Prohibition

Friday A/V Club: When the Governor Has a Libertarian Side

The Maryland governor who defied Prohibition, and the Utah governor who wouldn't pay his income tax

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Library of Congress

The most striking thing about this year's Libertarian ticket may be that it features a couple of former governors. Libertarians don't tend to be enthusiastic about elected officials in the first place, and that's especially true when it comes to the executive branch. Hardly any governors have a substantial libertarian fan base.

But there are exceptions to that, and they aren't all named "Gary Johnson." One is Albert Ritchie, governor of Maryland from 1920 to 1935. Another is J. Bracken Lee, governor of Utah from 1949 to 1957.

Ritchie was a fiscal conservative: He tended to keep taxes down, tended to keep the books balanced, and tended to reject federal aid. (I say "tended to" because there were exceptions to all of the above. But the pattern was clear.) He didn't believe the state should do nothing at all—he built roads, passed restrictions on the crab industry, and otherwise flexed his power when he thought it was necessary—but he thought the government in general and the feds in particular should be doing a lot less.

And he wasn't shy about defying Washington. In 1922, when Warren Harding asked 28 governors to call out the National Guard during a coal strike, Ritchie refused, declaring that "in the darkest hours of situations like these there often comes the time when with methods other than force men can finally be persuaded to meet and agree for the common welfare." And at the Governors Conference in Washington that year, when the president told the assembled guests that the states needed to enforce Prohibition, Ritchie declared that Maryland would not. Egged on by his friend H.L. Mencken, a fiery libertarian voice at The Baltimore Sun, Ritchie then went about making his state an island of tolerance in the war on booze.

As Mencken's biographer Marion Elizabeth Rodgers later wrote,

Maryland was now one of the wettest states in the union….Governor Ritchie had announced that places selling alcoholic beverages would not be bothered by state troopers—though they would have to pay state tax. But because speakeasies didn't legally exist, they were declared to be cigar stores. Each speakeasy had a front room, with a glass counter, filled with cheap cigars. There would be a door with a window. When you knocked on the door, all you had to say was, "Joe sent me."…

Alone among larger cities, Baltimore had little organized crime. Instead, it was quiet and orderly. The police went about their own business. The courts were not jammed with liquor cases. Federal agents were left to enforce Federal enactments on their own. And since the Feds found they had no police protection in Baltimore, raids gradually became more infrequent.

This is the era when Maryland came to be known as the Free State, a nickname that feels less appropriate these days.

And Lee? He mixed the fiscal conservatism and anti-globalism of a Taft Republican with a high level of social tolerance. As I've mentioned here before, he refused to crack down on drinking, gambling, and prostitution when he was mayor of Price; as mayor of Salt Lake City, he locked horns with police chief W. Cleon Skousen over budget issues, "vice" issues (including Skousen's efforts to ferret out homosexuals), and Lee's view that Skousen was "practicing Communism to fight it." In-between, while governing the whole state of Utah, Lee disobeyed the feds in a way that may not rise to Ritchie's level of defiance but still stands out: In 1956 he became, as far as I'm aware, the only sitting governor ever to refuse to pay his federal income tax. His reasoning was a little obscure—he didn't think it was constitutional to be forced to pay for foreign aid—but a certain level of crankiness goes with the nonconformist territory.

Now we come to the A/V Club portion of the post. In the video below, Lee discusses his policies and worldview on a 1952 episode of the TV show Longines Chronoscope. One of the men interviewing him, Henry Hazlitt, was a longtime libertarian journalist and, like Ritchie, a friend of Mencken's:

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For another installment of Longines Chronoscope—this one featuring Henry Wallace and Karl Hess—go here.)

NEXT: Trump Says He Was Being Sarcastic, Turbulence Injures 24, Cannes Bans Burkini: P.M. Links

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  1. I didn’t know Schwarzenegger was an old-timey libertarian.

  2. Ritchie was apparently not opposed to government highways.

  3. Both of those dead governors are vastly superior to the incoherent authoritarian statism of Johnson /Weld.

  4. Gov. Ralph Carr (R) of Colorado is the best libertarian governor. The only thing he hated more than the New Deal was Japanese internment. Can’t get much better than that.

  5. “He didn’t believe the state should do nothing at all?he built roads…”

    Fascist.

  6. And since the Feds found they had no police protection in Baltimore, raids gradually became more infrequent.

    Funny how if you don’t have support in suppressing the people, the incentive to suppress them wanes considerably.

  7. And Lee? He mixed the fiscal conservatism and anti-globalism of a Taft Republican with a high level of social tolerance.

    In this day and age, that would be called racist.

      1. Fiscal conservatism: Racist.
        Anti-globalist: Hitler Racist.
        Republican: Hitler squared Racist.
        Social Tolerance: For what? Alcohol in poverty-stricken areas? Raaaaciisssttttuh!

        1. You’re also a Birther, right? (you lose)

  8. Richie was a libertarian because he opposed Prohibition?

      1. That’s the only thing listed for him that’s not fiscally conservative.
        So why was he a libertarian?

        1. That’s the only thing listed for him that’s not fiscally conservative.

          Since it involved spending less money, I’d say it was fiscally conservative.

          So why was he a libertarian?

          Where did I say he was a libertarian?

          1. “(Opposing Prohibiition) si the only thing listed for him that’s not fiscally conservative.

            Since it involved spending less money, I’d say it was fiscally conservative.

            So there’s no reason at all to call him libertarian, as I thought.

            So why was he a libertarian?

            Where did I say he was a libertarian?

            The entire premise, the opening paragraphs and most of all …. the title

            When the Governor Has a Libertarian Side
            The Maryland governor who defied Prohibition, and the Utah governor who wouldn’t pay his income tax

            So why was he a libertarian?

            1. So there’s no reason at all to call him libertarian, as I thought.

              I did not call him “a” libertarian, which is what you asked before. He had several libertarian-flavored policies, notably his rather bold defiance of Prohibition. Couple that with the other stuff I mentioned (fiscal conservatism, refusing to call up the National Guard, taking advice from Mencken) and he’s gonna look more appealing than the average gov.

              1. I did not call him “a” libertarian, which is what you asked before.Yoi

                “Fine,” Mr. Trump, but you’re doing it again …

                He had several libertarian-flavored policies, notably his rather bold defiance of Prohibition. Couple that with the other stuff I mentioned (fiscal conservatism, refusing to call up the National Guard, taking advice from Mencken)

                Again, since when is fiscal conservatism libertarian? I realize that Reason claims everything is “libertarian” or a “libertarian idea” even if libertarians had nothing to do with it, but …..

                Now I see the problem. I’m pro-liberty but you’re anti-government. To me, Prohibition was a violation of personal liberty and individual rights, because that’s what I care about, and fight for. You see government spending. It’s like saying the war on drugs is mostly about government spending instead of, overwhelmingly, a violation of individual liberty..

                1. I’m pro-liberty but you’re anti-government. To me, Prohibition was a violation of personal liberty and individual rights, because that’s what I care about, and fight for. You see government spending.

                  Of course Prohibition was a violation of personal liberty. It was a gross violation of personal liberty. There is absolutely nothing in this post or thread that suggests that I do not think it is a violation of personal liberty, or that I think government spending was the worst thing about it. You need to work harder on your reading comprehension.

                  It’s like saying the war on drugs is mostly about government spending instead of, overwhelmingly, a violation of individual liberty.

                  This is what I mean about reading comprehension. If I said that Prohibition was “mostly about government spending,” this comparison would make sense. But there is no “mostly” anywhere in this thread except where you inserted it.

                  1. You’re a real piece of work, Mr Trump. Let’s review, all in one place.

                    you are italic ((double parentheses exposes the deceptijons)) Emphasis added for the morally challenged/

                    Richie was a libertarian because he opposed Prohibition?

                    NO

                    That’s the only thing listed for him that’s not fiscally conservative? ((That = opposing prohibition. ))

                    Since it involved spending less money, I’d say it was fiscally conservative. ((“It” = opposing prostitution. CLEARLY fiscally conservative because it involves spending less money))

                    Nothing … suggests that I do not think it is a violation of personal liberty, or that I think government spending was the worst thing about it,

                    I said neither of the two, Mr. Trump.

                    you need to work harder on your reading comprehension.

                    You need to start working on honesty.

                    If I said that Prohibition was “mostly about government spending,” this comparison would make sense.

                    Scroll back. It’s the ONLY thing you said, Mr. Trump, as you again use quotes to deceive. Repeating, typical behavior of an anti-gummint libertarian.

                    (My tone and boldface are self-defense of repeated aggression)

                    1. So, to review:

                      1. You stated, falsely, that it was “not fiscally conservative” to oppose Prohibition.

                      2. I pointed out, in response, that it in fact was fiscally conservative to oppose Prohibition.

                      3. You somehow inferred from this that I think Prohibition is “mostly about government spending,” as opposed to me mentioning the spending angle because I was responding to something you brought up.

                      4. I pointed out that this interpretation was inaccurate.

                      5. You stomped your feet, spewed a lot of incoherent bile, and quoted back the conversation, apparently unaware that it does not support your bizarre misreading of my words.

                      It’s pretty clear at this point that you either aren’t capable of understanding me, no matter how clearly I put things, or that you just aren’t interested in understanding me, because you’re attached to your own weird narrative. In any event, I have better things to do on a Saturday afternoon than to argue with a deranged asshole on the internet, so I think I’ll bow out now. Have a nice day.

                    2. . You stated, falsely, that it was “not fiscally conservative” to oppose Prohibition.

                      (smirk) Make up your mind, Mr Trump.. Direct quotes still trump bullshit (no pun intended)

                      https://reason.com/blog/2016/08…..nt_6336025

                      Again, a typical anti-gummint libertarian. The anti-gumimnf faction is far less likely to show tolerance for others. The pro-liberty faction does it instinctively.

  9. He mixed the fiscal conservatism and anti-globalism of a Taft Republican with a high level of social tolerance.

    So he’s two out of three on the good side for starters. Anti-globalism can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what’s passing for globalism at the time. If this means skepticism toward meddling NGOs and opposition to treaties or organizations that impede our sovereignty, then sign me up. A globalism that looks like the EU writ large is nothing I want anything to do with.

    1. I meant that he wasn’t big on the U.N., foreign aid, etc.

      1. It’s heartening that this cycle we have a major party presidential candidate who isn’t either.

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