Interview with Woody Jenkins
Louisiana's libertarian state representative fights for freedom—without compromising his principles
A libertarian and a Democrat? Working in smoke-filled backrooms and pushing for individual rights? Drafting legislation to legalize voluntary activities and holding that government shouldn't even have a say in the matter? In short, a politician and a liberty lover? That's what it looks like. Louis "Woody" Jenkins—elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives on a Democratic ticket, but a self-professed libertarian—appears to be living proof, not of political schizophrenia, but of the possibility of working for individual liberty through established political channels.
Woody Jenkins was first introduced to REASON readers in the "Spotlight" feature in August 1976. The success story recounted there—journalism and then law-school graduate of Louisiana State University, work in radio and TV while a student, co-founder [with his wife, Diane] of a weekly Baton Rouge newspaper, a successful campaign in 1971 against four opponents for a seat in the House, reelection in 1975, introduction in the legislature of pro-freedom measures—all this, as well as Jenkin's affable nature, suggested a REASON interview.
Senior Editor Tibor Machan and Book Review Editor Marty Zupan arrived in Baton Rouge—the state capital and Woody's home town—on a hot, dripping-humid Thursday in early June. The legislature was in session, so they spent the afternoon in the House balcony observing Jenkins and his colleagues in action. Under consideration was the annual budget submitted to the legislature by the governor. As item after item was taken up, and as proposal after proposal to cut the budget—many initiated by Jenkins and his conservative allies—was turned down, Woody's success story as a libertarian politician began to dim. He himself was to acknowledge in the interview later on that he has accomplished least in attempts to influence the spending end of things.
But there's more to the story, illustrating that "success" depends on where one's starting from. When Woody Jenkins first arrived in the legislature, and until he got into gear a few years thereafter, there were proposals then, too, to amend almost every item of the governor's budget—but those proposals were to increase appropriations, and many of them passed. Now the entire debate has shifted. True, not many of the cutting-amendments pass, but increases are not even the issue any more. It is no doubt facts like this that feed the optimism Woody displays and even imparts.
After dinner at his home with two other libertarian representatives and their spouses—hosted by Diane and, of course, their cheerful six-month-old daughter, Margaret—Woody kicked off his shoes and started to answer questions. The interview lasted for the better part of four hours, ending at 2:30 in the morning. He was due at 8:00 Friday morning to be on hand for the beginning of a three-day political action conference in Baton Rouge, organized and largely financed and run by—yes, Woody Jenkins. When the energetic Louisiana representative from Baton Rouge is optimistic about what can be accomplished by political activity, he really means political activity!
REASON: Amongst those concerned with bringing about the ideal of liberty in this country, there is a debate about whether it is better to work within the system, as it were, or to attack the system squarely without yielding or any participation in it. You are an elected Democrat; you consider yourself a libertarian. Given that the Democratic Party has many principles that are certainly not in accord with what libertarians would value, how do you reconcile your being a libertarian and your working within the system as a Democrat?
JENKINS: Well, I consider it legitimate to work both within the system and outside the system. In fact, I think that it is essential that we have people who believe in limiting the power of the State working within all of our basic institutions, as well as outside the system. The basic institutions include the major political parties, education, the media, business, labor, and so forth. This is the approach that leftists have taken, and it is an approach that we should take also. I don't think we can afford to yield by default any major institution to the people who want to expand the power of government.
REASON: Why be a Democrat instead of a Republican?
JENKINS: Because that's one of the places where the need is greatest. A large portion of the average Democrats in this country want to limit the power of government, but they don't have spokesmen within the party—or very few spokesmen. And since the Democrats do have a majority of the elected officials, I think that's where we need to put a great deal of emphasis.
REASON: What do you think, then, of participating in the Libertarian Party? Is it viable?
JENKINS: Sometimes it is and sometimes not. I think the Libertarian Party has served a very useful function by identifying libertarians—with a small l—throughout the country and helping them to meet one another and work together. But I don't feel that the party has the potential at this time to be effective in actually changing things politically—for a lot of reasons.
REASON: Just a couple of them.
JENKINS: Well, I think in the past parties have generally emerged in this country because they came along at the right time in history and they provided the right alternatives to help them grow. At this particular time it's very difficult for a party to emerge and grow if it boasts about ideology above all, because most Americans are not overtly ideological despite the fact that they have a value system which is basically in many ways libertarian, I think. Also, there is a predominant mood in the Libertarian Party that there is something evil about actually winning and being elected to anything, and that's a very inconsistent position. There is a confusion also between political campaigns and educational efforts. Political campaigns are not effective tools for educating the public. You can very well, though, educate the public after you get elected to office.
REASON: You said the party has been valuable as a means of bringing libertarians together. So should the people who have concentrated their efforts on building up the party continue with that because of this valuable function?
JENKINS: Well, I think the party serves a legitimate function by its mere existence, but what troubles me about it is the fact that it draws off so many people who could be effective in the mainstream of political activity. They could be U.S. congressmen, senators, governors, and mayors—if not today, in the very near future. What I would suggest is that individuals who would like to get into government and change things consider working within one of the major parties, because political activity can be a very effective way to change things if you get elected.
In addition, you have to recognize that it is a very inefficient allocation of time and resources for a group of ideologues to unite in one party over a period of time, because they isolate themselves from their most widespread potential influence. And I can see great danger to isolating all advocates of liberty in one party, because what's going to happen to the other parties? If you really have dedicated statists controlling both—or, say, the remaining major party if the Libertarian Party were to become a major party—what we'd have is a communist state as soon as those people got in power.
It's relatively easy for a group of dedicated ideologues to take over a major party—look at what the McGovernites did—or to have substantial influence in two major parties, and I think that's what we should do. I don't think we should leave these institutions with an ideological vacuum.
REASON: There are many people who predict that, given the kind of bureaucracy that's been set up, it is almost impossible to crack the present momentum of statism. We interviewed the economist Yale Brozen a couple of years ago [December 1973], and he said the trouble is that every time you try to knock down a measure, they not only keep it, but they add to it. You suggest deregulating the airlines, for example, and the bureaucracy and often even the industry marshals its defenses and saves regulation, in the meantime adding another layer of controls. So you're facing that kind of obstacle.
JENKINS: Well, this has not been my experience in government. In our own state, I think we have turned around the direction of government. We have less government now in terms of its involvement and its intervention in people's lives than we had when I was first elected to office in 1972. One of the main reasons is the involvement of people in our state government who wanted to turn it around and who consciously made an effort to sway opinion—public opinion and leadership opinion—and who consistently presented libertarian alternatives. We can do it in Louisiana, and I think the trend toward bigger government and less protection of rights can be turned around almost anywhere in our country—we're not that far gone. But I do think that it will require political activity.
REASON: We visited the House today to see you in action, and as you know we came away somewhat frustrated. We saw attempt after attempt to cut the governor's proposed budget. We saw the most cogent arguments—one of them presented by you—treated with utter disdain and disinterest by your colleagues, to the point where they were sitting around having big conversations and so on. Yet you are optimistic about your potential effectiveness.
JENKINS: Well, you saw a rather unusual event. First off, this was a committee of the whole, which is more informal than a regular session of the legislature. And in general the House is very attentive when I and others of my persuasion speak, but then we normally speak on more substantive matters than amendments to the general appropriations bill. The advocates of liberty in our legislature have been quite effective in dealing with a broad range of legislation, but we have not been very successful in affecting the appropriations process, the specific items and amounts of appropriations for our state budget. I suppose one reason is that that's where much of the political power rests. In other words, politicians will quibble on questions of the power of government, but they don't like to quibble when it comes to whether their roads will be built and whether jobs for their friends will be filled and things of that nature.
REASON: On an occasion like today, do you pretty well know what will happen, such that you're not terribly surprised?
JENKINS: Oh, sure. After all, we knew all along that very few of the amendments to cut money from the general appropriations bill would pass. We did succeed today in cutting $1.1 million from the budget, a relatively small amount. But what we're trying to do with these amendments is build a case, and a very clear record, that there is no need for additional taxes, and we're doing that by pointing out the weaknesses, the soft spots, and the fat in our present budget. We know the amendments will fail, but we think we're convincing a large number of legislators to vote against additional taxes.
REASON: In reviewing your last few years in Louisiana politics, what do you think are your major accomplishments?
JENKINS: Well, in gauging one's own accomplishments—particularly in government—I think it's important to consider how basic they are and how widespread and permanent their effects might be. Now in that regard, certainly, I think that my participation in the new state constitution of Louisiana will have the most fundamental and widespread and long-lasting effects relative to anything else I have done, because in the new constitution we have a bill of rights—I think the first bill of rights of any state or national constitution—which does include many basic libertarian principles and which has been influenced by libertarians.
REASON: How did that come about?
JENKINS: Louisiana held a constitutional convention in 1973 which had as its purpose the preparation of a draft constitution for submission to the voters of the state to replace the 1921 constitution. The old constitution was the second longest in the world and was extremely complicated and contradictory, so there was a move to simplify it and also to make the extensive number of amendments which were submitted to voters every year unnecessary.
REASON: How did you get in on that?
JENKINS: I was elected as a delegate from the same area that I represent in the legislature. I had opposed holding a constitutional convention. I was one of only two members of the legislature who voted against having it, because I felt almost certainly a constitution drafted in 1973 would be more statist than one drafted in 1921. But with that fear in mind, I decided to go on and to at least know what the convention had done so that I could help defeat it after it was completed. Well, as it turned out we had an excellent group of delegates to the convention, who were in many respects apolitical because you can't run for reelection as a delegate to the constitutional convention and many of the delegates had no further political ambitions.
Also, we had an unusual situation in the preparation of the bill of rights. We had a 10-member Committee on the Bill of Rights and Elections, and this committee had five liberals, four conservatives, and me, which meant that on a vast array of issues I had the deciding vote. And of course, when the liberals were right on social freedoms, I supported them, and we have a bill of rights which is liberal on social matters. And when the conservatives promoted economic liberty, well, I was supporting them, or I was doing it and they were supporting me. So we have a bill of rights which is conservative on economic questions.
Moreover, I guess the most fundamental change in our bill of rights is that in a rather consistent fashion it protects individual rights and not so-called collective rights. Never once is there a mention of "the rights of the people," whereas in the U.S. Constitution it says things like "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be abridged." And the courts have said, "Well, that's just the right of the legislature, because it represents the people."
REASON: Did you have to argue for the "individual rights" wording?
JENKINS: Oh yes. But ultimately the committee was convinced that that was the proper approach. And that concept was challenged on the floor by conservatives, who saw this, correctly, as a fundamental change. But on the convention floor, advocates of individual rights were able to prevail. And this reflected itself in very strong protections of the right to property, the right to keep and bear arms, the right to privacy, and a whole range of other things.
REASON: What is the wording whereby you have the right to property protected, because that's not very explicit in the U.S. Constitution?
JENKINS: Well, it's not even really mentioned there, except to say that property can't be taken without due process and just compensation. But this constitution does explicitly state that every person has the right to acquire, own, use, protect, and dispose of private property. And then it makes certain exceptions to this. It's not stated, unfortunately, as a right without limitations. It allows the expropriation of property for certain purposes, just as the previous constitution did, but it includes new provisions for compensation. And it puts greater restrictions on the government's power to expropriate, especially with regard to the purpose for which property can be taken. For example, it prohibits the expropriation of any business enterprise for the purpose of operating that enterprise. So you can't have a nationalization of any business within the state of Louisiana. And, as an aside, other provisions of the constitution combined with this one would actually make it very difficult for the federal government to nationalize or expropriate any business enterprise within the state.
REASON: You once wrote a law review article about the new constitution.
JENKINS: Yes, in the Loyola Law Review, Spring 1975.
REASON: One of the interesting things about it is that there are footnotes to Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, and so on.
JENKINS: In fact, in the hearings of the Committee on the Bill of Rights and Elections, a number of articles by Rand were discussed. The chart on political systems by Dave Nolan was discussed. And a number of other laudable writers and ideas were delved into. The transcripts from the committee hearings and debates are fascinating. Just about every side of every issue was discussed. There was hardly a word placed in that constitution that people didn't understand the full impact of.
REASON: Writing a constitution is sort of an ideal case for libertarian involvement. But can a legislator consistently oppose coercion, or must he compromise on the principles of liberty: Say you have a choice between voting for a tax increase of 20 percent and a tax increase of 10 percent. Some libertarians argue that by voting for the 10 percent so as to prevent the 20 percent increase, you are an accomplice to something that is fundamentally immoral. And since these kinds of choices come up all the time, they believe it better to stay out of the political arena altogether, that one couldn't possibly be a politician and uphold libertarian ideals.
JENKINS: I think I have upheld those ideals, so I think it is possible. I don't think that involvement in government is in and of itself necessarily wrong or evil—any more than it would be wrong or evil to be involved in an armed robbery if you were the victim or if you were someone who came along and tried to stop the plunder. You'd be involved, but you wouldn't necessarily be a perpetrator of the evil or wrongdoing. In my own case, what I've tried to do is to be an influence for stopping the violation of people's rights, and I have never knowingly voted in any manner to violate people's rights.
REASON: Isn't there any case where, in order to secure a relatively significant accomplishment for liberty, you may have to bargain on some other issue in your capacity as a legislator?
JENKINS: No. There are times when you might want to bargain, but never in such a way that it would compromise people's rights. There are issues which do not involve questions of rights, and there is nothing wrong with compromising on those. But with regard to questions that do involve the rights of individual citizens, you would never want to engage in a compromise that would result in people having their rights less protected.
Suppose we're talking about the reduction of a given tax or its elimination. I see that there is substantial opposition to repeal, and I know that I might win by agreeing to make my bill merely a reduction in the tax. Since getting a reduction would mean less plunder and less violation of people's rights, I consider that a wholesome compromise. If, on the other hand, to get the given tax abolished I agree to support some other measure that would violate people's rights in some way, then that would be immoral, and the one good would not justify the evil that was done.
REASON: Could you give us some examples of how you have managed as a legislator to advance the protection of people's rights?
JENKINS: O.K. For example, when I first came to the legislature, it was every year passing licensure laws for 10 to 15 occupations or professions. This was every year. This means that the government was extending itself into each of these fields of endeavor for the first time, and it represented a return to the medieval guild system where freedom of entry into an occupation is severely restricted. I began making a very consistent stand against new licensure laws and initiated attempts to repeal some of the existing ones, to the point that in the last two years our legislature has not passed a single new licensure law.
REASON: How did you do it?
JENKINS: At first when I started objecting to the proposed licensure laws, mine was maybe the only vote against it. It would pass 98 to 1 or 88 to 2. Then we got 3 or 4 in the legislature who would vote against it, and then it was 10 or 15, and then it was 20; then it was 30, and pretty soon we were defeating them. I think the real turning point was when I started using humor to show the ultimate, logical results of some of these measures. There was one that was introduced to license shampoo girls. Well, after all, beauticians are licensed and barbers are licensed. You have to go to school a certain length of time, pass certain tests, pay certain fees, meet certain regulatory standards, agree to conform to all these different rules, or you can't be a barber or beautician. Well, some of the regulators got to thinking that what we need to do is license shampoo girls and, in the same bill, to license wig fitters. These are people who put wigs on your head and see how they look, and it was argued that they should be licensed because head lice are taking over the state!
So, what some of us in the House decided to do was to offer an amendment to the bill to license still another occupant of the barbershops—the shoeshine boys. So we said that all the shoeshine boys should have to have 20-20 vision to prevent the regular occurrence nowadays of these people getting black shoe polish on white socks. And, let's face it. In the shoeshine business there are a lot of fly-by-night operators. They come in from out-of-state. There are no standards or requirements. We have ex-felons who shine shoes. So, in our amendment we said that ex-felons couldn't be shoeshine boys. In fact, we didn't say "shoeshine boys" because we realized that was sexist, so instead our amendment was to license shoeshinerists. And we said that all shoeshinerists had to be at least 18 years old. Because you realize what's happening right now. Some 35-year-old man is trying to make a living, and here's some 12-year-old kid coming in with cheap child labor, sweatshop conditions, and depriving this 35-year-old man of his livelihood. So, certainly with an amendment like that we should have had the Louisiana AFL-CIO behind us. Well, perhaps we did. We had a lot of support, because we passed the amendment. And the result, then, was that the bill was killed.
REASON: Why? Didn't they just love the prospect of more licensing?
JENKINS: Well, they laughed it up, and in their laughter they passed the amendment. But then they thought it only appropriate to kill the bill and save the author any further embarrassment. We used the same tactic to defeat a bill that had passed the Senate to license water-well drillers. Again, we looked at this bill and thought the principle should be extended further, especially with regard to a related occupation where there are so many fly-by-night operators, and that is water diviners. These are the people who go out with divining rods, you know, and look for water. So we offered an amendment to license water diviners, set up standards; and also we wanted to set some standards on the divining rods, because right now anybody can just pull any old twig off a tree and go around divining water. There's no protection for the public at all. So we said that the appropriate state board would set the standards for divining rods—the size, weight, cost, and so forth.
The amendment passed, and of course that killed the bill. That was the last licensure bill I can recall that was seriously considered by the House, and that was in 1974, I think. There's one coming up, though, to license athletic trainers, so we'll be offering some amendments. We want to include the waterboys and the cheerleaders. I mean, you can't just have anybody hauling water out on the field or leading cheers. You've got to have some regulations!
REASON: You've been saying, "We did this" and "We did that," and maybe you should clarify a little who the "we" is.
JENKINS: There are three legislators in the Louisiana House who I consider consistently libertarian: myself, and two others who took office last year. Then there's a group of 14 of us in the House who are conservative-libertarians to one degree or another, and we work together always to protect individual rights or reduce the size or power of government.
REASON: Did you start this?
JENKINS: Yes, I got it off the ground two years ago. We started with about six.
REASON: You saw who was voting in a more or less consistent pattern?
JENKINS: Right. And we meet every day now and discuss legislation. We've pooled our staffs, and they keep track of the status of our bills and advise us of upcoming votes and so on.
REASON: Is there any comparable grouping of people in the legislature?
JENKINS: No. We're the best-organized, best-prepared, most consistent group of legislators, and we're able to propose things like the budget-cutting being raised in the current session.
REASON: You recently introduced a bill, as opposed to trying to defeat one, that had something to do with advocating free trade. You introduced it as a boost to local businesses, yet most people mean by that subsidizing them, doing special favors for them, and so on. How did you manage to overcome that temptation to subsidize?
JENKINS: Well, in Louisiana and in most states, the people in rural areas want to have more government. They can sign a petition, have an election, and form in their area a municipality which will tax them and regulate them and do all sorts of things to them. But we have no comparable measure for people who want to take regulations and taxes off themselves, and this bill is an attempt to provide that. What it proposes is that in any given geographic area, the people could sign a petition and have an election to remove from their area certain taxes and regulations. Specifically, if adopted in their area by public referendum, it would reduce state corporate income taxes, state sales taxes, and state occupational license taxes by one-third. It would exempt businesses in that area from certain regulatory laws, particularly a number of licensure laws, like for TV repairmen, plumbers, electricians. The idea is that this will be a substitute for urban renewal and similar schemes, because it would free dying downtown areas from governmental restrictions and thus encourage investment.
REASON: You are of the view that government has got to get smaller and smaller. Do you hold that on principle it must "wither away" in order for people's rights to be fully protected—as the anarchists hold?
JENKINS: I think we could devise a government—we could devise it in form, at least—which would not violate people's rights and would have strict limitations on its powers. That would work relatively well so long as a majority or a substantial portion of the individual people in the government respected the principles upon which it was established. But the problem is that it's very difficult to devise a scheme that will provide all of the checks to prevent violation of those restraints. For example, we may have a constitution that limits the authority of the state legislature to regulate our lives, but that constitution will still rely on a judiciary to apply it. If the judiciary will not, or if the executive department won't enforce the judiciary's orders, then the limitations may be ineffective.
REASON: So even your good constitution in Louisiana will only be good so long as there are enough decent people, people who are commited to it, in government?
JENKINS: Sure. But I do strongly believe that the structure is a good safeguard. And, to return to the anarchy question, I think we can create a government which resembles to some degree its present structure which would not necessarily violate people's rights. That would be wholesome. On the other hand, that has never yet been done. With all of the thousands of governments which have been created, no government has consistently protected individuals' rights. But we have to ask whether people can live together successfully without government. People have lived without it, but that has not worked perfectly either, because people have violated others' rights. I think that the key is that, whether we have a government or not, it is essential that we establish a structure that works in such a way that it does protect individual rights. I think that's possible with a government; it's possible without a government.
REASON: But the anarchy question is not only about what's possible but about which is the better avenue for human beings to protect their best interests, including their natural rights.
JENKINS: We don't have enough experience with limited governments that strive to protect individual rights, on the one hand, or with the absence of government, on the other. I don't think we have adequate experience to determine which one is best, and I'd like to have some experience with either one! I'll settle for either one at this point.
REASON: That's fair. Let's turn to something else. You are involved with a thing called the Citizens Cabinet—a shadow cabinet. Can you explain what it is, your role in it, and why you think it's of some worth to work with?
JENKINS: In Great Britain, the party out of power forms a shadow government with a shadow foreign minister and prime minister and so forth. But this has not been effectively done before in this country. The Citizens Cabinet is an attempt to import certain features of the British shadow cabinet. The difference primarily is that it's formed around an ideology rather than around a party. The Citizens Cabinet is a project of the Conservative Caucus and, like the Conservative Caucus, it has a prominent libertarian element. Several members are libertarians or conservative-libertarians, and I serve as cabinet secretary, sort of like an executive director.
REASON: Has it gotten any serious press coverage?
JENKINS: Oh, sure. It's been on all of the television networks and the wire services and the Washington Post and almost every daily newspaper in the country. It's been attacked, maligned, praised. The Atlanta Constitution had just a terrible editorial—I think it was entitled "The Shadow Knows."
REASON: Is there anything that you really regret or that has been a big disappointment in your political endeavors? Some major task that you thought might be good but that really bombed out?
JENKINS: Well, let's see…No, I can't think of anything. In general I'd have to say that my experience in government has taught me that those who believe in liberty can be effective. When I was first elected to office I made a list of 20 things that I thought were possibly, someday, achievable—if I stayed in government a long time and worked real hard to achieve them. And they were things that were radical but, I thought, conceivable. But the first four years I was in the legislature, every single one of them came to pass, and most of them at my instigation. So I know there's great potential.
REASON: How about a regular press-conference question? What are your political intentions? What are your longterm plans? Do you want to run on the federal level? What for? Are you going to be president in the year 2000?
JENKINS: I'd like some day to run for governor or the U.S. Senate. Whether the proper occasion will present itself I don't know.
REASON: What would be the proper occasion?
JENKINS: Well, I don't like to run for things unless I have a reasonably good chance of winning, and if I do see such an opportunity, I will run for either of those positions.
REASON: Do you think governor will be your next try?
JENKINS: Well, it could be. We have a governor's election here in 1979, and it's a possibility.
REASON: Well, whether you stay in the Louisiana House or try something else, those who are concerned about liberty will no doubt follow you with interest. Thank you for talking with us.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Interview with Woody Jenkins".