To some advocates of freedom, the idea of libertarian politics seems a contradiction in terms. For politics, after all, inherently involves the use of organized force, rather than voluntary means, to accomplish various ends. Yet others point out that the only feasible way to dismantle the vast, inefficient federal bureaucracy is for enlightened representatives to vote out what interventionist politicians have voted in. Hence, the case for a libertarian politics of deregulation, decontrol, and dismantling.
One practitioner of this brand of politics is a first-term Congressman from Idaho, Steve Symms. As recently as early 1972 Symms was just a moderately successful apple grower and franchise operator in Caldwell, Idaho. He and his friends Ralph Smeed and Bob Smith collaborated on a local newsletter, THE IDAHO COMPASS, which advanced libertarian, free-market solutions to state and local problems. Early in 1972, the three came up with the idea of a Congressional campaign as a way to gain exposure for their political ideas. Symms was selected as the most credible candidate, and entered the Republican primary, with the endorsement of the Libertarian Party. Shock number one for Symms was winning the primary; shock number two was winning election to the House of Representatives in November 1972.
Once in Congress Symms faced the challenge of putting his philosophy into practice in the arena of wheeling, dealing, and compromise. He made an initial splash by introducing bills to end the prohibition on gold ownership and to end the Post Office monopoly on first class mail delivery. There followed a period of hard work, learning how the system works and learning what the home folks expect of a Congressman. In order to be reelected in 1974, Symms feels there are many local concerns he must attend to: farm problems, forest problems, Social Security problems, etc. In short, the life of a Congressman cannot be solely an ideological crusade, if he expects to last more than one term.
Symms has been criticized for being weak on civil liberties. Indeed, his positions on drugs and amnesty will not sit well with many libertarians. But it is also true that Congress deals mainly with economic issues, and in this area Symms has been outspokenly on target. He has taken a strong, principled stand against wage and price controls, vowing not to rest until the Cost of Living Council is abolished. Despite his Republican affiliation, he has not hesitated to oppose the Administration, on issues ranging from revenue sharing to the energy crisis to Watergate. On foreign policy Symms has opposed U.S. intervention in the Middle East, and led the fight against aid to North Viet Nam. He opposes any granting of government credit to the Soviet Union (as in the grain fiasco). Recently Symms was one of five political figures honored by the National Taxpayers Union as friends of the taxpayer (along with Senators Byrd, Proxmire, and Roth, and Governor Walker of Illinois).
Because of Symms' unique position, and the controversy over libertarian politics, REASON was particularly interested in interviewing him. To conduct the interview we enlisted the aid of three key members of the Society for Individual Liberty: Don Ernsberger, a Ph.D. candidate in American economic history at Temple University, Dave Walter, an MBA candidate at Drexel University, and George Morrone, a student at Pierce Business College. What emerged from the interview will probably not change anyone's mind regarding the use of political means, but it provides an illuminating look at one man's efforts to use the political process for good.
REASON: Since you've been identified with the conservative movement and with the libertarian movement, I was wondering if you could tell our readers a little about where you stand on the question of the proper role of government in society.
SYMMS: My basic position is that the proper role of government is to control the destructive forces of man. Meaning, the police force is the only place that they have any role. Anything that's creative, nondestructive, should be left up to the free thinking creation and competitive voluntary exchange of goods and services. That means that almost all the government that's going on here—I'm against. You establish yourself a negative voting record, of course, if you get in this position because there are very few things that you feel you can vote for but—I always refer to the guy that's living along the Mississippi River and the water's running through his living room and somebody comes in and asks him to say something good about water. He just can't. And it's the same story when you're in a flood of big government interventionism.
REASON: How do you view your role as a United States Congressman in advancing individual freedom in this country?
SYMMS: Of course that's a difficult question and as someone who is a student of the libertarian philosophy I know it's a bothersome thing, because by being here at all you're in the position of an agent to represent other people and pass laws and make decisions that have an effect on people's lives, and the more government we have, the less freedom we have. So I guess that my role in that would be to throw rocks in the progress of the bureaucracy—slow everything down—fight a holding action in Washington to hold off the tie to big government while the people like Leonard Read of FEE, Bob LeFevre at Rampart College, the late Baldy Harper from the Institute for Humane Studies, Murray Rothbard, George Roche III, and others can fight the battle on an educational level, because we have to win the battle intellectually. It's not just a political battle that we're going to win, but it's the thinking of the people and the rationale—the rekindling of the ideas of liberty. But while the intellectual battle is going on there is the real fact of life that if we turn our backs on politics, we may be in a police state before we have a chance to win the struggle intellectually. And you get some of these government programs going, which all abrogate freedom, and it's hard to stop them. So my role is just one rifle in the line you might say, just trying to fight back growing government here in Washington while other people can be out contributing in their individual way to win the battle on the intellectual level. This is a battle for the individual—my fate just happens to be here in Congress for now.
REASON: What is your opinion on the most important specific actions that could be taken here in Washington to expand individual liberties? What specific bills, or specific reforms would you suggest?
SYMMS: Well, I really think that one is the private ownership of gold, because of the inflated currency. And you know I've said this many times, and somebody before me said it, that the only two things the government has ever been able to do well is to wage war and inflate the currency. And I have said that on the floor of the House and I'm convinced that this is true—you know governments fight wars all over the world and they also inflate currency all over the world and all governments have been good at this and ours is no exception. So from that aspect right now, the number one thing that I think would help to establish more individual freedom would be to allow a person to buy gold so he can protect his own personal financial condition against bad government monetary policies. Allowing private citizens to own gold would be a built-in trigger mechanism for the politicians here in Washington since they don't have the discipline to put a lid on deficit spending.
We should also pass a lump sum budget at the beginning of the year and then not spend any more money than they take in. I've sponsored a bill and a constitutional amendment along this line that would actually require equal expenditure with input of money so that you couldn't have an inflated currency take place. The ownership of gold would bring about a more honest budgetary process because people in buying gold for protection from paper currency would force politicians to get the government's house in order.
Now the other thing is that I think some kind of a war powers bill would really be effective. I'm very interested in the Bricker amendment and there's two or three people who have submitted war powers bills which would actually limit the power of the executive to go out and make a secret deal and make an arbitrary decision that this country's friendly and that one is unfriendly and then you start bombing on the unfriendly country and pretty quick you've got the U.S. involved in some kind of war and then you have to come back and Congress has to bail them out and keep going. What I would like to see is some kind of a time limit.
REASON: Many libertarians have been surprised that you do not favor immediate unconditional amnesty for draft evaders or immediate legalization of drugs. I wonder if you could explain to our readers why you think that now is not the time to make these two actions.
SYMMS: I know this bothers many people in the libertarian movement, when I have been touted as a libertarian; a more accurate description probably would be "student of libertarianism." I'm not sure that there are many libertarians in the practical world of politics. After all, politics itself is organized force of the majority. I think that, number one, on amnesty we can't avoid the fact that we're here now and we have had a very grueling experience in Southeast Asia, and those who did go over there and didn't come back or lost arms and legs and gave up time and went through all of the harassment, whether it was right or wrong, they were a victim of circumstances. Because of those people, I think granting general amnesty flies in the face of reality for them. That's my first reason. But on the other hand, just to say no amnesty ever, I think that's wrong. I think that the reason we have the amnesty problem, of course, is that of very wishy washy government foreign policy, and lack of commitment of whether or not we need to be in Vietnam. So that's why I'm not a hard liner against it, but I just think that now is a very improper time, because of the other people. Now as individuals they're welcome to come back and face trial but it might surprise a lot of people how many of them might not want to come back. Another reason is my background: a well-disciplined family, football in college, and three years in the Marine Corps. At one point in my life I was more of a red-necked conservative politically and I still have some of these tendencies left.
The other question you asked was about the legalization of drugs. I think that it's very easy for a libertarian to take the position that until we know more about drug abuse and usage and whether or not it's gregarious—whether or not you actually draw more people into the problem, to take drugs with you to enjoy the thing—I think that until I have those things answered I don't want to make it any easier for people. And here's why I say that. I've never talked to an alcoholic who ever wanted to get anybody else involved in alcohol. But I've talked to many people who use drugs in some fashion or another who are always encouraging people to join in the habit with them. Now whether they do this because of economic reasons or because they want someone to be with them on a drug trip or something, I don't know, and until I know more about it I don't think we should make it easier.
The other reason is that we have so many regulations on people in this country—you're regulated as to what time you can go to work, as to how much you can get paid, how many hours you can work, to all kinds of restrictions on safety—every kind of a possible restrictive regulation you can think of is put upon people. So what I'm saying is that the politicians drive a man to drink and then pass one more law against drinking. We've driven some people to drugs because they can find an escape in drugs and get freedom and until we can start letting up on the economic restrictions on mankind it would be premature to just let the whole drug thing go without also deregulating the economic part. Now if we abolish all laws that deal with economics, you know, completely open our economy of free wheeling, get that started, then I think that would be the time that we could just forget about some laws that dealt with just personal self-abuse. I just think that if we can get the economy freed up so that people can kind of do their own thing and be free with their own personal kind of economy, then the moral thing would be less of an issue and let the churches and the personal individuals take care of their own problems, then I'd be more willing to do it. But that's, I think, a very sound position as far as libertarians are concerned.
REASON: What is your view on abortion? Do you think that it is a state's rights question as many conservatives do?
SYMMS: Well, I've never seen a pregnant state. So in my judgment that ducks the issue. Some conservatives propose an amendment to the Constitution of the United States guaranteeing the right to life to the unborn, the ill, the aged or the incapacitated. This is the Right to Life Amendment. That's kind of hard to argue with. Some of the liberals have one that's just the opposite, that says you have the right to take the life of an unborn and an aged—just the exact opposite. I said I'd vote against all of them because I don't know the answer, I don't think that government intervention is going to help; abortion is a problem that has to be solved by the mother and the father and the doctor, you know, and hopefully the good Lord over that. And to have the Congress get into it isn't going to make it any better. We pass a law today and say that you can't have an abortion and then ten years from now we can probably have the right to say that you will have one after the third child or something. I don't believe in that either. And so this is a tough thing you know. Just oppose all of them, vote against them all.
REASON: The Food and Drug Administration has recently issued a new set of regulations effective in January prohibiting the sale over the counter of vitamins over a certain level of dosage and in certain combinations. What is your reaction to that?
SYMMS: Well, I am supporting Congressman Hosmer's bill which would stop the Food and Drug Administration from being able to do that. I think it's typical of the FDA—I think they're wrong in doing it, but I think what bothers me more than just this issue is the activism that I see on the part of the regulatory agencies here, where they're actively trying to put their nose in other people's business. And the only way you can stop some of the arrogant activist regulatory agencies, which have become dictatorial, rather than regulatory, is to starve them. These people are shielded from the Congress because they're on Civil Service. You can't fire them. I've been involved in a lot of scraps with regulatory agencies already and you just can't imagine the arrogance—now not all of them but I see the regulatory agencies as one of the biggest single threats to freedom. You know they're just about immune from their Congress. From my observations of developments of recent weeks, I'm not sure that the Executive Branch is capable of knowing what it's doing. I'm not sure that this Watergate thing is all bad, as it may teach people that Washington, D.C. is not the place to come to solve your problems. It may help us, because Rome fell when all the roads led to Rome and all roads lead to Washington now.
REASON: Now that you've mentioned Watergate, would you agree with the observation that Watergate may be healthy in the sense that it's healthy to build a basic distrust of bureaucracy and government in Washington?
SYMMS: Yes. I've said that publicly in Idaho. That it isn't all necessarily bad in my judgment. As a practicing Republican it's not necessarily politically great—it's not a political plus for me to be a member of Congress in the Republican Party and involved in the Republican Party structure here to have this in my party. But it's kind of interesting—I have to give credit to the WASHINGTON POST for their job in uncovering it—but it's kind of interesting that in the Bobby Baker and Walter Jenkins and Billy Sol Estes and all these other scandals that we had in past Administrations, they kind of whitewashed them and shoved them under the table. But now, when you do have an effort being made, visibly anyway, to try to cut government expenditures in certain areas, this thing is just blown out of proportion.
You know, I don't have any sympathy for anybody that's involved in it. If they're guilty I say they've got to face the music and the truth goes a long ways in politics. The quicker it comes out the better. I hope that it weakens the Executive Branch of the government, because the Congress has for too long sat down here and handed over the power to the President. And they talk about it down here but when the vote comes up, like on wage/price controls, they hand it over to the President. The vote on the gold thing—you see we had 162 to 162 on gold but then they voted the President power to give the people the right to own gold when he thinks it's all right. Which may be never under the present Administration.
REASON: Do you think there's any chance at all for gold legalization?
SYMMS: It's still alive because of the 162-162 vote here—the argument is still alive. So I'm hoping that somehow maybe we'll be able to get a concession from the Administration. Unfortunately most of these people seem to think that this would completely upset the American economy. I don't believe that. The Japanese have the right to own gold and they have a very strong currency and it is not backed by gold. But you can still buy gold in Japan. But it does make the Japanese politicians be more honest and it would do the same thing here.
REASON: Were you disappointed that several well-known conservative Congressmen did not show up for that vote? I was looking down the list and I saw Barry Goldwater, Jr. wasn't there and a couple of the other people—I don't recall their names—
SYMMS: Yes. I was really disappointed. In fact I was disappointed that some of the people who I have a great high regard for here in Congress, who are conservatives, voted against it, because they are "corpuscle conservatives" and don't quite understand what the freedom issue is all about.
REASON: What Congressional reforms do you support?
SYMMS: It's time the Congress started having tighter control of things and less Executive power. No question about that. The Congress does reflect the people, heck you know, everybody thinks that the House jobs ought to be four years instead of two. I'm against that. I think if we want to do anything to help things down here we'd make the Senate run every two years. We've got too much politics, that I know. And something needs to be done about all the money that's being expended on politics, but I don't have any answer to it and this idiotic campaign practices law that they've got is just another bureaucratic bunch of red tape and garbage. It's hard to fill out the forms and difficult to administer and probably anybody who wants to get around it can do it anyway. These guys here in the House are somewhat responsive to the people and they reflect—this is what frightens me about the whole thing—they really do reflect what people think and that's why it's so important that people like you are educating—publishing SIL NEWS and REASON Magazine. That's why I endorse these projects so much because they can get their message out, because a lot of times the stuff being asked for down here is socialistic and fascist, you know, some form of interventionism—but the people think they want it. That's what the people are telling Congress to do. Businessmen are down here testifying for wage and price controls because they don't know how to fight with big monopolistic labor unions—monopolies granted by government. They want to have the government be the third party in the collective bargaining process.
REASON: As a freshman Congressman you've met a lot of new people down here—and we're wondering about your impressions of the people who make up the United States Congress. Do you find very many who are really interested in the principles of liberty and individual rights, or do you think that most Congressmen essentially are down here looking for some pork barrel project for their district?
SYMMS: One of the brighter things about my experience here so far is to find out how many people seem to welcome me here with my ideas and how many people share these same concerns and ideas. And I'm certainly not alone down here. I find that sometimes I vote with only four or five people—but there's a lot of people who would like to vote the same way I do but are afraid to in a certain sense because of their district, because of the political implication of it. But there is a movement here and it's alive and well kicking right here in Congress. We're trying to develop better and more positive positions so that we can articulate the free market idea of the libertarian philosophy and I think that we're making great strides and great headway, and we've got a lot more friends here than we realized. I have found this all through my campaign that there are people all over hiding in the woodwork that think this way, but they're waiting for somebody to come out and say it. So I'm encouraged in that regard now. Of course, I don't know everybody here in Congress yet. Most of the people I do know well are the conservatives—it's just natural that those are the people I get acquainted with first. But my acquaintance is broadening and I find in a lot of areas that I can get along very well with many of the liberals. It's interesting to notice on some of the votes that you have ultra-liberals and ultra-conservatives voting the same way—not on all of them but on some of them and that's an indication of the trend.
I think that the greatest thing we have going for us is that all of the collectivist social programs are failures. And the general public out there knows it. And a lot of interventionists are afraid to go out and talk for more government and more socialism because it's not working that well. And so that's a plus factor with somebody who's interested in running an antigovernment campaign and I hope people run antigovernment campaigns all over this country. If we had 218 votes down here we'd change a lot of this stuff and I think it wouldn't necessarily mean that we'd have to upset the economy. We've got a horrible bureaucracy, it's just about impossible to stop, but it's got to be stopped right in this House. Stop the funding of a lot of these projects—open end funding should be stopped—you might have to have an extension of a program for one year so they can wrap it up and finish it and then don't refund it the next year. Things could be changed right here if we just had more help here.
And I think politically the House of Representatives is really the right place for libertarians to zero in on. If you get a libertarian in the job say of Governor of a state, or President or something—then you would have to take the oath that it's your responsibility to make the government work and then immediately your responsibilities are different than the guy who's here in Congress who's trying to slow down the process of the growth of the government. His responsibilities are a little different and it's a much better place for a guy that has a strong philosophical viewpoint to be.
REASON: Do you think a representative should be responsible to the wishes of his constituents? In other words, should he take a poll on an issue and vote the way the majority of them think, or should a Congressman be his own man?
SYMMS: Well, first off, I don't think there's anything wrong with a Congressman reflecting the thinking of his people. It's a little hard to criticize that—there's a hang-up in representative government. But I believe the responsibility for the vote is mine and no matter what, when I have to enter a vote the people out in Idaho can't vote. I have to make a judgment and vote on it, considering what they want and what I think is best and so forth. There's no question on how I am going to vote on the basis of how I campaigned. So the only votes that I have to go back and explain are when I vote yes for something. Because they got the impression that I was going to vote against everything, and once in a while I have voted for something because it seemed like under the circumstances that certain programs were maybe half completed and beneficial to the district and so I voted for two or three things.
REASON: What's your opinion of the Penn Central mess?
SYMMS: The government caused the whole thing and the quicker the government gets out of the way the quicker we will have a solution. You know, the government gave them the land for the railroads originally and then they decided that they ought to tell them what time the train ran and how many firemen to have on board and what the schedule was going to be and how much to charge and what time, you know, the whole thing, so we just regulated them out of business.
REASON: Isn't the answer just to get the government out of the way and let the free market solve problems?
SYMMS: That's the best answer for most problems and that's my basic position for most everything. Now I did say earlier that if the government would get their nose out of everything they shouldn't be in, then they could do the things they should be in. I'm not against good law enforcement and things like that, even though I like Murray Rothbard's approach to "free-market" justice. I think most people favor that and realize that we're going to have to have some form of structure. I think our founding fathers felt that way. And I think Jefferson was quite libertarian in his outlook in his early years…
REASON: Until he became President.
SYMMS: I think when he became President he became involved in power—I don't have the problem that many young Congressmen have about wanting to be President—that's not one of my aims. I'm like Ludwig von Mises—if I were given all that power I'd want to abdicate it. You know, I'm down here to try to work myself out of a job—that's my aim. What I came here for was to try to reduce government, and it's just like Goldwater said—"Reduce government, don't streamline it, don't try to make it more efficient, just reduce it." Most government reorganization doesn't even make it any better. The Forest Service is something that I've been very involved with, they have control of vast acreage in Idaho. Well one of the things that was brought to my mind in their recent reorganization is that the forest in Albuquerque, New Mexico is now under the jurisdiction of the Atlanta office, and there's no similarity in the type of forest management required in Georgia and in New Mexico. Now 400 miles away is the Denver office and to me Denver would be more practical than Atlanta. I would just hope that we would somehow finish up with more technical people in the field managing forests and less in the offices managing paper. I hope it really ends up that way but a lot of times government reorganization is like von Steuben talking to the troops at Valley Forge. He told them he had some good news and some bad news. The good news was that they all got a change of underwear, and the bad news was that "Jones, you change with Brown, and Thomas, you change with Smith." This is why I'm really skeptical of government reorganization. Another bill that I'm sponsoring is the Post Office Bill that will permit independent companies to compete for first class mail. Yes. That would just permit anybody to compete with the Post Office. And that's the way to do it. I'm against going out here to try to sell the Post Office to General Motors; that would be a mistake. Leave the Post Office right where it is. The founding fathers made a mistake when they put the Post Office as part of the government. They knew the letters needed to be delivered so they put it in the government. They didn't know about radios, so they couldn't get those in the government. And they didn't know about airplanes, so they couldn't get those in the government. And look what happened to those things, but in the Post Office the letter system is just being bogged down and until they made it a monopoly, most of the mail was carried by private people.
REASON: What can people who are members of the Society for Individual Liberty, or readers of REASON Magazine, do to help you in your job of tearing down bureaucracy and reducing the size of the government?
SYMMS: Well, I think, number one is to intellectually arm themselves and continue on their studies. I consider myself a student and I think that if we can all remain intellectually armed we can fight the battle wherever it is, whether it's one on one, two on one, or whether I'm down here in Congress where I'm able to be in a position to possibly have a greater impact, although you know down here I'm debating with people who already have a very strong point of view and everybody's so busy in Congress that it's hard to continue a study course and actually be in a state of inquiry. I think to be effective we've got to learn not to offend everybody just because a guy maybe doesn't agree with you about everything right down the line, but don't give up on him, view everybody as a possible convert—look at it like a missionary does, everybody's an unsaved soul and we're going to win them over. That's the first thing. The other thing is that I think there are two battles—there's an intellectual battle and there's a practical political battle and there's a lot of power out here in the marketplace in business and so forth. So I'm not going to say that I advocate for everybody to get into politics, but if a person's inclined to do this, I wouldn't discourage him from getting into politics—you know, something like Young Republicans, a good group, or the Libertarian Party. I think you can be in the Libertarian Party and still be in the Republican Party, because in fact in many cases it's almost impossible to get on the ballot unless you're in the Republican or Democratic Party. You just can't get on the ballot in a state like Idaho, they've got almost any other party shut off, with the ways the laws are, so you have to be a little practical about that. But I wouldn't back away from getting involved with Young Republicans. I go speak to a lot of Young Republican conventions, and I always talk about libertarianism. I'm going to speak in Milwaukee tomorrow to the Wisconsin Young Republicans in Madison, and I'll tell them about Leonard Read, FEE, SIL. Arm themselves intellectually so they can go out and fight this battle and win it on the basis of principle. Get your own set of principles worked out that you believe in and that you can live with and that you can articulate, and whether it's a bus driver you're talking to or whoever, try not to offend him but keep him in a state of inquiry, arouse his curiosity, hand them REASON or a Leonard Read booklet, depending on where their intellectual interest is. I like Henry Hazlitt's ECONOMICS IN ONE LESSON—I carry it with me. This thing has got more practical answers in it for some of these things—you know when somebody wants to know why you take this position you can refer to this book and it really has some good and practical ideas.
REASON: You could use Hazlitt's book in floor debates in the House whenever somebody mentions a cliche about government action.
SYMMS: But it's got to be part of an overall effort, like I said at the beginning—there's also an educational effort, there's an individual effort that has to be done. And if only freedom were as easy to obtain as buying insurance, well then the problem would be easy. Baldy Harper wrote me a letter during my campaign to the effect that if freedom were like fire insurance it probably would be easy, but it's much more complicated than that. If freedom becomes second nature to you, you understand when you hear something bad that it's another collectivist idea coming out of rancid intellectual soil. That's what we have to change in the long run, is that that rancid intellectual soil that keeps cropping up with these collectivist ideas. And that's the problem that I run into down here. I think we're making headway and this Congress down here is better than the last one was in numbers of people who think this way. Not the leadership, but in total numbers. The process that takes place here, it takes time for the leadership to evolve and if we can change seventy people every year and keep the new group coming in thinking like the group that came in this year you'd see a change in this place pretty fast. It would just take about two more elections with the change of seventy people coming in—you'd find that there would be a lot less government programs coming out of here.
REASON: So you'd like to see more SIL members sitting next to you in Congress?
SYMMS: Right. I'd be tickled to death.
REASON: Do you expect to be back here? With the problems in your district?
SYMMS: I think that I'll have a tough race on my hands. I mean the practical reality of it is we have a very popular Democratic Governor and the district I come from is a Democrat stronghold in Idaho and we have Senator Frank Church, and he's going to be running and of course he's going to be a formidable candidate. So I'm going to be running opposite a popular governor who's seeking reelection and a three term senator seeking his fourth term reelection and I'm going to be running on the opposite ticket. If they get a good Congressional candidate to run on the Democratic ticket, well maybe the reality of my reelection is sure no cinch. We're trying very hard to take care of the constituent problems that we have—you know the nuts and bolts things that if people don't get their Social Security check or something through no fault of theirs (and there's a lot of that that has to be done as a Congressman)—and we're trying to do all of it we can. I'm working on a lot of problems—land management, forest service problems, infestations and things that really pertinently deal to Idaho and I think we're doing a pretty good job. Whether we get reelected it's hard to tell. I wouldn't bet on it. We'll just wait and see I guess. There's no such thing as a cinch.
REASON: Well, thank you very much.
SYMMS: You bet.