Memories of Professor Hospers
Memories of Professor Hospers
May 19, 2014
I was a philosophy major at Cal State LA from 1966 until I received my BA in June 1968. I had transferred from another school and was well-prepared to understand Professor Hospers because I had already read John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty.” It seemed to me quite clear that liberty was my fundamental value.
Cal State LA was basically a commuter school with over 20,000 students, most of whom supported themselves in some way. It had few dorms and I don’t recall ever hearing much about fraternities. There may have been sports teams but I don’t think I ever went to a game. Like most other students, I worked and went to school. I worked the night shift (3 to midnight) at Great Western Bag Company and went to school during the day. I recall getting the job from the job board on campus. It paid about twice as much as the other jobs, and I soon found out why. It was hot, dirty, noisy, and dangerous. They hired anybody who showed up and if you made it through the first week, they gave you ear plugs. I learned to run a long machine that turned large rolls of brown paper into grocery bags, and I was quite certain that I wanted something better.
Apparently, Professor Hospers had come to LA to teach at UCLA but there had been some controversy that had made him available to teach at Cal State LA. I recall one of the other philosophy professors suggesting that I take a class from Hospers because it was an opportunity to hear a big-time, well-known professor. I had never heard of Hospers at that point so it was just good luck on my part.
I was immediately impressed and ended up taking every course he taught. I took Ethics, Aesthetics, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, and Political Philosophy. He was so clear and rational¬¬¬—each lecture was a clean, well-organized discussion. Obviously, he had thought about the topics, researched them thoroughly, and organized all of the arguments. I like to think that I take the same approach so I immediately felt like I had met someone with my basic passion for clarity who had fully developed that tendency. I took extensive notes on every lecture and reviewed them over the weekends. His exams were often short answer questions that were, I thought, ideal because you needed to understand the material to answer the question, but they did not require you to just parrot back some of his points. I got A’s in all his classes.
Here are three topics that I probably should have understood in advance, but at 19 they were new to me. Understanding these fundamental concepts helped me to organize my thoughts on many other topics.
First, wealth is created by human activity. There is not just a fixed amount of wealth that is traded or stolen back and forth between people. I am afraid that I was influenced by the image of Barbarians stealing the gold from wealthy countries so that they could be wealthy. But that is just not how it works, as Professor Hospers explained when discussing the lifeboat fallacy. There is not just a certain amount to be spread around fairly. I can recall exactly where I was sitting when I had that “Aha Moment.” It was unusual because he rarely changed my mind on anything since I already agreed with him. Also, in subsequent years, I have often noted how this one error is the fundamental mistake that socialists make; you hear it over and over as they whine about the need for dividing things up “fairly.” They are assuming that there is only so much stuff to be divided up, and this is just false.
Second, Hospers clarified the fundamental difference between government and commerce. Government is based on coercion and commerce is based on voluntary cooperation. Individuals can decide who they want to do business with, but they can’t decide which laws they will obey. That is why government power is so dangerous and needs to be strictly limited. I sort of knew this, but he made it absolutely clear, simple, and beautiful. It was so obvious that I expected nobody would possibly disagree with it, but, of course, people (especially liberals) will believe what they want to believe and have no interest in being rational. I am still pointing this out to liberals who somehow never seem to understand.
There was a third area where he helped me organize my thoughts: the draft. The late 1960’s was the worst time to be in college because you had exactly four years to finish, and then were sent off to the war whether you wanted to go or not. I’m real particular about what I get killed for and Viet Nam did not even make the list for consideration. I had sympathy with the anti-war protestors, but since I was working full time and going to school full time, I had very little time for such things. My big problem with them is that they were often supporting the other side, a communist government. I was never going to support communism, but I also did not want to be drafted. Hospers made it clear: the government has no right to draft you. It is just slavery, pure and simple. But the protestors were supporting the same type of totalitarian government that would take away our rights through the draft. That made it clear, and in later life I have realized that the liberals are just totalitarians who want their side to be in power. They may have agreed with me about the draft and the war, but they did it for the wrong reason. They were not against government power; they just wanted the government power for their side.
Hospers was the first person I ever heard mention that the liberals might not be the wholesome, generous people that they claim to be. Many of them are motivated by a desire for power and seem to get some perverse pleasure from deciding what is best for others. They want to have a flock of dependent followers. And could anyone be greedier than the liberal who expects other people to provide him with the necessities of life?
Here is another valuable point that I have tried to explain to liberals, sometimes to blank stares. The distinction between left wing and right wing is really not very helpful. Both sides can promote powerful central governments that abuse citizens. A more useful conceptual framework is to understand political positions on the continuum between totalitarianism and anarchy. On the one hand, you can have a powerful, centralized authoritarian government and on the other hand, you can have no government at all. Communist dictatorships, monarchies, and religious theocracies are all on the totalitarian side. This continuum measures how much freedom is left to the individual to run his own life without coercion from the government.
I also have good memories of a few other specific topics that have stuck with me over the decades. At one point, he mentioned JFK’s famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” He was appalled by it. He said that it was exactly the sort of line that a totalitarian might promote. He said that, ideally, the country works for the individual; the individual does not exist to serve the state. I loved it because I clearly recalled hearing JFK use that line on TV. I recall, even as a high school student, thinking, “Oops, he made a mistake; he must have meant to say, “Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you.”” Gee, was I wrong; he really did mean to say that the individual should serve the state.
I was aware that Professor Hospers had some relationship with Ayn Rand, but he rarely mentioned her. I recall once in an epistemology class that he had us read a short article by her, but he went on to criticize it as an example of naive reasoning. I believe he thought of her more as an artist than an original thinker or fellow academic. I have never read any of her novels.
The one downside of my education with Professor Hospers was that I came out thinking he was so obviously correct that there was nothing else to do on that topic. I recall talking to him about going to law school and working to fight government abuse, but it seemed to me that was probably not needed. Perhaps if I had known more liberals back then, I would have taken that idea more seriously. As it turned out, I went to graduate school at University of Michigan to get a PhD in philosophy, while fighting the draft. I was miserable at Michigan, as the only conservative in world full of liberals. I ended up leaving without finishing the degree and went on to other things, but the passion for clarity and reason that I gained from Professor Hospers has always benefited me.