Photo by Robert Burroughs
Fred Scnaulbelt: "If there were nine of me on the council, none of you would be working."
Ludwig Von Mises. the late Austrian economist and defender of untrammeled capitalism, refused to debate his theories publicly. He was convinced it isn’t possible to explain the free market’s subtle workings in a few minutes; throwing out bald assertions would leave him vulnerable to ridicule. Fred Schnaubelt, Mises’ ardent proponent, well knows the pitfall — yet he can’t resist arguing, cajoling, harping away to promote his and Mises’ shared vision. If he ignores his mentor’s restraint, after all, Mises was an academic. But Schnaubelt is out to save the nation.
"Susan Golding said the other day, ‘You’re the only person I know who can call all your friends on the council a thief and laugh about it, and have them laugh at the same time.’"
Photo by Robert Burroughs
So when the assistant director of the city’s planning department invited Schnaubelt to explain his philosophy of government to that department’s bureaucrats, Schnaubelt accepted with gusto. This occurred November 18, just two and a half weeks before the end of Schnaubelt’s first and only term on the San Diego City Council.
“I wish I had done this four years ago, but I think I was more scared of you back then,” Schnaubelt confided to the fifty or sixty men and women who crowded into the large meeting room on the second floor of city hall downtown.
"We joke about Newsline being a socialist-oriented newspaper. But Newsline doesn’t hold a candle to several of the downtown business associations advocating socialism for themselves."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
“We were scared of you. too!” one planner called out. Some of the planners chuckled; others popped into their mouths the last morsels of cookies which had been laid out on tables up near where Schnaubelt, looking relaxed, began his address.
“I’m just saying this as a way to endear myself to you at the outset, but if there were nine of me on the council, none of you would be working. . . . ’ He laughed, insouciant. They laughed. A few groaned; a few shook their heads. They knew it was true.
As a warm-up, he presented them with two different theories of government. According to one, when primitive men and women began to settle down and farm the land, they banded together and appointed lawmen to protect themselves from periodic marauders. Thus was born government. But according to the second theory, the one to which Schnaubelt subscribes, “at one point in history the bandits decided rather than ride off into the cold hills, they would settle amongst their victims and loot them on a systematic and ongoing basis. And the annual tribute to be collected was known as taxation!”
Fred and new wife Jeanne. “He’s taken an extreme position in favor of capitalism and shifted the whole debate from the left to the center to the right.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
More laughter. Tense laughter. This was strange, to hear a government representative suggesting to government employees that their historic forerunners were bandits and looters.
“The interesting thing about being a [government] planner is that you have to be a socialist,” Schnaubelt continued mildly. Among his audience one could almost see the hackles rise. The councilman continued, “All that means is that where you have centralized planning, you’re relying on a socialist system to determine how decisions are made and how resources are to be allocated, as opposed to using the individual capacity of all the members of our society. ” He hastened to assert that he believes in some planning. “The only question is: who should do it? Should it be the people who look in the horse’s mouth and count the teeth and put their money on the line? Or should it be the people who sit in the library and argue about it. . . ? People in the planning department have no more responsibility or accountability for their acts than I as a councilman have.” More balm. He told the bureaucrats, “The bureaucrat is great for whipping. Politicians love them. Rather than attacking each other in our own ‘family,’ we [politicians] can attack this vague, unidentifiable group of people that are out there, pursuing the forces of evil with Darth Vader to undermine everything that we intelligent people can conjure up. When you come up with a good plan, we steal the credit from you, as you know. And in the case where it seems that you’ve come up with an asinine plan, we blame you for incompetence.*’
That perception of the bureaucracy is different from the one Schnaubelt had when he took office back in 1977. He says, “I used to think that by and large bureaucrats were not productive, not competent, not sincere and genuine people; that they wasted an enormous amount of money and they perpetuated themselves in office. I thought that maybe ten percent of the bureaucracy was competent.” But over the months, as he worked with individual city staffers, a respect for many of them began to bud. Now he judges that probably eighty percent of San Diego’s bureaucrats are competent. “But I recognize there is an iron triangle existing between the politicians, the bureaucracy, and the special-interest groups. All are interdependent to perpetuate their selfish interests.”
The thought of Fred Schnaubelt changing his opinion would choke some of his critics. Some see in the former councilman an unrelenting dogmatism which seems fossilized, immutable. Yet that’s the perception of a distant observer. Up close, Schnaubelt’s life, at age forty-one, reveals a dramatic evolution.
His early years were far more involved with earning money than with monetary theory. By the time his family moved from Spring Valley to Point Loma, and Fred transferred to Dana Junior High School, he was already putting in at least six hours a day working in the Reynard Way offices of the carpet-cleaning business started by his stepfather, Edward Harris. Most of the members of the large family helped out, the grandmother as a seamstress, the grandfather as a maintenance man, young Fred starting with easy tasks such as cleaning rug pads, labor which earned him twenty-five cents an hour.
The heavy work schedule intensified in high school and precluded Schnaubelt’s participation in sports and other activities. But the money motivated him. When he turned fifteen, his parents began charging him “rent” of fifteen dollars a week, “to give me an understanding that you have to pay for things in life.” With the rest of his earnings, he bought a ’53 Mercury on his sixteenth birthday in 1957. By the time he graduated, he boasted the ownership of a brand-new car.
Sports weren’t the only things he passed by in high school. Despite high aptitude scores, he never studied, and squeaked by with C’s and D’s. He says he read only two books — Chief Crazy Horse and Three-Wheeling Through Africa — and he prided himself on reports he fabricated about books he never laid eyes on. Only after he graduated from high school did the realization strike him of “how stupid it had been to waste that education.” Suddenly he began reading weekly copies of Time and Life magazines cover to cover.
He says it was in a 1957 issue of Time that he first read about Atlas Shrugged, the controversial new novel by a woman named Ayn Rand. Not long afterward, Schnaubelt was cleaning carpets in a house on Devonshire Street in Ocean Beach when he spotted a copy of it. When he commented on it to the homeowner, she invited him to take the book, which she had finished reading. Rand's fictional account of what happens to the world when all the productive individuals go “on strike” in protest against increasing government control inspired Schnaubelt tremendously. When he turned twenty-one, he registered as a Republican. But he had no time to devote to political activism; he was too busy just trying to earn a living.
Married at nineteen, he and his wife had produced three children, and though their one-bedroom apartment on Villa Terrace in North Park cost just sixty-five dollars a month, Schnaubelt still had to scramble to make ends meet, the carpet business was so lean. He squeezed in time to read Rand’s other writings, but he says his life didn’t really begin to change until 1965, when he heard about a Dale Carnegie “human relations” course held in the Home Tower downtown.
A friend had recommended it, pointing out that Schnaubelt could spend money for a piece of carpet-cleaning machinery which would wear out in a few years, or he could spend it to acquire knowledge he’d keep forever. The argument persuaded Schnaubelt to sign up. He vividly remembers sitting in the beginning sessions, sweat pouring from his forehead, panicked at the thought of having to speak. Today he says he’s convinced “the major problem in our society is people’s low self-esteem and self-confidence.” By the end of the course, his own confidence had soared, and he scrutinized his life.
“I became disenchanted with myself doing the same menial labor year after year,” he says. “I was good at it. We were the biggest and the best [carpet cleaners in San Diego], but it was not intellectually satisfying.” In response, he began studying real estate, got his license, and in six weeks of part-time work earned about $3000, almost half of his yearly carpet-cleaning income. Flushed with success, he sold the carpet business and entered real estate full time in 1969. It turned out to be a rough period. Newly divorced, he moved into a garage in the 4700 block of Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach. That year he earned only about $6000, and at one point he even packed his bags to join the Alaskan oil boom. But at the last moment friends talked him into applying for a job with the real estate firm of Kantor, Thomas, Fletcher.
Within ninety days he had earned $27,000, and from then on his fortunes boomed. By 1971 he was making $35,000 a year — and rethinking his involvement with politics. Ten years before, he had cleaned the carpets of Leslie Gehres, chairman of the local GOP central committee, who had talked enthusiastically about Republicanism. However, despite a frustration with government policies that deepened as the years went by, Schnaubelt had held back, citing a lack of time.
By 1971, however, his success in real estate emboldened him to dream of becoming a Congressman. He figured it would take him ten years to develop the financial security, political contacts, and speaking ability he would need to succeed. Promptly he began working on all three. He wrote Gehres and solicited advice on becoming involved with the Republican Party and soon he was attending central committee meetings, joining Republican clubs, and walking precincts for various candidates. To improve his speaking ability he joined a local Toastmasters group at the urging of a friend named Harry Smith.
Smith had lived in Argentina for forty years before the raging inflation there drove him back to San Diego, where he became involved with the newborn “libertarian” political philosophy. It asserted that government should regulate neither business nor (nonviolent) personal behavior. Smith fanned Schnaubelt’s interest in the subject by introducing him to a range of political and economic literature, such as the works of Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Henry Hazlett, Milton Friedman, and others. Schnaubelt recollects that by the early Seventies he was devoting as much as thirty hours a week to training himself intellectually for an eventual job in government, reading probably four to five periodicals per month and steadily making his way through a reading list of perhaps a hundred books.
By 1974 he took that intellectual training a step further. Forcing himself to distill his proliferating thoughts and convictions, he began publishing a monthly, four- to six-page newsletter. Ostensibly, it dealt with investments, but Schnaubelt used it as a vehicle for building his vocabulary (“I tried to put in phrases like ‘deflocculation of apartments’”) and for honing his ability to apply libertarian principles to the financial world. “Tremendous growth came to me then,” he says.
By that time he had also begun to worry that his name, Fred Harris, might be too bland to catch voter attention. So he resumed his (divorced) father’s name, Schnaubelt. In 1977 concern over his name prompted him to enter the race for the Fifth District city council seat. “All my training was aimed at getting to the Congress. The run for city council was just a way to increase name ID.” Everyone, including Schnaubelt, assumed he would lose to incumbent Floyd Morrow, and a week before the election, the polls continued to point him to certain defeat. But in those last two weeks, Schnaubelt lit up TV screens all over San Diego with an ad campaign devised by big-time L.A. campaign consultant Arnold Steinberg, whom Schnaubelt had hired. The media blitz avoided any substantial issues and concentrated on presenting Schnaubelt as a Thoroughly Nice Guy. The voters responded, and on November 8 they elected Schnaubelt by a 55-44 percent vote to an office he wasn’t really interested in.
Today he thinks his victory points up “one of the absurdities of political office — namely, that two weeks before the election ninety-five percent of the people in San Diego had never heard of me. ” It is a theme to which he returns in his appearance before the planning department. During a question and answer session, when he is asked “Given that we live in a socialist society, don’t you think it’s better that we live in a socialist democratic society?" Schnaubelt comes close to sneering.
“We don’t have participatory democracy. Most of our politicians get elected by eighteen to twenty percent of the people. Look at my victory. Everyone was so impressed with the size of it. I got a mandate. But in reality it was only eighteen percent of the people voting. Think of how ludicrous it is. What you have in fact is articulate, organized minority groups that have influence way out of proportion.”
To avoid the appearance that his business contacts were influencing him, Schnaubelt had drastically cut back on his real estate practice in the second half of 1977. (He still earned more than $71,000 from the business that year, including one $19,000 commission, a sum greater than the yearly salary of the office to which he had just gotten himself elected.) Once he had actually won, he tried to prepare himself in other ways.
To quell his apprehension over being thrust suddenly into the unfamiliar new job, he began long, intense hours of council work and study. He says he also harbored misgivings over whether he would be corrupted by the System “either morally, spiritually, or financially.” A fascination with that question is part of what had attracted him to politics. “I wanted to see what happens to people; how come so many of them are seduced by the trappings of the office?” Once in office himself, he resolved that every time he confronted a potentially seductive situation, he would “paint myself in a comer so deeply that I couldn’t extricate myself.”
The first opportunity to do so came quickly, when the council members faced the question of whether they should give themselves a raise (salaries then were $17,000 for the council people; $25,000 for the mayor). Almost before the issue had surfaced, Schnaubelt bolted into action, issuing a position paper in opposition to a raise, which he distributed to the other council members and to the members of the city’s salary-setting commission. “If you make a stand real clear and forceful, it’s easy to withstand the pressure,” he says today. “In that case, there was no face-saving way I could back down from it.” As the months went by, Schnaubelt’s stand continued to grab headlines, and eventually he triumphed; for two more years, the salaries remained the same.
He was wrong to fight the pay raises, Schnaubelt believes today. He says back in 1977 he thought that since most people live on less than $17,000 a year, the city politicians should be forced to live on that amount; that the politicians should suffer and feel the effects of inflation, taxation, and other social woes. But now Schnaubelt says he's come to realize all the extra costs that council members must support because they hold that job. “Everyone in office can attend three to four dinners a week if they want to, and they generally cost at least thirty dollars a person. . . . There are demands on you to be places and do things, and I think you shouldn’t always be groveling out there for someone else to pay your meals. . . . Not everyone is in a position to supplement their salary by a thousand dollars a month, as I’ve done [from personal savings] for the last four years.” Even so, Schnaubelt says he almost resigned from office this past June because of financial strain.
But back in those first months of 1977, Schnaubelt's righteousness thundered from local newsstands and television screens. In fact, another of his goals had been to manipulate the local news media to promote his ideas about how local government should function. He found the undertaking easy, in part because most officials are reluctant to speak candidly. Although reporters and the public suspect the existence of a lot of behind-the-scenes skirmishing, Schnaubelt found that council members normally “don’t even tell on the opposition. Local government is almost like a country club.” In contrast, Schnaubelt says he privately vowed “to be open and tell ’em [reporters] virtually anything they wanted to know and even some things they hadn’t thought about.” Eventually, he discovered at least four or five city employees who were willing to tip him off privately to developments that had potential for good copy. He figured he would do some of the reporters’ work for them by trying to gather extensive background information for them. Once, for example, he obtained a computer print-out that documented suspicions a local builder of public housing was receiving higher profits than the council had believed; another time he dug up extensive figures from local brokers and realtors which supported his charge that the city was selling land it owned for less than fair market value.
Schnaubelt also armed himself with snappy, often outrageous quotes. He employed another weapon as well, the use of which he calculated very carefully. He says he tried always to couple his remarks with humor, “so that the medicine was going down with some good lumps of honey and sugar at the same time.”
Recently, Schnaubelt marveled at how well the tactic has worked. “It’s like Susan Golding said the other day, ‘You’re the only person I know who can call all your friends on the council a thief and laugh about it, and have them laugh at the same time.’ Then Cleator said, ‘I know, I know, Fred. We’re all a bunch of thieves down here. We’re stealing everyone’s money to fund the arts.’ ” At the memory of the remark, Schnaubelt grins, almost in disbelief. “I just . . .” He gropes for the words, then shrugs. “No comment.”
Then the grin breaks out again. “Didn’t have anything to say. I felt they got the message.”
If he was surprised by the efficacy of his good humor, he says it was only one of the job’s eye-openers: The biggest surprise was a negative one. In fact, Schnaubelt says the most devastating political realization he experienced was that "the biggest threat to freedom today is the American businessman.”
“You know, we joke about Newsline being a socialist-oriented newspaper. But Newsline doesn’t hold a candle to several of the downtown business associations advocating socialism for themselves. It’s just that Newsline advocates a different group of recipients.” Schnaubelt says it wasn’t even the big downtown developers like Ernest Hahn who shocked him by their pleas for subsidies. The jolt came instead from organizations like the Taxpayer’s Association “selling out on the convention center”; like San Diegans Inc. “and their support for pure socialism for business”; like the Chamber of Commerce’s request-for a subsidized motion picture bureau; like the Gaslamp Quarter businesses wanting “subsidized loans at other people’s expense” as well as funding for their organization. “You know, the little socialists advocate hundreds of little programs costing $10,000 to $20,000 each for their little agencies. But the businessmen are advocating five to ten million dollars for their social programs. ... In the past I had always related as a businessman. As a Republican, up until four years ago I couldn’t understand how any businessman in the United States could be registered as a Democrat. So this was kind of a shattering experience.”
He says his years of reading had warned him of something else, which nonetheless came as a bit of a surprise when he actually experienced it: the ignorance under which most council decisions are made. “You know, Barbara Tuchman, the historian, wrote an article in Esquire saying that many of the mistakes throughout history were due to political decisions being compartmentalized into fifteen-minute segments. ... On the council, you have enormously complicated issues come up. Some people spend their whole lives in a particular area like water quality, air quality, sewage, mass transportation — and that’s condensed into a fifteen-minute presentation in which you can’t possibly ferret out all the ramifications. And then based on that fifteen-minute presentation, we render a decision.” He’s given this speech dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times, and yet he warms to it as if the ideas were just crowding in on him for the first time. “Anyone on the council will spend more time making a decision to buy a new automobile or a house for themselves involving $100,000 than they will on a $200 million public project. When their money’s on the line, they want to know everything: what the possible pitfalls and alternatives are. When it’s the taxpayer’s money on the line, the money does not even play a part. The question is: Is there a place to get it? Not: How much does it cost and will you get it back or not?”
Schnaubelt claims he’s learned about other factors that warp the decision-making process, and he mentions them to the planning department members. He tells the planners that one of the biggest problems in local government is that “not one of you in this room has the guts to tell me or any other council member that we ’re full of crap when you honestly believe we are. Not one of you are gonna get up there and tell a council member publicly — and probably not privately — ‘You don’t understand, councilman,’ or ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ or That’s the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard. ’
“There was one man in parks and recreation who did try to do just that, but he wasn’t there for very long.” To the planners, Schnaubelt mentions a list of nineteen or twenty department heads or assistant department heads who were "encouraged” to change positions or seek employment elsewhere or who left for some other reason after the new council came into office four years ago. “The former city manager, Hugh McKinley, left. So did the deputy city manager, John Johnson. So did the head of the property department [Bill McFarlane], and a stadium manager [Merrill Day], and the manager of the community concourse [Mike Connelly]. We didn’t say to those people who left that we disagreed with them. We said they were ‘unresponsive’ to the new council.
"Now, this has an awesome impact on decision-making,’’ he asserts. "The old-timers among you know how to bring information to the council in a way that tends to achieve your objectives. ” But Schnaubelt says another factor also tends to distort the council actions. "You got nine people up there and there’s a tendency for you to believe that if you present the facts and figures in a straightforward and objective manner, that it’s just a matter of evaluating that and making a decision. But a decision before us relative to Hillcrest or someplace else is influenced by a constituency in Del Mar or in the county or in the Republican Party or in the Democratic Party or throughout the business community. And the major concern of elected officials the majority of the time is getting re-elected. Those of you who are close observers will notice the change in the tenor and personality of council decisions the closer the election day comes.’’ The statement draws knowing smiles.
Schnaubelt doesn’t think that these problems are peculiar to the San Diego City Council; he thinks they’re built right into the very nature of government. He felt that often his only option as a council member was to vote No as a kind of personal statement of his belief "that the decision-making capacity of consumers, collectively, is a trillion times greater than that of any handful of elected officials. In other words, the collective wisdom of 800,000 consumers is infinitely greater than that of nine people on the city council. It is short-sighted to expect we can make a wiser decision than those people in an area in which they are knowledgeable.”
He believes that when these nine people do take actions, those actions almost always result in a lowering of the standard of living. "All money spent by government is taken from somebody else. Elected officials only want to discuss those they’re helping. But because they ’re taking money from somebody else, they’re also hurting people. . . . What they don’t tell you when they want to spend $200 million downtown is that that's $200 million not available for people to spend as they freely choose. Obviously, the people don’t want to voluntarily spend the money downtown or they would already have spent it there. ”
With the $200 million, the consumers might buy better food, housing, education, and so forth, Schnaubelt suggests. "But we in the government have decided that downtown is a higher priority. We say, ‘You’re too dumb, you taxpayers, to really make that choice yourself. So we’re going to spend that money for you.”
He concedes that one problem faced by him and other libertarians is that they never can say exactly what the citizens would do with their money if it wasn’t taken through taxation. "Nobody knows what would go in downtown if we had a different system.” Nonetheless, his firm belief is “if you create the principles and the climate for people to interact freely, then you get all the things in the United States that other people in the world don’t have.”
This belief is close to the very heart of Schnaubelt’s libertarian ideology. "People think that in some terms, a libertarian politician is almost a contradiction in terms. How can you be promoting the government while you’re limiting it? But part of what I’ve tried to do is emasculate the government where I find that it is evil or wrong. In my view, government, per se, is not evil. It’s not a necessary evil, as so many conservatives say.” Instead, Schnaubelt believes that "when government is properly constituted, it doesn’t coerce people to do things. If crimes are being committed, government has a legitimate right to come in with police departments and courts to rectify the situation.” Thus, government has "the night-watchman role. It’s the referee. But you don’t have the government go in and play the game the way the government is doing now.”
He thinks there are only two ways to try to satisfy the needs of the individuals in any society: through the market or through some political process. “If you want to succeed in the private market, unless you’ve inherited wealth or you’re a crook, you have to produce a good or service at a price, quality, and quantity that the consumers are asking for.’’ Profits are crucial in this process, he lectures the planners. “Objectively, a profit is a way to determine what to produce and how resources should be allocated. The higher the profit, the more urgently consumers are asking for that good or service. The less the profit, the less they want it. If there’s no profit, then the majority of consumers are not willing to pay for the cost of recovering the resource — like the trolley that we hear outside the window here. It was a political decision that has no economic value at large — and the majority of people in the city of San Diego are worse off and have a lower standard of living because of it!”
He returns from the digression to reiterate his argument. Even when best-intentioned, government planning by its very nature is doomed to failure, he believes. “How many of you in this room know where you’re going to be working and where you’re going to be living five years from now?” he challenges the planning department members. “And yet you’re trying to plan where 800,000 people are going to be living in five years. There’s this myth perpetuated that decisions should be made by people in government, rather than privately in the market, because in the government you can do long-range planning, whereas in the private sector, the concern is making a profit as fast as you can. Well, that’s a bunch of baloney, because the ‘time horizon’ of the typical politician is the next election. And that’s two to four years away.
“Why don’t we let government regulate freedom of speech, the press, and religion? We say, ‘Well, it’s not competent to do this. It cannot be objective. ’ And yet when it comes to land-use planning, when millions and hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, we turn right around and say this same government, which we hold to be evil in the First Amendment areas, somehow changes its spots, and in this area becomes objective, unbiased, fair, and equitable.”
He thinks it’s too crude an analysis to suggest that all politicians are simply in the pockets of their biggest campaign contributors. “You know. I’ve raised a little over $200,000 in the last four years from more than 1500 contributors. And you always worry about whether you can stand the pressure. Will you sell your soul? Can you resist? But the fact is in that time only three people [all businessmen] have asked me personally to vote for their projects. That’s absolutely incredible.”
Instead, the corruptive process is far subtler, he thinks. He cites the example of cultural and arts groups hungry for funds. “They have a choice of going to 1000 people and asking them for ten dollars apiece, or they can come to five politicians and they only have to talk to the five of ’em. That’s a lot easier. And so they throw fundraising parties for the politicians at election time, and it’s all implied. There’s no direct under-the-table dealings or agreements; it’s just psychologically indebting somebody to somebody else.
“If people honestly and truly wanted to limit the influence of money in elections, they would take away the power of politicians to distribute favors, and you wouldn’t have to worry about it. . . . The only reason the milk lobby gave $50,000 to Humphrey and Nixon was because of the power of the government to set the price of milk. You take away the power of the government to make some people rich and other people poor and you take the big money out of it.”
Thus, in Schnaubelt’s utopia, the San Diego city government would be twenty-five to fifty percent smaller. The city attorney’s office and police department would remain, as would the street and maintenance workers (“and that’s only because we’ve developed a certain infrastructure which we can’t change”). He envisions a small role for building inspectors and planners, who would function primarily as an information clearinghouse to assist developers. On the national level, the shrinkage would be similar, and it would certainly affect the federal welfare programs.
But what about the poor? It’s a question, Schnaubelt thinks is “not so interesting. ” He says, “The interesting question is: what is the natural state of mankind throughout history and in seventy-five percent of the world today? Poverty, starvation, disease, death,” he answers. Whereas, in the United States since the turn of the century, he asserts, the percentage of the people living at the poverty level has fallen from ninety to ten percent. “Today the poorest people in the United States live better than most of the people in the world and better than kings and queens and princes and potentates of a hundred years ago. Why is that? That’s what we should be examining — what has enabled this complete reversal to take place?”
He thinks it’s the explosion of creative production which occurs when human beings are granted civil and economic liberty. He thinks it’s not because of federal poverty programs. “If you take all the money currently spent on social welfare, which is somewhere over $300billion, and divide that by the 27 million people identified by the Census Bureau as being poor, the government is spending about $44,000 per family of four to lift them out of poverty. If the government is doing such a wonderful job in the area of social welfare, why does it take $44,000?” His answer: “The government first takes care of the government. If the money wasn’t going into administering these programs, it would be spent in actual production, and that production would be consumed by lower-income people.”
Schnaubelt thinks private charity would much more efficiently aid that remaining impoverished ten percent. “People really care about other people,” he says. “Last year private contributions to charity in the United States exceeded $40 billion — and that’s a lower percentage than it was in the Thirties when the tax rate was lower. . . . In contrast, my observation is that people in government really care less about the poor unless there’s political mileage to be made out of it, because they do things to hurt the poor, like restricting the supply of housing.” His tone is bitter.
He is sitting in his city council office just a few days before he’ll have to move out to yield the space to his successor, Ed Struiksma. Piles of notes are everywhere, as are the philosophical and economic treatises which he still consults on a daily basis: Mises' Bureaucracy and Planned Chaos, Friedrich Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, The Discovery of Freedom by Rose Wilder Land. He has been trying to track down nine copies of the last to present to the remaining council members. The effort at evangelism is something that hasn’t relented during the past four years. One year he gave all his fellow representatives a year’s subscription to the libertarian journal Reason, while another time he obtained grants for former councilmen Larry Stirling and Bill Lowery to attend a libertarian economic seminar in Idaho. He claims that gradually he’s seen his efforts pay off as libertarian arguments have here and there crept into public utterances of everyone from Bill Cleator to Lucy Killea. And yet he still seems genuinely distressed by the more persistent complaint voiced about him: that he harps too much on philosophy; that he's too doctrinaire.
“I’ll never forget meeting Cleator one day in the hall and having him say, ‘You’re so dogmatic. You really believe in what you’re saying.’ ” The statement seemed to dumbfound Schnaubelt. “The other council members say, ‘Fred, we don’t want to discuss philosophy. We don’t want to discuss principles. We want to weigh each case on its merits.’ There’s almost a pride in having no principles. What they’re saying is there are no fundamental principles to which we should adhere: ‘You bring the people up and we’ll act like Solomon. Both sides have fifteen minutes to present their case and then we ’ll render a just decision, based on the individual merits. ’ But that's like the blind goddess of justice lifting up her blindfold and saying, ‘Tell me who you are and I’ll tell you what your rights are.’ My point is, civilization started with the rule of law and that rule is that everybody should know what’s expected of them, what is the limit of their freedom, and what they can and can’t do in relation to the government. It’s not something that should be capricious, and arbitrary, and situational.”
And so he’s been thinking about reverting to Plan A: taking his principles and the quest to promote them to Capitol Hill either from the seat in the Forty-third Congressional District due to be vacated by Clair Burgener, or in the newly created Forty-fourth District seat in the central city. If in the past four years he has irrevocably wrapped himself in the mantle of libertarianism, if he’s forever forsaken the chance of ever again being perceived as that bland, uncomplex nice guy, he doesn’t think that will hurt him in any future elections. He claims strong support from the local Republican Central Committee, in spite of his frequent criticism of Republican policies, which he finds analogous to a spat among family members. “All I do is promote individual liberty, and I think this is something most people can relate to,” he says, disingenuously. Yet he also says he’s tempted to subordinate that activity to his home life and business and may well choose not to run at all. (He was married again in May; Jeanne, his new wife, met him here five years ago, and before their wedding, she’d been office manager of the district attorney’s office in Fallon, Nevada.)
In the course of interviewing Schnaubelt, I talked to more than a dozen of his critics and admirers. Some think he has a chance of making it to Congress; others scoff at the prospect for one reason or another. A few see all his high-flown talk of principles as a cover for a callous, single-minded promotion of the interests of the local real estate community, and several of the liberal activists I spoke with questioned Schnaubelt’s much-vaunted ideological consistency. Newsline publisher Larry Remer, for example, asked whether Schnaubelt’s abandonment of support for district elections this past year wasn’t a sell-out to the local powers-that-be; more than one person sniffed inconsistency in Schnaubelt’s unremitting championship of economic liberties but relative passivity about civil-liberty issues like police harassment of gays and prostitutes. (Libertarians do not believe in restricting activities such as prostitution, drug use, gambling, and homosexuality.) Ironically, Schnaubelt’s friends among the local libertarian community adamantly refuse to quibble with Schnaubelt’s record of doctrinal purism. “If I were in there, I might be doing something different. But there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and I’m not going to pick on Fred for that,’’ one said.
The former councilman draws mixed reviews with regard to the question of his effectiveness. Some people don’t see his having had much more than a few isolated victories (like the convention center vote), while others like Remer and Al Tarvyd, a local attorney who formerly worked as Schnaubelt’s administrative aide, think he’s been enormously effective. “He’s taken an extreme position in favor of capitalism and shifted the whole debate from the left to the center to the right,” Tarvyd says with admiration.
But I was interested in the impact of Schnaubelt’s impassioned harangues on individual people who don’t agree with him. I talked with Matt Potter, a local writer and a moderate liberal who has opposed the city’s downtown redevelopment plans and who worked closely with Schnaubeit in the convention center campaign. Potter said he tried to avoid actively debating political theory with Schnaubeit. “I’m not into heavy philosophical discussions. And one reason I wouldn’t do them with Fred is because he would win all the time.”
Lucy Goldman, the liberal businesswoman who joined forces with Schnaubeit to battle the convention center, doesn’t share Schnaubelt’s blanket opposition to government subsidies, but says “he’s not an easy person to argue with — only because he has been arguing this for so long. ... It would just get to the point where after a while you would want to change the subject, because you can only go so far.”
I found most interesting Otto Bos’s reaction to Schnaubeit. Bos now is running Pete Wilson’s campaign for the U.S. Senate, but he first met Schnaubeit back in the early Seventies, when Bos was working as a political reporter for the San Diego Union. He got to know the councilman well while serving as the mayor’s press spokesman. Despite their public squabbles, Bos says he likes Schnaubeit. “But he’s so damn sure about everything. That’s one of the things that disturbs me more than anything. At times I feel I’m confronted more with a religion than a political philosophy. “ For all his exposure to it, Bos still finds Schnaubelt’s philosophy baffling. “I just don’t see it as being very solution-oriented. ”
He continues, “He’ll throw obscure Viennese professors that I’ve never heard of out on the table and I feel like I’m back in the late Sixties in a coffee house talking to some bright graduate student. But I have no way of answering that.” And he remembers one time when Schnaubelt’s barrage finally got to him. It was at some public social function back in the hottest days of the convention center fight, and Bos says he was having a drink when Schnaubeit came up to him. And once again, Schnaubeit started pelting Bos with those incessant principles, “And I just looked him in the eyes and said, ‘How do you know so much for sure? I’m just one of those nice fuzzy people who doesn’t want to talk about this all the time. Don’t you ever quit? Don’t you ever stop?’ “