Walking With Libertarians: Pando goes to FreedomFest, Pt I
Wednesday. Planet Hollywood Hotel, Las Vegas.
A man in a grey business suit is explaining to a young woman how he became a world leader.
“There are three requirements to start a country,” he said, “And we met all of them.”
“What are they?” asked the woman.
“One: Clearly defined borders. Two: A permanent population. And three: A government with diplomatic capabilities.”
“That’s fascinating!” She meant it.
“Under international law, we are a sovereign country. Even if no other third country recognizes that fact yet.”
“Oh,” said the woman.
“Yes!” the man continued. “We are a sovereign nation. That’s a fact.”
“How did you find out the rules?" The woman was noticably less interested now, having realized that this 'sovereign nation' likely only exists as a corner of the man’s basement.
“I looked in encyclopedias, mainly,” he said.
“This is all so interesting to me,” said the woman, “but so confusing at the same time. I need to find some water.”
And she was gone.
It’s hard to fathom now, but as recently as four years ago I had no real opinion of libertarianism, or libertarians.
Certainly, I’d have struggled to name more than a half dozen famous ones. I suppose I was dimly aware that Ron Paul and Glenn Beck were espousing libertarian ideals -- alongside capitalist ones -- when they encouraged us to buy gold ahead of the coming apocalypse. And, if pressed, I could certainly tell you that, after Peter Thiel got rich from Paypal, he used some of his money to fund the Seasteading Institute to build an offshore utopia for other rich people. [Disclosure: Thiel is a Pando investor through Founders Fund.] I knew Alex Jones was a nut, of course, but I’m not sure I could tell you whether he was a hazelnut or a libertarian nut. And, like you, I’ve been avoiding Atlas Shrugged fanboys since college, well before it occurred to me that Ayn Rand's sociopathic readership generally identifies as libertarian.
Four years later and, like many Pando readers, it’s Mark Ames’ fault that I can now spot a libertarian at a thousand paces. It was through Mark’s, and later Yasha Levine’s, reporting at NSFWCORP that I was able to start piecing together the powerful -- and sometimes ugly -- effect that a relatively small group of libertarians has had on American politics and business.
It was through editing their work that I came to be familiar with the Koch brothers: Mark and Yasha exposed their role in funding the Tea Party movement long before that became the central story in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. It was through endless editorial conferences and fierce debates in NSFWCORP HQ in Las Vegas that I came to learn about the nasty racist history of Reason Magazine, or why Mark reacts to names like Robert Poole and Charles Koch in much the same way that you or I might react to Robert Mugabe or Simon Cowell.
But just because I understand their own distrust of libertarianism -- and, let’s be clear, the facts in Mark's and Yasha’s reporting speak for themselves -- doesn’t mean that I share their ability to see libertarians lurking in every shadow or lying under every bed. Travis Kalanick notwithstanding, it certainly doesn’t mean I’m comfortable using “libertarian” as a synonym for evil.
As the old saw goes: Some of my best friends are libertarians. If you live in Silicon Valley, that’s probably true for you too. And why not? They’re the ones most vocal on the need to reduce government interference in the sharing economy, on legalizing pot, on strengthening personal freedoms and, of course, cutting taxes.
Certainly, Pando remains institutionally agnostic when it comes to libertarianism; just as we remain agnostic on conservatism, liberalism, communism and everything else short of fascism. On any given day you might see articles defending and attacking any or all of those. Hell, Peter Thiel was an early investor in the company, as was Michael Arrington, another cheerleader for small government and for being able to do whatever the fuck he wants.
Regardless of your view on libertarianism as a set of political ideas, and on libertarians as a group of individuals, there’s no denying that libertarianism is on the rise, particularly in the tech industry. It is having, as the media like to say, “a moment,” in large part due to the vast wealth amassed by people like Thiel and Kalanick, and their willingness to spend that money pushing for libertarian ideals.
A growing number of Silicon Valley founders -- wary of government regulation and over-taxation -- reflexively identify as libertarian. Candidates like Rand Paul are finding their campaign coffers swelling with donations from wealthy benefactors. And thanks to those pro-disruption, pro-pot stances, libertarianism isn’t just popular in America -- it’s cool.
And so, as we head toward an election in which libertarian ideas and libertarian money will play a larger role than ever before, I decided it was time to take my understanding of libertarianism beyond what I’ve been able to glean from the excellent reporting on the pages of NSFWCORP and Pando. To take off my editor hat, put on my reporter shoes, and actually spend some quality time, walking with Libertarians.
All I needed was the right opportunity: An event with a large enough concentration of libertarians that I could sample their many flavors and collect their many pamphlets, and still get home in time for tea.
And then, late on Tuesday afternoon, I saw the media alert. Beginning the very next day, at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, was “FreedomFest: “The world’s largest gathering of free minds.”
As the event’s website boasted, this would be “the greatest libertarian show on earth,” bringing together all of the movement’s stars: from Glenn Beck, Charles Murray, and Peter Thiel to senior staffers from the Cato Institute, Freedomworks, and the Heritage foundation. And if that weren’t enough, the organizers had seen fit to invite a ragtag band of conservatives, racists, and convicted felons -- Grover Norquist, Donald Trump, Dinesh D’Souza -- to join the party.
The speaker list read like a who’s-who of characters I’d come to think of almost as cartoon villains, including of course the editorial team of Reason Magazine, the house journal of the movement, and which Mark had described as a “cesspool” of homophobia, racism and holocaust denial. Holy shit, Robert Poole himself was to be in attendance. Ames wrote here on Pando about how Poole was responsible for many of the ideas that led to Ferguson.
My plane ticket to Vegas was booked inside the hour.
“Thank you for not smoking” -- Planet Hollywood hotel sign posted at the entrance to FreedomFest
The first thing one learns on registering for FreedomFest is that freedom is not free. Specifically, to attend the event as a member of the media, you have to pay a $99 press “registration fee.” This, the organizers explain, is to prevent “non-legitimate media professionals from claiming a media pass to get into FreedomFest for free.”
Still, it’s deliciously ironic that FreedomFest -- an event celebrating the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution -- is the only event I’ve ever attended that slaps a $99 tax on the First Amendment.
Or maybe it’s fitting: the perfect intersection of the Bill of Rights and good ‘ol American capitalism. Why stop there? Why not add another Benjamin for anyone who wants to arrive packing heat? “Don’t want to be unlawfully searched or seized during the conference -- that’ll be $50 please!” “Right to a fair trial? Oooh, that’ll cost ya!”
I paid my money, tucked my press pass into its FreedomFest lanyard, and was soon milling around the exhibitor hall, where maybe a hundred companies were setting up their stalls, ready to serve the several thousand patriots due to arrive in just a few hours.
It was a little after 1 pm and the conference didn’t officially kick off until 5, so there was plenty of time to wander the hall, learning about groups like “The Atlas Society" (“Seize the moral high ground for freedom”) and “Young Americans for Liberty,” or to pick up my copy of “Insider Account” -- a book revealing “what really happened at Benghazi.”
Tucked away at the back of the hall I found a stand bearing the name and giant photograph of Dinesh D’Souza, the filmmaker who made the anti-Obama conspiracy film, “2016: Obama’s America.” Today, he apparently has a new project to promote: “America: Imagine the world without her.”
It was less difficult to imagine a world without Dinesh D’Souza: His stand was unmanned and the man himself was nowhere to be seen. I scooped up some American flag candy from a bowl, but then poured it back. Spangled or not, you probably shouldn’t accept candy from a convicted felon.
At a nearby stand, an elderly man peddling precious metals -- “not gold!” -- was explaining the bona fides of his company to a much younger man dressed in a business suit.
“Ron Paul worked with our founder,” said the older man, “You know who Ron Paul is, right?”
“Of course,” said the younger man. “Rand Paul’s dad.”
I was so distracted by conversations like that, and by the FreedomFest merchandise stand -- branded ties for the men, yoga pants for the ladies -- that Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne was already well into his opening keynote when I took my seat in Planet Hollywood’s “Celebrity Ballroom.” The room was packed with maybe 1,000 attendees and almost as many beards.
A man dressed head to foot in American flags ran up and down in front of the stage taking photographs as Byrne warned the crowd about the dangers of Wall Street. Specifically, Byrne was furious that no one had taken seriously his warnings of impending financial doom.
“We had this hard data, showing criminality. Why did no one listen?”
“More titles are being sold than property available... more Chinese aluminum is being sold than exists,” Byrne told the appreciative crowd. Warm applause filled the room.
All of this data, Byrne explained, was proof that Wall Street -- and the corrupt regulators who allowed it to destroy the world -- needed to be “taken behind the barn and murdered with an axe.” To make the point, the video display wall was filled with a cutesy animation of Wall Street being murdered behind a barn with an axe.
Cheers from the crowd now.
Byrne’s solution was simple: He had created a system, much like bitcoin, which would replace Wall Street with peer to peer stock ownership. “We’ll use the blockchain to completely remove the need for Wall Street,” he said.
Suddenly a lone voice yelled from the audience: “Who will issue stock certificates?”
Clearly a liberal. Or at the very least a luddite.
“There are no stock certificates… there’s just a…. well, the coin…” Byrne said. “I can explain the details in a moment.”
Sadly, Byrne ran out of time before he could explain those details, and also before he was able to get into the fact that his issues with Wall Street stem from his long campaign against “naked short selling” of Overstock shares which he blames for driving down the company’s stock price. In the New York Times, Joe Nocera wrote about this “New Crusade for Master of Overstock”:
WHEN last we looked in on our old friend Patrick M. Byrne, the conspiracy-mongering trash-talking lawsuit-filing chief executive of Overstock.com, it was late February. Mr. Byrne had sued Rocker Partners, a short selling hedge fund, and Gradient Analytics, a small equity research firm, accusing them of conspiring to drive down Overstock's stock price….
To better monitor naked short selling — and try to lower the number of "failures to deliver" — early last year the S.E.C. instituted something called Regulation SHO, which compiles what the agency calls a "threshold" list of companies in which there are more than 10,000 shares that have "failed to deliver" in the allotted time. Overstock has been on the threshold list pretty much ever since Reg SHO came into being. Which, to Mr. Byrne — though to virtually no one else — means that shadowy, bad people, who lurk in the darkest corners of Wall Street, are breaking the law and creating "phantom shares" of the stock through the practice of naked shorting.
As Nocera reports, Overstock was also investigated by the SEC. Byrne’s own father -- former Geico boss John J. Byrne -- stepped down as Overstock’s chairman “after saying publicly that he wished his son would spend less time crusading and more time running the business.”
Byrne closed out his presentation by reading from an article on Politico about Byrne’s idea for the “first-ever digital security, a corporate bond that does not need SEC approval”:
As for the later stages of that revolution, in which the blockchain’s most enthusiastic backers predict it will threaten the livelihoods not just of financial middlemen but many government institutions themselves, Byrne says the world as it is should not be taken for granted. “These central institutions didn’t come out of a burning bush.”
The audience really got a kick out of the burning bush part. Applause and more cheers as he left the stage, all thoughts of stock certificates and logistics long forgotten. Well forgotten except by one guy: “Fuck you!” came a lonely shout, barely audible over the ovation.
The applause -- and the “fuck you” -- was still ringing as the moderator -- a perky fellow who didn’t seem to have a name -- introduced the next two speakers: Lily Williams and Bert Dohmen. Williams, she told the audience just slightly too loudly, had emigrated from China to the US several decades earlier, after a successful early career as a lawyer. Dohmen had been brought to America as a young boy from post-war Germany by his father. Each, the moderator explained, had been invited to share their stories and explain why they had chosen to make America their home.
The crowd settled in for a rigorous debate on immigration and the American dream. What they got instead, much to their delight, were two patriots warning how America -- once the land of the free and home of the brave -- was fast becoming unrecognizable. In many ways, in fact, it was coming to resemble the places -- Communist China and Nazi fucking Germany, mind you -- that they’d left behind.
“Common core is Communist,” said Williams, “like in China.” The audience went nuts.
“This country has gone from the free country I love to a socialist country like China!”
No it hasn’t, Lily, but carry on.
Then it was Dohmen’s turn to tell his story: A heartwarming tale of a boyhood watching American planes being shot down over his hometown. The audience wasn’t really sure how to handle that -- but Dohmen won them back, reminiscing how the orange flight-suited yanks would sometimes wave to the school children as they parachuted down to earth, before being carted off to POW camps the rest of the way.
Dohmen was just getting into his stride when a throwaway remark threatened to throw the stage, and the conference, into chaos.
He had just finished telling the room how, in the 1950s, everyone trusted American politicians to do the right thing. That was too much even for the moderator:
“Did they really?” he asked.
“They might have been wrong, but they really did believe that,” Dohmen insisted. “But today, if you said you trust politicians, people would think you were smoking something you shouldn’t.”
Then the shrieking voice of the moderator -- the sound of a man who knows his audience well and wants to avoid a riot: “What’s wrong with smoking?!” he demanded.
“Oh, uh, well..” Dohmen tried to explain he had only meant that…
But it was too late. You don’t tell an audience of libertarians that they shouldn’t be allowed to smoke anything. You certainly don’t suggest that they shouldn’t smoke pot.
Williams cut him off. “YOU SHOULD SMOKE WHATEVER YOU LIKE IN YOUR OWN HOME.”
I edged out of the ballroom as the conversation devolved into a debate about whether pot should be legal in Nevada. The last thing I heard as I made it back to the conference hall was the moderator, still trying to win back the room, insisting, “I wish I could smoke some pot RIGHT NOW.”
That was quite enough for day one. On Thursday, the conference proper gets under way, beginning with Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey and his “Private Solutions to Healthcare Crisis & Poverty.” The Las Vegas strip sucks the life out of you -- especially in July -- and I wanted to be refreshed and ready for the main event.
And what an event it promises to be. As I headed down the escalators towards the taxi rank, a man in a FreedomFest lanyard came bounding towards me, running up the down escalator, almost sending a small boy tumbling to his death. The man didn’t care: He had places to go, and wouldn’t be bound by Planet Hollywood’s -- or Obama’s -- fascist elevator rules.
Part Two: "I'm sad about the victims, right?"