Ed Clark: Another Kind of Candidate

The Libertarian Party looks like it's here to stay.


In person, Ed Clark comes across thoughtful, decent, and low-key (he is not, his supporters say, a "tub thumper" or "stem winder"). Supporters also claim to admire his mind ("subtle and deep"), his easy familiarity with foreign affairs ("the only presidential candidate who has passed the Foreign Service exam"), and his instinctual commitment to libertarian principles—"His impulses are right," says Roy Childs, editor of The Libertarian Review. "He's not just a person who has thought through the issues."

On the negative side, he's an unexciting speechmaker and he earns his living as corporate counsel to a big oil company. If he were actually to be elected president and had to preside over the dismantling of the empire, his abilities would be put to the test. "But obviously he's not going to be elected," says Milton Mueller, director of Students for a Libertarian Society. "His function is to put the party on the map, and for that he's an ideal candidate."

At party functions, Clark is sometimes introduced as "the eminently reasonable radical," by which his supporters mean to suggest that he has such an unparalleled talent for stating even quite radical propositions in such a reasonable, low-key way that even the most pious liberal or hide-bound conservative never thinks to take offense. His background, in fact, is quite traditional. He's a former naval officer, Harvard Law alumnus, and presently an anti-trust lawyer with Atlantic-Richfield.

He was a liberal Republican before he became a Libertarian, working on John Lindsay's mayoral campaign and writing $25 checks to various Republican causes. Even then, he says, he wasn't crazy about the Republicans—he thought they were "by and large" wrong about Vietnam and "insensitive" on civil rights, but at least they came down on the side of free-market economics.

Then on August 15, 1971, a day that Clark still can't recall without an edge to his voice, he returned to a Dallas hotel room at the end of a long day, snapped on the TV, and, he says, "Richard Milhous Nixon came on and said, 'I've struck a great blow for the free-enterprise system—I've imposed wage-and-price controls on every American.' "

At that point Clark turned off the Republicans forever. "And I got on the telephone and called my wife (who was visiting her relatives) in Mexico City and yelled at her for three-quarters of an hour, and I never yell at anyone, least of all my wife."

A few months later, Clark attended an educational conference at Columbia University, the subject of which was libertarianism. "And I said, 'My God. Where have these people been? I believe this. I've always been anti-war. I've always been pro-civil rights. I've always been for a free-market economy and voluntary exchange.' I've been a libertarian ever since."

THE CLARK PROGRAM If elected, Clark would immediately move to deflate some of the mystique surrounding the president. As a first step, he says, he'd move into the Blair House, not the White House (he calls it a "palace"). He'd eliminate entirely the 50-person staff for the president's wife (its only function, says Clark, is "to help her husband be reelected president"). He'd refuse to take a salary and would rather support his family on voluntary contributions from the American people. And finally, he'd sell Camp David and retire Air Force One.

Foreign policy. The single issue which seems to offend Clark more than any other is the Carter stand on draft registration. "Why does Carter want conscription?" asks Clark. "Well, for one, he's president of a big country, and he wants to have what the presidents of most big countries have—he wants to have conscription. Brezhnev has got conscription in Russia. (Vice-Premier) Deng has got conscription in China. Those wonderful democrats in South Africa—they've got conscription. The Shah of Iran had conscription before he was thrown out. All of the big boys in world politics want conscription. And Jimmy Carter wants it too."

As a first step toward reducing the likelihood of American involvement in foreign wars, Clark would bring home American troops from Germany, Japan, Korea, and everywhere else they are today. "We have 330,000 troops in Europe right now," says Clark. "And what are they doing?" Serving as a "trip-wire" in case Western Europe gets invaded. That, and defending the Germans. "And anyone who follows history knows that the Germans don't need anyone to defend them," says Clark. "In World War II, they took only almost the entire civilized world. If history shows us anything, it's not only that the Germans can defend themselves, they have to be restrained from going after other people. And now that they've built themselves a decent society in Germany, they ought to put up the money to defend it. They're a richer country than we are. There are a lot of them. They've got a talent for military organization, and they can defend themselves all by themselves against the Russians." And the same holds true for the Japanese, he says.

Education. Until the day when all public schools finally close their doors, Clark is proposing an interim educational plan that would allow up to a $1,200 tax credit for anyone paying a student's tuition at a private school. "Parents wouldn't have one Los Angeles Unified School District to choose from," says Clark. "They'd have hundreds of districts." Furthermore, since public schools would have to compete on an equal basis with private ones, they'd have no choice but to improve.

Right now, says Clark, public schools are a disaster: "The educational levels are dropping, violence is rising, and everything you test for has dropped almost every year." In spite of this, Clark says, there are people who would gladly force everyone to go to public schools. Clark contends that, not only is such thinking totalitarian at its core, but it totally ignores the way public schools indoctrinate children into believing that the "solution to all society's problems is government." "How can any government school talk against taxation," asks Clark, "when they get all their money from compulsory taxation?"

Nuclear power. Clark's stand on nuclear energy is that he's neither for it nor against it—he just wants the government out of it altogether. Because the industry has been subsidized by the government, believes Clark, nuclear power plants were rushed into production before the technology was adequate to the task. Clark would deal with safety problems by eliminating subsidies to the industry and repealing the Price-Anderson Act, which currently limits a utility's liability to an unrealistically low $560 million in case of disastrous accident. The need then to obtain their own liability insurance, says Clark, would force utilities to "close down the dangerous plants and fix up the ones that could be fixed up."

Inflation. Clark ridicules any administration suggestions that it's OPEC that caused our inflation because they raised the price of oil. The fact is, says Clark, it's not OPEC that controls the printing presses, the budget deficits, or the Federal Reserve. It's our own government that's causing inflation by printing money to pay for its annual deficits. The cause of inflation is no mystery, says Clark; there's nothing "occult" about it: "The politicians don't have the guts to raise taxes to pay for new programs." So they make up the difference by printing money.

PARTY DOUBTS Clark is personally well-regarded in libertarian circles. Yet there still are divisions in the movement not only over the running of his campaign but also over the larger issue of whether the movement should have a party at all.

The contradiction in the Libertarian Party, says long-time libertarian Robert LeFevre, is that it's an "embryonic government offered by people who say they don't want one." LeFevre grants that the party is a great engine of publicity. "But what is being learned?" he asks. "That libertarians are a bunch of kooks who want power."

LeFevre points to the 90,000 people who registered Libertarian in California to help the party qualify for the ballot in that state. Most of them, he says, have never even read a single piece of libertarian literature. "They just wanted to be good guys and sign."

This has nothing to do with freedom, says LeFevre. Freedom is responsibility and self-discipline. And the way you achieve it is through a "life-time individual war of attrition," not by seizing the government and handing people freedom on a platter.

Clark supporters respond that it's all very fine to keep yourself so pure that you wouldn't even shake a politician's hand, but the facts are, if you intend to pare down the State, you need a mechanism to accomplish the change. What these antiparty people refuse to recognize, says former Inquiry editor Bill Evers, is that if you hope to repeal oppressive laws you have to have someone in office to do it. "If you don't play the game," seconds REASON Senior Editor Tibor Machan, "you're going to leave the field open to people who never give freedom a thought."

There is, of course, always the danger that an ideological party will sell out, but what, asks New York economist Murray Rothbard, are the alternatives? "Violent revolution, which has never worked in a democratic system, and the black market, which is fine, but it doesn't get rid of the State."

On the matter of selling out (an issue over which libertarian tempers burn especially hot), Rothbard responds: "Our platform gets more radical every time there's a convention." But the fear is always there that once Clark (or any of the other nearly 600 party candidates who will be running for office this year) begins to see himself as a serious contender, there might be an irresistible temptation to water down or repudiate some of the party's more radical propositions (the litmus test is privatization of the roads), and instead of calling for an end to the IRS will rather start talking about "a 20 percent cut in taxes" and the need for "fiscal reform."

At that point, the Libertarian Party will have become indistinguishable from those of the Republicans and the Democrats, which is to say it won't be any use to anyone at all. "We have to force our candidates to keep bearing witness," says Rothbard. "How are we going to get rid of the State if we don't announce our intentions?"

Paul Ciotti is a free-lance writer in the Los Angeles area. He is currently working on an investigative journalism project for REASON.