May 12, 2020
Answering Questions about Libertarianism
Join the hosts of the Free Thoughts podcast as they answer questions about libertarian philosophy and policy. What’s the best way to advance libertarian ideas? How can we better communicate with non-libertarians? How should libertarians respond to government limits on our freedoms during the recent health crisis? And many more.
If you enjoy Aaron and Trevor’s discussion, you can hear more from them every week on the Free Thoughts podcast.
00:04 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to the first Free Thoughts YouTube Q&A. I’m joined by my co-host, Trevor Burrus, and today we’re gonna answer questions that listeners submitted to us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and elsewhere. We’re doing this from quarantine from our houses, so excuse the lo-fi-ness of all of this, and I think we’ll jump in with the first question unless, Trevor, you wanna say something.
00:25 Trevor Burrus: No, no. I think that it’s a good time for Zooming together, so, the lo-fi-ness is generally excused, I think, in these times.
00:33 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, yeah, we’re doing our best, my set-up… I’m glad that you people cannot see what this set-up looks like from my perspective. [chuckle] It’s lots of stacked books and things on top of stacked books and wires everywhere, and I’m doing my best. But it makes me appreciate having what video producers bring to the table, ‘cause doing it yourself is a messy process. But let’s start with some of the first questions, this one comes from Twitter. Michael Blair asks, “Which discussions of moon… With discussions of moonshot stimulus programs, what would be a libertarian moonshot to try and curb government power? Where could we get most bang for the buck and to the Fed changes the IRS, a movement against the administrative state, something else.” What do you think, Trevor?
01:20 Trevor Burrus: I think there’s a few that are even possible, maybe within the realm of a couple of decades. One that I think would be… Have pretty pronounced effects would be to revitalize jury nullification, or a better term is conscientious aquittal. This is the ability of a jury to determine that a person who even might be guilty under the law itself is not guilty, because they’re nullifying the law. This is a old role of the jury, and actually the jury makes little sense without the ability to nullify, and it’s been a long-standing dispute in America, whether or not you can inform the jury that they’re allowed to nullify. Essentially no jurisdiction would allow a defense attorney to say, “You should acquit my client even though he did this crime, because this shouldn’t be a crime.” But if you think about our carceral state, if you think about the way our police behave, the way our prosecutors behave, things that our colleagues Clark Neely and Jay Schweikert have documented extensively, there’s really no check on prosecutorial power.
02:19 Trevor Burrus: We always hear how many criminal laws there are and how many different ways you can go to prison, but if you could imagine prosecutors being afraid that a jury might nullify as a reason why they wouldn’t bring charges and how people would request a jury trial, so you could go to some place where marijuana use, for example, or even drug use is not considered by the people to be something deserving of criminal prohibition, you would almost have no prosecutors bring these charges because they would demand a jury trial, and then the jury trial would probably nullify. I think it would have pronounced effects over the long period of time. I don’t know if it’s a moonshot given the very non-libertarian world we live in, but I think 20 years of jury nullification, you’d see pronounced changes to our criminal law, to our police behavior and, of course, that’s some of the biggest concerns of libertarians.
03:08 Aaron Ross Powell: I think, picking up on that theme, if we take moonshot as like what’s the one big change that you would make if you could only make a single change to meaningfully increase the scope of human liberty, and end government overreach or reduce it dramatically. I would say ending the war on drugs should be a huge priority, because it’s not just that the war on drugs causes tremendous human suffering, both in terms of the way that it makes the drug trade work, the way that it makes it harder for addicts to get help, and just the number of otherwise innocent people and non-violent people locked in cages. But also that the number of our liberties that have been eroded over the years in Supreme Court decisions that are directly related to drug cases is enormous. It’s just really striking how many of the bad Fourth Amendment privacy civil liberties cases are because someone was scared that people could say, “Flush drugs down their toilet if we didn’t, if we required you to knock on their door, before you bust into their apartment,” and so on. So I think ending that would have huge effects that would also extend well beyond just the immediacy of people using drugs and being prosecuted and locked up for it. So I think that would be mine. There might be other structural changes we could make that might limit things in other directions, but if we’re picking one big thing to change, that’s probably what I would aim at.
04:40 Trevor Burrus: I think there’s other procedural stuff that you could talk about. I think sunset provisions and laws would have a big contributing factor if we say, we’re just not saying, “Oh, this law’s been around. It’s impossible to take it away.” We talked about in our recent Free Thoughts episode about the kind of BRAC things, if we’re talking about actual procedural things where you try and set up committees to roll back government, when we know that Congress won’t do it because of the public choice incentives that they face. I don’t think even the Fed would… It’s impossible. That’s more of a moonshot than anything else we’re talking about. I guess, we’re talking about moonshots, but I don’t think even the Fed would do much, and I think it would have a extreme collapse just with the reliance on it. So, that’s one that people talk about. But overall, the other thing I think that’s important is that the more we have borders that allow capital and people to move between them, the more pressure they put on governments to behave better. Now, it’s not always a good solution, but that’s one form of pressure we can put on them.
05:42 Aaron Ross Powell: Next up we’ve got a handful of questions that all get at the pandemic and government responses to it, so I’m gonna lump these together. The first is, is there a libertarian… There’s a libertarian argument going around that the state forcing people to stay in their homes is justified because going out violates others’ rights in this environment. What do you make of it? And then similarly, how do we respond to the protesters? So the ones who don’t think that the government should be able to tell us to stay in our homes and are out protesting, often in threatening ways.
06:18 Aaron Ross Powell: And then also related to that, and I think that a lot of these are questions for you, Trevor, because you’re the constitutional law guy, is businesses too, like in businesses say… Let’s say that the lockdown orders end and people can go out of their houses, can businesses… Just acting in their own private interest, say, “You can’t come into this house or into my business, if you’re wearing a mask,” or you’re not wearing a mask, you have to wear one to enter the business. Or, if you’re an employee and you wanna wear a mask and I don’t want you to, because I think it’s bad for business… I think there was an instance of a restaurant saying this, you have to come to work, but you also can’t wear a mask and if you show up for work with a mask, I’m gonna tell you to go home. So, these are all part of this… What are the powers of government and private actors in this tremendously weird and uncertain time?
07:14 Trevor Burrus: Yeah. I think it’s important to have that front and center, first of all. Our political philosophies are based off of, first and foremost, an understanding of human nature and the conditions around which humans live. If we… If this was always the condition of mankind… If we were always in a pandemic of this type, what we could argue about that there were of course many pandemics before… But if things were fundamentally different in terms of the way people were endangering each other, then our theory of rights, to some extent, would be fundamentally different. So, political philosophies that were designed for normal times, all have problems if they’re liberal political philosophies, with trying to deal with something like this.
07:54 Trevor Burrus: As for this idea that going out with a disease is some sort of violation of the harm principle, I’m a little bit wary about that under most circumstances for just normal people going out, ‘cause we generally didn’t have, with healthy people any sort of theory of liability in common law, for example. Now, what we do have is there are cases that had been brought, tort cases that say, “You knew you had the Black Death and you went out.” Or, “You knew you had yellow fever and you went out and you went to a party or did something dangerous, or you had reason to know.” And that that created a system of harm. So, it’s a little bit more individualized. The lockdown order, in general, I think have some justification to them. But you… They need to be tailored to what the harm is actually being done.
08:41 Trevor Burrus: I think preventative measures for certain large gatherings and things like this. But people walking down the street going to parks, I think that’s a problem. But mostly… They’re on the good libertarian point, not necessary… Or not totally necessary, if we saw before the actual lockdown orders, people were already locking themselves down. I think there’s a good case here that libertarianism… One of the things about libertarianism is that we believe in people and we believe that people’s voluntary rational behavior is care for others and to not try and hurt other people. I think we’ve seen that a lot. We haven’t seen Mad Max. We’ve seen a lot of bread baking and collaborative work and people staying home. And even if they lifted the lockdown orders, it’s not clear how many people would go out.
09:24 Aaron Ross Powell: What about the businesses saying, “You can’t come into my business without a mask,” denying customers entry if they don’t wear a mask, or the businesses saying, “You have to leave your mask at home, if you wanna come work here.”
09:37 Trevor Burrus: From a legal side, that’s okay.
09:41 Aaron Ross Powell: Both are okay?
09:42 Trevor Burrus: Well, we have voluntary employment. We believe in at-will employment. So, if your employer says you can’t wear a mask, you can quit. I’m not sure that they’re allowed… Whether or not they are allowed to do that, they’re allowed to do that, I would say, generally speaking. Now, we could have many hypotheticals that would maybe challenge that. But generally speaking… I don’t know… What do you think about that?
10:05 Aaron Ross Powell: I guess I approach it from just the moral standpoint of all of this. First, I would be rather skeptical of a business that said, “Don’t wear a mask,” unless they had an awfully good reason. That would be imprudent, ill-advised. And probably a good business should not be telling employees that they can’t take minimal steps to protect their own health, or to potentially, I mean, this is also protecting the health of the customers. So, whether it’s legal to do so, whether the employee has a right to really complain about this is different from just like… I don’t think businesses should do that.
10:50 Aaron Ross Powell: On the customers, again it’s similar. It’s like there’s a question of how great… We’re asking people to take very small steps. This isn’t the quarantine, this isn’t the lockdown that’s bringing down the economy, this is putting a piece of cloth or paper over your face to protect yourself and others. And yeah, it… You might think it looks silly or it makes your glasses fog up or whatever, but you’re not… It’s not asking much. And if we’re all in this together and those minimal things, it seems perfectly reasonable to say, “Hey, I’d like you to do that” and to look down upon or shame people who refuse to do it for silly reasons, whether… Because they’re just out of ignorance like, “I’m not sick, so I don’t need to wear this,” or out of some misplaced culture war, like wearing a mask is a sign of obsequiousness to power or something of that sort, we should condemn that kind of behavior, but that’s just…
11:50 Trevor Burrus: Be kind to your fellow…
11:52 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, yeah. Try to… This is a time when being a good person matters a lot.
11:55 Trevor Burrus: Yeah. And if someone feels threatened or has a different sense of safety than you do, in terms of people coming into your house and saying, “I’d like you wear a mask,” that’s… They’re… That’s being courteous to them. Same with a business. There’s not… I don’t think there’s anything obsequiousness in this, ultimately. Now, it’s interesting, because you could talk about these being extraordinary times, which of course they are, but one of the questions that you had here, “Does a jogger, mask or not, have the right to run down the middle of the sidewalk refusing to yield a safe distance to others?”? It’s an interesting… The way I would think on that question is to say, “Well, what about in normal times, when… If the jogger had influenza, like regular flu, or some other disease, does that jogger have an obligation to take a wide berth around people?
12:45 Trevor Burrus: It’s a difficult question. It depends on the nature of the harm and all these things. But I don’t think generally speaking, we would say that because, of course we’re not as afraid of those diseases as we are of COVID-19. But, it… There are… There have been pandemics in the past. There’ve been a lot of pandemics… Or, not pandemics, epidemics more like and pandemics to some extent and people develop different rules and legal rules for how you deal with those kind of harms.
13:12 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah. Yeah, this next one is a really interesting question, so this comes from Edgardo Andres, he asked this on YouTube and I’m gonna paraphrase the question ‘cause it ends up being rather long, but the short version is, he lives in Chile and the freedoms… His freedoms are under assault by the government and this government is not respecting rights in the way that, say, the United States government does in enabling us to agitate for political change and so if you’re a libertarian in an oppressive regime, he asks, how can you go about advancing the cause of liberty ‘cause you can’t necessarily do it in the ways that like you and I, Trevor, do.
14:04 Trevor Burrus: You wanna start on that one?
14:10 Aaron Ross Powell: I have never lived… As much as we complain about the nature of the US government, I have never lived under what I would call a genuinely oppressive regime, so I don’t have on the ground experience for it, but I would just say that I think ideas are powerful and the places, a lot of the places where we have seen real change from oppression to at least more freedom have come about through the spread of ideas, and so I think one thing that you can do is to in a sense do what we are doing on a smaller scale, taking into account how dangerous it might be for you to do so, but to talk to people, to spread these ideas, to try to import and disseminate literature, writings and build up that mass of people who share these ideas, because that’s going to be powerful, but that can be hard in a lot of these oppressive regimes.
15:15 Trevor Burrus: To say the least.
15:16 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah.
15:17 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, I think I had this sort of the same answer. It’s difficult in a regime where information is… Censorship exists and other types of institutions don’t let the ideas percolate out. We saw I think yesterday in the Philippines Duterte essentially stripped the license of the only prominent broadcasting media corporation that was critical of him, and those things become very concerning because ultimately, if that information is clamped down on, which is of course what oppressive regimes want to do it, becomes dangerous to advocate for liberty, and we’ve seen that in the Soviet Union, we saw underground trading of Samizdat, of prohibited literature, and ultimately places like China understand that they have to have very strong controls on the information their citizens see or they can’t maintain their regime. And that’s why they censor, they have the firewall which has become an extremely big deal on the current pandemic, people Googling Tiananmen Square is pretty much impossible, it’s not even Googling.
16:26 Trevor Burrus: It’s all very concerning so, yes, information, getting the information out there is the first step in this process and it’s subversive, it can be dangerous, there are ways of getting around it with VPNs and things like this, but trying to do that I think is the most that a sort of individual person can do to try and combat these kind of oppressive regimes, and hope for the fact that these regimes generally don’t have a very good track record of keeping these things shut for that long unless they go to the extremes of North Korea. But remember, I think there’s a movie called How Chuck Norris Defeated Communism. It’s about the movie trade in Romania and Eastern Bloc Romania where they dubbed American movies and traded them, action movies from the ’80s, all that kind of stuff is I think important and it had contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union in the Eastern Bloc and it contributed the fall of other regimes.
17:23 Aaron Ross Powell: I think next up we have another question about furthering libertarianism, but this one is looking more at America and the Western world. It says, “What is the best way to further the libertarian cause? The Libertarian Party itself or through advancing libertarian-minded candidates in the two major parties?” I’m always… To the extent that we can get libertarian-minded people elected, that’s great, and I don’t have… I don’t have strong opinions about the Libertarian Party versus the other parties, because I’m more interested in the ideas of the elected officials themselves. I think that there can be real value in pushing for elected officials to hold to libertarian ideas, and this is one of the reasons that I’m… That Libertarians constantly get blamed for throwing elections to the other guy because they voted for… They didn’t vote for the right candidate, they didn’t vote for one of the two major candidates or they didn’t vote at all.
18:29 Aaron Ross Powell: And I think that I’m skeptical of those arguments because there’s real value in information in even small blocks of people saying, no, I have a set of principles I’m gonna stand up for them and if you want my vote you to need to respect those principles too, that if we constantly acquiesce to good enough, that information gets lost and people just assume that everyone is willing to go along with the status quo, so I think that’s another thing we can do, but not… A lot of policy is not made at the level of elected officials, it happens through regulators, it happens through courts, it just kind of happens through the Zeitgeist in a sense, that the general attitudes of the people have a real pull on the way the government operates too.
19:27 Aaron Ross Powell: And so this is a similar answer, I think, to the prior one which is one of the things that we can do is constantly be trying to convince more people to adopt libertarian views of public policy. And I don’t just mean elected officials, but I mean just our fellow citizens, convince them that this is a way to a better world. This is a way to a wealthier, safer, freer world that everyone ought to want to live in and get those ideas more credence in the American consciousness, get them more acceptance, get them just a wider share of broad political opinion and that that will then carry on to the elected officials and the regulators and the courts and so on. So again, just spreading these ideas and convincing, trying to convince people in a thoughtful way that these ideas aren’t crazy, that they’re actually pretty good, I think it’d be really powerful.
20:27 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, that’s one of our mantras, definitely. I think that… I’m a little bit more of a fan of the Libertarian Party just for pure logistics of communication purposes. I was quite happy when Amash entered the race. And if you go back to, say, 2008, with Ron Paul and you say, how many people, especially people… When I was an intern in 2010, probably half of my intern class, if not more, were there because of Ron Paul. They saw Ron Paul on the Republican debate stage and they googled libertarianism and said, “Wow, this is a third way. I never even heard about this.” That is extremely powerful and Ron Paul leaving made that kinda go away, and Gary Johnson didn’t really galvanize that the way I think he could have.
21:10 Trevor Burrus: I don’t think it’s completely out of the realm of possibility that if you had a very, very good Libertarian Party candidate, and I think Amash is very good, that you have more people who’ve never even heard the word or who always thought that libertarians were just crazy or just like Republicans or whatever sort of stereotype you wanna say, that they google libertarianism. That’s one of course, and Aaron, you know this, like almost the point… One of the points of starting libertarianism.org was to put people in the right direction when they google libertarianism, because there’s a lot of places that use the word libertarian that you kinda don’t want people going as their first entrance into the ideas themselves. So I think that’s very important.
21:48 Trevor Burrus: I think that entrepreneurship is extremely important. Not everyone needs to be a policy wonk or a communicator, but there’s a lot of things out there that can… People who can start businesses that have demonstrated how freedom can work. Some of these, like Uber or some of these like the Surgery Center of Oklahoma, there’s a bunch of these that I think are extremely important. It’s a big thing, but in my experience, people who get a good taste of libertarianism, even if they’re not libertarians ultimately, you wanna be respectful, and have people respect the ideas and say, “Okay, this is a serious political philosophy.” And 30 years ago… 40 years ago, we were way much more in a hole than we are now and I think we’ll be doing much better in 40 years too.
22:35 Aaron Ross Powell: Christopher Hudson asks on Twitter, “What types of duties do we as humans have towards non-human animals? Do animals have or deserve anything like rights as we understand them?” And this question, this isn’t necessarily a question about libertarianism per se, which makes it hard to answer from within a libertarian perspective, because libertarianism is a theory of rights and it’s a theory of like, given that we’ve got a set of people, how may we treat them in the political arena? And the question here, though, is, are non-human animals of the kind for which the rights that libertarians take seriously apply? And so this is like a question that needs to be answered before you can get to libertarian sorts of questions.
23:27 Aaron Ross Powell: It’s prior to and it’s an awfully complicated one over which quite a lot of people disagree. And so you could certainly be, if you were a libertarian who believed strongly that animals possess the same rights as humans, then your libertarianism would seem to apply to them in the sense of like the same things we don’t permit to humans, we wouldn’t permit to them. But if you don’t believe that, if you have reason to think that animals don’t have those rights, then the political theory questions kinda drop away. So, I confess to not being terribly well-read in this area, I can see compelling arguments on both sides, but I don’t have a strong opinion, and I also feel like it’s one of those questions where there probably isn’t a single answer, that it’s gonna scale a lot based on what type of animals we’re talking about, and there’s gonna be practical concerns, because absolute rights for all living things would prohibit…
24:32 Trevor Burrus: Living?
24:33 Aaron Ross Powell: Living. Most of the activity that most of us would engage in… I’ll just, as by way of an example, I spent several days at a Buddhist monastery in West Virginia last summer and Buddhists, at least these Buddhists, very strongly believe that you should never harm another living being. And so they talked about if the mosquito lands on you, don’t swat it away, just accept that it’s a living being like you and just deal with it biting you. But at the same time, they talked about how great it was to build this monastery in the woods of West Virginia, and the number of animals that were killed in the building of that monastery was extraordinary, like digging the foundations and laying them and everything else you did killed countless small animals.
25:27 Trevor Burrus: How about, I don’t know if bacteria are a concern, but maybe we could go a little bit up the ladder. Like malaria is caused by a protozoa, right? So keep trying to get rid of protozoa. I mean, yeah, you’re right, [25:37] ____.
25:38 Trevor Burrus: So, I’m not trying to be flip about Christopher’s question, but I’m just saying that I think it’s a complicated… It’s a very complicated question, and it’s one that I personally am not well read enough to have a strong opinion, other than to say I can imagine animals that I do think ought to have something approaching rights, so that it would be wrong for us to kill them. But I can think of other ones where it’s probably not the case, but I don’t have clear in my mind where the line between those lives.
26:12 Trevor Burrus: I have a theory on this, which I’ve never… When I was doing doing undergrad on philosophy, I started playing with it. I never wrote this out as some sort of essay but I have a theory, somewhat half-baked, that animals don’t have rights, most animals, because they can’t hold duties. Now, if rights have… If you’re a right-holder, that means other people have a duty. If you have a right to live, then other people have a duty not to kill you. If you have a right to property, then other people have a duty not to steal from you. But tigers can’t follow the duty of not killing you. So, the tiger… For the fact that we have a right to life, if you go through the forest and you see a tiger, and you say, “You can’t kill me ‘cause I have a right to life,” the tiger can’t actually fulfill that duty.
27:07 Trevor Burrus: That does not mean that animals are not of concern, of moral concern. I don’t think the universe of rights-holding entities is co-extensive with the universe of things that we should be morally concerned about, for a variety of reasons. And that can be both because of how it affects humans, but also how it affects animals themselves. And rights are an overused concept, as we know, especially in positive rights concepts, right to healthcare, right to clean water, right to vacation, whatever. And the idea that rights answer a lot or all of our both moral and political questions, I think is completely misguided. Rights do certain things, they help us answer some questions, but they don’t solve everything. And that includes with animals.
27:53 Aaron Ross Powell: Let’s see, we’ve got… This one is from Jake Carman on Twitter, he says, “What’s a liberty-focused piece of writing that blew your mind when you read it?”
28:01 Trevor Burrus: It’s a really good question. To think back, I’m gonna go with a little bit of a cliche answer here, because I do think it is important. When I was 15-16 or so, and I first read Hayek, or maybe… I might have been 14 and read Sowell before I read Hayek, but the very concept of the sort of Hayekian knowledge problem or the socialist calculation problem, or the way that Hayek writes about how knowledge is used in economies, at that point, I probably would have considered myself conservative/libertarian, and I would have taken the position that socialism is a bad idea. Or, an oft-said thing I hear, socialism, good idea, wrong species, kind of thing, and that’s why it shouldn’t be tried.
28:48 Trevor Burrus: But the idea told so forcefully, that socialism, the planning of an economy is not just undesirable, it’s impossible, it’s kind of mind-blowing. It’s easy to forget, if you’ve been doing this for as long as I have, essays like I Pencil, and how mind-blowing that essay is, and I’ve taught that essay and I’ve seen it, I’ve seen people, the students with their eyes open wide and say, “That’s a really incredible essay.” So, I think my mind gets blown by different things today, because I’ve been doing this for a while, but remembering back, that was a big one.
29:22 Aaron Ross Powell: For me, I think it was John Simmons’ little book, Moral Principles and Political Obligations, which was one of the few… One of the few books that I can look to and say, “I came into this book believing X, and I left the book believing not X.” Like, it was a book that radically changed my mind on an important issue. And that is a book we’ve done, we have put links in the show notes about… We’ve done episodes that touch on a lot of these arguments, so I’ll be brief, but the brief version is, it’s a book that says the powers that government claims to have, the authority that it claims to have over you, the authority specifically that it claims to have that it can… It can issue commands and you have a moral obligation, so you are doing something morally wrong if you don’t obey its commands, are not grounded in the slightest.
30:18 Aaron Ross Powell: The arguments for why government has that kind of a moral authority completely fail. And it changed my entire view of the nature of the state and political power. Not in the sense of saying, therefore, tear it all down, but just in the sense of our relationship to the state looks very different if the commands that the state gives us we should follow out of prudence than out of a moral obligation because of authority. And it’s a book that I go back to frequently, it’s a book that has informed much of my own scholarship sense. So, I think that would be… That’s the last one that I read that I can remember really just blowing my mind, that I was riveted throughout.
31:09 Aaron Ross Powell: Bo Stucky on Facebook, on the Free Thoughts Facebook group, asks, “What do you consider the biggest libertarian improvement to society in your lifetime?”
31:20 Trevor Burrus: The obvious one is gay marriage and rights of gay people and LGBTQ people in general. It’s pretty astounding. I remember, growing up in Colorado, I remember the Amendment 2 controversy, for example, which was a time that ended up in a Supreme Court case called Romer v. Evans, it was a time when certain municipalities in Colorado, more liberal ones like Boulder and Aspen, passed, essentially, anti-discrimination ordinances against LGBTQ people. And then the state came in and overrode those and that went to the Supreme Court, but it was a huge thing. People were boycotting Colorado, all this thing. And I can remember that, that was really recently, generally speaking, and now, gay marriage is legal in all 50 states, it’s pretty wild. And just the general status of LGBTQ people, I think, is the biggest one in my lifetime.
32:19 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, I think that’s, that certainly is an extremely important one. It might be the one that I would pick. If I have to pick a different one, I would say going back to, I think, my answer to our first question. I would say the scaling back of the war on drugs that we have seen. So the legalization. It’s not uniform, but the widespread legalization of marijuana, and not just that in and of itself, but what it represents as far as cultural and legal trends that I think it demonstrates that this catastrophe of a policy that we have suffered under will probably come to an end in our lifetime. And so that, the dam-breaking on that and the states just knocking down their marijuana laws one after another, has been a tremendous libertarian victory, and one that came far faster than I would have expected it to.
33:13 Aaron Ross Powell: Lee Herridge on, also on the Facebook discussion group asks, “Is politics downstream of culture? If so, what can libertarians do to impact culture?” This again goes back to, I think, the answer on the value of libertarian ideas, that culture, I think, has a huge impact. So the gay marriage, the reason gay marriage flipped as quickly as it did, the reason that we had that success, was in large part because the culture had shifted dramatically. Like young people, the polling data showed that most young people were totally fine with gay marriage, that being opposed to gay marriage was kinda concentrated among some older Americans and was a declining portion. A lot of religious groups flipped on that issue. It was just, the American culture was no longer overwhelmingly anti-gay. And that made it much easier for the states and the courts to change the policy side of things. I think with…
34:16 Trevor Burrus: The same with marijuana, too.
34:17 Aaron Ross Powell: Same with marijuana. So had the culture not shifted on those two issues, I don’t think that the legal and policy side would have shifted. I don’t know that it’s always downstream of culture, but it frequently is. And so then, what can libertarians do to impact culture? This is a hazy area in the sense that I think that direct attempts to influence culture politically are… Usually fail, and if they don’t, they’re at least extremely cringy.
34:52 Trevor Burrus: You mean like a libertarian daily show would be very cringy.
34:55 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, or…
34:56 Trevor Burrus: If you do it wrong. It’s not necessary, but…
35:00 Aaron Ross Powell: Right. Or explicitly, like political books or movies. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a overwhelmingly like politically didactic novels and movies. Things that set out to convey a specific political message are almost uniformly bad, because that’s just not how you make good art. And so things can have, obviously, they can have lots of political themes, but to say, “I am going to write the thing that will change the political perspective on this.” You’re probably not gonna turn out with something all that good.
35:31 Trevor Burrus: Well, I would just hold you on that a little bit, because you’re right that it might not turn out all that good, but Ayn Rand’s influence, which we have our own personal problems with Ayn Rand. But overall, she brought millions of people into the ideas because she wrote novels. They’re not very good ones, but she wrote novels.
35:51 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, so you might be able to pull it off. But I think by and large, there’s a tendency, and you see this particularly on the American right, to make like, “We are going to make conservative movies.” And I think you can contrast the American right and the American left in terms of how, like look at, so Hollywood is overwhelmingly left. But, and there are lots of Hollywood movies that have leftist themes in them. But they’re not, typically not as cringy as movies that set out to advance conservative themes. And I think it’s partly because they’re not trying to make a movie specifically to advance a political agenda. They are simply trying to make a movie tell a story and their politics is so in the water, that that comes through in it.
36:42 Trevor Burrus: Well, okay. It’s interesting, but I agree with you in general. I just think conservatives are worse at art. But there are movies that are Hollywood blockbusters, that for us, like Erin Brockovich. What’s the recent one with Matt Damon about polluted water? They’re extremely huge. There’s so many huge Hollywood productions that are as ideologically driven as anything and people don’t roll their eyes because sometimes the execution is better. The counterpoint to this would be something from a pure conservative thing, like all these religious movies that come out, like the one about God, God in the classroom one, that came out with Hercules. I can’t remember the name of it. God’s Not Dead, that one.
37:33 Trevor Burrus: But I watch some of these movies coming out of Hollywood. And even if I generally agree with it, I’m cringing, but a lot of people are not. And that’s the thing. Conservatives realized that years ago that they lost the completely the commanding heights of culture. I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve seen some of the new conservatism come in, is that is they wanna make impacts on the culture first, so that in integralists and people like this, this is a backlash to this loss of any effect in the sort of Hollywood regime. And I have some sympathy for that. And the libertarian [38:04] ____ different, I think.
38:05 Aaron Ross Powell: I think, so I think my take-away from this question would be art, whether that’s movies, literature, television shows, whatever else, can be a powerful tool in changing people’s political views. But there’s a temptation to be heavy-handed in doing it. And when you are heavy-handed in doing it, it’s not going to advance that goal. There might be a couple of exceptions, but you’re probably not going to be one of those exceptions. And so what you’re gonna do is you’re gonna end up making art that only appeals to the people who already agree with you and turns off the people who don’t, which is the whole point of trying to impact the culture, right, is to get those people who don’t. So I think that libertarians, if we wanna advance these ideas, getting them into the culture in that way, if what we mean is artistic culture is important, but it should be done… It should be done subtly and try to make a good movie first and a political movie second, and you’re gonna have more success with both.
39:10 Aaron Ross Powell: In the non, like movies, television, and so on culture, I think, again, it’s just a matter of… These ideas, for a lot of Americans, libertarian ideas are still fringe. And fringe ideas tend not to be taken seriously. And so they get culturally frowned upon. We’re the weirdos. And the only way that that changes, the only way that we get taken seriously is by convincing people, one-on-one, to take us seriously. That we’re not weirdos, that we’re not crazy, that we don’t want to destroy everything that’s good and pure. That we have good motives, that we want, and oftentimes, the same thing as everyone else. We just think that we have a different and better way of getting there. And so being thoughtful, taking other people’s ideas seriously, seeking to understand other people’s ideas and having genuine communication with them will influence them and as we do more of it, the culture will shift in its general perspective towards libertarianism.
40:17 Trevor Burrus: And I think that there are some examples of movies that are extremely libertarian. And one of the reasons that they’re good and they’re thought of as classics is because they’re ultimately just liberal. Libertarianism on some level is not that radical a thesis, historically speaking.
40:29 Aaron Ross Powell: Right.
40:30 Trevor Burrus: It’s actually just Lockean principles about being suspicious of power and thinking that people in power are maybe a little ridiculous. And we’ve seen… Dr. Strangelove is a completely libertarian movie. A lot of the Armando Iannucci stuff, just mocking these people in power, is very libertarian, I believe. But it didn’t set out to be libertarian. The next question is, “Can you make a movie that conveys Hayek’s Theory of Prices?” No, you just need a libertarian sensibility, which I think is understanding that the people in government are just people, that they’re driven by their own incentives and not necessarily by the public good and humans are pretty good at solving problems on their own. I think, Aaron, you alluded to a good question we could go to. There was a question on the… There was a question… I thought I saw a question about… Oh, how to have meaningful political discussion with others.
41:26 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah.
41:27 Trevor Burrus: I think what you said at the end there was good for that. So Margaret Yang on the Free Thoughts discussion group for the Facebook discussion group says, “How do you have a meaningful political discussion with others? It’d be helpful if you could provide some tips on how to raise important questions while respecting guests who might have political opinions different from yours.” I think that’s a really interesting question, ‘cause it’s something that Aaron and I are personally, have always been very concerned with going back when we were in undergrad. The first thing to do is to actually respect your interlocutor. I mean, enforce it, like do not assume that the person who disagrees with you disagrees with you because they’ve been brainwashed or because of whatever nefarious reasons. There are a lot of good arguments on the other side. So the first thing is to realize that. Not to be dogmatic, to realize, “Oh, that’s a hard question. I don’t have all the answers.” We have more than enough examples of the libertarian in class standing up and making everyone roll their eyes. So I would say that’s the first role. I don’t know, Aaron, what would you add?
42:28 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, no. I think that is very true, and I think it’s not just a matter of respecting the other people, but it’s respecting and understanding the ideas that are motivating their views. It’s shocking to me how many people, and this certainly applies to a lot of libertarians, have incredibly strong opinions about certain philosophies or political ideologies and think that they’re obviously stupid and the worst and most dangerous thing ever. But if you start asking them about like, “What do you think that means?” So take postmodernism is a good example of this. Lots of people have strong opinions about postmodernism, but if you start asking them, “What is postmodernism? What do the postmodernists actually say?” It turns out they have no idea. So it’s not that their opinion is wrong. Postmodernism might be stupid and dangerous, but that their opinion is incredibly just uninformed.
43:24 Aaron Ross Powell: And that tendency, that tendency to just say, “I don’t agree with these people. Therefore, their ideas are not worth me taking the time to examine and take seriously,” really undercuts the ability to have fruitful conversations because it comes out very quickly. You start having a debate with someone and if they realize that you simply have no idea what they actually are saying or that you’re straw manning them or you’re… You’ve reduced them to a caricature, they’re not gonna listen to much else that you have to say because you’ve just demonstrated that you’re not willing to put the work in to have a meaningful conversation. And so I think that’s central, is take the time… If you’ve spent the time reading and studying the sources of your own ideas, do the same thing for the sources of the ideas of others, and you’ll get a lot further.
44:17 Aaron Ross Powell: And then, yeah, when we have guests… We frequently have guests on Free Thoughts we disagree with. Approach it as an opportunity to learn, instead of an opportunity to win an argument. Because you’re probably not going to change the person’s mind sitting down for an hour behind podcast mics, but you can gain a lot from trying to say, “Here is a really intelligent, thoughtful person who disagrees with me deeply on matters that we both think are tremendously important. Why is that?” The fact that that’s the case is interesting, and it’s worth exploring, to try to tease out where our ideas diverge, what the source of that divergence is, why we each feel as strongly about our side as we do. And again, it makes for a good conversation, it makes for a thoughtful conversation and it makes for a conversation that both parties are going to want to continue, which is necessary for actually effecting change.
45:21 Aaron Ross Powell: But it’s also a conversation where you can start to say, oh, okay, I can now see why it is that this person is skeptical of my ideas, and maybe it’s because I haven’t made, I haven’t been making a convincing case for them. Maybe it’s because I don’t quite understand the issues as well as I thought I did. Maybe it’s because we have… We share a disagreement on some other matters, some underlying value, say, that is causing this, but we can’t, we’re arguing past each other as a result because we’re not dealing with that, but it will make you better able to engage with others, especially others who disagree with you, if you approach it that way, as opposed to always approaching everything as an argument to immediately be one, you don’t want to just say, “My goal in any conversation with someone who shares a different political views than me is to just destroy them.”
46:14 Trevor Burrus: That they get on their knees and admit like some interlocutor of [46:18] ____ that they’re so benighted and they can’t possibly hold these ideas. Let me tell you right now, you’re not as convincing as you think you are, no matter what your political ideology is and there are good arguments on the other side, that’s an important point that not enough people in this schismatic time understand. It’s this… As I mentioned, this is pretty personal for me and Aaron too, because we went to Boulder and then at Law school, University of Denver, we both of us tended to make our best friends, professors as straight up Marxists usually. Of course, the Marxist are much more common, but there’s… If you approach them with respect and I think Marxism is one of the things that you should read, if you don’t go read Marx, you should at least read Thomas Sowell’s book on Marxism, which is one of his earliest books.
47:06 Trevor Burrus: But ultimately, I have much more to say to a Marxist than I do to a partisan Republican or a Democrat, who’s just playing team sports and that’s all they’re doing. There’s no ideological content behind that. Marxists say, I think that there are fundamental problems in the system that are based on power, that don’t respect human rights enough, and I wanna fundamentally change the system, right? And I sometimes say that I have a very strong, almost Marxist, libertarianism vein in the sense that my political philosophy is basically that I don’t like power misused by people in a way that disrespects other people’s humanity and dignity. And so for Marxists, they say there’s a power structure on the world and it distorts the world and it causes all these violations of human rights and that power structure spends a ton of time telling everyone that it’s the only game in town, controls education system, controls the media, and we need to get people to rise up against it.
48:02 Trevor Burrus: Well, you could say that on a very abstract level libertarianism is the same thesis except for the power structure, but the one we’re concerned with is the state. There’s a lot more that we talk to people like that, than there is with, say, some dyed in the world Democrat.
48:15 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, yeah. One more from… This one is from Jeremy Price, there’s an interesting question. Says, “Are there any uncommon or unusual political philosophies that have influenced you? How do philosophies other than political ones influence your political thinking?” And this is…
48:37 Aaron Ross Powell: It’s a good one for you.
48:37 Trevor Burrus: This is a really good question and yeah, it’s because I think most of my political and moral thinking is most influenced by ideas and philosophies that are not explicitly libertarian. The philosophers who I have learned the most from are often ones who are not, would not consider themselves to be libertarian. So my thought is deeply influenced by Aristotle, or my moral thinking is deeply influenced by Aristotle and Aristotle was by no means a libertarian. And then a lot of the virtue ethics that has followed on from that is non-libertarian, but I think it’s interesting because you can… And we do this, we have a book from libertarianism.org called Arguments for Liberty that you can download for free from the website, which is nine chapters of different authors saying, “Here are different moral theories and here’s how they can support libertarian political theories.” And so, you can take a moral theory and think a moral theory is right, and then think that a lot of the people who hold to that moral theory are drawing the wrong political conclusions from it. And that’s where I am with a lot of, say, virtue ethics.
49:52 Aaron Ross Powell: So that’s an important one for me. One that’s influenced my thinking a lot in the last few years has been Buddhism, that as both a way to understand the human condition and the way to understand how we ought to interact with others. And again, it’s one, I have a couple of essays on libertarianism.org about this, it’s one that I think can be very easily… You can draw libertarian conclusions from it, but it certainly is not something that most people jump to immediately when they’re thinking of the grand libertarian traditions. So I think those would be the two big ones for me would be Aristotelianism and Buddhism, it has a huge influence.
50:35 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, I have a pull from a panoply of moral philosophies. A lot of things I think that sort of philosophies that matter outside of libertarianism, you can construct these arguments, as Aaron pointed out, you can get to a libertarian result through a variety of methods. Virtue ethics itself, and Eastern philosophy, especially in my teens, influenced a lot of my approach for human dignity and especially just a humility about your ability to control or know what is best for other people, and a respect for people as equal to you, and your not being better, there’s a variety of philosophies that can get you there.
51:18 Trevor Burrus: I think if you combine that with a little bit of skepticism, just a healthy dose of skepticism about a lot of things, that you can get pretty close to libertarianism, those are two different outside philosophies that will give you a theory about what the state is allowed to do to people.
51:35 Aaron Ross Powell: We’ll close with a question from Jason Lee Bias again, on the Free Thoughts discussion group. He asks, “What books not written by libertarians would each of you like to see become commonly read among libertarians?” And this is something that goes back to our answer on discussing… How to have discussions with people who you disagree with. My answer to this would be at the very least, if you are committed to advancing a set of political ideas, take the time to read the great texts in the other political ideas, in the ones that you disagree with. So read Marx, read communitarians, read postmodernists, read John Rawls, read Keynesian economics. Like just read the things that the people that you disagree, the smart and thoughtful people that you disagree with. Read the things that they point to, to justify and inform their own beliefs.
52:36 Aaron Ross Powell: And I think a lot of people, and this doesn’t just apply to libertarians, but I see it among libertarians, have this tendency to say, “The only thing that I need to read is the stuff that advances my own position and the rest of it is not worth my time.” And so there’s a lot of really valuable literature out there that we could all learn from, if we just took the time to take it seriously and approach it with thoughtfulness. And so that’s what I would say is, pick the great texts of opposing moral and ideological and political traditions and just make an effort to read and understand them.
53:17 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, I was pondering this one, it’s an interesting one, ‘cause I think that you shouldn’t have your politics affect too much what you’re gonna read, if whether it is a novel or something. I mean, “Oh, that was written by a Marxist or a band… ” Like, “No, I’m not gonna listen to Rage Against the Machine because they’re a bunch of Marxists,” I think that that’s letting politics become too much part of your life beyond just voting and talking about these things. So I’m going to say, I mean, it’s a little bit… I’m not totally suggesting that everyone should sit down and read John Rawls because it’s not exactly the most riveting prose ever written by human beings, but it’s, of course, defines… I think it does define the basic idea of where the left in particular and the modern welfare state is coming from, and it’s referenced all the time and libertarians, a lot of libertarians, like to say it’s bad, it’s worthless.
54:09 Trevor Burrus: I really have a lot of affinity for Rawls. I think that he asked interesting questions in the right way, he came up with wrong conclusions about them. But the basic idea that you should create a just society, is one wherein you don’t know what you’re going to be, where your placement’s gonna be in that society and you can still endorse the rules. There’s a lot of intuitive appeal to that, and you can read a lot of summaries of Rawls, you don’t have to read all the 500 plus pages of A Theory of Justice. But that’s one I think that would better explain it and really try to understand why this matters to him, and then why it matters to people like AOC. I don’t know if she’s read Rawls but I think that fundamentally, where her brain is coming from is like, Rawls is very interested in eliminating the consideration or the effect of traits that are irrelevant to justice on people’s lives.
55:03 Trevor Burrus: And so, your race is irrelevant to justice. It shouldn’t determine anything about where you are, what money you make, and if you were gonna design a just system, you might put people behind a veil of ignorance, and they wouldn’t know what race they are, right? And that’s one reason maybe to how you can eliminate or say that this is something that should not be considered. And I think that that’s where people like AOC and even Bernie are coming from. So actually understanding that, understanding Rawls and having good arguments against it and understanding how it fits within the local tradition I think is very important.
55:36 Aaron Ross Powell: I wanna thank everyone for joining us on this first Free Thoughts YouTube Q&A, and if you enjoyed it and wanna see libertarianism.org do more of this sort of thing, let us know in the comments. And also if you’re not already a Free Thoughts listener, you can check out new episodes here on libertarianism.org’s YouTube channel, or you can subscribe to Free Thoughts wherever you get your podcasts.
55:57 Trevor Burrus: Or you can go back seven years and listen to Free Thoughts from the beginning.
56:01 Aaron Ross Powell: There’s a lot of them.
56:01 Trevor Burrus: There’s a lot of them, yeah. Thanks for listening, thank you for watching.