State Senator John Andrews: Guardian of Liberty

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom

State Senator John Andrews:
Guardian of Liberty

by Ari Armstrong, April 1999

The three men stood shoulder to shoulder. Jon Caldara, President of the Independence Institute, had been waiting to greet State Senator John Andrews on a flight of steps inside the Capitol. Andrews rose to meet Caldara, and as the two were chatting Representative Penn Pfiffner swung around the corner, noticed the two others and joined in the conversation.


I stood several steps below the trio, waiting to accompany Andrews to his office to pick up some copies. For me the moment was romanticized, these three icons of the Colorado libertarian movement standing side by side, confident in their purpose. I kicked myself for forgetting my camera.

Andrews had graciously agreed to meet me for lunch this Wednesday, March 3 to interview for the present article. While mulling about the Capitol cafeteria before my noon meeting with Andrews I bumped into Doug Bruce, author of the TABOR amendment, who was busy filing paperwork on his proposed 2000 ballot initiative that would cut taxes. By the time Bruce and I parted, Andrews was waiting for me in the cafeteria, talking with staff, so I hurried over to introduce myself.

(Photo: State Senator John Andrews (right) chats with Representative Shawn Mitchell while on break from budget talks.)

Grace Under Pressure

Andrews brightly told me he'd won two victories earlier that day in the senate. His proposal for selling HOV (high occupancy vehicle lane) use to single-drivers had been "resurrected from the dead" after Andrews managed to turn a few votes around. He had also passed a bill through committee that would reduce some of the obstacles in the way of charter schools.

That got us talking about the recent Denver Post article and op/ed about his and US Congressman Tom Tancredo's so-called "pledge to dump" public education. This "inaccurate" headline, said Andrews, has heated up his phones and earned him a spot on the NEA's hit list (officially called an "alert" list).

This freshman senator isn't content with dipping his toes in the water; he jumped head-first into the session. Chatting with him and his staff it's clear he's been keeping a frantic schedule. Glancing at his eyes it's clear he's loving every minute of it.

Andrews has a light (if sometimes cornball) wit which only occasionally turns sarcastic. He enjoys himself. And he enjoys other people. As we walked across the street to a barbecue sandwich shop, and on the way back, he stopped to chat with perhaps a dozen people, talking legislation or just saying hi.

If some libertarians are confrontational, Andrews is inclusive. As we left the barbecue shop he said to the guy running the place, "Thank you, my friend!" He also talked shop with the doormen in the Senate chambers. He breathes generosity. Meeting me for lunch was favor enough; he also gave me over an hour of his time and bought my sandwich. But more than that, he showed a personal interest in me, asking me about my history and plans. He shares a natural benevolence with people.

At one point in the restaurant, Andrews said, "I could never be a lobbyist," because lobbyists feel pressure to take on many clients and questionable jobs. One of his friends sitting at the table next to us, a lobbyist, turned her head sharply at this comment. Andrews continued more loudly, "I just couldn't be intelligent or talented enough to be a lobbyist..."

To one gentleman Andrews commented, "Hey, remember they've let me off the ship now!" He explained to me that the man works for the government education establishment. Andrews had earlier spoken with the fellow's group, saying in reference to the Denver Post's coverage of him, "Some of you probably think I've been captured by Martians or something. I want to assure you they've now let me off the ship." He was clearly uncomfortable with the alienation the Post article had caused between him and the supporters of government schools.

There's a certain jubilance Andrews gives off. It's more than kindness, I think; it's a trust in the basic goodness of others and a hope that they can be won over to the cause of freedom with friendship, humor, and good arguments.

A Life Devoted to Freedom

Andrews, born in Michigan, grew up in Saint Lewis and Buena Vista, Colorado. He met his wife Donna at Principia College in Illinois in 1964 through their mutual support of Barry Goldwater's Presidential run. He was a submarine officer in the Navy from 1966 until 1970. His three adult children now live in Colorado. By religion Andrews is a Presbyterian.

In 1970 Andrews joined President Richard Nixon's staff, first in the press office and then as a speech writer. His journey to Washington, D.C. began with Bill Buckley's conservative publication Young Americans for Freedom, for which Andrews wrote a series of articles. One of these articles came to the attention of Pat Buchanan, who recommended Andrews for a job in the Nixon administration. Andrews and Buchanan worked together under Nixon. "I supported Buchanan in '92 [for President], but not since," said Andrews, who disagrees with Buchanan over protectionism and immigration.

"I was the only public protest resignation during the Watergate affair," said Andrews. "I don't know why no one in the Clinton crowd has had the decency to step out and denounce Clinton."

In 1974 Andrews returned to Colorado to work with his father in a youth program called "Adventure Unlimited." In 1981 Andrews contacted George Roche, President of Hillsdale College, to inquire about a job. Roche has turned Hillsdale into one of the dominant libertarian or market-conservative schools in the nation. Through Hillsdale, Andrews edited Imprimus and started the Shavano Institute in Colorado, which offered pro-market seminars.

The Shavano Institute moved to Michigan in 1985, at which time the Colorado operations "morphed" into the Independence Institute, which is now operated out of Golden. Andrews remained at the helm of the think tank from 1985 until 1993, taking a leave of absence to run for governor against Roy Romer in 1990.

Andrews started the Institute with his brother in law, David D'Evelyn, who in 1993 brought charter schools to Colorado. The D'Evelyn charter school now stands in Lakewood. Andrews drew intellectual support from Barry Poulson of the economics department at CU, Boulder and financial support from Chuck Stevinson and foundations established by Coors, Gates, and others.

The first major success of the Independence Institute, noted Andrews, was in 1987 when it led the movement to replace the graduated income tax in Colorado with a flat rate. The group also spurred the idea of partially privatizing RTD routes by contracting them out.

Andrews stepped down from leading the Institute in 1993. He was "burned out" and somewhat discouraged that his 1990 race for governor hadn't brought more influence to the organization. Tom Tancredo took over at the Institute, followed by John Caldera in 1998 following Tancredo's election to the US Congress.

Andrews decided to take a job at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, but the job "didn't pan out," for which he is grateful in retrospect. So in 1994 Andrews joined TCI to produce "Damn Right," a political television show. He went into consulting in 1997 after TCI dropped their programming.

Andrews briefly returned to chair the board of the Independence Institute in 1998, when Steve Schuck dropped out so that he could devote his efforts to Amendment 17, the school tax credit initiative.

Andrews was sworn into the State Senate in December of 1998 upon Mike Coffman's election to State Treasurer. Andrews can run for the senate seat again in 2000 before hitting his term limit. After that? "It's impossible to look further ahead than that."

"I'm not sure I'm cut out to hold public office," Andrews said, "The pressures for legislators to compromise are fierce." While certainly no indication that he's unhappy with his present position, this does point to the problem of being a politician who holds strong principles. At the bottom of a letter he sends constituents, Andrews reprints a statement from Senator Barry Goldwater:

I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs but to cancel old ones.... And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents' "interests," I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.

Reuse or Recycle: Libertarian Strategy

Andrews, a life-long Republican by party, is a market-conservative by political philosophy, and probably the "market" part of that label can be emphasized strongly enough to count him as a part of the broad libertarian movement.

Still, some of Andrews's proposals are hard to square with the Goldwater line. Couldn't changing the HOV rules to allow fees for single-drivers be considered "streamlining government?" Aren't charter schools and vouchers expanding education welfare?

Perhaps the "here to there" problem is the most difficult and divisive for libertarians. Libertarians are defined by the type of civil society they advocate. We believe in free markets and voluntary social structures. We think schools should be voluntarily funded and controlled. We believe taxes should be close to if not zero. We believe welfare should be controlled by voluntary organizations, not the State.

The problem is, how do we get there? What do we do to move closer to the libertarian ideal?

Libertarian strategy to bridge the "here-there" gap falls into two basic camps. Playing off one of Andrew's analogies, I'll call these two camps the "reusers" and the "recyclers."

Andrews offered his analogy when I asked him about his Republican affiliation. He said, "The best way to get the dents out of a tin can is from the inside." In other words, Andrews is a "reuser." He wants to take the existing Republican Party, and the existing structures of government, and "reuse" them, get the dents out, so they are more fit to hold liberty.

At the time this analogy struck me as poignant. But then I started to wonder why we don't just stomp the tin can under foot and recycle it. That is, why not do away with the old and start anew?

The "reusers" believe Social(ized) (In)Security should be converted into mandatory, regulated savings accounts, because this is believed to someday lead to a fully private system. The "recyclers" call for the abolition of the program. The reusers call for charter schools and vouchers; the recyclers advocate direct privatization. The reusers call for new HOV lanes; the recyclers think tinkering with the status quo is pointless.

There's often an animosity between libertarian reusers and recyclers. The sides typically argue right past each other, and vigorously. Here I suggest, though, that while many libertarians view the debate in terms of "reuse vs. recycle" (though of course they don't use those labels), that's a mistaken way to view the root issues.

Andrew's analogy, if extended, gives us a way to unify the libertarian strategies for moving toward our ideals. To take a clue from the environmentalists, we should "Reduce, Reuse, AND Recycle." That is, we should reduce society's (and our own) dependence on the State in every way possible. We should "reuse" institutions -- that is, reform them to better accommodate libertarian principles -- whenever possible. Finally, we should "recycle" institutions completely -- dump the Statist systems and start again with market ones -- when the opportunity arises.

The single criterion by which any libertarian proposal must be judged, then, is, "Will this proposal move us closer to a libertarian world?" If it will, then push for it.

Of course, sometimes there will still be debates about whether to reuse or recycle in a particular case. Fortunately, the efforts, though contrary, will benefit each other. With people calling for the complete abolition of government schools, the modest reformers will have an easier time altering the system for the better.

In the past, the reuse/recycle debate has obscured more fundamental discussion about whether particular policies meet the standard of moving us closer to a libertarian society. We should redirect the course of the debate to address specific problems with proposed reforms. I'll use Social(ized) (In)Security and education as examples. To return to Andrew's analogy, I heartily agree with fixing the dents of a tin can when possible. However, I would add that one cannot fix a tin can with a sledge hammer or an ice pick. The attempt to do so only makes the can worse.

That's what mandatory, regulated savings accounts would do to Social(ized) (In)Security: make the system worse. I do not oppose mandatory, regulated savings accounts because they are a slow reform. My own favored reform is slow: increase the age at which benefits are paid out over a number of decades until the system is phased out. The reason I oppose mandatory, regulated savings accounts is that they do nothing to bring us closer to libertarianism, and they in fact give the State many new powers.

The government has promised to pay the elderly with taxes taken from the young. These promised payments are not going to decrease simply because the young are also forced to spend additional money on the mandatory accounts. What will be the result? We'll have to pay the same S.S. tax as before, only now we'll have to pay more money to the mandatory, regulated accounts. It's clearly a move away from freedom. The "ice pick" reformers might answer that the double-payments could be avoided if the S.S. benefits can be reduced. But if it's possible to reduce benefits, it's possible to reduce them without imposing mandatory, regulated savings accounts. Thus, there is no possible libertarian basis for supporting such accounts. They are pure Statism.

Education is a trickier issue. Charter schools only permit those now in government schools to have more choice among government schools. That's probably a good thing, as it gets people used to the idea of making choices in education. Vouchers, on the other hand, threaten to take the minority of students now in market or home schools and put them on education welfare, thus turning them into yet another tax-subsidized special interest group. Vouchers also threaten to bring more government regulations to market schools. For these reasons, vouchers are a bad idea. They threaten to squash what little freedom now exists in the field of education.

Those who advocate vouchers often suggest the rest of us have no plan to move toward market education. We do. The plan is simple: convince families one at a time to remove their children from government schools and place them in market schools, and at the same time build up a system of market schools. And we're doing just that.

To be sure, there's plenty of room for intelligent disagreement on these issues. What we must avoid, though, is couching the debate in terms of "fast vs. slow" reform or "reusing vs. recycling." The debate must hinge on a single question: "Regardless of how fast it works, does the proposed reform move us closer to freedom or further away from it?"

Principles and Compromise

My conclusion, then, is that it doesn't matter so much whether a reform is great or small, immediate or long-term. What matters is that the reform moves us in the direction of liberty. So where does compromise fit in?

An acceptable compromise is to move a foot rather than a yard closer to liberty. An unacceptable compromise is to move a foot away from liberty. The epitome of a bad compromise is when Bob Dole promised government spending under his Presidency would increase at a significantly lower rate than it would under Clinton's.

One must never compromise one's principles. When Andrews was besieged by bad press in the Denver Post concerning his radical views on education, he showed a willingness to compromise only on the side of freedom and he held firm to his principles. For that he deserves our deepest admiration. His courage in this matter is heartening.

On February 23, the Post ran a headline that claimed Andrews and Tancredo "pledged to dump" government education. As Andrews pointed out to me, this is misleading in two ways. First, the Separation of School and State Alliance Proclamation, which both Andrews and Tancredo have signed, is not a "pledge," but rather a statement of beliefs. Second, the Proclamation doesn't commit one to advocating the outright "dumping" of government education. It allows room for making pro-freedom compromises and slowly phasing out the government schools. Hence, the Post's headline was totally unwarranted.

But Andrews stood firm on the principle of free market education. In a letter published March 1 by the Post, Andrews writes:

There is good historical precedent for envisioning an America where school participation and funding are voluntary, kids grow up responsible and employable, literacy is high, crime is low, culture wars do not rock the classroom and unionism does not degrade the teaching profession. We were that kind of America when George Washington was president. We could be again one day, not through anyone's signature on a proclamation, but through gradual steps in the democratic process if enough people decide government schooling is no longer the answer.

This paragraph is brilliant. Andrews doesn't concede a thing; rather, he puts forth evidence to back his case. Government schools today are problematic in ways that market schools are not. He appeals to history and empirics to support the claim that market schools would work better than government schools. Thus, he comes across neither as a right-wing ideologue nor as a sell-out to the Statists, but rather as a thoughtful, well-informed reformer. He expresses a willingness to compromise, but only in a way that achieves more freedom.

Contrast Andrews's reply with Tancredo's. The Proclamation Tancredo once signed says:

[W]e must end government compulsion in education funding, attendance, and content. Separation of school and state is essential to restore parental responsibility and create an environment of educational freedom in which students and teachers can flourish. (

However, in his letter to the Post, Tancredo writes:

The [Denver Post's February 23] headline's implication that I seek to "dump" public [government] schools is simply not true.... I will continue to work on issues like school choice, local control, and tuition tax credits. Reforms like these will spur improvements in our schools -- both public [government] and private...

The reply is masterfully ambiguous. Tancredo says enough to comfort the moderates who favor government education, but he never reveals his true beliefs. He didn't stick to his principles. Rather, as a March 24 Post op/ed puts it, he "did some serious back-pedaling." This is a compromise destructive of liberty.

On the other hand, perhaps this single mistake should be set aside in view of the larger picture. Tancredo is, after all, one of the better US Congresspersons. Andrews was quick to jump to Tancredo's defense, though he too questioned the effectiveness of the recent letter. Andrews said of Tancredo, "He's one of the most fearless and effective conservative-libertarian people we've got in Congress.... He's a very courageous guy -- a fighter." So we must balance the good with the bad. Still, I have my concerns about Tancredo's general commitment to free markets. The August 14, 1998 Post reports, "Tancredo says he will march to Washington to... call for a moratorium on immigration -- further suggesting that the military be used to secure the borders." That doesn't sound so libertarian to me.

Compromise on policy only if it moves us closer to freedom. Never compromise principles. Articulate them clearly and offer evidence in their support.

An A-Moral America?

I asked Andrews why he thought Clinton's popularity remains high. He said, "I think it shows it's impossible to have a moral government in an a-moral country."

In today's America, said Andrews, moral and intellectual relativism reigns supreme. We're beyond the mere claims that people can choose their own right and wrong -- now people claim to create their own realities. Witness Clinton's verbal ambiguity, even trying to redefine the word "is." The general culture has reached a state of solipsism, in which each person choosing meaning for him or herself. Andrews wonders if we're following the same path as Rome did from Republic to Empire. Our once hallowed Constitution is now hollowed out.

I share Andrews's concerns about the prevalence and destructiveness of Post Modern theories (more accurately, anti-theories). On the other hand, I believe the Clinton fiasco can be interpreted in a rosier light.

I don't think the moral and intellectual relativism of Post Modernism (a label that has always struck me as peculiar) has sunk into the general society to the extent Andrews suggests. Mostly the ideas mar the walls of the Ivory Towers.

There does seem to have been a general movement away from Christianity, though. The moral conservatives conflate the a-religious movement with the Post Modern movement, though the two are dissimilar in every important respect.

Andrews's ideas grew out of the cultural conservatism of Bill Buckley and Pat Buchanan. Such conservatives generally call for a return to Christian institutions, the abolition of abortion, a sexual abstinence outside of marriage, and so forth. In general (and it is only a loose generalization), these are not the ideals of the younger generations.

But Andrews and the conservative moralists are wrong to conflate the rejection of Christian ideals with a-morality. The trends suggest the younger generations are rethinking morality, not rejecting it. If the popular reports of USA Today and news journals can be believed, we value hard work, personal dignity, independence, and tolerance. Our morality doesn't overlap well with the Christian morality, but neither does it fall into the quagmire of Post Modernism.

My views are similar to those of many of my generation (I'm 27). I hate the idea of abortion, but I believe its abolition would create even more problems. Christians would do better to spend their efforts educating women and making adoption easier. I believe sex should be between mature, mutually respectful individuals. But I don't get heart palpitations at the thought of pre-marital sex or (gasp!) homosexual relationships. For the record, I have several gay friends and the gay-bashing of the Right makes me angry. That's my moral judgment.

Andrews and I share many of the same moral precepts. But our libertarianism grows from different roots. Andrews is from the Bill Buckley line of conservatism. My intellectual heroes are Ayn Rand and David Friedman (Milton's radical son), both humanists and empiricists. Bill Buckley's National Review once published a scathing criticism of Rand.

Today, most of the old wounds have been healed among libertarians. The disagreements between the religious right and the humanist libertarians remain heated but usually there's an underlying friendship. I think the reactionary sentiments of the religious right are fueled by their failures to resurrect Christianity in modern culture. To their eyes, the culture as a whole is immoral. It's easy, then, for them to lump the Post Moderns and the rational humanists together. As a rational humanist, though, I see a healthy morality prevalent in the culture that has escaped the errors of both Post Modernism and Christianity.

In terms of the Clinton disgrace, the polls (for whatever they're worth) suggest that most people think Clinton is a slime on a personal level. Why do most want to keep him on as President? Is it because they don't want moral leadership? I think there's a better answer. Cynicism about government runs deep these days. The perspective of many is, "Sure, Bill Clinton is a complete scum bag, but what's the alternative? Every politician is corrupt." It's seen as normal for the President to be morally bankrupt. But at least Clinton hasn't done much to wreak havoc in the economy, so let the bum serve out his term.

If my interpretation holds, this is hardly an indictment of the culture's morality. Rather, it suggests that peoples' morality doesn't turn on the politics of Washington, D.C. I think it's a mistake that more people didn't try to ride Clinton out of office, but a minor mistake rather than an indication of moral vacancy.

* * *

Some libertarians will find many points of disagreement with Andrews. However, the differences are minimal in the scope of things. In the war of liberty verses tyranny, Andrews is clearly on the side of freedom. Indeed, he is one of the great intellectual generals in Colorado within the libertarian movement. He's one of my heroes.

In his letter to constituents, Andrews says that the fight to achieve limited government will be tough, "but the effort is its own reward." The achievement of a libertarian society is possible, but by no means assured. At least if we look to Andrews for inspiration we'll go down with dignity if at times we fail. In the words of a Rush song,

When the dust has cleared
And victory denied
A summit too lofty
River a little too wide
If we keep our pride
Though paradise is lost
We will pay the price
But we will not count the cost

Or, as Ayn Rand has said, those who fight for the future live in it today.

The Colorado Freedom