A Libertarian in Berkeley

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I often get e-mail from readers, focusing on the fact that I live in Berkeley. Many libertarians seem surprised that a free market capitalist could be found in a town with such a socialist reputation. "A libertarian in Berkeley?" I’m typically asked. "It must be pretty lonely there!"

Other readers, presumably not LRC regulars, who likely come across my articles on a FreeRepublic thread or a similarly hawkish site, lash out at me for my antiwar writing, assuming that since I live in Berkeley I am a "leftist" or "socialist," or that I "love John Kerry," or at a minimum I "hate America."

From what I gather, most conservatives and libertarians assume that Berkeley, the town as well as the university, is a breeding ground for communist ideology, social deviancy, and leftist totalitarianism. There is some truth to this, but it’s not all that simple. Just like everywhere else in America I’ve been in my life, Berkeley has a lot to offer, and a lot to aggravate, a devout libertarian.

Berkeley has a socialist city council — but what town doesn’t? The city officials are certainly wannabe tyrants, but they’re not overly egalitarian. They give special deals to certain businesses and corporations. For example, no businesses are allowed to operate past 10:00 PM, except for those with monopoly privileges. So at 11:00 Seven-Eleven is closed, and the only pizza you can have delivered is rather horrid. This is not a result of leftism, per se, but of power-hungry municipal politicians, which you will find throughout America.

The Berkeley police are socialist, but also not in a typically overly "leftist" manner. My libertarian friend was once thrown in jail for two days for riding his bike in a dismount zone. The police officer rode up to him and ticketed him. When my friend refused to sign the ticket and surrender his rights to a trial, and demanded to see a magistrate (all within his rights under California penal code), the cop simply threw him in jail for two nights. When they realized they had nothing on him, they released him in the dead of the night, in his t-shirt and shorts, having confiscated his bicycle and driver’s license. My friend had to wait in the pouring rain for four hours for the train. This is the kind of abuse you’ll find in Berkeley, no different from any town with bullies in uniforms.

The town is of course "liberal" in its social norms. There are body-pierced punk rockers and transient beggars and all other sorts of people you might find annoying on your way to school or work. There are also men and women in business suits, and an incredibly impressive religious community. The hill on which I live has at least five theological centers and churches within a two-block radius.

And then there is top dog, a delicious hot dog establishment with three locations right off campus. top dog is owned by a libertarian, and while eating one of the best hot links or bockwursts you’ve ever tasted you can read the literature strewn across the walls — quotations, articles, and comic strips each with a libertarian message. The words of Jacob Hornberger, Ludwig von Mises, Thomas Jefferson, Murray Rothbard, Friedrich Hayek, Lysander Spooner, Herbert Spencer, and of course Lew Rockwell are all showcased on the walls and in pamphlets and magazines. I first visited top dog before I enrolled at the university, and seeing such a glorious display of free market and individualist ideas adjacent to an equally glorious display of kielbasa and bratwurst made me realize it was the right town for my college years.

Of course, the town does have a leftist atmosphere, overall. The campus of UC Berkeley, like most university campuses these days — public and private — is saturated with leftist activism. There are Marxists, Leninists, Trotskyists, Maoists, New Leftists, Social Democrats, and Anarcho-Socialists everywhere — and that’s just the faculty!

However, as far as student groups go, I have surprised a number of people by letting them know that the largest, best organized political campus organization is The Berkeley College Republicans (BCR). While all the leftists are factionalized, split up among clubs called the Left Party, the International Socialist Organization, the Campus Greens, and many other groups, the conservatives are all united in one, monolithic, undergraduate Bush League.

You might have seen BCR on Fox News, whining about how the poor conservative students are treated like outcasts and censored by the student government. Don’t believe it. BCR receives obscenely large subsidies from the Student Body government, on top of the many, many thousands it gets from conservative alumni and businessmen around the country who think they’re making a difference by helping the poor young conservatives compete in the tilted world of campus politics.

And the folks in BCR, by and large, have virtually nothing in common with libertarians, especially of the Rothbardian variety. When I first came to Cal, I began working with the Cal Libertarians, and I imagined we’d find common cause with the campus Republicans. By the time Bush II became president, the Berkeley Republicans had become lockstep statists on virtually every issue.

I met one Berkeley Republican who called the gassing and burning of the Branch Davidians "standard operating procedure" and another who defended Bush’s Medicare socialism on the grounds that "it is the role of government to take care of the people." I asked at least a dozen Berkeley Republicans one day what they thought of gun control, and I found only one of them opposed it altogether. Campus Republicans will relentlessly defend business subsidies, steel tariffs, domestic spying, social welfare, and pretty much any other government program — as long as a Republican is in power. They consider any opinion that is at odds with the Berkeley status quo to be patriotic, even when the Berkeley sentiment is correct.

Of course, they are all big-time admirers of war. Not just Bush’s wars. They admire Reagan, Roosevelt, Churchill, Truman, Nixon — almost anyone on the winning side of history who bombed innocent people.

And don’t even get started with any of them about Lincoln. When a Berkeley Republican heard me say that I deplored the Lincoln administration, he responded that to dislike Lincoln is the same as hating Jefferson or the Constitution. That Jeffersonian principles and even the imperfect Constitution are at the opposite end of the political spectrum with Old Abe didn’t even occur to this young, neo-conservative Lincoln-worshipper.

The leftists in Berkeley, on the other hand, are not nearly as homogeneous. There are fools among them who will defend the crimes of socialist tyrants throughout history. There are outright communists. There are youthful admirers of Che Guevara everywhere.

And yet, there are also many leftists of a more anti-authoritarian strain. They’re viciously antiwar and pro-civil liberties. Many of them are opposed to gun control because it facilitates the emergence of a police state. They are also — here’s where the surprise comes — willing to talk about ideas and question their assumptions. They’re open to the notion of decentralization, and limitations on federal power for the sake of community and local standards. I’ve convinced far more leftists that national healthcare is a bad idea than I have had luck convincing campus conservatives that Bush’s economic policies are disastrous and oppressive.

Many Berkeley leftists, though certainly not all, are more open-minded than the average Berkeley conservative. They are anti-corporate, but willing to consider free market economics seriously. One leftist I recently spoke with pointed out that what Bush is doing with Halliburton is the precise opposite of what Adam Smith championed. Can’t argue there.

They are anti-Bush, but they were also anti-Clinton. They’re biased toward the Left, but not toward the Democrats. Many of the reasons Berkeley leftists oppose American politicians are misguided, and yet I’d say the biggest reasons they oppose them are right on the mark.

There’s a complaint out there among neo-conservatives that those who oppose Bush’s wars supported Clinton’s. As far as Berkeley radicals go, this isn’t entirely true. When Madeline Albright came to give the 2000 commencement address, a bunch of leftists protested her appearance because of her unapologetic support for the murderous UN sanctions on Iraq. The mainstream opinion was that these leftists were being rude. The way I saw it, how rude would one have to be to garner less sympathy than Madeleine Albright?

Many Berkeley leftists are willing to sit down and discuss economics and history. They’re more opposed to the current system than to the idea of genuine free trade. When they do oppose markets, it’s mostly because they wrongly associate capitalism with war and imperialism, which is in a large part the fault of today’s conservatives that do the same. Once you let them know that you agree that Shock and Awe was very, very wrong, and that the World Bank is a fraudulent organization, they’ll listen to you about the benefits of true free enterprise.

Berkeley’s leftist students and professors, as confused as they are on economics, demonstrate a much better understanding of the history of U.S. foreign policy than you’d find in Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh. They know about the slaughter of Filipinos in the early 20th century, the total insanity of World War I, and the pure evil of the carpet-bombing of Cambodia. They don’t find it that odd when I say Truman, FDR, Wilson, LBJ, Nixon and Clinton were war criminals. They don’t give a pass to U.S. presidents for crimes against humanity — and for this, more than anything else, they are labeled un-American. Even self-described conservatives can detest the free market, but to oppose U.S. foreign policy is to be a traitor in their eyes. While most Berkeley leftists know that Mao, Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein were mass murderers, I wish I could say the same for Berkeley conservatives and Truman and Churchill.

As far as Lincoln goes, I’ve met many leftists at Berkeley who admire Lincoln, and yet most were open to discussing the possibility that he was a dictator and a tyrant. I was surprised how many of them already disliked Lincoln. They know he was a racist, and that his war wasn’t about slavery. Many of them believe in the right of political entities to resist occupying and imperialist powers — whether the oppressed group comprises Iraqis, American Indians or Southerners. Unlike the Berkeley College Republicans, Berkeley leftists are willing to believe that the U.S. government has slaughtered innocents, and they’re very open to the idea that Lincoln was just another murderous, corporatist, bigoted, Republican opportunist.

I lent Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln to a liberal friend of mine, who went and lent it to someone else, who in turn lent it to someone else, and so on. Everyone who has so far read it told me how much they hate Lincoln now. I have no idea who has it at this moment, and I don’t really mind. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of their passive contempt for property rights, but I’ll let this one slide. At least they’re reading it, whereas I had no success in getting my conservative acquaintance, who believes that Lincoln defended the Constitution, even to look at the book.

Berkeley isn’t a utopia, by any means, for a libertarian, with its draconian parking policies, its egregious rent control, its tobacco-smoking ban, and its repressive property taxes. As far as its Leftist ideological atmosphere, however, it is not an entirely bad place. There are pluses and minuses. As I say, all in all, I’ve found it a lot easier to discuss economics and history with a Berkeley leftist than to confront a Berkeley neo-conservative on the immorality of bombing civilians.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history at UC Berkeley, where he was president of the Cal Libertarians. He is an intern at the Independent Institute and has written for Rational Review, Strike the Root, the Libertarian Enterprise, and Antiwar.com. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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