By Joyce Brand
I always loved to read. I remember my mother telling her friends that I was no trouble because she could set me down with a book and I would amuse myself for hours. Maybe that was why I loved school, in spite of the regimentation, which I hated. My life was in my head, not in the stupid rules I had to follow.
My father was both a Southern Baptist minister and an officer in the US Navy, very conservative and very Republican. I adored him, so I found it very painful when I realized at the age of fifteen that I couldn’t believe what he preached, no matter how hard I tried. However, I was a good little girl, so I didn’t rock the boat, and I went off to a Southern Baptist university right after my seventeenth birthday.
Probably nobody was less prepared for college life than I was in 1966. It was then that I discovered Ayn Rand. It was a religion I could believe in, until I realized that worshipping Ayn Rand made no more sense than worshipping an invisible deity. Although my life took some strange turns in the next few years, I kept the basic philosophy of individualism that I learned from Ayn Rand, which included a profound contempt for politics.
After escaping from an unhappy marriage, I indulged my love of reading by going to a state university and taking a double major in English and History. I was particularly interested in how literature affected history and vice versa. I was shocked by how different the history I learned in college was from the history I had been taught in grade school. Yet even the texts in college were heavily influenced by the philosophy of the writers, which seemed to me disturbingly collectivist. In retrospect, I realize that, in spite of how much I was reading, I was never exposed to any ideas that challenged the legitimacy of the state.
I graduated Phi Beta Kappa and was accepted into the PhD program in History at the University of California at Berkeley, but I was unsure if I really wanted a life in academia, so I took a summer job in a law firm to see if law school might suit me more. I was disgusted by the legal profession and started to think about making my living in the real world of business.
I spent many years trying to find my place in the world through different careers and different relationships. Nothing seemed to suit me long term, but I learned a lot.
One of my most memorable lessons came from my job as an office equipment salesperson. I spent most of my time showing private businesses how my equipment could increase their productivity. I discovered that trying to sell to government agencies was a waste of time because bureaucrats didn’t want to increase productivity and possibly lose employees. Then one day I got a call that a District Court wanted to buy some electronic typewriters from me because the manufacturer of our newest line had a government contract. Easiest sale ever because there was no competition and they already knew they wanted the most expensive models we had. They had a budget for typewriters that they had to spend or lose, so they spent it on typewriters that actually decreased their productivity because the machines were designed for more complicated tasks than filling in forms. All I had to do was deliver the machines and teach the secretaries how to get around all the features that made filling out forms difficult. The commission was nice, but I couldn’t help thinking about all the tax dollars being wasted. That was when I realized that all tax dollars were wasted in exactly the same way, propping up the power of bureaucrats for no benefit to anyone else. It’s all about the perverse incentives.
Perverse incentives had a lot to do with the failure of my second marriage. My husband was a very kind person with little ambition but a history of taking responsibility for his life in difficult circumstances. He told me how his union job created the incentive for everyone to put forth minimal effort and how wrong he thought that was. Then he hurt his back and got into the worker’s comp system, which gives doctors and patients incentives to continue treatments after they are no longer needed. Maybe those perverse incentives just brought out weaknesses in his character that were always there, but I can’t help blaming that government program for the change in his personality. I saw the growth of an entitlement mentality and dependence happen before my eyes until I could no longer live with the man he had become.
Another job that taught me how government interferes with free enterprise business was the year I spent as a business broker. It started with my having to obtain real estate licenses in two states just to be allowed to do the job. I had always heard that real estate licenses required months of classes and most people still failed the exam on the first try, and the challenge exam was even harder. Fortunately, I didn’t believe it, so I spent about thirty hours on my own studying the guide and passed both challenge exams with no problem. The ridiculous thing was that passing those exams in no way ensured that I would be able to sell real estate (or negotiate business leases) honestly and responsibly. It just meant I knew a lot of stupid and useless rules.
The real lessons came from working with small business owners who were trying to sell their businesses. Listing the business for sale meant learning everything about the business, including how the owner did or did not manage to get around all the government regulations that interfered with his ability to please enough customers to make a living at the business. Even though intrusive regulations didn’t account for all the owners who were failing, the ones who were trying most scrupulously to follow all the rules seemed to be the ones who did worst. The owners who did best were those who found ways to please customers while keeping enough money for themselves to make it all worthwhile. That mainly meant figuring out which regulations to follow and which to ignore. Unlike big businesses that can use government against would be competitors, small businesses get no benefits from government. They don’t need any government to tell them to treat their customers and employees well in order to prosper.
As a corporate manager at Kelly Services, the oldest temporary help company, I learned even more about the difference between large and small business and how government affects business. My small department with twelve employees was a cost center rather than a profit center, so my job was all about achieving productivity goals at the lowest cost possible. Government regulations created the biggest costs and happy employees created the biggest productivity gains. Keeping employees happy is not about money but about respect and freedom and challenge. The problem with size is not that it is inherently bad but that it can dilute responsibility. Just a few political (rather than economic) business people at the top can create a corporate culture rife with political maneuvering and not enough focus on business goals. The more politics gain, the more business suffers. Kelly Services was once the leader of its industry, but not any more.
After a few more careers that got boring as soon as I accomplished my initial goals, I finally discovered a career that I loved and that never got boring — editing feature films — a different kind of storytelling than I had once imagined as a child. At about the same time, I got interested in the Libertarian Party. The man who recruited me insisted that the LP was not “politics as usual” but a real chance to restore freedom to America by reining in government power. I soon discovered how wrong he was when I attended the 2000 California state convention. It was just as disgusting as any other political game, in spite of the sincerity of most of the participants. I saw that it wasn’t the people involved that was the problem but the perverse incentives of politicians, just like the perverse incentives of bureaucrats, no matter how well-meaning.
However, I did get a lot out of my brief time in the LP, especially from a few speeches by libertarian anarchists, like Mary Ruwart. In particular, her books “Healing Our World” and “Short Answers to the Tough Questions” opened my mind to the idea that government wasn’t necessary at all. That started me on a reading program that emphasized writers like Frederick Bastiat, Lysander Spooner, Albert Jay Nock, Leonard E. Read, and Murray Rothbard. I found more than I would ever have time to read on websites like Lew Rockwell, Mises Institute, and Strike the Root.
It took me a few years of fairly intensive reading between films before I fully understood the beauty and simplicity of market anarchism/anarcho-capitalism. It seemed like I spent a lot of time defending the terms before I heard the word voluntaryism, which made it all so clear. What I had always believed on some level was that all interactions between people should be voluntary and peaceful. The vision of a society based on that idea was what I had always sought. I am now very happy to be one of the organizers of Libertopia, an annual festival that brings together people who share that vision of peace, prosperity, and a voluntary society.