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Libertarians: Agreeable Disagreement

November 01, 1985|BOB SIPCHEN

The organizers of the 13th annual "Future of Freedom" conference couldn't have asked for a more evocative image. Behind a small stage hung a banner depicting a shackled, outstretched hand breaking the chain that had restrained it. Against that backdrop, looking appropriately solemn, conference manager Lawrence Samuels held high a battered cassette player from which issued the voice of draft resister Paul Jacob.

A libertarian from Arkansas, Jacob had planned to speak at the conference held at Griswold's Hotel in Fullerton last weekend. Instead, he was convicted last July in federal court in Little Rock, Ark., for failure to register with the Selective Service. He was sentenced to six months in prison, 4 1/2 years' probation and he must perform eight hours of community service per week for two years of his probation period.

"The prison system seems designed to show that the government has great power," Jacob said in a recorded phone call from the Federal Correctional Institute at Seagoville, Tex. "I was already aware of that. In fact, that's what I'd been fighting. But what this time in jail has shown me is that an individual has the power to stand up to that massive government, and to not only endure, but also to prevail."

See Government as Stifling

In the course of the weekend-long conference, the belief that an individual can and should overcome what libertarians see as the stifling bonds of government control was reiterated in formal debates and informal arguments, on videotapes, at a Free Press Assn. H.L. Mencken awards banquet and in recorded anthems. As explained by Samuels, a Santa Ana typesetter, the libertarian philosophy is simple: No person or institution has the right to coerce an individual into doing anything, for any reason or by any means. Therefore, Samuels said, libertarians believe in very little government or no government at all, and a completely unrestricted, laissez-faire economy.

For the 300 or so faithful libertarians who attended all or part of the conference, those notions were beyond dispute.

But that's about all anyone agreed upon.

As more than one person pointed out, a certain amount of disharmony is to be expected from a group that worships individuality.

"Since libertarians have very little orthodoxy, they're able to look at problems objectively," explained Karl Hess, a character of almost legendary status in libertarian circles and this year's recipient of the conference's "Future of Freedom" award.

In the '60s, Hess was a speech writer for Sen. Barry M.Goldwater (R-Ariz.) ("extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" is probably Hess' best-known line) and then Vice President Richard M. Nixon, but he fell away from mainstream conservatism in 1968, the final nudge coming from the Vietnam War.

In a 1970 article in the New York Times Magazine, Hess is quoted as saying: "Vietnam should remind all conservatives that whenever you put your faith in big government for any reason, sooner or later you wind up as an apologist for mass murder."

Readily Recognized Icon

With his unruly, '60s-vintage beard and self-assured gaze, Hess, who now works as a spot welder in West Virginia, was a readily recognized icon. Cronies who'd known him in the early days of the movement and neophyte libertarians who only knew of him greeted Hess with hugs and handshakes at the speeches, workshops and parties.

"Libertarianism has only a tiny, tiny ideology: 'Thou shalt not agress,' " Hess said as he stood outside the main conference room, where dozens of informal, hit-and-run debates raged throughout the weekend. "There are some libertarians who send me screaming up the wall, but I tend to like them better than other people, because I know they wouldn't want to force me to believe the way they do. That's more than you can say for Republicans or Democrats."

Two Main Divisions

It is this adamant refusal to accept coercion in any form that separates libertarians from the old bomb-tossing anarchists, Hess said. Otherwise, he continued, libertarianism and anarchism are pretty much synonymous. In fact, as Hess and others at the conference pointed out, the two main divisions within the modern libertarian movement are the anarchist libertarians, who believe in no government, and the "minarchist" libertarians, who believe that a shred of government is tolerable.

Like most of the true believers at the conference, Hess was ready and able to argue away any skepticism about his world view. In an unencumbered marketplace, creative entrepreneurship and volunteerism will overcome most, if not all obstacles, he said.

Take defense, for instance.

'Taxation Is Theft'

To quote some of the bumper stickers and buttons at the conference, "Taxation is theft" and "Conscription is slavery." Modern technology makes a purely volunteer defense system practical, Hess said. "The weapons systems are such that national guard units could maintain systems so severe, they could deter the Soviets."

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