The Wisdom of Bob LeFevre


by Carl Watner

[Author’s Note: The following article was written in September 2012 as an Introduction to the e-book version of Robert LeFevre’s THE NATURE OF MAN AND HIS GOVERNMENT.]


At the outset, I must admit some personal bias. My intellectual acquaintance with Bob LeFevre goes back at least as far as January 1972, when I first ordered a copy of his book, THIS BREAD IS MINE. I first met Bob at the Long Beach, California, Future of Freedom Conference in October 1983. Thereafter, until his death, Bob was a key part of my life. He helped publish the first book of voluntayist essays to which I contributed. Titled NEITHER BULLETS NOR BALLOTS, it came out in December 1983. In October 1984, Bob approached me about writing his biography, which was eventually published in 1988 under the title ROBERT LEFEVRE -TRUTH IS NOT A HALFWAY PLACE. In March 1985, Bob and I both attended a week-long session of Freedom School given by Kevin Cullinane. Bob was present at my wedding in Campobello, South Carolina, on May 3, 1986. He died a few days later while driving home to California with his wife, Loy.

I knew Bob well during the last three years of his seventy-five-year life span. What kind of person was he? What were his intellectual roots? What was the nature of Bob LeFevre? What wisdom did he share with us in this book you are about to read?

Bob was always the gentlemen. Karl Hess remembered him for his “majestic civility,” always respectful of those who differed with him. As he put it in the “Foreword” to my LeFevre biography, “[I] was always mindful of Bob’s great patience, the truly caring nature of his advice, and finally, the clear rightness of his principles.” For one who only knew Bob in his later years, it was surprising for me to learn that he had such a checkered professional life. It ran the gamut from being a supporter of the “I Am” movement in the last half of the 1930s, a radio announcer, an army captain during World War II, a self-employed entrepreneur, a would-be politician, a newspaper editorial writer, and finally founder and primary instructor at Freedom School.

This book, THE NATURE OF MAN AND HIS GOVERNMENT, was a product of these last two phases of his life. The idea for the book originated with Jim Gipson of Caxton Press, who suggested to Bob that he prepare a step-by-step explanation of the doctrine of liberty as taught at Freedom School. All but Chapter 6, “National Defense,” were first written as editorials and appeared in the Colorado Springs, Colorado, GAZETTE-TELEGRAPH between January 5, and January 15, 1958. They were then collected and published as a small book in 1959, with an original Introduction contributed by Bob’s friend, Rose Wilder Lane.

The most significant influence on Bob during his formative years was his mother, Ethel. Better known as Bonnie, she came from Quaker stock, and had always taught him to question the rightness or wrongness of his conduct. She instilled in him the idea that “truth” – whatever it was and wherever it led him – was the most important thing in life. She also taught him not to be afraid of being different, to tell the truth, to work like hell, and to smile. She showed him how to search out the truth, and then to act on it according to the best dictates of his conscience.

Bob was active in Republican politics during the early 1950s, but he finally proved to himself that “politics was not the answer.” In November 1954, he began work as an editorial writer for Harry Hoiles, publisher of the GAZETTE-TELEGRAPH in Colorado Springs. It was here that he began to formulate a complete freedom philosophy. Harry’s father, R.C. Hoiles, was founder of the Freedom Newspapers, which were once described “as the greatest money-making device ever put together in support of human liberty and human dignity.”

Both Hoiles, father and son, wanted someone who could write consistently on the subject of human freedom. Until he resigned on January 15, 1965, Bob worked with both of them, hammering out the libertarian philosophy of the Freedom Newspapers. Nearly all of his editorial output centered around various aspects of human liberty and the free market. Bob had previously read Rose Wilder Lane’s DISCOVERY OF FREEDOM, and had met Leonard Read and Baldy Harper of the free-market-oriented Foundation for Economic Education. Baldy Harper, who had taught economics at Cornell University, was the first person Bob ever knew who questioned the basic assumption that human beings require a political government. However, it was the Hoiles’ insistence on building an integrated philosophy of freedom that made Bob realize “limited government” was an oxymoron and that it was redundant to speak of “unlimited government.”

Both Harry and R.C. had a significant impact on Bob’s thinking. They exposed him to the idea of abandoning reliance on limited government, and replacing it with competing defense agencies and other private service-providers to carry out the many functions of government. As they saw it, individuals needed food, shelter, clothing, protection, etc., but providing these necessities did not require a monopolistic government. In the late 1940s or early 1950s, Frank Chodorov pointed out to R.C., “[T]here was no such thing as voluntary taxation.” R. C., who had been a proponent of voluntary funding of government, then concluded that he was “against all taxes.” What he came to favor was free-enterprise associations or voluntary defense companies that would sell protection of life and property, much like an insurance company. As Bob asked, is there a way to “devise a tool for our protection which will be paid for only by those who want it, and in whatever amounts the payers deem best?”

Bob’s editorial writing, as well as his teaching at Freedom School, propelled him towards the conclusion that there was nothing that government could do that the private sector could not do more efficiently. Free enterprise, which rested on the consent of the customer, was certainly more moral than government-provided services. As he wrote in an April 7, 1961 editorial: “We are convinced that when it comes to things people want, the market place can do the job less expensively and better than government can do it. And this includes the job of protecting life and property, providing roads, schools, hospitals, cemeteries, airfields, and scores of other things which governments presently provide.” Some called Bob an anarchist for rejecting government, but he disagreed. He preferred the labels “voluntaryist” or “autarchist” to differentiate himself from those anarchists who rejected private property.

It was in this milieu and under the influence of the Hoiles that Bob wrote these editorials on the nature of man and his government. Essentially Bob saw government as a tool created by men to help protect themselves from invasion and aggression by others. However, this tool which had been intended “as a safeguard for human freedom and dignity” was ill-designed from the start because it depended on the use of violence. Shouldn’t peaceful individuals be left alone to protect themselves as they saw fit? Wasn’t government acting in an aggressive manner when it forced people to patronize its services? As Bob observed, government “is an instrument of force and coercion.” Even if it were to be voluntarily funded, as R.C. had once advocated, its violent and compulsory nature still remained. Those who preferred to have another protection agency serve them were prevented from doing so, and those who preferred no protection, or to provide their own, were not allowed to withdraw their patronage.

The essence of Bob’s philosophy was taken from Rose Wilder Lane’s dictum: “freedom is self-control.” Harking back to the attraction of the “I Am” movement, Bob understood that human energy can only be controlled by the individual. This means that each of us has the decision-making power over his own life. We decide whether we vote or not, whether we respect other people’s property or steal, whether we lie or tell the truth, whether we forgive or seek forceful restitution, whether we deal with our fellow man violently or peacefully.

Bob shared a common viewpoint with the Stoics of ancient Athens and Rome. Like them, he viewed human freedom as the absolute dominion of the individual over his own will. This meant that man, by his very nature, was free, and that there was only one long- term way of improving society. If individual men would conduct themselves morally, then society, a mere gathering of men, would be virtuous. In short, Bob saw that if one took care of the means, the end would take care of itself. Bob’s idea behind teaching the fundamentals of liberty was not to change anybody. He had neither the authority nor the ability to do so. His aim was to inspire each person to achieve freedom in the right way; the rest was up to the individual.

Bob was a truth-seeker, a man of wisdom. Part of his greatness was his ability to stand alone intellectually, another was his consistency. He insisted on thinking ideas through to their conclusions. If there was a choice between being popular and holding to the truth, he always chose the truth. He knew that truth is not a half-way place. Cyrano de Bergeac’s maxim, “Be admirable in all things,” could have been Bob’s own personal motto. Bob thought that we shouldn’t spend much time on destroying evil ideas, but rather devote ourselves to nourishing good ideas and putting them into practice. His task was to understand, to comprehend, and to make allowances for the failures of others. Only to himself did he insist on total self-control and complete self-discipline. Bob was a man who admirably achieved those goals in his own life, and it is that spirit of reasonableness, honesty, and truth-seeking that shall always epitomize Bob for me.

As you read this book, keep Bob’s perspective in mind. As he put it, “wisdom is possible only when the individual has learned to control himself.” Whether you have long been exposed to libertarian thinking or are newly introduced to voluntaryism, this will help you understand Bob’s quest for consistency and his conclusion that political government is inherently an invasive institution.

Short Bibliography
Carl Watner, “A Freedom Philosopher: Robert LeFevre, 1911-1986,” THE VOLUNTARYIST, No. 20, July 1986, pp. 1-2.

Carl Watner, ROBERT LEFEVRE: TRUTH IS NOT A HALF-WAY PLACE, Gramling: The Voluntaryists, 1988.

Carl Watner, “To Thine Own Self Be True: The Story of Raymond Cyrus Hoiles and His Freedom Newspapers,” in Carl Watner (editor), I MUST SPEAK OUT, San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1999, pp. 147-158. (First appeared in THE VOLUNTARYIST, No. 18, May 1986.)