All Commentary
Friday, September 1, 2006

The Passing of a Libertarian Activist: Chris Tame (1949-2006)

It is with great sadness, indeed grief, that libertarians, classical liberals, and even thinking conservatives, learned of the death in March of Chris Tame, founder and president of the prolific Libertarian Alliance, after a painful struggle against cancer. It is an understatement to describe Chris as irrepressible, with a boundless energy and knowledge of the theory of liberty and the virtues of the free-market society. He had a fierce commitment to freedom in all its expressions that was shocking to some and yet immensely impressive to others. His career spanned the beginnings of the free-market and liberty movement in the 1970s, when most people his age and intelligence were socialists of some sort, through its high point in the glorious 1980s, when it had some support in the Tory party, to its nadir today when there is a lot of talk about liberty but few genuine defenders of its ideals. But Chris’s commitment to freedom transcended party fortunes and class, religion, or race. 

He was born in Enfield and educated in conventional state schools. He went to Hull University to read for a degree in American Studies in 1969. After university it would have been easy for Chris to take a normal postgraduate course and get a job in those breeding grounds of Marxism and all forms of state parasitism, the polytechnics. Not for Chris—he was against the state and certainly wouldn’t work for it. He worked for a number of freedom think tanks and affiliated organizations, including the Institute of Economic Affairs and FOREST (the Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy and Smoke Tobacco), and he managed the free-market bookstore in Covent Garden, the Alternative Bookshop, from 1979 till 1985. Through difficult times he managed to keep up a publications record that would shame most conventional academics. 

He was first introduced to free-market economics via the Austrian school, which is the only part of economic orthodoxy that has a firm commitment to capitalism. Chris soon became expert in the works of Menger, Mises, and Hayek, and the most sophisticated contemporary proponents of free-market economics, Murray Rothbard and Israel Kirzner. 

Although Chris was well aware of, and could demonstrate with ease, the efficiency of property rights and free markets, this was not the sole reason for his enthusiasm for capitalism. The right to exchange simply flowed from the moral right to liberty, as did the right to property. These things were not merely necessary adjuncts to liberty but an expression of it, however rich they made us. In all of this Chris was directly influenced by the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand and her Objectivism, whose moral anti-statism he found so compelling. But unlike Rand, Chris’s arguments for liberty were always graced with impish humor. Liberty was serious, but it could also be fun. 

Although never part of the established academic community Chris was a prolific writer. He was a scholarly enquirer into the history of classical liberalism, writing on Adam Smith, the Scottish Enlightenment, and Austrian economics. He also delighted in rediscovering previously neglected figures in the history of the freedom movement; his most important work here was his resurrection of the “old” liberal J. M. Robertson. For his scholarly contributions to the field he was awarded a Ph.D. by Middlesex University . Working to the end, at his death he was engaged in his vast Bibliography of Freedom. 

But we will remember Chris for his charismatic personality and relentless optimism. When he was manager of the Alternative Bookshop it became a meeting ground for libertarians who just wanted somebody to talk to. And that was normally Chris. Most of the customers seemed also to be authors; others had just come in to hear Chris’s tapes of Elvis that brightened up the shop. He was a great fan of rock music and jazz. 

We shall remember Chris as the leading figure in the halcyon days of the libertarian movement, the 1980s, when even conservatives were entertaining radical ideas about freedom and markets. He had little time for the current generation of Tories, who are more interested in office than ideas. As he would ruefully remark, they are not even good at that. He was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of bone cancer in July 2005, but he bore his affliction, and all its pains, with courage and humor. He was too ill to attend a ceremony in 2006 by the Centre for the New Europe at which he was granted the Adam Smith Lifetime Achievement award. 

Libertarianism is rich enough to survive the death of Chris Tame—ideas do outlive people—but it will be a much poorer movement.

  • Norman Barry (1944-2008) was a professor of social and political theory at the University of Buckingham, UK, the country’s only private university.