Sunday, August 21, 2011

R.A. Wilson's Libertarianism

The Ludwig Von Mises Institute has produced a podcast that profiles Robert Anton Wilson as a member of the "libertarian tradition." If you're a devoted fan of all things R.A.W., then it's worth a listen. But the author, Jeff Riggenbach, spends an an inordinate amount of time describing the agrarian self-reliance theories of Ralph Borsodi, whose magazine Wilson edited for a time in the early 1960s. There are several lengthy excerpts from Borsodi's writings, which are indeed fascinating and worthwhile, but none from Wilson's writings. Odd.

There's scant little about Wilson's own libertarianism, which stemmed in part from Borsodi, but also from, of course, Discordianism, psychedelic culture, esoteric spirituality, General Semantics, and James Joyce, among other things. In other words, there's much more to link Wilson to, say, Benjamin Tucker than to Leonard Peikoff, whose name is dropped in the podcast in a very tenuous link to Wilson through their mutual attendance at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (at different times, no less). Riggenbach holds Wilson in high regard, but I'm not sure why. Has he ever read much Wilson?

Still, I learned a few things from the podcast. Such as:

As Wilson later told the tale in Down to Earth, his grandfather "had left the Austro-Hungarian Empire to avoid military service, and … was proud of the fact, as a sign of his sagacity. The best thing about America, he told my mother, was that we had no compulsory military service here." Wilson admired his grandfather, he wrote, because "the old guy was brave enough to be a draft-dodger and sail across the wild Atlantic in a crude wooden ship to try to find a free country. I wish there was still a free country here, for others like him."


[Wilson] also showed up now and then at libertarian gatherings of various sizes and types. I still remember how startled I was one day in 1981, when I was chairing a panel on civil liberties at the national Libertarian Party convention in Denver. I had been chatting with my fellow panelists and letting them know how I'd be managing things, and I hadn't been paying much attention as the room filled up. So when, at last, I stood to make a few introductory remarks and looked out at the crowd that had gathered, I almost jumped out of my skin when I realized that the man sitting in the middle of the front row, virtually under my nose, was none other than Robert Anton Wilson, then in his late 40s and at the height of his fame.

Interesting, but it gives me absolutely no insight into Wilson's own libertarian theories. For a better treatment of it, read the section on Wilson in Brian Doherty's Radicals for Capitalism. Some of it is excerpted in Doherty's obit for Wilson at Reason's Hit & Run from January 2007. In that obit is this great quote from Wilson: "Ideologically, of course, I should have voted for Ed Clark, the Libertarian Party candidate [in 1980]; but I am not that kind of Libertarian, really; I don't hate poor people."

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