A Natural Born Skeptic
I was born in 1942. I don't know where my skepticism came from, but it must have been in my genes. Ultimately my adoption of voluntaryism in the early 1980s was the result of that natural born skepticism. It was also prompted by a debate with Sam Konkin, who along with Wendy McElroy, helped convince me of the futility of electoral politics, and the contradiction inherent in libertarian attempts to 'get elected.'
My father was an aircraft mechanic, retiring after 30 years of working for the government. My mother was a cocktail waitress when she was younger, and then worked in real estate, later in life. My father and grandfather were communists and I was brought up on their beliefs. I read the "Communist Manifesto" at 13 and began to ask questions. I was not convinced by the answers. It was another 10 years before I completely understood my father's mentality. It was simply this: Most people are stupid or ignorant and need to be forced to live the "correct way" by their superiors (rulers). If they don't voluntarily go along with the imposed system, then they need to be sacrificed for the good of all.
Around age four or five I was left alone all day. I arose, dressed myself, fed myself, and amused myself. I had promised my mother not to leave the house. But I was bored. I went out each day, venturing farther and farther. I had learned that empty soda bottles had cash value. I observed the roadside littered with bottles. This gave me an idea. I asked for a wagon. Each day I would go out to the main highway and pick up bottles that could be redeemed. When my wagon was full or I was tired, I took them to the drive-in dairy. There I could get coins to buy ice cream, soda and comic books. I returned home before my parents. This went on until a relative saw me and ratted me out. My wagon was confiscated. I was out of business but not work. My father started giving me jobs to do around the house. It kept me busy but not entertained. I preferred self-employment. I did learn how to focus on the job at hand, how to use tools, and formed a strong work ethic.
I remember hearing the myth of Santa Claus at five years old and doubting it. I wanted proof so I planned to stay up and see Santa for myself. I fell asleep. The next year I tried harder. It worked. I saw my parents putting the presents under the tree and was satisfied. At eight I heard the myth of god and questioned it. I went to my father and asked him to define “god.” I asked what his belief was. He refused to tell me. He was concerned that if I knew what he or my mother thought, it might influence my decision. He told me the decision to believe or not was so personal that it had to be made by me alone without their influence. I was upset. I wanted him to help me decide. I felt alone and frightened. I was sent to Sunday school to resolve my investigation. I heard only one side but it was enough. I rejected the myth of Genesis. I was expelled from class for calling this Bible story an obvious unbelievable, but quite entertaining, fantasy. (The girl next to me was so upset at my opinion that she began to sob.) I was to observe throughout life that the theists, unlike atheists, are uncomfortable when disagreed with. So much so, that they can become quite emotional, even irrational by refusing to acknowledge that disbelief exists or should be tolerated. I continued to think about the implications of a god who controlled my destiny and to whom I owed subservience under penalty of eternal damnation.
Finally, in a moment of highly emotional self-assertion, I rejected the concept of god as repugnant to my sovereignty. This was not an easy decision, considering the carrot of immortality that was held out to make people believe. However, I realized, even if it was only a gut feeling at the time, the importance of independent thinking. Standing up to popular myths is never easy. During the following years, I heard hundreds of times the question: “What will other people think or say about your ideas?” But actually this question displayed the speaker's concern with conformity and social acceptance, rather than with the truth of my position. My answer, of course, was: “I don't care.” It was always more important to me to be right in my evaluation of reality than to care about what other people believed. Anyway it's not what people believe that is important, but rather what I know to be the truth. My ability to think independently of the crowd gave me respect for my own judgment, and this has always helped me recognize falsehood, especially when it was based on appeals to authority. The only authority I recognize is the sovereignty of my own mind.
I was sent to the principal's office many times in school for being outspoken. The first time was in third grade when I asked why we had to say the "pledge" every morning. My teacher explained it was to celebrate the fact we lived in the only free country in the world. That sounded acceptable to me. I had felt uncomfortable with the regimented chanting. What disturbed me most was that I was being asked to commit to a vague concept such as "my flag, and the country for which it stands." No explanation had been given for what that meant. That worried me. I did not know what a "moral blank check" or indoctrination was. I was too young to consider those sophisticated concepts. But her explanation seemed reasonable and I went along for a while.
One day we were informed that the pledge had been amended, pursuant to a presidential order. Now I became really upset. I was being asked to swear an oath, acknowledging a god. I was an atheist. I complained. I asked: "Do we really live in a free country?" My teacher replied: "Yes.” I was relieved and concluded: "Then I am free to NOT make the pledge?" She said: "No." I was confused. I got stubborn. I would not conform. I refused to stand and repeat those words. I was sent to the principal's office. Then I was sent home with a note asking my parents to come in for a conference before I could return and "disrupt" the class. It was agreed I could return if I would stand with the class, but I did not have to recite the oath. I did not like it. It seemed they wanted me to pretend I was going along. But my parents had agreed and assured me I was not bound by the oath. So I stood and watched the others and wondered why I was so different. I continued to argue with teachers, especially in college. I found them to be deceptive, contradictory, and evasive. I wondered why. Now I know. Most indoctrinate, not teach. I greatly admired a few exceptions.
At twelve I was surrounded by violence growing up in a ghetto in Sacramento, CA. I wondered about the obvious contradictions in behavior of gang members. I saw a respect among members for each other but it did not extend outside their group. I saw no reason for this division. An artificial division had been accepted without question and resulted in conflict. I noticed this in other groups. Religious groups, police, ethnic groups, and various other groups existed which devalued and disrespected each other. I noticed this on a global scale. Countries treated each other as inferior, so much so that they engaged in ritual mass murder/suicide. I could not understand the standard justifications. When I questioned further, I got no satisfaction. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the root cause of all the violence was the belief that it is moral for some people to dominate others by force and that this somehow benefits everyone, even if the evidence is lacking or even contradictory. I identified this belief as the main source of domestic and foreign conflict. I did not have a name for my conclusion. I learned later that it was called individualist anarchy or voluntaryism. I only know it was a very unpopular belief, as was my atheism.
At the same age I went to work at a junkyard for 50 cents an hour. It was hot, dirty and hard labor. I was glad to get it. I remember my first paycheck. It did not contain all I earned. It had deductions for income tax withholding and social security tax. I asked my father to explain. His explanation for the income tax was accepted because I did not know it was compulsory. Then came social security. He said it was for my retirement. I objected and said I opted out. He said I could not. I quit. I would not work under those conditions. I repaired our push mower and started mowing lawns. I made more money for less work and paid no taxes and I was my own boss. I had discovered the value of Capitalism.
At fourteen I became interested in politics. I was curious about the two main economic systems, Capitalism and Communism. I went to the library and checked out “The Communist Manifesto”. When my father noticed what I was reading, he confessed to being a Communist. He told me I must keep it secret. He had gotten his politics from his father. Both of them had lived in fear that they would be punished for their beliefs. He brought out hidden books by Marx and Engels. I read them. Once again I was getting only one side of the story. I rejected it because it seemed anti-individual. My father argued I was wrong because the system I should choose was determined by my economic/social status. He said I could only be a Capitalist if I was born into a rich family. I found this hard to believe, but could not refute him, yet.
At first, I was unable to defend my positions well, but as the years passed and my studies continued, the more I learned, the more certain I became that I had theory and history on my side. I learned that what our cultures (worldwide) teach us is often false and life- threatening. The truth is buried and must be carefully uncovered and integrated with our past knowledge. In eighth grade I noticed many contradictions in my teacher's social studies lessons. I continually pointed them out. He would become enraged and I was sent to the principal. I also had this problem in high school and college. I was never punished overtly, but my grades suffered as a result of my truth-seeking.
After high school I was forced into college by fear of the draft. I was staying up late playing poker to support myself and slept in class. I was bored and hungry for a comprehensive view of life. I had only loved math and the general questions discussed in English literature. (I later discovered these questions were the philosophical ones.) After two years I was thrown out of college for low grades. I was sent a draft notice. I had already decided I would NOT be a professional killer. If that meant jail, so be it. I was hanging out with the only person I knew who was smarter than me. I asked him if he knew a way out of the Army. He told me he was joining the Navy. We both took the placement tests, and he and I had the two highest scores the Navy had ever recorded. They wanted me to become an officer but that was a five year program instead of the two I had considered. I declined their offer. I joined the Naval Reserve with the promise of a non-combatant position in intelligence.
Shortly before going on active duty in the Reserves, I asked my friend - who seemed to know everything - if there existed one exceptionally brilliant intellectual I could study. He said he knew of only one but he could not recommend her because she was “totally insane”. Her name was Ayn Rand. I forgot about her until some months later on January 1, 1966. I was in the San Francisco airport headed for my Naval training base in Pensacola, FL. I was extremely depressed. I was to be in captivity (in the Navy) for 19 months. I wanted out. I walked up to the bookrack and spun it. I scanned. A strange cover and stranger title caught my eye: “THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS.” I read the first page. I was hooked. I was also saved. I discovered my lifetime passion - philosophy - and one of the greatest minds of all time - Ayn Rand.
She taught me that the meaning of life could only be found if one recognized the concept of death. Only after death is acknowledged as real, can life be fully appreciated. Only after our life is taken as the First Value can we begin to put everything else in perspective. I found three of Rand's works to be essential: THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS; FOR THE NEW INTELLECTUAL; and INTRODUCTION TO OBJECTIVIST EPISTEMOLOGY.
After my honorable discharge in 1968, I re-enrolled in college as a philosophy major and four years later I graduated with all A's. I then went back to work at what had been my summer job, poker dealer. I continued to read books on economics, philosophy, psychology, politics and sociology along with fiction. I especially enjoyed Hermann Hesse (FALDUM) and Victor Hugo (NINETY-THREE).
It was about this time that I began to read anti-tax literature. I heard that the 10% tax on long distance calls could be stopped by request. It only amounted to about a dollar a month but I was not going to do nothing and accept taxation. I contacted AT&T and received instructions. I followed them. It was more trouble than the money I saved, but it was not about the money. The first time I realized I had freed myself from the tax, I felt an exhilaration that surprised me. I felt like I was floating on air. I resolved to free myself from as much taxation as I could. I began to buy merchandise only from stores who would not charge the sales tax. I argued that since I lived in Nevada and had a Nevada license, I was exempt from California sales tax. The law stated that merchandise shipped out of state was not to be taxed. I told the storeowner, “You are shipping this out of state. I am the carrier.” It meant I had to drive a few miles out of my way sometimes but it was worth it just to feel the exhilaration. Even though I did not believe in credit cards, I got one so I could deduct my gas tax when paying. I explained to the company that they were acting as unpaid tax collectors and I would deal with the governments, states and federal, directly. One oil company complained that since I was the only one account out of 80,000 that was requesting this, it cost more money for them to make an exception. I replied, “Yes, maybe at first, but I might be starting a trend.” Also, I noted that once a protocol is established, it would be no trouble to add additional accounts. Of course this was before I realized I was dealing with an extension of government, e.g., that some big businesses were partners with government. Next, I went to my payroll office and put in a request for no withholding. I did not know I could revoke my permission to take out social security or I would have done that also. I stopped filing returns.
About this same time I attended a Tax Resistance Convention in San Diego. I went to hear Karl J. Bray. I had read his work and spoken with him on the phone. He had a radio talk show in Ogden and was very outspoken against taxation and government. I was surprised to see about a thousand people there. (This was early 1970s.) Most were conservative, elderly, establishment types who had obeyed the law all their life and now were mistreated by the IRS. Most of the speakers were the same. A few were libertarians. At the first talk I attended, I was sitting in the front row, center. Before the talk a flag was brought out. We were asked to stand for the pledge. I sat. Then we were asked to join in prayer. I declined. After that I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see many faces contorted in anger. One man hissed, “What are you? A Communist?” Before I could react, another tap came from in front. A man said, “You should come with me.” I followed. We went to the back, away from the rest and sat. He said, “I think you will be more comfortable here.” Then he extended his hand and said, “Hi, I'm Karl Bray.”
That began a lifelong friendship. Now I was not alone. I was emboldened. I wanted to confront the IRS. I wanted my day in court. I knew I couldn't lose because I had the Constitution on my side and some case law. Then it began. Tax protesters began losing their cases in court, one after another. I read and re-read the cases looking for what they had done wrong. I was confused. No argument worked. Every appeal was thrown out.
Then came Karl's case. He had been fired from his show because his boss (the license owner) had a visit from three agents, IRS, FBI, FCC. They made it clear he had to go, or else. Karl had been holding weekly meetings with tax resistance people in a rented store space. He was responsible for cleaning up afterward. He found a lot of papers scattered in back. He picked them up, locked up, and went to the trashcan on the street to deposit them. He was accosted by a SWAT team, arrested, cuffed, put in leg irons, and made to walk a block to the paddy wagon. He was charged with possessing a government insignia illegally. The insignia was stamped on the papers he had picked up. It was the same insignia the IRS puts on all the correspondence it sends out to the public. No one else before or since has been arrested for this. Karl was tried by a federal judge, who had earlier told him in open court that, “If I ever see you in my court again, I'll get you.” The judge would not recuse himself. Karl was denied a jury trial. He was denied a defense. He got the maximum sentence of time and fine.
I got the message. How could I have been so naïve? I changed my mind about fighting the government and the IRS head-on. I went underground. I gave up my beautiful house and job. I changed my name. I had been receiving increasingly threatening letters from the IRS. I had been told by a friend that IRS agents had been looking for me. I had plenty of money, so I planned to take a long vacation and then play poker. I was visiting my parents when a letter from the IRS came for me. I got an idea. I had a stamp made like the one I had seen in the local post office. It read: “Return to Sender” and contained boxes to be checked. The box at the bottom had a blank line. I had another stamp made which read: “Deceased.” I applied both stamps to that envelope and put it back in the mail box. I left town and headed north. On my way back through town, I stayed with my parents again. They worked all day, and I was at their home alone. The door bell rang. It was the mail carrier. He presented the letter I had sent back, and said: “I have to verify this.” I studied it and shook my head up and down. “Yes, he's dead,” I said. And that was that. The letters stopped and the IRS's search for me ceased. This was in late 1974 or 1975, and I am grateful that I have never heard from the IRS since then.
My only other brush with the law occurred in April 1980, when I ran into a problem with the US Customs Service while attempting to board a plane for Bogota, Columbia, South America. Apparently my profile fit that of a drug dealer or courier. I had used cash to purchase my ticket. I was single; I was a male, I was the right age; and I was headed for a country where drugs were plentiful. Three agents pulled me aside for questioning, and when they asked how much cash I had on my person, I told them $ 5,000. When they finally searched me, they found $ 21,000. I had lied to them, and was charged with committing a federal felony (lying to federal officials). The money was confiscated. At trial I was convicted, sentenced to three years probation, and given a $ 2,000 fine. After paying my legal fees and appealing the conviction all the way to the Supreme Court (which refused to hear the case), I was bankrupted and had to start my life all over again. This was a costly lesson in how to deal with the government. I should have asked if the agents had an arrest and search warrant, refused to answer their questions, and simply boarded the plane, which was about to depart. Instead, I spent $ 30,000 trying to fight “city hall,” and ended up losing anyhow.
I have tried always to live my life as honestly as possible (other than when dealing with the government). It was H. L. Mencken who wrote that “The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out ... without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, and intolerable.” As a natural born skeptic, I couldn't agree more.