Document:Interview with Wendell Stephenson June 2022
In 2019 after 20 years of teaching at Fresno City College, Wendell Stephenson retired. LPedia met with Wendell to get his thoughts on Libertarianism
Please tell us about what brought you to the Libertarian Party and how you formed your philosophical views.
Oh, that's a long story. I have to make it short. Do you know Robert Nozick? Oh, you got to read his book. Best book developing libertarian philosophy that I think has been published ever. It's called ‘Anarchy State and Utopia’.
I don't see a copy on my bookshelf right in front of me. Too bad. But I've got it somewhere. I don't know if that book made me a libertarian, but it certainly moved me in that direction. And I read that, gosh, 40 years ago in 73, by the way. So, I probably read it longer ago in that. It's just a brilliant book. It's just a philosophical defense, essentially, of libertarianism and the free market and so on.
And I'd never seen anything so rigorous and well-constructed. So, I would say that if that was one of the main influences and the more, I thought and read, I thought people have a lot of crazy ideas about drugs and wrongheaded ideas about booze and, and mental illness. And libertarians have a lot to offer in those areas.
So that's a short story.
You taught ethics, the philosophy of religion, social and political philosophy, and critical reasoning. Do you see these topics as connected to your libertarian worldview?
Yeah, and of course, I never tried to push my view on my students, but I expose them to libertarian literature. Including John Hospers, the founder of libertarianism. He was a philosopher out of USC. I assigned his work to my students and we went through that.
So, my teaching was probably influenced by libertarianism in the sense that I think libertarians emphasize free discussion and free inquiry, and they want people to be allowed to express their views and engage in controversy if it comes to it. And that's under attack. Now, is that all I asked them? I think so. I was always very keen on making sure a variety of points of view or expressed.
And in fact, I started on campus after we fixed the building, which took a lot of a lot of effort and a long time. I started something I call the Campus Community Colloquium, and that involved outside people from outside the campus. And we would propose topics on a variety of subjects. We had drugs a couple of times we had First Amendment rights, we had all problems of what to do about downtown Fresno, which is a bombed-out disaster area.
I don't think we discussed mental illness, but just a whole host of issues. And we got speakers purposely from different points of view and encouraged them to express their views in a public forum. And then we would open everything up to questions. So, I think my libertarianism, I think that's all part and parcel, pursuing the truth and the way that John Stuart Mill, who may be the original libertarian taught us, we've got to allow debate and different points of view.
What do you think of the controversy now?
Oh, I know. I know. Well, I sometimes think I retired at the right time because it looks to me like things have gotten worse in academia since I retired in 99. I've read stuff about this, and it seems like everywhere people who are expressing what I think are completely, well, not always reasonable, but they're complaining their points of view, they ought to be heard.
For example, this point of view that you can't just choose your sex. Now, that that might be wrong, but it turns out that a lot of people have said roughly that, but you can't just say, well, I'm a woman and be a woman. That view I think should be heard even if it's wrong.
But I guess it can't even be heard. Been hearing about J.K. Rowling. Have you heard about her case?
She's come out basically saying that women's rights are being trampled and that there really are women, and they shouldn't be described as people with uteruses or something like that. And she's got all kinds of flak for that. And again, her view may be wrong. I'm not saying anything about that. I just think that's a view that should be heard.
The funniest case is John Cleese, the Monty Python actor.
Have you seen his hilarious rendition of this in Fawlty Towers, where he has German guests to his hotel? He runs this hotel with his wife, and he's got these German guests. He gets really nervous and says, whatever we do, don't mention the war. Don't mention the war.
And he winds up not only mentioning the war, but goose stepping like a Nazi and it's a total breakdown of British attitudes. But he outed himself and was invited to speak at the Oxford Union. He said, now I'd be the wrong person because I've made fun of Nazis and Germans and I've made fun of English attitudes towards Germans and so on.
That's a hilarious piece you got to check out.
Why do you think there was a change in that attitude?
Right. I kind of see it as of a piece of radical stuff that goes back at least to the Communist Manifesto and probably before that. I taught the Communist Manifesto to my students in my political philosophy course. And we try to read it carefully and sympathetically and so on. But at the end of it, I would ask students questions like, doesn't this seem like kind of a murderous book to you, isn't it?
Would it be pretty easy to think that what we ought to do is murder the capitalists and get rid of them and not let them speak and not let anybody defend this horrible regime that you're condemning here in the Communist Manifesto. So, I'm inclined to think it's books like that and the attitudes that they engendered - or at least encouraged. We see coming out in a slightly different form here in the 20th century from the sixties and seventies, which essentially would shout people down. You had people in Germany, what called themselves the Red Brigade who would assassinate politicians and bomb their cars and stuff.
So, in a way, it's nothing new. And I guess we could thank our lucky stars that people aren't as violent now as they used to be. I haven't heard of anybody trying to kill J.K. Rowling, for example, although she has received death threats.
This year you just demonize your opponent. You read the Communist Manifesto and he just demonizes the capitalists, the bourgeoisie.
What did Lincoln say? The capitalists will sell you the rope to hang them with.
What was your involvement in the party?
Well, I went to that one that we mentioned at the beginning, back in 2016. One of my preoccupations has been end of life issues and I don't know how they heard about me, but somebody did, and they asked me if I'd wanted to talk, and I said sure. I was the president of The Final Exit Network.
Download that network, in brief, it is an organization - the only organization in the United States - that will work with people who are not terminally ill and give them information about how to end their lives in a painless quick way. They started back in about 2006 and they've been in business since that time. They have what they call a guide program that they train in the peaceful methods and the methods that are out there that enable a person to end his life or her life.
And it's a very libertarian type of organization although not all of them by any means are libertarian. In fact, most of them are liberal Democrats. But they're tolerant. They know I'm a libertarian, but they're tolerant.
We're all primary devoted to end of life issues. So, we try to keep other issues that we may disagree about off the table.
Some of the people are religious. I'm not. Many of the people are liberal Democrats and many of them are against free market. I'm a strong free marketer. So, we just put those to the side. We've something else to do.
Did your work in philosophy feed into your right to die stance?
Yeah. Although nothing I read per se was influential on me, just my general thinking when I was pretty young, actually in my early twenties. I thought started thinking about death and I started thinking, if you're suffering from some horrible illness that's incurable, you ought to be allowed to enjoy your life.
And there ought to be methods that are painless and not gruesome for bystanders. And I just kind of came to that conviction more or less on my own, not through any particular really or any particular persons. I've subsequently learned that, for example, the great philosopher David Hume defended suicide back in 1750 or so, wrote a famous essay on it, in fact, which would have gotten him in trouble. But he had the wisdom to not publish it until he died.
Have the laws regarding that changed?
Yeah. Yeah. Well, you probably heard of the California law that passed and the governor signed in 2015 called the End-of-Life Options Act, which allows people who are suffering from a terminal illness to receive a doctor's prescription of a lethal medication that they can take and that will end their lives and that is definitely a step forward.
It's got serious drawbacks. The main one being the terminology condition means in medical parlance that you have six months or less to live and a doctor - in fact two doctors - have to certify that they have to sign something saying you have six months or less to live. And a lot of doctors are not willing - for good reasons - to do that because it's so hard to predict the course of many of these illnesses.
So that's one serious drawback, but it's definitely a step in the right direction. It's better than no law or is better than suicide being criminal. It wasn't criminal law until about 50 years ago in almost every State of the Union so hard to believe, but.
Now it's not. No state in the union has a criminal law against suicide. In most states have where you can be confined against your will for up to 48 hours. I think it is if you are a potential harm to yourself or others and almost people think it's definitional that if you want to end your life then you are going to harm yourself and you therefore fall under that law.
It's a civil law. They can find you, but libertarians and the American Civil Liberties Union have been good on this where they have very selflessly insisted that you cannot confine people against their will for more than a certain period of time and you have to prove that they are a harm to themselves. Or a harm to others.
So anyway, those laws are definitely a step in the right direction, but only about eight states have a law like that. Oregon was the first state that put a law under the effect like that.
And the other drawback to the law is that you can get a lethal prescription first if you can find a doctor that will prescribe it. And most doctors still to this day won't prescribe. So, if you find a doctor, you can get it, but then you have to take it yourself. Well, there are many illnesses that prevent people from swallowing, and they don't have a digestive system that works well enough to put the lethal dose into their system.
So, they're out of luck if they if they can't hold a glass if they can't suck through a straw. So serious drawbacks in the law.
That's what I made a presentation on back there. Yeah. Otherwise, I haven't had a lot of involvement with Libertarians apart from reading their literature supporting them, maintaining my membership, talking to some of the local people. I had a real nice conversation with Kat McElroy. She seems to be really good. I haven't met her in person yet, but I hope to.
What additional biographical details would you like us to put in the entry in the LPedia?
Well, sounds like you kind of got the basics that I mean, I think it would be great for people to know that I've been the president of finalizing that work for one thing, I think it would be great if all libertarians knew about finalizing that work. I think they would all support it and either support act we could mutually support each other, at least in our in our sphere of influence.
Like I say, a lot of people who aren't libertarians are part of finalizing that work. So, they wouldn't support libertarianism in general. But we could support each other with respect to that issue.
Just like choosing your allies with respect to drugs, the war on drugs or something, I might team up with some. I consider them to be some kind of crazy leftist, you know, but he opposes the drug war. So, I'm with him on that issue. So, yeah, that I was the president of Final Exit, and that I was the leader of the group that saved the old administration building on Fresno's City College campus.
I think that'd be cool for people to know about.
Talk a little bit more about your teaching and if you're a libertarian philosophy came into that at all?
I think only in the way that I mentioned already that I emphasize free inquiry and allowing people to state their views without fear of backlash. I always tried to be extremely courteous to people, even if I strongly disagreed with them - and frequently did - and I tried to ensure that my students treated each other with respect. They tried to learn how to engage each other in serious dialog and learn how to think. Learn how to recognize good reasoning and bad reasoning and to engage in only good reasoning even against opponents.
Maybe that they we're engaging in bad reasoning. You still try to use good reasoning yourself. You don't engage in ad homonyms attacks on people's character, attacks on their person, attacks on their sex or their religion or whatever. I try to keep the attacks focused on the issue at hand, so we have free markets and whatever.
There's a really good libertarian philosopher out there now writing lots and lots of books. His name is Jason Brennan and I'm looking at a book of his that I haven't read as carefully yet as I want to. It's called ‘Markets Without Limits’.
And I believe he argues essentially that there should be markets and everything. And one of the controversial questions that libertarians have wrestled with is whether, for example, there should be markets in human organs, you know, whether I should be able to sell my kidney, let's say. I got to maybe get by with one and I need the money, or I want the money for whatever.
And that that worries a lot of people. Rightly so, I think. But Brennan, is going ahead and writing on those issues. So, I mean to read it carefully at some point. The trouble is I have so much reading to do. I just finished the book and this ties in with my libertarianism.
I just finished a really good book on the history of psychiatry in America. You don't have to be a libertarian to find the story a horror story. The book is by Andrew Skull and it's called ‘Desperate Remedies, The Turbulent Attempt by Psychiatry to Cure Mental Illness’. And he goes through all the horrible things that psychiatrists have tried over the years, such things as electroshock, shock therapy or electroconvulsive therapy, where they would give people such powerful jolts of electricity that they would go into convulsions.
The idea was that this might drive out their schizophrenia or their depression or whatever. The worst of them all was lobotomies. You've heard of lobotomies, no doubt, where doctors would actually go in and take out portions of the frontal lobes of patients, turning them into vegetables, essentially and just all kinds of horror stories. And they did this until very recently without getting any consent from the people in question.
And sometimes literally forcing them to undergo these procedures. So, like I say, you don't have to be a libertarian to find this horrifying, but libertarians would especially find this horrifying.
He cites ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest’ as being one of the influential movies that changed the public's perception of psychology, especially electroconvulsive therapy. Wasn't Jack Nicholson's character subjected to that? I haven't seen the movie in a long time.
He also had a lobotomy. So, both of those were the targets of that movie, and rightly so. Lobotomy was on its way out already by the time that movie was made. But shock therapy was still being used to some degree.
Could elaborate on your theory of liberty.
Libertarians emphasize individual liberty giving individuals choice maximizing their realm of choices. John Stuart Mill is a great libertarian here. Basically, nobody should be forcing me to do anything unless I'm clearly in the process of harming other people and harm has to be very carefully defined here. Otherwise, you get people saying you're harming me by expressing a controversial opinion. I think Mill mainly had in mind for physically harming somebody and attacking them, threatening them with bodily harm.
That sort of thing. So, yeah, don't put impediments to me, especially not simply because you think it will be for my good when I don't think it will be for my good. And this really goes to the heart of the problems with psychiatry that this guy brings out.
It's hard to believe that many of these practitioners really had their good of their patients at heart but give them the benefit of the doubt and say they did. They were really trying to help their patients. Well, one of their problems was that they considered that they knew what was better for the patient than the patient considered. He knew what was best for him. And Mill really attacks that vigorously. Just because you think that it will be to my happiness or to my benefit, that I act in some way or not live in some way, that gives you no right to interfere with me.
And so that's basically my view. You cannot interfere with people except when they're clearly presenting a danger of harm to others. Harm is primarily defined as physical, physical harm and physical threats. And violence and stuff like that. There are problems there because harm is a bit difficult to define. But still, that's kind of where I would lean.
And by the way, Robert Nozick. That theme is in his book, ‘Anarchy, State, and Utopia’, very good.
As a professor of ethics, what is your view on My Body, My Choice?
Well, let me start briefly with abortion. I don't know that there is a libertarian position on abortion. If there is, I could see as a libertarian two ways to go. And they both may hinge on what one thinks of the status of the human fetus is, as I stress to my students, that that's the critical point in the ethics of abortion. What is the status of the human fetus? Should the human fetus be thought of as having the same status as you or I are thought of?
Now, I don't know that a libertarian is forbidden for saying, yes, it should have the same status. I don't know that it's a libertarian position, to say that, no, a human fetus doesn't have the same status as you or I do. And if I never did take that position that it has the same status than you or I do, then the libertarian would be as opposed to abortion as the Libertarian is opposed to murder.
But a libertarian doesn't have to take that position on the fetus. I don't take that position on the fetus. I take the position on the fetus that the fetus doesn't have the same status as you or I do.
I don't know if that's a libertarian position. It's a position that I take. So, because of that, I'm inclined to be liberal on abortion. I think women should have the right to end their pregnancy.
And then on the vaccine mandate. Part of the problem here is being clear about whether a vaccine really does prevent or help prevent the spread of disease. Because then you could make a case that if I don't get vaccinated and you don't get vaccinated because we assert our right to have stuff put in our body or not have stuff put in our body, then if you can make a good case that we pose a risk to others because we didn't get vaccinated or you pose a risk to our children because we didn't get vaccinated, then the libertarian position might change.
And you might say, well, now you're posing a risk to others. Bring Mill back in, you constitute a harm to others because of this choice you made, and you're not allowed to do that and can't make choices that are going to constitute a clear and present harm to others. So, it comes back to what do we know about these vaccines and I can't comment a whole lot on that.
I've read different stuff. One of the things that I have read, and I guess it's pretty much known, is that at least the covid vaccine doesn't do all that much to prevent you from spreading the disease. You can still get the virus. Maybe the vaccine protects you from not getting sick, but it doesn't protect you from spreading that virus to other people.
So, you don't have the argument on preventing harming other people by getting vaccinated. So, I think it's complicated. I personally thought I should get vaccinated. I thought it was the best for me but, that's basically my view that people should be allowed to choose that, except in cases where we have pretty damn good science that you're going to be a constant harm to others if you don't get vaccinated.
The measles vaccine is a pretty good example. I think it is. I'm not a doctor, so I really can't say. But from what I've read measles, first of all, is a very serious disease. I didn't realize that it still kills millions of millions of children worldwide. Measles growing up, measles never killed anybody that I knew of.
I don't know if you folks have ever heard of measles killing right here in the United States. And that's because we have the measles vaccine and we have had it since I was a kid. Well, it seems to be a pretty good case where you need to get your kids vaccinated, because if you don’t, they're at risk and others are going to be at risk because not enough people are vaccinated.
So, vaccination is a difficult case. Did the Libertarians take a position on vaccinations?
What is your view on anarchy?
Some famous philosophers have argued that government is not necessary. Nozick, interestingly, contends that government will naturally arise. So, he kind of skates the issue as to whether it's necessary. Although I think his argument ultimately leads to the conclusion it is necessary. It naturally arises because people find that they need to band together for protection from other people.
And so, I think he talks about small protective bands of people. He imagines kind of a state of nature situation. Kind of like Hobbs did. And then from these small mutual protection organizations, I think it's what he calls them, that will eventually arise bigger and bigger organizations. And you will eventually have something like the state.
So, it will become necessary as the development out of these mutual protection societies. And my reading of history and my study of political philosophy makes me think that it would be it's almost impossible for humans to live together without some form of coercive state, which the libertarians - most libertarians that I've read anyway - are OK with the state. They just want it to be greatly limited. And the libertarian – John Hospers out at USC - kind of started the whole thing. He ran for president. He was the first libertarian to run for president.
He didn't argue for anarchy. He just argued that the state should be severely limited in the way John Stuart Mill did. The only role for the state is to protect citizens from other citizens and from non-citizens - the Nightwatchman state. That's right. That's what it was called? I know he favored the night watchman state.
He carries a big stick and he'll bop you over the head if you harm one of your fellow citizens.
Many young workers say that it is harder for them to reach the middle class than previous generations. What is your view on this?
Markets and more markets. Part of the problem, I think, is government interference, government regulations in all kinds of ways and in the markets, from government licensing, requiring people to have, go through hoops in order to get licenses to do X, Y or Z, inhibits a lot of people from developing services or products that otherwise might not be developed. Get government out of the way and a lot of problems will go away. Not all of them, but a lot of them. You got to have an expanding economy. You know, Ronald Reagan used to talk about we want to grow the economy so that more people have opportunities. And when you let it, I think that’s the history of capitalism. Oh, by the way, another really good person to read on all this is Deirdre McCloskey.
Have you heard of Deirdre McCloskey? She's a libertarian, written a lot of good books. She's a very interesting libertarian because she transitioned. She started out life as a man and she became a woman, I think, two or three decades ago and pretty successful transition. She argues that it's what she calls innovative, something that has grown the economy and that will continue to grow the economy.
People innovating, people making new things, coming up with new ideas, new products, and stuff. And my reading is that's absolutely right. That we're going to have plenty of opportunities. We're going to have more opportunities than our parents had. But we've got to do our best to ensure that the market works, that people can innovate.
Why do you think there was that appeal to democratic socialism in the last election? Especially for younger people.
That because they're ignorant of history? I think was Nozick who made the point in his book that he hopes that we're not going to be damned because we don't know economics and we don't know economic history.
And he has an essay on the Jews. He himself was a Jew and unfortunately died quite early. He has an essay on the Jews which asks the question, why are so many Jews socialists? Why are so many Jews not non-market free marketeers? And part of his answer is because they don't know economic history.
And I think that's true of the youth. I consider it to be one of the roles I wanted to expose the students to free market thinking and so I had them read portions of Adam Smith, the great original free market economist, and talk to them about the invisible hand and the idea that people pursuing their own profit, just doing what they think is best for themselves can bring about stuff that's good for everybody.
That's the great secret of the market. And it's hidden from most people, I think, partly because it's an invisible hand. You can't see it. And people I think just naturally think, oh, if somebody is not visibly doing something, - like the government's not directing the economy or the government's not passing laws that require people to do this and refrain from doing that - then everything's going to go to hell in a handbasket. Well, that's not the history of progress. Economic progress in the United States - or in any of the countries that have made great economic progress - the history of economic progress is because people have been allowed to innovate, and the government has gotten out of their way and they've been allowed to make fantasy obscene fortunes, if you will.
Right? I mean, these guys, these multibillionaires, they don't need all that money. And we can agree on that. Yeah, they don't need it. They themselves often say they don't need it, but it's what happens when people innovate. People want to buy their products - lots of people want to buy their products. I used to ask students why do I make so little as a professor of philosophy at Fresno City College and Magic Johnson or name any professional basketball player makes so much.
And the reason is because hardly anybody wants to see me teach philosophy, but hundreds of thousands - millions - of people want to watch Magic Johnson play basketball because he's innovated in ways that other people haven't done. He can do stuff that other people can't do. And people find that fascinating and they'll pay money to watch him do it.
Libertarians should be in favor of encouraging competition among businesses there's a strong tendency for businesses to become monopolies or oligopolies. I think that's what I think a role for government is to try to prevent that and try to encourage competition and so I think the returns should favor that because competition is a good thing, and it maximizes people's opportunities and stuff.
Yeah, corporations often get too much power and then they abuse it just like governments get too much power and use it, right? So, this book on mental illness that I just mentioned is an indictment, among other things, of big pharma and the pharmaceutical industry, which eventually sort of took over the funding of drugs and bring in new drugs to treat psychological illnesses onto the market.
And they developed so much power that they pretty much could do anything they wanted to do. Richard Sackler is the guy who developed oxycodone, OxyContin, oxycodone, and made a fortune. The Sackler family started developing various sorts of psychotherapy, therapeutic drugs. And then there's an initial fortune doing that. And he was a great marketer, and these guys get too much power, and they influence research.
They influence researchers at universities, whom they pay to basically tailor the research to support their products. Libertarians should be worried about that, concerned about that.
In a recent poll, students at Georgetown University listed Covid 19 and climate change as their top political priorities.
I know climate change is a problem, but most of the solutions out there are non-solutions or they're going to be worse. They're going to make things worse. For my money, the best guy on this, I think is a bit of a libertarian is Bjorn Lomborg. Bjorn Lomborg has published books on this, and he writes in the Wall Street Journal quite a lot and basically advocates free market solutions and innovative solutions.
He makes a really good point about air pollution and smog in Los Angeles back in the sixties and seventies. And he talks about typical solutions that environmentalists offer. We should all start writing our bikes more. You know, we should all start walking more. We should develop public transportation blah, blah, blah. Right. What else goes on? And he said none of those were brought into being and none of those would have worked people aren't going to start riding their bikes in sufficient numbers.
That's a completely nonstarter, people can't walk. They can't live near where they want to work. And so on. Public transportation is colossally expensive and inevitably involves the government. So, he said, was the problem of smog pretty much solved in Los Angeles? And the answer is no. It was not solved completely, but it was largely solved by the invention of the catalytic converter.
One thing he doesn't mention is that government did have a small role in insisting that manufacturers install the catalytic converter, and it costs people more money. The cars cost more money with the catalytic converter than if they didn't have it. But if they didn't have it, then the smog would get worse and worse and there was no feasible way to end the smog.
So, a technological solution basically is what solved that problem. And that's what he thinks we need for climate change, a whole lot of innovations. Some of which are on the drawing board and some of which haven't been thought of yet. So, what needs to be done is that we need to encourage people to engage in these innovations.
So, more innovation, more market driven stuff. On COVID, you know, COVID is a problem. But the biggest problem, one of the biggest problems we face now is the possibility of nuclear war. I mean, it's just out of hand what Putin is doing and what's going on in Western Europe.
It's just out of hand. And it's something we haven't seen since the advent of nuclear weapons. It's really getting serious. And I've just read an article - speaking of the New York Times - that they're talking about. There's a very strong impetus now for nuclear proliferation because countries are thinking the only way, we can protect ourselves is to have our own nuclear weapons.
So, you got Iran, you got North Korea already. You got South Korea thinking about getting its own way. You got Japan thinking about its own nuclear weapons. You've got Saudi Arabia. So, these things will just destroy the world. Right. Have we forgotten - what was the old saying? One nuclear bomb will wreck your whole day. Yeah, sure.
I think that was a sixties hippie thing. But it's true.
Who are some of the libertarian thinkers that you admire?
Yeah, I mentioned Nozick and John Hospers out of USC. Brennan, I mentioned Brennan, Jason Brennan.
Let's see. Oh, John Hospers. Actually, I don't admire him all that much. I admire him for starting the Libertarian Party and for running as president. But some of the things he said in his piece I don't think make a whole lot of sense. And it's not something I think is required by a libertarian philosophy. Nozick is by far the best philosopher writing in this area, Milton Friedman, and had a strong streak of libertarianism.
And I think for that matter, Adam Smith did, although I don't think he would count really as a libertarian. John Stuart Mill is surely a libertarian. I used to say he was the father of libertarianism so yeah; those guys are the greats. All libertarians should read Mill and they should read Robert Nozick. I'm surprised that you guys hadn't heard of Robert Nozick, although he's been dead now for 25 or 30 years.
And in America, if you're dead for too long, nobody remembers you.
What is your analysis of the current state of our education system in California? It's K through 12 school choice a good idea?
Yeah, school choice is a very good idea. And unfortunately, I think the Superintendent of public instruction, Mr. Thurman, is opposed to school choice as the unions are opposed to school choice. I was a union member, and I supported the union at my college, but I don't agree with a lot of positions that unions take and one of the things I don't agree with is their tendency to be against school choice for parents. I post some of their other positions too, but yeah, I don't think that's the full solution to the problem, but I think that would be a part of the solution.
I think we need to have better teacher education than we've got. We need to give more incentives to teachers to go into the profession. Right now, from what I read, a lot of people who go in the K through 12 system are not the best students: sort of like the second-best position. They couldn't get something better.
So, they are teaching. Well, that's not what we want is third grade teaching our kids. So, I think those things can help. I don't think we need more money in the system. I think the money is plenty. We got plenty of money in the system and that's an area that I disagree with the unions. They always want more money to be put into the system.
And I don't think that's even part of the solution. I think we got to look elsewhere. We're putting a lot of money into the system over the years. Tons and tons of money. I used to ask my students how much of the California state budget goes to education? And of course, they had no clue.
So, I would give them choices. I'd say 1%, 5%, 50% 100%. I usually got figures around ten, 15%. That was the highest it ever went. And then I would tell them the figure is actually 50%, right around 50%, give or take. 40% of the California budget goes to K-through-12 education and that's not including the higher education, right?
It's an astounding figure because you know how big the California budget is. It's an incredible figure. What are we, the fifth biggest, sixth biggest economy in the world? And so, it's an astounding amount of money. And so, there's no way we need to spend more. We just need to do a lot better job and get the state out of education.
In many cases, it's just what the private move does is I think part of the solution. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Let's try various things in education.
How has the United States in general and California in particular changed since you started to teach? Have you seen a shift over time?
I wish I could speak to K-through-12. I've never taught in K through 12. My experience of the public schools growing up in Fresno in the fifties and the sixties was that I got a very good education, I have good teachers, and I was always happy. Now I was a good student, who often makes your teachers better, right?
So, I can't really comment. I don't know. It certainly doesn't look like K-through-12 has improved since I was going through. As far as colleges go, I taught for about 45 years in a variety of different places and community college is by far the best value for money. And every state that I'm aware that they're operating, I think they're in all states.
I taught in Oregon community college, and then I taught California Community College. California community college system is a really good system. They don't have too much money - they barely have enough money, but they use their money in a much better way than K-through-12 does for that, and the other four-year college systems (the U.C. or the CSU). So, I would say the educational system hasn't changed all that much in my time in the higher education system.
But the community colleges, if anything, have gotten better and ironic way they've gotten better is that the universities put out far too many graduate students with degrees, higher degrees, PhDs, master's degrees and so on. There was a period in the sixties and seventies when there was just tons and tons of graduates graduating from these institutions with their degrees, and they wanted to get a job at a four-year college somewhere and they couldn't.
I'm one of those. I graduated in the early eighties with a Ph.D., and I couldn't get a job at a four-year college. Where I got a job - but not a tenure track job. So, I went from pillar to post, and eventually I wound up at community colleges in Oregon teaching up there, and I really liked it. And I said in this case, you really get to teach here.
And the students are more eager to learn. They don't think they know everything, which a lot of students who go into the four-year college system think. Then they know something because they got to this prestigious CSU or you see, you know, many colleges, students don't think of themselves that way. So, you can really teach them - they're educational.
And so, if I were to advocate for putting money into the educational system, that would be to take it from K through 12 and put it into community colleges. Of course, I used to advocate the community colleges take over K-through-12 teaching anyway. I was there to ask for that.
What are your proudest libertarian moments.
Being the president of Final Action Network and pushing the right to die and choice at the end of life. I was involved in helping to change California law and work. Work for many years and finally get network I've been somewhat active in the drug legalization - decriminalization effort and mainly I give money to organizations that tried to decriminalize drugs, and I gave to the Libertarian Party because they're on the right side of many of the issues as far as I'm concerned.
What are some things that you think libertarians should be concerned about and why?
Mental illness. Reading this book reinforced that. We don't have much of a clue about mental illness. We don't even have good diagnostic criteria for mental illnesses. And I think it's an area where we need a lot of work done by innovative thinkers who are not blinkered by past ideas and who can bring some new thinking to the table.
I think this is a good area for libertarians and it links up with I think the figure that you cited this book and I've seen it elsewhere, is that a third of the homeless people in the United States and maybe elsewhere are mentally ill, by which we mean they have serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Even a casual look at homeless people in one's neighborhood you see them raving and just a nonexistent thing and so on. Clearly, something is not right up there. So, dealing with homeless, trying to do something actually helpful for mental illness could kill two birds with one stone. And so, I think it's a fertile area.
Not to mention that libertarians are going to be so careful about people's rights and not forcing them to do stuff. I'm trying to think of ways to help people get better without requiring them to get better, without bringing the law down and so on. You folks probably know that the biggest mental health institutions in America are the L.A. County Jail and another jails, Rikers Island, or one of the jails in New York City or the big jails. They house more mentally ill people; no other institution even comes close.
And that's horrible. That's a scandal. And that's something that libertarians should be very concerned about.
When they're mentally ill they don't necessarily have all the capabilities to know that they need to get help. And more thinking needs to go into this study. More research. This is something that Mr. Skoll, the author of this book, advocates and I fully agree with him on this. And Libertarians, I think, should be involved in trying to support more research. How do we effectively deal with people in ways where we don't force them to do stuff again?
You can force people, you know, going back to the hard thing. I mean, if only old folks or constitute a danger to others, then unfortunately you may have to restrain them, but you have to be very careful about that. And we got to think about better ways of doing it and so on.
So, if I was younger, I think I would get more involved with mental health issues. I'd have a better mind for one thing, and I'd have more get up and go, because I have been involved with it to some degree in my time when I was younger. And I must say it's a very difficult area.
It's very wearing emotionally on you because if you're dealt with very seriously mentally ill people and that can be highly unpredictable. And they can do stuff to you that's very hurtful that you didn't anticipate and that it's completely uncalled for. It's wrong and it's hurtful. And then you think, well, what can I do about it?
And the second I don't know what I can do back, you kind of get burned out you know? So, yeah, it's a big problem.
What advice do you have for young people and especially young libertarians?
Clear your mind of ignorance if you possibly can?
I would start my courses by talking about Socrates and emphasizing that a big problem that people have is they don't know that they're ignorant. As Socrates famously said - he was thought to be the wisest person in the world by the famous Oracle Delphi, which the Greeks apparently believed in during his time. Go up to the mountain of Delphi and the Oracle would give you wisdom. And supposedly the Oracle had said that Socrates was the wisest man alive, and Socrates didn't think he was the wisest man alive. But he believed the Oracle. So, he had a real dilemma. How can I make sense out of this? I don't think I'm the wisest man alive. But the Oracle says I am so there's got to be something to that.
And he finally came around to thinking, Oh, I get it, I'm the wisest man alive, because I realize that I don't know, and others think they know when they don't know. And I think that's a big problem for everybody. And so, my advice to anybody, libertarian or whatever, would be to think about the possibility that you don't know and that you need to learn and think about the possible.
You're ignorant about something even though you don't think you are and try to keep learning, try to challenge yourself. I think I know that free markets are the best way to run an economy. It's not really run in an economy. It's allowing the markets to run any time, and nobody runs the economy then.
I think I know that. But I try to be open to the possibility that I'm wrong and listen to what other people say. So, I think that's libertarian wisdom. I think that's where they started. And I think that's what every libertarian should start out with, that idea. Sure, we think we know some stuff that we're on this course, but trying to do better, trying to learn.
I think I know that people have it right in their lives when they're suffering, but I try to remain open to arguments that I'm mistaken about that somehow. All right. That'd be my advice. Also clear your mind of can't talk. That sounds smart and maybe is hip or something, but it doesn't really mean anything.
And the guy who used to like to use that expression all the time was Samuel Johnson, the great Samuel Johnson. He would start a conversation by saying, “let us clear our minds of can't."