The Libertarian Moment?
Katherine Mangu-Ward joins us to talk about the “libertarian moment” and the past and future of libertarianism more broadly.
Is this a libertarian moment? Was there a libertarian moment? Can we expect there to be a libertarian moment? Yes to all three, says Reason managing editor Katherine Mangu-Ward. We also discuss whether younger people are becoming more libertarian, why libertarianism always seems to be associated with the political right, and whether libertarianism depends on technological growth.
Show Notes and Further Reading
This New York Times column by Robert Draper that first called attention to the “libertarian moment.”
This Hit & Run blog post by Reason.com editor Nick Gillespie, “The Libertarian Moment is Everywhere Around Us (Increasing Social Tolerance Edition)”.
Jonathan Haidt’s 2013 book on moral psychology in politics that shows why liberals, conservatives, and libertarians have different intuitions on what is right and wrong, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.
Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science-fiction novel predicting the rise of an internet much like the one we know today, Snow Crash.
Mangu-Ward’s cover article for the November 2012 issue of Reason, “Your Vote Doesn’t Count”.
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Katherine Mangu-Ward, the Managing Editor of Reason magazine. Before that, she was a reporter at The Weekly Standard and a researcher for The New York Times op-ed page. Welcome to Free Thoughts Katherine.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: Thank you for having me.
Trevor Burrus: A while back, people started talking about the libertarian moment. I haven’t heard it recently. Maybe Donald Trump has sucked all the air out of the room. We can get to that later. But people were talking about there being a libertarian moment. There were front page articles in The New York Times and all this stuff. Is this a libertarian moment? Was there a libertarian moment? Can we expect there to be a libertarian moment? All three in 20 seconds or less please.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: So I think I’m contractually obligated to say that yes, we are experiencing libertarian moment. The libertarian moment is now. The libertarian moment maybe is always – at least in part because that term was actually coined by my bosses at Reason magazine, Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie.
They sort of laid out the terms of this thing which has taken on a lot of different meanings but includes this idea that younger people are more libertarian and so are going to force both mainstream parties or perhaps general American political sentiment in a more libertarian direction. Also that there are sort of a few things happening in the public consciousness stuff that libertarians have been saying for a long time, which we’re not getting traction for a long time.
Here I’m talking about drug legalization, particularly marijuana legalization which had started happening out west all of a sudden in this way that – you know, I think Jacob Sullum who has been covering the drug war and drugs for us for decades, he was like, “Oh my god. I can’t believe they’re coming true,” and also gay marriage, awareness, concerns about sort of police brutality and overweening power on the part of law enforcement, privacy.
I think that’s real. I think the libertarian moment did happen, is happening. It is hard to have a libertarian moment and also have an electoral politics moment and I think right now, we are just getting sucked into the darkness of electoral politics for a little while and I don’t anticipate …
Trevor Burrus: Tell me it will be over soon, please.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: I would be lying to you.
Aaron Ross Powell: Is what you described though really a libertarian moment? Because the things that you described that we’re having successes on, I guess could be spun as young people tend to be more left than right and maybe the left is just waking up to the things that they should have cared about for a long time anyway. Like, we should actually be worrying about the drug war because it fits with our leftist principles to end it and we should be worrying about gay marriage.
But is there – the stuff where we disagree with the left or at least the left as it likes to think of itself, although this tends to fall down in practice. Is there a libertarian moment in those areas as well, the free markets and the deregulation and the getting – the governments booed off the neck of entrepreneurs and so on?
Katherine Mangu-Ward: No, I don’t think we’re having an economic libertarian moment. But I do think it understates what’s actually going on to just say, “Oh, the left kind of woke up to these natural concurrences of our views.” Not least because it – it really is true that a lot of this stuff was considered completely crack-headed 10 years ago or 20 years ago, right? This is not just something that was always part of the portfolio of the left. But they just didn’t really emphasize it the way that economic liberty has always been part of the portfolio of the right. But when it comes to under brass tacks, they tend to kind of weasel on it.
This was like you’re embarrassing yourselves. Stop talking about legalizing drugs, you crazy, crazy libertarians. Then we woke up one morning and we were legalizing drugs. I think that’s different and I think that’s why we use this kind of phrasing of it’s a moment. It was a sort of “aha” rather than just a shifting of the priorities.
Trevor Burrus: You think about someone like Bill Clinton and you get someone who has signed [Phonetic] don’t ask, don’t tell and a bunch of – ramped up the drug war not even 20 years ago and then you’re right, they just flip around. It is interesting. But at the same time, the left is the kind of – the left is the kind of organization – that’s wrong, organization. Mentality that once – it’s OK with you smoking marijuana but not with smoking cigarettes indoors. So you have to go outside to – which is an interesting tension, what makes it very not libertarian. It’s just this one thing that they seem to like.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: And I do think we’re having an anti-libertarian moment in terms of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of association. I think we’re losing ground on all of those fronts and of course I recommend to everyone, if they haven’t read it yet, the great article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic about the coddling of the American mind that talks about the ways that this is happening on campuses where you can no longer say things that make people feel sad. That’s a really troubling development and should be for libertarians. It should be for everyone.
But I think it is absolutely true that there is always push-pull on this stuff, that there are places where libertarians are losing ground with the left and the right. But there has been some actual tangible policy changes, which – I’m for one willing to chalk up in a victory column.
Aaron Ross Powell: How much of this is age-based and just demographics-based? So we’ve known for a long time that young people were say far more supportive of gay rights, gay marriage than older people and so as older people age out and as younger people take over political offices, we’re going to get the issues that have been popular with them for some time. I guess I asked this because if it’s the case that this is the ideas of the young taking a more prominent place in American politics, then yay, we’re getting gay marriage and yay, we’re getting – we’re moving in the direction of legalized drugs and that’s all good.
But it’s also potentially terrifying specifically for this coddling of the American mind stuff and this assault on free speech because yeah, if the young people are taking over America, then our – how institutionalized do trigger warnings become in our regulatory policy and so on and so forth?
Katherine Mangu-Ward: Yeah, I do think it’s mostly demographic and God knows the Cato Institute has been foremost in finding any libertarian tendencies anywhere in the youth, using any numbers that they possibly can, which is a pursuit that I absolutely endorse because sometimes you just have to fake it until you make it.
But I think the idea that young people are just kind of going to do what they’re going to do and that their views are – particularly if you think of millennials which like I apologize for saying that word out loud, since that makes every conversation like 10 percent dumber.
Trevor Burrus: It makes Aaron particularly cringe. He’s happy you apologized for that.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, we can – I mean we can say as much bad stuff about millennials, but something nice.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: I’m happy to say nice things about millennials, but like they’re getting kind of old, right? I mean millennials are having kids. They’re growing up and so I think it’s going to be interesting to see how their views change.
One thing that I do think is heartening that gets mentioned much less is millennials are not as hostile to capitalism as the generation before and to business. They are hostile to big business but frankly so am I when it collaborates with government. It becomes crony capitalism. The idea of selling out is not something that millennials worry about. That’s a real Gen X thing. It’s a real boomer thing, millennials. The whole point is to sell it.
The whole point is to grow your beard and grow your organic coffee beans and then sell them to everyone who wants to buy them and I think that’s really heartening because anybody who thinks about ways that they might be growing an enterprise is immediately and always going to run up against the wall of the state and is immediately and always going to say, “At least in my area, at least as it impacts me, government isn’t doing a good job,” and God knows that does not translate into becoming a doctrinaire libertarian. If it did, everyone would be a libertarian always and frankly, there are days when I don’t understand why everyone isn’t a libertarian always because whenever people run up against the state, with regard to the thing that they want to do, it’s always bad.
But at the very least, I think the kind of small business, mid-sized business and not just the sort of mom-and-pop but also the “I want to scale my business.” That moment where you really come in contact with the market and you really understand how capital works. That’s a goal for a lot of millennials. It’s not an accident or something you have to grapple with. That’s the point.
Trevor Burrus: I think when Matt Welch and Nick were on the show, Matt had some comment about if you want to sell $10 pickles, organic $10 pickles out of a truck, that’s what the millennials want to do and they even want to buy $10 pickles amazingly enough. Now you mentioned about people not being a libertarian befuddling you. Why are you a libertarian?
Katherine Mangu-Ward: To quote a book out there, it usually begins with Ayn Rand and in my case, that is absolutely true. I sort of wish I had a less clichéd story to say but I absolutely don’t. I was 15 years old. I read The Fountainhead. I was really, really awful for …
Trevor Burrus: I was just going to ask you. Did you become an …
Katherine Mangu-Ward: Oh my goodness. I would not have wanted to be around me. I mean I think I like actually call people second-handers to their face on the regular when I was 15. I luckily went to college where the campus debating society, they – at the freshman bazaar would set up a front group called “the objectivist study group” at Yale, which was not really a real group. It was just a way to get kids like me who had read Ayn Rand and probably nothing else and we’re really into it and immediately get them to read other philosophy that was better.
Trevor Burrus: That’s a public service.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: It was a public service and this was a sort of fusionist style debating society that had libertarians and traditionals and conservatives. I do think of myself as coming out of the kind of like Frank Meyer fusionist tradition. [0:10:00] So we can talk about that a little bit, the sort of “Can the libertarians and the rights still be friends?” question, which is always everyone’s favorite.
But I absolutely came at it from a philosophical point of view. I absolutely came at it from a – from the point of view of sort of letting creative people do their own thing free from restrictions and one reason that – reason it’s such a great home for me is because a lot of what we do isn’t just saying, “It sucks. The government is too big.” We also say, “Isn’t it amazing, all this stuff that people are constantly doing in the private sector that makes our lives freer and better and more fun?”
Aaron Ross Powell: So given what you said about the differences and the views towards business of millennials and Gen-Xers who are all concerned about selling out, do you think that Rand does appeal or will appeal more to young people now than she would have 20 years ago or something, if they’re more likely to see business as a positive?
Katherine Mangu-Ward: I’m a little bit torn on that. On one hand, I do think that it’s pretty easy to make the case that sometimes you look around and it really does look like Atlas Shrugged is happening in real life. I mean when we were having those train crashes a little bit ago, Twitter noticed that convergence.
At the same time, I think Rand herself particularly in The Fountainhead is pretty skeptical about the ability of markets to reward true merit. Like [Indiscernible] is a starving artist essentially and so I think there’s a kind of tension there about whether – you know, the message that she’s saying, sending of this kind of like self-actualization and creativity. I mean I think that appeals to young people regardless. I will say I’ve been interviewing interns for a reason for many years now and it used to be 80 percent of the interns either said Ayn Rand or The Road to Serfdom or something like that when asked how they became libertarians and now everyone says Ron Paul.
I do not know what to make of that. But nobody comes into my intern interview process anymore and says, “I read Ayn Rand and that’s why I’m libertarian,”
Trevor Burrus: What kind of a libertarian would you call yourself now? You kind of mentioned the fusionist. Are you still in the Randian-ish type of thing or …
Katherine Mangu-Ward: Yeah, I definitely don’t consider myself an objectivist or a Randian now. But I am not as scornful of her as some of her former acolytes tend to be. I guess I think of myself as a big-tent libertarian. I sort of – anybody wants to be in my club, I want to have them and that includes people who have other agenda that I might not get onboard with. But if they want to buddy up with me on an issue, I’m happy to have them in my heart because I am – I don’t know, an absolutist or something. I think of myself as an anarchist but I also think that doesn’t matter.
The point is gradual change. The point is sort of the current American and world political scene and on that front, I will have anybody who wants to sell $10 pickles, to come join the party.
Trevor Burrus: Ten dollar pickles.
Aaron Ross Powell: So if – sticking on the topic of young people. If they’re as pro-market say, maybe not big business, but pro-markets and they’re big into this – the civil liberties that we libertarians have been championing for so long, why – I mean even outside of just like on Salon.com. Why do people say so many mean things about us? I mean it seems like – you know, like libertarianism, I get that there is – we’re a threat to the political establishment.
So if you want to see traditional republicans or democrats [Indiscernible] you need to paint libertarians as these vile creatures that no one should have anything to do with. But there does seem to be this like visceral dislike for self-identified libertarians among large swaths of young people in particular. So what’s – they ought to agree with us, right?
Katherine Mangu-Ward: That’s pretty much how I start my day every day. They ought to agree with us. What can I do? I’m going to actually make this a Jonathan-Haidt-themed podcast because I think he has a really good insight. This is [Indiscernible] on political personality and he particularly talks about how people have a bunch of different core values that build, that sort of sum up to be their political personality and that in the course of his work, he discovered that most of the standard measures of these things, which include things like care versus harm, right? So sort of a utilitarian calculus of loyalty or that kind of thing.
Something that was missing was actually the thing that captures libertarians which is people who just value liberty for its own sake and so he actually added to his kind of slate of testing a bunch of ways to get at that idea. I think maybe the answer, maybe the answer to your question is just that if your political personality doesn’t include this component, this thing where you just think it’s good to be free, and you think it’s good for other people to be free, that that’s a very hard thing to convey.
Another interesting sort of finding of Haidt’s research is that people on the right tend to have multiple values. They tend to have three or four of this like slate of values whereas people on the left are very, very focused on this care-harm value. Does it hurt people or does it help people? And as a result, people on the right have an easier time envisioning, imagining, and kind of modeling the world view of the left.
If you ask them what would a person on the left say about these 10 things, they’re pretty good at guessing whereas on the right – whereas when you flip it, if you ask people on the left to say, “What does the right winger think about these things?” they’re like, “I don’t know. This just seems crazy.” They can’t put it together.
Trevor Burrus: They just hate brown people, right?
Katherine Mangu-Ward: Yeah, exactly. So I think with libertarians, it’s the same thing where we’re asking people to take yet another leap of kind of imagination, to move even further from their comfort zone about what they think is important in order to get what we think is important and maybe that’s an unbridgeable gap. Maybe there are just only so many of us that have that thing built into our brains.
Aaron Ross Powell: Does it mean then that we could benefit from figuring out how to talk about libertarianism in a way that aligns more with that care-harm foundation? Because – I mean we – this is a building full of economists who by and large their argument for a free society, for free markets, is it benefits people. It’s good for people. It limits harm to people and that – and we also argue all the time that empowering the government is a good way to harm all sorts of people in really horrific ways. So should we lay off the liberty talk and instead say we care about these things too but here’s a better way to get there?
Katherine Mangu-Ward: Yes, and Haidt says that. He doesn’t call himself a libertarian but is very sympathetic to libertarians certainly much more so than many of his professional brethren and he absolutely says that. He says, listen, care-harm is something that almost everybody – that’s at least a component of their political philosophy, of their political personality. So that is to some extent a universal language. The trouble that I found in trying to practice that policy is that people don’t actually believe you and I don’t know what to make of that.
When I say, “I believe the things I believe because I think they would help more poor people,” people on the left like roll their eyes and laugh. I don’t – I think I’m a nice person. I think I seem pretty sincere and yet, even I have trouble getting through on that front with the conscious effort.
So there’s still some barrier there and I don’t quite know how to overcome the sincerity barrier but yes, making the argument over and over in a sincere way in different language, saying the policies that libertarians want are better for everyone and would create better outcomes for everyone, I think is a good strategy. The other thing I would say though is there’s – there’s a lot of merit in putting away the pocket constitution. This idea of – the libertarian brandishing the pocket – I was once on a radio show with a local candidate for a – a local libertarian candidate for office and on the radio, he got out the pocket constitution and started waving it around.
Like for all of you guys know, I’m waving a pocket constitution right now, right? But this sort of idea that you’re going to win over anyone by saying, “Here’s a fundamental principle. It’s in the constitution. It’s in my interpretation of the constitution. It’s natural rights.” All of those arguments I think only get you so far whereas saying like let’s look at the poor people that were harmed by the state or the people of minority races that were harmed by the state or the women who were harmed by the state.
We can do that. We have a great case for that. You have a building full of economists, making a great case for that. So let’s do it more.
Aaron Ross Powell: I think the thing you have to overcome which is deeply ingrained especially among those on the left is that the state is simply what it means to operationalize care, that if you care about something, then that means you want the state to do something about it. So the flipside of that, when they hear from libertarians is if you don’t want the state to address a particular issue, it simply means you don’t care about it.
So when you give these reasons why – no, look, these policies that I prefer actually would help more, it [0:20:00] ends up just sounding probably disingenuous. Like, you’re just trying to cover for your lack of care.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: I think the other thing to do in that case is to remind people that the state is also how we operationalize harm, right? I mean for everyone who says, “Oh, government is what we do together,” like government is also how we murder our enemies and government is also how we punish the disfavored and I think this is one reason why – reason over the years and Cato I know as well. This is why we write stories about mistakes in administering the death penalty or why we critically cover aggression abroad, because it is a constant reminder that for every welfare program there is a military campaign and that yes, if what you want is to maximize thriving and happiness, and people’s well-being, the state is not unambiguously a tool for that.
Trevor Burrus: You kind of filled this in different ways. But what is the best and most straightforward argument for libertarians? What is the elevator pitch for libertarianism in that? Maybe it was in there. I think it was to some degree but if you have to do the elevator pitch.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: You know, I really – again, I feel like a bit of a corporate chill here but free minds and free markets is not a bad one. We also say a reason that we are trying to make the world more free, more fair and more fun. So obviously something about the letter F deeply appeals to us. But I think the classic formulation of being socially liberal and fiscally conservative is not – I think there’s a temptation to use it. I think it does help people understand at a very basic level. But the concept of social issues I think has broken down hugely, the idea that there’s somehow this division between spending or regulation and doing the sex and the drugs.
It’s falling apart in the American political discussion. So I think that often sows more confusion than it clears up. So yeah, I favor something like – you know, that Canadian politician who said, “I want gay married couples to be able to defend their marijuana patch with guns.” Like that’s something that I’ve said to pretty good effect. Not just because it’s funny but because it also very succinctly conveys what people see as this sort of unusual combination of views, but which is actually something that on a second or third follow-up question, you can pretty quickly explain how those things are actually all united.
Trevor Burrus: What about the worst argument for libertarianism? The one that you wish people would stop making. I always have to defend myself against the fact that there are tons of libertarians out there who make horrible arguments and it drives me crazy.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: I think the worst argument for libertarianism is the either stated or implied view that markets reward merit and that the current configuration is just in any takings or reallocation from the current configuration is unjust, right? So this is a sort of – I earned what I earned and it’s mine and I get to keep it and I deserve to keep it, when in fact we’re operating from a baseline condition that’s incredibly unjust. There are thumbs on every scale and this idea somehow that the libertarians think that everyone who’s rich deserves to be rich and should be rich forever comes out of that kind of argument. This sort of idea of I earned what I got and I get to keep it.
This is also where you get these like government-hands-off-my-Medicare type signs, which is luckily I think an idiotic minority view but still out there and at least somewhat associated with libertarianism.
Aaron Ross Powell: Every groups, libertarians do this. But you hear this from people on the left and you will hear this – I don’t hear it quite as much from people on the right, but the idea that – the reason the other guy is so – his views and the other party’s views are as successful as they are is because they’re appealing to emotion, whereas what we have is – we’re so logical and if that doesn’t work as well – or the variant of it.
You know, my political views are too complicated to fit on a bumper sticker and so it doesn’t fly as well and I don’t want to fall into the trap of making bad argument about libertarianism, in part because I think there’s a large emotional component to it. I mean I hold the views I hold because I actually care about what happens to people and when I watch the state do awful things to them, it’s awful.
But I think one of the problems that I often encounter is the – our solutions aren’t clear. There aren’t clear lines of causation that we can draw. Like we can say – someone can say like look, here, these people are poor and so what we need to do is set up a program that’s going to cut them checks or we need to – these people aren’t making enough. So we need to raise the minimum wage. We can do something and here’s an effect and we libertarians stand off and say, “Well, first off, no, it’s not going to work and secondly the right solution is to let markets handle it.” How are markets going to handle it? Through an emergent process. What’s that going to look like? Well, I don’t know because it hasn’t emerged yet but I can give you some ideas and it may take a little while and some people may be hurt in the process as well. We’re not going to want programs in place to directly – like it starts to be awfully hard to convey this is something more than just abstract or like sci-fi scenarios.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: Yeah. I think one place where that really comes into play is this fear about automation and the disappearance of jobs in the technological future and the libertarian answer there is like spectacularly unsatisfying, right?
You say, well, let – do you do a job that could have been imagined 15 years ago? No. Like, a podcast is not a thing that’s even remotely plausible 20 years ago. It’s not on the horizon. Any of the attendant jobs that help create this thing don’t exist. But it’s wildly unsatisfying to say like, well, probably someone will invent the next internet if we just kind of throw the doors open.
I think you absolutely see that in all kinds of ways. Yes. A great weakness of libertarianism is that we have to say the solution is not picking the solution in advance. The solution is letting a lot of people redundantly come up with their own solutions and seeing which solution works.
I do think it plays into this idea of libertarians as being cold or over-calculating. That’s of course also the reason that people often say, “Well, why aren’t there more women libertarians?” It’s because these ladies with the feelings, they just have these feelings, and libertarians, well, we’re just above that. So we can’t talk to these ladies with the feelings. When in fact I think libertarianism is actually – particularly the most – I mean we are Beltway [Indiscernible] or whatever you want to call us, right? We’re a sort of subset of the breed but the most common kinds of libertarianism is actually very emotional. It’s hands off my gun. It’s let me do my own thing. It’s leave me alone. It’s screw the cops. Did you notice the like four layers of censoring that just happened there?
Trevor Burrus: Yes.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: I have a dislike of officers of the law enforcement. So I actually do think that libertarianism is and can be emotional both in its interest in helping people who are the least well-off but also just in its most visceral kind of leave me alone form. I don’t know quite why this reputation exists except for perhaps that there is a kind of – somewhere in the DNA, libertarianism is this kind of Benthamite-Millian calculation-based utilitarianism which is – I think is an important part of the DNA and can’t be denied and also because there’s just so many gosh-darn economists hanging around this place.
But I think it’s – I think it is wrong and inaccurate to suggest that somehow we should be giving up on a certain segment of the population or otherwise sort of seeding ground because our thing doesn’t have the feelings.
Trevor Burrus: What about that, the – the women issue? Why? I’m sure you have been asked so many times why are there not that many female libertarians.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: Yeah. I think the first answer is there are a lot more than there used to be and I think that is partially because libertarianism has moved much more in the direction of kind of including more versions to libertarianism, right? This sort of I’m a libertarian because I care about inequality thing is pretty late-breaking frankly. I mean that just wasn’t a point of my emphasis in the movement or in the literature and to the extent, that that’s drawing in more women maybe. I don’t know.
But I don’t know. I would be happy to clone myself and just like have a million little Katherine libertarians. But I think that – at least one explanation is that as long as libertarianism is a thing that exists on the fringes of the American political scene – and again, I’m not saying libertarians are fringy or crazy, but just that there aren’t so many of them. It’s a minority.
Those are men. Those movements are always men. If you go out to either [0:30:00] end of a bell curve on almost anything, men, right? Like serial killers, super geniuses, it’s all men. So to the extent that libertarianism is still that, that it’s still somewhere in the long tail. Maybe that’s just what’s going on and as it hopefully moves towards the expansive middle of the bell curve, more libertarian women will appear.
Trevor Burrus: Do you think there’s any reason why libertarianism is – any good reason why libertarianism is associated with the right? Is libertarianism of the right or is it of the left or is that dichotomy itself false?
Katherine Mangu-Ward: Yeah, I think it’s mostly just historical reasons. I mean I mentioned Frank Meyer who of course was in the National Review in the 50s and 60s, arguing that – to confront the menace of communism and socialism that libertarianisms and conservatives were clearly on the same side which was essentially the side of markets and personal freedom.
That’s encoded in American libertarianism. The libertarian party is founded in the 70s where those were kind of live debates. At the same time though, the libertarian party also when founded in the 70s endorsed gay marriage and abortion on demand and wanted to end the draft. So it’s not as if the seeds weren’t always there to go either way. I think that libertarians are kind of the red-headed stepchildren of the American electoral system and there’s always going to be – or maybe I need to use further – to abuse the metaphor. Maybe we’re sort of the like abused spouse.
It’s like people say nice things to us when they’re out of power, when they’re in the wilderness. Republicans are like, “Yes, we’re going to cut government. It’s going to be great,” and then when it comes down to it and either party comes into power, it’s funny how quickly their appreciation for, for instance, executive privilege flares right back up as soon as they have it.
So I do think of myself as being something of a right libertarian for those historical reasons because I do feel like I tend to get a little bit more fair shakes from people on the right than on the left. But maybe that’s just a failing of my own rhetoric rather than something deep in the political spectrum.
Aaron Ross Powell: Is this a shift that people have? So they will claim semi-libertarian views when they’re out of power. But as soon as they get into power, as soon as they’re governing, they very quickly drop those. So yeah, republicans are always saying free market things but their record is not very free market at all. Is that an argument against the truth of libertarianism? In a similar sense to the like – if it’s so great, why aren’t there any libertarian countries that – we can make these arguments …
Aaron Ross Powell: When we’re sitting here without any power and we don’t – there’s no consequences. Like we can’t – we’re not going to put these beliefs into practice because you don’t have the ability to. We can hold them and we can say how wonderful they are. But once you get there and you’re in the thick of it, and you have to make these decisions and you actually have to govern the country, it’s not that these people are giving up their principles out of a desire for power but simply that they see these principles don’t actually work and that you have to govern in some other non-libertarian way.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: Yeah. I think the whole – your political philosophy works in theory. It has just A, never been put in practice or B, was put into practice wrongly I think. That’s wrong no matter who’s saying it about what, right? It’s also true when people say it about communism. I think that there are two ways to read political history and one is to read short term American political history and say, “Yes, it’s true. When people get into power, they reject whatever libertarianism they might have come in with,” and this of course is true about Obama on the drug war, Obama on privacy, Obama on government transparency. The democrats are just as guilty of this as republicans.
That story is a pretty sad one. But I think the overall story of Western political history actually is a story of basically libertarian Utopia showing up everywhere all the time. I mean if you think about what your sort of baseline political expectations were in life 300 years ago and you were in the Western world, America today is an unthinkably magical libertarian Utopia town.
So it always seems weird to me when people say that. It seems weird to me when people say like none of your ideas are proven and of course there’s debate about whether libertarianism of America as sort of defined sometime in the 70s is the same thing as classical liberalism, which is the same thing as liberalism sort of even larger.
But if you buy any connection there, if you see any straight line between those ideas, then this is our proof of concept. America in 2015 is our proof of concept. Every time we let people do what they want to do without interference from the state and it all works out really well, that’s us winning. That’s us being right.
Trevor Burrus: Who is the least appreciated libertarian thinker or writer or someone who maybe are not themselves libertarian but they write things that are relevant or important that libertarians should be aware of.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: I think that I’m going to take refuge in fiction here and say that there are an awful lot of novelists out there who are doing something that is libertarian-friendly or interesting to libertarians in the science fiction sphere. Certainly including people like – speaking of sort of almost unpredictable awesomeness brought to us by the market. Neal Stephenson, right? Who in the early 90s I think wrote Snow Crash which predicted the internet.
That sounds like – yeah, in the early 90s, that thing was coming anyway. Nobody else got anywhere close and he did it in a way that many people describe as a dystopia but was also a sort of – what turned out to be a surprisingly clear-eyed prediction of the ways that letting commercial players come into many, many parts of our lives. Yes, pop-up ads. Like he predicted the horror of pop-up ads down to that sort of very specific feeling of irritation of having to push them away to do the thing that you want to do. At the same time, the sort of profusion of identities and this profusion of lifestyles essentially outside of the eye of the state, which happened online and the ability to connect outside of geographic boundaries for political purposes.
That’s all in there in a way that is not Pollyanna-ish but is also sort of fundamentally appealing. It certainly appealed to lots of his readers. So I would say stuff like that, you can’t – it’s not people reading The Road to Serfdom and becoming a libertarian, but who read that book and said, “Oh, interesting! Governments could be dealing from territory and run by corporations?”
That’s like little anarchist, just popping up in places that they otherwise would not have been.
Aaron Ross Powell: We’ve mentioned sci-fi a handful of times so far in our what? Forty minutes so far and I’m curious about how much libertarianism either depends on technological growth or technological growth enables it and that one of the reasons that it might not have had the mind share penetration in the past that it seems to be now, especially for the libertarian movement. It’s that technology is enabling libertarian solutions. So prior to the internet, the notion of non-territorial governments seems – I mean there’s just no workable way to talk about it or the bitcoin and crypto currencies. Like these distributed but still secure systems couldn’t have really existed in a meaningful way.
Trevor Burrus: Well, having rating systems for restaurants and drivers that can overcome regulatory …
Aaron Ross Powell: Right, and personal reputation systems which I think another Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom positive society, based on that, that – is it the case that maybe the path to Libertopia is not through winning over the minds of politicians and getting the right people elected but just technology making all of these things government does, all these issues moot? We can just move on from them?
Katherine Mangu-Ward: I do think the path of Libertopia – and I wish that we would stop saying that phrase because it’s terrible. But you guys know what we mean. The path to Libertopia absolutely is the private sector broadly understood, just overwhelming the public sector and I think that’s happening now. It has been happening for a long time. Conservatives and libertarians used to care a lot about privatizing the post office.
Remember that thing? Where people would like really get head up about that? It doesn’t matter now because fax and then email and then SMS and then it’s now just dumb spending, but it’s not a thing that makes our lives worse anymore. That’s not because we won – that we lost that battle. But it doesn’t matter that we lost that battle because that battle got surrounded and swallowed up by the market and I think that’s the model for success based on the utter failure of every effort to cut government, except for a few sort of beautiful isolated cases that I treasure and hold to my heart and I curl up with at night sometimes and to think happily about like the US immediately post World War Two or New Zealand in the 90s or Canada in the 90s.
[0:40:00] The fact that I can make a list is already just incredibly disheartening. It just doesn’t happen very much that we can actually cut government, shrink government. So yes, I think this sort of massive growth of the private sector to swallow up political problems is huge. I wouldn’t put the emphasis on technology. I would just put the emphasis on growth, on just economic growth. I would say technology is a symptom of massive and ongoing economic growth but that for instance when we talk about the long threatened overpopulation problem, right? This is the sort of [Indiscernible] saying we’re all going to die of famine and it’s already too late in the …
Trevor Burrus: The battle to feed humanity is over.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: The battle to feed humanity is over.
Trevor Burrus: It’s like call me Ishmael.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: Yeah, right. It turns out humanity won but …
Katherine Mangu-Ward: You can cast – the way that ended up playing out as a triumph of technology but I think it’s much more accurate to just say people got rich and changed their behaviors in ways that were conducive to human flourishing including totally not dying of famines.
Trevor Burrus: I kind of don’t even want to ask this question but I’m really interested in your opinion and I really hope that six months from now, this is all a bad dream. But Donald Trump. I just really hope that we – like we can remember Rudy Giuliani who was supposed to be [Indiscernible]. Donald Trump, can we – do you just want to pause and just – does he not even deserve air time? He’s already getting too much, so we should just forget about it.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: I basically want to punt. I mean I am a person who has very little faith in the American electorate. I do not think like good sense triumphs in the end when it comes to politics. But I genuinely believe that America is not going to be able to like look itself in the face on Wednesday morning after Election Day if we elect Donald Trump. I just can’t see my way clear to that.
As you mentioned, Giuliani, early polling is totally ridiculous. It literally tells you nothing, nothing, except for who’s going to be in the next debate, I guess. If I had to spin a story, my story would be that while there will not be some mass awakening by the American public, there will be a moment when opinion makers say enough is enough and decide individually but probably in a sort of tidal wave that the new story is no longer that we are descendants of Donald Trump. The new story is the tragic fall of Donald Trump. At which point, that will be the story and that’s what will become the true story and it will all be over. That’s what I’m choosing to believe.
Trevor Burrus: Hopefully you’re correct, something along those lines.
Aaron Ross Powell: But does Trump’s success at least as of now at the end of August 2015 represent something of a counter narrative to the libertarian moment? And particularly if – the story of economic growth, winning the day that economic growth causes changes that the private sector overwhelms the public sector. If all of that is true and as we watch that unfold, one of the things that brings besides more prosperity and more freedom and more opportunity is deep changes to our way of life and so the fear that – I mean to me what Donald Trump represents is a strain of America that doesn’t want to give up the lifestyle that they were accustomed to, the kind of economy that they were accustomed to, the kind of social structures that they were accustomed to.
So we will fight back tooth and nail against – I mean they’re not blaming it on economic growth, right? They’re not blaming it on just increasing libertarianism. They’re blaming it on people from Mexico coming across the border and whatever else and they’re wrong to blame it there. But that’s my fear is that the old ways will latch on to government which government, even if it’s – you know, as the private sector overwhelms it, government is going to fight harder and harder to not be overwhelmed. We can watch that when third world countries shut down the internet when there are protests.
Is that a legitimate concern? Is there any truth to the idea that that’s what Trump represents and we can hope it flames out soon?
Katherine Mangu-Ward: The version of that that actually gives me more pause is the way that that same sentiment is being realized in the democratic party right now in the form of opposition to the gig economy, right? So this is something that the Clinton campaign has been broadcasting that even Bernie Sanders is sort of onboard with this idea that the state can and should be a tool to fight this change in the labor market whereby people become contractors and self-employed and piece together their livelihood rather than being fulltime employees of a big company to sort of oversimplify it.
It’s the same sentiment. It’s the same sentiment of there used to be this way that things were, particularly in the labor market and now those things are changing and we’re going to stand against them. The thing about Trump is that he’s just like, “Oh, we will just throw all the immigrants out and it will be solved,” whereas I actualy think the democratic party’s proposal which is very detailed and very serious to make the lives of people, of entrepreneurs who want to promote the gig economy difficult, that’s the real threat from that sentiment right now.
Again, I think like it’s very unlikely that Trump will be the nominee. But that sentiment that he is capturing is simultaneously being sort of showcased and capitalized on by the Clinton campaign. So I see – I do see that as something that’s not going to go away, right? Even though Trump is silly, that real thing is going to be a part of this election cycle and of our politics generally.
The super shiny happy way of thinking about the Trump campaign also is to just say – actually people somehow perceive the extent to which the state has a smaller and smaller impact on their lives and so they’re willing to be sillier in politics. I think you can make the case that that does – has happened more and more, right? I mean this is the sort of [Indiscernible] is like patient zero of this maybe or maybe it goes back even further.
But the sort of celebrity politician who we all have fun with for a while, who we may or may not actually elect, maybe it’s because people actually perceive that politics are lower stakes than they used to be because among other things, we don’t have a draft, right? I mean because we don’t have police services that are utterly unrestrained.
I mean the – even though there are losses, the general kind of shrinking of the ability of the government to violently interfere in your life maybe makes people more willing to say like, “Who cares who’s in charge of that thing?”
Trevor Burrus: Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow. Do you prefer puns of the – go specific. You can be very specific on that question or do you prefer pundits of the right or pundits of the left?
Katherine Mangu-Ward: So I will say I don’t actually consume a lot of punditry either way. But I have always had a weakness for Rachel Maddow. She and I share the default facial expression that makes people think that we are smirking at them and so I’m sympathetic to her like perma-smirk because I too have one of those.
Trevor Burrus: It’s like the opposite of resting bitch face kind of?
Katherine Mangu-Ward: It’s the opposite. Well, it’s still bitchy though, isn’t it? I mean it’s still like, yeah, shut up. You know, it’s like that. But I’m particularly feeling fond of Rachel Maddow because I made a brief cameo on her show on Monday. I had aggregated all of Rand Paul’s campaign emails that were in my inbox and I took a screenshot of them. They sound really desperate. They’re like, “Katherine, this is down to the wire. Help! It’s our only hope. Has it come to this Katherine?” and there’s just a series of like if they were from your ex-boyfriend, you would be like, “Oh, god …”
Trevor Burrus: He’s going to kill himself.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: Yeah, it was really dire. So I just screenshot those and tweeted like, you guys, I’m worried about Rand Paul and Maddow seemed to think that was funny probably for reasons different than I thought it was funny. But I actually – I mean I find her conclusions almost always wrong and I think that her kind of mode of argumentation tends toward the ad hominem. But I kind of like her style. I like that she at least makes a nod toward empiricism in a way that Rush Limbaugh never does. So I’m going to go with Maddow.
Trevor Burrus: Do you vote?
Katherine Mangu-Ward: I do not vote. I wrote a cover story for Reason magazine a few years back on why I don’t vote and it remains my most popular article. It shows up in our top traffic when there’s a slow day. Like, people are still Googling it. I don’t vote for a lot of reasons. The main reason is that it doesn’t matter if I vote. My vote does not influence the outcome of the election. Your vote does not influence the outcome of the election, even if the election is close. Even if the election is 10 votes from the winner and the loser, your one vote would still not influence the outcome of an election and that’s just a sheer raw numerical argument.
But in the piece, which I encourage you to read by Googling it and bringing it back up in our ….
Trevor Burrus: We will put it in the show notes.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: … searches, I sort of address a bunch of the other arguments including the, “Don’t vote. It only encourages the bastards” argument, including the, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain argument.” [0:50:00] There’s actually a great – I think there’s a great weirdness embedded in that argument because if you voted, you consent it. So you can’t complain. But if you didn’t vote, you didn’t participate and so you can’t complain. There’s this sort of – it’s just sort of you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t problem.
I think you should vote in the eventuality that you really, really, really enjoy it and you should vote in the exact same spirit that you go skydiving or read a book. It’s a recreational activity. If you want to go ahead, I’m going to spend that hour taking a nap.
Trevor Burrus: And finally, are you optimistic?
Katherine Mangu-Ward: I am. I’m very optimistic. Not least because of this process that I see of the sort of private swamping and consuming the public almost everywhere and always in modern American life. I am optimistic because of the sort of vast progress that we have made toward liberty throughout Western political history and probably because of something in my genes that just makes me a cheerful person.
Trevor Burrus: Thank you for listening. If you have any questions, you can find us on Twitter, @FreeThoughtsPod. Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at www.Libertarianism.org.