Libertarians: Agreeable Disagreement

The organizers of the 13th annual "Future of Freedom" conference couldn't have asked for a more evocative image. Behind a small stage hung a banner depicting a shackled, outstretched hand breaking the chain that had restrained it. Against that backdrop, looking appropriately solemn, conference manager Lawrence Samuels held high a battered cassette player from which issued the voice of draft resister Paul Jacob.

A libertarian from Arkansas, Jacob had planned to speak at the conference held at Griswold's Hotel in Fullerton last weekend. Instead, he was convicted last July in federal court in Little Rock, Ark., for failure to register with the Selective Service. He was sentenced to six months in prison, 4 1/2 years' probation and he must perform eight hours of community service per week for two years of his probation period.

"The prison system seems designed to show that the government has great power," Jacob said in a recorded phone call from the Federal Correctional Institute at Seagoville, Tex. "I was already aware of that. In fact, that's what I'd been fighting. But what this time in jail has shown me is that an individual has the power to stand up to that massive government, and to not only endure, but also to prevail."

See Government as Stifling

In the course of the weekend-long conference, the belief that an individual can and should overcome what libertarians see as the stifling bonds of government control was reiterated in formal debates and informal arguments, on videotapes, at a Free Press Assn. H.L. Mencken awards banquet and in recorded anthems. As explained by Samuels, a Santa Ana typesetter, the libertarian philosophy is simple: No person or institution has the right to coerce an individual into doing anything, for any reason or by any means. Therefore, Samuels said, libertarians believe in very little government or no government at all, and a completely unrestricted, laissez-faire economy.

For the 300 or so faithful libertarians who attended all or part of the conference, those notions were beyond dispute.

But that's about all anyone agreed upon.

As more than one person pointed out, a certain amount of disharmony is to be expected from a group that worships individuality.

"Since libertarians have very little orthodoxy, they're able to look at problems objectively," explained Karl Hess, a character of almost legendary status in libertarian circles and this year's recipient of the conference's "Future of Freedom" award.

In the '60s, Hess was a speech writer for Sen. Barry M.Goldwater (R-Ariz.) ("extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" is probably Hess' best-known line) and then Vice President Richard M. Nixon, but he fell away from mainstream conservatism in 1968, the final nudge coming from the Vietnam War.

In a 1970 article in the New York Times Magazine, Hess is quoted as saying: "Vietnam should remind all conservatives that whenever you put your faith in big government for any reason, sooner or later you wind up as an apologist for mass murder."

Readily Recognized Icon

With his unruly, '60s-vintage beard and self-assured gaze, Hess, who now works as a spot welder in West Virginia, was a readily recognized icon. Cronies who'd known him in the early days of the movement and neophyte libertarians who only knew of him greeted Hess with hugs and handshakes at the speeches, workshops and parties.

"Libertarianism has only a tiny, tiny ideology: 'Thou shalt not agress,' " Hess said as he stood outside the main conference room, where dozens of informal, hit-and-run debates raged throughout the weekend. "There are some libertarians who send me screaming up the wall, but I tend to like them better than other people, because I know they wouldn't want to force me to believe the way they do. That's more than you can say for Republicans or Democrats."

Two Main Divisions

It is this adamant refusal to accept coercion in any form that separates libertarians from the old bomb-tossing anarchists, Hess said. Otherwise, he continued, libertarianism and anarchism are pretty much synonymous. In fact, as Hess and others at the conference pointed out, the two main divisions within the modern libertarian movement are the anarchist libertarians, who believe in no government, and the "minarchist" libertarians, who believe that a shred of government is tolerable.

Like most of the true believers at the conference, Hess was ready and able to argue away any skepticism about his world view. In an unencumbered marketplace, creative entrepreneurship and volunteerism will overcome most, if not all obstacles, he said.

Take defense, for instance.

'Taxation Is Theft'

To quote some of the bumper stickers and buttons at the conference, "Taxation is theft" and "Conscription is slavery." Modern technology makes a purely volunteer defense system practical, Hess said. "The weapons systems are such that national guard units could maintain systems so severe, they could deter the Soviets."

As for maintaining those systems, Hess said, "People probably would voluntarily pay a substantial amount of money for defense."

And if too many people refused to foot their share of the bill?

That, Hess said, would demonstrate that the society wasn't worth defending. It would be time to move on.

"If you're going to be free, you have to be free to take responsibility for your actions," he said.

Later, scanning the scene along a sidewalk outside the conference room where groups as diverse as Atheists United and the Alliance for Survival were hawking their philosophies, Hess added: "Libertarians are the only people I know who say of information, 'Let it be free; get as much as you can.' "

That attitude was readily apparent at the conference.

Available Literature

Arranged on long tables were buttons and bumper stickers and books ranging from scholarly histories of anarchism to "Get Even, The Complete Book of Dirty Tricks" by George Hayduke; "How to Launder Money" by John Gregg, and "Guerrilla Capitalism: How to Practice Free Enterprise in an Unfree Economy" by Adam Cash.

The program of lectures and workshops and videotapes was similarly eclectic.

While author Ray Bradbury waxed poetic about visionary new communities and the possibility of liberating handicapped people from the tyranny of gravity by sending them into space, a Claremont College professor discussed Peru's black market economy. While Robert Poole, the editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, argued for the deregulation of public utilities, viewers in the video room munched popcorn and watched "Harry's War," described in the conference schedule as, "One man's heroic struggle against the Internal Revenue Service."

Topics Covered

Dr. Robert R. Simon of UCLA's Emergency Medical Center presented a graphic slide show of victims of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, and Walt Patrick, who lives on a libertarian commune in Las Vegas, told of his group's efforts to create libertarian "Freelands" aboard huge, oceangoing ships. Scott McKeown, Los Angeles County coordinator of the Guardian Angels, a volunteer crime-fighting group, decried what he sees as the Los Angeles Police Department's efforts to repress his group. And on a similar note, Norma Jean Almodovar, a former Los Angeles traffic policewoman turned prostitute, recited her widely publicized allegations that police officers confiscated a manuscript she'd written describing corruption within the LAPD.

As she spoke in the garden area, Almodovar said she would seriously consider accepting any forthcoming offers to run for office on a Libertarian ticket. ("Do it, honey," a woman called out. "You're a lot prettier than Ed Clark (the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate in 1980 and 1984).")

Seasoned Candidate

Meanwhile, Marshall Fritz, decked out in a three-piece suit, a "sincere" tie and black wingtips, glad-handed his way through the milling conference-goers like the seasoned Libertarian Party candidate he is.

Fritz, who has the rhetorical flair of a TV evangelist, said that from his observations, libertarians represent "the top 10% of the population in raw intellectual horsepower, and the bottom 20% in the development of basic social skills."

It was with that in mind that he founded an organization he calls Advocates for Self Government, an educational group that "blends the communications and self-improvement stuff of the Dale Carnegie courses and Toastmasters with libertarianism."

In 1982, Fritz was the Libertarian Party's candidate in Fresno's 18th Congressional District, he recalled, pausing after his clear victory in the first round of the "Future of Freedom" "statebusters" speech contest.

Stagnation of Movement

"I got 3,210 votes--2.2%," Fritz said with a grin. "But it was so much of a challenge. So exhilarating."

Many, if not most, of the people at the conference view the very idea of a party and voting and participation in government as antithetical to their beliefs, various speakers said. Even those who are more amenable to political involvement, however, often blame the Libertarian Party for what they perceive as the current stagnation of the broader libertarian movement.

"There's no secret that at the moment libertarianism is in a recession, as it were," explained David Ramsay Steele, a British citizen who abandoned his Marxist views for libertarianism after discovering the anarchist writings of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises.

Simple and Practical

In the late '70s, a lot of people became involved in the Libertarian Party because they saw it as a simple and practical way to achieve goals, Ramsay Steele said. For a while, the party did better and better with each election. Then, last year the party's fortunes took a plunge.

"From a purely economic standpoint, people who might have been inclined to vote Libertarian were impressed by Reagan," he said. When the Libertarian Party's wave of euphoria crashed against the reality of poor election results, the whole libertarian movement lost its momentum, Ramsay Steele said.

Reflecting on what appeared to be the general feeling of the conference, however, Ramsay Steele said he still had great hope for a libertarian revolution.

"I wouldn't waste time advocating something I didn't think would come about," he said.

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