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The Surprisingly Popular Libertarian Ethos

David Boaz says freedom is winning despite low numbers of self-identified libertarians

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Announcer: You’re listening to the Bob Zadek show, a full hour of libertarian discussion with the smartest guests on radio. Live, spontaneous and thoughtful. It’s the show of ideas, not attitude. Now your host, Bob Zadek.

Bob Zadek: Hello everyone. Welcome to the Bob Zadek show — the longest running live libertarian talk radio show on all of radio. We have the most special of guests this morning. I’m happy to welcome David Boaz to the show. David is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute. He is the author of Libertarianism: A Primer, and The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto For Freedom.

The Cato Institute is one of the most important organizations in my life and, whether you know it or not, one of the most important organizations in your life as well. The Cato Institute is an organization I discovered about 25 years ago when I was first beginning to understand how I felt about my relationship to others and the world. Founded in the 1970s, it has been a pillar of libertarian scholarship and public policy doctrine and has been a bright light, pillar, and lodestar — leading myself and millions of other others towards a healthier understanding of our relationship to our fellow man, to our government, and to our world. So I wanted to start by saying a heartfelt thank you to the Cato Institute and its representative this morning, David Boaz.

David has been on my show before but he is not on frequently enough. We’ll see if we can fix that. David, the last time you were on my show was way back in April of 2015 [David Boaz on The Libertarian Mind, April 5, 2015].

Welcome to the show this morning. I couldn’t even imagine a world without the Cato Institute there to help all of us understand what is going on around us.

Common Sense Libertarianism

Bob Zadek: Libertarianism is a strange ideology because so many of our fellow citizens in the country and in the world are libertarian in their beliefs but are not aware of it. So libertarianism, which has some very basic, easy-to-understand core tenants, is a philosophy. It is a moral philosophy and a political philosophy. It is in many ways an economic philosophy. It is a guide to being a human. Tell us what it is to be a libertarian.

David Boaz: Well, the first line in my book, The Libertarian Mind (and the basic idea) is that libertarianism is the philosophy of freedom. It’s a philosophy that says that adult individuals ought to be free to make important decisions about their own lives. This spans a whole lot of issues. You should be free to decide what job or career you will have, who you will marry, where you will live, where you send your kids to school, what you eat, drink, smoke, and read. All of those things are the right and the responsibility of individual adults, and, in general, the government should not use its coercive powers to interfere in our making of these decisions.

Bob Zadek: You said two very important words that I want to emphasize. You said that it is our “right” and “responsibility.” Those are two very different concepts. It is easy for us to accept rights but it is a little bit tougher for some people to accept the responsibility. This is a dichotomy that is difficult to explain to others. Also, you said something which is crucial to the understanding of libertarianism and you used the word “coercion” to describe it. When I explain libertarianism and have a conversation with others who may not be so sympathetic, I like to point out that the core difference is that we do not need to force our point of view on others to prevail. We just need the absence of force. Any other political point of view or position that is non libertarian position cannot exist without the use of force. So “coercion” and its corollary “force,” are crucial to the understanding of libertarianism. Can you expand on this?

David Boaz: Everybody understands what force and coercion are in their own lives. Most of our lives we’re being made offers. Would you like to have this job? Would you like to buy this cup of coffee? Would you like to buy this car? Would you like to rent this apartment? Would you sell me your car? Would you sell me this apple? Would you like to go out with me? Would you like to marry me? All of these things are questions where we make people offers. And during the course of the day we accept or reject hundreds of offers. Think about the fact that when you walk through a store, you are rejecting hundreds of the offers that are in there because you don’t buy every item.

Coercion, or force, on the other hand, come into play when the individual has no choice in the matter, because someone else has made the decision for you. For example, you don’t have the right or the responsibility to decide whether to smoke marijuana. Politicians will make that choice for you and policemen will use force if you try to make a different choice. We said the same thing about alcohol in the 1920s. And then there are a whole lot of other areas. You must send your kids to a specific school that the government has designated for you, unless you pay extra money for another school.

We are not able to make choices that we ought to be able to make. For example, should I give money to charity? I can make that choice, but government can also tax me and tell me how they are going to spend my charitable dollars. How should I save for retirement? Do I make that choice myself or does government, through its taxing power, decide this for me? Like I say, Libertarians talk a lot about the kinds of force that we are against, but we should not lose sight of the fact that in a relatively free society, most of our decisions and life is governed by freedom. Meaning, we exercise our rights and we accept the responsibility. If I decide to use marijuana or to buy a car, I am going to assume the responsibility for using both of those things responsibly. If it turns out that I bought the wrong car, next time I will pay more attention to what my friends tell me about the relative quality of different cars.

Libertarianism is freedom. Freedom is the cornerstone of a libertarian point of view. Now, who among us would actually oppose freedom for an individual? An interesting thing about other non-libertarian points of view is that it is always freedom for me, but not so much freedom for someone else. So, one group of people, usually a majority, acting through government, attempts to impose their world-view on the minority. This means that the majority is free and living the lifestyle they think they want. The minority, however, is not free. With libertarianism, everybody, both majority and minority, get to be free. So, libertarianism concentrates a profound emphasis on the smallest political unit — the single individual.

Libertarianism is freedom. Freedom is the cornerstone of a libertarian point of view. Now, who among us would actually oppose freedom for an individual?

Individualists, not Isolationists

Bob Zadek: People are different. Each individual is important, indeed, almost sacred. And they get to live their lives the way they choose to as opposed to the collectivism that assigns people to one or another hundreds of groups where the individual is not treated as an individual but as a member of a group. And it is this group versus the individual dichotomy which is a real dividing-line between a libertarian point of view and a non-libertarian point of view. This emphasis by non-libertarians of assigning people into groups and treating them not as individuals, but as groups, is an important fault line between libertarianism and a non-libertarian point of view.

David Boaz: Yes, that’s right. Although we should be careful. Libertarians are individualists, but we also understand that people are social animals. We still voluntarily associate in churches, businesses, neighborhoods, and families, and all those things. We simply do not like the element of coerced collectivism that enables the government to treat people unequally by force.

Of course, throughout human history there have been examples of people divided by groups — a very primitive form of tribalism. Originally, our tribe is in and we want to keep the other tribe out. We have seen over the centuries things like antisemitism and racism against people of color. We have seen divisions between Catholics and Protestants and discrimination against people on that basis. We have seen the rich be scapegoated and we have seen the poor scapegoated. We have seen people trying to use the power of the government against others in countless ways. Sometimes, the minority has the power. For instance, in South Africa, it was the minority that was discriminated against by the majority under apartheid.

There have been other instances in history where that was the case even today, in a more democratic government. Lots of public policies are not actually endorsed by the majority right now. Marijuana prohibition is not supported by a majority, although maybe it was in the past. But also look at something as simple as our recent raising of tariffs on newsprint from Canada. Now, did we take any kind of vote? Did we survey Americans and ask them if they thought it was a good idea to make newsprint more expensive so newspapers will get more expensive? No. We didn’t take any vote. That was the paper industry. It managed to get politicians in Washington to impose that restriction on our ability to buy paper from Canada. So, sometimes the majority is oppressing a minority, but with the way government works, sometimes it’s a minority oppressing a majority.

Bob Zadek: What is also interesting is the aspect of individual freedom when we talk about the subject of tariffs — a subject that is much in the news every single day. When we talk about the subject of tariffs, it is all about freedom. A tariff is a tax. As we know, when you raise the price of something, people either buy less of it or they will do the behavior that is more expensive. So a tariff, as David pointed out, raises the price of Canadian newsprint. What that means is that individuals or businesses who choose by personal decision to buy Canadian newsprint because it is cheaper and better, are denied the freedom to do so because of some other governmental purpose, or cronyism to support a domestic newspaper or newsprint industry. Bearing in mind that it is “American jobs, “ and of course there are some beneficiaries of a tariff on Canadian newsprint, but the number of people and the volume of benefit to the few who benefit is far outweighed by the collective detriment to the rest of us.

So, we all suffer because government has by force, taken away our freedom to buy the best product by using tariffs. A tariff is just a massive denial of freedom. To use Milton Friedman’s phrase, it is the “freedom to choose” for the benefit of a few. So, David raises a very important example of how a non-libertarian point of view results in the denial of freedom.

Libertarianism is winning, it’s just not getting the credit

Bob Zadek: It seems to me that a majority of the public seems to be, on discreet issues, very libertarian issue by issue. For example, gay marriage, the use of a scheduled drugs, narcotics, alcohol, and a whole range of social issues. On all of these issues, the public is strongly libertarian without bearing the label of libertarianism. The country seems to be moving in this direction, although those who support these discrete issues don’t do so because they are libertarian, but on an issue by issue basis it resonates. Do I misunderstand what’s going on in America today?

David Boaz: Well, I think that describes a lot of flux that is going on. There are a lot of issues on which most Americans hold a libertarian view. Now there are some issues where they don’t, and obviously most Americans say they would prefer a smaller government with lower taxes and fewer services to a bigger government with higher taxes and more services.

On the other hand, when you ask about individual services and don’t say that the cost will be taxes, then people are likely to say that they want the government to do more, which is a good thing if I don’t have to be confronted with the fact that it’s going to cost me money. But on the question of whether Americans think they pay too much in taxes, or whether the government should balance the budget, or whether the government should be able to take a woman’s house and give it to a big corporation, even though she doesn’t want to sell it, or the question these days of gay marriage or of marijuana prohibition, people are generally on the libertarian side. One reason they don’t know that is that the journalists newspapers, cable television, don’t talk about libertarians very much. They just want to talk about liberals and conservatives. That’s all they can handle. So, people just don’t know the word. They don’t know the philosophy.

If you ask people if they would describe themselves as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, a kind of vague definition of libertarianism, 59 percent of the country said, “Yes, that would describe me.” So there are a lot of people who do have broadly libertarian views but don’t know the word, and that’s a problem for people who are trying to build a political movement.

If you ask people if they would describe themselves as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, a kind of vague definition of libertarianism, 59 percent of the country said, “Yes, that would describe me.”

On the other hand, as long as they push in the direction of cutting taxes, restraining spending, balancing budgets, and letting people live their lives the way they want to, then we can, we can still make progress on these issues. 40 years ago it was libertarians saying we should end the military draft and we did, so we made a lot of progress. They haven’t brought the draft back now for 40 years. So yes, we’ve made a lot of libertarian progress that libertarians don’t necessarily get the credit for.

The Fatal Conceit: The Hubris of Over-bearing Government

Bob Zadek: What is so interesting is that one of the most up obnoxious, which is too benign a word. One of the most profound differences between a libertarian-governmental point of view and a non-libertarian governmental view, there is this hubris, this arrogance, that there is somebody with power who knows how you are to organize your life better than you know how to organize your life. These people ascend to power with that hubris and they exercise the power once they are there, protecting us from ourselves. Whereas most individuals, if asked in the privacy of their living room whether they know best how to run their lives, they would say rightly or wrongly, they know how to best run their lives and they want the freedom to do so.

So there is this unbelievable arrogance that somebody is smarter and more informed, and knows better, and you ought to turn over decision making about your own life to the government and do what you are told. The arrogance is unbelievable and it is so wrong. That arrogance thrives on, or has as its raw material, instilling fear. Once you can convince the population that they need protection, they need guidance, they need control, then populism takes over and the strong dictator-type individual ascends to power because he is the savior. So, it is this tool of fear and the removal of the confidence of an individual to look after themselves, that is the engine or fuel that drives this authoritarian or populist view. And that is the precise opposite of a libertarian worldview. Am I overstating the case and the use of fear and how governments will convince the population that they need governmental help?

David Boaz: Well, it’s not the only way they do it, but yes, the organization of fear is one of the ways that government is built up, because if you feel that you can’t handle some problem, including street crime, or the dangers of the one percent, or the Mexicans who are coming across our border, that they are rapists and murderers and they’re bringing drugs. Then that may very well lead to someone who promises that he will protect you from that threat. And I think we certainly saw that throughout President Trump’s a campaign in 2015 and 2016. It was almost entirely about fear or fear of others — fear of crime, fear of immigrants, fear of foreign trade. I mean, my God, are we supposed to be afraid of people sending us cars and computers for us to consider buying?

Tribalism: Anathema to Libertarianism

Bob Zadek: Now, David, there has been a threat growing, perhaps the greatest in recent memory, of “tribalism.” Can you explain tribalism and how that is the anathema to libertarianism? What causes it in your opinion and how does it represent a threat to so much of what people believe in?

David Boaz: Historically, in all of human history, tribalism was the idea that you can only trust the people who are close to you or who are like you. That might be your family or your extended family or the village in which you live. Of course, those things expanded to our community, our nation, maybe a religious group, a racial group, and so on. What I think we are talking about in modern America is more of a political tribalism where people have lined up on the red team or the blue team. I watch Fox News or I listen to NPR. I don’t trust and I don’t like the people on the other side. And I think that makes it difficult for us to have informed political conversation because it’s harder to sit down and talk about the issues and see if both sides can come to an agreement.

Instead, each side demonizes the other side. I think it makes it difficult for people to get a hearing in that discussion because people have just lined up a on one side or the other, and I think it is particularly difficult for Libertarians, who reject some of the ideas of the right and some of the ideas of the left, to be able to discuss these issues. I think that started to get worse around 1998 with the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the attempted impeachment of President Clinton. The 2000 election with the Florida vote just kind of required everybody in the country to line up on either Bush’s side or Gore’s without caring about all the details. Then, throughout the Bush and Obama years there was a lot of hysteria against Obama, with the rise of the tea party, criticizing his policies. Then there was the rise of Trump, which has intensified tribalism. So the concern that I have is that people are sort of shutting their ears to policy discussion and just siding with a team.

Bob Zadek: This is exacerbated by the way the media has become equally polarized and the fact that people tend to listen to echo chambers, to only those that espouse their own point of views.

Libertarianism’s Kinder, Gentler Side

Bob Zadek: Another observation is, partly because of a misunderstanding of Ayn Rand’s writings and her focus on self interest, which gets misconstrued and is grossly misunderstood, the wrap is that a libertarian point of view is “selfish.” That is, focus on the individual is mean-spirited. Most human beings have in their heart a desire for others to do well. The disagreement is not on whether other individuals matter, but on the method by which you help some individual who has less or who is in need of help. So, I think the misunderstanding is not in the goal but in the method, and it is so clear that libertarianism has as its core the respect for the individual, and that the best way to help the individual is simply to get out of the way. So David, could you help our friends out there to understand that libertarianism and its focus on the individual is not at all mean-spirited?

David Boaz: Libertarians want all people to flourish and to be able to pursue their own dreams and happiness, as the declaration of Independence says, and to reach their potential. And that’s the problem with so many of the systems that came before the arrival to the world of libertarianism, which was first called “liberalism,” back in the 18th and 19th centuries, i.e., the idea of free markets, human rights, individualism, and democratic governance. There were all these rules and systems that prevented people from flourishing, and especially prevented some particular peoples from flourishing. For instance, women did not have equal rights, and nor did black people or Jews in some societies. We could go to Asia and we could point out to the groups of Asian people that were discriminated against. Libertarians, however, want all people to flourish. We should take our cue from Adam Smith, who said that every person seeking his own advantage in a free market is led as if by an “invisible hand” to benefit others as well.

How do you benefit your family in a free market? You figure out what you have that other people want and which you could make money from. Whether this is making sandwiches, repairing shoes, writing, computer coding, providing legal services, or providing insurance. In all of these things, when we pursue our self-interest, we are led as if by an invisible hand to come up with things that will benefit other people. That is not true with the process of government where they say they are acting in the public interest. The truth is that they are deciding who will benefit and who will be hurt by governmental procedures. So, as long as people are not allowed to use force to get money from other people or to take their houses to give to the Pfizer Company, people will benefit others in the course of trying to benefit themselves. And that’s what we want. We want widespread harmony and abundance and economic growth, and it is the market that classical liberals and libertarians pushed for that has taken us from my Scottish ancestors, living in huts with dirt floors and animals to the world that we have today.

Bob Zadek: You mentioned Adam Smith. I wished I was prepared with that wonderful quote, which I only can paraphrase roughly: it is not from the generosity of the baker that we get our daily bread. The baker, in providing delicious bread for us at a price we can afford, is doing so in furtherance of the his self-interest. He wants to have you as a customer and he wants your money. He wants you to buy is bread. In doing so, and in fulfilling that self interest, we get delicious bread at the right price. The phrase that I wince at is “cutthroat competition.” Any qualifier or modifier on the word “competition” is painful to me, because competition in the free market is one thing: It is businesses and individuals competing with each other for what to give you what you want at the price you can afford.

Doesn’t it give you goosebumps to know that most of the world is spending every minute of their day just trying to give you what you want at the price you can afford. That is the free market. The more competition, the better, because the result is society. The world benefits because people have succeeded in giving you what you want at the price you’re willing to pay for it. And David, that’s what Adam Smith has taught us and that is the core of the free market. Is it not?

David Boaz: Yes, and it is the core of the modern world. We live in a world defined by the fundamental libertarian values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and the idea that markets are the most productive way to produce that for everyone.

Bob Zadek: And one more misconception, David, that I’ll ask you to help our audience understand. There are many people who out of ignorance will say, oh, libertarians, they’re all anarchists and they want no government, whatsoever. While there are some on the fringes who are in fact anarchists who lust for a world of no government whatsoever, libertarians desperately want government. Who else is going to protect me and give me the freedom to live my life the way I want to live my life and to make sure no one harms me or takes my stuff, to paraphrase Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks. So, we do not aspire to eliminate government. In the few minutes we have left, help our friends out there understand our relationship to government and what we look for in a government.

David Boaz: Well, I think that government has an important purpose in our lives. It is supposed to protect our rights to life, liberty, and property life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I think for that we need a national defense to protect us from threats abroad, which does not mean that we need a national offense that conducts 15 year-wars all around the world. But we do need a national defense. We also need a court system because sometimes, even with the best of intentions, you and I may have disputes that we can’t settle ourselves and we have to go to court. We also need police because some people do seek to do us harm. And we want police who hopefully, by strolling the streets, will prevent some people from committing crimes and will apprehend and arrest and eventually try people who do commit crimes.

Libertarians want a government that does those tasks well, but we don’t want a government that intrudes into everybody’s life, whether it is our bedrooms or our kitchens or our businesses. We want a government that protects our rights and leaves us otherwise free to lead our lives and make our decisions as we choose in our own interest, which will generally lead to benefiting other people because what is in my interest is to get people to buy my product or service.

Bob Zadek: So, it is not the case that we aspire to eliminate government. And David made a very important point, which is that government should perform only those limited, crucial functions for society, which is protecting us from those who would do us, or our property harm. Also, we have seen that in personal relationships and governmental relationships, once an entity or an individual undertakes to do more than they are able to do competently, they start to do everything badly. So government has assumed improperly and unconstitutionally, in my opinion — but the Supreme Court has blessed it — so much that they are doing everything badly instead of doing a few things very, very well.

Tell us about the Cato Institute. What you are, what projects you are working on these days? We have about a minute left.

David Boaz: You can find the Cato Institute at on the web. We are a think tank and a research organization. We have about 100 people who study public policy, and study everything from education to the environment to foreign policy, and who then write about it and publish books and articles in newspapers. We also go on radio and television shows and we try to get across the benefits of freedom in a wide variety of areas, whether it is marijuana prohibition or excessive business regulation and the housing regulations that are made.




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