How did you first hear about libertarian ideas?
Hugh Downs: I don't remember where I first heard
about it. But I do remember feeling that there were threads of that
thought in what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they set up
this nation. And that kind of appealed to me.
After I had done 20/20 for a while, we had the chance to
gain John Stossel on the program, and that was very interesting to
watch [him]. Philosophically he's a libertarian. And that interested
The way the nation has evolved now, from the government's standpoint,
there's a real need for that kind of philosophy to come back into
it. I can't say that I am in agreement with everything that is said
-- possibly because in some cases I don't understand fully what [libertarians]
are saying -- but still, the basic philosophy I find attractive and
BW: Let me follow up on that. What are the areas
of libertarianism you find most appealing?
HD: Well, the sovereignty of the individual is extremely
important. And I grieve for the type of person who may be so baffled
or battered that he wants to surrender his sovereignty to some guru
or some government.
[There was a newspaper in] Phoenix -- I live in that area -- where
this guy had written in and said he thought the public knows too much.
And he said, "I don't want to know everything. I trust my government
and I trust they have all the necessary knowledge, and they'll do
the right thing." And I said, that's the most alarming thing
I've read for quite a while. Mostly because the writer is not unique.
And we've got people like that, and that's a great danger.
BW: There's something almost un-American about what
HD: I think there is. You're absolutely right. You
know what it reminded me of? After the Soviet Union really began to
seriously come apart, there was a big flood of people who came to
New York and became cab drivers, for some reason or other. I was in
a cab with this guy whose English was pretty fair, and he was complaining
about America. Because he said, "You know, you have to go get
yourself a job; the government doesn't tell you where you're going
to work." And then he said, "And then there's these newspapers;
they've got differing views, and you're not told which view is correct."
Now, that was the result of 70 years of Communist oppression. But
he thought he would have been more comfortable going back into Russia.
Because people don't understand liberty if they've had two or three
generations of not having it. Even though, if the oppression is bad
enough, they can thirst for relief -- and people came from Europe
to the New World to gain that benefit.
But I hate to see that creeping back. That kind of desire to give
up your sovereignty.
BW: So, individual sovereignty, you find very appealing.
What area of libertarianism are you most doubtful about?
HD: Listening to Harry Browne, who is a man I respect
enormously, things popped into my head when he mentioned something
about the government not doing anything worthwhile -- which
is just about right! I've always felt that there's a role for government,
and there is some role for a federal government.
If you adopt the view that I've always practiced -- that the government
is us -- and there is a community of people who have gotten
together and have agreed on certain forms of behavior, and agreed
that people who tend to break that (once the agreement is there) have
got to be dealt with. There's got to be some kind of a system of justice.
So there is a role for government, and I can't quite adopt a view
that no government at all would result in anything but anarchy.
To the extent that government suffers corruption, then, yes, the libertarian
ideas are right. But I've always thought there was a role for the
federal government even in the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration].
You know, before ballooning, hot-air ballooning did not come under
the jurisdiction of the FAA. And the result was a lot of people got
killed because they didn't have the rules you have [today]. When the
FAA was functioning properly, it was a force for good, and it represented
an example of where the government did do something good. And you
have to keep an eye on it, because it can become corrupt over time.
But I can't abandon the idea that a government of some sort is almost
a necessity for civilization.
BW: Let me clear up a possible misconception. Most
libertarians would call themselves "minarchists," which
means they believe in a minimum government. Some libertarians call
themselves "constitutionalists," and they believe in the
kind of small government this country originally had, at the time
of the Founding Fathers. There are a small percentage of libertarians
who might call themselves anarchists. Most libertarians would argue
we want to return government to the ideas the Founding Fathers had,
which was a much more limited government, obviously, than we have
today. But it doesn't get rid of it completely. I agree: there are
certainly legitimate things the government must do. Then the debate
is, how many of those things are there, and how do you keep [government]
from getting even bigger than that? Which I think is the central question
of all politics: What is the legitimate role of government?
HD: It's possible that some of the libertarians you
mentioned, in the different categories, may have an idea that I would
love to see: That people are responsible enough to live together amicably,
without a government that sees to it that they do obey the rules agree
upon by the community.
It might be naive to think that. Knowing human nature, as I think
I do, it wouldn't work.
BW: How would you describe yourself politically?
HD: I think about what was said by Will Rogers, "I'm
not a member of any organized political party; I'm a Democrat."
I've never aligned myself with any party affiliation. I've voted for
the person who ran for office. I was born into a kind of
Republican family. But by the time I was 18 I didn't go along with
that too much. And as a result, I tend to vote a little more in the
But I think, kind of, a pox on both of their houses lately. And I
think that's one of the things that led me to examine libertarianism
a little more closely.
BW: What would you say is the greatest threat to
liberty in America today?
HD: Voter apathy. Complacency. The fact that an almost
rogue administration can make the inroads in our liberty like this
one has done, with things like the Patriot Act. That's extremely alarming
to me. And I'm alarmed that my industry -- mass media -- isn't doing
its job, and alerting people to what really is going on. And that's,
to my mind, the biggest threat to liberties in our country.
BW: One of my questions was going to be: Do you think
the media is doing a good job alerting us to the dangers? And you've
already answered that. Why aren't they? Why isn't the media doing
a better job of alerting us about the dangers of the Patriot Act,
and the lies involving the war in Iraq, and the rise of religious
HD: There is no simple answer to that; there are
several things. One is journalistic fashion. One is ratings and commercial
aspects of [media]. Another is the ownership of media -- enormous
conglomerates who are pretty set in what they want said and what they
want the public to hear. All these factors, I think, conspire to a
certain extent in making journalism less than it has been. And less
than it ought to be.
BW: In one of your radio commentaries, you spoke
out against the War on Drugs and explicitly called for the decriminalization
of marijuana. Why did you come to that conclusion? And what kind of
response did you get to that commentary?
HD: First of all, I am against smoking marijuana,
because I don't think anybody ought to draw leaf smoke into their
lungs. That's bad. And marijuana smoking might be almost as bad as
regular cigarette smoking. So I'm against it.
But I'm always amused at the drug warriors who, for some reason, have
gotten mired in something very ancillary that got started in 1935,
when [Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger] gave
enough cannabis to a dog to kill it, and tried to prove a point that
And [some] people say, "Well, it's a gateway. Eighty percent
of hard drug users started on marijuana." That's a nonsense statement!
A hundred percent of hard drug users started on milk. What is the
connection? It's just not there.
So I did feel that if we could get [drugs] under the law, it would
be much better. Imagine a teenage ghetto kid who said, "I don't
want to do drugs at all, I want to do alcohol." You know, the
easiest thing for him to find is crack cocaine on any street corner.
But where would he find a bootlegger? He couldn't. He'd have to go
into a liquor store or a bar, and they wouldn't serve him. Because
those things are under the law. As soon as you outlaw it, you lose
control of it.
What kind of reaction did you get to that commentary? I seem to recall
hearing later that you said, "The hammer came down."
HD: Well, yeah. And not from the public so much.
A preponderance of the public agreed with me, but the network--. That
was ABC Radio, and they were very concerned about that.
BW: One of the arguments against even talking about
decriminalizing drugs is that you're condoning their use. If you say,
for example, the war on marijuana causes more problems than it solves,
it's not uncommon for the Drug Czar to say, "Ah-hah! You're encouraging
kids to smoke marijuana!" Did you get any of that reaction?
HD: Yes, I did. I got some. And some from viewers.
Although, I repeat, it wasn't like the whole public rose up against
what I had [to say]. There was a lot more sympathy out there than
I expected. That didn't mean that the powers-that-be weren't upset
BW: Another issue that libertarians are very concerned
about is the war in Iraq. In your speech at lunch, you seemed to suggest
very strongly that you were opposed to that as well. Why?
HD: I can't imagine how anybody could be in favor
of it. It was so patently wrong. People who later said, "We were
duped..." You know, they said, "We were duped, we were taken
in, and now we know." And I said, "Who is the we?
I wasn't taken in by that!" That was nonsense from the beginning.
Same with the Vietnam War. Even John Kerry, he said, "I finally
came to realize that it was wrong." I may be lucky, but I realized
how wrong that was at the very beginning. The French got out [of Vietnam]
at Dien Bien Phu in 1954; why didn't we have the sense to follow that
kind of wisdom? It was another example of a terribly misguided action
on the part of government.
BW: If you were the president right now, what would
you do about our presence in Iraq?
HD: I'll tell you why I would bring the troops home.
There are several options -- all of them bad. And when you look at
the option of bringing the troops home right away, you got to admit
it's a terrible option -- there would be an awful, immediate increase
in bloodshed. But I examined the other options, one by one, and they
are all worse. And if we insist on staying there, that's the worse
thing we can do. So, I think, yeah, it's going to be awful, but I'd
like to bring them home.
BW: You've made your living as a communicator. How
do you think libertarians could do a better job of trying to communicate
our ideas to the American public, so more people are willing to listen
to them and embrace them?
HD: You know, I've wondered. I can't say I've pondered
that, but your asking me triggers this thought.
I've wondered if there would be a way for libertarians to establish
a libertarian radio station, to start with. And have the whole thing
where people would tune in and then say, "Hey, yeah, that's right."
And then more people would tune in. I think it could even be supported
by the commercial system that supports progressive talk radio now.
It might be a way to get a third stream going that would offset what's
wrong now in mass media, with the big corporate ownership, and so
BW: Actually, the good news is that the libertarian
movement is already heading in that direction. There are some very,
very popular libertarian talk show hosts around the country. But they
do tend to be, sort of, one-by-one, as opposed to a block of talk
show hosts, with a libertarian following a libertarian following a
Now, going back to my original question -- how to communicate these
ideas -- I'm actually thinking more on a one-on-one basis. You mentioned
this fellow who wrote the letter to the editor, who thinks Americans
know too much, and he trusts his government to take care of him. Which
is scary! That letter-writer seems afraid of liberty. And I think
that's one of libertarians' biggest challenges. How do we overcome
the fear that people have of liberty? How do we reassure them that
a free market and private charity and voluntary cooperation can work
as good or better than most government programs? How do we overcome
that fear factor?
HD: Eloquence is one answer, and I just heard it
in listening to Harry's speech.
You might persuade some people, but that's a very deep-seated thing.
A person so lacking in having his act together that he is ready to
surrender his sovereignty to some government, God help us, I don't
know whether you could have the time to convince that person.
But if [libertarian ideas are] hovering in the air, more and more
people will begin to say, "Hey, yeah, maybe that's it."
You will never persuade the guy who wrote that letter--
BW: We've written him off already!
HD: [Laughs.] It'd be nice to cut down the number
of that kind of people who think that.
BW: Let me end with a lighthearted question. When
you were on 20/20, you got to see all the
reports that John Stossel -- one of our favorite libertarian correspondents
-- used to file. Did you agree with everything he said, or did you
sometimes think, "He's going too far!"
HD: I never thought he's going too far. I admired
what he did. I loved his style! He was interviewing this prisoner
one time who had gone to the law library in the prison, and he sued
the prison system because they had supplied him with chunky peanut
butter -- and he wanted the smooth.
And I remember John said, "So what? You're a criminal!"
[Laughs.] It was a beautiful moment.
courtesy of Elizabeth Brierly]
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extended interview with comments by Harry