story is part of Walter
Block's Autobiography Archive.
by Mark Thornton
is a small town in the Finger Lakes region of western New York State.
I was born and raised there in a family that was Irish in extraction,
Catholic in religion, entrepreneurs by occupation, and thoroughly
Democrat in politics. I now realize that by the time I left Geneva
for college I was already a libertarian, a fact I credit to my family,
especially my mother and father.
back, I was interested in politics at an early age, and libertarian-leaning
from nearly the beginning. What is surprising to me, in retrospect,
was that everyone wasnít a libertarian. This was the period of the
Vietnam War, Nixonís War on Drugs, wage and price controls, Watergate,
stagflation, and in New York big spending Republican Governor Nelson
Rockefeller. Nothing was going right in this country and nobody
could cover up that fact.
of my first political memories was watching the Democratic National
Convention on the television at my grandparentsí house. Hubert Humphrey
was the nominee, and was roundly endorsed by my extended family.
I vividly remember asking what the difference was between the Democrats
and Republicans. My uncle Tim told me that Republicans supported
big business and the Democrats were the party of the "little
guy." This description was followed by the unexpected question:
What party did I support?
sure they expected me to answer "Democrat."
on the proverbial hotspot, but firmly behind the Rawlsian veil of
ignorance, I proclaimed that I didnít support either party. After
all, why support big business over small business or the little
guy over the big guy? I asked if I could be a Democrat-Republican
or a Republican-Democrat, to which one of my uncles responded that
the Democratic-Republicans won the Presidency in 1800, but was no
responded that I would not be able to vote for some time and that
I was confident that the Democratic-Republicans would someday make
little did I know that Hubert Humphreyís opponent would set in motion
policies that would make that comeback possible within four yearsí
time in the form of the Libertarian Party, and that I would come
to embrace the principles of the Libertarian Party and the old Democratic-Republican
Party of Thomas Jefferson.
the first grandchild on both sides of my family, I was surrounded
by a virtual army of aunts and uncles. I credit my family, especially
my mother and father, for helping me and allowing me to become what
I am today. Naturally, that honor may have been viewed by some as
a dubious distinction in the era when being a libertarian, especially
a libertarian politician, was a sign of being a radical and a quack,
but no one tried to stop me.
mother was very influential in my life. She was not overly protective,
encouraged me to try new things, and believed in self-responsibility,
not rigid, arbitrary rules. She emphasized incentives, persuasion,
and thinking about how your actions impacted others, rather than
punishment. Her influence was at the ethical, moral, and esthetic
levels, not the political.
never tired of telling the story of her fighting city hall over
a traffic violation charge. She was told not to do so, that it was
not that important, and that she would surely lose anyway. However,
she spent a great deal of time and money fighting the charge. She
hired a lawyer, took off time from work, and in the end lost the
case and was given a more severe penalty than had she not contested
could tell that this still "burned" her many years after
the fact, but also that she was very proud for having defended herself
and fought city hall with everything at her disposal. The point
of her story was that, when confronted with such choices, we should
always do what we think is "right." We should not take
the easy way out or do the "smart" thing especially in
matters of justice and personal reputation. She remarked that your
time and money come and go, but the things you are proud of, or
embarrassed about, will stay with you for the rest of your life.
think that this perspective is what underlies libertarianism: do
what is right, rather than what is "smart" or personally
advantageous in political and social matters. Democrats and Republicans,
liberals and conservatives socialists of various flavors always
do the smart thing and all have groups they are defending. All of
their actions are in the "national interest," but they
never do what is right. In fact, by their nature, ideology, and
"interests," they are consigned to do what is wrong. Virtually
everything they do is wrong, both from a moral and ethical point
of view and also from a practical and common sense (what I now would
call "economic") perspective.
all these statists think their views are moral and practical and
that their policies are of absolute necessity, but upon mild reflection
or historical examination, their wishful thinking vanishes. Does
welfare help the poor? Does government stimulate the economy? Does
war create peace? Is justice something created by government? I
have spent my entire adult life examining such questions and have
yet to find just one good example that would answer any of these
questions in the affirmative.
strongly believe that this simple libertarian perspective of mine
was reinforced by my Catholic education; an education that was insisted
upon by my mother. The Catholic Church is an ancient, massive, hierarchical
organization with lots of rules and ceremonies, but at its core
is the role of conscience and of the individual who must choose
between right and wrong. People listen to the pope, but they donít
necessarily comply with his dictates. Catholics will listen to their
bishops, but donít necessarily follow their orders (especially nowadays!).
Catholics are supposed to do what they think is right. You should
help the deserving poor and not harm others. Anything else is fair
game. Everything is not morally black and white, but you pay for
your mistakes. If your actions come into conflict with some official
church dogma no problem just keep track of those "official"
sins, along with your real sins (i.e. those that actually bother
your conscience, like stealing and lying) and tell them to the priest
experience is that adding the official sins to the real ones did
little or nothing to increase your punishment. In fact, it was called
penance, not punishment. Official sins need not be calculated exactly
and are easy to estimate from month to month. Following all the
official rules is also perfectly fine.
father provided me with a completely different set of lessons. He
was a practical man and ultra-frugal, having grown up during the
Great Depression and WWII in a broken family. He was a good analyst
of government stupidity and I owe a good deal of my understanding
of the state to him.
went to work with my father at an early age, and this is where I
learned many valuable lessons. For example, I once commented favorably
on the looks of a short section of road that connected the residential
part of town, up on the hill, which curved down to the shoreline
of the lake, and then off to the next town, effectively bypassing
the downtown business district. I was surprised with my fatherís
reply. He said that it was nothing but a Federal "urban renewal"
project. It had bulldozed all the shoreline businesses, was hurting
downtown firms, undermining something called the tax base, and it
would eventually kill the city.
I could not believe that one little road, less than a mile long
could cause all that destruction, but that is exactly what happened,
just the way he said it would. Urban renewal turned out to be nothing
more than a stimulant for "urban blight" and suburban
sprawl. I still, to this day, consider that pretty perceptive analysis
for someone trained as a pharmacist, not an urban planner.
the age of ten or eleven I could do practically every job in the
store, including selling everything from cigarettes to narcotics,
cashing out the cash registers, restocking shelves, taking inventory,
cleaning everything, and even filling prescriptions. The only thing
I couldnít do was type up the labels and take prescriptions from
the customers. This was my fatherís domain. He would take the prescription
from the customer, read it, puzzle over it, and then announce when
it would be ready. In a few cases it could be ready "in just
a minute," but most often it could not be ready for two hours
or "later this afternoon," or even "not until tomorrow."
always puzzled me because, although I could not read the doctorís
prescriptions to save my life and could not pronounce the names
of most drugs, I could "fix" or fill the prescription
in a matter of two minutes and my father could do it even faster.
I suppose this stalling improved safety, but I bet it also had something
to do with legitimizing professional licensing of pharmacists. [Note:
he always checked and rechecked everything I did dealing with medications,
and this would be retested when we took inventory or reordered drugs
so that we would know if even one pill was missing, all without
the help of computers. He was even able to identify pharmacists
who stole pills from the inventory.]
most basic and important lesson I learned while growing up in the
store was that you must cheat on your taxes to succeed or even survive
in business, and that most everyone who could, did so. It all began
when I realized that we treated the "front" cash register
different from the "back" cash register. After a little
persistent questioning, my father said that we paid taxes on one,
but not necessarily the other. He explained that if we paid taxes
on every dollar of sales, we would barely break even, and that if
we went out of business both we and our customers would be worse
off. The meaning of this was clear to me and I understood his implications.
This was not stealing. It was our money and if we gave it to the
government they would just go and build more urban renewal. Getting
"let in on" the family business made my job even more
enjoyable, and I would regularly divert sales to the tax-free register.
As I learned more about the operation, it seemed like everything
we did violated some government rule or other, but none of the regulations
from recycling prescription bottles to the location and storage
of the cocaine made sense. We never got caught and never
got sued. I never heard a customer complain and we had plenty of
happy long-term customers of all races and creeds. [Note: we lived
in the most "multicultural and ethnically diverse" society
that anyone could ever imagine; everyone told ethnic jokes about
each other, and everyone seemed to get along fine with each other.]
regulators bothered my father the most, and they would cause him
to swear and use the Lordís name in vain. Even little things, like
the requirement to use childproof bottles, got him worked up. The
day we were ordered to do so, I didnít see the problem and thought
it might be a good idea, until he explained that childproof bottles
were unnecessary and made it difficult for his elderly customers.
I had two younger brothers, but "did we need childproof bottles
in our house?" It dawned on me that I had never seen a prescription
bottle anywhere in the house, despite the fact that we got sick
and took pills like everyone else. Parents must hide the pills so
that little kids canít get to them. His point was now clear to me,
but he continued to talk to me about it for the rest of the day,
as well as with many of his customers with everyone getting worked
up about the childproof bottles as a result.
maddest I ever saw him was over new federal rules about Medicaid
and Medicare. One day he stormed out of his office and announced
that "we were getting screwed." It seems that our "reimbursement"
was getting cut and that the chains would be able to cheat, but
that independents, like us, would get forced out. Moments later
I was told that I could not go into pharmacy and would have to choose
a new career. As someone who spent most of my free time playing
with toy soldiers or riding my bike, I was unaware that I had chosen
a career. One thing was clear: Medicaid was a bad thing.
"political" memory I have from the store happened one
Saturday when I went to work with Dad. My first customer picked
up something red next to my cash register to purchase it. It was
a bumper sticker "ANOTHER TAX PAYER IN THE RED." We didnít
sell bumper stickers and it didnít have a price on it, so I asked
my Dad how much it cost. He yelled back "One dollar,"
and added "no tax!" He later explained that City Hall
already took more from us than they deserved, that it wasted tons
of money, and that any further tax increase would kill the city.
He was correct, once again. Over the last thirty years the city
has lost business and population, and many of its buildings have
decayed often going unused for years at a time.
me, the fight against taxes was a fun thing. I relished selling
those bumper stickers and used some of my pay to buy one for my
bike. Long before my city had gone to economic hell, I knew that
government was a bad thing and that taxes were destructive. I also
realized at an early age that fighting taxes and fighting city hall
was the correct and moral thing to do, and that it could also be
fun and exciting.
my city did die economically, just as my father predicted. The store
was closed and Dad took a job with a chain drug store. Now forced
to pay taxes on my wages, I largely spent my high school years resisting
three government prohibitions against me.
high school graduation approached, I became increasingly interested
in politics and public policy, and was very frustrated with the
state of the world. Jack Kempís congressional office was next door
to one of my familyís homesteads, so I became familiar with his
politics and encouraged by his libertarian rhetoric, especially
his desire to cut taxes. I had never heard of Austrian economics,
classical liberalism, or libertarianism, but I knew that Kemp sounded
like he was on the right track. In registering to vote that year,
I became the first person on either side of my family to become
for me, my family didnít care enough about politics to worry over
my choice of political parties boy, was I fortunate! Unfortunately
for Kemp and the Republicans, I did care deeply about politics.
Republican words rarely turned into libertarian actions or votes
in Congress (I still had never heard the word "libertarian"),
so I soon renounced my alignment with the Republican Party. I set
off to college on a journey that would take me from being a homegrown
libertarian to becoming a professional libertarian and life-long
advocate of the individualís will over the power of the state.
Mark Thornton [send him mail]
is an economist who lives in Auburn, Alabama. He is author of The
Economics of Prohibition,
is a senior fellow with the Ludwig
von Mises Institute, and is the Book Review Editor for the Quarterly
Journal of Austrian Economics.
© 2002 LewRockwell.com