Maurice Clements had served nearly two terms as a state legislator when he resigned from the Idaho legislature, mid-session, in March 1976. A farmer, Clements says he was elected to his first term in 1972 on a typical conservative line, but his views started to swerve toward libertarian lines through contacts with a libertarian Republican legislator and with Ralph Smeed, who introduced him to the Foundation for Economic Education and the Austrian school of economics.
As a legislator Clements had tried to introduce only crucial bills, believing that much of the problem today is the sheer quantity of law that is passed. In every session he introduced a tax-reduction bill and on several occasions tried to pass a bill limiting Idaho politicians' term of office. He was unsuccessful, of course, but the last straw—as Clements says, "the culmination of my frustration"—was the way fellow Republicans handled his bill to initiate an educational voucher system in Idaho. As expected, the Education Committee would not even consider it, but Clements's plan was to take the bill through the Ways and Means Committee. With friends on that committee who spoke the free-market dialect, he thought that they would at least bring the bill into session for discussion. Instead, they refused even to have the bill printed.
"It so infuriated me," Clements recalls. "A whole legislature that was dominated and controlled by Republicans, and you couldn't even get a bill printed that would strike a blow for a somewhat half-way house approach to education!" So Clements called in the media, released a statement that was printed in part or in whole by several Idaho papers, and turned in his resignation.
"Due to political events of the past few years," Clements began his statement, "the image of the politician has fallen, perhaps properly, to new depths. I share the same disillusionment as most other people when I observe the political process. What concerns me most, however, is that few people understand the path we have followed to get where we are. It is very easy to criticize government and politicians for graft and corruption, mismanagement, political bungling and other numerous ills of our political system and yet, have not each one of us played at least a small role in creating this system which we are so quick to condemn?…
"A politician is delegated the power to pass laws that are hopefully just. This seems like an obvious statement with little room for misunderstanding. Yet this is where the confusion begins. What is justice? My definition of justice is the use of laws to defend the life, liberty, and property of the individual. If I were to ask you if you thought it just for one person to steal from another person's paycheck by threat of force, you would, I am sure, agree that this would be wrong no matter what the reason for the theft. I must use the same logic when confronted with a government that steals from one individual, even though legally, and gives this money either to another individual or group." Clements went on in his statement, quoting Ludwig von Mises, to suggest that the best way to solve problems is not to use the political system but to rely on the market.
Shortly after his resignation, Clements joined forces with Ralph Smeed to form the Center for the Study of Market Alternatives in Boise, Idaho. They bought a facility in downtown Boise and started to gather an extensive library. The CSMA has helped bring Leonard Read and the FEE staff to Idaho for yearly seminars. They have brought speakers to the center and held seminars for high school and junior high school teachers on Clements's beautiful guest ranch in the Idaho mountains. The three-day seminars have been presented by three economists from Boise State University: Barry Asmus, the winner of the Freedom Foundation's award for excellence in private-enterprise education; John Mitchell; and Don Billings.
To say that most of the teachers taking the classes have come to look favorably upon the free market and individual liberty is not sufficient. One high school teacher, at the end of the weekend, stood and told the three professors: "I have spent my whole life developing my political and economic philosophy, and in one weekend you have torn it apart. Now what do we do?" That teacher succeeded in having a liberal economics text used in the Boise school system replaced with one written by a pair of free-marketeers.
Meanwhile, Clements's interest in privatizing education has not diminished. Through the CSMA, he is funding a project designed to bring attention to private, or market, alternatives to government schools. He is reprinting an article that first appeared in REASON, "Who Killed Private Education?" (Mar. 1979), in the Center's publication, the Classical Liberal, and distributing it to the schools in Idaho. He will then give $500, $200, and $100 prizes for the three best essays submitted by students both in favor of and against public education. A CSMA committee will judge the essays arguing against government education, and Idaho's Department of Education will choose the winners on the opposite side.
Clements has been a thorn in the side of proponents of strong government for some time. For more than 10 years he has been refusing to fill out his census forms. And farmers are subject to different census regulations from the rest of us. Every year, he has been sent requests for detailed and costly information about the operation of his farm. "They used to call me up at five in the morning just as they got to work in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and try to cajole me into giving them a few answers over the phone," Clements laughs. "And they threatened me with fines and imprisonment, too." But he has not cooperated.
Recently, Clements was involved in an attempt to block the passage of a mint marketing order. A marketing order is a kind of monopoly that was made legal in the New Deal days; growers of certain crops can organize, form a "marketing order," and use the government to keep anybody else from growing their crop. Clements's attempts to foil this ploy with respect to one of his crops—mint—were unsuccessful. When the marketing order for mint was voted into law, Clements and his men plowed under 90 acres, about $100,000 worth, of mint, taking a direct loss and losing the right ever to grow mint without breaking the law. Principles can sometimes be expensive. In the same vein, he resigned from the Idaho Beet Growers Association because the organization was lobbying for sugar subsidies and against federal regulations. "Just another example," he moans.
Clements is not very optimistic about the future of freedom, but he says, "The benefits, if we could win, are so great that no matter how small a chance that there might be, it's well worth the effort to try to work in that direction. If there's one chance in a thousand, then we ought to continue to try."
Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Middle-American Maverick".