From Moderate Republican to Green Reaganite

John McClaughry's memoirs


I've known my share of libertarian Reaganites and I've known my share of libertarian greens. But John McClaughry, the founder of the Ethan Allen Institute and a contributing editor at Reason, might be the country's only libertarian Reaganite green: The same decentralist impulse that led him to take a job as a Reagan speechwriter also made him the chairman of the E.F. Schumacher Society and got him interested in worker-managed enterprises. (*) The mix of concerns reminds me of Karl Hess, but while Hess started his career as a Goldwaterite, McClaughry began in the un-Goldwater camp: the "moderate Republican" sector of the '60s, which evidently contained multitudes.

McClaughry is now serializing his memoirs at the Front Porch Republic site. The first chapter, which covers those moderate-Republican years, is valuable both as a glimpse into that forgotten milieu and as a look at what happens when the government tries to get into the business of promoting "voluntary" behavior. The young McClaughry was heavily influenced by a libertarian text of the day, Richard Cornuelle's Reclaiming the American Dream, which celebrated the "independent sector" of voluntary associations for mutual aid. The political class responded to Cornuelle's ideas by co-opting them, with Cornuelle's assistance; Murray Rothbard mocked their efforts at the time, writing in The Libertarian Forum that

a "central theme" of the new [Nixon] Administration will be a nationwide drive to stimulate "voluntary action" against social ills. It adds that Secretary George Romney is "in charge of planning the voluntary action effort." This concept needs to be savored: government, the quintessence of coercion, is going to plan a nationwide "voluntary" effort. George Orwell, where art thou now? War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Voluntary Action is Government Planning.

The Post goes on to say that Romney, Secretary Finch, and the President "are devotees of the idea that vast and untapped energies of volunteers in an 'independent sector' can transform the Nation." Nixon endorsed the idea in 1965, and recently declared that "the President should be the chief patron of citizen efforts." And it turns out that last year, Secretary Finch was co-author of a book on the independent sector, with—you guessed it—Richard C. Cornuelle, the "godfather of independent action" and head of the Nixon task-force on independent voluntary action. Two major programs are emerging: a mixed public-private organization chartered by the Federal government to stimulate voluntary action drives, and a series of Presidental awards, like the World War II Navy "E" for Efficiency, to be bestowed by the President in person for outstanding voluntary efforts.

Cornuelle was eventually disillusioned with all this. (McClaughry quotes him: "I cannot imagine why I thought for a moment that the state could be persuaded to contrive its own undoing.") But the more interesting disillusionment is McClaughry's, and one of the pleasures of McClaughry's memoir is the opportunity to see a young Cornuellean getting fed up with the unfolding process. McClaughry's sardonic account hits its peak when he serves on Nixon's National Voluntary Service Action Council, chaired by "Frank Stella, a Michigan auto dealer whose qualifications pretty much began and ended with his chairmanship of Italians for Nixon." By this time, Nixon's vision of "voluntary action" was so stunted that the council's only concern "was the operation of the federal government's volunteer agencies—VISTA, the Peace Corps, Retired Senior Volunteer Programs, the Foster Grandparents Program and several others." At the council's organizational meeting, it was decided that the new organization

needed an "honorary chairperson," an epitome of caring, selfless service, and probity. With one heart and voice the Council found exactly the right choice: Mrs. Patricia Nixon. Approved by acclamation! Tongue in cheek, I moved that the staff be asked to compile a complete list of Mrs. Nixon's many contributions to voluntary service. Approved! (So far as I can recall, it was never produced.)

As the feds transformed quasi-libertarian ideas into a bureaucratic self-parody, McClaughry himself moved in the opposite direction, becoming more libertarian in outlook. His account of the National Home Ownership Foundation Act (NHOF), a McClaughry-conceived attempt to offer a decentralist alternative to urban renewal and public housing projects, shows the bill evolving further and further from its original form before being completely supplanted by LBJ's National Housing Act of 1968. McClaughry in turn evolved "from the 'government pump priming and assistance' model of the NHOF to the more libertarian 'get the hell out of the way and let people produce' model." For a sense of what that shift looked like in practice, compare McClaughry's summary of the National Home Ownership Foundation Act's provisions, which included a substantial role for federal dollars, with the ideas he was espousing in this 1978 Reason article. "What, then, should be the government's role in the housing industry?" the '78 piece concludes. "[O]ne is hard put to disagree with Elbert Hubbard's pungent phrase: 'Keep away from that wheelbarrow! What the hell do you know about machinery?'"

* Update: McClaughry writes to tell me that he doesn't like the "green" label these days, given the big-government connotations that the tag has taken on. He wasn't always down on the word—blurbing the book Green Politics in 1984, he wrote that the Green Parties' "appeal for protection of the environment, decentralization of political and economic power, nonviolence, and restoration of human-scale democracy needs to be heard both in the West and behind the Iron Curtain." But by now, he says, the word "has been absorbed in modern fascism and socialism."