I didn’t have a eureka moment. I didn’t get fed up with a political party. A well-read child of resourceful, simple, and hard-working parents who had escaped generations of small, impoverishing family farms, my first notion was always independence. Before any formal concept of agency, utility, or property ever washed into an ear, I knew I valued my own counsel above all others, and my strongest urge and desire was simply to be left alone.
We moved around a lot for Dad’s work until I was nine. Over the years I went to school, to church, to everything expected save prom. I dressed like my farmer uncles and ignored top 40 and drugs. We were quiet Primitive Baptists and as such unmoved by many worldly notions; particularly, we rejected religious bureaucracy, hierarchy in the church, and evangelism; we had no catechism, no articles or rules save the King James Version, and often shared a preacher amongst our rare and remote congregations. My first social organization was based on individual interpretation and responsibility.
Early on, I was forced to lead a prayer in school a full decade after Engel in the civilized place (Tennessee) in which we finally landed, far away from the redneck places and institutions I thought I had escaped. Maybe I could have objected, but the expectation was clear and direct, and the unanimous opinion of my peers meant that I had finally landed in a situation from which there was no retreat. The task was easy enough and not unpleasant; I merely resented being forced, being put upon, and not being left alone. I began to cultivate a distrust of institutions and the force they could wield.
From this I launched into a childhood a bit defensive and cautious, my clannish hill instincts mixing poorly in the factory towns my father was transferred betwixt. He was a produce clerk, decent and humble, so Christmas only came once a year at our house, and I learned to jealously hoard and defend every crumb and opportunity. I never learned to loan or share as a child, and I dug emotional fallback trenches for every possible social situation that life in town might thrust upon me. I preferred rifles, guitars, spinning reels, engines and, eventually, a tiny blonde thing from Kansas, but mostly I liked reliable devices that didn’t have opinions, and I spent most of my free time with a trusted few, mostly in the field with rod or gun. I kept my pocketknife razor keen, earned my merit badges, and paid my speeding tickets quietly.
Whence money: waxing store floors on second shift, mowing yards, pizza delivery, shoveling snow, fry cook, farm hand, electrician’s mate. Money meant more independence, and I loved it more than words can describe, much more than free time after school. Money also meant deserving the blonde thing who, amazingly, had a humbler situation than mine. I had always identified with farmers and merchants, and, the more I knew of work and money, the more respect I had for proprietors and the more contempt I had for regulation. I learned there were federal rules and minimums for most things, and it all seemed silly to me: my employment was an arm’s length transaction between me and my boss, and no other opinions were needed.
So I strained at the bit in some ways . . . . and just didn’t care in others. My hair grew to my shoulders and I seldom shaved. I learned that homosexuality and interracial marriage existed . . . . and could find no reason to care the way all the adults exhibited that I should care: that these things were morally wrong and there ought to be a law. Mostly I hated speed limits and not being able to shoot inside the city limits. I hated how a cop asked me stupid questions about where I worked while he wrote out my ticket, but I loved how he got enraged when I refused to answer, when I just glared at him while he got hysterical and tried to bluff me into submission. People and institutions needlessly meddling in others’ lives put me off, and I never got over it. A flavor of #resist became my base assumption and attitude when I wasn’t on the clock, and I eventually started to notice that government operations were seldom executed to serve and protect . . . and began to constantly ask myself to guess the true motives of those actors. This was the beginning of my suspicion that I would generally be better off and happier with less government.
I didn’t like a lot of other things going on around me outside of government, either. Racism and littering were normal in my culture, but I knew they were wrong, so I figured out that adults were often unethical and hypocritical. Uncles came back from VietNam with no report of triumph or purpose, neighbors in turn defended and abandoned Nixon, farms failed, and neighbors’ cars were repossessed. Interest rates soared, and I kept to my books and learned to drive a tractor and to string barbed wire.
You’d think this sort of environment would have made me a conservative, but few of the conservatives I knew outside my quiet church fell into the live-the-example version of virtue; most were of the bluster and control version, and it seemed like their only goal was to make kids obey the very rules that their parents had mostly skipped. Abortion was a hot issue with the Catholics, but my people tended to simply marry a girl if love brought along a child a few months before the acceptable plan. I never had any problems interpreting the operating instructions for a condom, so abortion was just a quiet problem that other people had. That said, my instinct was and remains that a woman should figure out what was appropriate for her: it’s not a government panel’s responsibility. I took good care of my own business, and the Kansas blonde would need to move on to less responsible men before bundles would come into her life. It never occurred to me to push my opinion in this area on others much less codify it, but I always respected the personhood argument from the pro-lifers because it was rational and genuinely altruistic. Later I would evolve to think about the family as the base unit for rights in this area, but meanwhile I would be increasingly annoyed by the politicization of the issue. I would never begrudge anyone’s right to speech or protest, but what was coming across strongest was the energy some people have to regulate border issues. From this issue I learned that reasonable people can find themselves of opposite views, but I also began to worry about the frontier of public versus private interest and how many would inflate the public sphere to import authority over their neighbors.
One of the hallmarks of the southern brand of conservatism was militarism. I had pored over maneuver from Agincourt to Dien Bien Phu as a child; my people had sacrificed in the war of northern aggression, Europe, Korea, and VietNam. But it never caught on with me: Dad had been miserable as a cold warrior, a pointless clerk spending at one point a year on a Pacific Island two miles long and two thousand feet wide; he had his pay, but he had nothing else but ridiculous orders and frivolous achievements to show for it. Mustering out, he was unwanted for his few martial skills and made his way to grocery, and his son learned to love drab canvas only as cheap and handy surplus. When 200 Marines were blown up in Beirut, I couldn’t think of any rationale that their parents would stand to hear. I began to revisit and question VietNam, of course, but then: why Korea? Many things began to smell like Remember the Maine and the Gulf of Tonkin to me from then on. Other than retaliating for Pearl Harbor, I came to view most foreign adventures as boondoggles: the list of military projects that had achieved the desired goals and had respected the original rationales were infinitesimal so far as I could see. Looking back over a steady chain of deceit and failure, I could hardly see newly posited plans as anything other than American self-deception or power grabs.
As is surely clear, my politics are in no small part an outgrowth of my underclass surroundings, hillbilly paranoia, and poor potty training, but I read a lot and pretty much every political party had a chance to get the upper hand in my brain . . . but none ever earned it. I read the paper every day, watched Cronkite if home in time (seldom), and took in several longer forms on TV, including Brinkley on Sunday mornings and Wall $treet Week with Louis Rukeyser on Friday evening. From these I was learning something critical that my father, who had never finished high school, could not tell me: what was up in the world, and who was pulling the strings; I might not know everything, but the framework of countries and corporations was becoming clear to me, and I had ceased to couch the actions of the day purely in terms of the mindless patriotism that was stock in the small-town discussions I might overhear. Follow the money and similar suspicions become my primary tools to dissecting anything; this didn’t always lead to the quickest answers or the healthiest perspectives, but the shoe fit and paid off more times than not if I just waited and kept reading.
Further, much further, though, I was propelled by Buckley’s Firing Line. I shared so many of his religious and reactionary urges and was thunderstruck by his repertoire: he had towering metaphors for every situation, wrung from history, religion, and mythology. My vocabulary was skyrocketing, but there was something off: he was a man who would be king. I agreed with him on almost everything except the notion that everyone else should necessarily agree with us all the time and live like us and bow at our feet; my journey was convincing me that others should have their own journeys, not that I had found all the answers and should bring them down from the mountain to impose. Mostly, I learned the appeal to first principles as Buckley wrangled with Galbraith and ombudsman-interlocutor Kensley. I found calm and respectful debate addictively delightful; even today, the first page I turn to in any publication is the letters to the editor, and I simply don’t consider journals that don’t run them: honest debate has been more important to me than winning for four decades now. But as clear-headed as Buckley seemed to me, I couldn’t be attracted to a man or a party that didn’t lead with the freedom card; the arrogance left me suspecting that control was more important to Buckley . . . any by extension to Republicans . . . than baseline liberty.
Then there were practical and historical problems to weigh. After Asia ruined everyone’s uncles, the world still wasn’t saved from the commie dominos after all and some divisions never even came home, so it wasn’t clear to me what the plan was or whether it had been worth it. While I dutifully signed up for Selective Service and did my homework, I couldn’t imagine enlisting in any military nonsense. I read Catch-22 for about the third time since I was 12 and came to over-identify with Yossarian and became infected with his fear of being trapped in bureaucracy by patriotism. I came to despise jingoistic declarations and even avoid any movies or other glamorization of warfare; Top Gun came and went, but I took a pass. I noticed that a love of military toys was crowding out any discussion of when and why the toys should be used.
I went through a bunch-o-bullets in those days. I have a Winchester 94 in 22LR, and the barrel’s probably shot out at this point, maybe six minutes of angle now with good ammo and the iron sights, but in those days it was fresh from the factory and I was taking rabbits almost as far out as I could see them. Usually I bought my Federals, like my Levi’s, at the hardware store (whose rural sales staff thought nothing of it) and then pedaled away to do my damage. Over at another store, they wouldn’t sell that same caliber because I had to be 21 to buy “pistol ammunition.” The vacuity of laws and their random implementations were already evident to me before I could legally drive.
We didn’t heed Carter’s thermostat settings, and I was embarking on life at 14MPG because that’s how work gets done. That said, monkey actors from California didn’t appeal to me, either; my mother could shoot and swing an ax better than Ronald Reagan, and, having never had much of anything in the first place, I wasn’t hurt by the oil shocks and was just working my way to being my best me and taking little notice of the implosions in the rest of the country. Unlike my neighbors, I wasn’t motivated to cling to this president any more than I had to Ford or Nixon (who had been figureheads in my childhood and nothing more); I was too busy growing up. And, anyway, flimsy red baiters were a turn-off: posers (like the race baiters I also hated), they convicted people for what they said and believed when it seemed to me that any truly dangerous citizen should be prosecuted for what he had done. I was still stuck on honest debate, but the national mood and its leadership preferred the hysterical; the rule of the day was passion and, it seemed, everyone in my Hooterville was happily going along with whatever Reagan and Falwell told them to believe and do.
In this time, the rising War on Drugs scared me; I feared the machine’s ruining my life. Cousins had long-since reported that there were indeed no good chain gangs, and I planned for college while avoiding complications. Then the WoD hit close to home: some classmates went down on marijuana charges. My people had been making their own joy juice in the hills for centuries, so I had inherited no right to second-guess others’ jollies and gave adherents of the weird weed a pass. I have still never taken an illicit drug, but I never much cared what others did with themselves: just don’t run into me drunk or stoned and we’re good. But suddenly lives were being wrecked over victimless crimes. It was more and more clear: the government often operated expressly at odds to individual pursuit of happiness, no matter what the Declaration declared. But don’t drugs destroy lives: probably, but so did a thousand other things that were somehow still legal. The arbitrariness of it all with no clear appeal to first principles taught me that probably most of Reagan’s yapping was also unprincipled or should be held in suspicion at a bare minimum. I wasn’t necessarily gunning for Reagan: he was simply the first of many grandstanders who would fail to earn my respect.
I did have progressive urges: I saw poverty firsthand, wanted more for everyone, and entertained social policies that hoped to improve things. I didn’t mind the URW’s negotiating as a block if that’s what workers wanted, but I feared that many members had been coerced into signing a union card the way I had been directed to lead a prayer. The housing project was just a half mile from home, so I also saw multi-generational reliance on the dole up close. I paid a bit of tax on some W2 jobs, but half of my income was generally cash deals with farmers, and I wasn’t so Eagle Scout as to keep up with it, report it, or give Uncle Sam a cut; the fiscal and operational mistakes of the government weren’t really hitting me in a way to make me second-guess New Deal residues. I also saw the Knights of Columbus doing good works around town, and I threw my nickels in the Saint Jude barrow when the frat boys wheeled it through town every year; alms in private were clearly capable of delivering excellence. Meanwhile the great Republicans (motto: we understand economics) had literally billions upon billions of reasons why the deficit that they talked about didn’t really need any work on their watch. From this grand mishmash one could only conclude that there were no general answers, no panacea: the policies and attitudes and structures were veneers.
So off to college and marriage and profession I went, and I paid my taxes and stayed on my side of the road. That included a bit of business school where I came to respect macroeconomics and mastered finance at night while taking a turn in code enforcement during a recession. I did good work: decent and serious review and accountability that added no more than 1% value to the work I oversaw; I was working hard, and clearly was more useful than anyone else in my office, and still it came to nearly nothing. Others were less productive and even less impactful, and I suspected that ours was one of the more serious departments in the entire city government. Of course, as soon as a going concern and I found each other, I was snapped up by the private sector and, to the dismay of all my relatives, quickly escaped the security of government employment.
The national numbers came to mean more to me, and I came to respect federal programs less and less the more I knew about them. Government meant that milk cost easily twice what it should; meanwhile, a new generation had taken to the old housing project as normal as rain. The fruitlessness of public housing was unavoidable, and paying taxes came to remind me of the Baer line about alimony: “like buying oats for a dead horse.” At work, I was managing huge budgets, aligning to product strategies, and capitalizing operations; it was far from clear that any similar diligence was applied at government agencies. I was deadly serious about capital, but it seemed like a full third of the economy was dedicated to propping up less serious, less productive folks. I decided that enlightened self-interest was the best management theory and inferred that all government work must therefore be less efficient than deferring to market forces. In short, minimizing government was necessarily a public good.
That’s where I remain: unimpressed by political parties and yearning for autonomy and free markets. It’s a rich life on the debate side, though: I gun for everyone, but people only hear when I gun for their guy. Nobody, no politician, can be perfect, so it continues to boggle my mind why folks get so defensive about balls and strikes called fairly. My grandmothers would have told you that there was enough sin to go around; I’ll tell you there still is. I vote pragmatically: to stymy efficient government as much as possible while resisting as many brakes on freedom as possible. I hope everyone gets rich, finds love, and leaves content children behind them. . . on their own dime . . . and I hope I can be left alone just as much as is decent and possible.