Some years ago, back when people sent mail, a letter arrived in my mailbox with a return address of Buffalo, New York. It was from my friend Ralph Raico (1936-2016), the famed historian of liberalism who died recently. I wondered what this nonbeliever would send me at Christmas time. He called himself a “free-thinker,” but he also knew of my own theism to which I assumed he objected profoundly. How would this man, raised a Catholic but now an atheist, deal with this?
He was the leading historian of liberalism of his day. I opened the envelope to find the most beautiful rendering of the Madonna and Child from one of the Renaissance masters. Inside he wrote, “Here’s to a blessed and Merry Christmas.” There was no irony, no messaging of his own views. It was just beautiful and touching. He wasn’t saying anything about his own views. It was just an act of friendship toward me.
It touched me deeply, more so than if he had been a believer. He was willing to set aside his own outlook on things religious to make a statement that would mean something important to me. It struck me as a benevolent act, a display of affectionate toleration. It was the first signal I had from him that indicated a kind of value in acknowledging and even celebrating the dignity of others regardless of differences we have.
In the meantime, I have tried to emulate his way. I wish my Jewish friends Happy Chanukah and my Muslim friends Happy Ramadan, and feel joy in doing so. It’s a way of celebrating diversity and subtly saying: “your beliefs are no threat to mine; quite the opposite: my right to practice my beliefs are best protected in a world in which your rights to practice yours are equally protected. Therefore, I will celebrate your perspective because it expresses your individuality, just as I desire to express mine.”
A few years later, I asked Ralph to be the godfather of my child. I knew it was a stretch, for obvious reasons. He declined on grounds that he “had not been granted the gift of faith.” The gift! I can’t even imagine a warmer and more profound way of declining my invitation. I recall objecting that surely that wasn’t true. But he insisted, thanking me profusely for the honor. Again, here was a beautiful spirit at work.
I gradually came to realize that this was not just a personal virtue on his part. It was an expression of a life philosophy that that had become embodied in his political vision. He was the leading historian of liberalism of his day – and by liberalism, he would always explain, he meant the political outlook of peace, property, toleration, and trade, the belief that society and individuals would live better and more flourishing lives under conditions of freedom than under conditions of control.
Professor Raico was a student of F.A. Hayek at the University of Chicago. He attended Ludwig von Mises’s seminar in New York. He was the translator of Mises’s Liberalism, which might be my all-time favorite book. He hung out in the living room of Murray Rothbard, and became lifelong friends with both Murray and his wife JoAnn.
The Foundation for Economic Education started him on this journey when he was very young. He was so dedicated that he went door-to-door soliciting subscriptions to FEE’s journal. When he was 15-years old, he tried to sell a subscription to none other than Ludwig von Mises himself, knocking on his door just so he could meet his hero (Mises said he already subscribed and closed the door).
After a lifetime of lectures and essays, his first book appeared in German. It was a history of German liberalism of the 19th century. I urged him to offer an English translation. When it became obvious that this would not happen, I suggested that I work with him on two compilations of his essays. The results were wonderful: two excellent books, one on intellectual history and one on the meaning of greatness, published in the last ten years of his life.
It took his death for me fully to appreciate what his life of the mind contributed to my own understanding of human liberty. In college, I did the usual intellectual toggle between conservatism and libertarianism, and eventually decided to self-identify as the latter. But the libertarianism I had adapted as my own was rather thin in retrospect. It was a series of policy positions backed by a moral code of non-aggression. I had no sense of the breadth and depth of the worldview I had adopted.
When you read and listen to Ralph Raico, your mind expands. You realize that libertarianism is not a rarified and frozen codification of a contemporary political perspective. You see it rather as a maturation of a long-held perspective on social and political life that dates to the high middle ages and even has precedent in the ancient world. To be a liberal is to dwell in a body of ideas that liberated humanity from despotism – not just one class, race, gender, or religion, but everyone.
In Raico’s rendering, the story of liberalism was about the gradual unfolding of universal human rights and dignity over the course of hundreds of years. He dedicated his life to chronicling its journey through the ages.
Sometimes there are moments in your intellectual associations in which a brilliant thinker says something very simple that sticks with you. In the case of Raico and me, it was his simple and passing definition of liberalism: “the belief that society runs itself.”
Simple. Brilliant. Unforgettable. I like this formulation, because it truly does delineate the liberal perspective from what is known today as both the right and left – two forms of authoritarianism competing with the only real alternative, which is freedom itself. I’ve never forgotten it, or the vision of freedom as a society on the move, evolving toward ever more beautiful heights of creativity, achievement, toleration, and prosperity.
In the end, he was a man with the gift of faith, despite his protests, and he shared that gift with the world.