Spotlight: Libertarian Maverick


The San Diego City Council is not much different from many municipal governments, with the exception that a libertarian sits in its midst. This is Fred Schnaubelt, 5th District council member. If you asked his fellow members what a libertarian is, they might tell you that it is someone who:

• seeks a grand jury investigation of the city's negotiated land-sale practices in which sales of government land are made far below their market value;

• discloses to the public the fact that proposed city/HUD low-income housing is more expensive than the most luxurious condominiums and apartments in San Diego;

• works successfully for deregulation of the city's taxicabs;

• fails to support subsidies for the poor or the rich by voting against handouts to golf courses, tennis courts, fishing, duck hunting, and sailing lessons and initiates the concept of full recovery of cost in fees for services;

• encourages COMBO, a civic organization for the arts that is already 97 percent privately funded, to operate on 100 percent private funding in the interest of artistic freedom; and

• votes against revocation of licenses for massage parlors and opposes an ordinance forbidding massage parlors to locate within a certain distance of each other.

Schnaubelt, a successful real estate broker, was elected to the San Diego City Council in 1977 after a vigorous campaign against 12-year incumbent Floyd Morrow. Since that time, libertarian has become a household word among San Diego reporters, council members, and the general public. Some have estimated that Schnaubelt has received more media exposure than all council members combined. He is a maverick, and mavericks get attention.

Although the city council races are nonpartisan, council members are generally known to have political affiliations. Schnaubelt is a registered Republican and has worked within that party structure since 1970. This fact, combined with his unmistakably libertarian rhetoric (followed up by his unmistakably consistent action), at first caused some confusion. Rather than the typical conservative line expected, Schnaubelt has taken a consistent position on individual liberty that is like a breath of unpolluted air.

Prior to being elected, he was in 1974 appointed as taxpayers' representative to the County Board of Welfare, where he helped secure a Department of Welfare study resulting in 120 recommendations that could save taxpayers $10-$12 million. He is one of only two council members to support California's Proposition 13 (Jarvis-Gann) before it was adopted by voters. Schnaubelt served as president of Taxpayers Concerned from 1972 to 1975.

As a city council member he sits on three committees, but he also finds time to address local groups and organizations. He is skilled at synthesizing libertarian arguments from various sources and putting them into a form that people can understand. He is a prolific writer, and his work has appeared frequently in special-interest publications. He is one of the most cogent speakers against rent control and other attempts to restrict housing and land use in the San Diego area.

Schnaubelt's views about government have radically changed in the two years he has been in office. "It's much worse than I thought," he says. "The cost of doing business, for the government, is very high. When you can get a truthful accounting by government of its activities, the incredible waste and misuse of taxpayers' funds becomes readily apparent. The bookkeeping disguises the real cost. Profit frequently is determined prior to debt service, and there is normally no allowance made for capital costs or depreciation."

Another problem, which Schnaubelt has talked about many times, is the system of ignorance within which decisions are made by council members—a system that economist F.A. Hayek described years ago. "We spend hours arguing about buying three trucks, because that's something we can all relate to personally. But resolutions involving millions of dollars pass without nearly as much attention," Schnaubelt says.

Schnaubelt finds politics frustrating. "It's just humanly impossible to try to find out about the various brush fires and put them out." Because of government's ability to concentrate benefits and diffuse costs, he believes that there is a clear incentive for special-interest groups to lobby for legislation that benefits them, but not enough for taxpayers to revolt each time. So he's concluded that the best means of putting out brush fires is to "concentrate on tax-cut devices."

"I have learned that change in the basic structure of government is less likely to come from within the system than outside the system by working to educate people. Politicians, with rare exceptions, are not leaders but followers, and the system really doesn't lend itself to making changes from within."

Even so, Schnaubelt believes that Proposition 13 passed because there was so much opposition on the part of most politicians. Schnaubelt supports abolition of sales taxes and Jarvis's initiative (to appear on the ballot in June 1980) to cut California income taxes by half. Limiting access to money is still the best way to limit governmental influence.

Some libertarians familiar with Schnaubelt's record have criticized him for his stand on the controversial Black's Beach issue, where he voted against a swimsuit-optional beach. "Black's Beach is public property, and so the resolution of this issue is by nature going to be contradictory. Some libertarians felt that I should have opted for an error on the side of liberty and allow the swimsuit option. But I am not convinced that liberty is better served by allowing that option or by limiting the amount of tax dollars being put into the maintenance of this public beach and supporting the taste of the majority of the public. There are arguments in favor of both sides, and certainly good ones on the other side. But I did what I thought was right. If it had been a private beach, there is no question that I would have supported the rights of the owners to the kind of beach they desired."

That's the kind of difficult and mixed issues facing libertarians who manage to get elected. Given this, and his frustration with the governmental system, would Schnaubelt discourage libertarians from seeking change through the system? "The major advantage of political office," he says, "is to use the position and the prestige that it carries as a forum to disseminate libertarian ideas. The hope is to try and raise the consciousness of the public at large. You can do that much easier in a political office than with other activities. I have learned that you can't use your clout to affect other elected officials, but you can be very effective in persuading the public."

Susan Love Brown is a free-lance writer, formerly on the staff of the World Research Institute, filling in for regular Spotlight columnist John Lott.