An economist and historian discuss the strengths and weaknesses libertarians tend to exhibit when communicating with new audiences and dealing with new ideas.

Anthony Comegna received his M.A. (2012) and Ph.D. (2016) in history from the University of Pittsburgh, where he specialized in early American, intellectual, and Atlantic history. His dissertation, “The Dupes of Hope Forever:” The Loco‐​Foco or Equal Rights Movement, 1820s‐​1870s, revives the submerged and forgotten legacy of locofocoism. Anthony has taught undergraduate courses in American history and Western Civilization. He produces regular historical content for Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org and is the writer/​host of Liberty Chronicles. He currently works at the Institute for Humane Studies as the Academic Programs Design Manager.


Steven Horwitz is Economics Editor at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org and Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise at Ball State University. Horwitz has written extensively on Austrian economics, Hayekian political economy, monetary theory and history, and macroeconomics.

Caleb O. Brown is the director of multimedia at the Cato Institute, where he has hosted the Cato Daily Podcast since 2007 and CatoAudio since 2008.

A Cato Daily Podcast Interview

Brown: This is the Cato Daily Podcast for Monday December 19, 2016. I’m Caleb Brown. If excessive government is the ‘bad guy’ for most libertarians, is a government that suddenly respects all rights of all people all the time sufficient to create a world we all want? Anthony Comegna of www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org and economist Steve Horwitz of St. Lawrence University sat down with me recently to discuss what happens when libertarians fall victim to so‐​called “Unicorn Governance.”

Brown: When I listen to libertarians talk about policies that they want to adopt that will help the poor and ideas for dealing with persistent, seemingly intractable problems, there is a policy response and then the idea is ‘Once we have achieved that policy response, we clean our hands, we walk away, and that’s it.’ We’re done, and now a thousand flowers will bloom. And that seems to be problematic for a number of reasons, but how do you view that idea that there are specific changes that need to take place, and once those changes properly respect people’s rights, once people are not improperly incentivized by the government, the job is done?

Horwitz: Well, I think there are a couple kinds of things you could say about that. Certainly one is that libertarians have to be careful not to fall victim to the same sort of fantasy that Mike Munger calls “unicorn governance,” right? To just imagine even if it’s us developing these policies, that they’re automatically going to play out and that we get a thousand flowers rather than a thousand weeds or a mix thereof. So I think that’s one part of that. I also think, though, too, that libertarians in the past have been hesitant to talk about issues of culture and so on, so just changing policies may not be enough. Certainly we want to think about the institutional level. How do we prevent, you know, the bad policies from coming back again, but how do we make sure that people understand why these policy changes we might want to make are good and why they will help the people we want to help. I mean, I think that if you don’t do that, you run the risk of just reverting right back as soon as you libertarians or whatever make the kinds of changes we might want to make.

Comegna: Yeah, there’s a sort of rush among libertarians generally when they encounter an issue to say that whatever an individual does—as long as it’s a freely made choice—is fine and consistent with libertarianism, but I think it’s very easy to find examples of freely chosen behaviors that are very, very damaging and antithetical to liberty and the libertarian’s view of how the world should be. So, something that we’re not too keen on—though we should do much more of it—is criticizing freely made actions for being non‐​virtuous. I think we need a better, clearer, sharper focus on promoting virtuous behavior as opposed to simply or merely free behavior.

Brown: Now you both sound like Lawrence Reed from the Foundation for Economic Education…

All: [Laughter]

Brown: …Arguing that character matters and it is just as important as liberty.

Comegna: It’s a high compliment.

Horwitz: It is. It’s always a compliment. I would frame it a bit differently. For me, I’m never…The word ‘virtue’ and ‘virtuous’ has so much baggage often attached to it, that it’s not the way I would frame this. You know, we can think—I can think of examples of bad voluntary choices. One thing that I’ve written a little bit about is parenting strategies. We can talk about the way in which parenting habits of the last twenty years have raised a generation of kids who might not be prepared to be free and responsible citizens. I don’t know if I want to use the word ‘virtue’ in that context, but I certainly would want to say ‘Look, if you’re constantly bailing your kids out of things or you’re trying to complain to get your kid’s way all the time—sort of ‘helicopter parenting’ things—those are bad choices and choices I think that actually undermine free society in the long run.

Brown: Alright, so getting from here to there, what are some specific things that people ought to be thinking about in terms of ‘Yes, so we got the policy response we wanted. Now what?’

Comegna: Well, um, so one of my professors in graduate school said that the problem with—Well, when I said the problem with historians is (speaking as an historian) that they don’t know any economics. Historians don’t know any economics whatsoever. The professor responded that ‘Well, economists seem to not know any history.’ I think part of the problem that libertarians often have, at least from my perspective, is that we don’t spend too much time trying to understand the world from a variety of perspectives. And people who put so much stock in methodological individualism—approaching the social sciences with the individual as the fundamental unit of analysis—should be much more keen on exploring and adopting, when appropriate at least, other perspectives on the world. Libertarians who limit themselves to only studying economics or only thinking about problems as an economist might, or a political scientist, or—you know, we have a superabundance of those fields represented within libertarianism, and we’re pretty loathe sometimes to stop thinking that way. As number‐​crunching, sort of constantly talking about the mechanics of incentives, the mechanics of institutions, and there’s so much of a hyper‐​focus on these things that they tend to become part of our personalities and even take over our personalities so you have this sense that libertarianism is exactly who and what you are. And that tends to be pretty alienating from the rest of society, I think. It pushes us a corner and it has the result that we don’t often explore the world outside that corner. I think it’s incumbent upon us to really, really dig in to other people’s ideas, their lives, their brains, and perspectives, and figure out how the world looks to them as opposed to us.

Horwitz: Several things I would say. One, as an economist I’m all in favor of limiting the supply of future economists…

Comegna: [laughter]

Horwitz: …Keeps my wages up. But I think you’re right and I think at the sort of academic and intellectual level we have overpopulated ourselves in economics and to some extent philosophy. What we need are more libertarians—whether they’re academics, intellectuals in the policy world, or wherever—who are serious about history, who are serious about the arts, who are serious about literature, who are—psychology!—You know, why don’t we see more libertarians talking about psychology in more sophisticated ways? And I think part of the problem is there is this perception out there that those fields—many of those fields—are dominated by progressives and the left, and there’s no way for libertarians to get in those fields as practitioners. But we can—I think that’s wrong—but we can certainly get into those and make the cultural stuff part of our conversations in ways that even if we’re not professionals that we don’t want to be one‐​dimensional ‘Libertarian Man,’ right? We want to be able to talk about those things, and we want to be able to talk about social change and political change with a richer context about how that takes place, how it’s taken place historically. I have maintained for many years that you cannot change the world without working within music and art and literature. I mean, as libertarians, what’s arguably the most powerful that changed people’s lives in the 20th century?—It was Atlas Shrugged! Whatever it’s flaws, right, the narrative, the storytelling, the way in which that book drew people in should tell us something about the power of stuff that isn’t just strictly speaking economics or philosophy or the rest. And one other quick thing I would add. Libertarians—I haven’t seen the numbers recently, but I’m pretty confident—are disproportionately atheists. But until we take seriously the role of religion in society and understand how that motivates people for better or for worse—this isn’t just a ‘Why is Islam bad?’ It’s not. Right, it’s about how religion—and historically the role religion has played. We have to think seriously about that if we’re going to be sophisticated thinkers about social change.

Brown: So where do you think, specifically with respect to faith, where do you think that libertarians have failed to take that seriously?

Horwitz: Well, you know I think we do get into this hyper‐​rational libertarian—sometimes it’s the Economic Man version, sometimes it’s the Natural Rights version. I mean it’s all kinds of versions, right? I think we’re often rationalists and skeptics and it comes with the package in some ways. And I think you can do those things, but often we have been too quick to belittle faith and to assume that people of faith are not pro‐​liberty. There are reasons sometimes to think that, for sure, but I think those are not a necessary connection. And I think on one level, and little bit more respect for people of faith and a little bit more sophisticated understanding of the role of religion. When we say things like, you know, ‘Christianity is all about the Crusades and the pogroms’ and all this and also not talk about the way Christianity was a deep part, say, in ending slavery. I think we’re not—we don’t have a balance there for the role that religion and faith has played in sort of creating the modern world, for better or for worse.

Comegna: My view has always been that most libertarians seem Christian to me. I myself am not. I’m one of these atheist, empiricist, rationalist social scientists, but what you said really spoke to me in that I think the big thing is this sort of stubborn refusal to occupy the brainspace of other people.

Horwitz: Yeah.

Comegna: Whatever might be the origins of that way of acting, I think that libertarians are prone to it. We’re so confident in our a priori reasoning that we think that we know how the world looks through other people’s eyes, we understand what it’s like to look at the world while you also have a religious faith that is ordering your mind, structuring your world for you. Those ideas mean very, very real things to people and affect why they do what they do. So if we’re trying to understand society, we had better not dismiss things like that or any other social categories, class categories, that libertarians tend to scoff at as invented collective identities. Those are really meaningful and to that extent, they are real and we should understand what they mean.

Horwitz: Just two quick things to add there. I think one, that the power of the arts is their ability to get inside other people’s heads. I mean, the power of literature for sure, but other arts, too. So I think if—I agree, we need to do that and we can get that kind of Smithian empathy and sympathy through the arts. The other thing I think is that to the degree that we as sort of libertarians, as social scientists, and economists have stressed—the subjectivism of Austrian economics, but also sort of Hayek’s whole world view, that we can’t even talk about the social role except by starting from the perceptions of individuals. Well, we better be sure that we can understand how people see the world and if we don’t get things like religion or other things that move people, that are causal factors in their behavior, we’re just not understanding the world very well.

Brown: So, methodological individualism applied broadly across several different metrics that people use to make their own decisions.

Horwitz: That’s right. I mean, you can be a methodological individualist and not deny the importance of race, or class, or gender, or religion, or any of those things, right. Those are—those institutional and identity kind of things feed into the choices that individuals make. They don’t determine them, but they certainly affect them. And you can’t even understand individual choice without understanding the way that those kinds of categories might influence them.

Brown: So I hate taking these kinds of discussions and turning them into, I guess, ‘How do we sell the product better,’ but Anthony when you and I talked before about class and how modern libertarians, at least, sort of deny that as a legitimate way of looking at society and the choices that people make. You know, recapitulate that just a little bit.

Comegna: Well, so the vulgar Marxist position on history, let’s say, is that absolutely everything about you is determined from birth based on how you were, you know, how you entered into the world—What were the material conditions of your existence? That’s going to determine virtually everything about you. Now, there are extremely few, vanishingly few vulgar Marxists out there today, especially in academia. Maybe more on the Internet. But the vulgar libertarian position is that absolutely nothing about you is determined by any outside factors, and everything is within your power as an individual. Well, that sounds kind of megalomaniacal to me, rather than libertarian.

Brown: That your perceptions of the world—that you are ‘Homo Economicus.’

Comegna: You can make it manifest. Whatever it might be.

Horwitz: Right, and even something like language has no role at all in how you might understand the world that’s beyond your conscious control.

Comegna: Now, as I said, I’m an atheist, rationalist, empiricist, all that. But if I look out into the world and I see God anywhere, it’s in the market. I was telling Professor Horwitz here before we recorded that I think that communists and Marxists should read Leonard Read “The Miraculous Market” and “I, Pencil,” and just find The Truth, right there. This amazing, impossible to understand system of the market somehow coordinates everybody’s desires and maximizes them pretty well. And none of us can understand it, we can’t hope to because we’re limited to our own brains, we can’t understand how people come to their decision‐​making in a precise way, we can’t understand how and exactly to what degree they value vanilla ice cream over chocolate ice cream, but somehow the market coordinates all these things. It’s miraculous. It really is miraculous. It’s as though—If God is the ultimate force that you can’t understand, well boy that sounds like the market to me. You know, maybe there should be more of that sort of engagement with people on the left, if you will. That somehow society manages to do really incredible, wonderful things when it is not controlled. Now, there’s where class comes into it. The real origin point for the classes is not like Marx would have it—property, just carte blanche, whatever you own is going to determine where you are in society. Rather, the classes come about when some people force others to obey their will. And that immediately splits the population into warring factions. And if we can break down that barrier, that use of force, and convince more people that that is really what’s wrong. It’s not owning stuff; it’s not calling stuff yours. It’s using force on other people, whatever the circumstances, that divides us into competing factions.

Horwitz: And I think that sense of awe and wonder about the market really is important and powerful in the ways that Anthony just talked about. The only thing that I would say differently there is I don’t think we want to frame it as something that we can’t understand. I mean, we can’t know it in its details, but we can understand the principles under which it operates, and I think we have to be—draw a very careful distinction there. But all that said, yeah, I think that’s right. And I think that one of the problems is that we don’t talk about the market enough as an arena, a sphere of social cooperation, right? The story, by the way, about Mises is that one of his alternative titles for Human Action was Social Cooperation, and he chose to go with Human Action for other reasons, it’s interesting to think how our perception of economics among many libertarians would be different if that hadn’t been the case. And so, when we think about the “I, Pencil” story, for example, it’s a story about social cooperation. None of us in a modern market can exist on our own. In fact, we owe everything to the fact that we have these institutions and rules and attitudes that enable us to cooperate. Now, it’s not the intentional cooperation of say an Amish barn‐​raising, but nonetheless its an extraordinary way for people to cooperate in anonymity. It enables us to cooperate with people who we don’t know, who we never met, who are across the globe, and I think that when you really, really dig into that it is a profoundly humane and awe‐​inspiring vision of how human beings have sort of moved through this evolutionary process from the biological now to the social and cultural in processes that we cannot design and cannot control. And I think that when we talk to the left that seems to be another powerful entry point, is to say ‘Look, you understand the problems with design in the natural world, right? If you accept Darwinian theories of evolution, you get the idea of order without design. And all we’re saying is that it works in the social world, and by the way, Darwin got it from us.’ Different story, okay? So I think that that analogy to me is always a particularly powerful one and it does—we need a vision of markets, and freedom, and so forth that inspires that awe and wonder that makes people want to grapple with it because it’s so marvelous, to use Hayek’s term.

Brown: Okay, so Anthony we talked a little bit about how government leverages classes and makes use of class as a tool.

Comegna: Yeah, so I think the example you’re referring to is probably Bacon’s Rebellion and the literal invention of race as a product of the Virginia House of Burgesses in the late 17th century. We can—actually, this is why I think libertarians should spend more time studying history—we can literally pinpoint the invention of race as a concept to late 17th century Virginia and it was when they created the Slave Codes as a response to Bacon’s Rebellion. In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon and several of his fellow backcountry Virginians who were promised land as former indentured servants, they thought the government wasn’t doing enough to protect their claims from Indian raids and so they plotted to overthrow the government of Virginia. And they came pretty damn close by running the government out of Williamsburg and taking over the capitol. And, to prevent this—actually, many slaves joined the indentured servants and it looked as though the colony was really going to have a revolution and the elites would probably be purged and their lands taken. So to prevent this from ever happening again, after the Royal Navy had helped take the colony back, the legislature invented slave codes which condemned everyone with a black skin as a slave and everyone with a slave skin as an at least potential master. And this was literally where the modern concept of race was invented out of whole cloth as a matter of statue. And it was expressly a way for the wealthy to join with the poor and prevent a class war on the basis of property ownership and to translate that by law into a race war between white and black. And the Virginia statutes got adopted throughout the British colonies as the standard model for how to deal with slavery. Slavery became a legal category on the basis of race, not on the basis of bad luck—which it was before. And boy that’s the kind of story libertarians should tell people on the left. Not that we “don’t see color;” not that we don’t care about race; not that we can just get rid of the Civil Rights Act and everything will be fine. We need to pinpoint the actual, legitimate causes of these phenomenon and they are with the state.

Horwitz: And the reverse, the sort of flip side of that, is that we need to tell good historical stories about the liberating powers of markets and economic growth. I mean, some of my own work on gender and the family has really focused on the way in which markets made it possible for women to get out of the house, made it possible to help create equality in marriage, right, and even now it’s given us equality in marriage regardless of gender. So those same positive social forces are in place and it’s not the case that the typical story on the left is that markets coordinate and political power liberates. In fact, the story is much often the reverse. And I think an important part of this too is that history is on our side in ways that we often don’t make use of, as Anthony’s saying, right? That the more we do know about these histories—and I do think, by the way, that people who reject markets and reject progressive sorts of libertarianism frequently do so about their beliefs about historical events. I mean the Great Depression is the big obvious example of this but you can think of others, right? And so I think it’s incumbent upon us to work hard to develop those kind of counter‐​narratives, I think. For me when the Great Recession and the financial crisis happened in ’07 and ’08, my very first thought knowing the Great Depression was ‘We need to get the other story out there now and right now don’t let the other narrative sink in. Don’t let this become sort of ossified in the way that the Great Depression did.’ So I think an understanding that history not just helps us see the ways in which those categories matter and that oftentimes it was the state who made them into problems, but also the way that markets and freedom has liberated people, particularly when we think along gender and race and so on.

Brown: In a modern context, Anthony, what you’re talking about with the creation of race as a statutory matter, in a modern context I think about license. That is, how the government creates and grants license to this group of people and that group of people and sometimes puts them effectively at odds by doing so.

Horwitz: Right. And I would just, you know…This isn’t just about selling the product, as you said earlier, Caleb. I think it’s about how we should think deeply about our work, but so much of what governments do divides us and divides us in ways that where the burden of that division falls upon those who can handle it the least, the least well off. I mean, occupational licensure laws have disparate racial effects, but they have disparate economic effects, too. We’ve done it to death with minimum wage, doesn’t make it any less true, right? We can talk about the impact of public schools. The fact that these things harm particularly poor folks and often those harms are disparate by race or by gender, we should be talking about those things. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t. People care about those categories, they matter, and frankly the whole classical liberal tradition is a tradition of equality, a tradition that wanted to be able to make sure that everyone had an opportunity to achieve the things they wanted to achieve.

Brown: So I’m a 16 year old person, I’m a radical libertarian, and I would like to be an academic. I would like advice from each of you on what I should study when I go to college.

Comegna: My advice, I think would be to study whatever you’re really truly passionate about, because you’re going to need something to get you through graduate school, at least if you know, you want to be a tried and true academic you have to go to graduate school. And that’s a bear to get through, especially—you know, most people don’t make it through, at least in history programs, and it’s not because they can’t hack it, it’s because they don’t like it. So, be very, very sure that you’re passionate about what you’re doing. Have a research topic that you care the most about, because that’s going to be what you’re doing most of the time you’re working on academia, so really, really make it count. And I would also say—it’s not about what to study—but don’t try to change the world, let the world happen and don’t stick your hands in it and try to change it around to suit your vision of how things should be. That usually is where people go wrong. Not to make it too dramatic, but it often results in pyramids of skulls and whole populations being killed. Don’t try to make the world a better place, just do you and do what you do extremely well. Care a lot about it and I think the rest will tend to work itself out, but if you get in the muck and you really try to change the world, probably you’re not going to be such a great person at the end.

Horwitz: I would add don’t be afraid to go investigating those other disciplines that we talked about earlier, right? I mean the temptation is—The person you just described, by the way, Caleb, was me. I was a libertarian when I was 16 and I went off to undergraduate with a fairly good sense that I might want to become an academic, and so the temptation is that okay, only study those things that seem to be directly related to the libertarianism. I wasn’t going to be an economics major, and it happened, once I took a class a had that experience of the scales falling from my eyes. But I think, you know, PPE—Political, Philosophy, Economics—is great, but man take some history courses, take—I wish I’d taken more art, any art courses; I wish I’d taken more literature courses. I never took a psychology course in college. I was so—I was the guy, right? Focused on that core, okay. I think I came alright, but I think if I was giving young people advice today I would say investigate those other things. And don’t be afraid again because you think that the bias is anti‐​liberty or is left‐​wing or whatever. Go in there, as Anthony said, do good work, be serious, show—faculty care much more about students who are actually engaged in the work than they do about your particular politics, right? The fact that you come into office hours and you’re writing good stuff. That’s what matters, and I think you can find ways in those other disciplines to perhaps make a contribution. Again, the ones we talked about earlier all—there are just so many things, so many projects that libertarians could do if they took up those disciplines seriously.

Comegna: I just got out of graduate school, uh, about a year ago now, and so the experience is fresh in my mind, and it could have very easily been a terrible experience because there were of course no libertarians around. I was lucky if there was an IHS flier hanging up in our office now and then, and significant numbers of the department were Marxists in the true sense, not just ‘Oh, they’re from the left so they must be Marxists.’ Real, actual Marxists, and I think the—It was really great for to not be in the libertarian echo chamber. It’s often said among libertarians that the Marxists never read any of our stuff, they have no idea what libertarianism is all about and they don’t know the literature but we have to read their stuff. And that’s true. We do have to read their stuff and they don’t know our stuff, so we’re extra prepared, and all you have to do is—You know, you go into a grad seminar and a third of the students haven’t read anything, a third have read a bit and are trying to fake it through the class, and maybe a third have actually done the work. If you’re just in that third that does the work, you should be smooth sailing to a very successful career. You just have to care about what you’re doing, you have to show up on time and do the work, and not get discouraged that people surrounding you are different from you.

Horwitz: And I think the other thing to think about here is that if you are familiar with call it the ‘Libertarian canon,’ the core PPE ideas, you can take those into other disciplines in really creative ways. If you understand public choice theory, suddenly history and literature become this sort of wide open field where you can get into completely different interpretations of historical events or texts or works of art by gently using that theory to understand behavior that way. And so, if you start thinking about libertarian ideas not as conclusions about how the world should be, but a set of analytical tools that you can bring to the table—spontaneous order theory is another one, there are all sorts of things in Hayek, for example—those are tools that you can use to understand the world. You can take those into other disciplines in interesting ways and be a very clever, very different, very interesting both student and then scholar.

Brown: Anthony Comegna is assistant editor for intellectual history at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org and Steve Horwitz is an economist at St. Lawrence University. Subscribe to this podcast at Itunes, Google Play, and with Cato’s IOS app, and follow us on Twitter @CatoPodcast.