Observations from the Fourth Estate

An interview with Nicholas von Hoffman


Toward the end of January 1976, the California Libertarian Party held its convention near San Francisco. Although a number of people presented their ideas in talks throughout the three days, the speaker at the main event was Nicholas von Hoffman, syndicated columnist, invited because he is widely reputed to possess political savvy and has on occasion spoken favorably of libertarianism in his columns. While at the convention for this speech, von Hoffman graciously squeezed in time to be interviewed by REASON editors Robert Poole and Tibor Machan. Although the discussion was not confined to politics, REASON readers will no doubt find von Hoffman's comments on the political prospects of libertarianism interesting. Obviously the interview could have been turned into a lengthy debate, but that would have defeated its purpose and it would have been misguided—von Hoffman does not pretend to be a political and legal theorist. It is sufficient for us to gain an understanding of his perception of the various elements of libertarianism, the party claiming to stand for it, and some of the problem areas the movement, political and intellectual, faces today.

REASON editors do not necessarily believe that von Hoffman and other observers have a better understanding of our problems than do libertarian theorists. If that were so REASON would not find libertarianism worth very much. We do think it is valuable, however, to learn what other reasonable individuals think of the point of view and activities we find significant.

REASON: First, I think our readers would like to know, how did you first hear of libertarianism as a movement or as a set of ideas?

VON HOFFMAN: I'm trying to think. Well, of course, the set of ideas predates the Libertarian Party by more than a century. As far as the Party is concerned, my recollection is that I may have heard of it first at the Houston YAF Convention, in 1973, I believe.

REASON: You wrote some columns about Murray Rothbard's book For a New Liberty. Was that the first organized presentation in writing of libertarian ideas—modern libertarian ideas—that you'd come across?

VON HOFFMAN: It may well have been. I think I was aware of Murray before I was aware of the Libertarian Party.

REASON: Do you know Karl Hess and his writings and his libertarian ideas?

VON HOFFMAN: Yes. I've read a good deal of what Karl's written. I don't know Karl well but I've known him six or seven years—something like that.

REASON: How would you describe your own political, economic, social views?

VON HOFFMAN: Well, Oh God, I don't know—I'm a ragamuffin, a mongrel. I would be hard put to categorize my views in a party sense.

REASON: But, for example, would you consider yourself close to being any form of anarchist, or some form of social democrat? You've worked earlier in your career with Saul Alinsky, who heads a left decentralist movement. Are those still the kinds of ideas…

VON HOFFMAN: Oh yes. Right. You know, Saul is a very nondoctrinaire man, and I also suffer from that failing. Saul never made any attempts at internal consistency—I followed that brilliant intellectual tradition [laughter].

REASON: It was evident in your exchanges with Kilpatrick on Sixty Minutes that you were primarily the maverick type of critic. Is that basically your style? You're not interested in developing some sort of a broader framework?

VON HOFFMAN: Well, I'm not. I am simply not able to be a comprehensive, synthetic theoretician. I might be interested in it, but it's way past my…

REASON: So you would basically be a critic of obvious abuses in our society on an eclectic basis?

VON HOFFMAN: Yes. I think eclectic is a wonderful word.

REASON: What are the kinds of things that you most like to criticize, that you see as the largest evils and things to attack?

VON HOFFMAN: Well, of course there are a great many things that are very fashionable at one moment or another—I suppose you might say the normal quantum of bunk flowing through society—which I guess one is criticizing all the time. But I guess, along with everybody else, I get more interested in one thing in one period and something else in another.

REASON: I recently read a discussion of Ralph Nader, a critical one, by an editor of The New Republic, and you were mentioned as someone who somewhat blindly at times supports Ralph Nader. Do you take your customary criticism as far as to investigate some of Nader's internal operations, how strictly scholarly his investigations are, how consistent he is?

VON HOFFMAN: Well, I'm aware of Ralph's shortcomings. Part of the question is whether you use the same set of standards when you are judging a very poor outfit with few financial resources and things like that as when you're judging IBM or the power company or the like. I don't, and one of the reasons that I don't—you see, here goes my inconsistency—is that I'm very interested in a society that has an internal tension of power balance. About the time that Ralph gets into a power position equivalent to those people that he is going after, then I'll apply the same standards.

REASON: Nader has criticized the regulatory agencies of the Federal government over and over again. And, interestingly enough, Milton Friedman does the same thing. Yet they come to diametrically opposed conclusions as to what to do about that. Basically Friedman wants to deregulate, and Nader wants to improve the regulatory agencies, give some of them more power and have more formidable, maybe virtuous, people to lead them. Do you think that Nader's idea is better than Friedman's?

VON HOFFMAN: Well, I think you're talking about Nader at an earlier stage. He's not nearly as enthusiastic as he was five years ago about regulatory agencies. I think you've got two problems. One is that you've just got to try to make them as good as you can, knowing full well it's not going to be very good. At the same time, Ralph has developed, particularly over the last five years, proposals designed to do away with the need for regulation, which again involves the notion of countervailing power. That's the reason that he has been campaigning for financing for consumer cooperatives equal to that afforded producer cooperatives. That kind of thing. In other words, he does say that one of the ways around the regulatory dilemma, and he's quite aware of the dilemma, is to try to erect institutions of sufficient countervailing power so that there is a kind of automatic policing mechanism that's not built in law but in some kind of dynamic mechanics.

REASON: This notion of countervailing power is one of the things that Saul Alinsky thought was very important and it's something that libertarians often seem to neglect in their analysis and theories. Do you have any comments on this, or do you see this as a shortcoming of the libertarian analysis to date?

VON HOFFMAN: Well, yes. I would say that there probably is a tendency among at least some libertarians, because of their own intense interest in individualism, to project the existence of a society that is far more individualistic and non-power-determined than the society actually is.

REASON: In a way they're like the Marxists who project their communist state to 2,000 years from now and then use its values to criticize our current society. So in a way libertarians are not contextual enough.

VON HOFFMAN: Exactly. A good point. When libertarians, and others as well, say we must deregulate this and we must stop that kind of government intervention, etc., etc., and then just leave it there, I always throw up my hands, because what that means is that such checks as there are on a General Motors or a DuPont now vanish entirely. And we have the absurd proposition that whether you look at yourself as a vendor of labor or a consumer of goods, you are going to have in a free market an equal sort of position vis-a-vis General Motors. Well this is absurd.

REASON: What the libertarians try to say in the same breath, I think, is that at the same time as they would deregulate they would remove all of the other bad laws. Now this is quite unrealistic in terms of an actual achievement, but the idea is that you deregulate and you desubsidize at the same time—you take away all kinds of protective laws and foreign protective measures for companies in the United States.

VON HOFFMAN: There's something you're still leaving, and this is something that I seldom hear libertarians bring up. You're still leaving General Motors with its greatest government help—namely, incorporation. Incorporation is a special protection, and it also makes the rise of regulation inevitable. Because with incorporation you are saying that it is possible for a certain group of people to pool their capital and go into any business or every business in the world. Do anything they want. And not be civilly liable for any acts they commit or in fact any debts they contract. So that what incorporation does is put that group of capitalists completely outside the law as it pertains to everybody else in the society. It is an enormous grant of privilege. Furthermore, this is a grant that is given this special group of capitalists in perpetuity—I mean it's never looked at again—to do anything. It is such a grant of privilege that until it is rescinded I myself would never come out against regulation.

REASON: Let me give you the following objection that I sometimes get when I question the legitimacy, not the legal legitimacy but the moral legitimacy, of corporations: But look, how would it be possible to undertake some of those massive projects that corporations undertake if it were not for the limited liability—that is, massive projects that have enormous public benefit, utility companies and that kind of thing?

VON HOFFMAN: Well, look, you don't have to go as far as completely eliminating incorporation from the statute books—that is you can't—because the two go together. Regulation and incorporation go hand in hand, but one absolutely begets the other. So you can say—as a matter of fact it was very common in the early 19th century and the late 18th century—you can say: yes indeed, we will confer this privilege on you, but for a limited period of time and for a specific activity. Renewable—on what we consider good behavior, which is defined by current social policy. When the persona ficta, as they call it, was originally conceived, it was never thought that this privilege would be conferred upon people to go do anything.

REASON: Would you take the same stance with respect to the freedom of the press? After all, the Washington Post has a monopolistic position—the same company owns Newsweek, the Washington Post, several radio and television stations. So should the FCC follow through on various conservative, neoconservative proposals about controlling news—must you give equal space to the conservatives in the Op Ed section of the Washington Post?

VON HOFFMAN: I think there are two problems here. One, the one that I'm very concerned about, is the concentration of media ownership. From my point of view a corporation like the Washington Post is highly vulnerable to criticism. I do not think that one corporation should own all those television stations and the newspaper and the magazine and the whatever. That is highly questionable, particularly in television, where there really are a limited number of usable channels, where they have to be allocated by some kind of public authority. It is very, very difficult to defend the present patterns of ownership. This is another place where I would be very strongly inclined to go in two directions at the same time. I certainly don't believe in any attempt to regulate content because, well, we have enough history of the idea of allocating conservative, liberal. Also, I find it repugnant intellectually because, and the media's already inclined enough to do this, we end up with this strange bipolar universe in which there is a "liberal and conservative view," and that's it. So that's intellectually repugnant. On the other hand, I would probably right now be very, very much in favor, with broadcasting licenses, of saying, you may only own one of them, and you may only own it for say ten years, and then you've had your bite at the apple.

REASON: Let me ask you a little about developments in your own field in journalism. Do you perceive, as I do, a rise in the influence of neoconservatives, the Irving Kristol type, the Daniel Bell type?

VON HOFFMAN: Well, certainly in the corporate board rooms their influence has increased mightily in the last 10 years. Nothing is worse than a cellar communist and this really is the end of the light-that-failed crowd, but my reaction to that bunch is that if they had such bad judgment as to join the Communist Party when they were young, I'm not inclined to be very interested in their…

REASON: They're terribly pompous though, and high falutin, and in a way they try to play both ends—they want to sort of go along with the economically free society, and they also want to emphasize the state as the paternalistic, benign protector of the people.

VON HOFFMAN: Well, I think they become, par excellence, the intellectual, apologistic mouthpieces of big corporate America.

REASON: Don't you think that they have more influence now than they had before and that, as say the liberals influenced public opinion in the Kennedy and Johnson era, the neoconservatives will in the next few decades?

VON HOFFMAN: I would hate to try to distinguish how those two groups really disagree with each other, but I don't think you'd find very large areas.

REASON: Well, I'll give you one example. The Kennedy and Johnson people tended to wish to take care of the poor, the economically downtrodden. The neoconservatives like Kristol and Bell are more concerned with a kind of an ethos of values, where the people feel good about their community, where they have a certain sense of being at home in America.

VON HOFFMAN: Yes, but if you push them to the wall they're going to be for food stamps too. And the rest is metaphysical bullshit.

REASON: I want to ask some more about the news media and public opinion. We're seeing polls indicating that more and more people today publicly identify themselves as conservative. We see the rise in popularity of people like Jerry Brown in California and Longley in Maine, who are saying governments should do less, we should have diminishing expectations. Yet I get the impression that most of today's major news media, like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the television networks, are out of touch with this and are still thinking in terms of New Deal solutions to problems and the large benevolent role of the Federal government in most areas. Do you think the news media are out of touch with the way most Americans feel today?

VON HOFFMAN: Well, I think one way to define a news person is that he or she is always the last one in town to know. So that may well be the case. But I am very skeptical of a lot of this antigovernment rhetoric. It is important to bear in mind that while this may appear to us to be a new perception among Americans, it really is not, but is one of the characteristics of the American political culture. From the time of the founding of the republic there has been an intense dislike of the central governments. There is nothing new about it. It is a kind of an American cultural stance. I suspect it is perhaps unique among Western democracies.

REASON: It's certainly not European.

VON HOFFMAN: No. I think we probably are the only people in the world, and it is a cultural stance, and I think that is a very important thing to keep in mind. It sometimes can have immediate political implications, and sometimes it is more violently expressed than at other times, but it is always expressed. There is no point in American history where you couldn't hear it. They don't like them fellers in Washington. They never did.

REASON: This brings up the subject of the Libertarian Party and the kind of appeal that it has or might have. Do you see antigovernmentalism as a major factor that might enable the Libertarian Party to become a real force in America?

VON HOFFMAN: It is an apparent advantage, but it is only an apparent advantage, because in fact in third-party politics or dynamic creative politics—this is a lesson that I learned many years ago from Mr. Alinsky, who was a master at this thing—you in a sense are doing ju jitsu, you have to multiply your power by being clever. Beware of all issues, as political issues, where there is too much agreement. They're very, very poor issues. If you're doing creative politics. Now if you're just being another politician slouching toward the election booth it doesn't matter. But you will notice this is true with all kinds of things in this society—when you get a lot of people to agree, or a lot of people do agree…

REASON: It's probably a misunderstanding.

VON HOFFMAN: Well, it's not only a misunderstanding, but there's a great lassitude about doing anything about it and also a kind of assumed thing that there is nothing one can do about it. So that having a kind of a platform that is too popular almost guarantees nobody's going to pay any attention to you. You run the risk of being in the position of saying, well, I'm against taxes. Well now everybody's against taxes. I don't know anybody, or I've never met anyone, who was for taxes. But the very universal assent to that thing knocks you out of serious consideration.

REASON: Given that sort of general background, then, what would you say are the types of issue that the Libertarian Party would have the greatest success in pushing?

VON HOFFMAN: Well, I think one of the things is that the libertarian values have to be translated for potential members, voters, and such, into terms of specific advantage. That is particularly important in the long tradition of American politics, which has been "vote for honest me." And you really don't care whether I'm honest and I don't really care whether I'm honest, but what I'm offering you is something that is going to help you specifically next Friday this way. This again is a cultural characteristic of the nation, a very old one and one that has worked, because in one sense this is the luckiest nation in the world—everything has always come together for us, you know it got all this labor, it got all this European capital, and it got all this stuff, and it all got here at the same time. And we have all these natural resources here. So you are dealing with a population with a relatively long memory of getting payoffs. Now that may be changing or will change in the next 20 or 30 years, but then I think the quality of American politics will undergo a change.

REASON: But then there's a conflict or tension that you're pointing out in the libertarian political movement, because I don't believe that the Libertarian Party can honestly say to a number of people that there will be quick payoffs if they buy its product. In fact, if for instance we advocate taking away the corporation's powers and maybe as a result in 25 years we have a less troublesome society in which powers are better matched in the market place and we don't have to have this big State, it also will mean that tomorrow some of the executives will have to stand trial and so forth. If we disguise this, however, then we are back in the same boat with the Republicans and the Democrats, and we have no standing as a unique…

VON HOFFMAN: Oh no. I'm not suggesting that you disguise it. I think that what I'm talking about more is "in addition to." Because, look, let's face it—I may not like General Motors. But nobody likes General Motors. Nobody liked General Motors long before they'd ever heard of Ralph Nader—it's part of the whole anti-bigness thing in the American culture. But people like me who are in many ways in a totally spoiled position—I'm paid to sit around and play with symbols and react, you know, affectively to all kinds of symbols—can work up a big froth over General Motors for far longer periods of time than most of our fellow countrymen, who can only work up very short froths over General Motors. Being part of the symbolic class, so to speak, the kind of argument that you were just giving appeals to me, but most people say, well, you know that's fine, but what are you going to do for me now? It's not that they'll react negatively to it, but they also have a certain kind of long-earth wisdom about grand ideas and grand things, no matter where they come from.

REASON: Perhaps what you're after is that the Libertarian Party, even if it wants to stick to its principles, simply has to make the meaning of it more concrete.

VON HOFFMAN: That's what I'm talking about. The application has got to be one where poeple see an immediate kind of benefit for themselves, and that's important for another reason—almost in the spirit of what I would presume to be libertarianism: one of the things I find permanently infuriating about modern civilization, and it is as true in many ways here as it is in Russia or where have you, is the damned policiticans always getting up and asking people to sacrifice for some larger goal. This really just goes against the whole fact of finite mortal existence. We just don't want to sacrifice for some future goal, for our grandchildren, or for some horrendous abstraction, be it the socialist State or freedom or what have you. What we want, because we're not going to be around that long, is something now. That's why even all these grand preachers of politics—because they know that trick only partially works—also have to say: and, by the way, in the course of your sacrificing for grand goal A, B, and C, you will get the following benefits. And, after all, if you go back to Aristotle or what have you, the whole business of politics is in some sense the business of making sure the good as the good may be apprehended. The good now, not something down the road.

REASON: Libertarians tend to have the most internal problems with the foreign policy issue. They tend to be isolationists. But there are people out there who don't like America, maybe out of sheer envy, and would like to get what we have gotten. Now we don't want to give this up. We don't want to do bad things in the process of protecting ourselves, but at the same time we don't want to be naive. You must have given a little thought to some of these issues. What can you say on them?

VON HOFFMAN: Well, I think MacBride's stance on foreign policy is really the beginning of a good rational approach, which is to distinguish between those kinds of military defenses that are indeed needed to defend the country, in some rational sense, and the military expenditures that are part of adventurism of one sort or another. But I think you again run into some problems here. You can call this the curse of Karl Marx or whatever, but most people, I would venture to say, most of our fellow countrymen, in their heart of hearts, deep down, do not believe it is possible to have prosperity without armaments.

REASON: You mean without an arms industry?

VON HOFFMAN: That's right. And that is a very widely held, though not widely articulated belief, but if you go around in the saloons and in the neighborhood places of this country, it is there. It is just not true to depict the American people as vastly put upon by an arms industry, which they do not want, etc. There is absolutely no indication of that at all. There is also a lot of evidence—produced, granted, by left-wing economists, etc., but it's still there—to suggest that there would be massive unemployment on the level of 1935 if you took the arms component out of this economy.

REASON: How would you assess the current international scene?

VON HOFFMAN: I will only throw out one kind of thing which, for me at least, is frightening, but I think has to be looked at. What is the nature of foreign menaces or dangers or whatever word you want to use? I think to a large extent—more than most people are willing to or have thought about—Orwell's prophecy in 1984 vis-a-vis foreign policy has come true. If you recall that book, what he posited was that the world was divided into three supernational states, all of which had a hard-to-define but kind of popular authoritarian ideology with little real substance, all three of which were in constant war with each other in a shifting alliance in which it really made no difference who or what was aligned with whom. The evolution of all those three societies was such that their internal structures depended upon the existence of a foreign war—a permanent foreign war. I increasingly have come to feel that that is the situation that now exists between the Soviet Union and the United States, not only in the terrible immediate and obvious economic consequences of what would happen to us if our rationale for making guns were taken away, but that much of the social/political structure of a society like this one would be in danger of what I would call a tremendous implosion if the foreign enemy were to vanish. And one suspects that very much the same kind of condition exists in the Soviet Union.

REASON: Do you mean it is a way of justifying a lot of the power of the Federal government?

VON HOFFMAN: That's one of the consequences. The whole rationale for this remarkably hierarchial kind of socially authoritarian atmosphere would be put in great jeopardy in both countries. In both countries. So much so that one has to ask whether the ruling elites in both nations do not have a terrible quasi-conscious, quasi-unconscious interest in an infinite prolongation of this struggle according to certain sorts of rules. One of the things that has also become very clear is that—they even unconsciously realize it—in one sense they are not really contesting against each other. What we're getting here is a very, very strange kind of close contest between the Soviet Union and the United States all played within certain boundary lines. One of the examples is the recent CIA stuff and the screaming about leaks, etc. You will notice that no government official at any point has suggested that any of these leaks would put the CIA at a disadvantage with the KGB. Furthermore, take the case of the murder of the Athens CIA station chief and the furor over the publishing of his name. The Polish government printed this man's name in a directory of CIA officials seven years ago. Because the fact of the matter is that the KGB knows exactly who all the CIA agents are and the CIA knows who all the KGB agents are, and in addition to which many people are employed by both organizations. What I'm simply saying here is that there's great evidence to suggest that the KGB and the CIA are a joint stock enterprise. Whoever goes around shooting political international undercover agents, the two parties who are not shooting at each other are the CIA and the KGB.

REASON: With all the criticism of the CIA, what are your views?

VON HOFFMAN: I would say, look, a lot of the stuff that's been said about the CIA shouldn't do this and blah blah blah, we should have no covert stuff, is screwy. I think covert is an interesting word—not secret, because none of this stuff is secret, it's covert. Now what does covert mean? It means that you're messing around, but you want to mess around in such a way that you can get out of it. You can publicly disown it. Otherwise, my God, you set up a situation where everything becomes a major muscular challenge. That's the advantage of the covert. It's simply a way of saying, we're doing this unofficially—if you make too big a noise we'll get out.

REASON: What do you think of Ronald Reagan? We interviewed him and I think it was a very revealing interview. Reagan calls himself a libertarian conservative, but we pressed him and he turned out to be a fairly wishy washy conservative.

VON HOFFMAN: I would say that Reagan may represent a terrible threat to the libertarians this year in that obviously he's going to have a great appeal to the right components in libertarianism, and if he's nominated, as he very well may be, that may also so threaten the left libertarians that they will scuttle for whoever the Democrats choose.

REASON: What do you think of the man's potential as a candidate? Is he credible?

VON HOFFMAN: Oh, I think he is the person that the Republican Party wants to nominate. I have no doubt about that. Let me just point out one phenomenon. As the Republican Party becomes smaller and smaller it becomes possible for it to be purer and purer, and it is now so small that it represents a very unusual occurrence in American politics—namely, a party that can have a good deal of internal doctrinal consistency and it is developing it. And Ronald Reagan, whether accurately or not, but I suspect accurately, is the best exemplar of this pure small party. So really the only question is whether Gerry Ford or people with him are going to be able to sufficiently control the mechanics of nomination, etc., to prevent Ronald Reagan's nomination.

REASON: What do you think of Ronald Reagan? Not so much about his politics but as a person?

VON HOFFMAN: Well I've never met the man, so I don't know anything about him. I would assume that they all are devoted fathers and husbands!

REASON: Reagan has a speaking style that seems canned to me. However honest he wants to be—he's much better at it than Nixon used to be because Nixon was just bad at trying to be honest—he still can't get away from trying to be honest. Whereas when I listen to Ford he seems like he really is honest. That's the one thing that I think may save Ford.

VON HOFFMAN: Well, I see what you mean. And television has really changed politics. I can accept what you're saying about Reagan, and with the amount of television time that he must subject himself to as this process evolves, all of those things become clear if people wish to interpret them that way. I mean it is very very hard for a modern politician to hide himself. We haven't had a situation since Athenian democracy when the people offering themselves for election have been as well known to the electors as they are today. They are so well known—for example, as a journalist of some sort I find I never have to attempt to go see any of these people any more. All I have to do is watch television. This is really quite a unique thing that has happened so that you can't hide. Look, Hubert Humphrey can't hide—everybody knows that he's a big flannelmouth. Ultimately whatever they are is going to get out on that tube. It's sort of ironic, because there's all this talk about packaging candidates like soap—never was it less than it is now.

REASON: How would you evaluate what you've seen of the Libertarian Party's experience in campaigns thus far?

VON HOFFMAN: It's a very short history, and I'm a little reluctant to do too much evaluating, because I'm not really sure that I'm in that much possession of the facts.

REASON: Do you think the libertarian ideas as expressed in these campaigns are having any effect or making anyone take notice or changing anyone's ideas, either in the news media or in the general public thus far?

VON HOFFMAN: Well, that's very hard to say, I mean that really is a toughie. I would say this. I think there are various kinds of cores of ideas that clearly have a great deal of appeal to certain kinds of people. By and large, if I were to say what sort of people, I would say it is people from a lower middle class, working class, background who have truly accepted almost a copybook kind of definition of the values of society, have completely internalized them, are strong believers in meritocracy, have, because of their background, etc., very, very strong self-confidence—they are willing to compete, they feel they can compete, and what they want is an honest race. That kind of group in a society is, I think, quite attracted to libertarian ideas, and obviously it's an attractive thing to all kinds of intellectuals for a number of reasons—it's intricate, there are all kinds of games you can play with it, you can go in all sorts of different directions, and it also has a nice pedigree.

REASON: There is a kind of mixture of idealism and real politics that the Libertarian Party has got to learn. Is there some advice that you can offer to people who are activists in the party?

VON HOFFMAN: What you have to do is to keep trying a number of things, and you have to be very, very keenly observant about your failures, because it's out of your failures that you begin to put together what you might call a successful kind of coalition and practical political tact. It takes great perception—seeing these reactions and going over and over again, well what do we adjust here and what do we adjust there? It means at the beginning—and the beginning can be a very extended period of time—it means accepting that there must be a prolonged period of failure while those adjustments take place and you work out, so to speak, a formula that is successful.

REASON: Thanks a lot for spending this time.

VON HOFFMAN: You're more than welcome.