David Boaz: Libertarianism Is the Intellectual Core of Liberalism

How Vietnam, Watergate, and stagflation supercharged the libertarian movement.


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This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.

Reason: Having been in the libertarian movement for nearly half a century, how do you assess the current state of libertarian ideas and the broader libertarian movement?

Boaz: I think there are a lot more libertarian ideas. When I was in college and thought of myself as a libertarian—but also thought of libertarians as part of the conservative movement—who did we have as intellectuals? [Friedrich] Hayek and [Milton] Friedman and [Ludwig von] Mises.

It was kind of a good set of years there, because Hayek won the Nobel Prize in '74—which was stunning to us, because even as naive college students we knew nobody like that had won a Nobel Prize before. Then in 1975, [Robert] Nozick won the National Book Award, which really helped to put libertarianism on the map of political philosophers. Then in 1976, Friedman won the Nobel Prize. I was out of college then, but that period really boosted libertarian academic credentials.

These days, just like everybody says, we have nobody like [Ronald] Reagan and [Margaret] Thatcher. But in the time of Reagan and Thatcher, they said, "Where are the people like [Winston] Churchill and [Franklin] Roosevelt?" I look back and say, "Wow, weren't those great? And who is that today?" But at least one answer is there's a lot more libertarian intellectuals today. Maybe nobody is a Hayek these days, but there's definitely a lot more libertarianism in the academy, more libertarian intellectuals, more people reading those people. Some of them even get published by major publishers. There's more of that, and I think that means there's more people who think of themselves as libertarians.

What's the essence of libertarianism for you?

To me, the essence of libertarianism is the nonaggression principle. You have no right to initiate force against people who have not initiated force against you. From that comes freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of property and markets, ideally within an ethos of cosmopolitanism and pluralism and tolerance. At that point, we're kind of talking about liberalism, and these days I'm worried not just about libertarianism, but about liberalism.

Cosmopolitanism, tolerance, pluralism—where do those come from and why should those be interconnected? If we compare the nonaggression principle to the core of a nuclear reactor, why should the surrounding framework be akin to cosmopolitanism?

I think libertarianism is set within classical liberalism, and I think of libertarianism as the intellectual core of liberalism, the intellectual vanguard. I often say I'd like to be part of a libertarian intellectual vanguard leading a broader liberal movement. And for my whole career, we haven't had that. We've had liberals divided into people who emphasize free markets and people who emphasize civil liberties and tolerance and equality under the law for all. Libertarians have not had a great record on equality under the law for all, although I think it's clearly inherent in what we believe. But you didn't see many libertarians involved in the Civil Rights Movement, critical of Jim Crow, and they should have been, and they should have been out there.

The Cato Institute, where you've spent most of your career, was founded in 1977 in San Francisco. How did it come into being?

Ed Crane was in Washington running the MacBride for President campaign in 1976, and he observed that [the American Enterprise Institute] and Brookings had a significant influence on limited budgets. And he said, "There ought to be a libertarian think tank, one representing the values of the American Revolution." So he talked to Charles Koch, who had money to help. And Charles said, "OK, I'll put some money up if you'll run it." And he said, "Well, you don't want me to run it because it needs to be in Washington, and I'm going back to San Francisco." And, as he used to tell it, "Charles was smarter than I was, and he knew if I started this, I would in a few years realize it should be in Washington."

The idea was to set up a think tank that was neither liberal nor conservative, and that would put libertarian ideas on the policy map, as well as just the pure theory map.

What were the big issues in the 1970s that you guys were obsessed with?

The big influences in the early '70s were Vietnam, Watergate, and stagflation. I used that trio often to explain why there was an efflorescence of libertarians in the 1970s. The government had just accomplished Vietnam, Watergate, and stagflation, which gave people a very different view of a government that they perceived as having solved the Depression and won World War II. It was a different generation that was coming up.

What were the main issues? The answer is they're kind of the same issues over and over. History is not a bunch of new things. It's one damn thing, over and over. For Cato, the original agenda was, "Well, we're going to take on Social Security, the linchpin of the welfare state. We're going to take on school choice, which underlies so many problems. And we're going to take on the foreign interventionist state." Early on, we were writing about all of those things. Our first real book was about an alternative to Social Security, how to get out of it. At least one of our first papers was on Social Security, but we had a very early pro-immigration paper. We had a very early paper on conscription, which was a live issue at that time.

Is Social Security unstoppable at this point? 

That seems to be the observation all over the world. We've made a lot of progress on free trade. We've made a lot of progress on human rights, civil rights, women's rights, gay rights. We've made some progress on some microregulation issues. We're making some now on housing. We repealed a lot of the New Deal regulations in the 1978 to '81 era. When people say we're on the road to serfdom, I tell them about all these things. We ended conscription, we ended the [Civil Aeronautics Board], we ended the [Interstate Commerce Commission]. We created a structure that continuously brought tariffs down. All those things were progress. There was significant progress, and people still say, "Yes, but what about all this government spending and everything?" I think the answer there is once you create a program that people think they're getting benefits from, it's very hard to take those benefits away.

We can argue that Social Security is not, on net, benefiting people, but there's a huge constituency of people who paid money in and they don't want it taken away from them. That's true for every program. It's true for the farm program. That's one of the reasons that we always say it is so important to stop a new entitlement in the beginning. Because Medicare was expected to cost a billion dollars a year, 10 years after it was founded. That was crazy. It was much more than that. You've got to stop it.

In the '80s, what was your attitude towards Ronald Reagan? A lot of libertarians, or people leaning libertarian, would say he was really good. Is that right or is that wrong? 

My own trajectory with Reagan was in the '70s. I was in [Young Americans for Freedom] and I went to the 1976 convention on behalf of Reagan, not as a delegate, but just there to cheer him on and everything. I liked Reagan, and I was actually a delegate to the state convention or maybe the county convention for Reagan.

Then in 1978, I got hired to work on the Clark for Governor campaign, and that shifted my allegiance. Ed Clark for governor, California 1978—the first big Libertarian Party campaign that actually had some money and a professional staff of me and one other guy [laughs].

While Reagan was president, I was a libertarian, and we were pretty much critical of everything he did. Well, not everything, but many things he did. As time went on, and we saw other presidents, I think we got nostalgic for the Reagan-Thatcher era—two people who, even if they didn't always live up to it, did enunciate a lot of libertarian rhetoric. I think Thatcher in England revived British entrepreneurship and appreciation for enterprise. Reagan did some of that too. I think to a great extent, Reagan's speeches about freedom revived the American spirit, maybe as much as his tax cuts did.

How disastrous was the George W. Bush administration for America and for libertarian advances?

That was pretty bad. And we were sort of optimistic when he came in! We didn't like Republicans. They did a lot of bad things. But Bush had told Ed Crane that Cato's Social Security plan was on the right track, and he wanted to do something like that. Early in his administration, he appointed a commission, which we were sort of opposed to because a commission is usually the way to put an idea to bed. But it turned out he appointed a commission of Republicans and Democrats that was stacked in favor of some kind of privatization. So that was good.

But then 9/11 happened, and Bush got distracted from everything else. Then he gets reelected, and he says, "I'm going to use my political capital on reforming Social Security." It turns out, somehow he got reelected but everybody hated him. We did a poll at the time, and we said, "Would you support an idea that would allow you to put your own money into retirement and then not take Social Security at the end?" And 60 percent said, "Yeah, that sounds good." When we said, "President Bush has a plan," it got 40 percent approval. So that kind of killed it.

How bad was the war on terror and the USA PATRIOT Act, for libertarian ideas?

It was definitely bad that we got the PATRIOT Act, but also, just the general [feeling that] we have to respond with war. We even have to invade Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11. And the PATRIOT Act and the surveillance state that was created—very bad for the country, bad for libertarians too, although it gave us a lot of targets to complain about. But we didn't get very far in aiming at those targets.

Was Barack Obama particularly bad? While there were overblown accusations, such as him attempting "to destroy America as we know it," is there validity to the idea that he was putting us on a particularly terrible path?
Yes. For one thing, like I said, every time you create a new entitlement, you'll never get rid of it. He was trying to create those, and he had some success. We had stopped HillaryCare. We were not able to stop Obamacare. That's what we said at the time: You'll never get rid of it. We kept trying, but we didn't. So yes, he did put us on that bad trajectory, a bigger government than we'd had before. Although every president was giving us a bigger government than we had had before.

How did Donald Trump scramble the libertarian movement? There are people who claim that "Trump is the most libertarian president ever." What do you think people mean when they say something like that?

Yes, there were. I had lots of fights. I blocked more people that year on Facebook than ever before. I had a lot of fights with old friends who said, "He's the most libertarian president." I mean, when he was running…he said he would cut taxes. Any Republican that year would've been campaigning on tax cuts. He said he would cut regulation. He did campaign against immigration and against trade. I never did understand. I guess he said, "Drill, baby, drill." So libertarians who thought of American energy independence, or at least production, liked it.

I think a lot of libertarians, certainly a lot of conservatives, liked the fact that he fights, he stands up, he calls the left a bunch of dickheads. I think in the subsequent five years, it occurred to me that the people conservatives and some libertarians are gravitating to are not necessarily the ones who are most conservative, certainly not the ones who are making the most compelling cases; they're the ones who are the most anti-left.

Sean Hannity on Fox: He's just partisan, anti-left all the time. Tucker Carlson. Charlie Kirk with Turning Point USA. Charlie Kirk had been kind of "Free market! Socialism sucks"—that was his organization. And then he just went all in for Trump. Then I saw other people going all in for Trump. The defense of Trump now, as the most libertarian president, I think would be tax cuts, and conservative Supreme Court justices who many libertarians think are better than liberal Supreme Court justices. And they'll say deregulation. There wasn't that much deregulation, but there was less regulation than in a Democratic administration.

What's the case against President Joe Biden?

The case against Biden is he is a bankrupt spender. I think Trump may have spent more in four years than Obama did. Biden then comes in and says, "I'll see you and raise you." So there's certainly that.

The best case I heard for Trump is from one of my colleagues. He was saying, "Hillary will bring 4,000 dedicated regulators to Washington. I don't know who Trump's going to appoint—Republican hacks, [former president of the Heritage Foundation] Ed Feulner's list, his cronies—but they won't be dedicated regulators." I think that's definitely happened with Biden. He campaigned as a moderate, and compared to either [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren or Trump he seemed centrist. But he has empowered an administration that wants to regulate everything.

Some of it is woke regulation: sexual harassment on campus, hate speech, all that kind of stuff. Some of it is just pure economic regulation, and you see it every day. "The Biden administration is going to require…" "The Biden administration is going to ban…" One of the problems there, of course, is abuse of presidential power. Every time I see one of those, I'm like, "Where in the Constitution does it say the president can do that?" Of course, it doesn't anywhere.

Going back to what I said in the beginning about cosmopolitanism and tolerance: Obama comes in, campaigns. He's black; he's the first president to welcome gay people into his administration, even though he's not for gay marriage until right before the 2012 election. But he looks like somebody who believes that everybody is part of America. Trump is obviously the exact opposite of that. And with Biden, it's gone way beyond that.

Now we are looking at another Trump vs. Biden. Neither of these people, neither of these parties, are in any way committed to libertarian principles. What are libertarians to do? How do we maneuver a political landscape such as this?

That's a good question these days. Some people tried in 2016 to run a presidential ticket composed of two governors, Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, both well-respected, against the two worst candidates in history, and they got three and a half percent of the vote. That didn't seem to work out very well.

Now the Libertarian Party has fallen apart, so they're not going to do that. I guess you have to pick the party you believe in. I would love to see a fiscally conservative, socially liberal centrist party. I do believe there are millions of voters who think that way, maybe a plurality of voters who think that way. But the two parties are controlled by, more or less, their extremes, and how do you break into that? My [former] colleague Andy Craig has thought a lot about election reforms. I never thought much about them. I always figured if there's enough libertarians, they'll make themselves felt within whatever political system. But maybe something like ranked choice voting, not so much that it would help libertarians, but that it might hurt extremists and get more of a consensus candidate.

And hey, when I was a young guy, I didn't ever think I'd be looking for a consensus centrist country.

Although we are more free as individuals, certainly to express ourselves and to live the way we want to, many don't really feel that way. Can you talk about a culture of libertarian freedom and cosmopolitanism, and how it aligns to our contemporary experiences?

I think that's partly because people always have this nostalgia. On Twitter, there's all these things: "Remember when a man with one income could afford this house?" Then economists come along and say, "Adjust for inflation and adjust for house size and things, this is not true." Plus you have all the knowledge in the history of the world in your pocket right now. Nobody had that. David Rockefeller didn't have it in 1990.

Part of it is just that we always look back and think, "Oh, things were better and now they're worse." But I do think a lot of people know they're freer because they're black people who are allowed to aspire to things. I'll tell you, when Karine Jean-Pierre was appointed press secretary, I wrote a blog post and said, "This is a sign of progress. A black lesbian could not have been the president's press secretary even maybe five or 10 years ago. This is a sign that we're a more open and accepting society." And I got a lot of blowback from alleged libertarians saying, "She's an affirmative action appointee. You're endorsing diversity, affirmative action." I said, "Look, I don't know if she'll be any good, but I'll tell you this: There are positions in your administration you would put diversity hires in, I don't believe you make the most visible face in your administration an affirmative action hire. It's important how she speaks on behalf of your administration. Whether she's good or not, I don't know, but I think they think she is."

We see more black people, more women being able to rise in corporations and politics. And of course, as a gay person in high school in the '60s, now living in a world where I can live with a longtime partner and my friends can get married, all of this is pretty much taken for granted, even among conservatives.

There's a huge surge in illiberalism both on the left and on the right. Where is that coming from, and where does that leave libertarianism?

That's a good question. I've been writing about this, not so much about libertarianism, but about liberalism. We live in a liberal world. Brian Doherty wrote in his history of the libertarian movement [Radicals for Capitalism], "a world that…runs on approximately libertarian principles." You look at that first and say, "What?" And then you think, "Well, yes, the United States, Europe, and more parts of the world are generally based on free markets and private property, and on free speech and freedom of religion, and expanding human rights to people to whom they were denied." All of that is basic libertarian principles.

OK, we're arguing about gay marriage, and OK, we spend too much money. There's all those things, but we do live in a liberal world. And yet we have these big sets of illiberals on both left and right, in the United States, and in other countries, in countries like Hungary and Turkey and India. We're moving away. It's not just Russia, China, Mexico.

My question is: Liberalism works so well! Have you looked around? Do you realize what your grandparents, your great-grandparents had, even your parents? My parents had a black and white TV for a long time. I have four televisions in my house of two people.

A critique of liberalism is that while it gives material resources, it lacks deeper meaning. Critics say it does not reward true believers with a unifying faith, goal, God, or mission. Is this a legitimate critique of liberalism?

To some extent, yes, it's a legitimate critique. Liberalism is a philosophy of individual autonomy. No established church, no established ideas. [Chinese Communist Party leader] Mao [Zedong] said, "Let a thousand ideas bloom," but liberalism actually did that. It's a significant critique, but it's a good thing. We should defend the liberalism that allows people to find meaning in their own lives. Preachers and teachers and authors may want to help guide people to find meaning in their own lives, but we're not all going to find the same meaning. What we want is people being able to choose their own churches, or no church, choose their own ideas and so on. We don't want the church, the king, the Vatican, the government imposing a meaning on everybody. That's what the liberal revolution was about. It was in great part a revolution against the established churches.

There's all these illiberals on the left, there's all these illiberals on the right, and yet liberalism endures. We do mostly live in a liberal country, in a liberal world. Something is attractive enough about liberalism to resist most of these assaults. I think it is that most people, at least in the United States, do want a world of private property and free markets and free speech and human rights and freedom of abortion and women's rights and to choose jobs. They resist the real impositions.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.