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Trumbo Draws the Line between Conservatives and Libertarians


The new movie Trumbo provides a perfect way to distinguish conservatives from libertarians. Conservatives believe that Trumbo got everything he deserved and libertarians believe that what was done to him was an absolutely horror.

Dalton Trumbo was one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood from the 1930s on. Like many leftists of his time, he was attracted to communism, not only because he believed that government should take care of people (as conservatives believe, as manifested by their undying support for Social Security, Medicare, and the welfare state in general) but also because he believed that communism was an important counterweight against Nazism and fascism, which were gaining popularity in the 1930s, especially in Germany and Italy.

In 1943, in the midst of World War II, Trumbo joined the U.S. Communist Party and remained a member until 1948.

In the 1950s, thanks to the U.S. anti-communist crusade that conservatives were waging across America Trumbo, along with other Hollywood screenwriters, was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer questions about his communist past.

While Trumbo complied with the subpoena, he refused to answer the committee’s questions, including the most famous one: Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

Trumbo didn’t take the Fifth Amendment. Being a communist or a member of the Communist Party weren’t criminal offenses here in the United States. He simply held that it was none of Congress’s business what his political beliefs or affiliations were and that the federal government had no legitimate authority to ask him about them.

The committee went ballistic and cited him for “contempt of congress” for refusing to answer its questions. Trumbo was convicted and ended up serving 11 months in jail. After he got out of jail, Hollywood studios were pressured by federal officials and the right wing into “blacklisting” Trumbo and others, with the aim of preventing them from working as screenwriters.

In order to sustain his family, Trumbo secretly furnished screenplays at a greatly discounted price to others, who publicly took credit for his work. Finally, in an act of great courage, in the early 1960s the noted director Otto Preminger and the noted actor Kirk Douglas broke the back of the blacklist by publicly announcing that Trumbo had done the screenplay for the movies Exodus and Spartacus. In an interesting twist of fate, two weeks after he was inaugurated, President Kennedy did his part by crossing an American Legion picket line to see Spartacus in a Washington, D.C., movie theater.

Even today, conservatives, harkening back to what they consider was the halcyon days of the Cold War, praise and glorify the ruination of Trumbo’s life. They say that because he was a communist, he got everything he deserved, including the jail time and the great damage that was done to his life and career.

Let’s examine the principles of a free society, not only to show how different libertarians are from conservatives, but also to show how conservatives pose a grave threat to the fundamental rights and liberties of people.

In a genuinely free society, people are free to believe anything they want to believe. That includes communism, fascism, Nazism, or any other ism. That, in fact, is one of the tests of a free society — whether people are free to embrace positions that others consider are despicable. If people are not free to believe in horrible things, then they are not free.

That’s the libertarian concept of freedom.

That’s not what conservatives believe. They believe that people should be free to believe whatever they want to believe … so long as it is responsible. Since believing and advocating communism is not responsible, then, conservatives say, they shouldn’t have the “freedom” to believe in it or advocate it and that government should punish them for believing and advocating the wrong things.

In fact, if conservatives had their druthers, they would have made believing in communism, advocating communism, and the U.S communist party illegal. They would have favored doing a lot worse to people like Trumbo than just putting them into jail. They would have loved to have seen the federal government, and particularly the U.S. national security state — that is, the military, the CIA, and the FBI — round up American communists, put them into concentration camps, torture them, and execute them.

How do we know this? Because to this day conservatives praise, glorify, and idolize one of their greatest right-wing heroes in the history of the conservative movement — Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet, one of the most brutal dictators in history — a man who, with the full support and enthusiasm of American conservatives and the U.S. national-security state, which was responsible for installing him into power, rounded up, incarcerated, tortured, raped, executed, or disappeared some 30,000 innocent Chilean people, along with two innocent American citizens named Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi.

Now, I say innocent because the only thing that these people had done was the same thing that Trumbo had done. They had believed in communism or socialism and had supported the communist regime of Chilean President Salvador Allende, a self-labeled communist who the Chilean people had democratically elected to be their president.

Unlike conservatives, libertarians condemn the Pinochet regime. Unlike them, we don’t view the arrests, incarcerations, torture, rapes, executions, or disappearances of those 30,000 people to be a necessary step toward establishing a democratic society or a free society. Again, while we libertarians oppose communism with every fiber of our being, one of things that distinguish us from conservatives is that we will fight for the right of people to believe in communism or whatever else they want to believe in while conservatives will fight for the authority of government to punish people who believe in or advocate what they consider to be wrongful things.

Thus, unlike conservatives, we libertarians hold that Dalton Trumbo was absolutely right to tell Congress that his political beliefs were none of their business and that he didn’t need to answer their questions. That position was echoed by the noted leftist singer Pete Seeger, who himself was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee — an Orwellian name if there ever was one — and asked about his political beliefs. Seeger’s courageous testimony was priceless:

I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them.

There are two ironies to the conservative mindset with respect to Dalton Trumbo:

One, their mindset was the same as the communist mindset guiding the totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union, which had served as their excuse for converting the federal government into a national-security state, a totalitarian-like apparatus that also characterized the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, the authorities spied on, monitored, arrested, tortured, and executed people who were anti-communists. That’s what Pinochet was doing to people who were communists, with the full support of the U.S national-security establishment. That’s what conservatives and the U.S. national-security establishment would have loved to see the federal government doing to communists here in the United States.

Two, to this day conservatives ardently support the partnership that was entered between the U.S. government and the Soviet government during World War II, the war that conservatives still call the “good war,”  despite their active partnership with a communist regime to wage it. In fact, it’s truly ironic that conservatives condemned Trumbo for joining the Communist Party in 1943, a year when the partnership between the U.S. government and the Soviet Union was in full force and effect and going strong.

One thing is for sure: If people want a genuinely free society, they’re not going to find it with right-wingers any more than they’re going to find it with left-wingers. For the genuinely free society — one where people are free to believe anything they want and to advocate anything they want without fear of being punished by the government for it as well as one where economic liberty reigns triumphant — there is only one place for people to look — libertarianism.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.