The Early Years
Five years ago I was graduating high school in my hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado. I was also getting ready to leave my hometown for my freshman year at Princeton University. Although I had been to New England to visit family on several occasions, I had lived in the same house my entire life and wasn’t sure what to expect from college life on the East Coast.
I had followed politics pretty closely since I was young, and at the time I considered myself to be somewhat of a libertarian. I liked Steve Forbes in 1996 and was again hoping that he might win the Republican nomination even though I liked his 2000 incarnation less. While Princeton had a reputation for being one of the more "conservative" Ivy League campuses (whatever that meant), I entered college expecting to find the political atmosphere dominated by liberal students and professors. Nevertheless, I figured to find some people who shared my dislike for Washington D.C. It wasn't to be. There were other students who were Republicans and wanted nothing more than to see the end of the Clinton/Gore era. The similarities stopped there. The conservatives that I met were nothing like the conservatives I had known out West.
An Engineer vs. Policy Wonks
Not long into my freshman year, I found a group of friends that enjoyed talking politics. At first I treaded lightly in announcing my views and tried to feel out potential allies. But it wasn't too long before my belief in liberty was revealed and assaulted from the left and right.
So-called conservatives were as turned off by my libertarianism as were the leftists, maybe more. Rudy Giuliani was their favorite conservative. John McCain was their man for President. Naïve, silly, archaic, and impractical were some of the words used to describe my uncomplicated but steadfast belief in liberty. Being an engineering student certainly didn't diminish the view that I was a simpleton. Most of these political aficionados hoped that they would be accepted into the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, a factory for producing statist policy wonks.
A lack of education in political science and economics was the diagnosis for my deranged attachment to liberty. “The global economy requires American troops to bring security and well-being to the World,” I was told when critical of Bill Clinton’s use of force in the Balkans. I would hear that “Alan Greenspan is an economic genius and he has helped create the miraculous ‘New Economy'” when I questioned why one man exerted so much influence over a “free market." I was instructed to take an economics course. This would explain everything to me.
My sympathy for the victims of Waco and Ruby Ridge certainly wasn't shared with anybody, liberal or conservative. Campaign finance reform, however, was an important issue to everybody. Requiring political ads to begin or end with, "I'm George Bush and I approved this message," was far more important than the murder of innocents by federal agents. So, not surprisingly, reactions to my views on gun control ranged from dropped jaws to outright anger. During one exchange on guns and self-defense, I infuriated a liberal friend by telling him that I wouldn't feel bad about defending my family or property with lethal force. In his rage he picked up the TV remote control and flung it at me from across the room. This reaction was no surprise coming from someone who opposed the death penalty unless the victim was a politician or other public official.
The 2000 Election and My Political Transformation
This type of behavior and ideology was to be expected from liberals, I figured. Similar viewpoints from conservatives were more troubling and harder to explain. Although I didn’t really know the term at the time, these conservatives were actually neocons. The differences between these few “conservatives” and most liberals seemed nonexistent to me. My opinions were scoffed at and I was labeled a redneck and an extremist. By the time the Republican race got down to two candidates, I was left supporting Bush. McCain and Gore seemed like the same creature to me and both represented self-righteous Yankees. While I had never liked Bush much before, at least he wore a cowboy hat and was disliked by the Rockefeller Republicans and Northeastern liberals that populated campus. That was enough for me. I came to view the election as more of a culture war than an event that would make any real difference in the nature of the federal government. I took it way too personally. The feeling that Bush was “my guy” eventually led to my support (or denial) of so many policies that I never would have supported under Al Gore. So in my revolt against the statism and elitism on campus, I ended up supporting, at times blindly, a president who I didn't even like as a candidate a year earlier. It was not a sign of great reason on my part, although the insanity would get worse before it got better.
September 11th came while I was beginning my junior year. Driving along an abandoned New Jersey Turnpike a few hours after the attacks was a spooky experience. I was completely transformed, along with so many other conservatives, into a full-fledged neocon hawk. Sadly, emotions began to guide my thoughts about government thereafter. Along with the rest of “Jacksonian America,” I was united behind the president and everything he was trying to do to protect us including the Patriot Act, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Deep down, I was always suspicious of the Patriot Act and any move toward a police state, but I had been filled with a dull trust in government. I continued to stand behind everything that Bush was doing for national security. I might not have been thrilled about the rapid growth of domestic spending, but that seemed like small potatoes compared to providing for national security.
The Bright Side of my Princeton Years
Fortunately there was a lot more to my college years than despairing over statist politics and elitist culture before capitulating to government worship. Outside of engineering labs and politics, I had mostly enjoyable times. The most enjoyable times were traveling to the South every spring break to play baseball. Escaping the frigid and socialist Northeast for a week of sun and top-notch competition in the Carolinas was usually the highlight of each year. My visits to Dixie were especially enjoyable because the weather and the people always reminded me of home. The temperate winter weather (contrary to popular belief) and amiable people in Colorado have a lot in common with the South.
Finally getting around to taking the economics classes that I had been instructed to take was another positive part of my college career. While I'm trying to forget some nebulous concepts like externalities, market failure, velocity of money, and public goods, as well as Keynesian monetary and fiscal policy, I was able to come away with a serious interest in economics. Soon enough I became a student of Austrian economics.
In general, Princeton was probably less political than some of its peer institutions, especially Yale and Harvard. To its credit, Princeton hasn't spawned a President of the United States since Woodrow Wilson. Meanwhile Yale has the dubious honor of having controlled the White House for the past 16 years, with at least four more to come. It seems that Princeton graduates are more likely to be found on Wall Street than inside the beltway, although one could argue that this is worse.
This Side of Paradise
A little over a year ago my four-year journey up and down the East Coast and across the political spectrum came to an end and I returned home to Colorado. Living outside of a socialist incubator, working full time, and reading Austrian economics was sure to doom the newfound neoconservatism of my late college years. Such a contradiction couldn't live forever, and was bound to go the way of the Soviet Union. The implosion began as it become increasingly obvious that Iraq didn't have stockpiles of WMD ready to destroy Denver. As a conservative, it became impossible to justify a war that was never about self-defense. Still, I tried to reassure myself that I had not been misled, looking for justification in Charles Krauthammer's “Democratic Realism." However, there was no reassurance to be found, just as there was no “realism” involved in his Wilsonian plan to bring democracy to the world. Pat Buchanan's, “No End to War” seemed like a much more realistic assessment of the neoconservative vision. So I had come full circle, and more, from my early college days. I had been “bureaucratized” and converted into a neocon while in school. Thankfully, returning to Colorado and having to pay taxes woke me up to an enormous government deficit and an overstretched empire.
What's to Come?
Early in my college years I was always amazed that people, especially conservatives, could be so dismissive of the liberty and freedom that our country was founded on. In my neocon phase, I wondered why privileged liberals seemed to hate America when they were so much better off here than almost anywhere else in the world. I still believe this, but my idea of what it means to love America has changed. I love the idea of liberty in which our republic was conceived, my grandfather who came to this country looking for opportunity and my own father who helped provide me with so many of those opportunities. I love the entrepreneurial spirit that lives in this country and continues to provide such a wonderful standard of living. For me, loving America means loving all of the things that make it great, not the central state that drives it toward the abyss. I can only hope that other conservatives will come to feel the same way.
July 1, 2004