Montreal, June 7, 2003/No 125  
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Father James Sadowsky is not a well-known figure of the libertarian movement. But he is a pioneer. One of a small band of enlightened people who were meeting regularly in Murray Rothbard's apartment in Manhattan in the early sixties, to discuss revolutionary ideas which today can be shared with hundreds of thousands of people through the Internet.

He did not write a lot. But as Sheldon Richman mentions in an article reproduced in this issue of QL, his piece on private and collective ownership written almost four decades ago has become a classic. 

He also taught philosophy and free market principles to generations of students at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, and to participants to the Summer University of New Economics in Aix-en-Provence for the past fifteen years.

I met Jim for the first time four years ago when he gave a lecture in Montreal to a small group of libertarians on why the poor need capitalism. Since then, we've met regularly, usually in New York. We've had dozens of wonderful conservations on economics, the Austrian school, history, religion, my Quebec French accent, cats, and many other things.

I thought QL readers should have the chance to share one of these conversations with him. It took place on December 13, 2002, at Loyola Hall, the home for retired Jesuits on the campus of Fordham University.
M. M. 


My life

Martin Masse: Tell me a few things about your life.

James Sadowsky: My father was Russian and my mother was of English extraction. I was born in 1923. I'll be 79 on the 28th of December [2002]. I was born in Brooklyn Heights, New York. I went to Fordham College, here.

MM: Did you decide to become a Jesuit when you were in high school?

JS: No, not till after I got out of college.

MM: What did you study in college?

JS: I studied classics, Greek and Latin, and philosophy. I taught for a year after that in high school, Latin and algebra. And then I entered the Jesuits. I enjoyed being taught by the Jesuits here at Fordham, they were doing something that I like, and so that's what I did.

MM: What happened to make you take that decision? Did you have some kind of spiritual experience, or...

JS: Nothing happened. It just grew.

MM: It was just a career move or what?

JS: I guess I got to like the Jesuits and I wanted to do what they were doing.

MM: Hmm... it doesn't strike me as a very compelling reason to get into a religious order.

JS: I didn't have a vision or anything like that. Nobody appeared to me. (Laughs) I thought what the Jesuits were doing was worth while, engaging in teaching the young, and so forth.

MM: So for you it was mostly the perspective of becoming a teacher.

JS: Well, that was the thing that most interested me, yes. And that is a vocation for Jesuits.

MM: What did you do after to become a Jesuit?

JS: I went back to study more philosophy at Woodstock College in Maryland, and then I studied in Louvain, in Belgium, for four years. I entered the Jesuits in 47. When that was over, I taught for a year in Beirut, and then came to Fordham, where I've been ever since.

MM: What have you been teaching all that time?

JS: Philosophy. One of the things that could interest you is that in my last fifteen years I taught business ethics.

MM: But at first you did not teach anything related to economics.

JS: No, because I wasn't interested in economics at that time.

MM: So what kind of philosophy were you teaching then?

JS: Well, I was teaching first of all the bread and butter courses, and then I started teaching some political philosophy. And then mathematical logic. I guess the course I most consistently taught was the symbolic logic, I taught that every single semester, right from the beginning.

Conversion to libertarianism

MM: When did you get acquainted with libertarian philosophy? In what circumstances?

JS: Well, actually, my positions on economics were not very good ones, according to my present standards.

MM: Would you describe yourself as a left-winger at that time?

JS: Well, to sum it up this way: I had the impression that the most wonderful country in the world was Sweden. (Laughs) Not that I had given much thought to it, it was just things that I heard to the effect that people were doing very well in Sweden: there were all sorts of freebies that we don't have here in the United States, and that sounded like a good idea to me. I didn't think about it a lot, and if the question came up, that's what I would say.

MM: So during the 1950s, did you vote, did you have any political leaning?

JS: I remember voting for Eisenhower. I never voted Democratic. I did not always vote.

MM: Even though you liked Sweden, you voted for the more conservative party. You did not have a very coherent view...

JS: Right, no, as I said, to the extent that I had any view at all. It was only by accident that I got interested in economics. What happened was I was browsing in a book shop and I saw this book called The Great Crash... I may have the title wrong, but anyway, it was pure narrative about the Depression, and the thing that struck me was, you know, people jumping out of skyscrapers, that sort of thing, billionaires suddenly finding themselves going around with a tin cup.

MM: What year was that?

JS: I guess around 63. So I wondered what caused this, why did this happen. Now this book did not go into this at all. So one day I went in the library and I looked for books on the Depression, I looked in the section in economics that had books on the Depression, and just by chance I picked out America's Great Depression by Murray Rothbard. And so I read the book, and I was surprised first of all that I understood, because I had thought that economics was unintelligible.

MM: You had no background at all in economics.

JS: No background at all. And so this made a lot of sense to me, the explanation of the Depression.

MM: I read the book, and all his figures about how much the money supply increased, there's a lot of complicated stuff in there too. So it's more the general idea of the business cycle that made sense to you.

JS: Yes, the Austrian business cycle, how and why these sorts of things happened. So then I discovered he had written other stuff, like Man, Economy and the State, which I then read. Again, I was surprised I understood because I thought that economics was all math, but there was relatively little math in Murray's books. Then I remember reading that pamphlet called What has the government done with our money?, and there I saw that he lived in Manhattan. So I looked up Murray Rothbard in the telephone directory and rang him up. And we got to talking and he said: why don't you come down and have dinner sometime?, which I did. So we talked and... So that basically accounts for my conversion to free markets.

MM: You say you understood the economics, but did you then accept the whole package, the whole libertarian philosophy that goes with it? Did you become an anarchist all of a sudden?

JS: No, not really. Basically I wanted as little government interference as possible. To the extent that I thought about that, that wasn't my interest. Of course, there are implications. I mean, once you embrace the idea of the free market, you also get to see that if you like liberty – as I assume most people do once they see that the price to be paid for their freedom is freedom for the others – you see that it's very difficult to have a free market without a considerable degree of liberty in other things and in the right to make transactions. There's all sorts of other transactions besides monetary ones. And one can see this happening in for example China, that as the market gets freer, you get the freedom of not only economic transactions but freedom of other ones as well.

Rothbard and other libertarian friends

MM: So that happened in the course of a few months around 1963, you read all these books, you met Murray Rothbard. What happened then? Did you feel you were joining some kind of movement or was that just part of your own intellectual evolution? Did you get the impression there was a movement around Murray Rothbard?

JS: Yes, the people who met at Murray Rothbard's appartment, like Len Liggio and Ralph Raico, and people like that.

MM: You met these people right at the beginning?

JS: Pretty much so. Murray would invite groups of people down to his flat, so I got to know these people. We just talked about issues, they were just conversations, somebody would bring up something. It wasn't a seminar or anything like that. Some question would come up and I asked Murray to see how he would answer it.

MM: So, he was very accessible?

JS: That's putting it mildly, extremely accessible. Anybody who showed any interest, he was very willing to help along.

MM: How big was the libertarian movement at the time?

JS: Well, all the movement could, roughly speaking, fit into Murray's apartment. That's how few there were in those days.

« So I looked up Murray Rothbard in the telephone directory and rang him up. And we got to talking and he said: why don't you come down and have dinner sometime?, which I did. So we talked and... So that basically accounts for my conversion to free markets. »

MM: How did that feel back then when there were just a bunch of people in the libertarian movement?

JS: I enjoyed it! It didn't bother me that there were few of us. We thought we were the initiated: we were the enlightened ones. I suppose if you'd asked me: Should I like that it be more?, I should probably have said yes.

MM: But other people would have been discouraged and said it's useless. For example, I know some French libertarians who think that it's useless in their country to put forward these ideas, because there's just a handful of them, nobody is open to their ideas, and they feel very pessimistic. You were in that situation forty years ago.

JS: I was always willing to put them forth when I thought somebody had any interest whatsoever in hearing me. You have to start some place.

MM: Could you have imagined that forty years on there would be a wide international movement?

JS: I guess not, I'm not sure now how I felt about that.

MM: What was your perspective back then? How did you see things evolve? Did you have a strategic vision of the future of these ideas, or you just thought they were nice ideas and you believed in them?

JS: I guess I thought more the latter, at least that's where I was. Murray certainly had ideas on strategy, most of which were wrong I think.

MM: He got involved with the left-wing, the Libertarian Party...

JS: Right. I never got into that.

MM: Do you think he should not have gotten involved in these things?

JS: That's my sentiment. Other very intelligent people disagree with me on that. I wish he had devoted more of his time to developing economics rather than propagandizing for various things.

MM: Would you say getting into politics is a waste of time?

JS: Not necessarily. But I'm not very optimistic about what can be done. I've always thought things have to get a lot worse before they can get any better. I keep thinking back to what happened in Germany after the war, they were able to accomplish things because there was no place else to go, they had to do something.

MM: What about other people described as conservatives, or who were in favor of the free market, who weren't part of this group? Did you feel you were more radical, or you were different because of the Austrian perspective?

JS: Well, I was never a conservative, cause I thought they were too much in favor or interfering in people's personal lives. I had never been in favour of that sort of thing. In other words, I had a love for liberty in general.

MM: And what about these other people who defended the free market, Leonard Read and others? There must have been others at the time, in the fifties and sixties.

JS: Well, I had some cursory contact with FEE [Foundation for Economic Education], I got to know Bettina Bien for example, I never got to know Leonard Read.

MM: Did you ever meet Mises, Hayek?

JS: I went one time to one meeting of Mises' seminars.

MM: Why didn't you go more regularly? He gave seminars all through the sixties.

JS: Right. I just didn't want to spend the time traveling down from Fordham [in the Bronx] to NYU [New York University, downtown] every week, at that hour of the night.

MM: How often did you have these meetings at Murray's place?

JS: I'd say about once a month for a while.

MM: Were there other people with whom you became friendly?

JS: Well, I mentioned Len of course, Leonard Liggio. I still run into Len occasionally. And then other people would come in there like Karen Vaughn...

MM: ... who wrote books about Austrians in America.

JS: Yes. Joe Peden, who was a historian, a very good friend of Len Liggio, he died a few years ago. Walter Block.

MM: He must have been very young then.

JS: Yes, I don't know whether he had got his degree, or he was candidate for PhD at Columbia, I don't remember.

MM: What about people like Mario Rizzo?

JS: Oh, Mario Rizzo was a student of mine, that's how I met him.

MM: How long did these meetings last?

JS: Well, eventually Murray moved out of New York in the 70s. He went to Las Vegas, so I didn't see much of him after that.

MM: Did you keep a circle of libertarian friends in New York?

JS: Unfortunately not, because there was a big diaspora. Roughly around that time, we had the Center For Libertarian Studies and that folded or moved out to California, everything seemed to move out either to California or to Washington. So there was very little libertarianism left in New York City. Another person I knew was Andrea Rich, who ran LaissezFaire Bookstore. She was in New York – she still is. But she no longer runs LaissezFaire Bookstore, it was sold. It really started to grow after that, when Murray moved out...

MM: The movement started to grow after that?

JS: Yes. We had the libertarian scholars conference, we had that every year for a number of years, either in New York or in some other place. I remember one time it was in Princeton.

MM: And that was part of the movement growing?

JS: Yes, in other words, you had the people, scholars, who became interested in libertarianism. It was part of this becoming a movement, people like Ralph Raico, and Louis Spadaro, and others. Of course, meanwhile there was the Randians. I was not involved with them at all.

Various brands of libertarianism

MM: You never met Ayn Rand? She was in Manhattan.

JS: Yes, but I never met her.

MM: Why weren't you interested?

JS: Well, Murray and she had had this falling out, and I didn't know anybody who was in contact with her. I think it was in the early sixties that they broke up. By the time I met him there were no contact between Murray and Ayn Rand.

MM: Did you read her books?

JS: I read Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. I thought it was good. But I was never really attracted to her philosophy.

MM: Why?

JS: Well, I had my own! In other words, for most people who adopted her philosophy, that was their first contact with it. These people did not have a philosophy to begin with, so she provided them with one. But she never had much love for people who already had a philosophy. And I'm saying this not to disparage her, I think that's simply the fact. And I'd say her writings were not congenial to trained philosophers. She did not know the technicalities and she used very strange language.

MM: What do you think of objectivism as a philosophy?

JS: It's a realistic philosophy, in other words, they believe in the reality of the external world, in the validity of concepts and so forth. That's commendable. The troubling thing about her atheism, as far as philosophy goes, a thing I often wondered about objectivism, is that she never argues for atheism at all. She just stated it. And I could never see why if you were an objectivist you had to be an atheist. In other words, atheism didn't follow from any of her other principles. Some of her disciples did argue for it like Nathaniel Branden. But their arguments against theism were arguments other people had used before, there were no specifically objectivist arguments to atheism. They would talk about theism as mysticism, stuff like that. It strikes me that you could embrace all the other concepts of objectivism and still be a consistent theist.

MM: What about her very rationalist approach of defending egoism and narrowly defined individualism?

JS: Her egoism business, that's a case where I think her philosophical training failed her. Because she's always defending what she calls selfishness, but it turns out not to be what most people call selfishness. She meant self-regarding. Her egoism was very attenuated as a matter of fact. As far as I can see, she wasn't against helping old ladies cross the street.

MM: What Austrian books did you read after Rothbard?

JS: Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson. Then I read his rebuttal to Keynes, which I found very interesting. He I consider to be an Austrian.

MM: And what about Human Action and Mises' other books?

JS: Well, I didn't find much of interest in Human Action because whatever was important was already contained in Man, Economy and the State. I would read Mises only when I was given a reference to it.

MM: What about other books by Mises?

JS: Interventionism, which I thought was a very good book. Generally I liked his little stuff more than I liked the big stuff. Although I did read Socialism, that was a very important work because it started the whole controversy.

MM: What did you think of Hayek?

JS: I read his stuff on competition, his books on social justice, which he's very good on. In fact, I read The Road to Serfdom right after the war, but it didn't click, there wasn't much in it about economics.

MM: So you read that many years before you became a libertarian. Do you remember agreeing with the philosophy, the more political aspects?

JS: Yes, about the worse getting to the top and things like that, yes. I had libertarian instincts.

MM: What do you think of all the conflicts between various branches of the Austrian movement, between Hayekians and Rothbardians and Misesians? Do you take any side in these debates?

JS: No I don't. I consider it a tempest in a teapot. They remind me of the Trotskyists and the Stalinists. They clearly hate each other more than they hate capitalism! I think the libertarians ought to concentrate on the wide area of agreement between them, and that may be one of the reasons why I don't like the fight between the Hayekians and the Misesians.
« For most people who adopted [Ayn Rand's] philosophy, that was their first contact with it. These people did not have a philosophy to begin with, so she provided them with one. But she never had much love for people who already had a philosophy. And I'm saying this not to disparage her, I think that's simply the fact. »

MM: But there are important methodological and political differences between for example the Hayekians and the most hardcore Austrians, you see the differences, don't you?

JS: Yes, but I don't see them as being very important.

MM: Do you think as some Rothbardians do that Hayek was a social democrat?

JS: Not that I know of. He'd be the strangest social democrat I ever heard of. I think this was one of the rare occasions that Mises indulged in hyperbole.

MM: He was in favor of some kind of social programs, redistribution of wealth...

JS: Right, but I don't think any socialist or even New Dealer would be happy with the extent to which he embraced those positions. I do not say he was right, but I don't make that much of it. Given the huge area of agreement, I think we ought to concentrate on the areas that we agree on and not fight among each other.

My contribution

MM: Let's talk about your own contribution. What would you consider to be your contribution to Austrian economics or to libertarian philosophy?

JS: Well I don't have a real contribution to Austrian economics, I didn't discover anything in Austrian economics, it was all... I'm a retailer!

MM: Did you contribute to libertarian philosophy?

JS: If you consider a defense of private property to be that, then I did write the article on private property and collective ownership [see in this issue PRIVATE PROPERTY AND COLLECTIVE OWNERSHIP, and Sheldon Richman's article ON PROPERTY PUBLIC AND PRIVATE].

MM: Was there an original concept or point of view presented in this or...?

JS: Oh no, basically it was the Lockean thesis on how we acquire private property and things like that.

MM: That's the article quoted by Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty.

JS: That's right, yes, he does quote it. That's the one that appears in Tibor Machan's book.

MM: So you would say that's your main reason to become famous one day?

JS: I suppose so!

MM: So it should be widely read, it should be on the Internet!

JS: Why not!

MM: What else did you write about all these years? Did you write a lot?

JS: No, I wrote a pamphlet which was published by the Institute of Social Affairs in Britain, which I thought was rather good, on Christianity and poverty. There were several of them, one by a rabbi, another by a protestant and another by an atheist, all defending capitalism. And don't forget that wonderful interview that I gave in Chile to El Mercurio, in 1987. I'm prouder of that than anything else I ever did. It was about my views on capitalism, the reasons why capitalism was misunderstood by many of its opponents.

MM: You also have been giving lectures at Aix [Southern France] and at various places over the years.

JS: Yes, I've been going for 15 years. It's known as the Summer University of New Economics, L'Université d'été de la nouvelle économie, and it actually takes place in the buildings of the University of Aix. It's run and organized by Jacques Garello, who is a professor at the economics faculty at the University of Aix. The idea is to introduce students to market economics. And our audience consisted very largely of Eastern Europeans, which was extremely important back in the days when the Iron Curtain existed. We still get lots of students from there. And the way it's organized is that there's a faculty member that presents a paper, or gives a talk on something, and then it's commented on, and then it's open to questions from the student body there. And it's something I enjoy very much. I talked about various things like the common good, individualism.

MM: And you go to the Mont Pèlerin Society meetings?

JS: Well, when it's convenient, I haven't been there for several years. It depends on where it is.

MM: You're a member.

JS: Yes.

MM: One of the chosen few! There's a few hundred now?

JS: A few hundred, it's quite crowded! I became a member in 1984.

MM: Who introduced you?

JS: It was, err, you wouldn't know him, Arthur Shenfield, and Howard Demsetz. You probably heard of Demsetz. Shenfield was English so you probably didn't know him. He died a few years ago, he was a very good friend. He was the one who proposed me and it was seconded by Harold Demsetz. With those two recommending, you couldn't fail to get in, even if you were no good.

I remember the first time I went, Rebecca West gave a speech. She gave a very fine speech. It was about the government dictating to workers what they could do, what they couldn't do, where they could live, and so forth. And they kept asking: Why are you letting him do this? and Why are you letting him do that? And she said: Because he wants to! Which impressed me very much as a reason for doing something. (Laughs) That was enough, that he wanted to. Another one I heard also at the... it was the same one, in 1968, at Aviemore, Scotland. Enoch Powell, brilliant, absolutely marvelous author, spell-binding. It was on the principle of exchange rates.

MM: Isn't he famous for his speech about immigrants?

JS: Right, but there was nothing on that. He really knew his economics.

MM: So he was a free-marketeer?

JS: Yes. He said the time to put in free exchange rates is 2 o' clock in the morning.

MM: Why?

JS: Because they're all asleep when it happens! You should do it like that all at once. After the war in Germany, it was very secretive, they just pulled the plug, that's the only way you can do these things. I'm trying to think of something Milton Friedman said. Something like: If you want to amputate the leg of a dog – that's not exactly the illustration he used but he said you can cut the leg off, or you can hack it off in little tiny pieces. Well, it's much worse to hack it off in tiny little pieces than it is to cut it off! No? (Laughs) He was at that one too.

MM: What do you think of him?

JS: I think he's an absolutely marvelous communicator, he's wonderful at explaining these things, things like price control and so forth. "If economists know how to do one thing," he said, "it's how to cause a shortage. Hold the price below the market price." I very much like Friedman. I'm not convinced of his monetary theory but in general, he has an excellent understanding of the market and is very good at explaining it.

MM: You had students, you taught to people who became prominent members of the Austrian school later.

JS: Well, I mentioned Mario Rizzo, he was an economics major, he was in my class in philosophy, that's how I got to know him. That would have been in the 60s. He's now a professor at NYU. He's in charge of the Austrian program there.

MM: Were you the one who introduced him to Austrian economics?

JS: We talked about it an awful lot, so I may have had some influence over him.

MM: Anybody else you influenced?

JS: Well, I don't want to be sued! There was also Gerry O'Driscoll.

MM: They wrote a book together.

JS: Yes, on time and ignorance. He now works for the Heritage Institute. He had been vice-president of the Federal Reserve in Dallas. These are the only two that you would know about.

MM: In your courses, did you introduce your students to the Austrian school?

JS: I gave a course on business ethics, I was able to introduce a lot of that stuff in the business ethics course. I don't know whether you want to say Austrian economics, more like the way the free market is functioning. Most of the issues did not involve going into the differences between let's say, neoclassical and Austrian. In other words, the stuff you learn at the University of Chicago isn't different from what you learn when you take Austrian economics, unless you're going into the foundational questions. If Milton Friedman and Murray were arguing against price control, there wouldn't be much difference in what they'd say.

My take on the state

MM: You once told me: I don't see any reason why the state should exist.

JS: Well, I don't think there's anything that needs to be done that could not be done without the state.

MM: So, why do we have states? Do you think there's an explanation in evolutionary psychology? One that says people, just like some animals, lived in bands with alpha males who control the group, and believed they should have elites with power over them...

JS: That could be how it started. I mean, we're not very bright, so I suppose we can be convinced of all sorts of stupid things! As things are now, the states seem to many people to do things that they think could not otherwise be done. Then the problem would be to convince them they're wrong about that. Of course, there's a real problem of getting here to there. And that's why I always return to the fact that this is not going to happen until things get so bad that this is the only thing that can be done. As things are now, going from here to there will cause a lot of problems, and why should people embrace that.

MM: There seem to be two models of how a society without states as we know them could function. There's one where you have all kinds of principalities, small villages and cities that are independent. There is no big nation state but there are still micro states everywhere. And there's another one where there is no territorial monopoly at all, there are only private companies taking care of what the states are doing now, including defense, security, justice, etc.

JS: Ceteris Paribus, the more small states there are the better. I prefer that there should be no states at all. But if we can't have that, then I prefer the other.

MM: Is it possible? I mean, we already have Liechtenstein, Monaco, these micro states already exist, and it's easy to imagine that all the bigger states are broken up into small states like these ones. There's nothing that prevents us from imagining that, that every little village or city or territory becomes a state. But a society without anything like a monopoly of a state over a territory is more difficult to imagine.

JS: Well, I suppose it would depend how that worked out, this small states situation. People might be satisfied with that.

MM: But do you think no state at all is possible?

JS: At least abstractly, yes. Why not? The only obstacle I can see is getting people to see it. I am frequently asked this by students who object to anarchy on the ground it's impossible. Sometimes I say: Okay, let's suppose we solve your problem, we can show that it is possible. Would you be for it then? And they all say no!

MM: Why?

JS: Well, that's a good question, but the fact is that they're not sincere in their objections. They don't care if it's feasible or not, they don't want it. That's my take.

*James Sadowsky passed away on September 7, 2012, in his room at Murray-Weigel Hall, the Jesuit infirmary on the campus of Fordham University, where he had taught philosophy from 1960 until his retirement in the mid-'90s.
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