L. Neil Smith for President
by Ari Armstrong, September 1999
L. Neil Smith, the science fiction writer who lives in northern Colorado, is running for president if one million people sign a drafting petition. I'm endorsing him for the job.
Smith, who publishes The Libertarian Enterprise, is the author of over 20 books, consisting mostly of libertarian science fiction. Two of the better books from his collection are Pallas, a story about a boy who escapes a collectivist city on an asteroid to gain fame and fortune in the broader libertarian society, and The Probability Broach, in which two parallel Earths, one totalitarian and the other libertarian, collide.
Smith is a staunch advocate of gun rights. Larry Pratt of Gun Owners of America advocates more guns in the hands of teachers and other responsible adults in schools as a way to reduce violence. Smith does Pratt one better by advocating the right of children to carry guns in schools. This may sound crazy to some, but in fact many schools used to teach firearms training as a matter of course. So Smith's idea isn't so at odds with America's history. In Smith's words:
Every man, woman, and responsible child has an unalienable individual, civil, Constitutional, and human right to obtain, own, and carry, openly or concealed, any weapon -- rifle, shotgun, handgun, machinegun, anything -- any time, any place, without asking anyone's permission. -- L. Neil Smith, WeaponsCon I, Atlanta, Georgia, September 1987
In making the qualification, "responsible child," Smith grants that only older children should carry guns. Children don't acquire a full set of rights until they become capable of mature rationality and independence. Just as children do not enjoy full rights of contract, neither must they enjoy the unrestricted right to carry firearms. However, every "responsible" person deserves the full right of self-defense and gun ownership. Of course, property owners may restrict firearms on their property if they wish, but the government ought never to impose restrictions.
Smith does go a bit over-board sometimes. For instance, he has publicly suggested that the recent string of shootings might be a conspiracy. (See his article at The Libertarian Enterprise.) Now, I've got to admit that I, too, have found the timing of some of the killings odd. But until there's at least a shred of evidence to suggest any killing might be part of a conspiracy, public commentators have no business ruminating on the possibility. All the killings in recent years can easily be explained as unrelated, independent acts of violence. Of course, the argument that disarmament laws turn people into victims is valid, as is the argument that a heavily regulated society tends to suffer moral corruption. But these are arguments of unintended consequences, not of conspiracy. At least Smith says only that he would like to see the possibility of conspiracy investigated.
To read an anti-Smith page that details some of Smith's sillier comments, go to http://www.qstarweb.com/lneilsmith/index2.html.
If Smith at times lets his rhetoric get the best of him, I can live with that, because he is also a principled and passionate defender of liberty. I'd much rather see a candidate who generally defends freedom with clarity and force but who occasionally displays exaggerated exuberance, rather than a mealy-mouthed candidate who sounds guilty when arguing for liberty and who confuses ideological compromise with political practicality.
Besides, as Smith acknowledges, the main purpose of campaigning as a radical is not to win, but to educate the public and the politically powerful. So in this regard, Smith's uncommon but sensible ideas are likely to play well in the media, whereas his more peculiar views are likely not to matter. In his estimation of the value of campaigning, Smith is more sensible than many of his libertarian contemporaries. Smith writes:
I want to make it clear that I don't believe I'll be sleeping at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue any time in the next century. My goal (a realistically achievable one) is to establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that there's a constituency for the Bill of Rights too large to ignore -- or to abuse any further.
Smith says he'll run for the Libertarian Party, if it'll nominate him, or as an independent. I hope the LP will put him on the ticket. I appreciate Harry Browne (the 1996 nominee who's seeking the 2000 nod); he's a capable writer. But Browne just doesn't have the emotional urgency to make a good candidate. Plus, I have a hard time supporting someone running for president who once wrote:
Do the politicians want to impose new restrictions? Let them. I'll find ways of avoiding them easily enough. I couldn't stop the restrictions anyway -- and I have no urge to waste my precious time trying. I have no temptation to vote, to campaign, to try to stop a candidate who promises new follies. (How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, Avon 1973, page 378)
With such a radical change of heart, I'm suspicious that Browne's race is as much about self-promotion as it is about affecting politics. (Browne's Freedom book has made a new edition, his Why Government Doesn't Work was published for his 1996 run, and he now has a new finance book on the market.) At least Smith tells you upfront that he wants you to buy his books in order to give him greater financial resources for activism.
Readers of the Report will know that earlier I endorsed Jacob Hornberger's run for president. Hornberger bowed out, citing an incompatibility with campaigning and running his Future of Freedom Foundation. I think Hornberger's choice was a wise one. My switch to Smith is not difficult: I see both men as principled activists who make a rational case for liberty while appealing to the heart.
Similar to Hornberger, Smith is more of a polemicist than a ponderer of subtlety. He writes that "a libertarian is a person who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being." I suppose that's a pretty good summation, but it doesn't take into account such critiques as those of David Friedman, who argues that in extenuating circumstances the initiation of force is justifiable. For instance, if a gangster were hunting me down and firing bullets at me, and I could find shelter by breaking into somebody's garage, you can bet that's what I'd do.
In The Probability Broach, Smith takes a similar absolutist approach to the "non-initiation of force principle," and he entirely fails to provide the ethical context which justifies that principle and assists in its interpretation. So Smith falls into the trap described by Jeffrey Friedman as the "libertarian straddle," in which a theorist tries to support a weak empirical case for liberty with moral absolutism, and also tries to buttress dubious moral theory with practical arguments (Critical Review, Vol. 12, No. 3).
But the political campaign is not suited to subtle philosophical reflection anyway. Politics, for the libertarian, is a way to spread the ideals of the political philosophy in pop form. It's a close enough approximation to define a libertarian as one who "under no circumstances" initiates force.
Of course, one problem with libertarian political activism is that libertarians are by definition non-conformists. Probably the majority of libertarians aren't even politically active. Out of the politically active minority, opinions are so diverse that it's tough to reach consensus about anything. The dictum, "Never speak ill of another Republican," simply cannot be converted to libertarianism. Hopefully, our diversity and bullheadedness is a greater source of strength. If it's tough for libertarian "leadership" to organize the movement, it is that much harder for government agents to control it.
There may be other strong candidates to enter the political race for president. At this early date, however, I'm ready to invite Smith to run. I admit I have my personal reasons for wanting to see Smith enter the race. First, I believe gun rights is the single most important issue now facing the country, and Smith would be strong on this point. Second, as a Coloradan, I'm eager to see my region become a center of the libertarian movement, and having a fellow Coloradan run for president would help in this regard.
If you're interested in Smith, read some of his essays at The Libertarian Enterprise, and maybe follow up by reading some of his fiction. And sign his petition if you want to see him run. I close with the words of L. Neil Smith:
My first act as President would be to order the arrests of Bill Clinton, Janet Reno, and Webster Hubbell for what they did at Waco, to round up everybody else responsible for what happened there, and put them on trial for their lives.