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Who Was R.C. Hoiles?

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11/19/2010Jeff Riggenbach

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "R.C. Hoiles."]

R.C. Hoiles was born Raymond Cyrus Hoiles 132 years ago this month, on November 24, 1878, in Alliance, Ohio, a small town of a little more than 4,000 people, about 20 miles northeast of Canton and about 30 miles southeast of Akron. He grew up on a prosperous farm a short distance outside town and first went to school in what he himself later characterized as "a little red schoolhouse." There, he said many years later, the most important thing he was taught was "that the State, or a majority of citizens, had the right to use taxation to support the public school system."

Hoiles found, he said, that while his

school texts exposed the political "error" of the divine right of kings … they never explained the error in the divine right of the majority. [They] simply substituted the divine right of the majority for the divine right of kings.

And they taught "that the government or the local school district, if the majority so willed, had a right to force a Catholic parent, or a childless person, or an old maid, or an old bachelor to help pay for government schools." On the whole, R.C. later wrote, "attending government schools … handicapped me in developing my moral and mental faculties. … [I]n short it retarded my education."

Of course, Hoiles didn't think all these things while he was still a student in the "little red schoolhouse" — at least, not in so many words. Such thoughts would occur to him only later, when he was looking back at the events of his early life. Meanwhile, he graduated from the little red schoolhouse, attended the local high school, graduated from there as well, and enrolled in yet another local school, an institution owned and operated by the Methodist church under the name Mount Union College.

It is appropriate, I think, to pause for a moment at this point in the story to reflect on what the fact of R.C. Hoiles being a college student at all in the late 1890s tells us about the socioeconomic class in which he was brought up. It is worth remembering that, as Cynthia Rose's American Decades: 1900–1909 puts it,

in the first decade of the twentieth century most American children attended schools for no more than a few years, and from their limited education they and their parents were often content if they acquired only the most rudimentary literacy and numeracy skills.

It is worth remembering that, in the words of one unsigned but very accurate online account of the relevant history,

higher education [at the end of the 19th century] remained primarily a preserve of the elite. For most Americans, that didn't change until World War II, with the passage of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, popularly known as the "GI Bill." … In 1900, about two percent of the college-age population enrolled in higher education.

As late as 1947, three years after the passage of the GI Bill, only about five percent of Americans — one American in 20 — held a four-year college degree. What we're used to today is very different; today, two-thirds of the college-age population in this country is in college, at least part-time, and a little more than a quarter of the adult population — one American in four — holds a four-year degree.

Though his family was prosperous, Hoiles felt he should work to help put himself through Mount Union College, so he took a weekend job selling subscriptions to his older brother's newspaper, the Alliance Review, while he studied electrical engineering during the week. When graduation day dawned, however, Hoiles awoke to discover that he'd begun to find the newspaper business more interesting than engineering. So he never wound up working even a single day as an engineer. Instead he stayed on in his older brother's employ, working not only as a subscription salesman, but also as a printer, as a bookkeeper, and, eventually, as business manager.

By 1905, when he was still only 26 years old, he had become his older brother's partner, having acquired a one-third interest in the paper. For the next 14 years, the Hoiles brothers worked on growing their little paper; then, in 1919, they began acquiring other nearby smalltown publications — first the Lorain Times Herald, then, two years later, in 1921, the Mansfield News. R.C. Hoiles knew all the ins and outs of the business well enough by then to serve as publisher first of the Lorain newspaper and then of the Mansfield newspaper.

By now, Hoiles was in his 40s and had begun, perhaps somewhat belatedly, to think in a broad, theoretical way about politics and society — and about the role a newspaper could play in a community if it were committed to some sort of principled vision of the ideal society. He had come to believe that, as he put it many years later,

What this country needs as much as anything else, are newspapers that believe in moral principles and have enough courage to express these principles and point out practices and beliefs that violate moral principles. A newspaper that only tries to run editorials and columnists and news items that are popular is of mighty little value to its readers.

Moreover, Hoiles argued, "A newspaper that is afraid of losing subscribers because of principles is of little value to itself or anyone else. It might make dollars but its publisher loses his own self-respect — his own soul." Hoiles believed that

there were more crusading newspapers in years gone by than there are today. Today too many newspapers are afraid of offending somebody and losing a dollar by taking an unpopular position. The result is that they 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.

And not only that, but "a newspaper that is afraid to discuss things that are 'sacred cows' to the majority will be afraid to handle news stories that might cost it advertising or subscriptions." Increasingly, though, Hoiles saw the editorial page as the true heart of a newspaper. A newspaper's editorial page was, he said, "a daily school room made available to its subscribers," irrespective of whether they were "rich or poor, young or old, and without the duress of taxes nor the compulsion of forced attendance."

His older brother Frank did not see things this way. He was one of those newspaper publishers who was "afraid of offending somebody and losing a dollar by taking an unpopular position." So, after nearly 20 years in business together, the brothers agreed to go their separate ways. Frank kept their original paper, the Alliance Review. R.C. took the Lorain Times Herald and the Mansfield News. But it wasn't long before R.C. learned that running a newspaper his way could be risky far beyond the mere risk of offending somebody or losing a dollar.

As Wendy McElroy tells the story, in a recent article on Hoiles for the Future of Freedom Foundation's Freedom Daily,

The Herald [the Hoiles paper in Lorain] had exposed the fraudulent awarding of a paving contract to a Cleveland company despite the presence of a lower bid; public pressure resulted in the lower bid's being accepted. The enraged owner of the Cleveland company … purchased rival papers in both Lorain and Mansfield in order to run R.C. out of business. The attempt failed and the conflict blazed on.

Now let Carl Watner take up the story. He reports, in a 1986 article on R.C., that mysteriously, not long afterward, "the front porch of the Hoiles home was destroyed by an explosion." Hoiles's car was subsequently found to be "wired with dynamite (which fortunately failed to detonate), and [another] dud bomb was discovered in the office of the Mansfield News." Mysteriously, the perpetrators of these bombings were never identified, much less apprehended or prosecuted.

But R.C. got the message loud and clear. He sold the papers in Mansfield and Lorain and moved his family to Southern California. After a decent interval, during which time he researched the market — what was available, what he could ascertain about his probable chances of success, and so forth — he bought a daily called the Santa Ana Register. This was in 1935, when R.C. Hoiles was 56 years old and Santa Ana, California, was a sleepy farm town of around 30,000 people about 35 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

By now, R.C. had pretty well worked out his social and political philosophy — that is, he had pretty well worked out the moral principles he wanted his newspapers to express. Those principles, as it turned out, were simple and simply stated. "The most harmful error most honest people make," he wrote in an editorial in the Santa Ana Register,

is the belief that a group or a government can do things that would be harmful and wicked if done by an individual and produce results that are not harmful, unjust and wicked. It is the belief that a number of people doing a thing that is wrong for an individual to do, can make it right and just.

Hoiles believed "that governments derive[d] their just powers from the consent of the individual [and] that the government had no right to do anything that each and every individual did not have the right to do."

It would, for example, be wrong for an individual to spell out rules according to which other individuals were to run their businesses and then seize any businesspeople who didn't follow those rules and lock them in cages. No individual has a right to do that — which, to Hoiles, meant that no government had a right to do that, either. It would be wrong for an individual to insist that anyone seeking to follow a particular trade or profession must first pay him for a "license" to do so. Therefore, according to Hoiles, it would be wrong for any government to do the same thing.

It would be wrong for an individual to lock other people in cages for reading or publishing books or for selling or using drugs of which he didn't approve. Therefore, according to Hoiles, it would be wrong for any government to do the same. It would be wrong for an individual to force his neighbors to pay for schools — or anything else — they didn't want and preferred not to pay for. Therefore, according to Hoiles, it would be wrong for any government to do the same. As Hoiles himself put it, "Any time a man has to pay for something he does not want because of the initiating of force by the government, he is, to that degree, a slave."

Unsurprisingly, R.C. also described himself as "against all taxes." After all, it would be wrong for an individual to, as he put it, "arbitrarily confiscate a man's property and call it a tax." It was, then, equally wrong for government to do the same. "I do not believe," he said, "that multiplying a wrong by any number makes it right."

This was the philosophy that informed the editorial pages of all newspapers owned by R.C. Hoiles from the mid-1930s to the time of his death, just short of his 92nd birthday, in 1970. It might be argued that there has been some backsliding since then. I can testify that by the time I joined the staff of the Santa Ana Register as an editorial writer and columnist in the mid 1980s, a little more than 15 years after R.C.'s passing, the libertarian influence seemed to be weakening somewhat.

Our publisher, the husband of one of R.C.'s granddaughters, felt comfortable having as his daily editorial cartoonist an outspoken conservative who thought libertarians were crazy. That same publisher was comfortable having as his editorial and opinion pages editor a man who freelanced for the National Review and had earlier left the Register for a few years to work for the Washington Times before coming back to take control of the editorial and opinion pages once again. On the whole, I felt at the time, our publisher wanted the Register to be libertarian only as long as that didn't entail shocking or offending his friends — local businessmen and their wives — at the local country club. It's true, he did approve adding me, a known firebrand, to the editorial board of the paper, despite knowing — he must have known — that he wasn't going to be able to rely on me to kowtow to the delicate sensibilities of conservatives. But I didn't last long at the Register — less than a year. There are doubtless those who know and understand far more about all this than I do.

During my time at the Register, the news columns of the paper were purely conventional, like those of any other major metropolitan daily that served a mainly suburban readership — like those of Newsday, let us say. Reporters weren't expected to be libertarian in their thinking, or even to know what libertarianism was. But in R.C.'s day, his libertarianism definitely influenced the paper's coverage of the news as well as its editorial stance.

R.C. wouldn't tolerate news stories that referred to the "public schools," for example. His reporters were required to refer to them as "government schools." R.C. himself preferred the phrase "gun-run schools" and used it liberally on the editorial page. Such policies won him a certain amount of ridicule from mainstream journalists. Time magazine described him on one occasion as "the weird Uncle Harold of the newspaper business." But R.C. went on doing things his way, and his company prospered. By 1970, the year of his death, it had grown to 16 dailies scattered over seven states. By 1986, when I joined the staff at the Santa Ana Register, it had been renamed the Orange County Register and was the 25th largest newspaper in the United States, with a paid daily circulation of more than 300,000. Freedom Newspapers, as R.C. had decided to call his firm, owned around 30 papers by the mid-1980s, with a combined circulation of about a million. In the 1990s, when the company began acquiring magazines and TV stations as well as newspapers, it changed its name to Freedom Communications.

R.C. Hoiles was a multimillionaire by the time he died, but he lived modestly and gave much of his money away. He was among those who provided seed money so Leonard Read could start FEE — the Foundation for Economic Education — in 1946. He provided ongoing financial support not only to FEE, but also to the Institute for Humane Studies and to Robert LeFevre's Freedom School. He bought 100 copies of Isabel Paterson's 1943 book The God of the Machine to distribute to his friends and business associates. He paid all expenses to bring Ludwig von Mises to lecture in Santa Ana. He paid all expenses to publish new hardcover editions of two books by the French economist and publicist Frédéric Bastiat, who had influenced his thinking even more than any of the other classic libertarian authors he had read — though Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herbert Spencer did come close.

During his lifetime, R.C. Hoiles fought for many unpopular causes — for abolition of taxation, for abolition of the public schools, for shutting down the concentration camps in which Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II, and for repeal of any and all laws that emerged from the assumption that it could be right for government to do something it would be wrong for any individual to do.

He even fought for replacement of tax-funded police departments with what Carl Watner calls "a free enterprise association or a defensive voluntary association that would sell protection of life and property, much like an insurance company." And thanks to his generosity and his long-term commitment to freedom, he is among those we all have to thank for the fact that, as we were growing up, there was a libertarian movement already in place to receive us in the event that we should come to see things as R.C. Hoiles did.


Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach was a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he wrote for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His books include In Praise of Decadence (1998), Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009), and Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014). Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach also narrated the audiobook versions of numerous libertarian works, many of them available on Mises.org.