By Larry Woods
I was born in 1945. My upbringing was in Missouri farm country, with Sunday for Jesus, and the next six days for revering Franklin Roosevelt. That reverence was not analytical. It was gut belief Roosevelt rescued America from depression and Axis attackers. It was not party based. Republican President Eisenhower was applauded for shutting down US combat in Korea.
The Korean armistice freed resources to reduce farm drudgery. It did not replace chores for farm children. Step one was discipline to work and learning not to be scared of hard work.
Step two was escape from those chores in my one-room school and its bookshelf. Reading was, and is, my passion. That school structure let me tune in upper grade classes, read their texts, and skip a grade.
It also left me ill-prepared socially for the county high school. My scholastic edge paled in comparison to “Townies” with more rigorous schooling. Being younger, smaller, and shy made me bully bait. I needed a tribe.
Thus, step three was joining the school’s chapter of Future Farmers of America (FFA). Staying on the farm was not a goal. Ironically, it became my ticket out. In spite of its creed and policies, bullying and clique jockeying happened in the chapter. It taught me the lesser of evils is sometimes our only option.
FFA had competitive contests with other schools. Some were farm-related, like soil analysis and animal judging. They also included public speaking and parliamentary procedure.
The Program Director saw my bookish interests and became a motivated Mentor. He nudged me to tackle my weaknesses and prep for college. Likely, no FFA Contestant has equaled my stammering, flushed, floor- focused public speaking failures. However, each failure yielded improvement.
Some contests were on the University of Missouri campus at Columbia. University life seemed better than farm labor, but it was also a Townie stronghold. When my FFA Mentor maneuvered a small scholarship, I enrolled. As advised, there was nothing denim in my bags to advertise I was a country Hick.
Three things stand on this fourth step toward voluntaryism. First, my Roosevelt gene propelled me to a Young Democrat club when I needed a campus tribe. I passed out Lyndon Johnson literature about his promise to avoid war. Soon, his Vietnam War taught me the value of a Politician’s promise.
A second insight came from watching my power-seeking Young Democrat associates. The Vietnam War spawned a protest group called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Young Democrat leaders saw their cause sagging. They painted pig ears on their Lyndon Johnson posters and enlisted in SDS . The group quickly devolved into quarreling factions, some violent. I was inoculated by a friend’s introduction to Ayn Rand’s work. The SDS cadre acted out the villains in Rand’s ATLAS SHRUGGED. My Roosevelt gene frayed.
Third was pre-Vietnam enrollment in the Army Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC). When I signed on, odds favored active duty in Europe or Hawaii after graduation. Thanks to my effort to elect President Johnson, the odds shifted to South Vietnam.
The first Vietnam War protester I met was my ROTC military history instructor. Major King had tropical diseases from undercover Vietnam operations and a graduate degree in history. His fury had credibility.
Our history manuals were tossed, and he flipped the class to guerrilla warfare. That history predicted failure for deploying conventional troops in a guerrilla war. Step four included learning that history is malleable, and school texts were not always correct.
Major King initiated extra training for this type of conflict. He found my eagerness for survival skills useful, and I found another Mentor. Resulting leadership roles required pretending I was not shy and scared. His help got me into an interesting army unit but there was a detour.
Step five was a US Department of Agriculture job between graduation and Army duty. First, my new Boss explained the Federal Employee pension system. “Why pensions instead of social security”? Answer: “Federal Employees knew Social Security was a chain letter scam. It would require perpetual monetary devaluation and escalating contributions. Roosevelt exempted Federal Employees to shut them up”. Another dead fly in Roosevelt’s picture frame.
Next was instruction to produce bogus time reports. Inflating work metrics to get more funding was a constant. Higher level Bureaucrats did no audits or corrections. They simply raised requirements to offset reporting exaggeration. The cycle spiraled into absurdity, but I was prepared well for step six.
Unit time reports were my first assignment in the US Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, GA. My experience with lying delighted my group Commander. As the war ground on, I saw truth avoidance permeated the military. It was a drain and stain on people mostly trying to do the right thing. Documented corruption and incompetence were often stamped “secret” and buried in a classified vault. I was a custodian of one.
As Major King predicted, US conventional troops in Viet Nam could not distinguish between civilians and the guerrillas who operated among them. Resulting distrust led to individual atrocities, shelling, and bombing that did not discriminate. Worse, unit reports were not about time, they were about dead bodies. Any dead body soon became an enemy as US Generals touted body count to cover their failures.
US troops dealt with pressure, plus casualties from women and children. Unlike their South Vietnamese allies, US units did not target civilians, or kill them for reprisal. Until My Lai.
Army Captain Ernest Medina was ordered to attack villages wrongly believed to be occupied by enemy troops. Assuming everyone present was an enemy supporter, he allegedly ordered his three platoons to “Kill anything that moves,” including men, women, children, and livestock. All three platoon leaders obeyed. When word leaked, Medina offered up us his least-liked platoon leader as the guilty party. Thus, Lt. William Calley and Medina were hauled to Ft. Benning for court martial.
Career Officers pressured Medina to deny the kill orders. He wavered. I watched local Army brass frantically raise money for a famous lawyer named F. Lee Bailey to defend Medina. When it succeeded, they pleaded with Medina not to let them down. Plus, Bailey would arrange a high-paying job for Medina at a company he controlled. It worked.
Lt. Calley became the face of US troop civilian atrocities. Base access was denied to Reporters who might challenge the Army Brass version. The complicit ones left out information that shed light on truth. Few stories appeared about the other two platoon leaders. “Reporters” accepted their plea-bargain story: Body count reports they filed the day of the massacre were just the usual lies.
I saw similar media sloth as a result of teaching nuclear weapons effects. I had access to a trove of related books and reports. To this day, I see media reports claiming nukes kill everyone. In reality, much of a population will survive, like it or not. Areas of worse case outcomes are a small fraction of a target country’s real estate. Shoddy media deserves the same mistrust as coercive organizations.
Step six rubbed my nose in the corrupting effect of bureaucracy, and added media to my “Do Not Trust” list. I also left Army duty with an unanswered question. Why weren’t US atomic bombs used on Japanese government and military leaders in Tokyo?
Within the year, I would hear the word “libertarian” for the first time, and got the bomb question answered. A large textile company, called Milliken, was recruiting when I left the army. Step seven was a broad jump, a glorious week of Freedom School with Robert LeFevre in Spartanburg SC in 1971, as part of Milliken’s management training program.
My group of trainees shared typical beliefs that coercive government was a necessity to deter crime, foreign aggression, poverty, and evil corporations. LeFevre methodically cataloged assumptions supporting those beliefs, and gathered data to puncture them. An example: School histories, academics, and media still claim governments stopped evil Capitalist Industrialists from exploiting children. In pre-internet days, LeFevre discovered that academic historians had dug through English records going back 150+ years to analyze the roots of those claims. In that more brutal era, children were mostly better off in industrial settings than outside. Rural governments routinely dumped cart loads of starving orphans at factory doors.
Likewise he tackled the belief that we need a strong government to protect us from conquest. He demonstrated how national governments subjugate those whom they are supposed to protect. For example, Hitler wanted to invade Switzerland early in WW II. Their banks protected Jewish assets smuggled from Germany. German supply lines would have to run through Switzerland to allied Italy. German Generals convinced Hitler that the Swiss central government was too weak to enforce an order to surrender. Thus, masses of German troops would be tied down defending supply lines from Swiss guerrillas. I had a flashback to Major Long’s argument against invading Vietnam.
France was an alternate link to Italy. Hitler’s Generals claimed the massive French government bureaucracy would work for the Germans if paid well. Their control would minimize need for occupying troops. The Generals got it right. After German troops invaded, French officials rounded up Jews, collected taxes, and subdued resistance to German paymasters.
Then came the answer to my Japanese bomb question. LeFevre cited General MacArthur’s plea to leave the Japanese central government intact. Its surrender would avoid horrendous combat losses. Otherwise, millions of Japanese would fight to the death defending their homeland. MacArthur also got it right. Japanese Bureaucrats were soon serving their American paymasters. Another flashback: With their own paychecks secure, American Bureaucrats happily collect Roosevelt’s Social Security “contributions” from their neighbors at gunpoint.
LeFevre gnawed hard wiring that kept my brain from seeing the obvious. REASON Magazine continued the process, and led to other resources.
Step eight was the Unitarian-Universalist church (UU). I learned of it when a report leaked about US government Viet Nam War deception. UU’s Beacon Press published these “Pentagon Papers” when other caved to federal government intimidation. I applauded.
My wife had attended a UU church as a child. Instead of dogma, UU’s looked for elements of religious and humanist works relevant to themselves. A new job and new location made Atlanta’s UU church my next tribe. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were often cited. Those influences eroded the appeal of religious authority for me.
During college, I quit reading Thoreau’s WALDEN POND on the page where he got his economics wrong. This second look caused me to respect Thoreau‘s protest of governments funding for the Mexican War and slavery. He politely declined paying war taxes, and did not resist imprisonment for the act. When friends bailed him out, he was grumpy. He hoped others would follow his example, overflow the jails, and bankrupt the war. If others did not, his conscience was clean. Now, I see it is possible voluntaryists of that era might have influenced him.
Another highlight was Ron Paul‘s visit to Atlanta in 1988. A UU freedom study group hosted lunch for him during his Libertarian Party presidential bid.
The next step began when I started my own packaging company. Business ownership opened my eyes to many horrors. It required thieving taxes from employee wages. Ticks and fleas swarm dogs; regulators swarm businesses to pad their lying time reports and extract revenue.
Step nine was learning to counter those distractions with trust based relationships. Good suppliers became loyal business partners. Customers were appreciated and appreciative. Employee drama was offset by the joy of seeing some grow and thrive.
Step ten was a journey into the belly of party politics. Our second child prompted a move to a larger house. We barely noticed it was inside a city border until the water system crashed. Monthly water bills jumped from $10 to $150+ in our subdivision. The canny Mayor stuck non-voting newcomers with repair expenses. After political ferment erupted, I was a cool stealth Libertarian with a City Council seat.
Our county government was run by Chicago Politicians escaping the mess they had created. These Politicos assumed Council Newcomers wanted to be a cog in their machine. They coached the arts of grant graft, laundering extorted “contributions,” and using “Activists” to smear opponents. They offered help for converting city policing to a protection racket, and sharing the juice with us.
Some of us turned our back to this spiel. I watched other “Reformists” buy in as their heads swelled with power of the office. Later, I was invited to a county libertarian party chapter. After sharing my council story, I asked how they would defy human vulnerability to power if elected. Another question unanswered, and another justification for voluntaryism.
Step Eleven was rough. A young mother in our new neighborhood had Crone’s disease. Her treatment for this intestinal inflammation was steroid drugs and recurring removal of damaged gut. Those surgeries came more quickly and recoveries more slowly. The debilitation took her life after a couple of miserable years.
Later, my wife had a violent reaction after a restaurant meal. We assumed food poisoning, but symptoms persisted. After being sucked into the medical doctor referral circuit, we got a diagnosis: Crone’s disease.
What is the cause? The Doctor’s answer was “ I wish I knew” and a shrug. How can we head this off? We got a recital of our late Neighbor’s protocol.
In that pre-internet era, I regressed to my one-room school reading obsession. Medical orthodoxy speculated Crone’s disease was an attack by your own immune system. What caused that attack? The trail went as cold as the Doctor’s shrug. Alternate medicine screeds smelled of quackery, but persuasively suggested immune systems react to diet and foreign substances.
Three things emerged: My high School FFA animal nutrition study exceeded nutritional training of most Doctors in medical school. Doctors were the same humans as Army Officers – often valiant, sometimes shabby, sometimes they had a swollen head. And, a turncoat MD was practicing nearby.
He was selling his practice but we begged an appointment. He gave no assurance, but a possibility. Nutritional and allergic trial and error might reveal causes of her immune attack that could be countered. The Doctor buying his practice might help with that.
And then, two sentences that have kept my wife kicking for 30+ years: “It might help to totally cut out sugar, wheat, and alcohol in the meantime. If you do not have the discipline for that, it is not worth trying the other stuff”. She had the discipline, and I went cold turkey to help her avoid temptation. There was finally a bit of improvement, and a long slog back to her good health. My health also improved. Shunning drinks and desserts has not enhanced our social life, but benefits to well-being are immense.
Making governments responsible for medical care lowers incentives for healthy lifestyle discipline. It changes Provider focus from patient well-being to testing, cutting and drugging for revenue quotas. Resulting health declines spur the Government Educated to croak for more of what is not working. Voluntaryist principles are the antidote to a corrupted medical monopoly.
In my eyes, our UU Church slowly disintegrated. Advocating government mandates replaced supporting personal growth and tolerance. Group identity became holy, individuality became selfish meanness. Now, most would burn their own church if it was desecrated by a Ron Paul visit. Some of us who left kept in touch, and shared alternatives we found.
One of those became step twelve – “Fellowship of Reason”(FOR). An Atlanta-area Attorney named Martin Cowen wrote a book with that name. He promoted study of philosophy that enabled ethics and human flourishing. That included Ayn Rand’s objectivism. Book discussions morphed into a standing organization.
I was getting past the financial strain of alternatives to government schools. FOR pushed me back to reading and wrestling with my serial weakness: public speaking. The explosion of internet resources had expanded and dispersed the knowledge LeFevre and his Fellows had rescued. The internet also spreads nonsense. Thus, the need to hone skepticism. The more I learned, the more these activities revived another unanswered question – What should I call myself?
In 2013, FOR research led me to an article by Carl Watner, and his quarterly, THE VOLUNTARYIST. Like LeFevre, he dug for the roots and let the data speak for itself. I subscribed to support his work.
At first, I brushed off the label voluntaryist as a cute name for the publication. I was slow to grasp the history, lore, and influence of voluntaryism. A few months ago I became aware of Carl’s work with, and biography of, Robert LeFevre. In the resulting email exchange, he invited me to share my path to becoming a voluntaryist. Long pause… Is that what I am?
After Freedom School, “libertarian” worked for a while. My frustrations with bureaucracy and Johnson’s war provoked angst to right the world. In those days, I might have joined a Libertarian Party to throw the Bastards out. As my understanding of history and human nature grew, I saw the futility of Bastards out, new Bastards in.
“Libertarian” fractured into hyphenated ambiguity. As the years passed, I tried on Free Thinker, Agorist, Classic Liberal, and Autonomist. All were subjective, some had negative baggage.
Maybe Ayn Rand’s Objectivism? I thought she was good enough to be in the top rank of philosophers. Objectivist friends I admired believed good enough is not good enough. Either hers is the final word, or you are out.
My FOR friends claim to be Eudaemonists. It could fit, but it is a Townie word I can’t spell.
Now, my focus is the endless challenge of improving my nature, and sharing tactics to accomplish that. If I do a good job, my example will snip a few threads of fear-based support for coercive institutions. Those institutions erode the integrity of everyone they touch. Henry David Thoreau, I forgive you for being an economic dolt. You got the rest right.
Carl’s articles about voluntaryist history and heritage encourage that focus. Finally, I learned it was voluntaryists who laid the foundation for maximizing human freedom. That is, understanding and practicing liberty requires each of us to be self-governing and self-responsible.
After Carl read the first draft of this article, he asked me if its title had any relationship to the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. I told him that there were actually way more than twelve steps on my way to voluntaryism. However, there is some parallel: for me, weaning yourself from fear-based government acquiescence is similar to withdrawing from a culture drugged by government handouts.