings me into conflict with people close to me.

JSD: If you could meet any politician or economist from history, who would it be? Do you see that person in yourself?

SR: Bastiat. I’ve long admired him. I still read him today. Yes, I identify with him.

JSD: What do you think is the greatest hindrance to the libertarian cause?

SR: It’s not the state. It’s the movement’s ahistorical failure to identify the real adversary: corporatism. Randian baggage hurts too. I read [Ayn] Rand when I was first discovering libertarianism. I read the novels and the non-fiction essays. I’m not saying it’s all uniformly bad; I think we can learn from her. But I think there’s also some unfortunate stuff that’s too easily read in her, whether she intended it or not. I think a lot of her writing has lent itself to a [negative] interpretation.

JSD: Switching gears for a bit, could you share a bit about your affinity for the pipe? What’s the story there?

SR: My father smoked a pipe and introduced me to it when I was 14. It’s a hobby—pipes can be beautiful works of art—and a method of relaxation. I smoke pure Virginia tobacco.

JSD: Why Virginia tobacco? What’s special about it?

SR: It’s a matter of taste. Like food or drink — why do you like that wine better than another wine? It’s not a flavored tobacco. There’s a lot of artificially flavored tobaccos and I’ve never found them satisfying. It’s not unpleasant for the people around me. Whether I relate it to libertarianism?

JSD: Do you think that the smoking the pipe reflects your political philosophy in any way?

 SR: I don’t think in any strong way. That’s not a primary reason. Maybe it’s an icing on the cake.

JSD: If you’re alone, what music are you most likely listening to?

SR: Pink Floyd, Gilad Atzmon, The Cars, Gordon Lightfoot, Jimmy Buffett, or Billy Joel, Gilbert & Sullivan, Thelonius Monk and The Revolutioners, Hayes Carll, among others.

JSD: When was the last time you cried?

SR: Watching the credits of the Stanley Tucci’s movie, The Impostors. At the end of the movie the entire cast breaks into an exuberant dance to Louis Armstrong’s “Skokiaan,” moving off the set while hopping and twirling past the busy stage crew. Why that reaction? I think it’s because in that dance I see the cast’s love, passion, and dedication to their work. That’s my usual reaction when I think I’m witnessing that. “Skokiaan” alone is enough to get me tearing up.

JSD: What in the world are you most afraid of?

SR: Right now, war against Iran.

JSD: Speaking of war, you grew up during the Cold War and the Vietnam era. What is your greatest memory from college?

SR: Being a vocal antiwar libertarian in a sea of statists, left and right. I was in college from ‘67–‘71.

JSD: Do you recall any particularly good stories from those experiences?

SR: I spoke at a rally for legalizing drugs. After that, I was denounced by a Maoist for being in favor of drug legalization. He said it was a plot to get everybody high and [therefore] not revolutionary.

JSD: When was a time you felt absolutely powerless against the state?

SR: The day I reported for my draft physical in 1971. Fortunately, I flunked.

JSD: One last thing. Do you feel there is a political issue that libertarians tend to ignore or not care about as much as they should?

SR: Intellectual property. Great work is being done on it, but I don’t think it’s penetrated to libertarians generally. Many don’t care at all about it, but it’s very important. 


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Joseph S. Diedrich

Joseph S. Diedrich has been a columnist at The Washington Times Communities since early 2013. He covers non-electoral politics from a libertarian perspective. His work has also been featured at the MacIver InstituteThe College Fix, and elsewhere.

Joseph is also a classically-trained composer and somewhat of a gastronomy enthusiast. Find him on Facebook, LinkedInGoogle+, and Twitter @JSDiedrich.


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