This essay originally appeared in the book, Why Liberty, 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.
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 reason.
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 naïveté 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 done.
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 myself!"
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 razor – 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 LewRockwell.com 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:
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:
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.
Walking 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 LewRockwell.com, entitled, "Where Have All the Black Libertarians Gone?" where I state:
"I 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 with:
"Even 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:
"The only method available to the state for securing money [is] – theft. Frédéric Bastiat, in his pamphlet The Law puts state-sponsored theft, which he refers to as "plunder" into scientific terms when he says:
"If 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.
Those 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:
"To 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.
December 30, 2010
Wilt Alston [send him mail] 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.
Copyright © 2010 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.