Commentary: Libertarian was American original

By Brian Doherty: CNJ correspondent

Most of the heroes of the American libertarian movement have been economists and academics. That scrappy gang fighting for the ideas at the heart of America’s founding — that government should be restricted to, at most, the protection of its citizens’ life, liberty, property, and ability to pursue happiness — has been largely an intellectual movement, operating in the rarefied field of ideas.

But one great libertarian, Raymond Cyrus Hoiles, spread his radical ideas not within an intellectual ivory tower, but within daily newspapers aimed at everyone in his community. He worked not in a nonprofit think tank, but within his own family-owned business. That business was a set of newspapers (and eventually other media outlets) named, not after him, but after the idea he most treasured: Freedom. That company is now called Freedom Communications, and its flagship paper is the Orange County Register in California.

Hoiles was an extraordinary American. He was a successful businessman who steadily and knowingly aggravated huge swaths of his audience with his uncompromising expression of often despised beliefs. In the 1940s and 1950s, when his reputation was made, his ideas about personal liberty were so much against the grain of an America that one of his fellow libertarians declared that “the fact that Hoiles is not in jail is a highly encouraging testimony to the current American scene.”

Hoiles started in the newspaper business in Ohio before he moved out west and bought the Register in 1935. His newspaper career in Ohio was controversial; a series of exposes on crooked bidding by local government and contractors led to bombs being attached to his car and going off in his house.

Such experiences led to his reputation for extraordinary physical and mental toughness. Hoiles became a multimillionaire through his efforts, but still dressed in tattered off-the-rack suits and carried a worn briefcase, and would debate with people picketing his company face-to-face. Appearances and his reputation mattered less to him than did the ideas of freedom he thought were vital to his nation.

He was an advocate of no party or class, and his readers were often puzzled about how to pigeonhole him. Some saw his resolute opposition to unions (which he thought interfered with freedom to work under individually chosen terms), public schools, and the welfare state as “right-wing.”

But Hoiles was also one of the only journalistic voices who, at the time, thundered against the internment of people of Japanese ancestry in America during World War II. He was also a consistent voice for free and open immigration for those willing to make it in America.

Hoiles was neither “right-wing” nor “left-wing.” His libertarian political beliefs arose from what he called the “single standard of conduct.” This meant that one standard applied to all.

If it wasn’t right for him to force you to do something at gunpoint, or to take money from you for some purpose you didn’t choose, then it wasn’t right for the government to do it either. Thus he advocated individual liberty and free choice down the line.

Although Hoiles believed every business had to survive by providing value to customers, not through government help, he didn’t think slavishly following what one thought the customer wanted was a virtue. “Too many newspapers,” he wrote, “are afraid of offending somebody and losing a dollar by taking an unpopular position. The result is that they cease to develop, cease to be of much use in their community as far as getting people to better understand human relations that will promote goodwill, peace, and prosperity.”

Thus he never made things easy on his readers. In the seriousness with which he expressed his unusual ideas, he treated his readers as intelligent human beings ready to follow logic wherever it leads. He was notorious for engaging everyone from editorial staff to janitors in arduous rounds of “close reasoning” in which he’d rigorously debate the nature of liberty, insisting his conversational partners define and defend their principles to the end. He offered cash prizes to school officials in every city his papers reached if they’d publicly debate the morality of public education, and answer every question asked, with no evasion. No one ever accepted.
One might think his oddball ideas and the willingness to fill his editorial pages with them — often including long, complicated passages from Hoiles’ favorite writers on economics and liberty — would make it hard for him to succeed in the free market. But even though he made many enemies, his bravery was rewarded. The company he founded now runs more than two dozen daily papers and eight TV stations, even though at times his advocacy for right-to-work laws or for closing down local military bases cost him thousands of subscription cancellations.

In holding firmly to his values — and imbuing later generations that run his company with them — R.C. Hoiles continued to serve his readers.

But not just his readers. R.C. Hoiles never intended to change the world. He just stood up for his beliefs. But his dedication had powerful effects.

From the Orange County community weaned on Hoiles’ words arose the movement of powerful belief in free markets and small government that helped make Barry Goldwater the Republican presidential candidate in 1964, then in 1966, made Ronald Reagan governor of California and eventually president.

Certainly no politician has ever been as uncompromising as Hoiles. But his influence made the ideas of free markets no longer as strange and despised as they were when he started espousing them.

This would have made Hoiles happy, but it wasn’t why he ran his papers as he did. He just knew a man should stand up for what he believes to be true, and have unimpeachable reasons for knowing why it is true. By doing that with relentless integrity, R.C. Hoiles changed the world.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine (Reason.com) and author of the book “Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.” He can be reached at bdoherty@reason.com