There are few things that can bring an idea more publicity that a presidential campaign. With the potential candidacy of Rand Paul, who just won the CPAC straw poll again, libertarian ideas are going to get their day in the sun. In addition, the Koch brothers, long affiliated with libertarian institutions and ideas, are reportedly going to drop $900 million on 2016.
Just in time, David Boaz, longtime libertarian scholar and vice president of the Cato Institute, has published a new edition of his seminal work, The Libertarian Mind. (The original was called Libertarianism: A Primer).
In clear, accessible prose, Boaz traces the history of libertarian philosophy, its most important minds and works, as well as how it approaches the major, and some minor, issues in American politics.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Boaz spells out whether Paul will be good or bad for libertarianism, why it’s still a minority philosophy, and how libertarians should come to love Scandinavian countries.
It’s been nearly two decades since the first edition, so why update it now?
Well, the first two words of the previous edition were, “In 1995” so that seemed like a good reason. The basic core ideas of libertarianism have not changed much in 18 years, so I didn’t change those chapters much. But the policy environment, the political environment, all that’s changed. So, the book also barely mentioned the Internet, and it didn’t mention 9/11, the Patriot Act, the Bush boom, the Bush crash, the Bush-Obama bailouts, the NSA surveillance—so all that stuff needed to be added. Some additional material on issues that have arisen like inequality and overcriminalization, the sharing economy were needed. Plus, the publisher is in business to make a profit, and they think that there are a lot more libertarians and a lot more people interested in libertarianism than there were in 1997.
Looking back, were you surprised at all by any of the things you were prescient about, or wrong about?
I was very disappointed to look back and realize how optimistic I’d been in 1997 about the prospects for change in our educational system. I really thought everybody knows the school system is not great, parents give it low ratings, there ought to be more people turning to homeschooling, private schooling, un-schooling, other alternatives. And although there’s been some progress in those areas, people continue to think that the public schools are not very good, but still send their children to them. So that was very disappointing.
I probably under-appreciated the amount of progress toward economic freedom and prosperity there would be in the world outside the United States. If you look at the Economic Freedom of the World Report, which rates countries on their level of economic freedom back to 1975, they show a steady increase ever since 1975. That’s dominated by China and India. But it’s also something they’re finding in Africa and other places. The United States, on the other hand, having at some points been rated third in economic freedom in the world, is now down to 15th or 18th. That’s been disappointing for Americans. But, I think it’s a good reminder to libertarians who tend to always see the world through the matrix of The Road to Serfdom, to recognize that around the world there is a trend in the direction of more appreciation for human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, the rule of law, and market processes.
You talk about this in the book, but the consensus seems to be that the libertarian movement is having a coming-out moment with Rand Paul’s potential candidacy. Do you think this is a good or bad thing?
I think it’s good for a political philosophy to have serious political representation, so that’s a good thing. Rand Paul isn’t a perfect libertarian, but I think no presidential candidate is going to a perfect representative of any ideology. Politics is about compromise and building coalitions, and so on. So when I look at the issues Rand Paul appears to be planning to talk about in his campaign for president—taxes, spending, regulation, criminal justice reform, surveillance state reform, and a more skeptical attitude toward foreign wars—that’s a pretty good libertarian program. So, if somebody wants to say, well, he doesn’t seem very libertarian on gay marriage—well, yeah, I wish he had a different position on gay marriage. But if you look at a broad range of issues that cut across the left-right spectrum, then I think it’s a pretty good libertarian platform.
The comparison I would make is to the Mormon Church during the Romney candidacy, in which the spotlight is going to be on it in a way it hadn’t before. For instance, I don’t know how often in the past you’ve been asked about libertarian philosophy on vaccines?
Not much before last week…
So there’s that potential downside, no?
Yes, there is. That’s going to be true with any candidate. No candidate is a perfect ideologue or a perfect candidate. If anybody followed me around with a microphone, all day every day, I would say dumb things. But yes, it is entirely possible that Rand Paul will say something that will really make libertarians wince. Not just that he doesn’t want to go there, but that he goes somewhere we don’t like. Second, any individual person is flawed. He may turn out to have a secret ex-wife somewhere, and that will just be embarrassing to him, and by implication embarrassing to libertarians. One of the differences is that right now in American politics there are a lot of liberal politicians and a lot of conservative politicians. So when John Edwards turns out to be a shyster, nobody thinks that all the Democrats or all the liberals are corrupt. Similarly with conservatives. There are a lot of conservatives, so when one of them crashes and burns there are other conservatives. For libertarians in this election, Rand Paul is by far the closest to their point of view, so if something happens to him, yeah, it will be a blow to libertarianism.
Libertarianism has been the political movement or philosophy of the future, for a long time. Why is it then, that so few people to this day ascribe that point of view to themselves?
One thing is that when intellectuals talk about libertarianism, they’re talking about something very specific, a whole body of thought that is in my book, and that can also be found in the writings of great scholars. When we talk about liberalism in America, we don’t talk a distinct body of ideology. Anybody who votes Democratic can be liberal, and anybody who votes Republican can be conservative. So part of it is just this treating libertarianism as something more specific. If you think of the broad sweep of American history, then libertarian ideas have been at the heart of the American experiment from the beginning. The ideas that were found in Cato’s letters, in John Locke, and in the Declaration of Independence, in the Constitution, and in the abolitionist movement. From the beginning, there’s been skepticism about power and government, a commitment to individualism and individual responsibility. A commitment to markets, and a commitment, very flawed in the beginning and perhaps less flawed today, that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. So in that sense, there’s a lot of libertarians in America, more so than any country in the world. There is resistance to expansions of government power. More than you find in virtually all countries in the world. In today’s politics, when you say voters are conservative, you don’t mean they can explain the difference between Russell Kirk’s conservatism and Milton Friedman’s conservatism, which is actually libertarianism. You just mean they don’t like big government or they don’t like liberals or they see themselves as patriotic.
So if you look at the polls Gallup does every year in their governance survey, they ask people two sets of questions. One is, “Do you think the government should support a traditional set of values?” The other one is something like “Should government do more to solve social problems or should more be left to the private sector?” So, they say there are two answers to those questions that make you a conservative, two that make you a liberal, and two that make you a libertarian. Roughly 24 percent of the people come out libertarian. So that’s just as many as liberals and conservatives. Most of those people have not read my book, or even read Ayn Rand. So in that sense there are a whole lot of libertarians in America, but they don’t know that they are libertarians. That’s one of our challenges. We have two parties, we have politicians who look at two parties, and we have a media that looks at everything in binary terms. Crossfire always wanted to have one liberal and one conservative argue. The media want to call up and say, “I assume you’re against this Obama program, do you want to come on and give the conservative perspective?” It’s always treated in two ways, so libertarianism doesn’t get talked about much. So if you ask people, “Are you libertarian?” You get a small number, 5 percent or 4 percent. On the other hand, if you ask people, “Are you fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian?” 44 percent say yes. So, it’s not clear to me that libertarianism is not a plurality.
Do you think it’s more effective, therefore, for libertarians or those who want to see libertarian philosophy implemented to focus on single-issue advocacy or on parties, whether that be having its own party or joining an existing party?
I don’t know. Libertarians have done a lot of different things in politics. Some join the Libertarian Party, some join the Republican Party, a smaller number join the Democratic Party. Many get involved in single-issue efforts—school choice, anti-war, whatever. A lot of libertarians aren’t that interested in politics. In a way the point of libertarianism is to make it unnecessary to be interested in politics. They are jumping the gun! Being uninterested in politics when they still should be. I don’t know what is most effective, I think we should let 100 flowers bloom. I have been an enrolled member of the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and the Libertarian Party, and now I’m an Independent. I think most libertarians in American are going to find the Rand Paul campaign the best option right now. But if that doesn’t work out they may do different things. Seems likely to me most libertarians would vote against Hillary Clinton, unless the alternative is Rick Santorum. But, not all libertarians will vote for the Republican nominee.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about libertarianism?
To some extent the biggest misconception is that it is this tiny dogmatic body of thought. As with any political philosophy, there is a dogmatic body of thought that is not held by a lot of people. But the libertarian impulse in America—the general attitude of individualism, less taxes, and less spending, and staying out of people’s personal lives—is very widespread. I think both among libertarians and observers there’s a failure to appreciate the level of libertarianism that actually exists in the American public. I think the fact that we have not gotten serious gun control in the past few years is an indication of libertarian sentiment. The Tea Party resistance to Obamacare, even though it failed, was still manifestation of that. Right now the progress of gay marriage and marijuana legalization is a sign of the innate libertarianism of the American people.
If there is this latent, or strong, libertarianism in the U.S., why then is there either acquiescence or actual outright support for things like warrantless domestic spying or civil asset forfeiture?
Even Obamacare has 40 percent…
Sure, but why is that so if it’s so much ingrained in us?
Well, I’m certainly not saying everyone is a libertarian, and the libertarianism that does exist is not as firm as I wish it were. There’s always a good argument for something else. Sure, I believe in free enterprise, but the rich are getting too rich. We all want privacy, but we have terrorists threatening us. Obviously, one sort of response to your question from somebody else might be, “You can talk about freedom all you want, but the fact is we need protection, security, and safety.” From a libertarian point of view, those are compelling arguments, and I understand why people get scared by terrorism, get scared by the prospect of rising health care costs and the possibility of devastating expenses. All of those things have reasons you should support them. I do think for whatever reason the media is dominated by people who are not that libertarian, and it’s not just liberals. There are a lot of liberals in the media, but to the extent that there are conservatives—there’s like six neoconservatives in American and they all have columns at The Washington Post or The New York Times. So they have a hugely disproportionate influence on the American dialogue.
Pew did a breakdown of people who identify as libertarian, and by and large it was wealthy, white men.
Another way to put that would be well-educated people…
But I do think the image of libertarians is that of wealthy white men. Why is it so much more appealing to that group?
I have my doubts about any kind of polls, but I don’t think there’s any question about it. To the extent that libertarianism is this fairly consistent body of thought, traditionally in the Western world most intellectuals have been white men with good educations. If you think about the best liberal scholars, who do you think of? Leonard Hobhouse, John Maynard Keynes, you would say John Rawls, today you would say Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, Paul Krugman—all wealthy white men. That’s kind of where intellectuals come from. In terms of the voting population, libertarians probably do emphasize the individualist, get-off-my-land, keep-your-hands-off-my-body attitude and that probably does appeal more to men, and in particular successful men. I think libertarianism ought to have more of an appeal to women than it does in the polls. I think it’s probably because libertarians tend to talk a lot about competition and the benefits of creative destruction. Which is all true! We would all be living 17th-century lifestyles if it were not for risk-taking and creative destruction.
But I think women are probably more risk averse. So, when they hear us talking about creative destruction and the benefits of competition more than we talk about the benefits of cooperation, then they are less attracted to that point of view. The fact is, cooperation is as essential to the free market system as competition. In some sense the whole point of competition is competing to cooperate with people. There are businesses that want to cooperate with you to get you fed, to get you housed. All of those things involve thinking about what you would want, and helping you achieve it. That’s cooperation. But it is true that McDonald’s is competing with Wendy’s and Chipotle and grocery stores to have the honor of cooperating with you. So libertarians should probably talk more about cooperation as a part of the market process. Now, I would hope that libertarian anti-war attitudes would be more appealing to women, perhaps more appealing to women than to men. So maybe we haven’t done a good job of getting that part out.
But also in terms of African Americans, where the numbers are extremely low?
It’s true, but it’s also very low for conservatives. We have not persuaded African Americans that our programs of open markets and deregulation will create more economic growth and will be better in the long run than welfare state programs are. In addition, perhaps we have not talked enough about our concerns about criminal justice reform. I do think there’s probably a split in the African American community over the War on Drugs. Clearly people understand that the people who tend to get arrested are young black men, and therefore they don’t like the War on Drugs. But I think there are African Americans who also think that drugs are destroying our communities and I want them off the streets. Maybe they don’t think about getting them off the streets means arresting lots of young black men, or they would like to think you can arrest the big-time dealers and not the users and street dealers, and you’d be arresting a different group of people. But still, there’s a significant number of African-American people who understand the War on Drugs means locking up a lot of young black men, and libertarians should do a better job of trying to communicate that point. But I think the argument of economic growth versus the welfare state, on that we really have failed to persuade a lot of people.
I ask this because the issue of inequality is on the forefront of political minds. Do you think the libertarian movement is able to talk about solutions to inequality?
I think if we ever get the economy booming again, concern over inequality will be much reduced. I think people are concerned about it because a lot of people aren’t doing very well, so the thought that some people are doing incredibly is galling. When, and if, the economy ever gets moving well again, then I think you will see a change in attitude toward that. I think that libertarians have always opposed a lot of programs that do contribute to inequality: protection for established businesses, bailouts for big banks, regulations that are much easier for big companies to comply with, or the protection of the taxi cartel, the farm program, cronyism, corporate welfare. Obviously, from a libertarian point of view, we think that robust free markets are a way we get economic growth. We get more jobs and better jobs and a higher standard of living through the robustly competitive and cooperative market process. So, the fact that some people get very rich in that process doesn’t bother libertarians very much because everybody else is getting richer, just not as rich as the Waltons.
OK, but inequality is seen as such a big deal and Washington abhors a problem without a big solution. Are libertarians going to be able to convince people who have historically not been sold on its ideas?
Certainly, over the past few years we were not capable of stopping things. We were not capable of stopping the Wall Street bailout, which exacerbated the problem of inequality. Then we did not stop Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, which were in theory being offered to address the kinds of concerns that build into inequality. So as a political movement I don’t know what we’ll be able to stop. I would say, we stop more welfare state and regulatory interventions than they do in most European countries. So in that sense the innate libertarianism of the American people still operates and we don’t get as many bad programs as many countries do. Whether the organized libertarian movement has anything to do with it or not, I don’t know.
I am skeptical of how big an issue of inequality really is. I think most Americans care most about their own standard of living. If it doesn’t seem to be progressing, as it hasn’t for the past few years, then they’re concerned about that, and inequality is certainly a way to latch onto that problem. A lot of Americans are concerned about the plight of the poor. That also may lead you to worry about inequality. But in my view, if you’re worried about either one of those problems, poverty or stagnant middle-class living standards, the problem is not inequality, the problem is policies that are not helping people get out of poverty or improve their standard of living. So we should focus on that. However, there are a lot of people with an interest in the inequality issue. I just think that if you poll the American people and ask them what issues they care about, and to rank those issues, I don’t think inequality would rank very high.
Looking out beyond the U.S., what countries intrigue you as a libertarian?
I think there’s a more subtle understanding of the Nordic and Scandinavian countries than there used to be. When I was a boy, or a young man, Sweden was held up as the model. Don’t we all wish we could be like Sweden? They’re perfectly free, they’re good looking, and they have this great welfare state. Well, the welfare state got awfully expensive. They ended up with a lot of people not working, taking advantage of sick days, benefits, and so on. They too reformed. They rolled back some of the welfare state, and created a pretty good school choice program. Somehow The New York Times doesn’t talk about the Swedish model the way it did back when socialism was perceived to be the Swedish model. The Scandinavian and Nordic countries pretty much have free trade, a high level of capital freedom, a reasonably high degree of labor freedom. Obviously free speech, human rights, and gay rights. They do, however, have a high level of taxes and transfers. And that, of course, is what American liberals and American libertarians focus on. But that’s not the whole story. The reason those countries can get away with a high level of taxes and transfers is, number one, they got rich first and then they did that. Number two, by being open, vigorous, market-based economies.
The other big story would be China and India. The most Communist country in the world started reforming in 1979 and has brought more people out of poverty than any country in the history of the world. India has also seen significant reductions in poverty after the reforms in the ’80s and ’90s. They are very good examples that if you pursue one set of policies you will get poverty, and if you pursue a different set, you will get rising levels of prosperity.
Other than your book, what is the book somebody should pick up if he or she is trying to learn about libertarianism?
Well, Charles Murray wrote a book called What It Means to Be Libertarian. That’s a pretty good one. I would call that book a little bit more conservative. He’s thinking more of his conservative friends when he writes his book. I’m thinking of my liberal friends when I write my book. That may not be obvious, but I tried. Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie at Reason wrote an interesting book called Declaration of Independents. It’s more rollicking and more pop culture-oriented than either Charles or I, but that’s a good book.
What do you hope the reader of your book walks away understanding?
Just that libertarianism is the philosophy of personal and economic freedom!