MacBride's March on Washington

An interview with Roger MacBride


Libertarians who wisely refuse to vote for the "lesser of the evils" may decide to go to the polls this November to support the candidacy of Roger MacBride for the presidency. MacBride is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School and practiced law with a prominent firm in New York before moving to Vermont in 1960. He served a term in the Vermont Legislature, where he won recognition for his fight to reduce the size of the Vermont bureaucracy. MacBride moved to Virginia in 1968 and operates a farm there. He has authored and edited six books, including his recently-published A New Dawn for America: The Libertarian Challenge, an excellent, readable introduction to libertarianism. He is the co-creator of the NBC-TV series, "Little House on the Prairie."

MacBride gained national attention in 1972 when, as a Republican elector in Virginia, he cast his ballots for the Libertarian Party candidates, John Hospers and Tonie Nathan. As a result, Hospers received only sixteen less electoral votes than George McGovern, while both of them lost to Nixon by a landslide. As the LP's Vice Presidential candidate, Nathan was the first woman in American political history to have received an electoral vote.

MacBride was nominated as the Libertarian Party's Presidential candidate at the LP's climactic national convention in New York City in August 1975. A California attorney, David Bergland, was selected as the LP's Vice Presidential candidate, and the LP ticket expects to be on the ballot in a majority of states across the nation.

A cartoon in a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine depicted a Jimmy Carter booster saying to a doubting colleague: "I like him because he is an unknown quantity." In contrast to Carter, MacBride has written and spoken widely—and consistently—about his stands on the issues. In his nationally syndicated column, James Kilpatrick described MacBride as a "person of high principle," but concluded that the executive office is no place for a person such as MacBride. "Up with competent plumbers!" said Kilpatrick, who described Carter and Reagan as "accommodating fellows" rather than principled candidates, and asserted that "the country needs a good city-manager type, unconcerned with such nebulosities as freedom.…"

The 1976 election will include the candidacies of MacBride and Eugene McCarthy, as an independent, on many state ballots, and the votes they receive can have a definite impact on the outcome of the election.

MacBride has been conducting an active campaign, from coast to coast, flying to appearances in his specially-equipped DC-3. REASON's editor Manuel Klausner interviewed MacBride at a resort near San Diego, where he was resting after several intense weeks on the campaign trail. MacBride is well-steeped in the libertarian philosophy and combined with his knowledge of practical politics and a can-do approach to his personal goals, he is a credible and appealing candidate. An alert and effective spokesman for libertarianism, MacBride has attracted many Americans to libertarian ideas. MacBride is deeply committed to libertarianism, and has dedicated himself to work within the political system to achieve positive social change.

REASON's interview took place shortly before the start of the Republican National Convention. We think our readers will be interested in what MacBride had to say about his campaign and where he stands on the issues.

REASON: Roger, you've served a term in the Vermont State Legislature and you've had a taste of elective office. Why are you running for President?

MACBRIDE: Well, I suppose it's this, that when you perform an act that has as its goal an ultimate revolutionary purpose, you are drawn into pursuing that purpose through to the end. When I cast that vote for Hospers and Nathan in 1972 it was with the intention of perhaps pointing the way towards the libertarian solution to the major problems that afflict the country. And I expected to go back to the farm and be able to raise my daughter and write books and do television, but I got drawn into the Party's activities and at no point could I say no to the next proposal to do something, because I felt that I had committed myself to further the cause as best I could.

REASON: Did you have any idea in 1972 when you cast the electoral vote for John Hospers and Tonie Nathan that you might someday be a Presidential candidate in your own right?

MACBRIDE: No. No such idea, and furthermore I vigorously resisted even the mere suggestion of it for two or three years after that when it was proposed to me.

REASON: To the extent that you're now running a very active campaign coast to coast, Roger, what are your priorities in terms of the program that you'd like to achieve if you were elected to office? What's the first thing you would do if you were elected?

MACBRIDE: Well, I like to say in answer to the many newsmen who've asked me that question that the first thing I'd do would be to put Henry Kissinger on the Amtrak back to Boston to write his memoirs and as soon as he safely arrived I would abolish Amtrak. And I go on to explain that that statement is frivolous of course, but symbolic. That the first priority is to turn around the foreign policy of this nation—to bring to a prompt end the Wilsonian interventionism of the last sixty years and to reclaim in a modern and practical setting the original foreign policy of the United States, which was that of political neutrality. That the same remark, of course, illustrates the second great priority on a federal level, which is that of beginning to slash the intervention of the federal government into the economy of the nation.

REASON: What about the civil liberties area—do you have any priorities or programs concerning personal liberties of Americans?

MACBRIDE: Surely, I feel very strongly in that area. It's an area where the President of the United States and the Congress perhaps have less authority than the state governments and local governments. One thing that must be done immediately of course is to repeal the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. Apart from the fact that every individual as a right ought to be able to ingest any substance he wants, whether it's vitamins or heroin or what have you, there's the neglected fact that all drugs were perfectly legal in this country until 1914 and there was no problem. The problem arose with prohibition and the problem is going to be eliminated only by repealing that prohibition.

REASON: Do you think you have a real shot at getting elected, Roger?

MACBRIDE: Oh no. I think it's a possibility of course. The pollsters have said that the independent candidate, if he's saying things that people believe in, could be elected, and I firmly, believe that if everything that we Libertarians say could be heard by all Americans between now and election day that probably Dave and I would be taking the oath of office next January. I think it's unlikely that they will hear or have enough time to comprehend some of the apparently more sensational changes that we advocate. I'd expect that the prospects of election will be moderately good in 1980 and overwhelmingly good in 1984.

REASON: In how many states do you expect to be on the ballot?

MACBRIDE: As of now, it looks like we'll be on about forty. We may get as low as thirty-eight, and we might with good luck be on as many as forty-two, but approximately forty is a realistic guess.

REASON: Do you have any guess or projection as to how many popular votes you'll poll?

MACBRIDE: No. It's far too early to speculate as to that.

REASON: What effect do you expect your candidacy to have on the American political party system, Roger?

MACBRIDE: I can't analyze that this far in advance. The system is collapsing visibly all around us. The Republican Party clearly is destined for the same grave that the Whigs lie in and what is going to result after November as a consequence of that fact is still veiled from us. I am in hopes that this Libertarian campaign will provide a foundation such that we will be one of the two major parties within this country in the next four years.

REASON: These days, being a Libertarian isn't that much different than being a Republican in terms of supporting a minor party—the polls show that Republicans only have the support of 18% of the electorate. So they aren't that far ahead of the Libertarians any more. Do you expect that the Libertarian Party is going to replace the Republicans as the number two party?

MACBRIDE: Well, in the sense that the Republicans are just going to vanish and that we have the prospect to be the other major party, yes. But certainly not replace them in any sense of stepping into their shoes and having them remodeled. The Republican Party's disappearing because it stands for nothing and when that sort of thing happens in American political life, it's gone. We will be a national party, if we so become, because of the idealism of our cause and of the correctness of our stand.

REASON: Roger, it's predicted in various quarters that maybe only one-third of registered voters will go to the polls and vote for the Presidency in November. Do you have any feel concerning the reaction of the public generally as you've been going around the country on your campaign as to whether they're becoming increasingly cynical towards the system and reacting in a libertarian direction, or are they turning off? How would you describe the receptivity of the American public to libertarian ideas as you've espoused them during your campaign?

MACBRIDE: Well, any candidate who's said that he could answer that question with complete accuracy would be fooling himself. Any candidate is always surrounded by people who tell him he's wonderful, whether they're newscasters or party members or just people who've suddenly discovered he exists. My sense nonetheless from call-in broadcasts, the kind of thing where people could care less what they say, they just want to say what's on their mind, is that people are turned off. They do not care about Mr. Carter. They smother a yawn when they think of Mr. Ford. And that when they hear libertarian ideas, they get excited. Most of them in my experience have said things like, it's a breath of fresh air, it's something new, where do I get in touch, how do I work, I've never been in politics before. We've had much the same reaction from people who saw the national television spot that we aired in July of this year, where many people have written saying we have had no connection with politics before, but here's my check for so much money. I think that attitude is a strong minority attitude. Of course there are those who vigorously dispute what we say, but there too, when for example I talk about legalizing heroin, and people call in vigorously antagonistic to that, at least we're stirring them to think. And it's been my experience in political matters that something that seems radical and sensational today if talked about rationally and repeatedly over a period of time no longer seems so radical and sensational tomorrow. It becomes a part of the accepted idea. I think we're having quite an effect actually.

REASON: REASON readers are aware that among the many facets with in the libertarian movement, there are some libertarians who reject the notion of participating in the political process because it's inherently coercive. Obviously as a candidate you've passed that hurdle and you're in a sense working within the system. Let me ask, Roger, how you would identify yourself within the libertarian spectrum in terms of your belief in limited government or in a totally free market where all goods and services are provided on a voluntary basis. How would you characterize your own position?

MACBRIDE: Well, I think all of that's totally irrelevant to the Libertarian Party today. I know that when the Party started it was inherently sort of a protest movement and that there were those with in the Party who vigorously debated these questions and it was important to them to outline their stand and to clarify what differentiated them from other libertarians. But now that we're a national movement, with the aim of turning things around and heading in the right direction, I don't think these details matter. They certainly don't matter to me and I've found most of the participants in those early debates have found they don't matter either. When and if we libertarians succeed in becoming those who start systematically and rapidly dismantling the apparatus of government, and we approach the point somewhere down the line wherein the choice will be made, whether a specific function now handled by government and historically handled by government for that matter, should continue to be, or whether free-market, free-society alternatives can be created which will work, then those questions will become relevant again.

REASON: I assume that you're against compulsory taxation?

MACBRIDE: Sure. Manifestly the taking of something from one person and the delivery of it to another by force is morally wrong.

REASON: If you were elected President, what would be your approach to phasing out the moral wrong of taxation?

MACBRIDE: Well I suppose it's the most difficult question a libertarian can face. There's nothing I can say that's going to add a whole lot of light to the subject and I find myself in a prospective ethical dilemma of insoluble dimensions. It seems to me that if one is to look forward to the kind of society that a libertarian society will be, that we're looking forward essentially to one which is peaceful and just and prosperous and free. We cannot achieve that by creating chaos either in a moral sense or in a practical sense. If a Libertarian administration were to take office in Washington, it would be thrown out, by force if nothing else, if it attempted to immediately undo all of the things that government has undertaken to do in the last 100 years. The markets would be in chaos. People would be without money. They would be without means of earning a livelihood. There would be a situation akin to that in Lebanon at the moment, and I'm opposed to doing that. It seems to me that we must in an orderly and rapid fashion seek to dismantle the government's involvement with all of our lives, as rapidly as is consistent without causing unnecessary harm to people. Now that of course implies for a time, that the government will be continuing to use force in the taking of money from me and others to finance these activities which are being wound down, and I've faced the fact that that has to be. The choice is an impossible one and there is no right answer. The choice is do you cause one kind of human suffering by abolishing taxation and letting the chips fall where they may, or do you cause another kind of human suffering by continuing taxation even though on a reduced scale. It seems to me that all an honest and well-intentioned person can do is to head as rapidly as possible in the direction of no coercion, of eliminating taxation, while handling it in as rational and intelligent and compassionate a manner as possible.

REASON: Do you have any timetable as to what period of time would elapse before you'd be able to eliminate all coercive taxation?

MACBRIDE: I don't know the length of time it might take.

REASON: Of course these are difficult areas, and for many nonlibertarians who may be reading this interview, it may seem shocking to think that goods and services could be provided on a voluntary basis across the board. If you were elected President, you would be sitting in the Executive branch. Unless you were confronted with a Libertarian Congress, how as President would you be able to implement a program towards deescalating the level of taxation?

MACBRIDE: In the first place I would expect the conventional politicians would, like the herd of bulls in the Merrill Lynch television spots, thunder in our direction, having recognized a new direction in American politics, and would be very anxious to establish some degree of bona fides with Libertarians. So I should imagine there would be a honeymoon period of some months during which a great deal could be accomplished, not everything of course. From that point on it would be a matter of the Executive's willingness to twist Congressional arms, as much as Lyndon Johnson did, and I believe that I would undertake that activity with considerable happiness. Beyond that, for the balance of the first two years, I think it would be a matter of the Executive using the veto liberally, much as J. Bracken Lee, the famous tax rebel governor of Utah, used it in the late 1950's. And by the time that alternative was exhausted, hopefully the 1978 elections would be on us and we'd elect a Congress of Libertarians.

REASON: Roger, do you sense any ethical quandary for a libertarian who might be elected as Chief Executive of the country, if you are required to take an oath of office to uphold and administer the laws? Do you see any problem with the Executive who is a libertarian taking such an oath, in contrast with the legislator who is a libertarian, who could consistently vote against any coercive measure?

MACBRIDE: Yes. Of course there is, and I don't see any solution to that. It's the famous Gordian knot. It can't be untied. This is not a situation created by libertarians and hence there is no purist libertarian ethical solution. One must go at it as best one can with regard to the least harm to the most people and achieve a libertarian solution.

REASON: To the extent the opportunity arose to fill Supreme Court vacancies during your term of office, you'd be able to put in libertarian justices who would be able to do very rapid work in eliminating a lot of the coercive restrictions that have been placed on us over the years.

MACBRIDE: Yes. I think we'll have our first justice in quite some time with the first initial K on the court.

REASON: Well, looking at the prospects for social change in a libertarian direction, it seems to me of all the branches of government, that the Supreme Court may be the most efficient, the most rapid. Of course it takes a libertarian Chief Executive to get a libertarian Chief Justice, so in terms of an approach towards reaching a free society in our lifetimes, I think that President MacBride could be extremely effective.

MACBRIDE: Well, I'd do my best. You can be assured of that. We're both lawyers and you know that I agree with you heartily, the effect of the Supreme Court could be enormous. These recent decisions of the court restricting what human beings can do or upholding the right of the State to tell people what to do have been shocking in the extreme.

REASON: There are many conservative Republicans who give lip service to individual freedom. Many of them support Ronald Reagan, believing that Reagan is against paternalism, and wants to scale down government. If you may recall in our interview last year with Ronald Reagan, he claimed to believe in individual liberty, and that government should not protect people from their own weaknesses, but should only protect people from aggression by others—yet he had a hard time with allowing such conduct as gambling by people on a desert island and he had a hard time with allowing people to do what they want in the area of prostitution or other victimless crimes. Reagan's favoring criminal sanctions for the private use of marijuana, for example, is well known, and his interview indicated that he advocates conscription during wartime and various other statist positions. Before reading our Reagan interview, some people have felt that Reagan was a libertarian, because sometimes he'd use that word to describe himself. Roger, how would you distinguish yourself from Ronald Reagan?

MACBRIDE: Oh good Lord, that wouldn't be difficult. The more important thing though is to distinguish libertarianism from conservatism. The very things you cite in his interview are the reasons why conservatism has failed so badly in this country. There are idealistic conservatives of course, as there are idealistic liberals, but the conservatives have failed so badly in not recognizing that freedom is an across-the-board matter. They mouth these ideas of freedom, but they're really talking about economics, and they're perfectly sound as far as that goes—it's when they enter into the field of personal lives that they turn Calvinist. They simply believe that there must be an order in society imposed by those who know better than the rest of us, and Mr. Reagan is no different from the rest in taking that view—he simply doesn't see that freedom applies there as well as in economics. Further, Mr. Reagan and the other conservatives have taken what's come to be called an anticommunist view. I'm a little sorry about that designation, because I should think every libertarian is firmly anticommunist—they stand for everything that we don't, they stand for the exact opposite of our views—but the conservatives' kind of anticommunism is gunboat anticommunism, the feeling that the entire world must be protected from communism by the military might or the economic might applied by government of the United States. It's a part of this Wilsonian interventionism that has gotten no ground whatever away from the liberals whom they so loathe.

REASON: You've had contact with many conservatives in the past and you served a brief term as a member of the Board of Directors of National Review in the early 50's. What led to your split with National Review?

MACBRIDE: It was the same thing that differentiates me from the conservatives now. The difference between a libertarian set of ideas and a conservative set of ideas. In the beginning, you know, National Review was the only game that was in town. At the death of what Murray Rothbard calls the Old Right Republicans there was nobody left but myself and Buckley and a dozen or so other people like that. Buckley started a magazine and there were various of us involved who called ourselves then libertarians for that matter, but we were sort of lumped together with the conservatives who were much more libertarian then than now. It was after he got his magazine started and became increasingly perhaps under the influence of older mentors such as James Burnham that the magazine inexorably began to move in this Calvinist, which is an odd thing for a Catholic magazine, but nonetheless a Calvinist direction in terms of morals legislation and the kind of anticommunism which it still espouses. It just got—the stew got too thick for me and I opted out after less than a year.

REASON: Roger, some of our readers are familiar with your intellectual development toward libertarianism. Could you briefly state now, for those of our readers who are not familiar with the process, how you personally evolved into a libertarian?

MACBRIDE: Sure. I was sixteen years old when my father condensed a book of Rose Wilder Lane's for the Reader's Digest, and introduced me and my sisters to her. Rose was around sixty at the time and, along with a few other people such as George Schuyler and Albert Jay Nock and John Chamberlain at that time, was a libertarian and felt that the cause was going to die out with their deaths, unless some young people were recruited. She was busily trying to recruit as many intelligent young people as she could, as indeed the rest were and set herself to fascinate me, and Rose Lane, as most everybody who ever knew her will agree, could be the most fascinating person in the world when she wanted to be. My sisters weren't much interested, being nonpolitical, but I was hooked and I used for years to hitchhike up to her house on vacations from school and college and ask her dumb questions such as, "Mrs. Lane, if there are so many hungry people in the world, why shouldn't there be wage and price controls, so that food will be cheap and they can have all they want?" And she would patiently guide me in these matters until eventually I had the philosophy whole and pure.

REASON: In general, would you describe yourself as a noninterventionist in foreign policy?

MACBRIDE: Absolutely. I believe firmly that this country ought to, and would if I become President, withdraw from all of the treaty obligations that it has, giving appropriate notice under each of them that we are withdrawing. I would close down most, if not all foreign bases—I would keep those, of course, which might prove to be essential to the defense of the United States, but I doubt that there are any. I would bring home the military forces of the United States from around the world. The defense budget would be drastically cut. What's needed, I think, is a foreign policy which rests upon a stable nuclear deterrent against a possible aggression by the only nation in the world that would dream at the present time of attacking us, and I'm sure it doesn't, but nonetheless we must be prepared for the possibility. We have that stable nuclear deterrent now in the form of the submarines at sea with Polaris and Poseidon missiles, any one of which missiles if launched has the capacity to destroy over five Soviet cities. Now with that kind of kill capacity as a second-strike capability, there's no chance in the world that the rulers of the Kremlin are going to attack this country. But we know, of course, that they have a similar capacity vis-a-vis the United States. I think that so long as that nuclear deterrent exists, and until we can—as a Libertarian Administration would—work toward permanent nuclear disarmament, there's no risk of war or nuclear war for the United States. As to the potential of a minor aggression against this country I think a small volunteer armed force for the purpose of protecting us against—well an invasion by Fidel Castro of Key West—we wouldn't nuke Havana if such should happen, we would just brush him off with a small armed force. With these two combined, it's ample to protect this country forever against aggression and to insure a permanent peace for America.

REASON: Given your recognition of the adequacy of our existing second-strike capability, would you be against such proposals as building the B-1 bomber or the cruise missiles?

MACBRIDE: The B-1 bomber is a boondoggle of the worst order, and I think short shrift can be given to any discussion of that. It should be shut down now and permanently. The kind of nuclear defense best suited to avoid observation from above is that undersea and all military experts agree on that. As to the cruise missile, it's apparently unnecessary at the moment. I understand from my military advisors that if necessary it could be reactivated and built within a year. So long as the submarine force that the United States has remains undetectable by technological means, I see no need for development of new and more exotic methods of kill.

REASON: Roger, are there any planks at all in the 1976 Libertarian Party Platform that you don't feel entirely comfortable with?

MACBRIDE: I can't think of any.

REASON: Roger, to the extent that you expect not to be sitting in the White House for the next four years, what do you plan to do in terms of libertarian activities after the campaign is over?

MACBRIDE: Well, my first intention is to sleep. I think I'll sleep like Rip Van Winkle for some months. After I get up I will be thoroughly involved in libertarian activities. I expect to be involved in the wide spectrum of them, both political and philosophical. I don't know whether I'll have the strength to write a book about the campaign, but I do have another book that I have strongly in mind. When Rose Wilder Lane died she left a manuscript that might be a third of a book like her famous one on the discovery of freedom, and it's been my hope posthumously to collaborate with her and write the balance of it so to say, edit her material and update it, and I think that will be a major literary project of mine between 1976 and 1980.

REASON: Roger, before we close, is there anything that you might like to say as a parting word to REASON's readers?

MACBRIDE: Well, just this, that there's a new voice in the land. A voice of liberty. It's going to be heard only to the extent that it gets support from those who believe in liberty. For those of us who have been philosophically identified with libertarianism for many years before the Party was founded, there are obviously bumps. There obviously are tough things to get over. There are obviously the reconciliations of apparently irreconcilable things to be done. But there's no other way but guns to turn things around in this country. We either shoot everybody who's in power, in government, or we replace them with people who systematically and with a vision of an ideal society, proceed to march toward that goal. And for me, I've put aside the troubling questions and decided that I for one will be willing and able to make the tough decisions to get us from where we are to where we want to be.

REASON: Roger, we wish you well and would like to thank you for your time.