Interview with Robert Ringer

Restoring the American dream…what are the prospects?


Several years ago, not long after Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness was published, a book appeared on the bestsellers' list, entitled Looking Out for Number One. Even those who like to put matters a bit more delicately found something hopeful about having such a title make it big. For in spite of living in a country based on political individualism, any kind word about individual efforts to make a decent, successful life is by now a great occasion.

The mastermind behind the book was author Robert Ringer, who had previously written a book with a title that had not been so warmly welcomed by libertarians and individualists, Winning through Intimidation. Individualists had been charged in the past with just this sort of view—that human beings are but selfish rats, willing to destroy by more or less brutal means anyone who gets in their way. Looking Out for Number One promised a bit of moderation, along with the good advice that people really should make sure that they prosper in life.

Robert Ringer did not leave it at that. With his next work, Restoring the American Dream, he produced what is to date one of the better popular, nontechnical discussions of libertarianism, the free market, civil liberties, and the malaise of our times. Restoring the American Dream is a comprehensive discussion of political issues of our day, always explained and analyzed from an individual-rights perspective, with a great deal of good insight and recommendation. The book was on the national bestseller list for many months (to be followed soon by Milton and Rose Friedman's far less comprehensive Free to Choose, interestingly and encouragingly enough).

In September 1979 REASON published a selection from Restoring the American Dream, and we wanted our readers to be better acquainted with the author of one of the books that has aimed at providing a general, accessible introduction to libertarian thinking. To this end we have sent Manuel Klausner, one of our senior editors, and Thomas Hazlett, a columnist and frequent contributor, to interview Robert Ringer.

REASON: In Looking Out for Number One, you wrote that you have never been able to think of a rational reason for taking up group action. Yet you gave the keynote address at the Libertarian Party Convention in Los Angeles last year. Have you changed?

RINGER: You can really ask tough questions. I have changed; I think I said why in American Dream. It became a matter of not being able to pursue your own happiness, because the government has proven without any doubt that it's not about to let you alone. And I've always said that if the whole world is going to collapse—I mean, you can't have a hell of a lot of fun if the whole world is going to collapse—then it's in your best interest to take on the big picture. And that's where we are today, in my opinion.

REASON: Well, in Restoring the American Dream you suggest that we have only a 1-in-100 shot at bailing things out before a national collapse of tremendous proportions. In resisting this, aren't you on the other side of the coin—with a 99 out of 100 probability that you are just going to be spitting in the wind?

RINGER: It may be a bad risk, and that's why I'm not totally involved. And at the time I wrote that I said 99 to 1, but I think it's a lot worse than that now.

REASON: Your advertising campaign for Restoring the American Dream was rather phenomenal, and I understand that you put up most of the money yourself. How much have you spent, and are you in the black?

RINGER: I'm not in the black right now, but we never are at this stage of the campaign. I always hope to at least break even on the hardback. The big money is in the paperback. And right now we have spent just a million dollars.

REASON: And that involves full-page ads in how many newspapers?

RINGER: Originally, it was 41 newspapers. Since then we have done a lot of papers that we didn't originally plan to advertise in. I would guess now that we are talking about 50 newspapers including the Wall Street Journal.

REASON: And the New York Times?

RINGER: All the big newspapers. But later as we got into it, there were stores that used Big Brother's protection and insisted that we run ads with them. Because the FTC says that if you run with any stores, you have to give the other stores the same opportunity. So we had to run ads we had not originally planned on.

REASON: For years, critics of capitalism have alleged that laissez faire is simply a nice-sounding banner, which the strongest members of society can parade in order to gain the chance to crush the powerless. And now a guy named Robert Ringer, who flies the laissez-faire banner at full mast, comes out with bestsellers entitled Winning through Intimidation and Looking Out for Number One. Were the collectivists right about us all along?

RINGER: You use a whole bunch of words there that don't even have any meaning to me. To some people, "crushing those with less ability and less opportunity" means just making more money than other people. I should pull a Harry Browne and ask you to define every word.

I'm very upset by the fact that nobody seems to want to take this on on a moral basis. Everybody wants to argue why laissez-faire capitalism is the best thing for the poor, which I also do in American Dream. The older I get the more crotchety I'm getting about it, because the truth is that none of that really matters. What really matters is that it is morally right. And I will stand or fall on the belief that everybody has a right to retain 100 percent of the fruits of his labor, and everything else is just an aside.

We can talk all day and give examples of what happens in places where collectivism has been achieved—Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Cuba, China, Russia—and of course, that makes a farce of all the arguments—but I think that it really gets people off the beaten path. The truth is that it's morally right and just that every person keep the fruits of his labor.

REASON: For all of your defenses of a free and competitive marketplace, you don't seem to entertain much respect for the people who operate in the parts of our marketplace that are still open to competition. You refer to your days in the real estate profession as gaining a degree from "Screw U," and you say that you lost your shirt and went bankrupt 10 years ago because "I forgot my principles and started to trust people." Is the business world a jungle?

RINGER: Well, I think it is to some extent. But I was saying a lot of that in Winning through Intimidation—tongue in cheek—and I don't think it really relates to libertarianism, The American Dream, or anything else. That was a book about business, telling people how to keep from becoming intimidated in the business world and in the world in general, in everyday life. And I don't think one has anything really to do with the other.

REASON: But from the outside it might appear to be an argument that business society is a bad thing, and we should go with socialism.

RINGER: No. All I was really telling people is that you can be sure that every guy is going to try to get the best deal he can in every transaction. If you don't think that, you're very naive and you're going to get hurt. From a moralistic point of view, I'm telling him he has a right to get the best deal he can, as long as he doesn't use force or fraud.

REASON: To the extent that your latest book has been reviewed, what has been the reaction of the critics?

RINGER: Well, it's interesting. The really noteworthy thing is the total black-out—the media has done an excellent job of ignoring the book. I really expected them to attack me more viciously. Colman McCarthy viciously attacked it in the Washington Post, and I thought that was the way it would be around the country. I was even kind of hoping for it—he yelled and screamed so much that, if I were somebody who read the article I would want to buy the book and find out what this guy is so afraid of. But by and large, all the big magazines—Time, People—who had always done big articles on me, totally ignored the book, which makes me think I must have really hit them. I don't know if any book about creative free enterprise or the libertarian cause really has a chance.

REASON: Have you received any favorable reviews other than Tibor Machan's in Barron's?

RINGER: Yes, there were 6 or 8—10 at the most.

REASON: Did you think when you were writing your book that it would be well received by intellectuals?

RINGER: No, mainly because intellectuals (and we are being very broad here in using that term) are by and large very petty. I was most concerned about the intellectual libertarians. I said that if they did not use this book in a positive way, as a chance to get to the so-called guy in the street with the libertarian treatise, they would be making a big mistake. So I was kind of concerned—more for them than for myself—that they might really try to nitpick the book.

REASON: What has been the response from libertarian intellectuals?

RINGER: Nothing much, really. And the funny part is that I got to the people I wanted to get to, although not as well as I would have liked to. That's the everyday guy who didn't know a heck of a lot about libertarianism. My letters have been like, "Wow, you really opened my eyes;" "I have never thought of that before;" "I bought ten copies and gave them away." It's really been a very overwhelming response. I got only one negative letter that I can remember.

REASON: You once said that there are 50 to 100 million libertarians out there if only we reached them.

RINGER: Did I say that? If I said that, I'm going to have to revise my estimate. I think there's only about 23.

REASON: How many hardbacks of American Dream have sold?

RINGER: I don't know how many are in people's hands, but the in print total is still 233,000.

REASON: And the paperback is due to come out when?

RINGER: In August.

My analysis of this thing is depressing news for libertarians and freedom lovers everywhere. What this has proved to me is that people are more apathetic, more hopeless, than I originally thought. I thought through the advertising campaign we could strike a chord in them that would motivate them to buy the book, and once they bought it they would be excited. I think that has happened to the people who have bought it. But the sales haven't measured up to the advertising, and this has led me to believe even more strongly that they are too hopelessly involved in Monday night football, Coors beer, and watching Charlie's Angels; that saving the country and their freedom, their children and grandchildren's freedom, is just too far out. They don't want to hear about it; they don't have time. That's a very depressing thing to me. I didn't think that it would be that pathetic.

REASON: Do you have any recommendations for effective means of spreading libertarian ideas?

RINGER: Well, as I said in the book, it seems to me logically the only possible way that we can win this battle of very long odds is through education of the young. But I don't know how to get to them. I couldn't get to them through a million dollars of advertising.

REASON: But don't you think that, while freedom may not be a household word, there are some positive crosscurrents going on?

RINGER: Yes, there are. But while you're making one step forward over here, the collectivists are making a hundred steps over there. I think—I am just going to pull figures out of the air—that maybe the libertarian movement has gone from virtually zero to the point where it may be effective to some degree, at least in getting people to think—perhaps one percent of the population, which is tremendous growth. But in the meantime, the other 99 percent has gone from 20 to 30 percent collectivism to 50 or 60 percent collectivism.

I base this on what you read in the paper and what you hear people say when you talk to them. They start with certain premises that are collectivist. They never get to the basic arguments that I talk about in American Dream or that any good libertarian writer starts with. It's always, as I said in my speech at the Libertarian Convention, "But what about the needy?" After you have heard that question, you have heard the liberals' whole arsenal. All the rest is just frosting.

REASON: F.A. Hayek was asked, "Are you optimistic today?" and he said: "When I was a young man in the '20s, it was only the old men who were interested in freedom. And now as an old man I found once again that the young people are interested in freedom." If we survive the next 20 years, he thinks we are in good shape, because we will have a new generation by then. But the generation running the world today grew up believing that the government had to run everything, so he says the next 20 years are going to be hell.

RINGER: I don't think that the odds are very good that we will survive another 20 years. And even if we do, I just don't see what Hayek says about the younger generation. I started espousing the libertarian freedom philosophy on a New York television show that had a live audience and almost a dead author. The audience was a group of students from some university called Jersey State or something like that. And it was really quite enlightening to me. First of all, it was enlightening because I got out alive. And second, it was interesting how, just as Ayn Rand wrote years ago—it was right out of her book—they hissed and booed on cue and in unison, and that was very discouraging to me. And when they came to the microphone and started asking me questions, I just wanted to say, "oh, please," and walk right out, because it was right out of a book, the same old tired questions.

You asked if I had any ideas on what might work. What we really need is a hell of a lot of money, big money. That's always the problem. And if I were in charge of spending the money, I think what I would do is find a way to get people like John Hospers, people like Sy Leon, who really, really can communicate these ideas to the guy in the street. If I had a billion dollars to spend, I would probably get people like that on radio, with one-minute or two-minute shows, and just try to inundate the public with the message. Because when you hear people like that talk, it's down on your level: it's simple, logical, and you say, "Hey, you know? That makes sense."

REASON: What authors have had a significant influence on your thinking?

RINGER: Well, of course, Ayn Rand. Eric Hoffer and Will Durant. Harry Browne—definitely one of the biggest. And John Hospers—his articles previously have had a great effect on my thinking, and I just recently read Libertarianism. That wasn't anything new, but I think it's the best book ever written on libertarianism.

REASON: In Restoring the American Dream you dive into a discussion of natural law on the second page of Chapter 1. Isn't this a bit heavy for a bestseller intended for mass consumption?

RINGER: Yes, well, I will disregard the word dive. It's funny—I thought I was on pretty safe ground, but from intellectual libertarians that discussion of natural law was most attacked.

The answer to your question is yes. From a commercial standpoint, I was concerned about starting out that way, because I didn't want to lose the reader. But I finally decided that we were going to have to start with step one, with some kind of basic premise.

REASON: In discussing natural law, you cross Rand and a good many other libertarian philosophers in stating that the "initial premise of any philosophy can never rightfully be classified as other than opinion."

RINGER: Ayn Rand's whole idea of Objectivism is that there's black and there's white and that's it, and there's no gray. I feel that I am more honest and objective—if you will excuse the pun. To me everything is an opinion. I think the reader will accept you better if you admit that it is an opinion. Who am I to say that natural law is this or that? I'm just saying, "okay, this is my opinion." But I don't see how I could honestly say that it's black and white. What if a person says to me, "In my opinion, every person does not have a sovereign right to his life. His life belongs to society as a whole." No matter how absurd I might deem that opinion, I know that he is entitled to his opinion. I may announce that every person should have sole dominion over his own life but I don't see how I can ever prove that as a basic truth. Am I missing something?

REASON: Well, there have been moral and political philosophers who have tried to make a case for right and wrong. And if it's merely a question of an opinion, where each person is entitled to his own, how can you say that a person who rejects another person's right to life is wrong?

RINGER: It is a tough area. C.S. Lewis rambled on endlessly about right and wrong. He said, "Look, people try to say that it's a subjective thing and all that, but we all know what we're talking about when we say something is right—it's something you feel!" Well, he was absolutely wrong, because I find that other people aren't talking about the same thing as I am when I talk about right and wrong. To me it's very simple: what's wrong is interfering in anyone else's life. But we all know that when you go to define that is when you start getting the differences of opinion, because there are millions of people walking around out there who think you are interfering with their life if you earn a million dollars.

REASON: You accuse economists of, as you term it, an unholy alliance with government, to promote their own financial interests. Yet some of the most compelling attacks on the welfare state today are coming from the ranks of academic economists.

RINGER: Well, it depends on who the economists are. As Murray Rothbard pointed out, the typical liberal economist has a real vested interest in this whole thing because there is no market for his services. I can't imagine what a Walter Heller or a John Kenneth Galbraith would do in a real free society. Perhaps they would be employable as dishwashers or garbage collectors, but certainly not in any financial capacity. By espousing the party line they have something to gain. They are called experts and are called to Washington and get to ride around in presidential planes and all that. But certainly libertarian economists are important, people like Hayek and Harry Browne—if you consider him an economist—Doug Casey, any of these people—sure.

REASON: You maintain that when government intervenes in the marketplace it violates the laws of supply and demand. While government can ignore the laws of economics, isn't it the case that no one can get away with breaking them or violating them? They always assert themselves.

RINGER: Yes, they do assert themselves, and when government won't give in and admit that they can't win in the long run, what you eventually end up with is a major collapse of the economy. As a matter of fact, I don't think that the Great Depression of the '30s has really ever ended. I think it's like a bad-smelling beast on which the government used a lot of deodorant, and all they've done through all of these shenanigans is cover up the depression with this thing called false prosperity. And obviously common-sense economics tells you that this can't go on.

REASON: Why can't we just continue to get poorer, like Great Britain?

RINGER: Well that's an interesting question. I have thought about that a lot. Why can't we just go on and continue to run up the national debt indefinitely and eventually get to the point where inflation is 100-200 percent. If you study history you know what eventually happens. People stop accepting the currency. And when the currency is no longer acceptable, you have a major collapse. A baker isn't going to bake bread, because he would rather not even bake it than have your currency—it's not worth anything. So then the question becomes whether we are going to have a deflationary collapse or an inflationary collapse, and that gets kind of complicated, but we will have a collapse. To me it's an absolute certainty.

REASON: But this is not anything new for the government. And we do see countries like Britain that have been seriously infected with inflation, where people just get poorer. Sweden, which is much more interventionist than this country still seems to do relatively well. So that seems like evidence that there isn't going to be a collapse, just based on intervention in the economy.

RINGER: I don't agree with that. I think it's evidence that the producers of the world are really amazing. All that we have today—including the fact that we have not yet collapsed—is due to the producers of the world, people who keep on even though they are only keeping 10 or 20 or 30 percent of the fruits of their labor. But they can only go on so long.

REASON: Your approach seems to be that we need capitalism because without it, without rich people, the system won't function. But wouldn't it be more fruitful to turn the tables around, so to speak, and defend capitalism on the basis of what it delivers to consumers, rather than producers, vis-a-vis State socialism?

RINGER: Well, it's more clever, but as I said at the outset, I'm kind of getting real crotchety in my old age, and I don't want to appease people anymore. And just to alienate people, I'd rather stand up and tell them the truth. Look, the truth is, it's moral. It's moral to keep what you produce. And if you want to talk about benefits, after that I'll talk about benefits. But I'm determined that I am going to be one person who's not going to shy away from the real basic philosophical moral argument and that is that a free market is right because it's moral and it's moral because it's right. Just by sheer luck it turns out that our system also really is the best system for the greatest number of people. But I found that when I start to make that argument to people, try to educate them, we are really talking on two different wave lengths. And they're sitting there thinking, Okay, your system is going to see to it that we are taken care of better than the other system. And I feel almost like I'm misleading them.

Edith Efron argued once in a column in REASON that you shouldn't make an alliance with the Black Panthers on the left simply because they happen to be a group who is also against government. I kind of agree with her there. And I think that libertarians have had a tendency to take in any group that is against government and say, "Okay, let's all hold hands and form an alliance here—and after we overthrow the government, then we will worry about who's right." I think that's kind of dangerous. I'm a long term thinker, and I'm an honest person, and I would rather approach people on that basis.

REASON: Your position seems to be based on a very strong link, found in all of your writings, between "virtue" and "your market value." If you are a moral person, you will go out and earn a living and make a lot of money, and the people who make the most money are the most moral from the standpoint of what this morality is. An economist like Hayek, on the other hand, argues that under a capitalist order there is not nor should there be a necessary connection between merit and market value. That is, baseball players ought to be able to earn more money than fine artists if the consumers are willing to pay it—if they satisfy consumer demand better than other people—and if resources should go—which is the normative judgment that Hayek and other economists are willing to make—to where they best satisfy the consumer. So for Hayek, the important thing about a capitalist system is not these people who are so valuable, quote unquote, to consumers, that they get money. That is not nearly so important as the fact that consumers are able to exercise their free choice in getting what they want. And it seems like that's a much more powerful argument, not only in terms of its persuasiveness, but just in terms of the analytical value of it, and because of the fact that it is the truth.

RINGER: (A) I think it is the truth. (B) I think it is a moral judgment on his part that the consumer getting what he wants is a greater moral purpose than the person getting to keep what he earns. In my opinion, the greater moral purpose is the person getting to keep what he earns, because he is keeping his own life.

REASON: Let's go back to what you said about forming alliances. What about the area of education, for example, where there are groups that are against busing and may be natural allies for libertarians, who have a much broader objective? Or what about libertarians who want to work with liberals or socialists to fight the draft?

RINGER: I would just caution people who want to do that to go very, very carefully, because we formed an alliance with Russia during the Second World War, also. And I have a kind of a simplistic view of human beings—most people are either basically evil or basically good. And informed liberals are basically evil, or a simpler way to put it is, they're mean. As a friend of mine would say, to be a really informed, hard-core liberal, you have to have a basic meanness to you. And I really worry—I have a policy in business that you may remember from Winning through Intimidation: Never sleep with big dogs because you get big fleas. And you jump in bed with a liberal on an ad hoc basis on one issue, and in the long term you may lose more than you gained.

REASON: What about forming ad hoc alliances with conservatives on issues like reducing taxation or tax credits or schools?

RINGER: I don't have as much of a problem with conservatives. Mostly they seem to be more well meaning than liberals.

REASON: Generally it's conservatives who are in favor of imposing vast constraints on individuals' private conduct. Don't you think that many conservatives have big fleas themselves? that they really basically reject the notion that people should be free to live their own lives as they choose as long as they don't infringe on anybody else's rights?

RINGER: Yes. This will be misinterpreted and I will be sorry I said it, but if I had my choice of eliminating the social restrictions of the conservatives or the economic restrictions of the liberals, I would eliminate the economic restrictions first. Because at least we would have a very prosperous, economically healthy society. And then I would try to start attacking the restrictions on personal freedom. You see, the problem is that if a society collapses economically, an anything-goes attitude develops, and you end up with all kinds of restrictions on your personal life anyway. So it's a matter of which is most important. I think that the restrictions that the conservatives want to impose—in fact have imposed over our personal lives—are bad, and I think they have to be dealt with. But I think on a scale of importance, the economic restrictions are even worse, if for no other than practical reasons.

REASON: In your book you said, referring to Uncle Sam, that he has made the people "too healthy, too wealthy, and too wise"—seemingly an endorsement of government poverty programs. But haven't these programs actually been a flop?

RINGER: Yes, they have, in terms of a long-run solution to poverty. But I said that government has done too good a job of the redistributing the wealth and there are no poor anymore. That's true and it's not true. It's true the same as it's true in Communist Russia. Giving them their due credit, they eliminated the really bad poverty and brought most of the people to a level of equal misery. But I think now we have pretty much of a stagnant society. It's harder and harder for people to rise up. What the government did is create a huge middle class. And that's where the government has the problems today—the rebellion of the middle class.

REASON: The government's responsible for that?

RINGER: Well I think so, yes. Because I keep seeing factory workers driving up next to me at street lights in their new cars and thinking they have three color television sets at home and children in college. And it all sounds very wonderful and right, except I keep wondering how they got all that. They got it probably through government-enforced union laws that have given them an income higher than what a free market would pay them. And what it is—it's the phrase false prosperity. It may look good to a liberal that they have all these things, but they are living off of money that has never been earned. And eventually that bill has to be paid.

The one thing out of Brave New World that always sticks in my mind is that the whole approach was to give people economic security. That's why the average person couldn't care less about a book like American Dream. If you asked them right out, most people would probably say "Yes, I'm willing to give up my freedom. It doesn't mean anything as long as I've got the nice house, cars, television sets, the travel." But there's a kicker to it that they don't understand, that they are going to wake up one morning and it's all going to be gone—and so is their freedom.

REASON: The notes of pessimism that you have indicated here seem to stem somewhat from disappointment in how your book has done. Is that basically what leads you to have a more dismal outlook as far as the prospects for freedom?

RINGER: Yes. I wouldn't say that it is a lot more dismal. When I wrote the book my attitude was, I am going to give this thing a try and see whether it's possible to reach the average guy. So I didn't go into it with grandiose hopes. And although the response of those people who have read the book has been gratifying, and the sales are great enough to have made it a big bestseller by normal standards, it reinforced my feeling that we have a real, real problem—maybe an impossible task—in trying to reach the masses in general.

REASON: Do you think that your first two books were more successful because they came out when the public was receptive to the notion of self-improvement books, self-awareness books, whereas Restoring the American Dream was several leaps beyond what the public anticipated?

RINGER: I don't know. I thought, and a lot of other people thought, the timing was perfect on this. Because they said people are just starting to rebel, Prop. 13, tired of big government, and all that, so I thought the timing couldn't have been better. I think it showed that when push came to shove people were not interested enough to actually go to a bookstore and shell out $12.50. Deep down in my fondest dreams I was hoping that this book would sell a million copies in hardback, becoming one of the biggest sellers of all time. I wasn't counting on it; I didn't really expect it; but I was hoping that maybe that would happen. The timing is so perfect, people are so riled up, inflation is so bad, they are looking for the answer, but those ads did not tell them how they were going to personally enrich their lives immediately. Those ads—no matter how I tried to color them, the fact that it was a philosophical book came across.

On my next book, I'm going to go back to being commercial, and I'm thinking of writing something which tells how you can make it in the '80s. It's got to be you—you, you, you, you, you. Every sentence is going to be something that will help you. And then do what I did in Looking Out for Number One—very cleverly weave the libertarian philosophy throughout the book. It's like I'm saying to them in my very hostile way, "Okay, you sons-of-bitches. You want the Fonz, you want NFL football, you don't care about America dying, you don't care about freedom, you just want to know what you can make today—I'll give you your shit. You want crap, I'll give you crap. But in order to get the crap, you are going to have to read the good stuff, because I'm going to weave it in between the paragraphs. And libertarians knew when they read Looking Out for Number One that I was a libertarian.

REASON: Why don't we call it a day? We want to thank you for your time, Bob.