Libertarian politics

I’ve always been an independent cuss. Maybe it’s from growing up way out in the Alaskan wilderness. Or maybe I was just born this way. For whatever reason, slogans like “Don’t Tread on Me” and “That government is best which governs least” have always resonated in my consciousness.

I first became aware of the Libertarian Party (LP) in 1980. When I went to vote in the general election that November, I saw a third choice for U.S. President and vice-President: Ed Clark / David Koch (Libertarian). I pulled that lever right away. There was no way I was going to vote for another four years of Jimmy Carter, no matter what the Allman Brothers said. And I wasn’t too keen on Ronnie Reagan, either; I had lived in California while he was the governor, and that had not been pretty (he was squarely behind Nixon’s “War on Drugs”, among other things). I figured anybody at all was an improvement on those two.

I didn’t pay much attention to politics during the 1980s. I was too busy fixing up our new house, studying for the last couple of actuarial exams (I finally became an FSA in 1988), and building the financial projection system at Security Life to pay much attention to politics. But by 1989 Kathryn and I were making enough money that income taxes were becoming a real concern. And a sense of political ferment was in the air: Douglas Bruce was pushing a tax limitation initiative known as the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, or TABOR; George “Read my Lips” Bush was making promises he did not keep; and Colorado governor Roy Romer was spending millions of taxpayer dollars to fight the citizens’ initiative process. Clearly the time to get involved had arrived.

I learned that the Libertarian Party of Colorado was holding its annual convention one weekend in April, 1990 at the Holiday Inn in Fort Collins. Walter Williams was the featured speaker. I sent my registration fee to Mary Margaret Glennie, rented a room at the Holiday Inn, and drove the 75 miles to Fort Collins late one balmy Friday afternoon. The convention was a lot of fun. There was quite a bit of earnest discussion about ways to “reclaim our lost liberty”, a whole lot of bickering over obscure points of Objectivist philosophy, and a deep sense of camaraderie. I left the convention with many new ideas whirling through my head.

I’m not easily convinced of anything. Some of the LP’s rules (the “pledge” and the “statement of principles”, in particular) struck me as a little bit nutty; not because I disagreed with the intent those statements express, but because I thought — as I still think — that they are poorly written. So I had to cogitate for a year or so before I actually signed up. Finally, in March of 1991, I joined “the party”. On Sunday, March 24, 1991, at the Colorado LP’s convention in Evergreen, I was elected Membership Director. By unanimous acclamation. Big surprise. I was the only nominee. I wasn’t really keen to take on the responsibility, but poor Lexy Dillon looked so weary that I felt somebody had to take the load off her shoulders. So I acted on a timeless principle we should all keep in mind:  If it is to be, it is up to me. And it was the Christian thing to do, to boot.

I served as membership director for four years straight. It was a lot of work at first: on my initial visit to the post office, I paid about $120 just to get all the LP’s returned mail out of hock. Gradually I got the mailing list whipped into shape. David Aitken was running a database management package under the Pick system on an IBM PC, so for the first year or so I would stop by his office on East Colfax after work and spend an hour or two doing data entry. Eventually I bought a modem (about $50 at a computer hardware store that had just opened at 6th and Lincoln) and a used monochrome monitor (14″, from Aitken, about $75) and set up a remote workstation in the basement at my house.

David Aitken was also running a bulletin board service, so once I got my modem configured I could just dial him up, log into the database management program, then do all the address corrections from home. This made my life a lot simpler, although Kathryn got upset with me more than once — I was dragging too much paper home with me from the post office. As I recall, that old modem ran at 2400 baud. That’s just 300 bytes per second. (Eventually telephone modems were capable of transmitting at 56,000 baud over a conventional dial-up connection; I didn’t get one of those fancy-dan modems until the year 2000).

Aitken’s bulletin board service was a precursor to the internet. It did not provide an interconnection to millions of other computers. But it did allow one computer to communicate with another one — very slowly — from just about anywhere in the world. (Although long-distance charges were pretty steep 25 years ago, with a thick enough wallet one could have accessed David’s Pick system from Abu Dhabi, in theory at least). Another local Libertarian, Joe Dehn, an MIT grad who lived in Littleton and who also served on the Colorado LP’s board of directors for a time, ran another dial-up service that provided a connection to LiberNet, which operated under FidoNet, and provided an on-line discussion forum for Libertarians all across America. It wasn’t fast, and it wasn’t fancy. No graphics at all. 7-bit ASCII characters only. But it was a step closer to the internet we all know and love so much today.

In November of 1994 I upgraded my system from a terminal and a modem to an IBM PC with a 16″ monitor (color, no less!) and an HP LaserJet printer. Security Life loaned me $4,800 at 0% interest to make the purchase. I had some trouble with the PC at first. It was a custom-built job with a SCSI hard disk, running Windows 3.1. Unfortunately, the guy who had built my PC had damaged the motherboard inadvertently by plugging my newly built box into an outlet subject to power surges. Murphy’s law bit me and my brand new PC. There was a big voltage spike in the neighborhood that day. The hidden damage to the motherboard caused intermittent short circuits, which in turn caused the system to crash randomly and unexpectedly. I finally got it all straightened out — after convincing the guy who built it that there really was a problem — and that box served me well (until about 2002, when the hard disk started getting a little bit squirrelly — I was assigning alternate tracks every couple of weeks).

In March, 1995 I lost my job at Security Life, as I’ve recounted elsewhere. In April I traveled to the LP of CO convention (held at the Holiday Inn in Fort Collins); I did not seek re-election to the board. Larry Hoffenberg took on the membership duties that year. And in 1996 I decided to stay on the sidelines a while longer (although I did attend the national convention in Washington DC, where I served as the Colorado Delegation’s chairperson). And I spent three days working at the LP’s booth at the state fair in Pueblo. That was a lot of driving (~115 miles each way).

In November of 1996 the voters approved amendment 15, the “Fair Campaign Practices Act”, which had been sponsored by a group called Citizens for Responsible Government (a bunch of socialists, basically). This new law required the LP of Colorado to file quarterly financial reports with Colorado state government. It also required candidates for public office to file a registration statement with the Secretary of State, even if they did not accept any campaign contributions from other people. If a candidate accepted money from others, he was required to file financial reports on a regular basis until all the contributed funds had either been expended or given away to other groups / parties / candidate committees. This new law really threw a monkey wrench into the works for the LP of Colorado. We were chronically underfunded and could not afford to pay an accounting firm to file the required reports. What was the party going to do?

Coming Next: More Libertarian activities, and I run for public office.

The Story of Hongi

Well, I haven’t posted anything in a long time. I’ve had some horrible problems with an older PC — more about those another day. Anyway, I had to create a new system, and in the process of importing my old data I ran across this little piece, from February, 1999. I wrote this up for the Colorado LP’s newsletter, the Colorado Liberty.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

A hundred and fifty years ago New Zealand was a wilderness, virtually untouched by European civilization. The English missionaries who were among the first to settle there were busily engaged in the business of bringing Christian civilization to the native Maori tribesmen. One of their early converts was a chieftain named Hongi who was by all accounts a most magnificent wild man — tall, strong, handsome, and plastered with tattoos according to the custom of his tribe.

The missionaries eventually ran short of money. Certain that Hongi would inspire curiosity and generosity among the church members back home, they decided to send him to England as part of a fundraising committee.

Hongi created an absolute sensation in England. Droves of people flocked to see him. He was admired not only for his commanding stature and powerful physique, but also for the unusual and colorful artifacts of Maori civilization surrounding him when he was on display. Tales of the harsh conditions confronting his people evoked great sympathy, and generous donations from dozens of congregations came rolling in.

As Hongi and the missionaries prepared to sail back to New Zealand a delegation of well-wishers headed by an envoy from the Queen bestowed a gift upon the Maori chieftain. They gave him a huge collection of shovels, rakes, and hoes, and many bags of seed, along with instructions on how these instruments should be employed. They urged Hongi to take these tools back home. They wished him all the best, and said they hoped he would use their gift to feed his people.

Hongi did in fact use that gift to feed his tribe, but not the way the missionaries hoped he would. When his ship put in at Sydney, Hongi sold the agricultural implements and the seed. He used the money to purchase rifles and ammunition. Returning to New Zealand, he taught his own tribe to use the white man’s weapons and then waged war upon his neighbors. Hongi and his people slaughtered hundreds of their Maori rivals, and in the best tradition of their kind, they cooked and ate each victim.

Hongi’s story is not an isolated incident. The pages of history bristle with similar if not quite so gruesome examples. Wherever and whenever men set out to make improvements in other people’s lives, they find themselves face to face with the ineluctable law of unintended consequences: Because the future is unknown and every human being has the power to make his own choices, my attempts to improve your situation will have consequences neither of us can imagine at the outset.

This is not to say that the human condition cannot be improved. Rather, the law of unintended consequences tells us that grand schemes for societal improvement often backfire. It says there are no magic bullets. It keeps us on our toes when social reformers are busily peddling panaceas and utopias. And it does its very best work when it moves us individually. Since I do not know what effect my efforts to improve my neighbors will have on them, there is only one sure way to make this world a better place — by doing what I can to improve myself.