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Thursday, June 1, 1995

Liberty Against Power: Essays by Roy A. Childs, Jr.

A Fitting Tribute

Little in life is more tragic than the shooting stars, the brilliant lights who illuminate the truth and brighten people’s lives, only to flame out before the history books take note. Roy A. Childs, Jr., was one such phenomenon. A leading libertarian writer, editor, and activist, Roy was also a good friend and tough intellectual sparring partner to the famous, like Milton Friedman, and a generous mentor to the obscure, like any number of college students.

Alas, Roy’s heart gave out in May 1992, saddening his many friends and admirers. It also seemed likely to deny him credit for helping to revive classical liberalism in the age of the welfare state. Although his words had boomed forth at a multitude of conferences, seminars, and speeches, and leaped off the pages of Libertarian Review, Inquiry, movement newsletters, and mainstream newspapers, he never wrote a book. Thus, we lacked this most important kind of permanent record of his prodigious thinking.

But no longer. Joan Kennedy Taylor, Roy’s close friend and a former editor of Libertarian Review, has collected some of his best writings and speeches in a new volume, Liberty Against Power. The book makes for a wonderful read. It also reinforces the sense of loss that so many of us felt at Roy’s passing. If only his unbounded passion for freedom were still burning. If only he had been alive to spotlight the hypocrisy and mendacity of the Clinton administration over the last two years. If only he were here to direct his penetrating wit and relentlessly logical analysis against today’s newly ascendant Republicans. If only …

At least we now have Liberty Against Power. It ranges across the philosophical and policy waterfront, demonstrating Roy’s extraordinary teaming, despite his never having finished college. The lead article is the book’s title essay, setting the philosophical tone for not only this volume, but Roy’s life. Over the last century, he observes, “we have seen a massive growth in state power at the expense of what Albert Jay Nock called ‘social power’.” To what result? “Honesty calls upon us to proclaim that power is everywhere impotent in the face” of today’s problems. And that he does eloquently and often.

In another prescient essay, written two decades ago, Roy complains about the lack of debate over basic principle, at least regarding any “issues or policies beyond those which fit cozily into power’s framework.” His alternative? Liberty. Freedom to life, conscience, and property. Freedom to think and speak. To worship God and live in peace. Particularly noteworthy is Roy’s unabashed willingness to make moral arguments. This argument on principle runs throughout Liberty Against Power. In a prize-winning essay presented at the Mont Pelerin Society, Roy emphasizes the importance of defending the morality of capitalism. Market economies long ago won the “bathtub” test by providing better bathtubs, but, in Roy’s view, that doesn’t provide a sufficiently solid ground for the market’s defense. Warns Roy: “If wider philosophical issues are ignored, then we run the risk of seeing not only liberty disintegrate before our eyes, but the very foundations of civilization itself. And from that, recovery may not even be possible.”

Other essays criticize Ayn Rand’s and Robert Nozick’s defenses of limited government. Interestingly, Roy moved away from anarchism near the end of his life, but he never finished his attack on “anarchist illusions,” included in Liberty Against Power. Other insightful chapters include a critique of the New Right, which has at times eschewed not only social tolerance but also market economics; the role of business in promoting regulation, rather than laissez-faire; and the relationship between property rights and civil liberties.

His speech on the latter topic, printed for the first time in Liberty Against Power, is particularly illuminating. Ultimately, Roy argues, many contentious civil liberties issues—crying “fire” in a crowded theater, for instance—should be resolved on the basis of property rights. Roy resolutely defends people’s right to discriminate “because they have a right to their property and their self-ownership.” And Roy, who was grossly overweight, did not let personal interest get in the way of principle: before his death he appeared on the program 20/20 arguing against proposals to penalize discrimination on the basis of weight.

However, Roy was not a starry-eyed, ivory-tower philosopher. Among the best essays in Liberty Against Power are his writings on current policy. Even before the Reagan and Bush administrations escalated the war on drugs, Roy wrote “Crime in the Cities: The Drug Connection.” Although now 14 years old, the article remains a path-breaker, demonstrating, through rigorous analysis and research, how it is drug prohibition, not drug use, that fuels the crime wave enveloping cities across America.

Similarly impressive are his analyses of foreign policy—El Salvador and Iran, for instance, as well as America’s expansive alliance network around the globe. He wants the United States to “abandon the foreign policy which has brought us to the state where Americans are vilified and damned and held hostage” abroad, and instead return to a noninterventionist stance, when we “once again become a beacon of hope and liberty for all the people of the world.”

Liberty Against Power contains much more. Roy assesses Ayn Rand’s role in the libertarian movement. He reviews books on welfare and pays tribute to novelist Kay Nolte Smith. He reviews his much-loved classical music. Through all of these he reveals himself to be consistently interesting, knowledgeable, and opinionated; reading each additional essay reinforces the sense of sadness at his passing.

Roy Childs was a treasure to all who knew him. But his life has benefited, and continues to benefit, many more people than just those who had the pleasure of meeting him. The publication of Liberty Against Power will create a permanent record of his ideas and work, thereby helping to provide him, in death, the recognition that he richly deserved when he was alive. In this way, Liberty Against Power is a fitting tribute to someone who gave so much for so long to so many. []

Mr. Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology (Transaction).