All Commentary
Wednesday, October 1, 1997

Cast a Giant Ballot

Roger MacBride Made the Libertarian Party the Most Important Third Party in America

Dr. Thies is the Durell Professor of Money, Banking, and Finance at Shenandoah University and chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus.

The late Roger MacBride is perhaps best remembered as the person who brought Little House on the Prairie to television. For some readers of this magazine, he was the person who, through the casting of a single vote, transformed the fledgling Libertarian Party into the most important third party in America. These two feats were not independent.

In 1971, the Libertarian Party was organized because of the argument that neither of the major parties was committed to liberty, and the nave idea that a few people—none of whom commanded any significant resources—could do something about it. A philosophy professor (John Hospers) was nominated for president, and a cub reporter (Toni Nathan) covering the party’s first convention for vice president. These candidates were placed on the ballots of only two of the nation’s 50 states. Including write-ins from other states, the ticket got 8,000 popular votes out of 77 million cast, not even as many as were received by the Prohibition Party’s ticket.

It was at this point that Roger MacBride entered the scene. Because the Republican Party ticket won the popular vote in Virginia, that party’s slate of candidates for the Electoral College—which included MacBride—was elected. Being nominated for the Electoral College is usually a ceremonial honor bestowed on party loyalists. While pledged to honor the popular vote, the members of the Electoral College are not constitutionally bound to do so, and—from time to time—certain of them have cast their ballots for persons other than the candidates of their party. MacBride’s doing so on behalf of the Libertarian Party like a bolt from the blue sparked life into the neophyte organization.

It is important to point out that Roger MacBride’s vote for the Libertarian Party ticket was only partially motivated by philosophy. Following their re-election, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were each forced to resign from office: Nixon for obstruction of justice in conjunction with the Watergate affair, and Agnew for tax evasion while governor of Maryland. MacBride was protesting their already obvious corruption as well as their policies. Of course, as Lord Acton observed, corruption is the inevitable consequence of the all-powerful state.

That Roger MacBride cast his electoral vote other than for the candidates to which he was sworn shouldn’t have been very surprising. As a young man, he wrote a scholarly little book, The American Electoral College, in which he presented his own views on our indirect method of voting for the president and vice president.

While appreciating many of the criticisms of the Electoral College that have been advanced, Roger MacBride declined from endorsing a major overhaul. He was persuaded that a sufficient reform would be the election of members of the Electoral College by congressional district with an additional two electors from each state elected at-large (as opposed to the general ticket system, which elects the slate of candidates receiving a plurality of the popular votes cast statewide). In fact, in the last few years, the states of Maine and Nebraska have implemented this method.

By “breaking up” the election of the members of the Electoral College, it would be more probable that occasions would arise when no ticket gained the majority needed for election. Presently, the predominance of the general ticket system almost guarantees a majority in the Electoral College to the ticket gaining a plurality of the popular vote, e.g., both of Bill Clinton’s elections. But, with district-based voting, a strong independent or third-party candidate might be able to pick up enough electoral votes to deny the ticket receiving a plurality of the popular votes a majority of the electoral votes.

With no ticket having a majority in the Electoral College, it would seem that the election of the president would be thrown into the House of Representatives, and of the vice president into the Senate. However, a sufficient number of the electors pledged to independent or third-party candidates could vote for their “second choice.” “This amount of independence,” said MacBride, “is certainly the very minimum to be expected from Electors.” Indeed, MacBride entertained the specific possibility that the district method would reinvigorate the original idea of the Electoral College, so that the electors would be “influenced but not governed” by the popular vote.

How is it that a person who so clearly expressed his view that electors should be “influenced but not governed” would be nominated for the Electoral College? Either the leaders of the Republican Party of Virginia back in 1972 were men and women of great integrity, or else they didn’t know Roger MacBride. I’ll leave it for the reader to decide.

In 1976, Roger MacBride was named as the Libertarian Party’s candidate for president. I should mention that this was back in the days when the party nominated persons rich enough to largely self-finance their campaigns. It was during this campaign that the Libertarian Party actually developed into a viable third party, gaining ballot status in 36 states and something more than 200,000 votes.

During the mid-1980s, the grassroots activists of the party declared themselves free of persons of wealth. In 1984 and 1992, the party nominees for president were furthermore of no renown outside the organization. And, while the organization grew in its ability to gain ballot status for its candidates, its votes slacked off from peak totals. MacBride, among other people, drifted out of the party. Then, during the late 1980s, Roger MacBride re-entered politics, helping to organize the Republican Liberty Caucus.

My last memory of Roger MacBride was at a dinner party two weeks before his March 5, 1995, death. Epicurean and gentleman that he was, Roger suggested we go to a French restaurant that he considered to be the best in town. We greatly enjoyed ourselves, as we always did in his company. If, as the evolutionists claim, we are no more than self-aware matter, then Roger was more self-aware than most, for he enjoyed life.

Living Life to the Fullest

This brings me to the connection between Roger’s political activity and his creative work. Roger MacBride led a full life. He went to the best schools—Exeter, Princeton, and Harvard Law, was a Fullbright Scholar, wrote several scholarly books, produced two television series, wrote children’s novels, was a state legislator in his native Vermont, had homes in Miami Beach and Naples, Florida, as well as in Biddeford Pool, Maine, and enjoyed scuba diving off the coast of Australia. This is what freedom is about. Freedom is not an abstraction, or some unattainable ideal, it’s about living life. And, this is true whether one lives the life of a sophisticate or lives the simple life depicted in the Little House series.

As a young man, Roger MacBride was “adopted” by Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls who, along with Isabel Paterson and Ayn Rand, was one of the three founding mothers of the modern libertarian movement. Where Ms. Rand’s strain emphasized the Western (or “Greek”) concepts of reason and individualism, Ms. Lane’s strain emphasized the Eastern (or “Hebrew”) concepts of emotion and community. Rose Wilder Lane, although herself something of an agnostic and a thoroughly cosmopolitan person, unabashedly presented the freedom philosophy as part of—indeed, as the essential part of—our Semitic religious tradition, and the defining feature of the American experience. And Roger MacBride did exactly the same.

Roger MacBride began the closing chapter of his campaign book, A New Dawn for America, with the Old Testament story in which Israel demanded a king. A king, warned the prophet Samuel, will take your lands, your children, your goods and your freedom, and you shall cry out in that day. Still, Israel demanded a king. And, such is the nature of all governments, whether authoritarian kings, or democratic presidents. “Why,” asked MacBride, “would anyone willingly submit to its false Authority?”

Roger MacBride sensed that those who put their belief in the state violate the commandment to put no god before the one true and transcendent God, and that they did so because it doesn’t take much to believe in the all-too-real force of the state. That force—the police and military, the jails and torture chambers, the firing squads and gas chambers—is quite tangible.

Time and again, Roger MacBride spoke with compassion for those who were victimized by their own decisions. Concerning drugs, MacBride wrote, “Why should not you and I, it is argued, who hate the very thought of drug addiction, and who would use every resource at our command to prevent a loved one’s becoming addicted, why shouldn’t we force our values on another? Hard case, I agree. But the rational answer is clear: force is no answer, love and persuasion may be.” And again: “[T]here are serious issues of moral conduct. Fortunately there are many institutions other than government that can appropriately deal with these matters. To handle the task of teaching and maintaining desirable standards of behavior, logic and experience dictates reliance on the individual, the home, the family, the schools, the churches and synagogues, and the almost infinite number of other voluntary associations which now exist in every nook of the country.”

Clearly, Roger MacBride was not a libertine, and did not advocate decriminalizing vices for lack of care about other people. He advocated decriminalization because he believed, firstly, that each person had a God-given right to be free, and, secondly, that it was more effective to attempt to dissuade people from vices through fraternal and charitable efforts.

This bleeding-heart libertarianism was the reason for the enormous success of the Little House saga that Roger MacBride advanced both through his involvement in the television series and his continuation of the series of children’s novels, with Little House on Rocky Ridge and Little Farm in the Ozarks. The “rugged individuals” of the American frontier were rugged individuals who were members of families, and rugged individuals who were members of the communities in which they lived. It was because the love they received from their families and neighbors was secure, that the pioneers were free. They didn’t need big government because they had one another.

I remember Roger telling me of some of the conflicts between him and Michael Landon in producing the Little House television series. For example, Roger insisted that the children run around in bare feet, which would have been historically accurate, while Michael Landon insisted that the children wear shoes, since the television audience, not knowing the circumstances involved, would have thought that the parents were neglecting their children if they didn’t provide them with shoes. As a result of their collaboration, Laura Ingalls’s story—somewhat compromised—was successfully brought to a mass audience.

I also remember giving autographed copies of Roger’s novels continuing the Little House series to my daughter Adele on the occasion of her twelfth birthday. How could I communicate to her what I knew of the meaning of life, so she could more fully enjoy this wonderful gift she had received? I know that she will have to discover this for herself, but I thought that the vicarious enjoyment of the life experiences contained in these books could help her to do just that. I know, too, that Roger loved his daughter, Abigail. He dedicated his second Little House novel to “my daughter Abby, who shares with me the legacy of Rose. In them both, God got it right.”

For many of us, Roger MacBride was like Benjamin Franklin, an older and wise man who joined with us in a revolutionary cause. Three years before his death, Roger said that we were going to see the rebirth of liberty in our country. He was hopeful of observing that rebirth himself. Now, with his departure, we are hopeful for his observation of this rebirth from afar. And, we must be resolved to continue in this effort. Although we are now without his leadership, we will always have his inspiration.

  • Clifford F. Thies is the Eldon R. Lindsay Professor of Economics and Finance at Shenandoah University. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Boston College.