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Government vs the Individual an Age-Old Battle


John Stossel

Former Consumer Affairs Reporter Sees the Light about Government and Turns Libertarian

Listening to John Stossel address The Commonwealth Club on WBEZ Chicago. The Commonwealth Club of California is like a grown-up TED Talk. They invite pundits, politicians and luminaries of the the day to talk politics, religion, society, culture and other hot button issues. Though its website says its “nonpartisan,” sometimes I think that’s code word for not as radically liberal as the New Yorkers. Whenever I listen to its one-hour radio show I hear mostly progressive, Democratic-leaning liberals who speak talking points memo with the best of them.

I grow weary of one-sided groupthink so I was pleasantly surprised to hear self-described libertarian John Stossel, of Fox News no less. Stossel  made his name as a consumer reporter beating down businesses and stirring up the Ralph Nader crowd, but gradually started changing his tune when he began educating himself outside of the milk toast media.

I loved Stossel’s “Gotcha” shows on 20/20. I always found his “this is going to kill you,” beat stories funny and embarrassing for the business being beat up. (I found it very interesting that he revealed he was a stutterer and that’s why he stuck to consumer affairs stories because he was afraid if he did a live interview he might stutter on the spot.) But then came his special “Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?”

I was in my early 20s when it came on ABC but I still remember it. It felt like fresh, new and interesting journalism that stood out among the crime mongers, big business haters and government lovers the media is populated with. I was a journalist at the time and I remembered thinking I wish I could do a story like that.

Years later I did, about gun control. The rabid arguments I heard on the left against guns just didn’t jive with the research and statistics I was finding when I began reporting on the issue. It was April 2000. Just one year after the massacre at Columbine high school And like any large-scale shooting in America, the political groups burst forth with their fangs ready to sink them into any wavering moderate willing to listen to them. Rosie O’Donnell was in the Centennial State (that’s Colorado for you folks who didn’t go to private school) to lead the Million Moms March – a march against gun violence but really a march against guns.

I was assigned to cover the event but decided to turn it into an actual debate, instead of a forgone conclusion that guns are ALWAYS bad. So my story pitted moms against each other. I wrote about two moms in particular, one who was the personal victim of a crime and one who went to Columbine high school and saw her alma mater descend into a hail of bullets, smoke and blood.

Researching the story I found that the white Suburban mom was COMPLETELY IRRATIONAL in her fear of gun violence. Victims of gun violence in this country are overwhelming poor, black, and male. There is no way her young blond-hair daughter was ever in danger, yet she fought for stricter gun laws. Knowing she’d never even met a young, black male, I doubt she was marching for them. But who knows?

Reporting that story only pushed me in the direction I had already been going. I totally identified with John Stossel who had his awakening also as a journalist. The more he began to report the more he began to see how hollow his reporting was.

He finally he jumped ship – leaving ABC behind and hopping over the Fox. His move to Fox ended his adoration from the media. On the show he explains how he became jaded with the consumer affairs beat because trial lawyers kept serving up businesses to hound and he just got tired of what he call a “scam.”

Though he’d won 14 Emmy’s as a consumer affairs reporter he’s won NONE since his move to Fox and I would add since his change of mind.

John spoke openly about the media ostracizing him after his views became more libertarian. I loved the question the host asked him about why other media folk and reporters hadn’t jumped shipped as well. He explains it all in his new book “No You Can’t,‘ but basically he says people are acting on intuition rather than reality.

But it’s a question that I’ve always wondered as well. I just cannot understand why people I know just do not see the flaws in believing government can do better than the individual. And truly that’s the difference between a liberal and a conservative. A liberal says stuff like “level the playing field,” “income inequality,” “tax the wealthy,” “protect the poor,” and they look to government to be the blunt hand to make all this happen. While a conservative looks at those words and sees the exact opposite. She hears “take a job from someone who earned it,” “take money from someone who worked to get it,” “take money from a productive laborer,” “keep those impoverished dependent upon others for their well-being.”

And each time a person who I think is a rational human being shouts those progressive taglines I am utterly amazed because I just do not understand why they do not think like I do.

And then John Stossel made it clear to me. Once John began turning the tables by investigating government largess and waste he also began reading Reason magazine. Reason is a libertarian magazine that I guarantee you will have a completely different take on any popular political or cultural issue than you have been indoctrinated to believe. From Reason he made the leap to John Locke, whom he said he’d never heard of before.

And then I understood – it’s the knowledge stupid! People don’t think like me because, well, the bibliography of my life is wholly different form theirs.

I did read John Locke, ferociously. I love John Locke.  I read An Essay Concerning Human Understanding when I was about 13. When I read “Essay, I had just finished rreading all of the Federalist Papers and Common Sense and well, that was it for me.

Reading Madison’s Federalist Paper #10 as he tried to defend the strong, central government he advocated against critics worried about “special interests,” and their influence on that whole “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” I began to question his conclusions.

I remember thinking, “This will representative democracy’s downfall.”  Individuals are cool but when they get together behind a common cause they start doling out mandates and pressuring others to conform. The stuff gets ugly.

Since I’ve always been an outsider I felt that type of “tyranny,” would be directed someday at me. I really thought Madison was a bit, not to be irreverent, delusional to think a large representative democracy would curb a diverse nation’s penchant to war with itself. (Or really the mob’s selfish nature to get its way.) A strong government made up of diverse elected officials was still no protection against the selfishness of man and the insatiable need he has for everyone to think him righteous. I was not digging Madison’s view of a strong central government.

And as I look at the political landscape today it seems Madison’s fears have come true. We are more partisan than ever and the tyranny of the minority reigns down in pockets all over the nation. Our strong federal government has done NOTHING to curb destruction of our liberty, in fact it seems to do just the opposite. Because of factions and special interests you and I have all kinds of encroachment upon our freedoms. Not because of actions we’ve done but because of the suggestion of a few.

I mean what would Madison think if he saw New York today, the state he wrote the Federalist #10 to? Could he have imagined that state would be governing everything from whom we can marry to whether we can carry a gun? Or Chicago which is so far into the individual’s life I swear I can’t sleep at night because Rahm Emmanuel is in the bed with me making sure I’m not breaking any laws. All these states doing the bidding of a federal government which s in EVERY aspect of our lives from our schools, to our work, to our food, to gun cabinets, our radio, and tragically coming soon – our Internet.

Once I  read about the Social contract and  thought, yep that sounds about right and read George Clinton’s (no not the philanderer) the alias for Cato, response to Madison I was sold. Big government no. Individual yes. From then on, the feelings that the individual was infinitely more capable of addressing the most pressing issues of my life than a government was cemented into my brain.

John began to change when he began to read other stuff besides what was fed to him. And that’s the reason I’m different today. My political literature offerings were different.

Imagine how difficult it is for me to speak to people who think the HuffintonPost is the political theorist of record when I read the complete Constitution, and both the Federalists and Anti-Federalists papers as bedtime fodder?

Madison and his ilk were smart guys. But they had to be nudged a bit. The Bill of Rights introduced a whole new level of individual rights that were necessary to make this Constitution thing truly work.

John Stossel provided a valuable lesson. He was willing to open his mind a bit. Just like the Framers were willing to open theirs. Not everyone has the answers – even me! 🙂 I’m a big believer in the smaller the government the better the planet but  I do believe in strong government to combat truly national issues as Madison said it should. One of those happens to be slavery.

. But I just do not see to many people willing to be open minded when it comes to this political stuff.

Mmmmm….Maybe I’ll get them John Locke for Christmas!

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