How and Why I Became a Libertarian

By John Roscoe

[Editor’s Note: John Roscoe was born in 1929. He has owned and operated grocery stores in the Western United States for fifty years. He started in the Drive-In-Grocery business and coined the idea to call them convenience stores. He is the only living founder of the National Association of Convenience Stores, which bears that name as a result of his efforts. He was the first to use a remote control system to sell gasoline and was instrumental in its approval and acceptance as a delivery system. In the 1970s he rejected the less-for-more retailing philosophy of convenience stores and built bigger stores called Tobacco Cheaper! These stores provided the lowest prices in the areas where they operated, as well as dispensing libertarian literature. In the 1990’s he developed Cigarettes Cheaper!. He and his family operated 850 of these stores in forty states. His grandchildren own Just Good Tobacco, which he and his wife, Marilyn, manage for them. Just Good Tobacco developed and sells the Just Good Tobacco Make Your Own Cigarette System. See www. A good share of their time is spent trying to abide by, and circumvent, when possible, government restrictions that have been developed and put into place by special interests. He and his family do not smoke tobacco, but they respect the right of others to do so. What follows is John’s story of how and why he became a libertarian.]

As we live, we develop a personal philosophy. Some personal philosophies come from experience. Some emerge in a moment of epiphany. Some are based on false signals and misinformation, but personal philosophies ought to be reality-based. If a philosophy is any good it ought to work to the benefit of the holder. It ought to improve his life and, through him, the lives of those around him.

Our personal philosophies are based on our core beliefs. It may take years to understand these core beliefs and understand why we have them. Core beliefs should be logical and should be tested. It is disturbing when you realize some of your core beliefs are based on false information, are illogical, and are likely to be damaging to you and to others. I have tried hard to identify my core beliefs and to practice them consistently. Some of my core beliefs are:
1. You own your body, and you can do what you want with it so long as you don’t harm others.
2. You should treat others as you want to be treated
3. You should bestir yourself so that you attempt to solve your own problems.

Libertarians often like to discuss how others became libertarians. Libertarians wonder whether people are born libertarians or if they become libertarians as a result of their worldly experiences. My own story begins in Montana during the Great Depression.

My family’s experience was all about taking care of themselves and then putting goodwill in the bank by helping others. Life was tough on the prairie and people realized they were on their own. I was raised by people to whom this was obvious. I was raised in a culture of self-sufficiency. I was raised as a libertarian. I didn’t know it at the time, and my parents probably never heard the word. However, as a child I learned to take care of myself and to respect the rights of others. I was neither born libertarian nor was I a convert. To put it simply, I was raised as a libertarian.

I was taught the Golden Rule through the examples set by my parents. The Golden Rule is the basis of good personal relationships. It makes the interests of others the same as our interests. My parents lived the Golden Rule. They knew the importance of working with others, and they realized that helping others was the key to earning the goodwill of their neighbors. They also believed people were responsible for themselves and for their actions, and, of course, shouldn’t take actions that would hurt others. They realized that there was no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody, somewhere pays for it.

My father was a Methodist minister, who farmed on the side to earn enough funds to take care of his family. I was the sixth of seven children, and my parents were fully engaged in the Christian ministry and activities that kept the family financially afloat. This gave me the room to decide things for myself and to make my own decisions and the freedom to act on those decisions.

I suppose most children are taught the Golden Rule, but it may take examples for it to stick. My father lived his faith and sometimes went overboard helping others. At one time he had three old cars that he had loaned to parishioners. This required my father to walk instead of drive. While I’ve never gone this far, his example was important in my development. However, it has taken years for me to realize the importance of the Golden Rule and to realize that people who want libertarianism to work need to go the second mile and have consideration for others. They need to have the same consideration for others that they have for themselves.

The precept that we should treat others as we would like to be treated is common to all of the world’s great religions. Each religion states it differently, but it means the same thing. It means: DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE THEM DO UNTO YOU. This is also the foundation of good customary law. In fact, the old English common law was based on these two simple ideas:

1. Do all that you have agreed to do.
2. Do not encroach on other persons or their property.

But even the old customary law and the basic libertarian core beliefs are not enough to make us really good neighbors. When you juxtapose basic libertarianism against the Golden Rule, it seems like pretty weak stuff. I’m familiar with Ayn Rand’s essay on the “virtue of selfishness,” and the importance of individuality. Rodney King was right when he said “Can’t we all just get along?” Getting along involves more than just not damaging the interests of someone else. Really getting along requires a coordination of interests between the parties. Cooperation developed by a mutuality of interests fathers production and progress. As Martin Brower said, “Good ethics is good business.” Lemuel Boulware phrased it well when he said we need to “work in the balanced best interests of everyone.”

The importance of the Golden Rule is well-stated in Michael Shermer’s new book, THE MORAL ARC. In the book he quotes from Peter Singer’s 1981 book, THE EXPANDING CIRCLE: “In making ethical decisions I am trying to make decisions that can be defended to others. This requires me to take a perspective from which my own interests count no more, simply because they are my own, than similar interests of others. Any preference for my own interests must be justified in terms of some broader impartial principle.”

I developed an understanding and some animosity for government and for conscription when I spent five years in the United State Air Force. I beat the draft by volunteering for military service, expecting to serve just three years. I enlisted, and later went to Officer Candidate School. Arbitrary rank distinctions were an excuse for discrimination. My enlisted experience taught me a lot about inequality and about how rising above rank-discrimination brought favorable results. I was a Club Officer at Lowry Air Force base in Denver, when Eisenhower held the Summer White House there. The Air Force Academy was started during that time and I had involvement in the execution of functions for the new Academy, including the dedication party. These experiences provided valuable insight into human relations. They also provided me with insights on bureaucracy and power.

While I chafed at my years in the service, I had experiences and held responsibilities well-beyond what my age and experience warranted. I read a lot during this time and broadened my view of history and how the world works. Since my parents were Republicans, I had similar inclinations. However in 1964, when Barry Goldwater ran for President, he appeared too zealous for my tastes, and I bolted the Republican Party. Mr. Goldwater seemed not to want to “just get along,” but to impose his views on everyone else. It is hard to know how I would feel about his philosophy and his positions today.

While I was in the Air Force, a person with whom I went through Officer Candidate School suggested that we should open Drive-In-Markets in Denver, Colorado when we were released from the Air Force. At that time all the Seven-Eleven-type stores only operated in warmer climates. My friend stated that his grandmother was well-off and would back us in the venture. This turned out to be untrue and we started business with my mustering-out pay and a loan from the credit union where my wife worked. It was an important lesson in self-sufficiency.

My political philosophy continued to evolve. I swore off voting during the 1970’s and printed the “Don’t Vote, It Only Encourages Them” message on our grocery bags. As a result, I was quoted in TIME Magazine after the 1976 election: “In San Francisco, John Roscoe, 46, a grocery chain president, laughed sardonically: ‘I’m a three-time loser. In 1964 I voted for the peace candidate – Johnson – and got war. In ’68 I voted for the law- and-order candidate – Nixon – and got crime. In 1972 I voted for Nixon again, and we got Watergate. I’m not going to vote this time’.”

The Don’t Vote message was inspired by Robert LeFevre. A friend who operated stores in West Virginia had a friend who had attended Bob’s Freedom School. Not knowing what I was getting involved with, I scheduled a week of his Freedom School for our employees. It was an important week in my life. The following comments are from remarks I made at a dinner in Los Angeles in 1980, and from a letter I wrote Bob on the occasion of his 70th birthday in 1981:

I bought a pig in a poke when I got Bob. With just the scantiest of information, I scheduled him for a week long seminar for thirty of our key employees in 1975. We, of course, were surprised, delighted, entertained, enriched, and rewarded.

While Bob doesn’t bill himself as a business or time-management consultant, he performed that function for me. He helped simplify my life and my business. His philosophy and his wisdom brought a lot of things together for me. It became apparent that I was worrying about and trying to manage a lot of things over which I had no control. He pointed out that I had a full time job managing myself. It was wonderful to find out that if I only managed myself, a lot of other things would fall into place.

Not that the dragon of interference into the affairs of others is easy to slay. On occasion I still find myself starting to cross other people’s boundaries. I then sit back and try to remember Bob’s premises and logic from his seminars and can generally let the folly of others pass me by.

Bob’s message has been good for me. He has given me a better framework in which to work and live.

Bob gave me reasons why I could heed my mother’s dictum, “You don’t’ have to attend every fight which you are invited to.”

Before the Internet and before blogs, we wrote bagatorials and published them on our grocery bags. These bagatorials were libertarian messages that appeared on our brown paper shopping bags. We published messages from Carl Watner and Wendy McElroy and others. Eventually, the entire bags were used for editorial copy, including the gussets. These messages also included exposés of waste and inefficiency of government systems. The bags were generally well-received by our customers. When someone objected to our message and philosophy we made the news and got more publicity for our message. Simon and Schuster published some of the bagatorials in a book by that name in 1996. There are still copies of BAGATORIALS, BOOK FULL OF BAGS (John Roscoe and Ned Roscoe, editors) available for sale on the Internet.

For sentient beings to survive and flourish, we, as libertarians, should heed Albert Jay Nock’s advice about preaching to the Remnant. We need to preach the message of the Golden Rule and the commonality of man’s interests whenever and wherever we can. As Nock said, “the Remnant will find you.” When I first met Bob LeFevre, he said his original goal was to find one person who would agree with his philosophy. I’d like to think I was part of the Remnant. I found Bob and he helped reinforce my already existing libertarian beliefs. I have always been a libertarian because it is good for me and works to the benefit of those around me. This maximizes my freedom and minimizes life’s frictions.

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