Writer Sparked Libertarian Ideals
Los Angeles Times (Orange County edition)
BOB SIPCHEN, November 1, 1985
“Who is John Galt?” the blue-and-white bumper stickers ask.
For the 300 libertarian true believers attending the 13th annual “Future of Freedom” conference at Griswold’s Hotel in Fullerton last weekend, that question is about as cryptic as, “Who is Ronald Reagan?”
But for a reporter uninitiated in the libertarian belief system, identifying John Galt was merely a first step in a marathon, weekend-long quest to understand the complex (some would say chaotic) mosaic of ideas and characters (living, dead and fictional) that make up the “libertarian movement.”
The answer to the bumper sticker riddle came late on Friday night, at a crowded cocktail party in the hotel’s hospitality suite. A tall, pale, paunchy 25-year-old computer programmer from San Francisco was explaining that, in his experience, about 35% of people belonging to Mensa, the high I.Q. society, are also libertarians. The reporter noticed his name tag and asked: “So you’re John Galt?” Martin Tabnik, a Redondo Beach computer consultant, interrupted.
“John Galt is the main character in ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ ” Tabnik said with a patient grin. “Atlas Shrugged,” he went on to explain, is a novel by the late Russian emigre and philosopher Ayn Rand, whose teachings in novels and nonfiction books such as “The Virtue of Selfishness” and “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal” were extremely influential in the development of libertarian ideals.
“So you’re not really John Galt?” the reporter asked the man with the “John Galt” name tag pinned to his pink, tie-dyed T-shirt.
Changed His Name
“It’s my real name,” he replied. “My name used to be John Anderson, but I changed it the year a certain person by that name ran for president.”
According to the “Ayn Rand Companion,” one of dozens of books by and about Rand on sale at the conference, Galt is “hard and gaunt, with chestnut brown hair and deep, dark green eyes . . . a sun-tanned body and guilt-free face.” He is “the man who stops the motor of the world when he leads the ‘men of the mind’ on strike against all the leeches and parasites they have been sustaining throughout history.”
Although the computer programmer was apparently the only person at the conference to actually adopt the name of a Rand hero, a show of hands during one lecture revealed that almost everyone became interested in “the movement” because of Rand, who died in 1982.
A book aptly titled “It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand” explains: “Ayn Rand was not the first to advocate individualism and economic laissez-faire, but she was certainly the first to elevate selfishness (also known as “rational self-interest”) to the level of a philosophical absolute.”
“Rand had a profound effect on the emotional development of the movement,” explained Jeffrey Hummel, whom conference organizers pointed out as a good source on the history of libertarianism. Men such as Murray N. Rothbard, who had been a part of the circle of followers who surrounded Rand, gave the movement its intellectual direction, Hummel said, adding that British philosopher John Locke, American anarchists such as Lysander Spooner and founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine were also influential.
The real turning point for the modern movement came in 1969, at the St. Louis convention of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom, Hummel said. A libertarian-oriented faction of the group had grown disenchanted with Republican attitudes toward Vietnam, the draft and drug laws, and a schism occurred. Thus, the libertarian movement was born, Hummel said.
Before long, liberals, uncomfortable with Democratic views on the economy, also converted to the libertarian camp, and a fusion of radical leftists and rightists occurred, he said.
Although Rand, with her “objectivist” brand of libertarian thinking, has lost favor among some movement firebrands, her influence remains strong, Hummel said Saturday night following the Free Press Assn.’s H.L. Mencken awards ceremony.
“Some libertarians still go through a hero worship phase for Ayn Rand,” he said before heading for the hospitality suite, where arcane libertarian discussions would rage past 3 in the morning in one room while, in another, a dozen or so libertarians–spread out across a king-sized bed beneath a mirrored ceiling–watched videotapes of the science fiction show, “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.”
The next day, as a small group in the video room watched a tape of Tom Snyder interviewing Ayn Rand, Caroline Molitch, 41, an eighth-grade teacher from La Puente, sat in the hotel coffee shop and, between bites of a tuna sandwich, explained how Ayn Rand had seduced her into the movement.
Even as a little girl, Molitch said, she had been attracted to heroic characters–Flash Gordon, for instance. It was only natural that she was taken by the strong-willed, idealistic heroes and heroines she encountered in Rand’s novels.
When told that someone at the conference had adopted the name of John Galt, Molitch scoffed: “That’s awfully pretentious–like taking the name Jesus Christ.” She added, however, that she does see the qualities of courage and idealism in some of the flesh and blood leaders of the libertarian movement–especially Robert Poole, the creator and editor of Reason magazine.
“He built that magazine up from nothing, and now it’s a respected publication,” she said.
Recently, Molitch has been attending fewer libertarian conferences than during her initial infatuation with the movement, she said. This is not because of any disenchantment with libertarianism, she said, but because her growing interest in science fiction has led her to attend more and more science-fiction conventions. There’s a definite connection between the people who attend the two types of events, she said.
“One common denominator is that they’re all smart. They have a low tolerance for stupidity,” she said.
Could another factor be that people who enjoy plotting out the blueprint for a perfect, totally free society tend to be romantic pie-in-the-sky dreamers?
“I think a lot of libertarian ideas may be pie-in-the sky, unrealistic,” she conceded. “But I don’t care. It’s important that the vision is there. It’s something to reach for. Something to care for and believe in. It makes me happy. . . .”
Libertarians: Agreeable Disagreement
The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles County edition)
BOB SIPCHEN — November 1, 1985
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.
“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.
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.”
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).”)
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.