An Interview With Jacob Hornberger
Jacob “Bumper” Hornberger has been president of The Future of Freedom Foundation since he founded it in 1989.
What does The Future of Freedom Foundation do?
FFF is a non-profit, educational foundation whose mission is to present an uncompromising moral, philosophical, and economic case for the libertarian philosophy. Ever since our inception in 1989, our methodology has been to address and analyze the great issues of the day within the context of libertarian philosophy.
Your op-ed pieces appear in newspapers across the country. How many papers publish your columns, and what is their combined circulation? Aren’t some of your columns written or published in Spanish?
Our op-eds are now distributed by Knight-Ridder, Scripps Howard, and UPI wire services. To date, we’ve been published in more than 550 newspapers, both print and on-line. The total circulation numbers in the millions. A few years ago, we began targeting Hispanic newspapers, which has turned out to be a tremendous success. The total list of newspapers is listed in the “Spreading the Word” section of our website: www.fff.org.
What did you do before you founded the FFF?
From 1987-1989 I was program director at The Foundation for Economic Education in Irivington, New York. From 1975-1987, I was a trial attorney in Texas and I also served as an adjunct professor of law and economics at the University of Dallas.
You were a “Brother Rat” at VMI. Were you in ROTC? Did you ever consider becoming an officer in the military?
Everyone at VMI was required to be in ROTC. After graduation from VMI, I received my commission as an infantry officer and spent the next eight years in the Army Reserves as an officer.
When were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born on January 28, 1950, and grew up on a farm on the Rio Grande in Laredo, Texas.
How did living near the Mexican border and having a German-American father and a Mexican-American mother affect your view of immigration and open borders?
My maternal grandparents immigrated from Mexico while my father’s side of the family immigrated from Germany. But it was not so much that that affected my view of immigration as it was working and living with illegal aliens on my farm and in Laredo generally. When I was growing up, we hired and housed illegal aliens on our farm, and I worked and played with them. As a kid, they were among my best friends. I even hid with them when the Border Patrol would come onto a farm. There was also a lot of illegal labor all over Laredo—it was part of the general way of life. By and large, the Border Patrol personnel were arrogant, obnoxious people intent on blindly enforcing the law even though they knew they were destroying peaceful and harmonious relationships. Ever since I was child, I couldn’t understand why people shouldn’t be free to cross borders, especially in search of work. I still don’t.
Which people have influenced you the most?
Leonard Read (the founder of The Foundation for Economic Education), Ludwig von Mises, Frederic Bastiat, Ayn Rand, and Friedrich Hayek.
What are you passionate about?
How would you describe your political philosophy? Did it evolve over time?
Libertarian. I grew up in the Democratic Party and believed that it was a proper role of government to help the poor. After law school, I even served on the Laredo, Texas, Legal Aid Society board of trustees, and I was the local ACLU representative. But then in the late 1970s, I discovered libertarianism, and it was the moral case for liberty that struck me the most. The moral precepts that hit me the hardest were: (1) It’s wrong to take what doesn’t belong to you, whether it’s done privately or through government; (2) People have a fundamental right to live their lives any way they choose, as long as their conduct is peaceful, including engaging in business enterprise freely, entering into mutually beneficial exchanges with others, accumulating the fruits of their efforts, and deciding what to do with their own money.
When and how did you become interested in liberty?
My very first exposure was in 1973, when I saw The Fountainhead movie on afternoon television and then immediately read the book. That planted a seed. Four years later, I was rummaging around the public library in my hometown of Laredo and discovered the first four volumes of “Essays on Liberty,” which had been published by FEE in the 1950s. Those essays provided the breakthrough that caused me to reevaluate my entire worldview. Those essays led me to Read, Mises, Hayek, Bastiat, Chodorov, Rand, and many more.
Who are your heroes, and why?
Read, Bastiat, Mises, Rothbard, and Rand for their uncompromising dedication to the principles of liberty. They understood that principles cannot be compromised—they can only be abandoned.
Who are some of the most interesting or remarkable people you’ve met?
Leonard Read, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Israel Kirzner, Edmund Opitz, Bettina Greaves, William Law, Dean Russell, Margit Mises, Richard Ebeling, Sheldon Richman, Jim Bovard, Ralph Raico, Ed Crane, and Lew Rockwell.
How much traveling do you do? Which countries have you been to? What was it like in some of the more oppressive countries you visited?
I’ve lived a blessed life when it comes to travel. England, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Cuba. The most bizarre society I have ever seen is Cuba. I’ve studied socialism for some 25 years and have traveled to some of the poorest countries in Latin America, but I was totally unprepared for a society in which the state owns or controls everything. It’s unfortunate that the federal government makes it illegal for Americans to spend money in Cuba because it would do them good to see a society that has fully embraced such things as public (i.e., government) schooling, national health care, gun control, economic regulations, equalization of income, income taxation, welfare, public housing, occupational licensure, immigration controls, trade restrictions, military tribunals, and foreign interventionism. Ironically, the Cuban people were the nicest, most genuine people I have ever encountered.
You threw your hat in the ring for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination in 2000. Does the LP have an ethics problem?
The LP has a big ethics problem. There have been secret, surreptitious, and unethical funneling of monies to at least one party official, lies, cover-ups, and vicious attacks against those of us who have tried our best to bring it to a stop. There has also been a manifest failure to ferret out the full extent of the wrongdoing—how long it’s been going on, what methods have been used to accomplish it, and how many people have been involved. Perhaps worst of all, not only were the people who refused to cooperate with National Chairman Jim Lark’s official “investigation” into the wrongdoing not sanctioned for such refusal, they were actually rewarded by making them featured speakers at this year’s national convention. What many LPers fail to recognize is that in order to attract the American people to our cause, we must be significantly better than the two major political parties—not only in the realm of political and economic theory but also in the realm of ethics. That entails, at a minimum, no more unethical payments of money by LP candidates to LP officials, including members of the national staff and members of the LNC, and no more mistreatment, abuse, and ostracism of people who are trying to improve the image of the party among the American people.
Have you read the new book Dissenting Electorate? What would you say to those who argue that participating in politics provides legitimacy to the State? Which kind of activism do you think is more effective, political or non-political?
I have not read it. I’d lean toward non-political because it seems to influence people in a deeper, more profound way, but I’m convinced that both are essential to the restoration of liberty. I can sympathize with people who refuse to vote—in fact, I was once one of them--I didn’t vote for some 20 years. But I finally came to realize the fatal flaw in the “do not vote” position—if successful, it effectively eliminates any chance of achieving freedom. Suppose, for example, that 60 percent of the members of Congress achieve a “breakthrough” and discover that libertarianism is the right way to go. They’re about to take votes on repealing the war on drugs and the income tax. On the eve of the votes, they’re contacted by the “do not vote” crowd and persuaded that it’s wrong to participate in the political process. Thus, they resign before voting to repeal the drug war and the income tax and are replaced by statists who vote to keep them in place. The ultimate outcome of the “do not vote” position is that you could have a society in which 70 percent of the population is libertarian controlled by the 30 percent who are statists. Short of violent revolution, the only way to get rid of bad laws is through repeal and through constitutional amendment barring their future passage. That means voting and running for office. Thus, ironically any hope for achieving freedom for the “do not vote” segment rests on those of us who are voting and participating.
The federal government is currently constructing a huge wall along the entire length of the border of Mexico. Have walls ever stopped people from trying to improve their lives?
Not that I know of. Just think of the missed opportunity when the Berlin Wall was dismantled. If the federal government had been alert, they could have purchased it and simply moved it to the Southern border rather than building a wall from scratch. And it could also have hired all those unemployed East German sharpshooters to man it. The fact that our own government is building a replica of the Wall along our Southern border--indeed, the fact that it is attacking, capturing, and repatriating Cuban refugees into communist tyranny—is proof positive that our country has gotten off track, especially morally, in a very big way.
What is your response to those who say we can’t open the borders until we get rid of the welfare state, or who argue that continued immigration will fundamentally transform our national identity?
Well, I’m not really sure which identity they’re talking about. In Laredo, Texas, where I grew up, there are 90 percent Hispanics and 10 percent Anglos, half the conversations are in Spanish, the local food is enchiladas and tacos, the local beer is Corona, and the street signs reflect the names of Mexican and Spanish heroes. Is Laredo’s culture (which I promise really is inside the United States) the national identity those people wish to preserve? Or is it that of New Orleans? Or Savannah? New York? Boston? Los Angeles? (Maybe in the interest of an English national identity, we should require people to call L.A. by its English name—think how impressive it would be if you told your friends that you were going to visit The Angels.) The truth is that America’s heritage is liberty and diversity, and we should continue preserving that heritage by resisting the efforts of those who wish to destroy it in the name of cultural purity.
We should not wait until the welfare state is dismantled to open the borders. For one thing, that could be a very long time, given the addiction of so many Americans to the paternalistic welfare state. Freedom must never be compromised simply because other aspects of freedom have been abandoned. Should we wait until Medicare is abolished before ending the war on drugs? It would not be difficult to bar immigrants from receiving welfare and other public “benefits” (which actually would be the best thing that could ever happen to them) but in doing so, it would only be fair to exempt them from the taxes that are used to fund them. Come to think of it, wouldn’t it be great if they offered Americans the same choice?
What do you think are the most effective things an individual can do if he wants to be free?
Every person must figure that one out for himself. As the years have passed, I have become more and more convinced that there is no central plan for dismantling the socialistic welfare states and restoring liberty to America. When it finally happens, it will be the result of countless efforts, big and small, of many, many people—what Hayek called the results of human action, not of human design.
What do you think about the way America has responded to September 11?
The federal government has actually made life much more insecure and unsafe for the American people with its bombing campaign in Afghanistan because there are now many more people who hate America than there were before the campaign began. The feds should have waited and used brain rather than brawn to capture bin Laden and bring him to justice. We now are saddled with a “perpetual war for perpetual peace”--a war that increasingly threatens the rights and liberties of the American people and which, interestingly, guarantees an ever-increasing governmental presence in our lives, including out-of-control government spending, debasement of the dollar, assaults on civil liberties, more controls, more infringements on our freedom, and higher taxes.
Did you ever think you’d be living in a country in which the military could seize any U.S. citizen and cause him to disappear in a military dungeon for the rest of his life, without any contact with his family or his lawyer? That’s why Hispanics feel very uncomfortable with the war on terrorism—they’ve seen this type of thing in such places as Chile and Argentina.
The bright side is that an increasing number of Americans seem to be recognizing that the root of the problem is not foreigners’ hatred of American freedom but rather hatred of U.S. imperialistic foreign policy, including bombings and embargoes (with no congressional declaration of war, as required by the Constitution), coups, ousters of democratically elected leaders, support of brutal regimes (including teaching them how to torture their own people), and the use of U.S. taxpayers’ money to purchase allegiance of foreign dictators. That means that if we can persuade Americans to abandon the turn toward empire and restore our government to one of a republic, we’ve still got a chance to live the rest of our lives in a peaceful, harmonious, prosperous society rather than one in which there is a constant crisis entailing daily announcements of new terrorist threats.
What do you think are the greatest current threats to liberty, and what do you think we should do about them?
Our Founders had it right—the greatest threat to liberty lies not with some foreign government but rather with one’s own government. Thank goodness for the Constitution (including the Bill of Rights), because without it, the feds would be operating against us in a totally unrestrained manner, not only overseas but here in the United States as well. On a domestic level, we need to dismantle the socialistic welfare state, including the immoral, destructive, and racist war on drugs, and recapture the philosophy and principles of liberty, free markets, private property, and limited government of our Founders. On a foreign level, we need to bring the troops home from those 100 countries in which they are stationed and shackle those arrogant, know-it-all State Department people so as to prevent them from causing any more damage to people overseas and people here. Finally, we need to free the American people to travel, tour, and trade without any restriction because that’s what creates harmonies and friendships among nations.
What are some great books you’ve read that most readers of The Root may not have heard of?
Human Action (Mises); Economic Policy (Mises); Atlas Shrugged (Rand); The Fountainhead (Rand); The Law (Bastiat); Selected Essays on Political Economy(Bastiat); Economic Sophisms (Bastiat); Economics in One Lesson (Hazlitt); The Mainspring of Human Progress (Weaver); The Road to Serfdom (Hayek);Individualism and Economic Order (Hayek); America’s Second Crusade (Chamberlin); Elements of Libertarian Leadership (Leonard Read).
What do you like to do when you’re not working for liberty?
I love to cycle. I’ve been studying Italian for three years and now am starting to tackle French. These days, I’m running for the U.S. Senate from Virginia, which is taking up all my free time but is turning out to be one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. After years of writing articles and “preaching to the libertarian choir,” the Senate race is providing me with an opportunity to share libertarian ideas with ordinary people through personal communication. It’s fascinating to see the reactions on people’s faces when they encounter such libertarian ideas as ending the war on drugs, or public schooling, or income taxation, or Social Security. It’s very enjoyable and very exciting.
One of the things that FFF is known for is its excellent monthly publication Freedom Daily. How can one subscribe? Also, does FFF accept money from strangers?
Thank you for the nice compliment. People can read past issues of Freedom Daily on our website: www.fff.org. The subscription price is $18 per year for the print version or $10 for the email version—that gets you 12 monthly issues. People can subscribe online (www.fff.org) or by sending us a check or credit card information: FFF, 11350 Random Hills Road, Suite 800, Fairfax, VA 22030. We accept money from everyone!