Putting libertarian ideas of private property and self-determination into practice is easier said than done in our complex, highly-regulated society. It takes more thinking, research, hard work, and willingness to make small, evolutionary steps than many people can muster. But the result, though falling short of utopia, can often be worthwhile, meaningful improvements in people's lives.
One man whose profession is working for such improvements is 38-year-old John McClaughry of Concord, Vermont. A man of strong libertarian beliefs, McClaughry is fond of describing himself as a "Jeffersonian"—an advocate of individual liberty, limited government, decentralized power, strict construction, free competition, and, especially, the preservation of a widespread distribution of private property ownership. "Most of the Founding Fathers recognized that government could not remain limited unless the great bulk of the citizens held property of their own," he observes. McClaughry's activity over the past 15 years has been directed to shaping public policy to create and preserve that widespread distribution of property without which individual liberty is precarious.
McClaughry is the founder and president of the Institute for Liberty and Community, a nonprofit research institution focusing on ways to create and preserve liberty and property while restoring mutual aid and self-reliant human communities. The Institute has a rather remarkable advisory council, on which are libertarians Karl Hess and Martin Anderson, as well as the former chairman of the National Conference on Black Power and former HUD Secretary George Romney.
The Institute is carrying out a long-term research project to develop strategies for creating a broader base of private property ownership, especially among ethnic and minority group members. In 1974 it conducted a year-long symposium on economic empowerment of the poor—principally by focusing on the removal of government obstacles. The symposium also produced a plan for radically restructuring the Social Security System. The Institute has also produced the Vermont Citizens Guide to Electric Power Issues, a handbook exploring alternatives to state-franchised utility monopolies, and in 1975 held a conference on decentralizing Vermont.
McClaughry grew up in the small town of Paris, Illinois. After graduating from Miami University (Ohio) in physics in 1958, and earning an M.S. in nuclear engineering from Columbia in 1960, McClaughry worked for a year designing nuclear reactors for General Electric. He soon discovered that he was more interested in public policy than neutron flux, so he enrolled at the University of California where he was granted an M.A. in political science in 1963.
For the following four years he worked as a Congressional aide and campaign research director for a number of Republicans, including the late Sen. Winston Prouty of Vermont and Senator Charles Percy. During this period he became well known in Washington as the chief promoter of four important causes.
One was Senator Prouty's Human Investment Act, granting tax credits to employers for investment in employee skills. The second was the Percy-Widnall home ownership bill of 1967, which would have provided contingent loans to lower income people to enable them to achieve home ownership, in the context of a self-help neighborhood revitalization program. Much to McClaughry's disgust, the home ownership idea was transformed by liberal Democrats into a giveaway to lower and middle income families mainly to stimulate housing demand. It was enacted in this form as Section 235 of the HUD Act of 1968. (McClaughry unsuccessfully advised Sen. Percy to vote against it, as a fraud.)
McClaughry's third bill was a complex measure called the Community Self Determination Act. Backed by a curious collection of Republican conservatives and black militants, the bill would have made special tax and banking provisions available to community development corporations, which would ultimately fund locally desired social services from their own business profits, rather than by wheedling grants out of the government. The fourth cause was abolition of the military draft, finally accomplished by Richard Nixon.
In 1967 he left Capitol Hill to become a Fellow of the Institute of Politics at Harvard. In the summer of 1968 he returned to Kirby Mountain, Vermont where he had built his own log cabin five years earlier, and with hardly any local connections jumped into a primary for a vacant seat in the Vermont House. By an all-out door-to-door campaign he won easily, and was reelected in 1970. His most important efforts in the legislature were to curb housing and building codes, which, he says, were threatening to destroy what little housing was available to the poor and prevent them from taking the initiative to build their own. Both bills lost by one vote.
After an unsuccessful primary race for Lt. Governor in 1972, in which he lost to an incumbent, McClaughry threw himself into the battle against statewide zoning, which he describes as "The New Feudalism". Despite the weight of the administration in Montpelier and a bevy of well organized environmental pressure groups, McClaughry and his allies managed to kill state land use plans in 1972, 1974, and 1975, and it is now widely felt that the idea has, in Vermont terms, "gone by."
McClaughry's most recent battle developed when the Republican State Committee extended a dinner invitation to John Connally. At a televised news conference, McClaughry roasted Connally as a "political hermaphrodite," a man whose vision of the Corporate State ("state capitalism or corporate socialism, take your pick") was the same as that of Mussolini, and whose proposal for compulsory national service of all 18 year olds was pure and simple slavery. Demanding that the Republican Party act like a Party of Individual Liberty, McClaughry said, "If there will ever be a sufficient cause for acting upon Jefferson's famous observation that 'the tree of liberty must be watered by the blood of tyrants', an attempt to impose social conscription will be that cause."
John McClaughry is clearly a man who takes liberty seriously.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: John McClaughry".