Remembering Carl Watner

Carl Watner, longtime proponent of voluntaryism, has passed away. He was 72 years young. He will be missed. And his efforts will live on through those of us seeking complete liberty.

Who was Carl Watner?

According to OpenlyVoluntary.com, Watner was:

an American author and historian of libertarian studies, and a voluntaryist. He has written articles for Reason magazine, the Libertarian Forum, Mises Institute and the Journal of Libertarian Studies. Although use of the label “voluntaryist” waned after the death of Auberon Herbert in 1906, its use was renewed in 1982, when George H. Smith, Wendy McElroy, and Carl Watner began publishing The Voluntaryist magazine.

That newsletter, The Voluntaryist, was published continuously since October 1982. For almost four decades Watner, a family man who ran a business in South Carolina, made time to share ideas he believed would foster human flourishing. He also wrote and edited a bevy of books, and is credited with tracking-down and making again accessible the seminal essay by Lysander Spooner, Vices Are Not Crimes.

Watner excelled at communicating a clear, consistent, strike-the-root message. Indeed, in no uncertain terms, Wendy McElroy wrote on her blog that Watner “was the primary hand in founding the modern Voluntaryist movement in the early 1980s.” She continues:

He worked tirelessly and without complaint, day in and day out for decades, expressing his principles through his prolific writing, his character, and his actions. I will never meet his like again. I was lucky to have known him at all. Carl died at home on Tuesday after a long and brave fight against cancer. He was surrounded by a loving family, including his remarkable wife Julie, and he was in no pain. I asked. Carl will be cremated and laid to rest in a Baltimore cemetery that his family owned for many years and where he will be joining three generations of the Watner family.

More Love for Carl Watner

Dave Scotese, editor at voluntaryist.com wrote that Watner:

…died peacefully…after facing down cancer. One could say the cancer won, but this man represented the spirit of voluntaryism and that spirit has become more powerful than I had imagined. I believe that increase will only be accelerated as we realize that it’s all on us now. Thank you, Carl, for adding so much meaning to my life!

And Skyler J. Collins of everything-voluntary.com shared that:

Carl convinced me to call myself a voluntaryist and inspired me to create this website and everything else I’ve done under the voluntaryist label.

I first learned of Watner and his efforts when I was working in the D.C. libertarian think tank world. A friend passed along I Must Speak Out, a collection of essays taken from the first 100 newsletters of The Voluntaryist. That book was soon dog-eared, with writing in the margins and small tape flags protruding from many pages. [Thanks to the work of Dave Scotese, Shepard The Voluntaryist, and others, I Must Speak Out Vol. II, which includes essays from 2000-2020, has just become available.]. The year was 2005. The same summer I was fortunate to attend a presentation by Jason Sorens and make it to my first PorcFest.

That combination —  Watner’s prose, and my interactions with people in the ‘shire who had literally voted with their feet to achieve ‘liberty in our lifetime’, had a tremendous impact on me. Both on my perception and how I conduct myself. It’s not too surprising then that the Wikipedia page on voluntaryism, after noting Watner’s contributions, mentions the FSP, and the fact that many involved find resonance with the ideas he advocated.

The Free State Project is a notable movement to convince libertarians to move to New Hampshire to build a truly free state, and has many voluntaryist adherents.

In years past I invited Watner to attend PorcFest — perhaps as a speaker if he was interested — and said that I’d figure out a way to get his trip covered. But he passed. He was content to just do his thing behind the scenes.

Through the years I interacted sporadically with Watner — an exchange of emails every few months or a phone call from time to time. It was one of our phone calls that I will perhaps remember most.

It was a late afternoon in June, 2013. The heat of the day was dissipating. I was walking in a parking lot, outside a business in Westmoreland. I had just finished explaining to Watner my dilemma — should I participate in a lawsuit against those in Greenfield, MA who had violated my rights or should I move on?

On one hand, I figured I wouldn’t have to do much more work and could net a little coin, which would certainly be helpful. And it may garner headlines to underscore to others just who was in the wrong, perhaps indirectly lessening the clout granted to the those involved.

On the other hand, I recognized that my continued involvement in legaland (as coined by Mark Stevens), and my proactive involvement at that, would bestow authority to an institution that I recognized as perversely incentivized, unaccountable and destructive. Further, were I to participate in the lawsuit and it was “successful”, it would not be the aggressors who would be told to make me whole, but rather, through coercion, it  would be the good people of Greenfield on the hook.

After patiently listening to my situation, Watner did not tell me what he thought I should do. Rather, he asked me to consider how each option would sit with me. What choice would empower what I thought important? In a sense, he was an angel on my shoulder, putting a megaphone to my conscience. This made the choice easy.

An Interview with Carl Watner

Two years ago I emailed Watner and inquired if he’d be game for a little Q&A, that I would then post, mostly likely here to FreeKeene.com. He agreed. I sent Watner a list of questions that I’d drafted and that I’d received from others via some subreddits (r/voluntaryism, r/anarchy, r/agorism, r/Llbertarian, r/anarcho_capitalism) and Twitter. Though he was gracious with his time and responded to the questions, I never made the time to publish his responses, until now.

Note that many of the questions I posed had already been addressed by Watner elsewhere, so he provided the relevant link. I encourage you to click-through for a more qualitative read.

What thinker, writings, or experiences have you derived value from in forming your own belief system?

See http://voluntaryist.com/how-i-became-a-voluntaryist/something-to-do-with-the-search-for-truth-how-i-became-a-libertarian-by-carl-watner/#.W29PZ_ZFzct

The Voluntaryist newsletter has been published continuously since October 1982, initially as a collaboration between you, George H. Smith and Wendy McElroy. Can you provide the backstory of how that came together?

Wendy just recently wrote some Personal Reminiscences which have just been posted on the website. It discusses the backstory of how The Voluntaryist came to be published. http://voluntaryist.com/how-i-became-a-voluntaryist/voluntaryism-personal-reminiscences/#.W2o34_ZFzcs

Your website voluntaryist.com includes this quote attributed to Gandhi: “If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.” Can you unpack that statement?

See http://voluntaryist.com/backissues/124.pdf especially see the text on pages 3 and 4 of that newsletter.

You are credited with resurrecting Lysander Spooner’s “Vices Are Not Crimes” — how did that come about?

If you have a copy of this, I explained in my Introduction that this piece was mentioned by Benj Tucker in the obituary about Spooner that he wrote in his journal LIBERTY. “Vices …” was part of a book by Dio Lewis on prohibition (as I recall). I tracked the book down and found the chapter by Spooner.

History tends to identify just one or two people as spokespersons for a particular genre in a time period. For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are the most well-known transcendentalists though there were dozens, if not hundreds of others, who contributed to that discourse. Who are some lesser-known figures that added to the body of voluntaryist work?

See “Thinkers and Groups of Individuals Who Have Contributed Significant Ideas or Major Written Materials To The Radical Libertarian Tradition” in issue 25 at http://voluntaryist.com/backissues/025.pdf  I would especially note Gustav de Molinari, Charles Lane, and Benjamin Tucker.

Some other questions were posed to Watner, who replied with the following, as a sort of catch-all:

I just happened to be looking at some old issues of The Voluntaryist, and came across a book review of To Choose Freedom by Vladimir Bukovsy. If you are not familiar with my review you might want to read it because it indirectly addresses some of the other questions. That book review is here.

What’s Next?

Has Watner had an impact in your own life? Please do share via a comment to this post or by passing along some of his wisdom to someone near. And perhaps, by being a bit more mindful of your actions and whether they’re helping you to become the best version of yourself. After all, as the tagline on The Voluntaryist proclaimed, ‘If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.’

More content from Watner, which he wrote, edited, or contributed to:

  • A Voluntary Political Government: Letters from Charles Lane (2011) download .pdf
  • Dissenting Electorate: Those Who Refuse to Vote and the Legitimacy of Their Opposition (2001)
  • Homeschooling: A Hope for America (2010) download .pdf
  • I Must Speak Out: The Best of the Voluntaryist 1982-1999 (1999) download .pdf
  • I Must Speak Out: The Best of the Voluntaryist 2000-2020 (2021) download .pdf
  • Liberty and the Great Libertarians (1995) download .pdf
  • National Identification Systems: Essays in Opposition (2003)
  • Neither Bullets Nor Ballets (2017) download .pdf
  • Render Not: The Case Against Taxation (2012) download .pdf
  • Robert LeFevre: Truth is Not a Half-way Place (2017) download .pdf
  • voluntaryist.com – the website that houses Watner’s work
  • a video interview with Watner conducted in 2014

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5 Comments

  1. Thanks Pete. Carl certainly was a principled man.

  2. Always good to see Pete pop in to the blog from wherever he happens to be!

  3. hi Pete! ….

  4. Hi, David, Ian and Bob! Appreciate y’all weighing-in.

    And thanks Russell, for sharing that link. I gave it a listen and unsurprisingly, found a lot of on-point and thought-provoking passages, including:

    “One might say that nonviolence is ‘the political equivalent of the atomic bomb’…To call nonviolent resistance ‘passive’ or ‘for sissies’ is to totally misunderstand its import. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, the use of nonviolent resistance is one of the most active and efficient ways of action ever devised by human beings, because it cannot be countered by fighting.”

    Also: “Voluntaryist resistance, which I have previously discussed in an article by that title, is not a matter of repelling violence, but rather that of enlightening deceived subjects…As Mubarak Awad has written,’You cannot stop people when they want to be liberated. . . . The greatest enemy of the people and the most powerful weapon in the hands of the authorities is fear. [Those] who can liberate themselves from fear and who will boldly accept suffering and persecution without fear or bitterness or striking back have managed to achieve the greatest victory of all.’ They have achieved self-control. ‘They have conquered themselves’ when they recognize that they, as oppressed people, ‘have the option of refusing to cooperate if they are willing to pay the price’.”

Care to comment?