In Memoriam: Leonard Liggio

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  • 08/21/2022

At the end of the film Amazing Grace, Lord Charles Fox honors William Wilberforce???s tireless crusade to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. ???When people speak of great men, they think of men like Napoleon???men of violence,??? begins Fox. ???Rarely do they think of peaceful men ???.???

A peaceful, and indeed great man died this past week. Leonard Liggio???s passing was not mentioned in Politico, National Journal, Roll Call, or The Washington Post. And that???s OK. For Leonard???s accomplishments were far too important to be summed up in headlines.

Clashes of large egos and personal antagonisms seem to dominate Washington???s policymaking process. Leonard would not have fit that bill. He understood that ideas mattered and were passionately worth defending, but he also recognized that civility mattered as well.

Leonard was long the Don of the free market intellectual community. And I???m proud to say that he played an important role at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which I now lead.

Years ago, realizing that CEI needed to move out of its infancy stage and create a board of directors, founder Fred Smith approached Leonard, who quickly agreed to serve on that inaugural team. He continued to carry out that board role for several decades, moving to emeritus status only last year. Leonard was whimsical in his conversation, grounded in his idealistic commitment, and often bemused by CEI???s temerity in translating classical ideas into actual reform. And he was always supportive.

In 1996, I joined the Center for Market Processes (now the Mercatus Center) at George Mason University. Our office was located in a nondescript building a mile from campus that was shared by several organizations.  We also shared Leonard, whose office was below mine. I used to joke with him that if I stomped my feet hard enough, pieces of dust and debris might rain down on his head. Good times.

To me, those years seem like a long time ago, but for Leonard they were but a blip in a career spanning many decades and continents, and including personal interactions with every hero and villain the libertarian movement has had to offer.

Leonard???s knowledge about economic history???actually history in general???was amazing. One time Henri Lepage sought to do a series of interviews with Leonard on the classical liberal movement???s attitude toward war in the interval between the two world wars. Fred offered his weekend home in southern Maryland as a peaceful environment for that project. Over that weekend, Henri asked Leonard questions while Fred and his wife Fran (neither of whom I???d characterize as wallflowers!) sat in amazement as their roles were relegated to ensuring the two were well fed.

Then there was the time at the Heritage Foundation???s Resource Bank meeting some years ago, when the topic of Chicago politics came up during dinner. Leonard???s response? A ward-by-ward political history of the Windy City???a surprising tour de force performance from someone not known for an interest in horse-race politics.

In my time with Leonard he was always friendly, always willing to engage with me in conversation???which often involved a history lesson on a wide range of topics???and one of the first to congratulate me when I became CEI???s president. I asked him to give me one more year on the board to assist us in the transition. He readily agreed.

Transitions are always a bit painful, for new and old. But they also offer promise, and remind us of the value of legacy. Whether leading a free-market organization, teaching college or graduate economics, working in the political trenches, providing reading materials to those trapped behind the Iron Curtain, or filming video shorts to reach youthful audiences, we all stand on the shoulders, sweat, minds and successes of many who have come before.

Leonard knew just about everything about classical liberalism???and just about everyone who helped build the movement. There are many more yet to come who will be worth knowing. But they, alas, will only read him, and of him. To know Leonard was to absorb the richness of his ideas and breadth of his insights.

It was also a pleasure. Today???s libertarians are often typecast as a cantankerous lot. Leonard was certainly not. He was friends with all. Such is the power of legacy as generations move on.

I close by echoing Fred???s words about Leonard:

All creative lives are fascinating lengthy volumes with many chapters. I, like most, had the opportunity of perusing only a few selective chapters. But those that I???ve read have been fascinating. And when I talk to others and ask about ???Who to ask,??? they always respond, ???Ask Leonard.???  He was a friend and colleague, his contributions were many, and his knowledge and wisdom cannot be replaced. His challenge to us at CEI, and to all who cherish liberty, is to do our best to keep its flame burning brightly.

Leonard, euge serve bone et fidelis.