When I stepped into Roger Lea MacBride’s presidential campaign headquarters in Washington I didn’t know a Libertarian from a rubber duck. I was handed a generous helping of Libertarian party literature tucked neatly into a glossy folder, complete with button, bumper sticker, and a copy of the candidate’s latest work, A New Dawn for America. I flipped through this stuff, trying to get the hang of it, and checked out some of the many clippings pinned to a board in the lobby—an endorsement from the Sunnyvale, California, Scribe, an encouraging column by Nicholas von Hoffman, scores of stories about MacBride’s consistency and his “refreshing” ideas.
I looked over the party platform to see what these ideas were and realized that I wasn’t going to be able to kneejerk my way through this story. The game they play, as they put it in their literature, is “nothing more nor less than the politics of Liberty,” and these people mean it.
“Holding foursquare to those ancient principles upon which this Republic was founded, we affirm that every individual has the inalienable right to life, liberty, and property and that no one has the right to impose his or her values on others by violence or the threat of it.” And that goes for government, too. In fact, that especially goes for government. “Government should not have the power to rule nonaggressive individuals against their will. The only tolerable activity undertaken by governments, as far as we’re concerned, is the protection of individual rights against violence.”
in fact, the Libertarian platform this year swings so quickly from right to left that it will give you nosebleed. Here’s a list of what they propose to abolish: preventive detention, tariffs, import quotas, no-fault insurance, involuntary commitment to mental institutions, compulsory drug programs, government-funded research, the FBI and the CIA, right-to-work laws, minimum wage laws, government access to personal papers, antigun laws, compulsory arbitration, antidiscrimination laws, deficit spending, the Federal Reserve, antitrust laws, farm subsidies, wage and price and rent and profit and production and interest ceilings, income taxation. regulation of energy resources, federal control of the Post Office, the Environmental Protection Agency, safety-belt and crash-helmet requirements. any restrictions at all on the sale or use of any drugs whatsoever, compulsory education, public schools, taxes on private schools, busing, child labor laws, the National Labor Relations Act. welfare, government poverty programs. Medicare and Medicaid and any form of national health insurance, the Professional Standards Review Board, building codes, zoning, eminent domain, regional planning, urban renewal programs, the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Social Security, the Civil Service system, campaign finance laws, ballot restrictions, foreign aid. the Export-Import Bank, laws restricting trade with any nation or negotiations with anv nation or organization by a private citizen, national claims to offshore rights, overseas Army bases, our involvement with NATO and SEATO and other alliances, the Monroe Doctrine, presidential emergency powers, membership in the United Nations.
As if that weren’t enough, the fine print at the bottom of the platform warned. “Our silence about any other particular government, law. regulation, ordinance, directive, edict, control, regulatory agency, activity, or machination should not be construed to imply approval.”
I was beginning to get the picture. What I had here was the politics of the wide open spaces, of every man for himself, of letting the chips fall where they may.
Reading through MacBride’s A New Dawn for America. I came across this:
“. . . the major problem of our time is [government] intervention. Those who would like to continue analyzing specific problems may benefit from the books listed in the footnote.” (For a New Liberty, There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch, and The Federal Rathole.) “The rest of us will move on, having observed sufficient of the activities of the Wizard in Washington. We recognize him for the humbug he is, and look forward to bringing an early end to his reign.”
Odd talk for a presidential candidate.
I thought, but the question I really wanted to ask the goggled, squinting man who beamed from all those posters around the office was why he thought government was so fundamentally nasty.
“Well, because ‘government’ is an instrumentality of force,” MacBride calmly replied.
A small, tidy. heavy-set man in a tan suit, he sat at his campaign manager’s plausibly cluttered desk as we waited to walk over to the Mayflower to attend a Kiwanis luncheon at which he was invited to speak. He was tired and had a cold; he had recently returned from a swing west and was about to swing west again the next morning. Still, his delivery was smooth and glib, like an easylistening disc jockey’s, until he came to words like “government” and “welfare” and “antitrust” and anything else he didn’t approve of, when you could all but see scornful quotation marks poised like pincers overhead.
“Those in ‘power’ have access to guns,” he blandly continued, his small hands folded before him. “You remember Mao’s dictum that power grows out of the barrel of a rifle? Well, it’s perfectly true. The use of government is the use of force to accomplish an end. telling people that they will either do as those who are in control say or go to jail. We take it as a fundamental tenet that human beings are free and ought to be at liberty to make their own decisions.”
As we talked over a number of issues, including issues I hadn’t realized were issues, such as our involvement in World War II, MacBride used a lot of phrases such as “of course,” and “obviously,” and “as you well know,” and I had a hard time figuring whether he was flattering my grasp of the issues or signaling his boredom and impatience.
The only drawback to monopolies, he said, was higher prices, but when prices are hiked up too far in a free economy, the competition can come in with a better product at a lower price and bust the trusts. Discrimination was “unfortunate, but the government has no right to step in and compel people to behave differently.” To illustrate how well the private sector can cope with poverty he talked about the Mormon Church, which, “as you know, has a tenet for its members constantly to fund the welfare fund, with which needy Mormons are succored in time of need. It works very well. There aren’t any Mormons on welfare as far as I know.”
His views paralleled the party platform in almost every case, and were founded in a trust of the virtues of free enterprise. No issue seemed to demonstrate this more clearly, nor arouse more of his wrath, than child labor laws.
“I’d repeal all child labor laws, of course. In point of fact, they’ve probably done a hell of a lot of damage. The time has come to get rid of them. There’re damn few parents who are going to let their children he abused. Of course, if the child was being subjected to force, you’d just turn to your local cop to stop the abuses. If it’s not a matter of force, if it’s a matter of an employer saying, ‘Kid, you’re fifteen years old and I want you to work twelve hours a day for two bucks an hour,’ and the kid says, ‘Well, geez, I want that motorcycle, I’ll work twelve hours a day,’ why should any institution step in with force and stop them?”
Roger Lea MacBride’s childhood began in 1929, the year the bubble burst. He was the oldest child of Burt MacBride, an editor first at Collier’s and then at Reader’s Digest. Squat and nearsighted, he was something of a loner in the lush Westchester suburbs where he grew up. He wore bottle-bottom glasses from the first grade on, and he was forbidden by his doctor to play any games involving small flying objects. His fourth-grade teacher remembered how he kept his distance from the other kids, standing on the sidelines with a secret, ironic smile as children frolicked around him. Even at that distance, however, he would still be struck by stray bats and balls he hadn’t seen coming.
He read Webster’s Dictionary from cover to cover when he was seven, and once read every book lining the shelves of a summer house his parents rented. He developed an ambition to become a brain surgeon and took to spending long afternoons in the library boning up on the subject, until his doctor forbade him this ambition, too: there was no demand for half-blind brain surgeons.
As the only son and oldest child, Roger inherited his father’s enthusiasm for laissez-faire economics and the Grand Old Party. Politics weren’t discussed much around the dinner table, but Roger would remember his father’s occasional tirades against President Roosevelt’s encroachments on free enterprise, and Roger’s mother saw in her brainy, earnest, and ambitious son something of her own father, a quarrelsome Kansan lawyer who once ran for Congress on the Bull Moose slate.
When he was sent to Exeter, he felt isolated not only by his eyesight but by his political vision as well. The school was, to his mind, a hothed of “Ivory Tower Socialism” as he called it (and he would later refuse to contribute to his alma mater unless it stopped indoctrinating its boys with socialism). Studious, embattled, he turned to that loner’s haven, the debating team, where his views, no matter how heretical, would be dignified, or at least given equal time.
Roger Lea MacBride probably would have remained a reflexive and secondhand conservative Republican but for one woman, the grande dame of libertarianism, Rose Wilder Lane. A small, somewhat dowdy, restless woman of huge energy, Rose Wilder Lane was nearing the end of a very full life when she met Roger over lunch near her farm in Danbury, Connecticut, and the boy was bedazzled.
She was the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the child of the frontier who wrote with such care and yearning about her pioneer girlhood in her Little House books. As soon as Rose was out of school she began to travel, as a telegraph operator, real estate agent, reporter, novelist. She went to the Balkans as a Red Cross worker, wrote fawning biographies of Henry Ford and Herbert Hoover, joined the Communist party, visited Russia, quit the Communist party, lived in Albania (where she turned down King Zog’s proposal of marriage), and, writing somewhat in her mother’s mode, became for a time one of America’s highest paid authors before retiring, sort of, in 1938 to demonstrate her opposition to paying taxes toward the New Deal.
Two of her books, Give Me Liberty and The Discovery of Freedom, were influential in Libertarian circles. She seems to have been one of those impatient and ambitious people who try to turn their inability to generalize, to make some overall sense of their experience, into a generalization itself. The individual was all that mattered to her, all that existed, perhaps because it was all she could perceive in the miscellany of her life. “The People is a fiction.” she once wrote, “like The State. You can not get a Will of the Mass, even among a dozen persons who all want to go on a picnic. . . . The population of a country is a multitude of diverse human beings with an infinite variety of purposes and desires and fluctuating wills.” What brought progress was not governmental control but its opposite: “individuals who act against the majority opinion of their time.”
Roger certainly fit that bill, and Rose Wilder Lane knew it. Long divorced and childless, she had no family, and saw, perhaps, in this brainy, isolated youth the hope that when it came time for her to pass the torch along, somebody would be there to receive it.
They struck up a correspondence almost immediately. He read her books and wrote her, asking “naive questions” such as, Shouldn’t we make it possible for the poor to get food cheaply by controlling prices? And she would put aside her correspondence with Herbert Hoover, Sinclair Lewis, and other luminaries to reply patiently with manypaged letters: Price controls would prevent economic progress, don’t vou see, and how will people ever escape poverty without economic progress? She sent him recommended reading, and he would faithfully read it all, cover to cover, and write back his discoveries, agreements, new questions, on through Exeter, Princeton, and Harvard Law. Their relationship became so close that he took to calling her “Grandma” (his mother, a little peevishly, called her Roger’s “spiritual mother”) and Rose took to calling her voung disciple “my adopted grandson.” “I was her ‘It,’ ” as Roger put it.
After law school Roger got a Fulbright to study comparative constitutional law in the Philippines, returned to the United States as a bright young star of the Wall Street firm of White and Case, quit, worked on the United Student Aid Fund, and finally quit New York altogether, disenchanted by both corporate law and the city.
Eager to try his hand at politics in an area less hostile to his conservatism, he bought himself a house and 1200 acres near Brattleboro, Vermont, where he set up a small law practice, made a few real estate deals, married, and settled in. Grandma was a frequent guest in his house in the big woods. She made him her lawyer and agent, he gave her puppies, their correspondence continued unabated.
Keeping his Ivy League training in the background, Roger insinuated himself into local Republican politics and in time ran for the state legislature. He brought to his campaign a zeal that few Vermonters could match and he won handily. When he began to zero in on state pork barrels (the State Recreation Commission, which was spending $36,000 a year “to teach people to play,” the Morgan Horse Farm, the Vermont state magazine, and others) he became the hottest thing to hit the Green Mountain State since the Fenians. He was virulently attacked for his proposals and had no success in passing them, but he gained a kind of Mr.Smith -Goes-toMontpelier reputation, and was persuaded to run in the 1964 Republican gubernatorial primary. He was swamped, but so were the moderates of his party, in the Johnson landslide that fall.
His wife gradually wearied of the isolation of their Vermont homestead and persuaded him to move to a 100-acre farm near Charlottesville, Virginia, where they were still settling in when word came that Rose Wilder Lane, at eighty-two, had died. Roger’s grief was profound, hardly mitigated by her having left him her entire estate, including the income from her mother’s best-selling books. He took upon himself the task of editing Rose’s correspondence, “posthumously collaborating” on a revision of The Discovery of Freedom, with which she had been eternally dissatisfied, and trying to tie together all the loose ends of her life.
When Roger was small, a neighbor lady had prophesied that he would always manage to get by on luck, and in fact his luck, or what seemed to be luck, astonished his friends and colleagues all his life. When he gambled, as he was fond of doing in Deauville and Las Vegas, he rarely left the table with the short end of the stick. He was the quintessential entrepreneur—eccentric, daring, cool. His wheeling and dealing led him into television, where he produced a dry-cleaned version of Little House on the Prairie for NBC and sold a pilot for another series, based this time on Let the Hurricane Roar, one of Rose’s best-selling books. Grandma had made him rich.
He and his wife adopted a child in 1970 and named her Abigail Adams MacBride, but a couple of years later his wife divorced him. There was a bitter custody fight, with Roger emerging the victor, and it may have been in part to escape the turbulence of his private life that he allowed himself to be chosen an elector from Virginia in the 1972 election.
MacBride turned this routine political assignment into instant celebrity by casting his vote not for Nixon and Agnew, whom he considered crooks and Keynesians, but for John Hospers and Theodora Nathan, the brand new Libertarian party’s presidential ticket, which had received 10,000 votes nationwide. (Since then the ranks have increased. The party claims 20,000 duespaying members.)
His vote made a big splash, especially among Libertarians, who hailed it as a victory of “principle over party.” But it was really more of a victory of party over party, because by then MacBride had had it with the GOP. He immediately took to speaking at Libertarian gatherings all over the country, became a “life member” a few months after his vote, and proved persuadable when, in 1974, a movement surfaced to nominate him for the presidential spot on the next Libertarian ticket. MacBride campaigned eagerly at the convention in the fall of 1975, and won a three-way contest hands down.
He soon proved to be something more than a part-time candidate making a mere symbolic gesture. MacBride had totaled up his life’s accomplishments as lawyer, businessman, writer, and world traveler and adjudged himself worthy of the highest office in the land; surely, he grew to think, more worthy than Ford, Carter, or any of the other “hacks” in the running. He put in eighteen-hour days, week after week, appearing on local breakfast hours, phone-in radio shows, campuses, at luncheons, anti-motorcycle-helmet rallies, high school assemblies, anywhere they’d listen.
He got the sensation, in the East and the South and much of the Middle West, that he was “walking in sand,” but in the Far West, especially the mountain states, people listened to him, took him seriously. recognized him in coffee shops and on the street. He developed a “strategic vision” of concentrating on the West, of campaigning hardest where he was doing the best, and by August 1976, he was confident of inclusion on ballots in thirty-eight states, more than any other third-party candidate. He headed a ticket which included 1000 candidates around the country, and with $50,000 of his own money invested in his candidacy, and $250,000 raised by his party, MacBride’s conviction grew that he was heading for a third-place finish come November.
Lunch with the Kiwanians
On our ten-minute walk to the Mayflower, Ed Crane, the Libertarian party chairman, briefed his candidate on some of Ford’s and Carter’s more deplorable acts and positions, but none of it seemed to be news to MacBride, and I wondered if the briefing was being staged for my benefit.
We made our way past the Presidential Room in the hotel and into the East Room, where we found a lot of wide men in sports jackets shuffling around good-naturedly, spooning some kind of whipped potato soup out of little cups. A man named Stan stood in one corner, getting a lot of ribbing about a new-grown moustache. There was some talk of getting the government off their backs and of wise-ass young pups over at the FDA. sudden guffaws, hearty handshakes, and gag butt-ins along the line to the buffet.
MacBride looked uncomfortable. Few of the Kiwanians approached him, and at one point he spilled a little soup on his tie. A man across the room from the buffet sternly reminded everyone that there was a program today and everybody ought to hurry along to their tables so they could begin that much earlier.
MacBride sat up on the dais facing the room, hunched over his plate with an expression that asked. “What am I doing here?” It was a fair question: for all the talk about getting the government off their backs, no one could be potentially less responsive to severing the ties between government and big business than a gathering of the Washington Kiwanis Club.
As he was being introduced, MacBride kept his head low, glancing at his audience from time to time, trying to gauge its mood.
He began his speech with a joke he likes to tell to show the difference, as he sees it. between the Democrats and the Republicans. “In the midst of an economic depression,” MacBride said in his odd. mocking singsong, “Carter goes to Congress with a solution to the rising unemployment rate. He says. ‘I’ve studied the situation and I have a solution to propose to you. I have noted that in Egypt there are many more pyramids than there are in the United States and so I am going to propose a giant public works program of building a pyramid in each and every town in the United States. And this will have the effect, of course, of putting everybody to work who isn’t employed at the moment, and also have the benefit of closing the pyramid gap between us and Egypt.’ So the press goes to the Republican leaders in Congress and asks, ‘What do you think about this multimillion-dollar idea?' And the leader of the Republican forces says. ‘To a man we are opposed to every bit of it . . . unless it’s administered on the local level.’”
There was some appreciative laughter, though none of the knee-slapping these guys were surely capable of. MacBride began to talk about basic Libertarian principles, but there was something out of whack about his delivery, because even when he was stating his own fundamental beliefs and purposes, he still spoke in the scornful singsong he used in his joke.
He told them he intended to do well in the election, though he wasn’t “about to send out any invitations to the Inaugural Ball,” and went on with his views on what he called a “tripod” of concerns: foreign policy, civil liberties, and the economy. He said he wanted to dump the Monroe Doctrine and make America into a “giant Switzerland, open to the world.” He emphasized victimless crime laws, safety-belt restrictions, and the like when he got to civil liberties, and said this about drugs: “What most people are unaware of is the fact that heroin was entirely legal in this country until 1914 and there was no drug problem. The drug problem was created by prohibition.”
But it was the economic leg of the tripod that MacBride leaned on most heavily. He may have simply been gearing his speech to his audience, but that is a standard political ploy, and MacBride told me himself that he was no standard politician.
“We don’t have free enterprise now,” he told them, “but a corporation state system, in which all too frequently business goes hand in hand with government.” There was some shifting around in the room, some grumblings and giggles. as MacBride deplored the FAA, the ICC, the CAB, the FCC, and just about every other set of initials he could get his hands on. “We don’t have a free economy,” he said, citing the 40 percent in taxes Americans pay all the levels of government, and citing the following example of the unreasonable restraints put on our economic system.
“If you have a daughter in college who wants to earn a little money in her spare time by doing some of her college mates’ hair for a dollar or so she couldn’t do it. of course, without getting permission from the college and town authorities, obtaining a diploma from a beauty school, no doubt getting a variance in the fire regulations—knocking a door through the walls to provide alternative exits—and of course appearing before the zoning commission to be allowed to press hair—these are only illustrative of the network, the tissue of government regulation of our lives on an economic level from the smallest local thing to mammoth things like businessmen communicating with each other, either by mail or by transporting themselves from one end of the country to the other.”
The Kiwanians appeared baffled by all this—none of their daughters had complained of such deprivations. Did he really intend to get rid of fire regulations?
MacBride, aware of the failing momentum of his speech, wound it up quickly. “In the area of foreign affairs,” he said, the irony finally lifting from his voice, “in the area of civil liberties, in the area of the economy of this country the same answer is called for: a simple dose of human liberty. Thank you.”
Is he serious?
There was hospitable applause as he stepped back from the podium and the floor was opened to questions. After a certain amount of silent craning of necks around the room, a man up on the dais asked him about his budget.
MacBride said he couldn’t be specific about it yet, adding, “My board of economic advisers is working on that right now.” There were some guffaws at the notion of his having economic advisers, laughter MacBride tried to redirect by saying, “How about that? A fudge on my first answer.”
There were some hostile questions about his views on tariffs: “How can we live better if we’re all buying foreign?” an elderly man grumbled when MacBride said he would abolish them. MacBride had told me about the satisfaction he got from, as he put it, turning on the little comic book lights over people’s heads, but today, as he answered questions about unions and agencies and unemployment and matching funds, you couldn’t help but see the lights going out all over the room. Some of the men around the tables had been nodding wistfully along with MacBride to begin with; it was hard to knock all that stuff about simple doses of human liberty. But you could see them start to shortcircuit when he got specific. No tariffs? No FAA? No child labor laws, for Christ’s sake? What was this guy going to do about whoever jumps on our backs once the government’s jumped off?
When the last question was answered. MacBride was given a box of flowers and a round of applause, but when it was all over, and MacBride walked out of the East Room, the Kiwanians held back, shaking their heads in his wake.
“It was a little ridiculous in this day and age,” one of them said with an incredulous smile. “Of course we don’t have a free economy. But it’s as free as we can have it under the circumstances.”
“Gee,” a man in a string tie said, “I couldn’t tell if it was totally tongue-incheek or if he was serious.”
“An example of an historical problem he seemed not to have the facts on,” said a grave man who worked for a drug company, “was laudanum, where so many uninformed people in America destroyed their total family lives with a product they thought was a good medicament but which was really opium. Now there’s a regulation that saves people from that sort of thing.”
“Well,” another man said cautiously, “it would take an awful lot of serious study to determine whether you were really for it or against it.”
“I didn’t have any energy or pep, you know,” MacBride wearily explained afterward. “I wasn’t really putting out. This engagement was by invitation, and I try not to do too much of those. Anyway, most of those men are plugged into the system. They’ve made their peace with the powers that be, or effectively use the powers that be to advance their own interests. They’ve lost that idealism of youth. They’ve lost that grasp of what man has done, man can undo.”
“But that’s not true of people in the West,” MacBride said, wistfully gazing at a map of the country pinned to the wall behind him. “People out there went or their mummies and daddies went to get away from authority. It’s close to the surface out there. You’re touching something they already know when you talk Libertarian ideas; this feeling that, God damn it, it’s my life. Let me live it.”
So next morning MacBride was back at the controls of his DC-3, hauling his cargo of posters and pamphlets up over the doubting East, swinging west to fly among the mountains, and be heard.