Frank Chodorov, Nonvoter
[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Frank Chodorov, Non-Voter"]
It was 44 years ago this holiday season, on December 28, 1966, that Frank Chodorov died. Chodorov had been born nearly 80 years earlier, on the day after Valentine's Day, February 15, 1887, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was the youngest child of a pair of Russian Jewish immigrants, who gave him the name Fishel Chodorowsky. But he was the only one of their eleven children to be born in this country, and he seems to have known early on that he was an American who needed an American name. As a child, he rechristened himself "Frank" and shortened his last name to Chodorov.
He also showed an unusual enthusiasm for schooling. After spending the customary eight years in the local grammar school, he became one of only 400 students accepted at the first high school to be established in New York City. When he emerged a few years later as one of the 120 students who successfully completed that high school program — you might say in modern terminology that his graduating class had a dropout rate of 70 percent — he moved right on to another program of classes, this time at Columbia College, the heart of what we know today as Columbia University.
While there, he became interested in anarchism but was disillusioned by his discovery that
the various schools of anarchism then extant … took a dim view of the institution of private property, without which, it seemed to me even then, individualism was meaningless. If a man cannot enjoy the fruits of his labor, without let or hindrance, he is enslaved to the one who appropriates his property; a slave has no property rights. Besides … the abolition of private property could be accomplished only by the intervention of an all-powerful State, which the anarchists were so bent on destroying.
By the time he graduated from Columbia in 1907, Chodorov was no longer an anarchist. Instead, he had decided, he was a poet, like "Shelley and Keats and Byron." But "I soon realized that my muse was not up to it. Besides, I acquired a wife who needed regular sustenance. Therefore, I turned to teaching as a career; that promised some regularity of income." From teaching, Chodorov drifted into advertising.
During a stint as a copywriter in Chicago, when he was in his late 20s and Woodrow Wilson was in the White House, a friend recommended a book to him and even lent him a copy of it — Progress & Poverty by someone named Henry George. The book impressed him immensely. He read it several times and decided that what it offered was nothing less than the simple, inescapable truth about political economy. But what was he, Frank Chodorov, supposed to do about that? He had a living to make. He had no time in his life for causes, however worthy they might be. So he put Henry George's Progress & Poverty on the bookshelf — by now he had his own copy — and went on with his daily routine.
Then, one night in the fall of 1936, when he was just a few months short of his 50th birthday, Chodorov stopped in at the Players Club for dinner. There he fell into conversation with "a dignified elderly gentleman [who was] playing pool" — avid conversation, you might call it, one of the most memorable conversations Chodorov had had in his entire life up to that time. The "dignified elderly gentleman" turned out to be the noted journalist and author Albert Jay Nock, another man who had been swept away in his youth by Henry George and had clung to George's ideas ever since. The two men rapidly became good friends. In fact, during the last decade of Nock's life, the period when his libertarianism was at its finest, purest pitch, Frank Chodorov may have been his closest friend. He wound up, in the summer of 1945, as executor of Nock's modest estate. More important for our present purposes, Nock's influence led Chodorov to walk away from his career in the world of profit-making business and take up a new one in the world of political journalism and nonprofit advocacy work.
He launched his new career in 1937, at the Henry George School of Social Science in New York. The school was at that time five years old, having been founded back in 1932, and it needed help of several different kinds. Chodorov advertised and promoted it, raised money to support it, oversaw its operations, taught many of its classes, and edited its monthly magazine, which he founded and named The Freeman in honor of the Georgist weekly edited by his friend Albert Jay Nock back in the early 1920s.
Ultimately, Chodorov was ousted from his editorship of The Freeman and from his position as director of the Henry George School because of his unpopular views on World War II. He had warned his readers as early as the fall of 1938 "that no war is justified; that no war benefits the people; … that war destroys liberty," and after the war was over, nearly a generation after the war was over, in the early 1960s, at a time when that war was well on its way to being remembered fondly as "The Good War" nobly waged by "The Greatest Generation" to save us from the Most Evil Man in Mankind's History, Adolf Hitler, and the Most Evil Political Movement in Mankind's History, Nazism — at that point, Chodorov wrote this:
It is a well known fact that during a war the State acquires powers which it does not relinquish when hostilities are over. When the enemy is at the city gates, or the illusion that he is coming can be put into people's minds, the tendency is to turn over to the captain all the powers he deems necessary to keep the enemy away. Liberty is downgraded in favor of protection. But, when the enemy is driven away, the State finds reason enough to hold onto its acquired powers. Thus, conscription, which Mr. Roosevelt re-introduced at the beginning of the war, has become the permanent policy of the government, and militarism, which is the opposite of freedom, has been incorporated in our mores. Whether or not this eventuality was in Mr. Roosevelt's mind is not germane; it is inherent in the character of the State. Taxes imposed ostensibly "for the duration," have become permanent, the bureaucracy built up during the war has not been dismantled, and interventions in the economy necessary for the prosecution of war are now held to be necessary for the welfare of the people. This, plus the fact that we are now engaged in preparing for World War III, was the net result of our entry into World War II. Whichever side won, the American people were the losers.
So Frank Chodorov left the Henry George School and its magazine and became editor-in-chief of another monthly called analysis. It was during his years in that job that he became the first editor to publish a promising newcomer, a 23-year-old Columbia University graduate student named Murray Rothbard. From analysis, in the early 1950s, Chodorov moved on to a weekly called Human Events, and from there back to another monthly called The Freeman, this one published by Leonard Read at the Foundation for Economic Education. When he left The Freeman in 1955, he was 68 years old and ready for a break from the constant deadlines that had defined his life for most of the preceding 20 years.
He didn't stop working, though. He wrote his last two books, The Rise & Fall of Society: An Essay on the Economic Forces That Underlie Social Institutions, which was published in 1959, and Out of Step: The Autobiography of an Individualist, which was published in 1962. And in the summers he taught at Robert LeFevre's Freedom School in Colorado.
What did he say in these books? What did he tell his students? Let him answer in his own words. "I should … like to see society organized so that the individual would be free to carry on his 'pursuit of happiness' as he sees fit and in accordance with his own capacities," Chodorov wrote in Out of Step.
That is because I assume that the individual is endowed at birth with the right to do so. I cannot deny that right to my fellow man without implying that I do not have that right for myself, and that I will not admit. … The best that society can do in the circumstances is to see that one's way of pursuing happiness does not interfere with that of another's — and then to leave us all alone.
That is the way I should like to see society … organized; but it is not so organized and I find its rules quite distasteful. In the first place, it has instituted a system of taxation whereby one-third of our earnings is confiscated; to the extent of such confiscation the pursuit of happiness is delimited or circumscribed, for one cannot spend … what one does not have. And then, the spending of this vast amount of money calls for a bureaucracy of proportions, and this monstrous bureaucracy in order to justify its existence pays out largess to favored groups, who must conform to certain regulations and controls in order to get it.
Now, the people who have organized society in this way are known collectively as the state. In The Rise & Fall of Society, Chodorov wrote that
The State consists of a number of people who, having somehow got hold of it, make use of the machinery of coercion to the end that they might pursue their version of happiness without respect to the discipline of the market place.
In the beginning, he explains in Out of Step, the "gang of people" who later became the state were
a band of freebooters [who had] developed an appetite for other people's property [and] went after it with vim and vigor. Repeated visitations of this nature left the victims breathless, if not lifeless, and propertyless to boot. So, as men do when they have no other choice, they made a compromise. They hired one gang of thieves to protect them from other gangs, and in time the price paid for such protection came to be known as taxation. The tax gatherers settled down in the conquered communities, possibly to make collections certain and regular, and as the years rolled on a blend of cultures and of bloods made of the two classes one nation. But the system of taxation remained after it had lost its original significance; lawyers and professors of economics, by deft circumlocution, turned tribute into "fiscal policy" and clothed it with social good. Nevertheless, the social effect of the system was to keep the citizenry divided into two economic groups: payers and receivers. Those who lived without producing became traditionalized as "servants of the people," and thus gained ideological support. They further entrenched themselves by acquiring sub-tax-collecting allies; that is, some of their group … were granted subsidies, tariffs, franchises, patent rights, monopoly privileges of one sort or another.
This is the state. These people are the state. And Frank Chodorov was very firm about how these people should be treated by self-respecting members of society.
Having fixed in our minds the fact that the State consists of a number of people who are up to no good, we should proceed to treat them accordingly. You do not genuflect before an ordinary loafer; why should you pay homage to a bureaucrat? If a prominent politician hires a hall to make a speech, stay away.
How should you regard a government building?
You enter it under duress only, and you do not demean yourself by admiring its living or dead statuary. … You honor the tax-dodger and pay your respects to the man honorable enough to defy the law.
Above all, you stay away from elections entirely.
Why should a self-respecting citizen endorse an institution grounded in thievery? For that is what one does when one votes. If it be argued that we must let bygones be bygones, see what we can do toward cleaning up the institution so that it can be used for the maintenance of an orderly existence, the answer is that it cannot be done; we have been voting for one "good government" after another, and what have we got? Perhaps the silliest argument, and yet the one invariably advanced when this succession of failures is pointed out, is that "we must choose the lesser of two evils." Under what compulsion are we to make such a choice? Why not pass up both of them?
The two evils that confront voters in a typical election, Chodorov pointed out, are not really, as they themselves insist, exemplars of opposing principles. For "with principles — that is, moral or philosophic concepts — politics simply has nothing to do, except as convenient slogans in the promotion of its business, which is the acquisition of power." No politician stands for any principle. No politician even has an opinion of his or her own. "The politician's opinion is the opinion of his following, and their opinion is shaped by what they believe to be in their own interest." This is why, in a typical American election, "there is no difference in the political philosophies of the contending candidates." The only "difference between the candidates is a matter of personality, or between Tweedledee and Tweedledum."
I see no good reason for voting and have refrained from doing so for about a half century. During that time, my more conscientious compatriots (including, principally, the professional politicians and their ward heelers) have conveniently provided me with presidents and with governments. … They have put the nation into two major wars and a number of minor ones. Regardless of what party was in power, the taxes have increased and so did the size of the bureaucracy. Laws have been passed, a whole library of them, and most of these laws, since they are not self-enforcing, have called for enforcement agencies, who have interminably interpreted the laws which created them and thus have spawned more laws. The effect of these laws is (a) to put restraints on the individual and (b) to concentrate in the hands of the central government all the powers that once were assigned to local government; the states are now little more than administrative units of the national government. Political power has increased, social power has waned. Would it have been different if I had voted? I don't think so. …
It is interesting to speculate, on what would happen if, say, seventy-five percent of the electorate refrained from casting their ballots; more than that is out of the question, for at least a quarter of the voting public are concerned with what they can get for themselves from the election of this or that candidate. … In the first place, the politicians would not take such a repudiation of their custodianship in good grace. We can take it for granted that they would undertake to make voting compulsory, bringing up the hoary argument that a citizen is morally obligated to do his duty. If military service can be made compulsory why not political service? And so, if three-quarters of the citizenry were to refrain from voting, a fine would be imposed on first offenders and more dire punishment meted out to repeaters. The politician must have the moral support of a goodly number of votes.
not only would the politicians undertake to counteract the revolutionary nonvoting movement, but many of the citizenry having a vested interest in the proceeds of taxation would raise a hue and cry about the "duty" of the citizen to vote. The teachers in our tax-supported schools would lecture their pupils on the lack of public spirit on the part of their parents. Propaganda would emanate from tax-exempt eleemosynary foundations, and from large manufacturers dependent on government contracts. Farmers' organizations, with an eye to government largess, veterans' societies asking for handouts, and particularly the bureaucracy, would denounce non-voting as a crime against society.
We would be told, most emphatically, that by not voting we would be turning the reins of government over to "rascals." Probably so; but do we not regularly vote "rascals" out? And, after we have ousted one set, are we not called upon to oust another crew at the next election? It seems that rascality is endemic in government.
Don't vote; it only encourages them — that, in essence, was Frank Chodorov's message. But if we don't seek to use the vote to steer American society away from the direction in which it has been moving for all these many decades, what do we do instead? For Chodorov, that was a question very easily answered: we put our efforts into education.