When I figured out my basic political beliefs at ages 17 and 18, I didn't know the term for them. Katherine George, a left-wing sociology professor at the University of Winnipeg with whom I was arguing, called me a libertarian. That was in the summer of 1968 and it was the first time I had ever heard that word.
"A what?" I asked, confused.
"A libertarian," she answered.
"What's that?" I asked.
"You know, it's those people who ran the student newspaper last year: Dennis Owens, Clancy Smith."
"I didn't know," I said, "but I'll be sure to look them up."
"S**t," she said.
So I did look them up and quickly became involved with the University of Winnipeg libertarians. The above-mentioned Clancy Smith, whom his Kelvin High School classmate, Neil Young, had in mind when he wrote "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing," became my mentor.
It was Clancy who taught me that no, the libertarian tradition doesn't begin with Ayn Rand but goes back to the classical liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, said Clancy, they didn't call themselves classical liberals. They were, simply, liberals.
Now George Mason University economics professor Dan Klein, working with Kevin Frei, has undertaken a project to reclaim the term "liberal." He has produced a statement that many economists and others have signed. I go back and forth about this project. Dan wants to do it and I want to help him and I believe in it, which is why I signed. I also wonder if the project is Sisyphean.
But I've bet wrong on Dan before. When he wanted to meet in St. Louis eleven years ago this month to discuss his idea for a journal that would contain articles critical of articles in other journals, I planned to go there and say, "Dan, don't do it." Because of a family crisis that came up at the last minute, I cancelled. Of course, he did do it. And the result is one of my favorite journals: Econ Journal Watch.