Freedom Summit Explores Prospects for Liberty
by Ari Armstrong, November 11, 2003
What's the difference between a pack of "cigarettes" and "little cigars?" About 50 cents worth of taxes, according to Steve Gresh. Steve gave me a ride to the Freedom Summit, held October 18-19 in Phoenix.
On the road, Gresh and I discussed the organization PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. I suggested we should be more concerned with the ethical treatment of people. Gresh then came up with PLOPA: People to Leave Other People Alone. Until they want to be bothered, anyway.
Ernest Hancock, who now runs a daily libertarian radio show in Arizona, is the energetic co-organizer of the Summit, along with local attorney Marc Victor. In his opening remarks, Hancock described the event as "an annual update" for libertarians. Reminding me of Steve's PLOPA, Hancock said there are "two types of people: those who want to be left alone, and those who won't leave them alone." Unlike cheerleading groups like Advocates for Self-Government that practically ooze optimism, the Freedom Summit has a more cynical edge. Hancock, Victor, and many of the participants don't even participate in the electoral process anymore. Nevertheless, Hancock with his naturally exuberant personality couldn't contain his optimism. He said that, despite recent difficulties for liberty, "in the end, freedom always wins."
Hancock and Victor lined up libertarian stars to address the nearly 200 activists who attended.
"I'm a strange guy," Victor admitted; "a perfect evening for me is sitting around talking political philosophy." A criminal defense lawyer for 13 years, Victor noted, "I get an upclose view on how the government seeks out and destroys its citizens." He described today's legal system as "beyond repair," in which the courts nearly "always help the state" and the "Constitution is blatantly ignored." He believes today's "justice system protects nobody except the government" and has put "more than two million in cages," often for nonviolent offenses such as drug use.
Yet, like his partner in activism, Victor nearly burst at the seems with enthusiasm. This is an interesting phenomenon that I seem to witness more and more: libertarians, who tend to hold a pretty dark view of modern politics, nevertheless live joyously and work their asses off in the freedom movement, not only because they believe they can win, but just because they love doing it.
Victor told three anecdotes related to his work as a lawyer. First, he was pulled over and cuffed by a police officer. The cuffs were promptly removed when the officer learned Victor is a lawyer.
Second, Victor was appointed as a part-time judge, and he immediately wrote a letter asking to be excused from drug cases, based on his belief that such cases involve unconstitutional laws. His appointment was rescinded.
Third, he once told a client to sit at the back of the court, while the client's friend wore a suit and sat at the bench. When the testifying police officer dramatically pointed to the client's friend as the guilty party, the charges were dropped. Of course, Victor won't get away with that stunt again. But it does demonstrate how ritualistic court proceedings have become.
Victor also argued the system is often rigged against effective public defenders. The most effective ones sometimes are fired, and some public defenders "are just props" who grease the wheels for unfair plea bargains.
"Real libertarians are all that keep... this very noble struggle for freedom alive," Victor said. Even if society isn't yet ready for libertarian ideas, he added, "We ought to set the example by how we live." That, of course, means embracing voluntary interactions and not initiating force.
In 2000, Harry Browne represented the Libertarian Party as a presidential candidate in every state -- except Arizona. In a party dispute there about which I am gratefully ignorant of the gritty details, L. Neil Smith made the ballot, instead. Yet Browne spoke at this year's Freedom Summit to a warm introduction by Hancock and a standing ovation as he concluded.
"There is no magic bullet," Browne said, "this has to be a process." However, Browne believes one general strategy is an essential part of that process: pitching the libertarian message to people in a way that addresses their personal concerns, needs, and desires. He said "the most important language in the English language is 'you'." People don't pay attention to lectures; they pay attention to what benefits them.
I've heard Browne speak a half-dozen times or so, so most of the material was familiar to me. But his concluding remarks about the Statue of Liberty always get me. He notes the Statue "faces outward to the world. A free country has no fear of who comes in and who goes out... but a welfare state is scared to death of every poor person who comes in and every rich person who goes out." Then he quotes the poem so famously associated with Lady Liberty, and then he says, "By God I am determined... that is the America we will have again." And then I dry my eyes and clap.
The West adopted democracy and thus achieved unparalleled economic progress. Or not. Austrian economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe believes economic progress has come about despite democracy, not because of it. Indeed, Hoppe believes monarchy tends to be a better form of government. Just so there's no confusion, though, Hoppe is an "anarcho-capitalist" in the tradition of Murray Rothbard (who, until he passed away, worked with Hoppe at the University of Nevada at Los Vegas). Hoppe wrote a book titled, Democracy: The God that Failed.
Hoppe's reasoning is simple but compelling: "a king has a long-term view." That is, a king does well who ensures the long-term stability and economic progress of his region. A democratically elected politician, on the other hand, has no such inherent incentive. Instead, the incentive of Congress is to steal as much money as possible, as fast as possible. "Democracy ensures that only evil people... will rise to the top," Hoppe believes.
However, though a careful reading of Hoppe's book might change my thinking, it strikes me that Hoppe often over-simplifies his case. For instance, he argues wars are more horrible that involve democracies: witness the 20th century. Wars by democracies tend to be waged "over ideology," whereas wars by monarchs tend to be smaller in scope and limited mostly to property disputes. Yet this point is not at all obvious. Yes, Hitler was democratically elected at first, but then he acted very much like a dictator. Ideological wars tend to spring from particular types of cultures, not from particular types of states (though in many areas military dictatorships rule ideologically forceful cultures). Many democracies tend not to start wars against each other (though I suppose what constitutes a "democracy" is open to interpretation).
Hoppe's presentation about monarchy was thought-provoking and humorous, but it didn't seem all that convincing to me. But of course he doesn't advocate monarchy, anyway. He'd like insurance companies and private defense companies to take over the current functions of the state. But even this can seem like pie-in-the-sky theorizing, so finally Hoppe settled upon secession. Small governmental units are better, so he hopes large states can be broken into many autonomous regions. Of course, this raises the problem of how small regions can maintain their independence if larger states (of whatever internal organization) want to take them over. But Hoppe's talk was too short for any sort of detailed discussion of these many difficulties: he raised a number of interesting ideas that must be pursued in his books and in related literature. So I won't feel too bad about also leaving the issues unresolved.
Bill Scannell is an activist, not a scholar. Thus, his achievements are measured by policy changes, not by academic books or articles. He researched proposed "de facto internal border patrols [that] give you permission to get on an airplane." The story is that, after the terrorist attacks, the government wanted to work with the airlines to build a huge database of travelers, who would be tagged at different danger levels.
Scannell found this big-brother scheme "deeply offensive," so he used his background in journalism to launch a campaign against the proposal. So far, he has won. He beat up two different airlines until they decided not to pursue a pilot program.
"I don't want the government knowing who I am or where I'm going... I'm an American," Scannell said. He said the attitude, "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear," is insidious. Instead, "you have everything to fear" from such intrusive government policies.
Scannell was the least libertarian of all the speakers (though still obviously a fellow traveler), and he has seen enormous practical success. Somehow, that didn't surprise me. On the other hand, his political instincts are obviously informed by a long liberal tradition, which is at root a philosophical quest. Still, there is a fine line between working out theory and choking on it. Put simply, Scannell gets stuff done. And he's charmingly down to earth: "What's killing the air industry is it really sucks to fly now."
Congressman Paul wasn't sure the problem of telemarketing requires a solution any more complicated than "teaching people how to hang up the telephone." He jokingly said a better idea would be to create a "do not wiretap list," given the loosening of restrictions on police surveillance in the last couple years.
Paul isn't that popular within his Republican Party. Texas changed the congressional districts to help Republicans just like Colorado did -- yet Paul was last on the list of Republicans with helpful voter registration numbers. "It's going to be more difficult for me," he said. But he also pulls in a lot of independents and Democrats, he pointed out.
Even though he he's "taken a fairly firm stand against almost every position the President has taken," Paul has retained "amazing" support in his district. Moreover, other Republicans seem to respect his consistency.
"We do have a Constitutional crisis and a rule-of-law crisis," Paul said. He pointed out the "welfare-warfare state" depends upon a devalued currency. Nevertheless, he's somewhat encouraged that many Americans have fought against the worst provisions of the PATRIOT Act.
Taxes and Assets
Donald "Mac" MacPherson is a lawyer who defends those in trouble with the IRS. Unfortunately, I couldn't follow his speech, which seemed to proceed randomly. I did pick up a few tidbits: tax law is capricious, the IRS has been "back with a vengeance" after September 11, and "you can be right, but you can be dead right." In other words, tax law is basically what government agents say it is, and "you have to decide whether you want to go into the lion's den."
On Saturday evening, Vernie Kuglin said a few words about her fight against the IRS. Kuglin recently won a criminal case against her after she declined to pay the income tax for a few years. She said the IRS never replied to her many inquiries prior to the criminal case. A civil case is still open, I understand.
The next day, Vin Suprynowicz supposed that there's no magical legal theory that's going to somehow convince IRS agents and the courts that the income tax is invalid or doesn't apply.
Also on Sunday, Richard Morris offered good mainstream estate planning advice. "Don't say 'it isn't going to happen to me'," he urged. IRS audits are on the rise, stealthy offshore accounts just don't work, and protecting one's investment just isn't likely to save a lot in taxes. What's most important, Morris said, is protecting one's money from all sorts of scams.
Morris described the "Browne-Branden Principle," named in honor of two other speakers at the conference. Harry Browne warns against "indirect action," making your well-being dependent upon convincing other people to do things. And Nathaniel Branden urges people to take responsibility. "Don't get hot and bothered," suggested Morris; instead, figure out a workable solution.
I'd open by pointing out Nathaniel Branden is the only living person known to have had sex with Ayn Rand, but then Objectivists would accuse me of focusing on non-essentials. On a serious note, Branden helped found the Objectivist movement and, by extension, the modern libertarian movement. Few share his stature or his insight.
In early America, Branden pointed out, "self-responsibility was almost taken for granted." Today, "people compete for who's the bigger victim." Branden touched upon many of the same themes he discusses in his book, Taking Responsibility.
The problem as Branden sees it is "the political seduction of the American character." He noted the irony of welfare, which "began with the aim of ending dependency." Instead, people have become "habituated... to government solutions to predicaments." We have turned into "a nation of government addicts."
Branden offered no easy way out. The "battle has to be fought on many different fronts." Knowledge of how a free market works is essential. Rand presented a "seriously reasoned moral case for capitalism." In psychology, "America fell in love with Freud," who, along with Skinner, cast free will as a delusion. A "doctrine of non-responsibility... was fed to the culture by the psychologists." So work in psychology is important.
Branden had some advice for libertarians: "You need a lot of patience... and good humor... to advance the libertarian cause. You need to be clever, not righteous." He recited an ancient bit of wisdom he finds useful: "A hero is one who knows how to make a friend out of an enemy."
It's impossible to predict the future, of course. We live in trying times, and "wars, even legitimate wars, are dangerous for freedom." Nevertheless, he added, "I think that in the long run, freedom will win out for the simple reason... that the realities of the information age will require a high level of freedom."
Branden believes two specific political reforms would go a long way toward restoring a culture of responsibility: replacing the existing income tax with a flat tax, and privatizing social security. Next on the list would be ending the war on drugs. "The battle is going to be won issue by issue," he said. "It needs writing more than anything else... from each according to his ability."
"All it takes to become a libertarian is a liberal who understands economics... or a conservative who got his ass kicked by a cop," Richard Boddie began Sunday morning, calling himself a "gentle individualist."
Far and away the most entertaining and energetic speaker, Boddie said he was trying to make up for missing church. Mostly, his talk was a collection of one-liners: "After all is said and done, more is said than done in our movement... We need action. We need activity."
"Voting has never freed anybody," Boddie argued, so he wants to "get freedom-loving people to leave politics" and spend their time elsewhere in the freedom movement.
Boston T. Party
The big news is that Boston isn't moving to New Hampshire; he's planning his own "Free State" project in Wyoming. After reviewing his arguments, I have to agree with his reasoning. Too many people are needed to turn New Hampshire into a "free state." I just don't see how it can work there, at least to any meaningful degree.
Boston began by reviewing his books, citing Hologram of Liberty as the one that most influenced his own thinking. "What do we do? Where do we go from here?" he wondered. Just one dark cloud comes over the horizon when baby boomers start drawing social security around 2011, with the tax expected to double by 2018.
"We need to converge on a state," Boston concluded several years ago. "If you're free in your county, you're free." We "don't have to try to save the world anymore."
Boston tells it like it is. Wyoming has the room and the culture to host libertarians. "We need to get kinda rugged," he said. Some complain about the cold weather in Wyoming. "Put a coat on." Others don't like the wind. "Go indoors." We're not going to be transported to freedom on a feather bed, as Jefferson put it.
One audience member asked Boston if he was worried a successful free state might attract a less-libertarian crowd, which would then start to undo the progress. Boston humorously suggested those who carry a gun openly might be exempted from any sales tax. He thought a truly free area would both attract particular industries and repel sniveling statists.
However, "my idea is not the only idea," Boston said. He called the free-Wyoming plan a "niche idea among a niche population."
Shaffer, a law professor, offered some profound insights amid a fundamentally indefensible moral skepticism. He pointed out, quite correctly, that most people build up an intellectual case around their prior moral commitments. He also warned against reifying the law.
But I think Shaffer is headed in the wrong direction. He gave an obvious but challenging argument against "natural law" theories of politics: "how can anything that exists be contrary to nature?" This attack is effective against certain types of natural-law theories, but not all. Today, most people who appeal to natural law simply mean that society organized according to certain principles tends to function better, based on how the world and the people in it work.
To Shaffer, morality consists of "rationalizing one's interests or preferences." As an historical description of how many people operate, Schafer makes a point. But as a moral position, his argument fails, and indeed it undercuts itself.
Here's how Shaffer's argument is supposed to work. When people believe "absolute truths," they become morally zealous and they attempt to "impose their views on others." If we convince people that morality is subjective, they'll be less likely to try to impose their will on others.
But the argument fails for at least three reasons. First, there's no reason to think that, just because people believe moral subjectivism, they'll be less violent. Indeed, some such people are likely to try to impose their will on others, simply because they enjoy doing so. Second, Shaffer's argument is inconsistent with libertarianism. After all, if somebody tries to walk into my home and walk out with my stuff without my permission, I'm likely to use force to try to stop the person. Am I then just imposing my subjective will on others? No, libertarianism depends upon clearly defined moral standards. Third, Shaffer's argument falls quickly into skepticism about all moral claims, including his own.
At times, Shaffer almost tried to escape this problem of self-reference. He differentiated between moral subjectivism and moral relativism. "We each think our opinions are best," he said. But this is a trivial distinction, and Shaffer is still stuck with the notion that morality is purely a personal creation.
Suprynowicz is a story teller. He tells true stories about how people get screwed by the government. "I don't know" how to get our freedoms back, he admitted. What passes for liberty today is but a pale reflection of real liberty. In early America, young people developed complex literacy without government-run schools, and they started their careers at an age that today would be considered criminal. "We're the remnant," Suprynowicz said of the liberty movement. Our job is to pass on the ideals of liberty to future generations. Homeschooling and the fully-informed jury movement are two positive trends, he said.
What I believe (and hope) is the case is that Suprynowicz is missing some important shifts in the culture. Whereas most academics in the mid-1900s were socialists, today libertarians are making great strides and at least holding their own in a number of debates. Libertarianism is intellectually exciting. The younger generations are broadly libertarian, but in ways that aren't necessarily obvious to "old-school" libertarians like Suprynowicz. I for one am not content to remain part of a "remnant." For libertarians I know, the mantra is, "Liberty in my lifetime." If that means moving to Wyoming where the "remnant" rules the roost, so be it. If that means working for many years to bring about significant libertarian reforms, then, again, so be it.
I take Suprynowicz's message as one of realism. We can't count on fate or destiny or the dialectic of history to bring us a world of freedom. We might work hard our whole lives and watch the political scene deteriorate around us. At the same time, reality can easily accommodate liberty. When listening to people like Nathaniel Branden and the other speakers, liberty seems quite possible indeed.