Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Ralph Raico, RIP*

Ralph Raico died on Dec. 13, 2016.

I first met Ralph Raico in 1952, when we were both 15 years old and students at The Bronx High School of Science. The occasion was the school’s mock political convention for that presidential election year. I was the speaker for Sen. Robert Taft, the most prominent conservative politician of the time, who was seeking the Republican nomination for President in competition with General Dwight Eisenhower, who later that year won the nomination and then went on to become President.

It was a few minutes before the start of the proceedings and I was seated on the stage. A thin young teenager approached me, wearing a pull-down woolen cap. At that time, in the Bronx and the rest of New York City, Taft supporters were met with even greater hostility and contempt than Trump supporters are today in those places. Thus as soon as I saw that he was about to say something to me, I took for granted that it would be some kind of hostile comment, and so I reflexively delivered a pre-emptive such comment of my own: “What’s on your small mind, I asked?” “I wanted to know if your arguments are well-prepared,” he replied.

After briefly assuring him that they were, and satisfying myself that he was not an enemy but a genuine Taft supporter himself, we agreed to meet after school.

When we met, I learned that he was already actively campaigning for Taft, along with several other, older teenagers who were affiliated with Taft’s campaign headquarters in Manhattan. I also learned that it had been he who had glued a Taft campaign sticker to the wall of a stairwell in the school. A sticker that in the circumstances had seemed to me to be the equivalent of a sign of life on an otherwise dead planet.

Ralph and I agreed to meet on the next Saturday afternoon, across 42nd St. from the main branch of the New York Public Library. I think we had gotten a literature table and supply of handouts from the Taft headquarters. Our table was set up a couple of hundred feet west of 5th Ave. Before we knew it, we were surrounded by a small crowd of onlookers, and were both engaged in vigorous intellectual arguments with various members of the crowd.

To my considerable surprise and pleasure, Ralph showed himself to be a keen student of Henry Hazlitt’s Economics In One Lesson, arguments from which easily rolled off his tongue in the back and forth between himself and members of the crowd. After our first experience of this kind, I learned that Ralph, as was I, was also an avid reader of The Freeman, a magazine that in those days, 1950-1954, when Henry Hazlitt played a major role in its operations, was a really serious and outstanding publication.

I don’t know how many more such intellectual encounters we had, but there were at least several. I know that we soon reached the point where if one of us stopped speaking for a moment, the other was capable of stepping in and completing his thought and the rest of his argument. I felt that Ralph was truly my intellectual brother. And I believe that he felt the same.

Our intellectual comradeship resulted on one occasion in our winning a formal debate at our far-left school in favor of Senator Joseph McCarthy, a man for whom the intellectuals and the media of the time had nothing but seething hatred. The result of our victory had to be announced to the school assembly. And thus one morning, one heard that at the debate club it had been “Resolved: Senator Joseph McCarthy Is a Great American” (or at least words to that effect). 

On another occasion, our intellectual comradeship and support for McCarthy, led us to organize a group of students to go and picket on behalf of McCarthy at a Federal Courthouse in lower Manhattan, where relevant hearings of some kind were scheduled to be held. Our group included not only students from Bronx Science, but also students from Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan, and elsewhere. If my memory of events of sixty-five years ago serves me correctly, among them were Bob Hessen, Leonard Liggio, Sam Greenberg, Bill Schultz, George Stryker, Fred Preisinger, Dan Hodes, and others.

When we arrived at the Courthouse, we learned that the hearings had been cancelled. Since we had all the necessary makings for picket signs, however, we decided to use the opportunity to picket the UN instead, which was not more than 2-3 miles away. Ralph called the various local newspapers to let them know of our picketing. Despite the fact that our signs were as provocative as possible, for example, “US out of UN, UN out of US” and “One in Three [UN workers] a Spy,” we got zero press coverage. We hadn’t realized that a requirement for press coverage is that one’s cause be among the same far-left causes as those of the press itself.

I think it was on this day that, after the failure of our picketing attempt, all of us decided to march over to the office of The Freeman, which was then located within walking distance from the UN, at 240 Madison Avenue.

The Freeman’s staff in attendance included two of its top editors, John Chamberlain and Suzanne LaFollette. We subsequently learned that they and every other staff member in attendance were both shocked and delighted to learn that their magazine had produced such a cadre of serious young men dedicated to upholding the cause for which the magazine fought.

Ralph and I were both ardent admirers of the writings of Prof. Ludwig von Mises, the man whom I consider to be the leading advocate of capitalism in the history of economic thought. In fact, at around the very same time that I spoke before the previously mentioned mock political convention, I was in process of completing reading Mises’s great classic Socialism. We both wanted very much to meet him. Our intellectual comradeship, combined with our young age, led in this instance to our committing an embarrassing juvenile act.

We had learned Mises’s address, and decided that we would meet him simply by going to his apartment, ringing his door bell, and claiming to be selling subscriptions to The Freeman, hoping thereby to engage him in conversation, which in turn would tell him enough about us that the beginnings of a relationship might be established. Mises opened the door dressed in formal attire, lacking only his tuxedo jacket. When we announced that we were selling subscriptions to The Freeman, he responded, in a heavy German accent that “I haff ze Freeman,” and proceeded to close the door. I felt as though I had suddenly lost all but a few inches of my height. I knew that Ralph felt terrible as well.

But, of course, that was not the end of the story. Not many months later, Ralph wrote to The Foundation for Economic Education, then located in Irvington-On-Hudson, New York, just a few miles north of the city. He arranged an invitation for us to visit the Foundation.

We spent most of the visit in serious conversation with Ivan Bierly and Baldy Harper, two of the Senior staff members of the Foundation, and thanks to their good offices and the favorable impression we had made, they arranged for us to meet Prof. Mises at his apartment not long afterward. The date of that meeting was February 23, 1953, a date inscribed by Mises, along with his signature, in my copy of Human Action.

After several hours of discussion of such matters as the significance or possible lack of significance of the national debt and of our ability as students to argue with faculty members, Mises was sufficiently impressed with us as to invite us to attend his graduate seminar at NYU, an invitation we immediately and enthusiastically accepted. The one condition he imposed, in view of our extreme youth, was that we “not make noise.” Thus while still in high school we were vaulted into the highest reaches of pro-capitalist scholarship, an event which played an enormous role in our lives thereafter.

We both began attending the seminar, a few weeks later. It was located in the main conference room of NYU’s Graduate School of Business at 90 Trinity Place, which was practically next door to the American Stock Exchange and a matter of yards from Trinity Church and its small cemetery.

Already present as members of the seminar were, among others, Hans Sennholz and his wife Mary, Percy Greaves and his wife Bettina Bien, William Peterson and his wife Mary, George Koether, and Murray Rothbard.

In very little time, Ralph and I established a friendship with Murray, which greatly intensified in the following fall and endured for the next five years.

Early on, the “Cobden Club,” named after the great 19th-Century free trader Richard Cobden, and comprised of Ralph and myself and some members of the group of high school students I described earlier, became the “Circle Bastiat,” led by Rothbard. In this period, largely thanks to Rothbard, Ralph and I both received grants from the William Volker Fund to translate works of Mises. I translated Epistemological Problems of Economics in the summer of 1955 and Ralph translated Liberalism in the summer of 1956.

In 1954, Rothbard introduced the Circle Bastiat to the subject of Ayn Rand and her writings. He had seen a portion of the manuscript of the novel she was then working on, namely, Atlas Shrugged. All of us were excited by what Rothbard told us and urged him to arrange a meeting with Miss Rand.

It turned out that there were two meetings, lasting from about 8 in the evening until 5 in the following morning, on the weekends of July 10/11 and July 17/18.

I did not see Ayn Rand again until September of 1957, following the publication of Atlas Shrugged. However, in this period, Ralph remained in touch with at least one of her leading followers: he and Bob Hessen were the audience for Leonard Peikoff’s delivery of some of his early lectures on philosophy.

Following the publication of Atlas Shrugged, everyone in the Circle Bastiat was an enthusiastic admirer of Ayn Rand. This lasted for not quite a year, until July of 1958, when a blowup occurred between Ayn Rand and Rothbard, which also had the effect of tearing apart the Circle Bastiat, leaving myself and Bob Hessen on one side, supporting Ayn Rand, and Ralph and most of the other members supporting Rothbard.

At that point, my relationship with Ralph ended. And although, years later, we were able to meet and speak cordially to one another, our friendship could not be reestablished.

Over the years Ralph’s ideas had changed on some important subjects. For example, he gave up his support of Senator McCarthy, describing some of McCarthy’s claims as “over the top.” More significantly, in a lecture at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, he described the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia as defending freedom, a statement that in my judgment was equivalent to the claim in the novel 1984 that “freedom is slavery.”

I deeply regret the passing of Ralph Raico. In his youth, he was my brother.

 * George Reisman, Ph.D., is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics and the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics. His website is www.capitalism.net. Follow him on Twitter at @GGReisman. See his Amazon.com author’s page at http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B001KCWY0Q