Memories in Search of a Thesis

December 16, 2005*

Years ago, before signing up to work for R.W. (Bill) Bradford, I often asked myself whether the libertarian movement would ever grow up. Bill had asked a similar question, but wasn’t about to let the question just answer itself. His idea? Spur the movement along, nudge it out of its adolescence. The means? Liberty magazine.

Bill and I shared that dream. He called it our secret agenda. Ostensibly the magazine we started in 1987 was to avoid siding with any one faction of the libertarian movement, but, through open debate and stringent criticism, he hoped (as did I) that a critical common sensism would come to dominate. Libertarianism would no longer be in thrall to the nutball element, to extremists, whackos, radical utopians, and people who had trouble distinguishing fiction from reality.

Over time, though, I came to fear that we were not succeeding. Indeed, I suspected that Liberty‘s worst faults — such as its juvenile obsession with Ayn Rand’s torrid private life and makeshift philosophy and its unbalanced, over-eager vast-right-wing-conspiracy-mongering against Bill Clinton — might actually be contributing to libertarianism’s perpetual adolescence.

For that reason alone it was inevitable, then, that I would eventually leave Liberty, in a sense giving up on the dream. But there’s rarely just one reason to do any one thing, and those additional reasons to leave Liberty touched on the more personal matters of loyalty and ethics. So it came to pass that when I left Bill Bradford’s employ in 1999, I, like a number of others before me, did not maintain contact with him.

Giving up my addiction to Liberty proved relatively easy. Giving up the company of Bill and Kathy Bradford was not so easy. To say that I had grown fond of them would be an understatement. Then, to realize that a rift had grown between this fascinating couple and me, seemed more than earth-shaking. It felt more like a whole new geography.

And yet the world went on, I went on, the Bradfords went on. And Liberty went on. Just as one should expect.

But, unknown to me, Bill was fighting cancer. And then, just a few days after hearing news that Bill had resigned from the editorship of Liberty, he died. No man goes on forever. This is a universal, if sad, truth. This is not how I would have designed the world, but then, that was another design meeting I missed.

News of Bill’s death saddened me; leaving his employ and his social sphere had been traumatic, even accompanied by anger and mutual feelings of betrayal. But I had never wished him dead. Indeed, I much preferred to think of him living and learning and finally overcoming what I regarded as his faults. It seemed appropriate; after all — I hoped to overcome my worst faults, too. I could not help but wish for him what I wished for myself. It’s an easy wish.

I was pleased to read the reminiscences of Jesse Walker and Brian Doherty — and not a few of those who have written in to respond on Hit and Run. Like Jesse and Brian, I cannot forget the long and often very odd conversations I had with Bill. Bill possessed a broad knowledge of the world and a deep and abiding interest in some of the obscurest veins of its history. He was always eager to share.

He and I agreed (or were at least close) on many, many philosophical matters — Misesian praxeology, a practical anti-imperialism, an open-ended, somewhat fallibilist view of normative politics — but we usually approached these issues from opposite directions. This was most obvious regarding ethics. He wrote a great deal about theoretical ethics and even metaethics in Liberty‘s pages, often under a hidden identity that he had asked me to cook up, by anagram, from Mencken’s favorite pseudonym, Owen Hatteras. But Bill confessed to have read little of the world’s literature on ethics, and even less of the extensive work in the last century on metaethics. And yet these were areas he surveyed on numerous (and controversial) occasions. This vexed me, though at the time I treated it as one treats the eccentricities of a friend, not as the key failure of an opponent. I never could bring myself to write a thoroughgoing critique of his writings as Ethan O. Waters. I did not want to be cruel, but since I judged these contributions to be hopelessly confused, I feared that any critique would have sounded cruel. He was a skilled debater, but never really submitted a positive contribution; in ethical theory his only successes were destructive. Not enough, Bill, not enough.

This is not to say that everything he wrote and said on ethical matters was of little moment. The opposite is true. But perhaps more than all the things he wrote, the most profound of his ethical beliefs was one that he shared with me, personally. He believed that people make their own happiness, that in a sense we choose to be happy. I saw the logic in this. Indeed, Bill’s position was similar to Epicurus’s view. Cheerfulness jump-starts life, and happiness follows. The fact that Bill tended to be grumpy in the morning, and that I was often gloomy at least one day a week, well, this only demonstrated our failings, not the inadequacies of the maxim. His final note to his editors was filled with good humor and wry wit. I was more than pleased to see that he had followed through on this philosophy. Not everyone truly faces death. Bill had to. And it may very well be that he did this admirably.

I remember our first conversation. It was at a party in Portland, Oregon, a libertarian social. Bill expressed pleasure with my negative judgments regarding Ayn Rand, and was surprised that she had never influenced my intellectual development. I would admit to many influences, but not Rand. Nozick, yes; the Friedmans, yes; Spooner, yes; Locke, yes; Jefferson, yes; Thoreau, yes; Herbert Spencer, yes; Menger, Mises, Hayek, Taussig, Kirzner, yes. Rand, no. The conversation lingered there, unfortunately; my attempts to steer our dialogue beyond that point, and to my thesis that libertarian views of social cooperation were often embarrassingly simple-minded, and that a larger vision of praxeology than found in Mises needed to be developed — these things did not interest him.

I later learned that he had written a paper in college called The Praxeology of Government. It was a very simple analysis. I’m afraid that, when I read it, I could not praise it. My basic reaction to that piece was my basic reaction to most libertarian theory: it just didn’t go very far. And Bill himself was uninterested in the work that had already gone beyond his youthful program. He frankly admitted that he had stopped thinking about such things after college.

Besides, as I would learn, he had had enough of an intellectual odyssey as a teenager and young man. In an act of will and conscious choice he had rejected a life of tribal hooliganism and crime. He then went from Goldwater supporter to anarchist in lickety-split time. After becoming an anarchist he went through the seemingly de rigueur Randian phase. He introduced Morris Tannehill to anarchism, but, as Morris began writing his anarchist manifesto, had already switched away from that camp. Yes, he decided that Mises, not Rothbard, was right on the state, giving up on anarchocapitalism.

These were paradigm shifts enough.

Hence his interest in journalism, and his continual encouragement of others to pick at the scab of Rand’s life and philosophy. He enjoyed covering the issues that were settled in his mind but unsettled (or differently settled) in others’. Yes, he loved continually to argue over those. New developments in philosophy and social science were of little interest to him, unless, as in the case of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, he read them and dismissed them outright. This disappointed me, I confess; I had thought that it was for new developments that we had launched Liberty. On Hoppe’s primary contribution I was as dismissive as anyone, but Bill’s lack of interest in covering the bulk of developments in libertarian academic work dismayed me.

He was at his best when writing about the passing scene, when his philosophical interests were at the side and no one enemy outshone all others. His writings under the name Chester Alan Arthur covered many aspects of modern politics. They also included the Libertarian Party. He couldn’t help but be controversial, here. After all, his deep impatience with the ineffectiveness of the party uneasily combined with his fondness of the institution as well as many of its members. He gave it both coverage and criticism. Towards the end of my stay at Liberty, I detected a perhaps unnecessary overemphasis on the party’s alleged corruption (any large institution allows for corruption, especially one that cannot fulfill its stated primary task), but I was by that time disengaging myself from the editorial end of the magazine. (I left, after all, while Clinton was still in office.)

I often jokingly characterized the magazine’s basic editorial policy as there’s no kill like overkill. The tendency to publish three, four, or five (or a dozen!) distinct essays on any single subject was evident from early on. This was obviously a matter of Bill’s preference. Later I came to see it as also a result of not paying contributing editors; it was hard to say no to their free contributions. But on some issues, like the personal lives of Ayn Rand or Bill Clinton, Liberty’s characteristic overkill was hard to forgive, impossible to defend.

Tastes differ, judgments differ, and any one judgment that I make will find a contradictory view from another editor or another reader. But as time went on, a feature of Liberty that I had pushed for in the very beginning — the Reflectionscommentary that appeared early in each edition of the ’zine — came to seem evidence of mere prolixity in our contributors. These contributions were better edited than the blogs that would soon appear on the Net (I started my first blog four or five years before I left Liberty, and soon came to see the blogosphere as a more revolutionary medium), but the quality of thought was often no better than what one can find, for free, on any of a hundred libertarian blog sites. Too often, worse.

But many readers, and Bill himself, had no interest in slashing the length of the average Liberty front-section squib. Besides, most of the energy for reform by sub-editors was spent on efforts to include the author’s full name to each Reflection. This led to conflict on repeated occasions.

From this section’s inception at the end of the magazine’s first year, we had tried to encourage very short contributions. Bill and I both agreed that a full name after, say, a one-sentence contribution seemed a tad much. So we settled on initials as the creator’s credit. Unfortunately, when Reflections were quoted in the major media (as they were, occasionally), who wrote them never seemed to carry over. The initials in a sense de-individualized the content of an individualist magazine. This didn’t bother Bill; criticism from editors about the policy did. At a mass editorial meeting at one conference he got extremely angry, and threatened to take away all individual credit rather than give full credit. He once shouted me down in a meeting after I had mentioned that I had changed my mind on this issue. Only after I left did he begin to include full names after each contribution. Some might consider this petty of him. He considered it a matter of principle. (The principle being, perhaps: he was in charge.)

Bill, Steve Cox, Kathy Bradford and I — and later other assistants and sub-editors — often engaged in maximum editing. There were many mistakes, however, and our chaotic scheduling of efforts did not produce a professional product. Still, Bill’s intention to publish good writing was always clear, if not always in evidence. If one wonders how so many errors could remain, I attribute it mainly to poorly managed cycles of work, overwork, and sleep deprivation. I often worked the hours of a hospital intern, though without hope of an eventual high salary. After working 24 hours straight, and seeing ahead at least six hours more work, a certain bleary-eyed attention came to dominate. I early on came to accept a high level of typos, especially when our staff size was as low as three at times (Bill, Kathy, and me). But I hated most the typos on the cover and in the table of contents. Several times, immediately after publication, I noticed typos in the first sentences of articles. I could be depressed for days.

Bill’s demand for what he thought of as good writing came at a cost: a growing impatience with bad writing. Sometimes he would carefully explain to, say, an intern about what to improve, how to improve, why to improve. But too often he’d say, This is shit. Even when it wasn’t. Because of this bruskness, and for other reasons (including his early and explicit requests) I would often act as buffer between Bill and others. Whether this strange role should be seen as playing Aaron to his Moses or Smee to his Hook, I’ll leave to others. But it was not a role I filled without stress.

As far as personal style went, Bill dressed for comfort, and expected no one to do otherwise. He was always amused when an intern arrived at Liberty wearing a suit. Sometimes I would wear a tie just to increase titters, and, oh, perhaps remind workers that professionalism could be extended to dress; but I, too, dressed for comfort. In Scrooge-cold offices I would often keep my motorcycle chaps on long after arrival; they were comfortable. They were also strange and almost indecent (picture black leather chaps worn over khakis).

Bill was also more than a little disorganized; manuscripts, magazines, newspapers, notes, invoices, and even rare coins heaped around his desk and onto the floor. When one worker used a mini-recorder to make notes of what to do and how to organize, Bill almost publicly ridiculed him. He thought he was doing it in a good-natured way, but like much of his badinage, it could come off badly.

For a long time, I gave Bill every benefit of the doubt, every benefit of conflicting interpretation. I did so for two reasons. One, without him, I knew the magazine would go nowhere; he called the shots. For another, in the early days especially, I enjoyed his company nine tenths of the time.

Bill had a great grin, a fine laugh. In addition to loving the writings of Mencken and Charles Willeford (our only literary commonalities), he loved film, especially Hitchcock. He would frequently offer what he called video treats: peculiar snippets he had taped off of TV. He was a master of the obscure fact. He was often a quick wit, and could be great intellectual fun. He liked to pose bizarre and entertaining puzzles and challenges. We often played games like Who is the most evil president? He thought Lincoln, I voted for Wilson. But Bill could also be harsh, at the drop of a hat. Jesse Walker and I both placed Andrew Jackson on our Worst as well as our Greatest lists, just to show the ambiguity of Jackson’s legacy. Bill’s response was very Aristotelian: Then both of your lists should be disqualified. He did not say this with respect or appreciation or even levity; he said it with disgust. He had little patience for subtle irony. His was not the world of null-A.

A later observer noted that Bill tended to trample on many of my lines. It was obvious that our relationship was an odd one, one that both of us circumscribed with particular unstated demands. And yet we worked pretty well together for many years, if not all of the 13.

Bill had more than a few premonitions of the end of our relationship. About a year before I left, he took a few moments to acknowledge in detail my contributions to Liberty. One, he said, was the basic style of presentation. For many years, many headlines and most blurbs came from me. You set the tone for Liberty, he said. It was an oration worthy of a gold watch dinner.

The importance of the right title and the right blurb was never doubted at Liberty. In one issue we published a memoir of an American adventurer’s trip down a river in Ethiopia. Bill, Kathy, Janet Goodman and I spent a half hour trying to come up with a title that would pull in readers. Bill insisted on having the perfect title; he loved the piece. None of our ideas were going anywhere, so I made a joke. You see, one of the more startling images in the article was of men on the edge of the river, naked, with testicles distended with elephantiasis, a disease transmitted by the tse-tse fly. So I suggested calling it Stalking the Giant Testes of Ethiopia. Bill loved it: That’s it!he cried. And that’s what appeared on the cover. Bill met a circuit court justice at a conference right after the issue came out, and the judge pointed to the title. You have a typo, here, he said. Bill smiled and said, Maybe you should read the article. The judge, being a normal human being, had expected tse-tse where we quipped testes; and the testicle reference was on point. I’m afraid I was always a little embarrassed by this title.

I preferred a blurb I wrote for one issue’s Terra Incognita (strange fact) page: The world marches on to the beat of a million monkeys typing the Collected Works of William Shakespeare.

After I left, the same sorts of titles and blurbs continued to grace Liberty’s pages.

Bill introduced me to motorcycles. According to our original contract, I would aim to work normal hours, and then take days off to compensate for overtime after our deadlines passed. One year in the early ’90s I managed to work eight or nine months of hours in the space of six months (I forget the exact ratio). Bill became ashen faced when I handed him the spreadsheet that tabulated my hours. A few days later he gave me his trusty older motorcycle in compensation. I saw this as generosity. And like Bill, I came to love riding. Unlike Bill, I preferred to ride alone. His suggestions that we ride together never seemed to go anywhere. The motorcycle, for me, was as solitary an occupation as reading or writing.

Not everything was work or loneliness, however. In my time in Port Townsend, I developed a far more active social life than Bill had. In terms of personal contact with humanity, Bill was comparatively isolated. His wife Kathy, and his employees at Liberty, were nearly his sole grasp on direct human contact. In the early days of the magazine, we were involved, locally, in a pro-property rights group. We (well, mainly I) edited and produced its newsletter. Since the group worked in Jefferson County, and since we advocated limited government interference in property, I titled the newsletter The Jefferson Jeffersonian. But aside from these activists, and an old friend occasionally stopping by, Bill saw almost no one outside of work. He was content to spend much of his time on the phone. A sales call, or an editorial chat, could turn into an hours-long conversation for Bill. This was his main source of human society.

He was honestly surprised, then, when I began to attend meetings of a local group of Great Books readers. You’re smarter than they are, he insisted. Why would you want to attend? I was puzzled. My alleged intelligence was irrelevant. Ideas were to be shared. I enjoyed then and enjoy now the company of a wide variety of people, especially any person who enjoys honest and open discussion. Besides, one discovers some of one’s best ideas while talking. That is surely one reason why Bill himself was such a talker.

Everyone has some concept of class. Bill did, too. Maybe it was based on intelligence. Perhaps that is one reason he kept hiring large staffs of intelligent people, to give himself people to talk to. After all, Liberty’s staff rang on the bright side of the Murray and Herrnstein bell curve.

Twice during my stay he developed large staffs, each time promising that we would soon grow as a magazine as a result. He would begin paying contributors, he said. He would advertise outside the usual libertarian demographics. Solicit donations from a broader base of philanthropists. Etc. These things never happened. Liberty remained a small-circulation magazine, as it is to this very day. Like the Libertarian Party it often criticized, it never broke out.

The reason for this is easy to see. When planning the magazine in 1985, ’86 and ’’87, Bill established modest goals. He expected only a few thousand subscribers. And we got those subscribers by the end of the very first year. Every other bit of progress was extra. This made talk about growing beyond his original conception more fantasy than anything else.

As Bill saw it, Liberty was a complete success. He had succeeded wildly at his small coin business, and he now succeeded far above his expectations at his small magazine. Going non-profit in 1993 was merely a legal acknowledgement of the limits he’d set for the enterprise, and a way to cut costs in postage. After all, the magazine had grown beyond his expectations. This is implied, if not stated, in his Fifth Anniversary article How We Started Liberty.

As I came to see it, on the other hand, Liberty never really succeeded. Sure, as failures go, it was often fascinating. To many libertarians it was worth the subscription price. Perhaps it still is. But it never quite lived up to its potential. It surely never lived up to my hopes or standards. In the end, I regretfully relegated it to the status of a fanzine. It certainly looked amateurish; the cover is the plainest on the newsstand, and perhaps the ugliest as well.

This is not to say we did not publish some great material. I was always amazed by Bill’s ability to write clear prose. He could be very interesting, sometimes dead-on brilliant. His travelogues, for example, were exemplary essays, capturing an aspect of his personality that was both fun and illuminating, and he often revealed more about America in these pieces than anywhere else.

Stephen Cox, his buddy from college days, is a leftist-turned-libertarian conservative. He contributed some of the most important pieces the magazine ever published. The bulk of his contributions on Ayn Rand’s legacy are exempt from my criticisms of the magazine’s Rand obsession; they are quite good. Though I was often not a fan of his Reflections, I judged his long feature article on the Titanic tragedy — an article that Open Court later turned into a book — the best thing ever to appear in Liberty.

Writings by several of the young interns and assistants who came our way also graced Liberty‘s pages. Jesse Walker and Nathan Crow in particular proved to be amazing talents. They held their own very well against professional writers and thinkers who also found their way into Liberty, writers such as psychiatrist Thomas Szasz and economist David Friedman. (Friedman’s essays in particular were very good, including such lucid analyses as Why is anyone virtuous?) It is no surprise that Jesse wrote a book and went on to a successful career in magazine writing and Nathan went on to found a charter school.

Instead of listing the many writers I liked, or those I did not, I should mention that many of our interns and staff editors shine in my memory more as persons than as writers. This is no real reflection on their talents. It’s just because I spent many hours with them as colleagues and friends, so that’s how I remember them. Several of them, such as Brian Doherty, gave me glimpses into aspects of American culture of which I was mostly ignorant. Brian was also a very dry wit — quiet, but witty. (He later came to write a fine book on the burning man phenomenon — also something I would know nothing about if it weren’t for Brian.) To Janet Goodman I owe not only many memories of amusing conversations, but also the very existence of my cat. (I did not exactly want a cat, but Janet’s former feline, residing in the house of a neighbor, quite literally gave me her first kitten.) Susan Rutter was the first person I took for a ride on a motorcycle; the second person, Nathan Crow, lifted up his feet before we started forward, and we tipped over (some lessons are simple: give explicit instructions to passengers on your bike). Scott Reid spent a longer internship than most, and went on to an impressive career in Canadian politics; he was very studious, well-mannered, and level-headed: he often seemed like the only adult in the building — well, he and Kathy. Few people are as funny in person as Jesse Walker could be, but Clark Stooksbury, with his desert-dry sarcasm, would often make me chuckle for hours. I think Bill kept Michael Levine on after his internship because he just liked him so much, and I understood and agreed completely. This decision was appreciated, I think, by Mina Greb, who later married Michael. Brien Bartels visited me now and then, to watch TV and fondle my rifle — hey, I mean that quite literally; many libertarians are gun nuts, there’s nothing wrong with that. Jonathan Ellis and Terry Campbell made my last year at Liberty a year to remember, that’s for sure. (Eric Dixon and Martin Solomon were somewhat more calming influences on me!)

One of Bill’s better decisions was to hire James Gill. Gill was an artist who, during his time in service to Liberty blossomed into a caricaturist of genius. We became good friends, and when I left Liberty two years after he did, it was to work side by side with him. (I’ve also worked with Eric Dixon and Nathan Crow.) Today he’s a very successful advertising manager, having taken his artistic skills to the more lucrative service of merchandise: he leveraged his talents into the marketplace, to great success.

Under James Gill’s direction, Liberty could have been a good-looking magazine as well as a good-reading one. But Bill would have none of it. He had no intention of letting one contributor dominate, as a caricaturist might, were said artist regularly to contribute. So most of Gill’s excellent cartooning went unused. For reasons that were always a bit beyond me, Bill approved of the magazine’s look. We had designed it hastily in one day, after only minimal experience with Ready,Set,Go!, the best page layout application available in 1987. We revised the look only once. Bill had no interest in changing it. Our inexperience in design had inadvertently led to a unique look, which helped increase the made you look effect on the newsstand, and that was enough of a logic for Bill. A better-looking unique approach was something that did not interest him. The muse that hovered over Liberty was an ironist. The magazine lacked a striking visual sense, and yet it employed a fine artist. Unfortunately, the artist worked as a clerk. Predictably, he did not stay for long.

Well, that’s the way things went at Liberty. If you didn’t like it, you left. Negotiating with Bill was usually an exercise in exasperation. Sometimes even the reality of what you were disputing was opened to endless reinterpretation. I once explained Bill to a psychiatrist I knew. Consider, I said, the worst rationalizer you have ever met; now, make him a genius. At Apple, workers said of Steve Jobs that he possessed a reality distortion field. Bill Bradford had that same talent. He was that strong, that gifted. And, sometimes, completely out of touch with reality. In the mid-’90s, I came to realize that were the story of Liberty to be written in the form of a novel, it would not be of Randian heroism; it would be an Iris Murdoch comedy. (But then, that was my reaction to much of life. Most of it is comedy, if not Murdochian, then Nabokovian; if not Nabokovian, then Cabellian; if not Cabellian, then let George Meredith be the guide. Somehow, life rarely aspires to the level of Shakespeare.)

Not everybody left, however. Bill kept at least two lifelong friends, and his wife Kathy was as dedicated as any companion in literature. She was also an extremely sensible person. No wonder, then, that some people gave Bill the nod simply because, well, anyone who could keep Kathy had to have something going for him. I worked with her for years, and some of the best days at Liberty were the days when Kathy was available for extended work and the attendant lengthy conversation.

Perhaps the best way to gloss over Bill Bradford’s stature is to quote Nietzsche: You must have chaos within your soul to give birth to a dancing star. I always suspected there was plenty of chaos within Bill Bradford, enough to more than mirror the chaos of his office. And the dancing star? His magazine, Liberty. It would be easy to offer deeper criticisms of Bill than I have put in words, here — indeed, were Bill writing this from my perspective, this would be a much more devastating obituary — but really, is the job of Speaker for the Dead, the telling of every significant truth, really necessary? Perhaps all one needs to know of Bill Bradford is that he was determined to use his genius not only to make money — which as a coin dealer he did, long before I met him — but also to produce a magazine that would service the intellectual movement he had joined as a youth. The magazine is his legacy.

Stephen Cox is now editor-in-chief. He was always a great copy editor as well as an often fascinating contributor. I learned a great deal from him about the art of writing — as I did from Bill. I do not know how Steve will lead the magazine, or how long he will continue at that often arduous task. But I expect the promised Bill Bradford tribute issue of Liberty to be a doozy. The obits in Liberty ranged from the worshipful through the odd to the extravagantly cantankerous and hypercritical. Expect more of the former than the latter, but the outcome of the whole effort will surely be odd.

Much like the magazine’s past. Much like Bill Bradford himself.

And this, after all, is a good thing.

The ideological movement that mourns Bill Bradford may still wilfully exhibit a youthful folly that precludes much worldly success. But it has been exposed to mature and adult ideas (as well as shoddy and silly ones), in no small part as the result of the work of this very same Bill Bradford.

Wirkman Virkkala
Instead of a Blog


N.B. A lot of quotation marks likely do not appear where they should, above, simply because I originally tagged them with the tag — which many browsers and platforms never really accommodated, despite its early adoption as an HTML standard by the body set up to push the World Wide Web. Someday, maybe, I will go through this old piece and replace those tags with standard ASCII characters.