Book Review: Robert LeFevre: Truth Is Not a Half-way Place by Carl Watner
JUNE 01, 1989 by K. E. GRUBBS JR.
The Voluntaryists, Box 1275, Gramling, SC 29348 * 1988 * 236 pages.* $14.95 paperback
Among libertarian philosophers, Robert LeFevre was sui generis, one of a kind. That is how the self-proclaimed autarchist would want to be remembered, of course: as an individualist who packed several careers into one life, and who made his mark on his times by teaching an ethical code defiant of the prevailing collectivism. Consider those careers. He had been a failed actor, a radio announcer, a struggling hotelier, an innovative television newscaster, a newspaper editor, and the founder and president of a small college.
I remember Bob, who died in 1986 at the age of 75, as the most stimulating lecturer I had ever heard, vastly more thought-provoking than my college professors. He vaguely resembled Mark Twain, and his wry humor could keep a class’s attention for twelve hours a day, five days a week. Seriously. Freedom Newspapers, the nationwide media chain that employs me, would periodically send its editors through his course, which he called “The Fundamentals of Liberty.” Uninitiates, heating about the regimen, would imagine a scene from A Clockwork Orange: strapped into a chair, eyelids pinned back, attention fixed on the lecturer, who would ladle The Truth into the now-robotized participant’s brain.
No such nightmare. Bob simply drew on his multitude of experiences as a communicator and sustained our keen interest. He never took any courses in educational methodology; indeed, he possessed no college degree. Had he such a credential, or had he suffered through the pedagogical techniques stressed in the teachers’ institutions, his considerable capability would surely have been spoiled, his students reduced to snores.
As a teaching phenomenon, he awakened us to the competing natures of man and political government, the latter coercively hobbling all creativity in the name of some collective good. He explored the alternatives of voluntarism, even challenging us to imagine how seemingly necessary functions of the state could be conducted without taxation or force. Come on, we would think. Could interstate highways be constructed without taxpayers’ money or the invoking of eminent domain? You bet they could, if we but disciplined our imagination and our morality. Such, of course, were the exercises of the ideological purist, but I daresay such kernels, planted back at “Freedom School,” a.k.a. Rampart College, blossomed into the privatization movement of today.
It is well that someone should write a biography of this man, this exceedingly gentle man. (Bob was a pacifist, though he shunned the word.) One of his dedicated students, Carl Watner, has produced a biography, a project authorized by LeFevre himself, who cooperated by furnishing papers and an oral self-history. LeFevre also led Watner through several revisions before his death. Perhaps because the writer had such an unfree hand, Robert LeFevre: “Truth is Not a Half-way Place” suffers drastically.
Alas, if one wanted one’s moral philosophy taken seriously, this is not the sort of introduction to it one would want published. Or so I should think. Though again, perhaps it is to Bob’s credit (and I can well imagine him being so brutally honest with himself) that he wanted it all out, warts and all. Here is a man who spent about the first third of his life deeply involved in—or trying to extricate himself from—a truly odd religious cult, the “I Am” movement.
Bob, it seems, allowed a couple of peripatetic charlatans to explain, in terms of a gnostic formula that fueled their enterprise, some astonishing mystical occurrences that he had experienced in his early years. Somewhere in this world or the next, or both (if I have this right), there existed “masters” who possessed true wisdom; they possessed such wisdom by being in touch with “St. Germain,” who benevolently guided the earnest seeker’s life. Bob was an earnest seeker, indeed some thought a “master”; but he pursued “St. Germain” at the cost of considerable autonomy, becoming an acolyte of the “I Am” founders. It was not until he was nigh middle-aged that Bob was able to shake the mental tropisms of a cultist; he brought a small circle of his followers, mostly female, into the freedom movement with him.
Then there were the touching romances and the messy divorces, not just his own but that of a fellow cultist he’d promised to marry, and then didn’t, if she would obtain her own divorce. And there were the philosophical squabbles and the broken friendships or estrangements with other libertarian leaders, among them Leonard Read, F. A. Harper, and R. C. Hoiles. Winningly and charmingly, Bob would allow that these unhappy developments made him learn and grow. Perhaps so, perhaps not.
Read tried to warn him that funding for his venture in the Colorado mountains, Rampart College, would suffer unless he eschewed his more extremist tendencies, which looked awfully like anarchism (a word Bob really eschewed, in favor of the more curious “autarchism,” which some dictionaries define both as “self- sufficiency” and “despotism”). Bob pressed on, refusing to compromise his belief that all coercion, both initiated and defensive, is immoral. When Read, embracing the necessity of defensive force, wrote his Government: An Ideal Concept (an eminently sensible book, by the way), LeFevre reacted as if it were the height of naivete. Harper, who agreed with him on the impossibility of an ideal government, would eventually turn down a leadership role at Rampart College—where such luminaries as Milton Friedman, Frank Chodorov, and Rose Wilder Lane lectured—for fear that it would damage his academic standing.
The most troubling break of all was with R. C. Hoiles, the patriarch of Freedom Newspapers whose son, Harry, publisher of the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, hired Bob as his editorial page editor. LeFevre happened on one occasion to be staying at R. C.’s Santa Ana, California, home when out of the blue (in Watner’s version) the senior Hoiles, using some stern language, threw him onto the street. Harry, who to his father’s disappointment had accepted Bob’s arguments against the death penalty, assured the stunned LeFevre of continued employment (later conferring on Bob the title of editor-in-chief).
Here Watner dabbles, ever so briefly, in psycho-biography. He speculates that R. C., to whom a close-knit family was sacrosanct, simply could not abide the intellectual power Bob seemed to exert over Harry. Hence the explosiveness of R. C.’s encounter with LeFevre. I have known (and admired) all three men, and I suspect there was more to this rocky event. R. C., in addition to being a pioneer in the libertarian movement, was a savvy businessman; I think, in his dealings with LeFevre, he smelled a poseur, at least suspected one. And R. C. did believe government could be an agent of defensive force. Bob, philosophically at least, would treat the most heinous criminal as a Hindu would a cow.
The story tells us much about the nature of wisdom and the nature of ideology. For all his unbending (some say dogmatic) morality, you always got the sense that R. C. Hoiles was thinking, forever re-examining his positions, right up to his death in his nineties, in Bob LeFevre’s case, you could sense sometimes an evasiveness (even though he encouraged questions during his lectures), a promotion of the idea that he had sorted out a complete, non-contradictory belief system, case closed. If I might myself dabble in psycho-biography, it is possible Bob carried over this variation of gnosticism from his “I Am” days, unconsciously setting himself up as a cult leader.
Still, Bob was if anything politically liberating. To his resumé one must add disappointed politician, for he once ran, in a Republican primary election for Congress, against Richard Nixon. He felt the mud slung at him and left political activism forever, prompting some to connect his antagonism to politics to a psychological source. But he also contended, compellingly, that political attempts to regulate behavior, whether from the left or the right, Were equally destructive.
“Left and right,” he would chuckle, “are but two wings on the same bird of prey.” Surely, it hardly matters to a victim of torture if his tormentor is a lieutenant of Pinochet or a minion of Gorbachev. And attempts to regulate personal behavior in the interest of traditional morality can be as counter-productive as regulation of economic behavior.
A useful metaphor, this bird of prey, but it is ultimately specious because so symmetrical a view of history seldom occurs in reality. It is like the guy who always answers “Fifty-fifty” when you ask about the odds of rain. Anyway, the left wing may well be flapping with vastly more force and velocity than the right wing, as indeed it seems to be doing in the late 20th century. I don’t know if Bob really understood that.
Where Bob was fundamentally liberating was in helping us to fathom that man is, by nature, a volitional creature, and that attempts to substitute political decision-making for individual choice would always come a cropper. Where Bob might have been deficient was in the spiritual realm, a stuntedness that might have grown out of his miseducation in the “I Am” movement. He rightly twitted the atheists because, as he would point out logically, negatives cannot be proved. But he would settle on describing himself as either an agnostic or, curiously, a deist.
I well remember a poignant essay Bob wrote, in his LeFevre’s Journal, on the passing of his longtime friend Ruth Dazey. She had been with him since the “I Am” days and had recently gone in for more orthodox enthusiasms, concerning which he wrote approvingly. Still, he held back—sophistically, I thought. I sent him two books, Malcolm Muggeridge’s Jesus Rediscovered and J. B. Phillip’s Your God Is Too Small, with the thought that they might reach into his iconoclastic heart.
In what seemed like the next mail, I received what I thought would be a gracious, multi-paged letter. Alas, it was neither acceptance nor rebuttal, but the same old skeptical territory covered, as it were, by someone who wanted to keep the case closed. Watner’s book gives us few clues about that dimension of Bob’s life, perhaps at Bob’s insistence. My contacts with Bob after that were not so engaged, and I subsequently went off to Washington, D.C., the heart of the monster, where I was when I learned of his death. In a Georgetown restaurant I ran into a friend who had also been through one of Bob’s courses, a decade and a half earlier, and who had ignored Bob’s injunction against government activism by going to work in the White House.
“I hope he made it,” my friend said fondly. Indeed, I hope he has more enriching company than “St. Germain.”
K. E. Grubbs Jr. is editorial and commentary director of the Orange County (California) Register.