The Freedom Fighters

Long before the Tea Party, libertarians dreamed of a world without government


We came for the freedom and stayed for the good life. We built businesses, families, fortunes, homes—so many homes—and in the first years of the new millennium we could be forgiven for believing that here, in a city built on flirtation with the forbidden, we owed our success to the glory of having been left alone. The rest of the country paid lip service to the American dream; we lived it. Lady Liberty resided in New York Harbor, but she had a floorshow in Vegas.

Somewhere between our arrival and the bruising election of 2010, Nevada gained a reputation as national ground zero for anti-government fervor. The reputation is misleading; the election was a perfect media storm of the most powerful man in an unpopular Senate facing off against brutal economic times and a nationwide nihilist movement. Traditionally, we Nevadans like government out of our business, except when it is helping us to do business. As a well-regulated land of self-made men and women, we dislike meddling but don’t mind partnership. Even in the wake of the Great Tea Party Tempest, it bears repeating that Nevada’s libertarian streak—especially here in Las Vegas—is more about lifestyle and civic self-image than about ideological consistency. We’ve always believed that the holier-than-thou elites are out to get us, but we’ve never really been out to get them.

It’s possible, of course, that this autumn of discontent foreshadowed some kind of paradigm shift, and that our inveterate frontier defensiveness is morphing into ideological libertarianism. But let’s pause to think about what that would mean. Real libertarianism (as opposed to Tea Partyism, which cribs from the libertarian playbook but hasn’t really read the thing) is an ideology of radical experimentation. It calls not only for lower taxes and gun rights, but for gay rights, an end to the drug war, and a foreign policy restrained beyond President Obama’s wildest dreams of restraint. Libertarianism’s insistence on restraining government in all its forms and supporting economic and personal freedom in all their forms creates awkward alliances and weakness at the ballot box.

The libertarian movement is diverse and argumentative; many purist libertarians will have nothing to do with the Libertarian Party, which after all wants to participate in the taboo sport of governance. But libertarians share an almost scholarly commitment to exploring the implications of 18th-century natural rights and 19th-century laissez-faire economics. The theoretical end game of libertarianism is peaceful anarchy, in which mutual interest, contractual cooperation and unfettered creativity ensure a higher standard of living.

At the heart of libertarianism is a simple and seductive logic: Governments get what they want through force. Markets, on the other hand, are networks of voluntary contractual relationships between individuals. That is, they are created by choice. A society should be built around consensual exchange rather than the unequal relationship between state power and citizen. Individuals negotiate; the state expropriates.

Libertarianism is a romantic ideology. It recognizes the unity of the haunted spirit and the audacious dreamer. The fantasies of the free man are inspired by his dark awareness that he is unfree. Like Nevada itself, libertarianism is ornery and visionary and in a state of perpetual argument with a spectral Establishment. It is an ideology of struggle. This is the story of its partisans.

1. The Gambler

“I’m kind of re-creating libertarianism,” says Wayne Allyn Root. “I’m not just going to follow the traditional roots. I’m a Ronald Reagan libertarian. Traditional libertarianism mixes in too many things that are liberal. That’s why it doesn’t work. It needs to blend with conservatism. And where’s that today? The Tea Party! And that’s why it’s working. I’ve been trying to bring this party along, and it’s beginning to happen.”

In 2008, Root was the vice-presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party. At 49, he remains politically ambitious. If he runs again, he says, it will be at the top of the ticket. Root is a bracing speaker, not because of the eloquence of his words, but because of his irrepressible, almost childlike way of saying them. Each sentence is a celebration of itself; the next word is always jostling to leave his lips. As a sports handicapper, Root is used to seeing around the corner, and as a sublime self-promoter he can’t wait to tell you what he’s seen. It’s hard to imagine a set of rules holding Root down, or at least hushing him up.

Root’s favorite issue, as one can learn in the first, second and third paragraphs of any of his columns for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is the plight of the American small business. Federal income taxes, he believes, choke the life out of the smallest of the small businesses, which report profits as personal income, and Obama’s proposed 4.6 percent increase of the top marginal tax rate is nothing short of an approaching apocalypse. One of Root’s policy proposals is a one-year federal income-tax holiday. He feels great urgency about this, hence his embrace of the Tea Party, which is not a libertarian movement, but a movement that, unlike libertarianism, knows a thing or two about political horseracing.

The Tea Party doesn’t have positions; it has reactions. It is a tactical, conservative movement, grown at the grassroots but generously fertilized by wealthy conservative businessmen, whose clear political goal is to dispose of Barack Obama. Where libertarianism is principled to a fault and adores theory, the Tea Party movement thrives on emotion. It longs for the mythical tone of Ronald Reagan’s America, where it was always morning, taxes were low, and the nation was unified in a global struggle for what was right. Truth be told, government was big back then, too, but it was their government. The Tea Party game plan comes complete with its own package of burnished memories, old battle scars, and a defined enemy. In other words, it’s a plan to win now and figure the rest out later. Root bets on winners.

2. The Happy Warrior

In the autumn of 1990, Doug French was working in commercial real estate lending at Security Pacific Bank and pursuing a master’s degree in economics at UNLV. He needed a course to fill out his schedule, but the only one available, a classmate assured him, was being taught by a kook. Reasoning that no grad student gets through school without communing with a kook or two, French enrolled in Murray Rothbard’s History of Economic Thought class.

“I took Murray and I was struck by lightning,” says French, who is now the president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank at Auburn University. “My life was changed forever.”

The “kook,” as it turned out, was one of the most prominent living practitioners of Austrian economics, a school of thought that had been brought to the postwar U.S. by Mises and eventual Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek. In the intellectual crucible of mid-century New York City, Rothbard helped put Austrian economics at the center of the emerging libertarian discourse. He was, for a time, part of Ayn Rand’s inner circle, but her tendency to seek worship rather than drop-the-gloves intellectual debate sat poorly with a man who loved rough-and-tumble argument above all else.

For Rothbard and his fellow Austrians—the followers of Mises called themselves Austrians whether they were Austrian or not—economic liberty was at once a moral category and the practical key to prosperity and innovation. Liberty creates wealth, and wealth creates. Through the power of markets, society spontaneously organizes itself without the guidance of government. If individuals, understanding their wants and needs better than anyone else, make mutual choices for mutual benefit, then any force that interferes with those choices decreases the sum of human happiness.

To those who argued that the cooling hand of government was needed to tame the passions of the market, ensure the justice of its networks of exchange, and guide economic development in desirable directions, the Austrians had a simple answer: How the hell do you know? The Austrians believed that economic planning is folly; Rothbard railed against the mathematical modeling favored by mainstream economists. The hand of government neither cools nor guides nor stimulates: It can only distort the natural interplay of individual choices. No expert or committee of experts should arrogate the right to steer natural processes whose outcome is unknowable. The Federal Reserve was one of Rothbard’s favorite targets—he believed that its artificially low interest rates in the 1920s produced the Great Depression; to make matters worse after the crash, Herbert Hoover called on industrialists to keep wages artificially high. The economy couldn’t find its footing when government kept telling it where to step.

Rothbard worked on his masterpiece, Man, Economy, and State, throughout the 1950s; not until 1970 was its third and final volume published, but Rothbard’s constant flow of articles had long since put him at the center of libertarian politics. In the cultural crucible of the 1960s and ’70s, Rothbard dealt with everyone from counterculture libertines who wanted government out of their medicine chests to industrialists like the Koch brothers of Kansas, oilmen who for years poured their money into libertarian think tanks—their cash founded the Cato Institute—in an attempt to make a defiantly anarchic movement do their bidding. (The Kochs have more recently placed their bets on the Tea Party.) Rothbard, a button-down individualist, was pleased with neither the wild-eyed hippies nor the Napoleonic business executives.

“Murray never quite found a home,” says French, “but he was always searching.”

Above all, Rothbard was an intellectual happy warrior, the fun fellow who could carry on a ferocious policy argument for decades. He was a man who might have been a grand presence in some endowed Ivy League chair. But though Rothbard had earned his doctoral degree from Columbia and published feverishly, he was unable to find an academic appointment in the Keynesian-dominated economics faculties of New York City—and he wasn’t willing to leave town. For two decades he taught at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. And then, in 1986, UNLV came calling, and Rothbard, 60 years old and ready at last for a change of scenery, headed west.

3. The Promised Land

Root grew up in upstate New York, the son of two of the founding members of the New York Conservative Party. He spent childhood autumns running up the stairs of walk-up apartments to slide campaign literature under unsuspecting doorways. He is a 1983 graduate of Columbia University, a member of Barack Obama’s class. (Root delights in telling his interlocutors that he never saw Obama at Columbia and leaving them to draw their own conclusions.) In 1989, he left New York for California, part of a search for a congenial business environment that ultimately led him, in 1999, to Las Vegas. He built a powerhouse sports handicapping business, achieved national renown, bought a house in the Henderson foothills, home-schooled his four children, sent the eldest of them off to Harvard this fall, and decided that Nevada is the indubitable capital of libertarianism in America.

Unlike purist libertarians, Root speaks the language of states’ rights and differentiates between federal government oppression and state government action. “States can do just as terrible things as a country can,” he says, “but the difference is you can move with your feet.” Root personally favors broad social tolerance, but he recognizes that communities have different values, and that it’s bad politics to push a state beyond where it’s ready to go. Liberty might be a natural right, but it’s an acquired taste. The libertarian movement won’t get much of anywhere if its strategy is to call upon every community in the country to zero out public spending, renounce community standards and permit everything. But start by cleansing the body politic of federal influence, and a single national policy shatters into 50 state policies to shop among. Root is a gambler, so he went shopping and chose Nevada.

“We’re the freest state in America,” Root says. “When you put together personal freedom, economic freedom, medical marijuana, gambling, no state income tax, no business tax and no capital gains tax, we’re the most libertarian state.”

At first glance, Root’s argument is supported by the data: The nonpartisan Tax Foundation reports that Nevada has had one of the nation’s three lowest combined state-and-local tax burdens for three decades running. University of Nevada, Reno economist Elliott Parker has found that Nevada’s state government spends only 6.4 percent of the gross state product, the lowest percentage in the nation. Nevada is dead last in the number of residents per capita working for state and local government and for state employees working in higher education.

As for social liberty, Root cites the libertarian magazine Reason, which in 2008 ranked Las Vegas as America’s best big city for personal freedom. “Las Vegas,” Reason enthused, “is the wildest city in America’s most tolerant state. And Mayor Oscar Goodman wants to make the place even freer.” Next came the usual talk about legalizing prostitution, drinking gin on desert islands, etc.

Root did not cite a study by the Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank at George Mason University, which did not rank Nevada among its 10 freest states. In fact, among libertarian purists, Nevada isn’t thought of as very libertarian at all. “People think being able to drink at all hours or being able to pay for sex is libertarian, and it’s not,” says French. “People who are serious about libertarianism know it’s about responsibility.” French believes that libertarianism requires shaking all dependence on the state at any level and putting faith in the market’s capacity for creative problem solving. And he says that Nevada is nowhere close to doing that. Despite the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, when ranchers and miners called for greater private control over public lands, 85 percent of Nevada’s territory is still owned by the federal government and maintained at federal government expense. Southern Nevada is home to the 14,000-acre Nellis Air Force Base and a 2.9 million-acre test-and-training range. Indian Springs is home to Creech Air Force Base, from which bomb-dropping drones in the Afghan skies are remotely operated. Then there’s the Nevada Test Site, where the federal government detonated 900 nuclear bombs over a 50-year period, and Yucca Mountain, where the federal government planned (and may plan again) to store the nation’s nuclear waste.

The largest employer in Nevada is the Clark County School District, which is the fifth-largest district in the nation. The state’s most powerful industry, gaming, is tightly regulated, assiduously taxed and entangled in a morass of favor-exchanging with state and local authorities. The most powerful organization in the state of Nevada, libertarian purists will tell you, is the Clark County Commission, which has the power to dispense favors in time-honored ways both legal and illegal. The minute you tax and regulate an industry, the industry starts calculating how to decrease the taxes and regulation, and it does so not with a principled challenge to state authority, but with a concerted strategy of political patronage and deal-making.

Southern Nevada, and the entire desert Southwest, profoundly owe their growth to the federal government. Without power from Hoover Dam and water from Lake Mead, today’s Las Vegas (not to mention today’s Phoenix and much of today’s Southern California) is unthinkable. The Strip came into existence in the 1940s because of the old Highway 91 from Los Angeles, and it boomed as a result of the Interstate Highway System, which transformed the highway into Interstate 15 and allowed millions of tourists to cross the Mojave in less than five hours. In the 1950s and ’60s, when most banks wouldn’t touch Vegas, the town’s cash flow came from two decidedly non-libertarian sources: the federal government and the Teamsters Pension Fund. If you harken back to the cowboy days, things still don’t get much more libertarian: The mining industry, the rough-and-tumble source of Nevada’s frontier mythology, owed its viability to the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act signed by President Lincoln—and to the century-and-a-half of preferential tax treatment that followed.

Where Root sees a land of opportunity, French sees a Gordian knot of government power and economic interests. What’s a hopeful individualist to think?

4. The Believer

On a hot September evening at Wayne Bunker Family Park in northwest Las Vegas, Joe Silvestri, the chairman of the Nevada Libertarian Party, is wearing shorts, a T-shirt with cut-off sleeves and a baseball cap. He has broad shoulders and a deep olive tan; he’s been an ocean lifeguard in his native Long Island, N.Y., every summer since 1984, and he looks every bit the part. He throws a white Frisbee to his 7-year-old son, Colby, who zooms it back on a line. Silvestri tosses it to his 5-year-old daughter, Macie. She watches it hit the lawn and smiles.

It is the homestretch of Silvestri’s congressional campaign in Nevada’s District 3. This is his fourth try, he’s been through a divorce since the third one, and he’s learned by now that a Libertarian Party candidate needs to maintain a certain wry detachment on the campaign path.

“I’m trying to find happy balance after a couple of rough years,” he says. “I’m not living this campaign like I did in 2004, 2006, 2008. Every Wednesday and Saturday you would have found me on a street corner running a crossroads meeting, handing out information, dealing with police, hecklers, street people. It impacted my work, my marriage, my family. I learned I can’t do everything.” In 2008, Silvestri won 2.9 percent of the vote, finishing behind Democrat Dina Titus, Republican Jon Porter and an Independent named Jeffrey Reeves. He was invited to few debates then, and he’s left out of most of them now. His campaign coffers are empty, mainly because nobody ever filled them. And yet he keeps running.

“I’m not a politician. There’s no money in this for me,” says Silvestri, who moved to Las Vegas in 1997 and discovered libertarianism shortly thereafter when a friend handed him a copy of former Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne’s Why Government Doesn’t Work. “I just spend my life fighting for freedom. It’s a basic principle: People have the right to live their lives the way they see fit, as long as they live fairly and honestly.” Silvestri believes that government’s only truly justifiable roles are to defend the nation and ensure the safety of its citizens and their property. He is, however, an incremental libertarian, not a revolutionary; he wants to wean us painlessly from government dependency through a case-by-case demonstration of the superiority of market mechanisms. If there is one thing that keeps him passionate as he walks through the desert of third-party politics, it’s his experiences as a history teacher at Spring Valley High School.

“I’m a frustrated teacher,” he says. “I love the kids, I love the subject areas, and I think this system has failed. I have two runaways, a girl with a baby, kids from juvi, kids on parole, nice kids, smart kids, foreign students, Sweathogs—kids who don’t care about academics at all. We’re not meeting any of their needs. Government tells us what can be taught and then extracts money by force to fund it. And still people pull their kids out. Right now only the rich can do that. I’m a strong supporter of vouchers. Take half of what the school spends on a student and give it to the parent to put into any school they want. Under a voucher system, I don’t have to do anything for Sweathogs. Someone will, though, because there’s profit to be made. But the test in my school might not be the test in yours. Vouchers would radically change our society, change the status quo.”

Silvestri is not part of the peculiar class of gated-neighborhood-dwelling anti-elitists who frown on the things the public sector provides—education, libraries, open space—because they have no use for them. We’re talking about a professional educator who rides with his children to the public park on a public bike path, stopping along the way to pick up books at the public library. “I don’t want to abolish libraries,” he says. “I’ll be ready to do that when we as a country stop spending half of the world’s military expenditures.” He does, however, believe that the market can eventually beat government at its own traditional games, from land stewardship to community recreation. Even if we zeroed out funding for his beloved parks and libraries, Silvestri says, a vibrant mix of privately funded facilities would rise from the ashes.

“People have ways of getting what they want,” he says. “And when people see there’s something people want, they find a way to give it to them.”

5. Liberty and Its Discontents

Liberty and democracy are like the proverbial unstoppable force and immovable object; they are the gridlock around which our founders built the country. Silvestri believes that liberty is at the root of peaceful social relations so long as we live by the Golden Rule. But pure liberty is constrained by regulation and community and standards and law, all of which exist because the Golden Rule isn’t law enough for a society: After all, I may be willing to have you do unto me things that you would never let me do unto you.

Libertarian philosophy recognizes that our freedom sometimes requires protection from the freedom of others, but it also upholds an absolutist notion of property rights that questions the validity of labor regulations, environmental safeguards, and, in some cases, civil liberties. The 1964 Civil Rights Act notwithstanding, the question of whether a private business owner has the right to exclude anyone she wants, for any reason, from her public place of business remains very much in play in libertarian circles. Free enterprise is a bulwark against state tyranny, but the rule of capital has its own way of narrowing personal liberty and marginalizing individualists.

Meanwhile, societies have found it nearly impossible to achieve certain goals without pooled money, public priorities and political force. Infrastructure, defense, exploration, pure science, environmental protection, broad-based education and even a rudimentary safety net would be devilishly difficult without public dollars. A decision to de-fund these areas would be, at least in the short run, a choice simply to do without them.

But the question of the day is whether the emotional appeal of old libertarian ideas dressed up in Tea Party finery will sufficiently capture the public imagination that government will be slowly drained of its financial ability to be effective. Crumbling bridges, unfinished roads, declining public universities and overcrowded schools would create a vicious circle in the public mind: See, everything government does is shabby! For libertarians, this would be progress toward the fantastic goal once proclaimed by Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform: Shrink government until it’s small enough to drown in the bathtub. It’s unclear, though, whether most Americans are prepared to have their government drowned.

The more likely impact of libertarianism is that its ideas will be applied piecemeal, from school vouchers to health savings accounts. Shards of libertarianism will be integrated into the mainstream mosaic. Years ago, the 401(k) would have seemed an unthinkable replacement for old-fashioned pensions, but market-based solutions have a way of winning their place in the sun. Economic freedom abhors a vacuum; our desires form markets, and our enterprising spirit serves them.

6. The Faculty

Rothbard arrived at UNLV in 1986, a big hire at a school intent on making a name for itself. “At that time, the department of economics had some money and the dean was looking for some big name, but they didn’t know what kind of big,” says UNLV economics professor Nasser Daneshvary, who arrived at the university in 1990 and, though no libertarian himself, was on good terms with Rothbard. “Murray wanted to establish a credible economics department that was completely Austrian.” Rothbard was joined by another Austrian-school economist, Hans Hoppe, and in libertarian circles across the nation UNLV acquired the reputation of an Austrian economics hotbed. French remembers going to academic conferences and being greeted by eager would-be Austrians from around the country who wanted to know what it was like to work with Rothbard.

But Rothbard and Hoppe were isolated in the department; no more Austrians arrived in their wake. Still, economics students with a liberal arts frame of mind would find their way to Rothbard’s History of Economic Thought courses, and to the master’s program in economic theory and policy. “I would wait literally hours to talk to him, and so would other students,” French says. “We would sit on that cold floor in Beam Hall and wait for our turn. And when you got close enough, there was a chair. He never rushed anyone along. You could talk about anything.” According to Rothbard’s 1991 faculty evaluation, students had given him ratings “significantly above the department average.” Nonetheless, the theory and policy program was axed that year, and the same evaluation was critical of his “limited contact with most economics students.” It also reported that the 65-year-old’s “performance in the area of professional growth” had been “disappointing.” Rothbard fired off an angry letter detailing his publishing and teaching activities that year, when he’d served as editor for two scholarly journals, had two of his books published in French translation, written two influential scholarly articles and produced two short books for the Mises Institute.

But Rothbard could not shake his lifelong outsider status. Each Christmas and summer he would head back to New York as soon as classes ended. “Murray subscribed to anarcho-capitalism, whatever that is, but he was no fool,” says UNLV economics professor Bernard Malamud. “He kept his government-imposed rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan when teaching at UNLV.” Daneshvary says that Rothbard’s influence on mainstream was marginal. “While he influenced some non-economic people, his influence on economics was not much. He had this idea of 100 percent gold reserve. It might sound very good. But it would not work.”

Rothbard died in 1995. Not long ago, French and I took a walk to Beam Hall, office 501, where the old professor had once held court. On our way out, we ran into Malamud and Daneshvary. Malamud asked French if Rothbard’s lecture on Mises was available online; he didn’t want to lecture on the subject, so he figured he’d let Rothbard’s ghost do it. It seemed like a fitting tribute. But just as we were leaving, Malamud gestured to me from his office. “If you ever want to do a story on real economics,” he said, “give me a call.”

7. The Vision

The cultural power of Rothbard’s ideas endures. The low interest rates maintained by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, a onetime Rand disciple, are widely blamed in libertarian and conservative circles for creating the housing bubble. Gold is an increasingly popular investment. Here in Nevada, the names Rothbard, Mises and Hayek are regularly invoked in the editorial pages of the Review-Journal, with Root, R-J Editor Thomas Mitchell and fiery columnist Vin Suprynowicz leading the charge. (Mitchell and Suprynowicz declined to be interviewed for this story.) Just two years after what seemed to be the epic collapse of market capitalism, a stunning cultural wave has declared that government is the problem and decided that the path to survival is for each of us to learn to live without Uncle Sam.

French, a man who owes his life-changing friendship with Rothbard to the public university, doesn’t see how the monuments of big government can long survive in the new economic climate. The whole mighty American statist economy might collapse, he says, but Americans would find a way to come back better than ever. “People would forego consumption and save money,” he says. “That’s what spurs division of labor, delaying consumption and saving to invest in things that make our life better. With less government in the way, you would see incredible productivity. Imagine the money that’s spent on political campaigns instead put in the hands of entrepreneurs. People ask me what it would look like. I don’t know.”

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