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Libertarianism for Your Teen

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"Please, sir, what is your biodata?"

The question came in a lilting Bombay accent belonging to my friend's mother, Mrs. Paul. "Biodata" is a term Indians use to mean background or biography, and the nerdy chirp Mrs. Paul gave to it never failed to incite giggles among our friends. I grew up in a predominantly white area, and ethnic difference was a source of puerile humor for us, including the first-generation Indian Americans who loved to mock their parents.

Mrs. Paul posed this query to a boyish, navy-blazered man named Kevin, who had come to my suburban Houston high school to promote "the 10 pillars of economic wisdom," a framework for understanding the fundamentals of free markets. Parents had been invited to an information session one evening at school, where they were told that interested students could enter an extracurricular program of study in Austrian economics, sponsored by the locally based Free Enterprise Education Center. We would subsequently have the opportunity to win college scholarships of a few thousand dollars in speech competitions exalting the 10 pillars.

Such bookish pursuits were not exactly kosher at our school, where football was king, Bs were cooler than As, and kids in the marching band were known as "band fags." (The drum major, whom many viciously whispered was "definitely gay" -- and probably was -- dispatched himself with a bullet in the woods my sophomore year.) Social conservatism was prevalent, with moderate protestants like my parents outnumbered by large and fervid Catholic and Southern Baptist contingents. (I didn't meet a Jewish person until I went to college.)

But while few of the grownups would have labeled themselves libertarian, the area's relative affluence was not at all at odds with free-market principles. Oil revenues ensured that the high school parking lot had plenty of BMWs, and expensive clothes were necessary for social success. (This was the mid-1990s in Texas, of course, so expensive did not necessarily translate to tasteful.)

At the parents' information session, Mrs. Paul was interested in what led Kevin to do these road shows for liberty. What about a person's life might make him such an evangelist? It has been 20 years, and I don't recall his answer, but I think about that night a lot as I reflect on my own political identity, much of which dates from that meeting back in Houston.

At age 15, I had a lot of opinions, but no real political convictions. My father, employed by a major oil company, was not vocal about social issues but seemed to subscribe to Reagan Republicanism in general. My mother was more open-minded; she perpetrated the heresy of voting for Ross Perot, and maintained a firm belief in civic responsibility. She had been a social worker before becoming a homemaker and took a compassionate view of "the less fortunate," and often worked on their behalf as a volunteer. Both parents had been born Southern Baptists in Virginia but had left the denomination and were married in an Episcopal church. There was a subtext of "traditional values," though. I remember that in lieu of a birds-and-bees talk, my parents gave me a book by James Dobson. It was only years later that I learned who he was, and felt fortunate that I never actually read it.

So I was a blank slate, but with Republican DNA. I was ripe for the picking, if the picker was a libertarian. My mother likely saw my induction into "10 pillars" as a signal of civic interest, and my father probably didn't take note of much beyond the potential for college money. I had already set my sights on expensive northeastern universities, and if I, for whatever incomprehensible reason, sought an education by Yankees, with Yankees, at sky-high Yankee prices, any contribution I could make would be appreciated.

A few friends and I began libertarian catechism with a woman named Paige, from the Free Enterprise Education Center (known thereafter to us by its unfortunate acronym, FEEC). Paige was a kindly woman in her mid-40s, given to tossing back her short, brunette curls and emitting arpeggios of laughter when amused.

What amused her most was freedom. She would become giddy talking about it. She and Kevin were both emissaries of Roland, an elderly man who had been preaching the tenets of economic liberty from the FEEC pulpit for many years. He, too, was sweet in affect. I still remember him conducting himself in a little ditty that went, "I come from the college of free-market knowledge, and that's just great!"

We dutifully memorized the pillars by rote and made our speeches at city-wide contests, regurgitating mantras like "government is never a source of goods" and "the greatest good for the greatest number means, in its material sense, the greatest goods for the greatest number, which, in turn, means the greatest productivity per worker." We each won some money, and so it began.

The summer between my junior and senior years, two friends and I worked at FEEC as "liberty scholars." We had been selected, along with a boy named Jason from another school, to learn more about classical liberalism (not to be confused with plain-old liberalism, we were cautioned). We were promised a stipend and free books -- both incredibly alluring to a sedentary brat who preferred to be paid to read rather than earn an honest summer wage bagging groceries or lifeguarding under the broiling Texas sun. (I later was made to mow our lawn, however, after the illegal immigrant my father had originally hired was deported to Mexico.)

Every morning Justin, Natasha, and I piled into her car (Natasha was wise Mrs. Paul's daughter), and made the hour-long journey from our outlying suburb to a small office building beside one of Houston's innumerable elevated freeways. There, we worked our way through modules on the gold standard and the fallacy of minimum wage, and read foundational texts of libertarianism like Frederic Bastiat's The Law, Ludwig von Mises' Human Action, and Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. (I tried and failed to get through Murray Rothbard's endless Man, Economy and State, while the salacious writings of Ayn Rand were more for weekend recreational reading.) Charles Murray and Thomas Szasz were often cited, and I remember seeing Ron Paul's now-infamous newsletter, kept faithfully in three-ring binders in FEEC's library. I don't recall reading the anti-gay and racist content that has caused Paul problems more recently, though I'm not sure I would have recognized them as heinous at that embryonic stage.

Supervision was scant, and we would prattle on until we dissolved into laughter at god knows what puerile jokes and stories. I remember Jason being much more studious than we were, and he never really gelled with the three cliquish teenagers from the other side of the city. (Jason went on to be a full-time anti-statist, lecturing at universities and playing a seminal role in the Free Stater movement, which would have New Hampshire become a literal colony of libertarians.)

We would end the workday smoking cigarettes on the commute home, tittering at things Paige had done. (We secretly pronounced her name "pah-yee-gay," in precocious approximation of Latin, just to be cruel and stupid.) I don't recall talking too much about the substance of our "scholarship" that summer. We were more excited to have what we considered white-collar jobs at the age of 16.

Toward the summer's end Natasha and I were tapped to help put on a liberty conference at Lake Conroe -- a place far enough away in East Texas' Piney Woods that we would have to stay overnight in a hotel. Our egos were stroked, and when not gofering for speakers at the conference, we would exchange notes featuring crude cartoons of the lecturers, or sneak off for an illicit smoke.

The following school year saw a change in our relationship to FEEC. Having apparently mastered the basics of economic freedom, we were invited to become constitutional scholars. Each week on Sunday evenings, Natasha and a few other kids we had recruited would assemble in my parents' dining room and receive instruction from Paige in constitutional constructivism. Like the 10 pillars before it, we memorized the Constitution by heart, and dissected each plank of the Bill of Rights. After working our way through the Constitutional Convention at a painfully slow pace, Paige spiced things up, dispelling our illusions about gun control, and hinting that drugs like marijuana should be legalized. (I have since wondered if behind her demure facade, complete with husband and college-aged daughter, Paige was perhaps a massive stoner.)

It was a relatively thrilling departure from the milquetoast civics and economics lessons we were getting at school. And with scholarship money attached, no parent seemed to mind that it was, clearly, an indoctrination of some kind. I don't remember bringing up my newfound love of liberty in school or with people outside the FEEC circle. It felt more like special knowledge, just for us, although the intention was that we would eventually spread the libertarian seed far and wide.

At that point I didn't have a sense of a national libertarian network, but I soon developed one. As a sophomore in college, Paige contacted me and suggested I apply for the Charles G. Koch Fellowship, granted by the Institute of Humane Studies at George Mason University. Like most people at that time, I had not heard of Koch, but when I learned that the fellowship offered a stipend, housing, and placement at a D.C. think tank, I immediately applied. Once again, the potential of a "cerebral" summer job in a professional environment held great allure, and living with other college kids largely unsupervised sounded like fun.

During the spring semester, as I waited to hear about my application to the Koch program, Paige invited me to New York. There was a glittering event taking place at the Waldorf-Astoria, and Margaret Thatcher was to be honored, in person. Suddenly I realized that classical liberalism had a strong base of adherents throughout the country, including in New York City.

I saw Margaret Thatcher! A super-famous person, and at the Waldorf, no less. At one point that evening, among the buzzing tables of men in black tie and women in gowns, I met a man maybe 10 years older than me. He had a connection to the Institute for Humane Studies and wanted to talk more about my interest in the Koch fellowship. I had to catch the last train back to Philadelphia, but I really wanted the fellowship, and I agreed to a chat. He proposed the Bull and the Bear. I had never been to the Waldorf's bar, or to many bars at all at that point, so I eagerly followed him there. Over drinks -- a Coke for me, something stronger for him -- we talked about the benefits of the fellowship and why I was interested. I remember saying something that made him laugh and clasp his hands at his chest. When he released them, one landed halfway up my thigh, and lingered there. I told him I had a train to catch and thanked him for the Coke and the chat. I never saw him again, even in D.C. once I embarked on the fellowship. We were a couple dozen undergraduates, installed in an apartment complex in Fairfax.

There I shared a bedroom with a precociously smart guy a few years my senior -- and he had really drunk the Kool-Aid. We had two other apartmentmates and a couple dozen peers in the program overall. At orientation sessions, IHS staff explained that we had been selected because of our dedication to the precepts of liberty, and that much was expected of us in return for the investment in our edification.

Everyone seemed to be on the same page, and I was glad to learn that other people my age had similar inclinations. It was somewhat like one of those X-Men plots where all the young mutants meet one another and learn that they are not alone in their freakishness. There were variations among us, of course: some were hemp-wearing anarchocapitalist philosophers, while others seemed like they had been freshly excommunicated from the Young Republicans. There was a feeling that we were a distinctly rare third species in Washington, where there was no nuance among the elephants and the donkeys. It was a heady time of barbecues and late-night rap sessions about the flat tax.

I had been assigned as an intern to the National Center for Policy Analysis, which in my imagination was a pillared hilltop sanctum clad in marble, but which turned out to be a small office suite jammed into a featureless building on Connecticut Avenue.

NCPA's primary claims to fame at that time were having Pete du Pont on the board and the work its policy specialists had done on medical savings accounts and assaulting Hillarycare. I signed on to these ideas somewhat passively, and was very much second fiddle to Carrie, the other Koch fellow assigned to NCPA. She left a more earnest impression on our supervisors, and probably did more work. But with the door to our shared office closed, we had a ball. I recall one week when we were told to call everyone who had received invitations to some sort of forum and convince them to attend. Each time one of us started the corny, scripted call dialogue, we would burst out laughing and hang-up mid-conversation. It seemed that our fellow fellows were doing more important things at their respective jobs at places like the Cato Institute and the Institute for Justice.

Carrie was slightly more than my officemate. We spent a lot of time together outside work, going for runs and, once, to a party at Grover Norquist's place. One night in Georgetown we got so drunk we couldn't find my car, which of course was a blessing in disguise. We even spent a weekend at her friend's beach house in North Carolina, waking up one morning on the sand, having filched two bottles of wine from our hosts the night before and drunk from them until we passed out. We called each other Bruce and Cybil, a dorky in-joke inspired by the show Moonlighting. It felt like a romance, and while I made feeble attempts at making it one, I knew at some subconscious level that something was amiss. But the problem wasn't with Carrie, a bubbly, beautiful Kansan, then at Harvard, and full of feminine charm and an enthusiastic optimism the likes of which I had never encountered.

On paper, libertarianism is completely compatible with being gay. Live and let live, until someone tramples on your inalienable rights to life, liberty, or property. And indeed, if someone had surveyed my peers that summer, many of them might have endorsed equal rights for gay people. But it was still somehow a taboo subject. One of the challenges of libertarianism at that time, and to a certain extent still today, is that it has made common cause with broader conservatism. (Self-described "big-L" Libertarians would disagree, but they are only a subset of "little-L" libertarians.) Many of those with libertarian inclinations felt forced, for purposes of political pragmatism, to associate themselves with Republicanism, even when on several issues there is no overlap whatsoever between the ideologies. So in an environment where some of my fellow fellows were working for the Heritage Foundation, it just didn't seem safe to admit one's homosexuality to others... or even to oneself.

I have no doubt that there were other gay people in the program that summer, and perhaps they felt as I did: even if no one here is championing gay causes, at least their principles aren't anti-gay, I thought. Those principles allowed for my existence and, moreover, my rights. That was an improvement over what I had thought was possible growing up in Texas -- and in an era when a Democratic president signed off on policies like Don't Ask, Don't Tell and DOMA.

Of course, many gay people are Democrats. Isn't that better than the alternative? Part of the problem was that I knew of no major Democratic politician who had expressed unbridled support for gay people, whereas libertarianism as I knew it was very clear, if not vocal, on the subject. It seemed to be strong, but just below the consciousness of many libertarians -- just as it was for me. And a cynical teenager though I was, something about the belief that humans ought to live unfettered and in complete control of their days appealed to me on a fundamental and profound level. Even if what you were doing was considered odd or even perverse, no one could keep you from doing it unless you hurt others. That was powerful.

To this day, I have a tremendous sympathy for the libertarian cause, impractical as it often is politically. I have worked in heaving public sector bureaucracies, and remember well the training I had that classed them as ineffective. They largely are. And I have been known to become tearily patriotic, usually after a few drinks, and I will fiercely defend foundational American principles. The American enterprise is to me one of the noblest human creations, even if it isn't often executed in ways of which I approve.

I had a boyfriend recently who, despite having grown up in small-town New England and being wickedly intelligent, had neither a driver's license nor a passport. It boggled my mind. How could a person of relative intellectual means choose not to maximize his freedom? Why on Earth would you not acquire every document and skill needed to push away the borders of human experience? It's not natural, if I may quote those opposed to me enjoying my rights.

In hindsight, I view my indoctrination with the libertarians with amused gratitude. I see that it spoke to both dark secrets I harbored and to the more evident materialism I practiced as a bored suburban teenager. Here was a worldview that said it was OK to seek riches and to love other men. I've fortunately lost my hunger for scads of money, while the other of course remains.

I wasn't cut out for further advancement as a freedom fighter, as my friends and I had sarcastically called ourselves at FEEC. I was too resistant to anything organized, and had other demons to exorcise. But my sensibilities didn't change very much. Some years out of school, The Wall Street Journal published a letter I wrote defending the Kochs' efforts to cultivate young classical liberals. I hadn't had much to do with the libertarians for several years, but I joked that I was part of a libertarian sleeper cell.

My current state of reflection has been occasioned by the entry of concepts related to libertarianism into the mainstream consciousness. The Tea Party has brought Austrian economics to much wider notice, and Ron Paul's colorful if ill-fated bid for the presidency has prompted anew questions about what libertarianism is and how it relates to more popular American political thought. I don't identify with Tea Partiers, for reasons including the high incidence of social conservatism among them, though I do appreciate some of their messages.

I was surprised to learn of the Koch brothers' connection to the Tea Party. It just wasn't their style, I thought. As I had experienced it, the Koch agenda was to groom influencers who would ascend to academic and political positions of importance. The idea that they would try to mobilize a populist movement to demand small government was something new. Perhaps they ran out of patience.

I don't agree with those who say the Kochs simply want to increase their own wealth. They are far too rational and too rich to need or want above all else to add to their billions. They believe in this, truly. And not just for themselves. Jonathan Franzen recently wrote that "if you don't have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily," but the Kochs prove that the wealthy can cherish freedom -- or their version thereof -- just as steadfastly. Whether their prescriptions are all correct is another matter.

Much of my insight comes from a friendship I maintained for many years with a member of the Koch family. She was possessed of incredibly good looks: alabaster skin, eyes full of fire, and the most aquiline nose. She was naturally slim and, as a devotée of gyrotonics, perfectly toned. She was one of those beauties who uses vulgarity to disarm those who may be flustered by her looks or, if they knew about her family, her wealth. But few knew; back before the Kochs garnered so much unwanted media attention, people she met wouldn't recognize her name. And she would never bring up the family business in cocktail conversation. But she privately spoke a lot about her family and clearly had tremendous respect for both Charles and David Koch.

She would do all she could to avoid being pigeonholed as a rich girl. I never knew her to spring for a round of drinks or give lavish gifts (except to strangers: she once confessed to tipping a couple of 20s to a cab driver who had cheered her up from one of her recurring melancholies.) She was well aware -- and possibly paranoid, justifiably -- that people would seek to take advantage of her. She dated a string of penniless creative types who knew nothing about Koch Industries or business in general. Unlike many heirs to lesser fortunes, she was loath to appear in any sort of society column or photo spread, preferring to see her name in print only as a byline to her journalistic and literary efforts.

We had a tacit falling out, the reasons for which I never learned. I still miss the hilarity of her wit, her dark musings, and simply having her in my confidence (she was an excellent listener), but I gradually stopped thinking of her, unless I saw her family's name buried somewhere in the bowels of the newspaper. This was before they became the sworn enemies of American liberals, so their name was hardly headline news.

Then I ran into her once a few years ago. I did a double take when I passed a Greenwich Village tattoo parlor and saw her consulting one of the artists. Despite not having seen her for years, the first thing I said after she ran out and hugged me was, "Whatever you're thinking of doing, don't." She reassured me that she was merely thinking about getting inked -- no decisions yet. She was at the time in a graduate writing program, on a merit scholarship. At first I was shocked: she of all people did not need a free ride anywhere. But then it made sense: she was looking for a program that wanted her for her talents, and not her name. For this Koch, it was someone else's turn to put their money where their mouth is.

Like everyone else, she has to work at freedom. To be free of our demons, other peoples' expectations, our histories -- our biodata -- we have to work, and hard. We may be entitled to freedom, but we cannot simply expect the fruits it can bear, be they financial, emotional, or existential. For those, we as individuals are responsible. Sometimes they come as the result of good luck or welcome compassion, but in the main they are only of our own making. I suppose that's really what I learned from this unorthodox education. Who knew it would turn out to be such a sentimental one?