Alan Bock: Libertarian Intellectual
[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Alan Bock: Persuasion for Liberty"]
Characteristically, it was Friedrich Hayek who hit the nail on the head more than 60 years ago, 62 years ago this spring to be exact, back in 1949, in an article for the University of Chicago Law Review called "The Intellectuals and Socialism." In this article, Hayek begins by acknowledging that "in all democratic countries, in the United States even more than elsewhere … the influence of … intellectuals on politics is negligible" — if, that is, by "influence on politics" we mean
the power of intellectuals to make their peculiar opinions of the moment influence decisions … the extent to which they can sway the popular vote on questions on which they differ from the current views of the masses. Yet over somewhat longer periods they have probably never exercised so great an influence as they do today in those countries.
By "intellectuals," here, Hayek means "professional secondhand dealers in ideas," people whose "characteristic function" in society
is neither that of the original thinker nor that of the scholar or expert in a particular field of thought. The typical intellectual need be neither: he need not possess special knowledge of anything in particular, nor need he even be particularly intelligent, to perform his role as intermediary in the spreading of ideas. What qualifies him for his job is the wide range of subjects on which he can readily talk and write, and a position or habits through which he becomes acquainted with new ideas sooner than those to whom he addresses himself.
The ranks of the intellectual class, as Hayek defines it, includes
journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators, writers of fiction, cartoonists, and artists all of whom may be masters of the technique of conveying ideas but are usually amateurs so far as the substance of what they convey is concerned. The class also includes many professional men and technicians, such as scientists and doctors, who through their habitual intercourse with the printed word become carriers of new ideas outside their own fields and who, because of their expert knowledge of their own subjects, are listened to with respect on most others. There is little that the ordinary man of today learns about events or ideas except through the medium of this class; and outside our special fields of work we are in this respect almost all ordinary men, dependent for our information and instruction on those who make it their job to keep abreast of opinion. It is the intellectuals in this sense who decide what views and opinions are to reach us, which facts are important enough to be told to us, and in what form and from what angle they are to be presented. Whether we shall ever learn of the results of the work of the expert and the original thinker depends mainly on their decision.
According to Hayek, "the all-pervasive influence of the intellectuals in contemporary society" has come about despite the fact that most of them are
people who understand nothing in particular especially well and whose judgement on [many] matters … shows little sign of special wisdom. But it would be a fatal mistake to underestimate their power for this reason. Even though their knowledge may often be superficial and their intelligence limited, this does not alter the fact that it is their judgement which mainly determines the views on which society will act in the not too distant future. It is no exaggeration to say that, once the more active part of the intellectuals has been converted to a set of beliefs, the process by which these become generally accepted is almost automatic and irresistible. These intellectuals are the organs which modern society has developed for spreading knowledge and ideas, and it is their convictions and opinions which operate as the sieve through which all new conceptions must pass before they can reach the masses.
It is important to understand, Hayek stresses, that
it is perhaps the most characteristic feature of the intellectual that he judges new ideas not by their specific merits but by the readiness with which they fit into his general conceptions, into the picture of the world which he regards as modern or advanced. … As he knows little about the particular issues, his criterion must be consistency with his other views and suitability for combining into a coherent picture of the world. Yet this selection from the multitude of new ideas presenting themselves at every moment creates the characteristic climate of opinion, the dominant Weltanschauung of a period, which will be favorable to the reception of some opinions and unfavorable to others and which will make the intellectual readily accept one conclusion and reject another without a real understanding of the issues.
Thus, "the 'climate of opinion' of any period is … essentially a set of very general preconceptions by which the intellectual judges the importance of new facts and opinions."
Some of these preconceptions, inevitably, fall under the heading of political and social thought. "In fact," Hayek wrote, "it is necessary to recognize that on the whole the typical intellectual is today more likely to be a socialist the more he is guided by good will and intelligence, and that on the plane of purely intellectual argument he will generally be able to make out a better case than the majority of his opponents within his class."
Hayek stressed that socialism was not monolithic among the members of the intellectual class. "There are of course as many differences of opinion among intellectuals as among other groups of people," he wrote,
but it seems to be true that it is on the whole the more active, intelligent, and original men among the intellectuals who most frequently incline toward socialism, while its opponents are often of an inferior caliber. … Nobody, for instance, who is familiar with large numbers of university faculties (and from this point of view the majority of university teachers probably have to be classed as intellectuals rather than as experts) can remain oblivious to the fact that the most brilliant and successful teachers are today more likely than not to be socialists, while those who hold more [libertarian] political views are as frequently mediocrities. This is of course by itself an important factor leading the younger generation into the socialist camp.
How can we reverse this process? Hayek asked. We need to begin, he answered, by acknowledging that "there can be few more thankless tasks at present than the essential one of developing the philosophical foundation on which the further development of a free society must be based." Thus, those "who have the cause of freedom genuinely at heart" must do what they can to assist and encourage "those intellectuals who are devoted to the same cause and whose assistance is indispensable if the cause is to prevail." As Hayek saw it, "We need intellectual leaders who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote."
Which brings me to the real subject of this Mises Daily, which is not Friedrich Hayek, after all, but rather a journalist and intellectual named Alan W. Bock. Bock was a war baby, born almost exactly two years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 3, 1943. He grew up in a small town in the Southern California desert not far from Los Angeles, but by the time he had reached high school age in the late 1950s, his family had moved somewhat closer in to the City of Angels. After graduating from Covina High School in 1961, Bock went to UCLA on scholarship. There he studied political science, economics, journalism, and music, which remained a lifelong avocation. In college, Bock joined Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), the conservative student group founded in 1960 at William F. Buckley, Jr.'s estate in Sharon, Connecticut. After graduating in 1965, he remained active in the organization for several more years, which is how he met Gene Berkman. As Berkman recalls it today,
I met Alan in Young Americans for Freedom and we worked together quite closely in 1969 and 1970, promoting first the [West Coast] Libertarian Caucus of Young Americans for Freedom, and then its offshoot, the California Libertarian Alliance.
Berkman has for many years now owned and operated one of this country's largest and oldest libertarian bookstores, Renaissance Books in Riverside, California. But back in the late 1960s, when he first met the 25-year-old Alan Bock, recent UCLA graduate, YAF activist, and budding journalist, Berkman himself was 18, not that long out of high school, and strongly committed to political activism. In Bock, he found a sort of mentor and a source of intellectual leadership. As Berkman puts it,
He was part of our group in Young Americans for Freedom. We had a Libertarian Caucus on the West Coast, which included William B. Steel, Dana Rohrabacher, Dennis Turner, Ron Kimberling, and about a couple dozen other activists. And Alan was probably one of the intellectual leaders of the group. When we split from Young Americans for Freedom and formed the California Libertarian Alliance, Alan Bock wrote the statement we issued at our press conference.
That statement, Berkman recently told interviewer Scott Horton, was aimed at portraying the new California Libertarian Alliance as a kind of belated offshoot of what Murray Rothbard was fond of calling the Old Right.
When we had our Libertarian Caucus in Young Americans for Freedom, one of our principal disagreements with the more traditional leadership of Young Americans for Freedom was our opposition to the Vietnam War. When we founded the California Libertarian Alliance, the statement at our press conference … stressed that we were inspired by the principles of Barry Goldwater, who advocated ending government intervention into domestic affairs, and the principles of Senator Robert Taft, who advocated ending American government intervention into foreign countries. That's how Alan put it together, and it was certainly an inspired document.
Los Angeles was a heady place for libertarians in the early '70s. Andrew J. Galambos was still offering his influential courses at his Free Enterprise Institute. Robert LeFevre was living locally, out in Orange County, and still lecturing and publishing actively. The Brandens, Nathaniel and Barbara, were there, too, marketing many of the old Nathaniel Branden Institute lectures from the 1960s as well as Nathaniel's more recent, Objectivist-influenced variations on the otherwise familiar themes of Humanistic Psychology. John Hospers, who was now teaching at the University of Southern California, had just published a book on libertarianism with a local publisher, Nash Publishing, that actually achieved national distribution for its titles. Every week there were parties, meetings, gatherings, lectures.
Yet Alan Bock left the Los Angeles area in the early '70s to seek his fortune, first in Washington, DC, then, more briefly, in Nashville. In Nashville, he tried his hand at musical journalism and produced not only a slew of magazine and newspaper pieces, but also a book, The Gospel Life of Hank Williams. In Washington he worked as a press aide for a couple of Republican congressmen and served briefly as executive director of an early libertarian policy organization, the Libertarian Advocate. He also put in three years as the Washington correspondent for Reason magazine and freelanced as a writer for the opinion pages of daily newspapers from coast to coast. One of the papers he sold pieces to most frequently was the Santa Ana (California) Register, the flagship paper of the Freedom Newspapers chain launched in the 1930s by the libertarian newspaper publisher, R. C. Hoiles. In 1980, the Register called and made him an offer he felt he couldn't refuse: come back to Southern California and write editorials for the Register.
He accepted the offer. He returned to Southern California and reported for work one day in 1980 at the Register. He stayed there for the rest of his life, more than 30 years all told. For a few months around the end of 1985 and the beginning of 1986, he was my boss at the Register. In 1985, he had been promoted from editorial writer to editor of the editorial and opinion pages, and one of his first acts in his new position was to offer me his old job as an editorial writer.
We had met, Alan and I, not long after he first joined the Register, early in 1981 in San Diego, at that year's annual convention of the California Libertarian Party. I had given a fairly well received talk on "The [Ed] Clark Campaign Considered as a Work of Art," and Alan had come up to the podium afterward to introduce himself and convey his enthusiasm for what we both agreed had been my extraordinary cleverness. We hit it off instantly, and were friends and colleagues from then on.
As I've noted, I worked for Alan in his capacity as editorial page editor of the Register; during that same period in the mid 1980s, he worked for me in my capacity as executive producer of a nationally syndicated daily radio program called Perspective on the Economy. As a colleague of his, I must say that I regarded Alan with considerable admiration, even awe. He was as radical a libertarian, as hardcore in his thinking, as anyone I've ever met. But he had mastered a style of writing that made his hardcore radicalism seem reasonable and even comforting — the exact opposite of threatening. He never came across, as I often did, as harsh or strident. He was the voice of sweet reasonableness itself. And he could turn this stuff out on a dime. The ability to write quickly is an extremely useful skill in journalism. In my prime, when I was working for Alan, I was pretty good at writing quickly myself, but I've never known anyone who could turn out polished, publishable copy as fast as Alan could; he was the fastest good writer I've ever personally been acquainted with.
I last saw Alan about a decade ago, when he came up to San Francisco (where I was living at the time) to give a talk for the Pacific Research Institute. He crashed on our living room couch for a couple of nights and attended a party at our apartment the first of those two nights that attracted a couple of dozen San Francisco Bay Area libertarians. On the whole, it was a pleasant and pleasantly memorable visit. On the other hand, in certain of its aspects, it was perhaps better described as a comedy of errors, in which much ado was made about nothing. To put the matter bluntly, Alan, like many intellectuals, didn't always function too well if he was removed from the comfort zone of his normal environment and forced to use "street smarts" to navigate through an unfamiliar situation. He was determined to save money on this trip — his free accommodations at our place helped out there — so he decided to drive up from Orange County instead of flying. We tried to get into the spirit of the thing. "Alan," we said, several days before he arrived,
where saving money on your car is concerned, your best bet is to ditch it in Oakland at one of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Stations that has a garage, lock it up, and come into The City on the train. We live in a downtown apartment building two blocks from Union Square. There's no place to park around here, except at great cost. Believe us, Alan, you don't want to bring your car into The City.
But Alan had never lived anywhere you couldn't just pull over wherever you happened to be and park on the street if you needed to. He was not comfortable with elevated trains and subways. He was comfortable driving his car to his destination and then pulling over and parking somewhere nearby on the street. And so he arrived in San Francisco's Theatre District in his car. He could find no place to park it, except the local garages. He was shocked at their rates. We said,
Alan, if you want to try to park free on the street, your safest bet is to pull into the alley that runs up alongside the building. The signs say, 'No Parking,' but they don't patrol the alley. They do nothing about parked cars there unless someone complains that the car is blocking truck access. Trucks of various sizes pull in to make deliveries to the student hostel at the end of the alley and to David's Deli and the French restaurant. But if you pull far enough back and park right up against the wall so other people can get past you, you're pretty safe parking in the alley.
But Alan wasn't comfortable with openly defying a "No Parking" sign. He found a spot out on Taylor Street, at the front of the building, near the mouth of the alley, that seemed to him ambiguous: there was no "No Parking" sign; there was no meter. He parked there, and within 30 minutes his car had been impounded and towed, and the ransom he was required to pay to get it back was sufficient to wipe out everything he had "saved" on his expenses so far in the trip.
Still, all's well that ends well. The folks at the Pacific Research Institute bailed Alan's car out for him and paid for a place to park it for the balance of his visit. So all did end well. I only wish I could say the same for Alan's fortunes in more recent years. Last year, he was diagnosed with cancer. He took time off, went through chemo and surgery, and thought he'd beat it. He returned to work in January. Then the cancer came back, this time in his liver. He retired in March. He died on Wednesday, May 18, 2011, at the age of 67. He leaves behind him a couple of first rate books he produced during the '90s — one on the Ambush at Ruby Ridge and one called Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana — as well as an immense treasure trove of newspaper and magazine work, pieces that originally appeared in Reason, The Freeman, National Review, Harvard Business Review, Liberty, or Chronicles of Culture, on AntiWar.com or World Net Daily, and in various daily newspapers, including, of course, the Orange County Register. Someone should put together a collection — an anthology, that is — of Alan's work. When a person steps forward and does as good a job as Alan did of the intellectual work Friedrich Hayek recommended with such good reason 62 years ago, we should make sure that as many people as we can alert to the fact sit up and take notice.