The extra dining room in the Pacific Highway Sambo’s was empty, except for one harried waitress and me. As she set up tables for dinner, she asked me, almost conspiratorially, what was planned for the evening.
“I think it’s some sort of a political dinner and speech.” “What kind of dinner?” “Well, what I’ve been told is that it’s a political group o people who call themselves libertarians. They hold speeches here.” I thumbed through my notebook to give myself some credibility.
She stared at me quizzically, then blurted out, “Have you been drinking?”
Maybe such skepticism is understandable in the wake of post-Watergate anti-politics. (Or maybe I just looked like I’d been drinking.) Yet, this was no alcoholic fantasy. A group of people calling themselves libertarians did pile into Sambo’s that night, basically to talk politics. However, the libertarian brand of politics is so far removed from the established political spectrum that it’s almost another species altogether.
The California Libertarian Party platform gives some taste of this. Like a bewildering mixture of liberal and conservative party platforms, the libertarians demand an end to drug laws and pornography laws, gun controls and zoning, welfare and HUD, prosecution of victimless crimes, and all economic controls. To the libertarians, taxation is theft, socialized medicine would be slavery, and they “ask not what people can do for their country, but what the country’s government is doing to the people.”
The meat of the libertarian position is simple: no individual or group has the right to control forcibly the life or property of others. This includes the government, whose only proper tasks “should be to protect its citizens from those who violate individual rights.” Thus, the libertarians denounce most of the government’s present activities. People could better care for themselves and their interests if left alone, free from the orders (and inefficiency and graft) of the state, they claim.
They even explicitly reject the established political spectrum, which runs from fascism to communism at the extremes, and thus leaves no place for any anti-government political philosophy. Instead, they suggest a new two-dimensional schema; if you take a horizontal line with totalitarianism at the left and complete civil liberties at the right and cross that with a vertical line with total government control of property at the bottom and laissez-faire capitalism at the top, then libertarians would find themselves near the top right hand corner. Kennedy-type liberals and Nixon-type conservatives would both occupy varying positions in the middle of the map.
Pinning down the origins of libertarianism is tricky, since libertarian spokesmen and writers have the unnerving habit of citing sources for their political philosophy who go back as far as ancient Greece and Rome. Among more recent sources, libertarians embrace such American revolutionaries as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. (“Libertarianism constitutes the second American revolution,” so goes the rhetoric.) Libertarian writers such as H.L. Mencken and Ayn Rand are scattered throughout this century, but the fact remains that until the late 1960’s, libertarianism remained little more than one strain of conservatism. In fact, as late as 1964, Libertarian and traditionalist conservatives worked together blissfully on the Goldwater campaign.
It was only in the late 60’s under administrations which waged war and drafted its citizens to do it, which unceasingly ‘‘fostered the military-industrial complex and other government subsidies to big business,” that the union between traditional and libertarian conservatives became too tenuous. The general consensus is that the contemporary libertarian movement really got underway in 1969, as an offshoot of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom youth group. For years, YAF also had harbored a libertarian faction which found much to agree with in the organization’s laissez-faire economic posture, but which was increasingly disgruntled with YAF’s “statist” positions on the military, the draft, drugs and other issues. The intra-organizational tensions finally exploded at the YAF St. Louis convention of 1969, when one zealous young man burned his draft card, nearly getting himself killed in the process. The convention almost came to blows and when it was all over, the libertarians had walked out, to regard themselves as a separate movement.
Since then, they’ve formed a number of organizations and have gone off in a number of directions. In fact, the question of just what libertarians should be doing is one which dogs the movement. Do you fight a huge and overwhelming political system by joining the political system?
To the members of the Libertarian Party, the answer is yes. Formed in 1972 by a group of young Coloradans, the LP now claims more than 3,000 dues-paying members, a membership total which places it third among the nation’s six significant minority parties, (the others being the American, Peoples, Socialist Labor, Communist and Socialist Workers parties.) While the party’s primary purpose is education, it jumped into the arena of political races soon after it was formed.
In 1972, the party ran about a dozen candidates in races across the country, but the major one was for the presidency. John Hospers, professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, and Tonie Nathan, a woman broadcast journalist from Oregon, occupied the presidential ticket. Despite their late start, Hospers and Nathan crisscrossed the country in the course of their campaign, but only got on the ballot in Washington and Colorado.
When the votes from those two states were in, the ticket had received more votes than the Communist and Socialist Workers parties combined. The big victory for the LP came after the election, however, in the Electoral College. There, Roger L. MacBride, a disenchanted Nixon elector, announced that he was putting “principle before party” and cast his vote for Hospers and Nathan, thus making the LP the only minority party to receive any electoral votes in 1972, and awarding to Nathan the honor of being the first and only woman to receive an electoral vote.
Facing the upcoming election, the party now estimates that it may make the ballot in five states, and the party’s organizational structure has vastly improved (California alone now has around 20 regional organizations.) John Taylor, chairman of the San Diego county group, estimates that he’s in contact with around 300 people, but the big California stronghold is up in Los Angeles, probably because of Hospers’ influence as a leader of the movement. In fact, the big race in this year’s California election once again centers on Hospers, now making a bid for the governorship.
A serious and restrained man, Hospers makes it clear that his race isn’t intended to be frivolous. The libertarians’ political target in California is to get on the ballot, a formidable task. California has some of the most difficult requirements in the country for getting on the ballot, requiring 65,000 signatures from registered party members, or 650,000 signatures from the voting populace at large.
“Or it would take two per cent of the total votes cast in write-in votes for m$ to get on the ballot. That isn’t realistic, considering how much trouble it is to write in a candidate, but it is possible,” Hospers estimates.
For the past few months, Hospers has been speaking to a variety of mostly non-libertarian groups. His most recent stop in San Diego was for a $12-a-plate fundraising dinner which drew over 100 people, a number which planners hailed as a victory.
From his candidate’s perspective, Hospers notes a big difference between the voters today and the voters of 1972, a change which he claims bodes well for the libertarian movement.
“Watergate has captured the media and the public awareness. The people I’m talking to are very disenchanted with government now,” he says. To the libertarians, who decry the power of the present state, this is a good sign, and Hospers says the libertarian message is finding ready acceptance from many varied groups of people. In fact, libertarians may be the only present political minority party’ which can channel that disenchantment, according to MacBride (the Hospers elector of 1972.)
Although MacBride looks alarmingly like; a used car salesman, he reveals an arresting intelligence when he speaks. At e recent San Diego fundraising dinner, he began by putting forth a case for why the Republican Party is now actually finished. When one considers that the GOP faces massive losses in the next election, that seasoned politicians are defecting from its ranks with alarming frequency, and that “it hasn’t stood for anything in the past 40 years, and has only controlled the Congress four years out of that, it’s clear that the GOP has the icy hand of death upon its head,” he argued.
Furthermore, if the publicans are finished, the libertarians may be the only ones to fill the void simply by default, he claims. MacBride dismisses the American Party as being a one-man party. Wallace may have polled 10 million votes in 1968, but when he re-joined Democrats in 1972 the AP's candidate received only one million votes. Now, the AP is split into two pieces, “the Wallace faction and the Schmitz faction, wrangling over details of their conservative possibly racist philosophy,” MacBride said. Similarly, the Peace Party also was a one-issue party; with the war in Vietnam had but one chance to ring the gong and that chance is gone "Over,” MacBride said. The California Peace and Freedom Party may be heading in a new direction- but that direction is a libertarian one. At their convention this summer, a libertarian faction in the party succeeded in nominating Elizabeth Keathley (a libertarian who recently made headlines by strolling in the nude along the San Francisco beaches) to be their gubernatorial candidate.
Finally, with regard to the remaining Communist and Socialist parties in the country, MacBride airily suggested “we should shake them gently by the shoulder and expose them to a loud and ringing alarm clock and wake them up to the news that they are the last lap of the wave of the past, and not the future.”
Considering all these factors, MacBride predicts that the LP may be in a position to repeat the political scenario which occurred in this country over a hundred years ago. In 1860 the Republican Party had a president in the White House only six years after its formation in Ripon, leaving the decimated Whig Party to slink off the political stage forever.
For all these grandiose visions, Hospers and other party spokesmen still insist that the party pins its major hopes upon its educational value.
“The most important thing for the party is education, and that has to come up from the grass roots. Political involvement is just a means to that end. There are millions of people who know the movement exists now. I think the greatest single benefit is the thousands of people coming out of the woodwork who now know there’s a group who represents their views. Without the party, we wouldn’t have had that,” Hospers said.
While the party may have racked up some substantial gains for the movement, it's still too political for a number of libertarians. To satisfy such people, groups like the Libertarian Alternative in San Diego have sprung up. The group was formed about a year and a half ago, by three young San Diegans who worked in the 1972 Hospers campaign. One of these three, Sara Baase, now runs the organization. She explained how it developed.
“We wanted something to continue on for libertarians in the San Diego area that wasn’t related to the party. The purpose of the Libertarian Alternative is to make the libertarian position known to the public."
The group originally planned to follow the lead of the Libertarian Alternative in Los Angeles and to concentrate on replying to radio and television editorials. However, Baase says this tactic hasn’t worked out too well, due to a lack of San Diego media editorials to reply to. Instead, the focus of the group’s energies has come in the form of the dinner meetings now held at Sambos.
Starting about a year ago, Baase and others first publicized the meetings through the Libertarian Party. In the past year, the Alternative has sponsored speakers on land use, tax resistance, defense, the ACLU, and other libertarian-related topics. Held every month, the meetings are open to anyone who wants to pay the $1.50 donation requested. Looking over the past year, Baase admits she’s been surprised by the turnouts.
“I’ve been really amazed that every month people come in who I’ve never seen before. They find out about it in all sorts of roundabout ways. They see our newsletter, someone passes on the word. One guy recently showed up because his father had come once and had told him about it.”
The dinner meetings in progress present a study in contrasts. White haired lawyers and doctors and their wives share Samboburgers with blue-jeaned college kids. The majority seems to fall in the 20’s, to 30’s age group, holding such varied jobs as computer programmer, road paver, land-use planner, with a few more off-beat types thrown in such as the free-lance science fiction writer who regaled his table with stories of how the government was blocking space exploration. Newcomers blend in with old-timers and standard questions are asked: What brought you here tonight, are you a libertarian, how did you get into libertarianism?
The Libertarian Alternative also sends out a monthly newsletter to around 300 people whose names “come in from a lot of places” according to Baase. In addition, the group has participated in a few political demonstrations: picketing the post office when the rates went up, protesting taxes on April 15th. Now some people are setting up a hotline which supposedly will offer a shoulder to cry on for those hassled by the government or merely disgusted with it. The group is also in touch with the small groups of libertarian students on the local campuses; last year UCSD sponsored a seminar on libertarianism. Though the activities have varied, the goal has been the same as that of the party; to get out the message that people should have the chance to run their own lives.
Assessing the strength of a political movement is a hairy undertaking, and the case is no different with libertarianism. While the LP’s numbers are small, many people who will write in LP candidates aren’t formal members and thousands of other libertarians aren’t in contact with the party al all. Organizations like the Libertarian Alternative are scattered all over the country, but reliable numbers are virtually .impossible to obtain. One sign of growing strength in the movement is found in the growth of libertarian publications like Reason magazine, which has grown from around 400 to over 12,000 subscribers in the past four years.
Perhaps the strongest evidence for the libertarians can be gathered along the lines of MacBride’s argument. Recent polls reveal that less than a quarter of the nation’s voters now classify themselves as Republicans; independents now outnumber those affiliated with the GOP. Even the local libertarian organizations are feeling the effects of this. Like the one letter which Baase recently received.
She recalled it, “It was from this man who said he was in his late 60’s... he’d been a Republican all his life. He said he was just fed up with Watergate and had to find another answer.”