Stumbling and Bumbling Toward Truth? Musing About How I Found Libertarianism

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essay originally appeared in the book, Why
, compiled by Marc Guttman.

I really should
have given this essay a better name. After all, it is about my journey
toward libertarianism and therefore (hopefully) truth. It would
have made sense to use something like "my journey toward the
light" or something equally regal. Here's the thing though.
My journey toward libertarianism has been anything but smooth or
regal. As a black person it seems to me that even though we have
embraced any number of political/philosophical approaches, libertarianism
is among the rarer. As such, my finding and embracing libertarian
theory involves equal measures of luck and courage. Perhaps that
is why I was asked to contribute this story! Either way, I feel
honored and happy to do so. It is my firm belief that I am onto
something that represents the best of logic, reason, and truth.
However, I did not always think so.

Growing up
in a small town in North Carolina, named Hallsboro, I had no contact
with any people who called themselves "libertarians."
As far back as I can remember, my folks and all my relatives voted
Democratic, at least as far as I could tell. In fact, I don't even
remember when I first heard the term, "third-party candidate"
but it was probably in college. In the portion of the South where
I grew up, it seemed pretty clear which party was out to help you
and which party was out to get you, particularly if you were a black
person. Still though, certain things about my childhood — the fact
that my paternal grandfather was a share cropper; the fact that
my maternal grandfather owned a lot of land; and the fact that my
father always seemed to be working — all had an effect on me. In
retrospect, it was a combination of these effects that made me open
to libertarianism even before I knew what it was.

Two instances
in particular stand out in my mind as providing seeds of libertarianism
that did not germinate until much later in life. The first such
instance involved a phone survey that I answered while my parents
were out. After all the normal demographic questions, the lady on
the phone began to query me about my parent's jobs and lifestyle.
At some point she asked, "And what does your dad do for work?"
At that exact moment my father was off on a job laying brick at
some location. In fact, during almost any down time he could usually
be found out doing something that would result in additional income
for the family. To this very day he has at least two hustles that
he uses to generate income. He was the original example of someone
having multiple income streams in my eyes. So I said to her, "he's
a bricklayer."

Later, my folks
and I were eating dinner and I recalled the story for them. When
I got to the part about my dad being a bricklayer, my folks both
laughed and corrected me. My dad, and my mom, were schoolteachers
and had been so for years. I knew that, but somehow it escaped
in that moment on the phone. My dad's practice — always looking
for an additional way to make money — rubbed off on me. To this
day, I am always looking for a way to generate additional income.
In fact, that point of view led me to experiences I will recount
later — experiences that further forged my libertarian leanings.

A second instance
of lessons I learned at home came during the school year. Our county,
like many counties in that part of the South, offered a free lunch
program at school. All one had to do was fill out a simple form
and receive the free lunches. Most of the kids I knew got free lunch.
I did not. In fact, when I brought the form home for my parents
my dad went off on a tirade.

He didn't yell
at me, but his words have stuck in my mind for 30+ years anyway.
He said something to the effect that he would rot in his grave before
he would fill out a form to receive something he simply did not
deserve. He was appalled at the number of people he knew to be financially
able to afford lunch who were receiving free lunch instead. In my
entire childhood and well into adolescence I can safely say that
I never saw my father change his point of view on this seminal issue.
If you can afford it yourself, lying to the state to get it for
free is just lazy, shiftless, unethical, and borders on immoral.

Looking back
on these two scenarios, I can see now how these working examples
of the power and in fact the glory of taking care of oneself fueled
me throughout life. That fuel remains plentiful in me to this very
day, and it came from my parents. But despite the groundwork laid
by those early experiences, I came out of engineering school at
Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, with a strong liberal
bent. I was not exactly a socialist, but I could see how
socialism: a) might work; and b) seemed fair.

In fact, now
that I think about it, I remember a statement that my high school
social studies teacher made in class one day. She said, "Socialism
makes a lot of sense, on paper." Of course, I believed her!
Clearly, or so I thought, the powers-that-be had unfairly secured
much of their wealth at the expense of the poor. Just as clearly,
drastic measures were warranted. (Maybe I had forgotten my father's
words. Luckily, they would return to me later.) Looking back, I
would now assume that most recipients of a liberal education – particularly
black folk — have been taught to feel the same way. Several
events during my first year working for the Eastman Kodak Company
conspired to shake the moorings of that belief system.

Early Indications

One such event
occurred when I got that very first paycheck back in 1981. As a
student, I had never really paid a lot of income taxes and as such,
had rarely focused on those "other" boxes on most paychecks.
When I got my first "real" paycheck that all changed.
I literally yelled something along the lines of "what the heck?"
and asked each of my office mates if something was wrong with my
check. Breaking all manner of unwritten workplace customs, I actually
showed my paycheck to each of them as I beseeched them for
help and understanding. I wondered aloud what this "FICA"
crap was and how anyone could just stand by and let that
much of their hard-earned money be taken away, for whatever

As I recall,
they all had a good laugh at my expense. Being older, they were
all too aware of the ubiquity of Social Security, which is what
those "FICA" contributions supported. They dismissed my
excitement for navet and life continued, as one would expect.
I remained upset (and frankly, that has not changed much in all
the years since) but I eventually realized that nothing could be

Later that
year, or maybe the next one, I got into a heated discussion with
another of my work mates, another black man, who in addition to
being a technician in our design group, was also a local business
owner. He and his wife owned a beauty shop in Rochester's inner
city. (By the way, this "inner city" was nothing like
the horrible place that the mainstream media seems to know all about.)
He also owned a few investment properties, as I recall. He was quite
a character, and would become, in time, a mentor-of-sorts for me.

As I recall,
we were discussing the plight of black folk one day at lunch. (For
the uninformed, this is a topic that comes up many times per day
whenever "upwardly-mobile" black people gather in groups
larger than one.) As a loyal pseudo-socialist liberal, I had a strong
view of the responsibility of the state with regard to the
welfare of black folk. As an aside, although I saw the "logic"
of socialism, I subscribed to Reason magazine beginning almost
immediately after graduating from college. There was a conflict
taking place in my mind and I'm not sure I even knew it.

Anyway, as
I recall, our conversation involved some pounding on the table (long
a staple of the angry black man) and some raised voices.
I remember him smiling as I regaled him with all the reasons why
black folk simply could not make it without help. Seriously,
anyone with half a brain and any pride accepted the fact that we
had been taken advantage of! Somebody had to pay! At some point
in my rant, he uttered some words that I have not forgotten to this
very day — and I don't think I will ever forget them. He said, "I
don't want nobody's help. Just get out of my way and I can do it

Those words
sounded simple-minded then. Hell, they sound simple-minded now.
As I fancy myself a scientist, the elegant simplicity of truth —
as exemplified by Occam's
— appeals to me. That statement held one of those simple
truths. Ironically, it was not until years later that it dawned
on me that a similar sentiment, and in fact a similar statement
would very likely have been made by either or both of my
maternal (land-owning) grandfather and my father. All that working
my dad did was because he was determined to make damned certain
he controlled his destiny, versus being at the whim of a person
for whom he simply tended land he did not own, which his father,
my paternal grandfather had done for his entire life. Lessons
well earned have a tendency to keep coming back like that I guess.

Little did
I have any clue — even the faintest inkling — that I would one day
be saying much the same thing to anyone who would listen, even going
so far as to submit my modest musings to websites such as
specifically so others could read them.

Bogus Beliefs
and Hard Lessons

After those
early debates with my would-be mentor, and even despite the shock
of seeing all that cash vanish from my paycheck to parts unknown,
life pretty much followed the standard course. I voted religiously,
while lamenting the evilness of the Republicans and believing in
the honest passion of the Democrats. In fact, I had a good-sized
list of other standard beliefs, such as:

  • There was
    a distinct difference between the two major U.S. political parties.
    The Democratic Party was the party of tolerance and was lead by
    noble champions of the downtrodden wee folk. In sharp contrast,
    the Republican Party represented people who inherited their wealth
    or got it through nefarious means, plus some odd groups of hyper-religious
    intolerant modern-day witch burners.
  • The only
    thing wrong with the government was that selfish and/or incompetent
    people were accidentally voted into office by people who
    basically just needed a little more education so they could become
    smart enough to vote as I did.
  • The Civil
    Rights Movement, and most of American history for that matter,
    proved conclusively that government intervention was absolutely
    essential and would likely remain so for the foreseeable future.
  • Drug users
    only used drugs because of personal character flaws or as a way
    to flaunt their inherent scuminess and disrespect for the
    safety of others and the sanctity of the family. They deserved
    long prison sentences as punishment for being such losers.
  • No civilized
    society needed routine and widespread ownership of guns. In fact
    most private guns were owned by unsophisticated hillbillies or
    unredeemable criminals, or, Ku Klux Klansmen, who were typically
    drawn from one or both of the former groups. I wasn’t interested
    in arming any of them.

Rather than
further bore the reader with any (certain-to-be) long-winded explanation
of how I came to ditch these bogus beliefs like so much old fruit,
let me take another approach. In most things, the foundation is
what is important. In my case, the foundation of my beliefs centered
about essentially three things, which were:

    1. The inherent
      unfairness of capitalism.
    2. The historical
      reasons for the position of black folk in American society.
    3. The proven
      ability of the state to provide the necessary changes and appropriate
      calibrations to the market for the good of all.

Getting involved
in real estate investing did more to completely eviscerate these
flawed foundational beliefs than I could have ever anticipated.
Once that demise took place, it was just a matter of time before
the others followed suit.

Out of the
Frying Pan…

When I bought
that first property I was certain of a few things. One, I could
purchase real property with little to no money down. Two, I could
structure those purchases, even on single-family homes, so that
I had "positive cash flow" almost immediately. Three,
given that I was a black person, my (likely) black tenants would
embrace my logic, reason, and passion. Together we would march off
into the sunset of wealth and independence! This happily-ever-after
story would provide an example for all the greedy white people who
had owned inner-city real estate before I came upon the scene. (I
promise you, I am not making this up.) Actually, I wish I were making
it up.

The deduction
that, in retrospect, started me on my final approach to libertarianism
occurred while I was a rental property manager and landlord, beginning
approximately 5 years after taking that first job mentioned earlier.
During this time I got to see not only how individuals interacted
with free enterprise, but also how the government and the market
interacted with those individuals. Additionally I got to see, first-hand,
how government programs ostensibly designed to help the poor actually
created a situation that locked people on welfare for generations.
Capitalism wasn't unfair — not allowing people a chance to
participate in it was.

Look at is
this way. In a genuine free enterprise or market-based situation,
one generally receives feedback directly in response to actions
he takes. This is how the entrepreneur knows what to keep doing
and what to stop doing. In some cases, it even leads to the failure
of a business. In the case of my tenants — people who received a
substantial portion of their income via government agencies, and
particularly in cases where a substantial portion of that income
went directly to a service provider without the tenant's
action — little or no feedback was present. The main benefit delivered
to my tenants was money, in the form of rent payments or rent subsidies.
These payments could go on for years, and in fact, even across generations.

By doing this,
the Department of Social Services (DSS) removed any semblance of
feedback that a person might receive regarding what will, in most
every case be their largest monthly financial obligation. By paying
these payments without any interaction from the tenant DSS certainly
made things more convenient for everyone. (As a recipient of these
funds, I enjoyed getting those checks directly!) But, they also
precluded the tenant from having to decide, on a monthly basis,
how to budget her money with regard to competing bills, like
rent, food, entertainment, etc. In effect, the tenant could just
"blow" the money they received, because the most important
item — their shelter — was taken care of without any action by them.
Is there any doubt what would eventually happen if this money stopped
showing up or if they had to make a decision themselves?

Lest anyone
think this is the result of some inherent failing in the tenant
or poor people in general, a closer examination of one's own life
reveals many of the same hidden-from-view scenarios. For example,
if the water authority where you live suddenly stopped delivering
potable water, what would you do? I'm willing to bet that most people
would panic, with no idea what to do next, aside from going
down to a local grocery store to stand in line, that is. Simply
put, when something is delivered without our action or involvement,
we come to rely on that delivery, sometimes despite what would otherwise
be prudent. (In the transportation field in which I work this is
known as "detrimental reliance" and is always a danger
in automated safety systems.)

In the case
of my tenants, the incentives were all screwed up. What little feedback
that actually was offered came in the form of reduced benefits
if one of these people went out and got a job to supplement their
income. Given those incentives, I could understand why people stayed
on public assistance versus getting a job.

Every so often,
the DSS would, via some means I never quite understood, decide that
they needed to "help" a welfare recipient move toward
more personal-responsibility-based financial management. The first
step in this process was always sending the rent money to
the tenant, versus the landlord, and having the tenant pay their
bills — including their rent — out of that money. It never worked.

In cases where
the DSS sought to let the tenant pay their own rent — versus paying
it for them — I never saw one tenant make the transition successfully.
Not one. After years of having their rent paid for them, why would
we expect anything different? In their attempts to "help"
the poor, the state actually made everything worse. Regardless
of the historical reasons why these people may have been poor, the
state showed no ability to make things better. The state knew neither
what to change nor how to change it.

In the aftermath
of drawing these initial conclusions, I came to a larger conclusion
that still fuels many of my beliefs today — if a person has never
owned their own business, or done something similar, they have no
idea how capitalism is supposed to work. At best, they’re guessing,
and it’s easy to guess wrong. Giving a man a fish, no matter how
well intentioned, or nutritionally-satisfying, will never teach
him to fish for himself. In fact after sufficient time has passed,
he will, almost without exception, forget that fishing was ever
necessary. And even if he does not forget, his progeny — those who
learn by watching him — have no chance to learn that which they
have never seen practiced.

the Walk and Talking the Talk

After all that,
where am I now? How would I describe myself and my specific beliefs
about libertarianism?

While I
could generally be described as a libertarian, a more appropriate
and more accurate designation would be market anarchist.

This means
most importantly that I freely accept that the main problem with
the current system of government is, in fact, that we have one.
In direct correspondence to the old saying, "they lie when
the truth would suffice," our politicians abuse the truth pretty
much whenever they open their mouths to speak. The entire system
is based upon one set of folks milking another set for as much as
they can.

Most, if not
all, laws that exist are the expression of some bureaucrat’s power-laden
wet dream or some lobbyist's profit-seeking scheme. Government is
fundamentally about force and violent (if needed) coercion. And
don’t get me started on the IRS. (They call him Uncle Scam for a
reason, no?) If stealing — forcibly taking someone's property and
giving them nothing in exchange — is morally wrong for the individual,
then it cannot be justified just because a bunch of guys who call
themselves "the government" need some cash.

The most
basic expression and most fundamental dogma in libertarian theory
is the non-aggression axiom — the initiation of force is never justified.

I subscribe
to pacifism as a dogma and am openly against warfare, particularly
as it is practiced by the imperial empire known as America. (History
has shown time and again that the only reason for a standing army
is for imperialist advancement.) Still, I understand that self-protection
may occasionally be necessary. I might therefore be best
described as a "porcupine pacifist" in that I simultaneously
decry aggression while having no compunction about advocating a
citizenry chock-full of well-armed, well-trained individuals and
families. From a black perspective specifically, history supports
this premise. Anyone who has spent any time analyzing the inner
city would have to be seriously delusional to think that disarming
the law-abiding citizenry increases safety.

The general
history of civilization and society supports the private ownership
of guns. I think Cesare Beccaria, a legal theorist from the 1700’s
said it best, “Laws that forbid the carrying of arms…disarm only
those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes…Such
laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants.”
The logic of this is undeniable to me, and I find it amazing that
people believe otherwise.

The mainstream
political parties are inherently similar, barely avoiding
being identical; therefore, spending any time debating about them
is time wasted.

My best explanation
of this belief occurs in my initial article for,
entitled, "Where
Have All the Black Libertarians Gone?
" where I state:

do not doubt that on many of these "hot-button" issues
[gay marriage, abortion, voting rights, social security, school
choice (vouchers), national defense, welfare, affirmative action,
etc.], the two parties seem different. If one judges by
only these issues they might actually be different to varying degrees.
Are the specific issues really that important in the grand scheme?
Maybe. Should we not be just as concerned with the methodology for
addressing them? Definitely. But if the two parties were substantially
different, would we not see, in the aftermath of each election,
noticeable and substantial upheavals in policy, law, and as a direct
result, day-to-day life? And if we do not, were those ostensive
differences really important?"

I continued

if the two parties did actually have radically different ideas about
right and wrong — and implemented radically different policies as
a result — one key factor would remain the same. Those policies
would be funded based upon coercion supported by the threat of violence.
Basically, the state, as realized in every western "democracy"
available for study, functions on principals closer to the Mafia
than any utopian republic described by Plato. Simply put, they [the
state] force all to contribute to their treasury, for the creation
of products and services that no one has a choice about accepting,
at a cost that always escalates. Nice racket."

The best
means by which to right past wrongs are private, not via legislation.

One oft-debated
area where being black and libertarian might come into conflict
is over the issue of reparations. Few issues are so fundamental
to a belief in personal responsibility and self-determination than
that of a debt owed to one's ancestors. Again, my current thoughts
on this issue are clear from the article I mentioned above. To wit:

only method available to the state for securing money [is] — theft.
Frdric Bastiat, in his pamphlet The
puts state-sponsored theft, which he refers to as
"plunder" into scientific terms when he says:

a portion of wealth is transferred from the person who owns it,
without his consent, and without compensation, whether by force
or fraud, to someone who does not own it, then I say that property
is violated and an action of plunder is committed."

someone stole something from you, having the state steal from someone
different does not really solve the problem, does it? And if the
state stole — or more accurately, allowed someone else to steal
— something from your ancestors does it make sense for them to now
steal something from everyone else and give it to you? Not so much."


So then, I
embraced libertarianism not because it sounded interesting when
I studied its theories. In fact, I have not, even to this day, read
many of the books libertarians point to as seminal in their "conversion."
(This is neither an attack on those books nor a suggestion for others.
It is simply a statement of fact. And yes, my study of libertarian
philosophy, including many of those "classics," continues.
But let us be clear. The people from whom I learned had never heard
of Murray Rothbard or Ludwig von Mises.) I embraced libertarianism
because it best fit (by far) the conclusions I had already reached
empirically. That should come as no surprise, since the truths upon
which libertarianism rests were truths before there were
any theories or high-sounding descriptions of them.

conclusions prompted me to begin my study of the more theoretical
aspects, which further confirmed my initial thoughts. I can only
hope that others will conduct their own honest investigation. I
have little doubt that their conclusions will be similar. Allow
me to end this trip down memory lane as I ended my first published
libertarian article:

be completely free, secure, and happy, there are three things that
concern me — life, liberty, and property. The state did not create
them. The state can only take them away. There has been enough of
that already. So unless I want to enjoy the fruits of income redistribution
— which account for a major portion of the state's budget, excluding
national defense — there is not much left for the state to do on
my behalf."

Indeed. Not
much at all — like NOTHING.

30, 2010

Alston [send him
] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three
children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his
part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal
research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily
on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.

Best of Wilton D. Alston

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