Last week I took some time off to do a favor for my family. I took part of that time, as I usually do, to visit with my father and grandmother. I enjoyed it as always. Often I engage in long, drawn-out discussions with my father on political issues. He tends to talk much more than I do (believe it or not) but I still thoroughly enjoy the conversation.
One of the main themes in this particular pow-wow revolved around the "mosque at ground-zero." He started in on a somewhat lengthy dialogue about how absolutely atrocious it was that we were "letting these people get away with this." There had always been things I didn't see completely eye-to-eye with my father on, but I felt an abnormal amount of resistance to his opinions this time around. In fact, I felt such a strong reaction to it that I contributed absolutely nothing to this part of the conversation. Those who know me probably have a brow raised. Normally I'm quick to converse with people I disagree with. But with his opinion on this issue being so emotional for him, as was my opposition to it, I decided that it would be best for me (in light of the visit) to just leave it alone.
I didn't think much of it until he mentioned something to my grandmother in an offhand comment. He referenced a book I bought him several years ago (which she later read) by Mark Steyn entitled America Alone. In the book the author discusses the dangers inherent to an ever-growing Islamic demographic in the Western World. At the time, it seemed like a great refutation of the anti-American sentiment we seemed to all be buried in. And I remember enjoying the book a great deal. This gave me pause. How exactly did I get from that mental space to the one I enjoy now? I tried to trace my philosophical journey back to its source. And then it dawned on me, "Rush Limbaugh turned me into a radical anarchist!"
I grew up in a divorced household (households?). My mother and step-father were fairly liberal and religiously active (Catholic). My father was a Ronald Reagan conservative and religiously inactive (although carrying on the good fight against those dirty non-Christians). By the time I was old enough to have my preferred TV programming interrupted by my father's love for watching the news, I thoroughly hated politics. Hearing my dad groan and gripe about this and that was just enough to keep me from caring.
I started becoming politically aware in late high school. This proved to be an awkward time as I found myself politically conservative - and at the same time, in abandoning some of my previously held Christian beliefs, I also found myself clinging to more eastern (esoteric) religious philosophies. Yeah, that's right - I was one of the cool kids.
When I moved out and went to college (and subsequently away from my first-hand sources of political opinion - my parents) I began listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio from time to time. I was enamored with him at first. I thought he seemed like a pretty bright guy, and I kind of enjoyed the snarky way in which he made fun of liberals. This resulted in a pretty steady path on the political front for me, at least for a while. I was a conservative, and I couldn't stand all those hippy commies that seemed so ever-present in the landscape. But I found myself changing course drastically after being exposed to another radio host.
Whenever Rush was gone (for whatever reason) he'd often have different guest hosts, many of whom I also enjoyed listening to. On one of these occasions a particular host just seemed to be hitting grand slam after grand slam in arguments with the callers on the economic front. His conclusions might have been wrong (I didn't know anything about economics at the time) but there was a little depth to this well. I was intrigued. That host turned out to be one Jason Lewis - who has his own radio show in Minneapolis. Whadya' know, he even had his own podcast. I started listening to it fervently and soaking it all in. My favorite part of the program was listening to him get into arguments with his callers, incidents in which he was rarely operating at a handicap. I was so taken by his understanding of both law and economics that I started acquiring books from his preferred reading list. This is where my journey into the world of libertarianism began.
Two books from that list began a chain-reaction in my mind that would permanently alter my outlook on politics, economics, and ethics. The first was a book called Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. The second was a short piece entitled The Law by Frederich Bastiat. These two works proved to be the wedge that pried open my political curiosity in more ways than everything else had previously done. Then, those books led me to the Mises Institute, which then opened me to a plethora of Austrian scholars. I started reading DiLorenzo and Murphy, which prompted me tackle the big guns (namely Mises and Hayek). As I started to consume more and more, I noticed that my views were becoming less and less.....conservative. Or at least, less conservative in the modern political sense of the term. I was becoming something I didn't feel too comfortable revealing to other people. I was becoming a "Libertarian."
As I kept reading more and more, I found myself then slowly drifting from the Libertarian Party line (big "L" Libertarian) - which was fine because there wasn't enough time for me to be that attached to it in the first place. I made the fatal mistake of picking up For a New Liberty by Murray Rothbard. I can't begin to tell you about the amount of cognitive dissonance this book caused me. I could hardly get through a single chapter without dismissing the book and the author as being outrageous. This guy wasn't talking about less taxes and smaller government. He wasn't even trying to really make any arguments about what was better for the greater good - which was a hallmark of every serious political movement I'd been exposed to up until this point. He was talking about something different altogether. He was talking about the inconsistent ethical framework on which all governments are built. He was talking about pushing us in a direction of no government at all.
Had he lost his mind? He was describing anarchy! Indeed he was. And what's worse, as hard as I tried to dismiss his rhetoric, it made sense in a way that no other political philosophy ever had for me. How could having no government possibly make sense to me. It seemed so non-pragmatic (later that feeling faded). It seemed so non-sensical. What made it click so much with me in the end? It took a while, but I realized it came down to morality. For better or worse, I've been convinced that violence (and particularly violence that isn't merely in self-defense) is not virtuous - and for that matter, not even civil. That was something for animals. Communication, trade, peace...these were the means for rational compassionate entities. Whether you were the most devout Christian, or the most fervent Atheist humanitarian, it just made sense. You have no right to do things to other people without their consent. This was not only the most virtuous default position, but the most flexible. It allowed for anyone to adopt any beliefs they want, provided they do not push those beliefs on others. Nothing could be more passive. Nothing could be more neutral.
It's from that point of realization that all of the vestiges of my previous political stances unraveled. I was rebuilding all of it from the ground up. And it was probably the most humbling personal experience of my life. I'd been wrong. I'd been very wrong. And I was wrong in a way that favored violence and coercion upon innocent people. I never claimed (now or then) to be perfect or anything of the sort...but I've never felt more shameful for my transgressions than I did in those few weeks. Some of the things I'd said and/or supported still bother me...and I'm still trying to make up for it.
I never would have guessed, at the time, that many years later I'd be sitting in my grandmother's living room with my teeth clenched, listening with utter rage to a diatribe given by my father about the despicable nature of someone putting up a building in downtown New York. If you would have predicted that, I would have laughed in your face and walked away. Yet there I was, staring with the awkward discontent of a convert. And maybe I really wasn't angry with him or his position as much as I was angry that I would have shared it with him, gladly, at one point in the not-so-distant past. But maybe holding onto a crappy political ethos for a while is a good way to motivate a person to adopt a better one. After all, if it wasn't for me listening to Rush Limbaugh all that time, I probably would have never become a radical anarchist.