Zapping the Do-Gooders


The Real Frank Zappa Book, by Frank Zappa, with Peter Occhiogrosso, New York: Poseidon Press, 352 pages, $19.95

He is one of rock 'n' roll's celebrated heretics, most famous (or infamous) for his outrageousness, his libertine poetry, and his mustache. He is also an accomplished musician and composer who takes his music very seriously. Whether conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, programming a Synclavier, or squeezing never-before-dreamed-of notes from his Gibson Les Paul, Frank Zappa has always challenged conventional wisdom with his unorthodox approach to music. From his point of view, "without deviation (from the norm), 'progress' is not possible."

Zappa discusses both his antics and his music in his first book, an autobiography aptly titled The Real Frank Zappa Book. He even dispels a few myths. For those few of you who were actually wondering, the answer is no, Captain Kangaroo is not Frank's dad.

What some readers will probably not expect to find in a book written by Frank Zappa is a passionate defense of personal freedom, principled individualism, and a limited-government, even libertarian, view of the world. But sure enough, Zappa sometimes sounds more like one of Ayn Rand's fictional heroes than your average garden-variety rock star. Says Zappa: "I believe that people have a right to decide their own destinies; people own themselves. I also believe that, in a democracy, government exists because (and only so long as) individual citizens give it a 'temporary license to exist'—in exchange for a promise that it will behave itself. In a democracy, you own the government—it doesn't own you.

"Along with this comes a responsibility to ensure that individual actions, in the pursuit of personal destiny, do not threaten the well-being of others while the 'pursuit' is in progress."

This, from the man who sings "Titties 'n' Beer" with a (fairly) straight face.

Some libertarians not acquainted with his music began to take notice of Zappa in 1985, when he first confronted "Big Mother"—Tipper Gore's well-connected Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC)—and her attempt to "label" (read "censor") certain "undesirable" forms of music. During testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Technology, and Transportation, Zappa scornfully referred to the PMRC's proposal as "an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, [and] infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children." The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) eventually capitulated anyhow, agreeing to implement the PMRC's system of "voluntary" labeling.

Why? Zappa suspects that more than self-righteous moral fervor was at play here. Sounding a little bit like Nobel laureate economist James Buchanan, Zappa argues that the whole debacle was a simple case of an organized special interest (the well-heeled RIAA) snuggling up to legislators (and their wives) in order to get their pet legislation introduced in Congress—in this case, a tax on sales of blank cassette tapes. As Buchanan has been arguing for years, the very individuals whose interests are being traded away—the public—have very little influence on the outcome of this political interchange. Buchanan refers to this process as political "rent seeking." Zappa prefers the term "extortion."

Beyond Buchanan-style public choice arguments, Zappa sees a more fundamental moral argument against the government-as-mother perspective of the PMRC. "A lot of people who cry out for government intervention or, as Tipper Gore called them, 'consumer tools,' to help raise and control their children are people who are just too lazy to do it themselves.…Grandma never would have put up with this shit."

His point is well taken. In any relatively free society, the freedom to choose always comes with a burdensome responsibility, especially for parents concerned about the welfare of their children. If a mother doesn't want the term masturbation in her 11-year-old daughter's vocabulary, why not take the time to listen to the music she's listening to? Parents cannot come to expect a legion of government agencies to raise their children for them merely because they can't find the time. Of course, "offensive" is more gray than black and white. When some members of the PMRC complain about pornographic music, they're really talking about Purple Rain.

Zappa is equally articulate on other issues. On drug prohibition, for instance, he sometimes echoes the views of Milton Friedman, although it's a safe bet that the two men have never met. Zappa sees a direct cause-effect relationship between prohibition and drug-related crime and worries that government attempts to control illegal drug use produce results far worse than the problem itself. "Alcohol Prohibition," Zappa observes, "introduced us to the thrilling exploits of wise-guy gangsters, supplying the entertainment needs of a booze-guzzling public—held hostage by a truly stupid piece of legislation. Prohibition today has produced cartels of international party-boys who take in enough cash daily to finance the LBO of any corporation on the planet."

Maybe the real Frank Zappa isn't too mysterious after all. Perhaps he's just a real-life Howard Roark with a human sense of humor. In an era where Big Government do-gooders spend their tax-financed days attempting to replace the free choices of individuals with the central scrutiny of more "enlightened" social policies, many will find Frank Zappa's modest proposals a welcome change.

More important, you will also disagree with him, and he doesn't really care. "It has never mattered to me that thirty million people might think I'm wrong," says Frank. "The number of people who thought Hitler was 'right' did not make him 'right.'"

Matthew B. Kibbe is senior economist at the Republican National Committee, a doctoral student in economics at George Mason University, and assistant editor of Market Process. Nothing written here is intended to reflect the views of the Republican National Committee.