Our producer, Tess Terrible, interviews Aaron and Trevor for Free Thoughts’s 200th episode. How did Free Thoughts get started, and what have we learned along the way?
Show Notes and Further Reading
We’d like to thank Russ Roberts and his EconTalk podcast for providing some of the inspiration for this show, as well as all of our listeners. We hope you’ve enjoyed the show so far and look forward to another 200 episodes!
Tess Terrible: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Tess Terrible, one of the producers of Free Thoughts podcast. We are recording our 200th episode today. Our guests are Aaron Powell and Trevor Burrus, regular hosts of Free Thoughts podcast. We’ll be discussing the history of the show and how Aaron and Trevor were first introduced to libertarianism. Aaron and Trevor, welcome to Free Thoughts.
Trevor Burrus: Thanks. [00:00:30] That’s kind of weird isn’t it?
Aaron Powell: It’s good to be here.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. You got a confused look on your face on your face for a second. It’s like, wow.
Aaron Powell: Long-time listener, first-time caller.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, exactly.
Tess Terrible: This is my first time sitting in this room recording with you guys. I guess my first question would be: Could you guys give us a little bit of the history of how the podcast started.
Aaron Powell: Sure, so there’s a podcast [crosstalk 00:00:50]
Trevor Burrus: It’s not very interesting.
Aaron Powell: It’s not terribly interesting but we can-
Trevor Burrus: We can begin to like bring it up a little bit.
Aaron Powell: Yeah. The people want to know. [00:01:00] Trevor and I were both fans of a podcast called Econ Talk. It’s been around for quite a while. We had Russ Roberts, the host of it, on Free Thoughts-
Trevor Burrus: Two years ago maybe.
Aaron Powell: Two years, yeah. I had always thought that that format, I enjoyed that format a lot and thought that the kinds of things that we talk about at libertarianism.org, so less of the day-to-day policy or current events and more ideas and history [00:01:30] and theory behind policy would lend themselves well to that format. At the same time I was listening to another terrific show called The Partially Examined Life, which is about a handful of guys who read philosophy and discuss it. That was also an inspiration so it was, it would be fun to do this. We have all the resources here to do it, it fits well with what libertarianism.org is up to, let’s try it. In the space of, what? It [00:02:00] went for like, it was like probably 48 hours behind saying, “Hey let’s do this …” to actually sitting down and recording the first now very bad first episode.
Trevor Burrus: Did you listen to the first episode?
Aaron Powell: I’ve listened to bits of it again and it’s …
Trevor Burrus: I saw you on Twitter bad-mouthing it.
Aaron Powell: It’s not …
Trevor Burrus: It’s not that good but …
Aaron Powell: It’s not that good. We took it from there.
Trevor Burrus: I liked the idea, of course, and let me get into some of the other policy areas that I like, which is pretty much all policy areas except [00:02:30] for monetary. Monetary is pretty much the one that I don’t really enjoy reading as much, but because I do constitutional law here and I spend a lot of my time, it’s a very different job than Aaron’s, it’s nice to be able to get into other stuff. I specifically wanted, and this is something Aaron and I wanted together, was to be able to, as he said, not like Caleb’s podcast, the Cato Daily Podcast, where that’s often about Section 238 of some sort of bill or some sort of specific policy area that’s come up that day, but [00:03:00] more evergreen kind of things.
We wanted to bring on people like Michael Cannon and not ask him: How does Obamacare work or not work, but to ask him: How do libertarians think about healthcare, and then to try to ask him all the questions that someone would want to ask a libertarian about healthcare that are the kind of obvious, what about people dying in the streets kind of questions. Bringing on Cato Scholars are our obvious resource, initial resource, bringing them on to really get into the ideas and the [00:03:30] theories that inform the way they do policy.
Tess Terrible: I’d like to build off that on how you both think about sourcing and ideas for podcasts.
Trevor Burrus: Sourcing? You mean finding people to be on the podcast?
Tess Terrible: Yes, finding people to be on the podcast, different topics that we explore on the podcasts.
Trevor Burrus: It kind of depends upon, we pay attention to articles, books, people coming to Cato. Sometimes it’s just someone’s in town for either a Cato event or maybe another organization’s [00:04:00] event or something we maybe specifically want to do. Occasionally we’ll do one that’s thinking about current events, although sometimes that’s difficult to really hit those at the right time. Earlier this year we did one with Alex Nowrasteh on immigration that seemed pretty relevant to the immigration debate. It’s hard to hit the current events though so much as with the books and the friends of ours who are in town. We have a lot of friends in the libertarian world so we can kind of reach out to them and say, “Hey, you want to come on?”
Aaron Powell: Yeah. I think Trevor [00:04:30] probably is responsible for more of the guests than I am. The nature of his work, he’s paying more attention to all of the people within the movement and all of the scholarship going on. For me, it’s … I just come across things. I’ll read a book. I’ll see a book review. I will read an interesting blog post. I will … There’ll be someone I’m following on Twitter who I think is cool and might have neat things to say or people [00:05:00] I’ve met at conferences. It’s really just … I often think of Free Thoughts as the continuation of the way that I approached professor office hours in my undergrad. I was one of those kids in undergrad who went to professors’ office hours all the time because it was a lot of fun to just sit down and talk with these highly-educated people about their field.
For me [00:05:30] it’s, I’ll come across things that are just like, that is someone who I would really enjoy talking with for an hour and learning what they know about a topic and then so just send them an e-mail and invite them on. One of the more gratifying things is just how many people say ‘yes’. Most people seem happy to come on Free Thoughts.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, I’ve never had anyone outright just say ‘no’. Either it’s just, “Oh, I don’t have enough time until this happens …” or they just didn’t respond to an e-mail, so I guess that’s one way of saying ‘no’ if you’re cold e-mailing someone, but I think [00:06:00] more often it just sort of slips through the cracks ‘cause most people like to talk about their work and get it promoted.
Tess Terrible: Do you all have a approach to the podcast interview?
Trevor Burrus: I think long-time listeners will probably be able to tell the approach that we both have to some extent.
Aaron Powell: I think that I … I mean, the feedback that I get from listeners, which I’m happy about because it’s what I try to do, I try to play devil’s advocate a fair amount. I try to put myself … [00:06:30] Because we’re libertarians, we’re at the Cato Institute, a lot of the people we have on are libertarians. There are things that we disagree with our guests about frequently, but on the whole we’re coming from similar places and so I try very hard to put myself into the shoes of someone who thinks what they’re hearing is crazy, thinks it’s completely and obviously wrong or thinks they have very strong objections and then give voice to those to [00:07:00] take the potential criticisms as seriously as possible.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. Since I am not married and don’t have three kids I tend to do more reading of this stuff before Aaron and that’s why he has many other things he’s doing but I often try to read, especially if there’s a book episode, I’ve usually read the entire book for a given episode. I kind of let Aaron do the devil’s advocate thing, you’ll hear me do it sometimes but I often have [00:07:30] an entire, having read the whole book, kind of an idea that I want to get through at least some of these ideas that the author has written about. Maybe the third section is the best but you’ve got to lay the groundwork so your listeners can hear that I might be leading them a little bit more, leading them on for questions that I already know the answer to and then letting Aaron jump in and push back.
Tess Terrible: Yeah. I think my favorite comment I’ve seen on Twitter was that you were both classified as humble inquisitors.
Trevor Burrus: [00:08:00] Oh really? That’s a good one.
Aaron Powell: That’s nice. I like that.
Tess Terrible: Humble inquisitors. Yeah. We do have a variety of guests on the podcasts and I’m wondering, who do you enjoy interviewing the most? Is it authors, intellectuals? You’ve had a couple people from pop culture on discussing pop culture.
Aaron Powell: I don’t know if there’s a category. I think I like [crosstalk 00:08:22]
Trevor Burrus: I think policy scholars. Not just art, I mean policy scholars as a general rule, that’s what, because often … We talk [00:08:30] for a living and an author may not be terribly great at talking. They might be really good at writing but not terribly good at talking, so policy scholars tend to be really good guests.
Aaron Powell: That’s true, but as far as like the … There have been certainly people in all of the categories who have been wonderful to talk to. I think the kinds of guests that I like the most are ones who are, first easy to talk to.
Trevor Burrus: Of course, yes. [00:09:00] There are a few episodes, yeah.
Aaron Powell: Sometimes we’re just … It’s weird because to some extent, you might just get that stereotype that Trevor mentioned of the writer who’s good at writing but not good at talking. There’s another version of that that sometimes comes up, which is the person who’s really used to doing media, who’s really used to doing television or short radio spots and so you’ll ask a question, and at Free Thoughts we like to have, we want it to sound more like a conversation [00:09:30] than a strict ….
Trevor Burrus: Because it is a conversation. Everyone should know that there’s almost … There’s very little editing that goes on in a Free Thoughts episode.
Aaron Powell: Yes, but it’s not … We don’t try to make it be like ask a question, get an answer, ask a question, get an answer. Sometimes you’ll get people who are so trained in media appearances that you ask a question and they give you like a perfectly encapsulated 30-second answer and then just stop.
Trevor Burrus: I remember Michael Tanner was really good at that, ‘cause Michael Tanner is like so experienced that you just like his 30-second answer.
Aaron Powell: Right. [00:10:00] Those are sometimes more difficult because you have to say, like …
Trevor Burrus: And …?
Aaron Powell: I also think, anyone who just is willing to really kind of, not just explore their particular expertise but to like question the assumptions behind it to delve into it in more depth. I like guests who like to think about these things at kind of a more theoretical or abstract [00:10:30] level because those are the kinds of conversations I particularly enjoy. But then we’ve had very concrete ones that are terrific too. We’ve had ones that we tend to call practitioner ones where it’s someone who’s not in policy, someone who’s not in academia and not an author but is a business owner.
Trevor Burrus: Or like a practicing lawyer.
Aaron Powell: Yeah, who can just tell us about their job and what they do and how they’ve succeeded and then how policy issues, political issues, factor into that.
Trevor Burrus: I like to do, I like episodes where [00:11:00] I don’t know much about what’s going on. I kind of said I don’t really do monetary policy, that is the biggest hole in my knowledge. Foreign policy, I don’t do a lot of reading on my own time because I’ve convinced that either you should know a lot about foreign policy and have a very informed opinion or you probably should just refrain from having opinions if you don’t have time to read all the foreign policy. I really enjoy having on guests who are really teaching me, so I’m not asking leading questions, I’m [00:11:30] actually asking … I have no idea what we’re talking about, please tell me more. People like George Selgin, our colleague here, is always a great guest ‘cause I just really don’t know much about what he’s talking about. John Glaser, who was just a recent episode is a similar type of thing. Those are really exciting for me ‘cause they’re great learning opportunities, outside from the prep I did for the podcast beforehand.
Tess Terrible: As you mentioned before, this is a more conversational podcast more so than the other podcasts that are produced by The Cato [00:12:00] Institute. I worked with Caleb Brown on the Cato Daily Podcast for a couple of years and now I have the privilege of working with both of you on this podcast. I’d really like to know, although it is conversational, what’s going through your head during the podcasts? How are you hoping to lead the conversation one way or the other?
Trevor Burrus: Aaron’s like smiling.
Aaron Powell: no, I mean ‘cause [crosstalk 00:12:24]
Trevor Burrus: Just picture … Aaron’s going to be like, well sometimes I’m like, Aaron’s thinking, what the heck is Trevor talking about? Sometimes [00:12:30] I’m thinking, what the heck?
Aaron Powell: Oh sure. [crosstalk 00:12:31]
Trevor Burrus: Where is Aaron going with this? Like I said, yeah … But Aaron’s like, okay what do I need to push back on … and I said, yeah.
Aaron Powell: Trevor and I come into an interview, into a discussion, with a set of questions that we’ve written up, so it’s … We share a Google Doc and we have the person’s bio at the top and we have a bulleted list of questions, usually about a page, [00:13:00] page and a half worth of questions that we’ve just typed up while reading the book or reading the policy paper or in our research. They’re not … They’re kind of in an order in the sense that we’ve figured out what the opening question is and we have figured out what the closing question’s going to be, but the ones in the middle are usually less prioritized.
Trevor Burrus: You can’t really lead your guest exactly where you want.
Aaron Powell: Yes. [00:13:30] We come in with an idea of like these are the kinds of questions we’d like to get answered. These are the kinds of topics we’d like to see addressed and maybe this is roughly the order we’d like to approach them in, but then both of us, I think, try to let it flow the way that it flows. If it goes off in another … If the conversation goes off in another direction, we let it and we’ll only really return to the sheet if there’s a pause, if it feels like we’ve run out of steam on that particular [00:14:00] line of questioning. I would say in a given episode, we usually get … We actually ask maybe half to two-thirds of the stuff that’s on the paper that we sat down with.
Trevor Burrus: And ask a bunch of things that aren’t on the paper.
Aaron Powell: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: ‘Cause, of course, a few things … It’s different than just having a conversation in the sense that there are a few tasks that we have to be mindful of, one is clarifying jargon so you have to be able to say, okay is this something that everyone’s going to know what they’re talking about [00:14:30] and asking follow-up questions to clarify more complex issues and things like that. Those are important ways to … You have to be thinking a little bit different than just having a conversation, but a lot of the people who are on our podcast are friends of mine, especially Cato staffers and a lot of the academics. The conversation that we’re having, although it’s a little bit more obviously stylized than maybe formalized, it’s not terribly different than the kind of thing we’d be talking about at a bar over [00:15:00] the same type of thing, so it’s one thing I really like about the show.
Tess Terrible: I guess that almost answers my followup question, which is: Do you ever get nervous before a podcast?
Trevor Burrus: I think a couple guests …
Tess Terrible: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: … Like back earlier on when we had people that we particularly revere on, people like Richard Epstein, Matt Ridley.
Aaron Powell: Thomas Sowell.
Trevor Burrus: Thomas Sowell. Thomas Sowell was pretty nerve-wracking, [00:15:30] partially because it was over Skype and we had been told that he could be irascible sometimes and there were a bunch of rules on top of that and Thomas Sowell is particularly important to the intellectual development of Aaron and I. When big heroes of yours are coming in you might get a little bit nervous, but I think I’ve gotten over that mostly.
Aaron Powell: Yeah, I think that … I wouldn’t say I get nervous. Sometimes if it’s a topic that I really don’t [00:16:00] feel that I know all that well. I’ve done the research but still don’t feel like I know all that well there’s a little bit more nerves but it always turns out fine because if part of what we’re trying to with this show is help our listeners to understand the particular topic or set of ideas, then going into it not knowing stuff just gives lots of opportunity to ask …
Trevor Burrus: Stupid questions.
Aaron Powell: … Ask the stupid questions that are exactly the stupid questions [00:16:30] that everyone else is hoping someone will ask.
Tess Terrible: Myself included.
Trevor Burrus: What about you? Are you ever sitting there going: I really wish they would ask this question, and then do we usually?
Tess Terrible: Sometimes. Sometimes I have guests that you bring in that I’m doing my best not to fan girl over.
Aaron Powell: Are there times when you’re listening to us and you’re like, oh man they blew it.
Tess Terrible: Yes, but I’m not going to mention those times. [00:17:00] Yeah, we …
Trevor Burrus: Ooh, I’ll have to ask you off-air.
Tess Terrible: Yes. That leads me to … We talk to a lot of intellectuals, a lot of scholars on this show, and then we have a few guests that have very unique personal experiences. Can you talk to me a little bit about what it’s like talking to those people.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, so we’ve had people like Shon Hopwood and Bernie Kerik are two that we’ve had on who talk a lot about their own lives, Shon is the most recent one.
Aaron Powell: Both spent [00:17:30] time in prison.
Trevor Burrus: Both spent time in prison. I think the episode we did with Dr. Ryan Neuhofel was somewhat related to that, his own personal experiences of being a direct primary care physician.
Aaron Powell: When we had our episode about Guantanamo Bay with an ex Guantanamo Bay guard.
Trevor Burrus: I really, really like doing those episodes. I think that they’re popular. I think that they’re very valuable. I would like to do more of them. It’s hard to find guests of the sort where you, that I’d like to put on human interest stories of someone who had, I don’t know, gotten [00:18:00] wrapped up in the EPA over some sort of long period of time with some sort of Kafkaesque story of declaring wetlands in the Everglades and something like that. A lot of people who are put in those situations are not guaranteed to be great talkers and people who can get into the kind of ideas that we like to get into on Free Thoughts. Definitely some of my favorite episodes are the personal experience ones because you’re just hearing a fascinating story from someone who’s done something incredible or who has lived a fascinating life.
Tess Terrible: How do you feel [00:18:30] about talking about your own opinions on certain areas of public policy?
Aaron Powell: Clearly our guests can … We’re highly reticent to express our own opinions.
Trevor Burrus: I wonder if they wonder what our opinions are though.
Aaron Powell: I don’t know. I guess that’s a good … If …
Trevor Burrus: We have episodes where we just talk.
Aaron Powell: Hit us up on Twitter and let us know.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. We have episodes that are just either you being a guest or me being a guest. I’m sure sometimes they wonder what our opinion is, or maybe they don’t. I don’t know.
Aaron Powell: I certainly think we both [00:19:00] express our opinions a fair amount. Neither one of us would be in the careers we are in if we weren’t the kind of people who really like telling other people our own opinions. At the same time, I think it’s really important … One of the bad ways that people discuss politics is to go into it assuming that my opinions are correct and I know everything [00:19:30] about this, or that the person that I disagree with, I’m disagreeing with them because they simply don’t know as much as I do or they have impure motivations or whatever. To not listen and to just trample their expression with your own expression of your opinions.
I don’t think that we … We don’t try to cover up our opinions or tone them down or whatever, but it’s more just, we’re here [00:20:00] as kind of representatives for our audience, that’s our first job, and so what we want to get is just a full and complete and fair picture of what our guest has to say and we’re less interested in particularly advancing our own views on the subject.
Trevor Burrus: I guess the answer to this question would be more interesting if we had more people on who we disagreed with fundamentally, which is not a product of not trying, [00:20:30] it’s more about … When you asked, Tess, like how do we get these guests on, I guess I know a lot of libertarians. I know a lot of people in the libertarian world that I can e-mail them and say: Hey I really like your book, and of course there is a theme to this podcast, but I think Aaron and I both agree that we would love to have more people on who disagree with libertarianism and then the question of … We had Jennifer Lawless on, we’ve had Elizabeth Anderson on and I think we’re going to have Elizabeth on again. Even if someone isn’t totally libertarian we might be just talking to them about something that we [00:21:00] agree upon but if we had … One thing I would love to grow the podcast in such a way to bring on people who disagree with us. If you disagree with us and you’re an academic or some sort of person who has [inaudible 00:21:10], send us a tweet and maybe we can have you on.
Aaron Powell: Come on. Tell us why we’re wrong.
Trevor Burrus: Yes.
Tess Terrible: So this being our 200th episode and us having the opportunity to talk about this, who would you like to see on the podcast in the future if you had a wish list.
Trevor Burrus: Oh, there’s so many more guests that we could get on. I think … [00:21:30] One of my goals has been people who are kind of celebritarians who are … Well not celebritarians that’s libertarians who are celebrities, I mean celebrities who are actually libertarians.
Aaron Powell: Like [crosstalk 00:21:41]
Trevor Burrus: I would love to get libertarian sympathy, so people like Mike Rowe and Adam Carolla would be super fun to have on. I would love to have on someone like Clarence Thomas, that would be a great episode. I’d like to have more representatives on, people like Justin Amash would [00:22:00] be good, Thomas Massey, Rand Paul, people like that.
Aaron Powell: On my side, my wish list of guests … I mean there’s not like a ton, if you think of the question as like who are the kind of dream guests that would be hard to get on, our experience has been that most of the people we ask are willing to come on and as the show grows they’re more willing to come on so that list isn’t all that big. For me it’s more [00:22:30] like the people I really would like to talk with, ‘cause again if I’m thinking of this as like who would I like to talk with for an hour. There’s a list of particularly philosophers who I have learned a ton from and have really gotten a lot out of their books and would like to discuss with them. It’s more of those … For me it’s more of those academics.
Trevor Burrus: I think that another one that [inaudible 00:22:55] is on the academic side is James C. Scott I think would be, who has written a bunch [00:23:00] of important books about anarchy in the state. He has a new one out called Against the Grain. He wrote Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed. He’s someone I would really like to bring on. I’ve tried to e-mail him a few times and probably just sort of went away or went to his spam folder or whatever. There’s definitely a lot of academics who would be nice to have on. I would like to have someone on like George Akerlof who won the Nobel Price and is married [00:23:30] to Janet Yellen, mostly because I think his last book is quite insane and so I’d like to really grill him on that book, but I don’t see getting many Nobel laureates on here as of yet, especially if they’re not friendly to libertarians I guess would be a better way of putting it.
Tess Terrible: Over 200 episodes, 200 interviews, what have you learned about libertarianism?
Aaron Powell: I think one thing that I’ve learned or at least developed is a greater sense of the breadth [00:24:00] of libertarianism and the breadth of the ways that liberty and politics interact. You come in as a certain … I came into libertarianism in a very specific way, through a specific kind of set of ideas. I came in through economics and philosophy and approached it in this academic way. I think a lot of the people in the movement come in either through political activism or [00:24:30] through academic pursuits. They have this kind of abstract way of thinking about liberty or this very electoral way, but seeing the ways that such a variety of people are part of this, the ways that they experience political liberty or experience the lack of political liberty.
The kind of personal story episodes that [00:25:00] we’ve talked about but also the practitioners and also some of the people working in the trenches in areas of policy that I hadn’t been paying as much attention to or hadn’t had as much exposure to. Some of our episodes with Peter Van Doren on the specifics of regulations where it’s these things that if someone sat down and told you they were going to tell you about telecom regulation in the 1980s, [00:25:30] that sounds dreadfully dull, but when you start hearing all the details of it, these are crazy stories with heroes and villains and at good pacing when Peter’s telling it.
I think that, for me, is like just seeing how much more variety there is in the study and practice of liberty than [00:26:00] I think I had coming into it four years ago.
Trevor Burrus: I guess going off of that, one thing that I learned, and this is a little bit silly to say, but I’m trying to think of the right way of saying this, but especially for our colleagues here at Cato who have been guests who most of them at this point have, I think, our colleagues are really, really smart and it’s sort of funny for me to say that because I’ve been a huge fan of Cato for decades [00:26:30] and I have, especially before I started here everyone at Cato was a rock star to me because I was consuming all the podcasts and all the events and so someone like Mark Calabria, who recently has left Cato but became a good friend of mine.
You know he’s really smart, you’ve heard and talked about him all the time and you’ve heard him on TV and you’ve seen his writings, but then you get him in the chair and you’re able to kind of grill him, so to speak, and you realize how [00:27:00] deep his knowledge is on the areas like the episode we did with him on housing and the policies around housing. Some things where I initially think, I was like, oh I bet he doesn’t know the answer to this question, of course they do know the answer to that question. It goes without saying that Peter Van Doren is particularly good at that and is definitely one of the favorite guests for both of us. His depth of knowledge, it blows people away inside the building and it’s great to get him on [00:27:30] the show so you can sort of share it outside of these walls.
Tess Terrible: What policy areas have you developed an interest in since working on this podcast?
Trevor Burrus: For me that’s a weird question to ask. I have an answer to that to some extent but I’m kind of omnivorous when it comes to policy areas, so there weren’t many that I wasn’t interested in. Some of them became more interesting to me because of the guests that we’ve had [00:28:00] on. If I wasn’t doing constitutional law and criminal justice work here I would probably be doing something in healthcare policy or education policy. Episodes that we’ve done on healthcare policy, whether with Peter Suderman or Michael Cannon or on education policy with Neil McCluskey, for example, get into the deep history of what’s actually going on in the history of public schooling or the history of the American medical system. [00:28:30] Those episodes particularly piqued my interest even more to learn more about those.
I also, bringing it up again, monetary policy has become more interesting to me because of talking to George Selgin, both actually on Free Thoughts and just personally when we go have lunch or something. The way he talks about money, the episode we did with him on the gold standard was very illuminating. The episode we did with him on just sort of how money evolved in the United States. [00:29:00] All of those have made me more interested in learning about those areas.
Aaron Powell: I am not as omnivorous as Trevor when it comes to policy. I tend to stay more focused on my areas of philosophy and moral issues of politics. Although, like Trevor, I had a pretty wide exposure coming in, not because I had been just reading tons of policy for my day job, but because prior to starting libertarianism. [00:29:30] org my first job at Cato was as the staff writer and the staff writer’s chief job is to write this bi-monthly magazine called Cato Policy Report that is effectively the newsletter about what Cato has been up to over the last two months, and that includes summaries of most of Cato’s output, which meant that in the years before I started libertarianism.org I would attend every single Cato event, every single Hill briefing. [00:30:00] I read every book and every paper we published. If you do that for two years you’re going to get a pretty solid overview of public policy.
That said, I think the area that my interest has most been sparked and I’ve followed up the most on is the stuff that comes from the conversations that we’ve had with our colleagues, Julian Sanchez and Patrick Eddington digital privacy, [00:30:30] about surveillance, about kind of the ways that policy and law interact with the online world. I was somewhat interested in that stuff, I knew about it, but the conversations with them, it’s really fascinating stuff and I think they are the most followed up on in my own reading and independent study.
Tess Terrible: With the current political climate and increased media attention [00:31:00] on libertarianism, how do you think perceptions of libertarianism have changed throughout the year?
Aaron Powell: I think there’s two ways that they have.
Trevor Burrus: We’re probably thinking the same two ways.
Aaron Powell: Okay.
Trevor Burrus: I’ll let you know after you’re done answering your question.
Aaron Powell: One is libertarianism, I think, is a scapegoat for [00:31:30] what’s wrong with the country, that it was libertarians that gave us Trump, whether because some of them may have voted for Trump or because they didn’t vote for Clinton or because they voted for Gary Johnson. They’re a convenient … My political side lost or my political side isn’t accomplishing what they wanted to, or I can’t get legislation through because those libertarian-ish republicans in the freedom [00:32:00] caucus are mucking up the works or whatever. I think that there kind of were political outsiders who could be blamed often without much cause for the dysfunction of everyone else.
At the same time, I believe that there is a willingness to, if not take us more seriously then to at least pay attention to our ideas or co-opt [00:32:30] our ideas. Suddenly we have people who weren’t really worried about what the federal government was up to under Obama because Obama was a nice guy who seemed like a cool dude who wouldn’t do anything wrong and had everyone’s best interests in heart and so we didn’t have to worry about the wars that he was starting or the surveillance programs that he was overseeing or the press [00:33:00] freedoms that he was curtailing because he was one of us.
With Trump, I think a much larger portion of the population is suddenly sympathetic to the kinds of critiques of state power that we libertarians have been making for decades. You see people pushing back against surveillance. You see people questioning war in a way that they weren’t a couple of years [00:33:30] ago. You see the rise of movements against police misconduct, police brutality. I think those are encouraging signs and if they’re not, I think a lot of these people, they aren’t saying, “Oh, these libertarians have some good ideas. I’m listening to them and now I’m acting upon them.” It’s more just libertarianism is kind of in the air more than it was because the underlying nature of the environment has shifted [00:34:00] and so even if they’re not willing to give us credit for being the ones who have been championing these ideas for decades while everyone else has been silent about them, it’s at least good that they’re suddenly kind of taking our side on these issues.
Trevor Burrus: Basically we had the same, very similar two categories. I think that Trump presents good opportunities for libertarians of a certain sort to basically demonstrate that we aren’t conservatives and to demonstrate that we have a unique [00:34:30] and interesting critique of government that is relevant, particularly in times like now, but it’s actually always relevant. I also think that there’s a lot of people out there who call themselves libertarians and I can’t control who calls themselves libertarians.
One reason we started this podcast and one of the things that Cato works towards and one of the things that libertarianism.org works towards is a better, more robust view of what libertarianism is, and there are a lot of people out there who don’t really [00:35:00] have that and they might be Trump voters, for example, and I’m not saying it’s impossible to be libertarian and vote for Trump, but a lot of really, really fervent Trump supporters call themselves libertarians. A lot of alt-righters have called themselves libertarians and a lot of people who are very racist have called themselves libertarians and a lot of “states righters” have called themselves libertarians. That doesn’t really help us too much and those people are kind of on the ascendancy to some degree, I just wish they would use a different word to describe [00:35:30] what they believe.
On the other side we have places like Cato and other libertarian organizations around Washington DC who are, I think, for some organizations are finally getting separated from the conservative side that we have always been put on ‘cause I personally don’t think of libertarianism as being on the right, I actually think, I think if anything obviously it’s not a one-dimensional political spectrum but I have more in common with people on the left than I do with people on the right. What Trump [00:36:00] has done is he, I think he has split conservatives in a way that they have … That split has always been there but now it’s in the oval office and it’s much more politically real.
He’s split conservatives between what I would call collectivist conservatives, which are the nationalist groups, the state is a family kind of view of conservatives, the people who want to want to ban drugs because it’s bad for your soul, the people who want to ban foreigners because it’s bad for [00:36:30] American jobs and those things, and then what I would call classical liberal conservatives, the ones who are more repulsed by Trump who have always found more affinity for libertarians, although they may not want to go into the things that scare them about libertarianism like our beliefs on immigration, our beliefs on foreign policy.
That puts Cato in particular and libertarians in a pretty good spot to come in there and say: Look at what we believe on immigration in these heated times about immigration that we’ve always believed on immigration. And then people [00:37:00] say: Wow, those libertarians, they’re not conservatives. I always thought they were ultra-conservatives or arch conservatives. That’s what the New York Times sometimes likes to call us, that libertarians was just a version of conservatism that is more extreme than the sort of okay, friendly conservatives down the block. I think in the Trump era, more and more people realize that libertarianism is an entirely different way of looking at government.
Tess Terrible: Besides acting as regular hosts of Free Thoughts podcast, you both have other responsibilities [00:37:30] and jobs outside of recording. Is listening to podcasts part of your daily lives?
Aaron Powell: I think for me more than Trevor.
Trevor Burrus: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Aaron Powell: I listen to a fair number of podcasts.
Trevor Burrus: I listen to books on tape more than podcasts, but you listen to a lot of podcasts.
Aaron Powell: Yeah, although with a few exceptions, most of the podcasts I listen to are not politics at all, not related to it, they’re not about philosophy, they’re not about history, they’re about other topics that interest me, they’re palate [00:38:00] cleansers [crosstalk 00:38:01]
Trevor Burrus: Is there a fountain pen podcast? Why isn’t there? Why don’t you start the fountain pen podcast?
Aaron Powell: Oh, there are many fountain pen podcasts.
Trevor Burrus: Aaron’s a big fan of fountain pens, by the way. It’s his …
Aaron Powell: I do not listen to any of them because my interest within fountain pens, even the very narrow field of interest within fountain pens is then further narrowed for me so only certain aspects of it and most of them are long discussions then of aspects of pen culture that I’m less willing [00:38:30] to spend time listening to.
Trevor Burrus: Okay, so you’re still weird, that’s fine. You listen to other things like horror podcasts and story podcasts.
Aaron Powell: Yeah. I like a lot of the radio drama shows that are out there right now. The Black Tapes podcast is terrific. The only real political podcast I listen to is The Fifth Column, which is incredible and I love it with Kmele Foster [00:39:00] and Matt Welsh and Michael Moynihan, but then it’s a lot of tech podcasts, Accidental Tech podcast, so on.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. I still listen to EconTalk on the regular, which has always been the podcast that I predominantly listen to and is still one of my go-to, definitely one of the things that helped me most in just becoming an informed libertarian was listening to EconTalk, especially as someone who essentially never took an economics class in [00:39:30] my entire life, but going through whatever. I probably haven’t listened to every EconTalk but let’s say 350 episodes of EconTalk is more than the hours you would spend doing a PhD in economics, probably, in class, well maybe not PhD but at least a bachelors. It’s a great education for anyone who doesn’t already listen to EconTalk.
Tess Terrible: Aaron, I’ve been specifically asked to direct this question at you: How were you first introduced to libertarianism?
Aaron Powell: Asked by who to direct it to me?
Tess Terrible: Our [00:40:00] other producer, Evan Banks.
Aaron Powell: I hate to give him credit, but by Trevor.
Trevor Burrus: He doesn’t want to say it, I know. This is hilarious.
Aaron Powell: By my cohost, Trevor Burrus.
Trevor Burrus: You’re welcome, world.
Aaron Powell: Yeah, so I was an undergraduate, getting my English degree in Boulder, Colorado and I took a class in science fiction literature. Trevor was [00:40:30] in that class, conspicuously. He was the guy who always had something to say about everything.
Trevor Burrus: Guilty as charged.
Aaron Powell: Then, I think it was after the final exam or something, I ended up at a diner with you and my friend Nicole, who was also in the class, and we chatted and Trevor and I became friends. [00:41:00] That was when he started introducing me to these ideas. We would go a couple or few times a week to, there was a Barnes & Noble in Boulder and we would go in the evening instead of doing homework.
Trevor Burrus: There’s not much homework in philosophy major English degree, I guess.
Aaron Powell: Yeah, but I’m sure there was something I could have been doing.
Trevor Burrus: Probably.
Aaron Powell: We would go to Barnes & Noble and we would …
Trevor Burrus: You could have been studying German.
Aaron Powell: I could have been.
Trevor Burrus: Mr. I took German three times.
Aaron Powell: Three times. Failed it twice.
Trevor Burrus: Yes.
Aaron Powell: Passed it on the third time. [00:41:30] But we just would have conversations and Trevor recommended readings and I was kind of of the left at that time because as an English major I was really into lit crit and post-modern philosophy, which has a certain political slant to it, although it’s much more interesting and nuanced and worthwhile than people who only know the term [00:42:00] ‘post-modernism’ and hurl it around as an epithet understand. I encourage you, if you really hate post-modernism to actually read some of it or at least read about it. It was through those conversations and through reading and through various discussions that I came around.
Trevor Burrus: My perception is, I’m same. [00:42:30] Aaron had blue hair.
Aaron Powell: I did.
Trevor Burrus: He was …
Aaron Powell: Also it was green at one point.
Trevor Burrus: Green …
Aaron Powell: Red at another point.
Trevor Burrus: Maybe red at one point.
Aaron Powell: Something purple once.
Trevor Burrus: With his Converse shoes.
Aaron Powell: I still have my Converse shoes.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, you still have your converse shoes. Yeah, we started … I don’t know, well in Mark’s class, that was the name of the professor, there were videos. We would go as a class to watch movies like Cat People and Candyman and, what else did we watch? Some other weird ones, [00:43:00] Eraserhead or something like, maybe not Eraserhead but we would have …
Aaron Powell: Blade Runner.
Trevor Burrus: Blade Runner. We’d have social …
Aaron Powell: Aliens.
Trevor Burrus: That helped the class socialize, and I should remember, I don’t remember the first time we started talking. It might have been, like our friend Nicole, I might have met her first, but Aaron and Nicole were hanging out before that so, yeah, there was a very, very long conversation that went on for about a year or so about the meaning of government and the meaning of … Most of it I would say was about economics. I was a very different libertarian at that time [00:43:30] than I am now that …
Aaron Powell: You were more socially conservative.
Trevor Burrus: I personally wasn’t socially conservative but a lot of my attitudes were more on the socially conservative but I’ve never been religious or any of those things, but probably on war and some of those things I was not as libertarian then. Mostly what we talked about were economics, things like what’s wrong with minimum wage and what’s wrong with these kind of things. Some of the books I gave him were Thomas Sowell, which are a great sort of entry drug. Then [00:44:00] after that we took two more classes together, so we took three classes together total in undergrad. We ran a website for a while and then we went to law school together and then Aaron graduated a year before me in law school and then he got here and then I got here and the rest is history.
Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening to our 200th episode of Free Thoughts and special thanks to our producer, Tess Terrible, for hosting. I also need to thank our other producer, Evan Banks, who has been with us from [00:44:30] the very beginning, and also to Tess’ predecessor, Mark McDaniel, who is now at Reason Magazine and manned the recording booth for a couple of years making sure that we got everything down on tape the way it ought to be. Thank you to Trevor [crosstalk 00:44:49].
Trevor Burrus: Always a pleasure. I think we should do 200 more.
Aaron Powell: We should do 200 more. Thank you to all of you for listening and we’ll see you next week.