Getting political at age 14 (1959)
During the Cold War, my family, more my father than my mother, was more fearful than the average American regarding the chances of nuclear war with Russia. We seriously talked about building a fallout shelter, although we didn’t take concrete action. I remember my mother’s cousin’s husband, Bob Ray, saying we should all learn Russian as soon as possible because he was sure Russia would soon dominate the world.
I indirectly became a Libertarian
My parents learned about an anti-communist speaker who was coming to Shelby to give his presentation in the Shelby High School auditorium. My whole family was there. Quite in awe of the speaker, I approached him after his speech to ask a question regarding political systems. He gave me some materials that were created and distributed by The Foundation for Economic Education, founded by Lawrence Reed in 1946.
I got political when my fellow students were blaisé
As I dug into and began to study the free educational materials provided by FEE, I found they sourced many of their ideas from the works of John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Henry Hazlitt, and the Austrian school of economics. I was particularly influenced by Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson: The Shortest and Surest Way to Understand Basic Economics. FEE’s basic conclusion was that the best governments were the ones which limited their functions to “inhibiting fraud, theft, misrepresentation, and predation.”
Going beyond Libertarianism?
Since learning about Libertarianism and a bit later about Ayn Rand’s political philosophy as expressed in the book Capitalism the Unknown Ideal into my early 20s, I later refined my original ideas to include other types of actions appropriate to good government. For example, I don’t remember those Libertarian and Randian ideas including how to address the "problem of the commons," which I learned about later, to the extent to which a “commons” needs to exist or does exist. Although the actions of government often create "problems of the commons" where none existed before, I now believe that appropriate governmental action can be helpful and needed in some common areas, like the air we breathe, as with a carbon tax.
Trying to convert my neighbors
I was an evangelist in high school. Going door-to-door visiting the neighbors, I armed myself with various essays researched and distributed by FEE that detailed the costs of various social and governmental services in the United States. I was prepared to argue the limitations and costs of these programs in comparison with what would be possible with a more free market approach. I cited one example being the U.S. Post Office which was (and is) propped up as a protected monopoly and federal subsidies. Neighbors would invite me in and we’d discuss various governmental programs.
Conclusion: no one is being duped
I concluded that nobody was being duped by the Communists. The message I had gotten from the presentation in the Shelby High School auditorium, combined with what J. Edgar Hoover claimed in his book Masters Of Deceit: The Story Of Communism In America And How To Fight It was that many average Americans had been duped by the Soviet Union into believing in a socialist/communist ideology. Talking with my neighbors, I found no evidence of this. Although most of them would have seen themselves more capitalistic rather than socialistic or communistic, many of their cherished and long-held ideas about what government should do were socialist and included a tightly regulated economy and the curtailment of individual rights (at that time in the U.S., getting an abortion was illegal).
Political labels get all turned around
Looking back (from 2021), the same type of mismatch between names (and terms which are more clearly defined) applies to China. China still touts itself as a “communist” country just as many Americans still see the U.S. as a “capitalist” country. Yet many of the policies of the Chinese government today are more capitalistic and free market than are those of the U. S. government. Yes, the U.S. is much more democratic than China, but being democratic doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with being capitalistic. Becoming capitalistic is the most important thing that accounts for China’s rise from abject poverty from Mao Zedong’s China, which was extremely communistic and collectivistic in its policies and resulted in over 36 million Chinese dying from starvation. The China we see today was kicked off by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 with policies that moved toward the free market and competition, which have largely continued to this day. In general, the USA has gone in the opposite direction, except in the arena of civil liberties where it has generally gotten more free.
Mixing Libertarianism with Objectivism
In my late teens and early twenties I identified myself strongly as an evangelistic Libertarian and “Student of Objectivism,” as Ayn Rand liked her fans to call themselves. This identification was so strong that, unknowingly, I lived inside the belief that I could not really be happy until the political direction of the United States turned toward both more economic and personal freedoms.
Trying to convert Congress
When I was 23-24 I composed a letter, which I personalized to each one of the 435 congressmen and 100 senators. The letter included a cogent argument for the discontinuation of one of the federal government social programs. I received maybe 15-20 responses. Most were “thank you for your ideas,” with no indication that the responding clerk had read what I had written. A few of them mentioned some other particular issue that the representative was addressing that my letter had made no reference to.
Maybe I can be happy anyway
At age 24-25, I became self-aware enough so that I saw explicitly the “I can’t be happy unless” belief that I was living and acting inside of regarding the status of the U.S. government. I could say that that was a pretty stupid belief. Moreover, I realized that all my efforts to push against the “prevailing winds” were making me even more miserable. More than that, they were making it difficult to have great relationships with others when they didn't share my political inclinations, which was for most people!
I gave up. I am so glad I did. As Byron Katie would say, “I stopped fighting what is.”
Keeping politics out of the bedroom
When I was 27 I got my first long-term girlfriend, Loretta Weiss. She kept bugging me to discuss political theory. I knew she thought of herself as a socialist; she had even considered joining the Socialists Workers Party. I didn’t want to risk losing her as a girlfriend so I refused to discuss/argue politics. Finally, I said, “If you’ll read two books, after that, if you still want to discuss politics, I will.” She read, Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt and Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal by Ayn Rand.
Without trying to convert her
We never discussed politics after that because she became an even more avid Libertarian than I was. Later she would be the primary organizer of the National Libertarian Party Convention held in New York City in 1975. She also ended up marrying Gary Greenberg, a prominent New York City Libertarian lawyer.