I’ve been involved in the libertarian movement a long time. I read Economics in One Lesson at 14 and Atlas Shrugged at 17. I got the Freeman in my college dorm room. I went to a Christmas party in Murray Rothbard’s living room. I had key roles in Ed Clark’s campaigns for governor and president. And since 1981 I’ve led the policy work at the Cato Institute, where I wrote The Libertarian Mind, edited The Libertarian Reader and the Cato Handbook for Policymakers, and edited hundreds of books and policy studies. Ask me about libertarianism, the libertarian movement, working in Washington, doing public policy, and related topics.
Not many people can say they've been in the same organization for more than 35 years! What insights have you learned in that time that young professionals can apply today to stay in the jobs they love?
Well, I had an advantage. Back then there weren’t many libertarians. I got my first libertarian job – on the Clark for Governor campaign – because I was the only libertarian who knew how many members of Congress there are. (How many know now??) Now there are more jobs, but also lots more competition.
I don’t necessarily recommend staying in one place as long as I have. There are benefits to moving and encountering new challenges. But if you’re in a job you love, you can find new challenges and new accomplishments there. Get along with your colleagues, make sure you’re adding value, and stay on top of new opportunities for the organization.
Hi David, thanks for doing this AMA! It's so lovely to see high-profile liberty organizations partnering for events like this.You've done a lot of work on educational choice. What advice do you have for parents concerning the schooling of our children? Can our kids prosper in public school, or is it worth the resources for those of us who can afford it to send our kids to private schools? Are charter schools a good choice? What about homeschooling / unschooling?
I’m pretty cautious about advising parents on their children’s education – except to say it’s the parents’ responsibility. You shouldn’t just accept the local assigned school. Check it out. Does it look like a place where children are engaged and stimulated? Are there better alternatives, and can you afford them? Charter schools are usually free, but that’s because they’re actually government schools. Are they actually better than the district-run schools? Is home schooling right for your family?
Once when a friend told me he had checked out the local school and couldn’t send his kids to it, I said “I’m not sure I’d know what a good school looks like.” He said, “You’d know this one wasn’t.” So go look in on classes before you turn your children over to any school.
I wrote my case for school choice long ago here: https://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/articles/libertating-schools-boaz-full.pdf
Hello David, thank you for doing this Ask Me Anything Session. How can we accord environmental protection and economic growth?
This is a tough one. I don’t think there’s any easy or obvious libertarian answer to environmental issues. The book FREE MARKET ENVIRONMENTALISM is a good place to start. In general, I’d say economic growth is good for the environment. Wealthier people and societies demand for environmental amenities and become more efficient at producing more with less. We also want to avoid “tragedy of the commons” problems by seeking to privatize valuable resources. In THE LIBERTARIAN MIND I didn’t try to lay out an environmental agenda, but I suggested some guidelines: rely on competitive systems, not command and centralization; private owners take better care of resources than public entities; decentralization allows experimentation and limits the harm a bad decision can do; and common law can help solve problems.
Hello David. Thank you for hosting this forum. If we could design an ideal city and an ideal county government from scratch, what would it look like? Particularly, what types of taxes would you give the city and county he power to levy? Pretend no state or federal government exist, for these purposes. Thank you.
Start a city from scratch? That’s a tall order. Though of course it’s happened many times in history. Since I think taxation is theft, I’d try to design a city without taxes. Tom Bell’s new book YOUR NEXT GOVERNMENT? would be a good place to start thinking about how that might work. City governments provide valuable services – roads, schools, fire protection, courts, police. If they’re valuable, why not look for ways to provide them for profit (or not for profit) to willing customers? Norman Macrae’s 1984 book THE 2024 REPORT not only foresaw the internet and telecommuting but also communities “adopting insurance contracts as their main instruments of government.” That one is taking a little longer to come to fruition, but don’t count him out.
I want to help the movement for smaller government that protects the liberty of individuals. Do you feel election reform, specifically ballot access and campaign publicity for multiple parties would help the overall Libertarian cause? What do you think of the word bipartisan?
I'd like to see ballot access rules eased. And I would take away subsidies for the established parties. I'm sympathetic to things like instant runoff voting and ranked choice, but I'm not sure they'd help much. They might help the Greens, the socialists, or the far right as much as the libertarians. In multiparty parliamentary systems you often see a liberal (rarely libertarian) party, but I'm not sure you see better governance. Our job is to persuade more Americans to want libertarian(ish) policy solutions, and to encourage people with those views to think of themselves as a coherent group; if we do that, I think our electoral prospects will improve under any voting system.
"Bipartisan" is certainly a word that excludes Libertarians and other parties. More importantly, as I've written several times at the Cato blog, "bipartisan" is usually a warning that the two parties are getting together to take our money and our freedom.
This is the first time I've participated in any type of AMA...I finally found one I was interested in! I became interested in Libertarianism in college, but never did much to get directly involved (partially due to lack of opportunities in my area, although I feel like it's becoming easier in the digital age). I am an attorney with three years of litigation experience and am currently working in Labor and Employment law defense. I enjoy helping employers, but I would like to be more directly involved with the Libertarian movement and am more interested in Constitutional Law and economics. With my lack of experience with Libertarian organizations, how can I still get involved, either through side projects or some type of employment down the road? Thanks!
Welcome! There are lots of ways to get involved, especially these days with so many online opportunities. Wherever you are, you probably have a local Libertarian Party. Cato and FEE and other organizations have events around the country; watch their websites. Do you want to do pro bono legal work? There should be opportunities for that. Lots of organizations can use help with fundraising, volunteer efforts, maybe even legal work. And if you want to get a job in the movement, then watch for online job postings, and don't be afraid just to send your resume and a letter about your interests and abilities to groups you'd like to work for.
I hope you don't mind a second question! I was discussing Libertarianism with a friend, and she was concerned about what would happen to people who can't take care of themselves due to legitimate disabilities without government assistance. All I can recall from The Libertarian Mind (but it's been a while) is a mention that family would take care of them. But what if family doesn't? What is the best response? Certainly there are many private charities who do care for the disabled, would this be enough?
With welfare in general, the idea is that if you take away the support, people will have to find ways to care for themselves, but if someone is disabled they may not have this option. I don't want to seem callous to this group.
I think that's a concern a lot of people have, and it's not easy to answer. I do think that the greatest anti-poverty institutions are the family and the economic growth produced by capitalism. Churches and charities also play an important role in helping those in need, and would do more if government welfare programs weren't there. So one thing we should do is reduce the taxes and regulations that slow economic growth. We should roll back the massive transfer programs that suck lots of money into Washington and then send much -- but not all -- of it back to the same people who paid for it -- programs like Social Security and Medicare. We should repeal regulations that make it difficult for people to get jobs. Many disabled people can work, and they would prefer to. We should make that easier. And medicine and technology are also helping more disabled people to see, to hear, to walk, etc. If we are able to reduce or eliminate middle-class transfer programs, and make it more difficult to stay on welfare long-term, we might be able to focus more on real problems such as disability, and we might see better solutions emerging.
I would not want to say to anyone, "if you're going to be a libertarian, you have to oppose government programs for the disabled." Let's invite them to support welfare reform, free-market health care reform, privatization of Social Security, and so on, and then see if we can find better directions for disability policy.
What is your opinion of the Niskanen Center?
At Cato we respect all our think-tank competitors and try not to critique them institutionally. When appropriate, we may respond to a particular studiy or proposal.
From a communications standpoint, do you have any advice on how to reach and interact with people outside of the liberty sphere?
If I had good advice on this, we wouldn't be losing! (Although we're not actually losing, a point I've made in other contexts.) Think about what your goal is: to win a debate, to squelch an objection, to demonstrate your radicalism (!), to get someone to think about an issue in a different way. This is hard for me; I like to smash the ball back across the net, but that's probably not the right way to have long-term influence. Also think about whom you're trying to communicate with: a student, a mother, New York Times readers, conservatives? Understand where your audience is, what their instincts and prior understandings are, and how you can alleviate their concerns or advance their goals. Don't use jargon or esoteric language except with specialized audiences. Avoid insults and excessive polemics. You may want to think about whether you're trying to make a philosophical argument, demonstrate an empirical point, or inspire someone with a higher cause.
Thank you for this opportunity for questions. Having read the Libertarian Mind & lots of Thomas Sowell, I'm very grateful to find FEE. Having said that, I have two questions. What is the solution for predatory trade practices like currency manipulation? How can we transition from a welfare state promoting dependence to a minimal state that promotes personal responsibility? We still have to take care of the truly needy. thanks, Victor
I'm no expert on trade, or predatory practices. My general sense is that "predatory prices" and "currency manipulation" both mean that some other company is selling us goods at below their real value. As a consumer, I say "bring it on." If Saudi Arabia really will sell us oil at less than its market value, or China (it used to be Japan) will sell us cars and cellphones at below production cost, then that adds to our wealth and reduces theirs. For that reason, it rarely actually happens. But if it does, enjoy it. And shift American productive resources into goods and services at which we have a comparative advantage.
For a more wonkish discussion of currency manipulation, see my colleague Dan Ikenson https://www.forbes.com/sites/danikenson/2013/01/08/foreign-currency-manipulation-does-not-warrant-washingtons-attention/#736f7a276a40.
I talked a bit above on transitioning away from the welfare state. In political discussions of cutting back on government welfare programs, many leading charities warn that they can’t assume all the responsibilities of government; they say they don’t have that much money. Well, of course not. But the point is, the government programs have failed. The solution is not to replicate them. If government stopped encouraging irresponsibility, there would be less need for charity. And private charities can do far more with less money than can government bureaucracies. Americans give more than $300 billion and 8 billion hours a year to charity. If taxes were lower, and people understood that government was turning charitable responsibilities over to the civil society, they might give far more.
The welfare reform in 1996 was a start; it encouraged people to find jobs and not stay on welfare. And it had a positive effect. We've weakened some of the provisions since then. We should continue to try to restrict welfare to those who genuinely can't work. We should make it easier to create jobs, especially entry-level jobs, because you never get a second job until you have a first job. We should transform tax-and-transfer programs like Social Security into private retirement accounts and health savings accounts. We should make it possible for people to choose better schools for their children, which should mean fewer people leaving school with low skills.
How can Libertarianism and Public transit go together? I feel there has a lot theft of public space by private cars. That imposes costs in terms of congestion and land (parking and wider roads).
Good question! And very complex. Sometimes the state is so interwoven into our lives and society that it's hard to see all of its effects. Libertarians, including my Cato colleague Randal O'Toole, are very critical of the uneconomic nature of mass transit. But I remember many years ago asking an economist who wrote a critique of mass transit, How expensive would driving be if drivers paid full costs? He said "hmmm, I've never thought about that." Well, we should! Personally, I pretty much consider free parking a natural right, and I'll drive around a long time looking for it. As an analyst, though, I know that people should pay for what they use. It's possible that if drivers had to pay for parking and for the roads, transit would look more economically rational. But then, we do pay hefty gas taxes, which are fairly close to a user fee for roads.
Here's a good libertarian debate on free parking: https://www.cato-unbound.org/issues/april-2011/there-aint-no-such-thing-free-parking
I've been a libertarian for 15 years. I'm growing accustomed to libertarian candidates performing poorly at the ballot. Should libertarians abandon hope on that, and instead seek victories by influencing the major parties to legislated, veto, and gavel in the direction of liberty? (Scoreboard isn't great on that front either).
Well, I think you mean "Libertarian" candidates. We haven't had many real libertarian candidates in the establishment parties. And third parties don't fare well in the American system. So it may not mean a rejection of libertarian ideas, just a skepticism about third parties that "can't win." But either way, it raises the question of whether such efforts are useful. I do think the Libertarian Party has brought together a lot of libertarians who ended up doing other things, and continues to attract new people to libertarian ideas. But libertarians can also have an effect by voting, getting active in established parties, and pressuring elected officials. But we should also remember that politicians are sort of the last stop for ideas. There are lots of ways to change the world -- invent something, build something, write novels or films, start an initiative campaign, create apps and companies that allow people to go around state bureaucracies. My focus is writing about ideas and public policy. But I'm for letting a thousand flowers bloom, and other libertarians find lots of other ways to influence politics or more broadly the world we live in.
If all the world's secession movements got their way, would that be a net win for liberty because more political jurisdictions mean more law and policy experiments? Or would it be a net loss because the secessionists mostly want to wall in their ethnic in-groups, which would prevent trade and foot-voting?
I'm gonna go with A, because generally I think more competition is better. But there's an argument for B as well. I wonder how strong it is, though. I don't think Scots or Catalans are going to feel walled-in, unless the new country or its neighbors build actual walls or trade barriers. Scots, Catalans, Kurds, Quebecois, or inland Californians are still going to wonder if there are green pastures or bright lights across the state or national border. Of course, some secessionist efforts are pretty clearly anti-liberty -- like if their purpose is to preserve chattel slavery -- and so I don't think there's one libertarian answer to secession or to arguments about, say, EU versus Brexit. Ideally we should press toward smaller units of government with fewer barriers to trade and migration, but that choice isn't always on the table.
Help me understand Libertarian views on businesses that just grow so large there is no competition, so they can operate without regard for the customer, but more for the shareholders. Our news business comes to mind, and airlines, and banks -- where there used to be many, there are very few, and all mammoth. No more savings and loans, or state banks. Credit unions seem to be holding their own... Mom and Pop stores are a thing of the past it seems.
I've never seen a business grow so large that it had no competition, unless it was supported by government -- like the old Bell telephone monopoly, or cable systems (and technology is now providing them with competition), or the schools and the post office, which COULD be private competitive enterprises but instead are government-run monopolies. There's more competition in the news business than ever before. Are you old enough to remember three networks and one local newspaper? I am. Now there are dozens or hundreds of sources of news at your fingertips. Banks, of course, are heavily regulated, and I really don't know what they would be like in the absence of such regulation. But where I live there's a bank on every corner, and I don't use any of them; I "bank" with an investment company that has few or no retail locations. Some small stores have disappeared, but so have big chains like RadioShack, Borders, and Woolworth's. And if small stores close, it's usually because consumers prefer some other store, possibly a bigger store with more choice and lower prices.
There's a lot of agitation now that the big tech companies are "monopolies." A decade ago it was Microsoft, MySpace, and Nokia phones that were the feared monopolies. Not so much any more! Now it's Facebook, which worries every day about ending up like MySpace, and Google, which now has 80 percent of the search market, and I don't know why it's only 80 percent since Google is obviously best. My cable company is the most annoying vendor I deal with, and that's because it has a statutory monopoly on cable service. Break up government-supported monopolies, and let every company compete in the marketplace for consumer dollars.
Thanks for taking my question. I have a child with autism and I am concerned that there is never any mention about special education in any school choice proposals or ideas. Cato is a big proponnent of school choice. Special ed consistutes around 3% of the student population and great deal more of the school districts' budgets. Are school choice programs and proposals throwing kids with disabilities by the wayside? Will school choice defund public schools and hurt special education programs? Better yet, how can free market ideas benefit special education??
Paul M. Raich
Choice programs can be designed in a variety of ways, and my colleague tells me that at least 11 states have created choice programs for kids with disabilities -- such as Florida’s McKay Scholarships. Such scholarships are usually worth more than a “standard” voucher, and empower parents to find the best school for their child. In contrast, the public schools force parents into a legal combat zone if they think their disabled child is not being educated properly, forcing them to fight for an Individualized Education Plan that includes the services they think their child needs. Needless to say, the districts have huge advantages in such specialized legal fights.
Of course, libertarians such as me would ultimately like to move beyond "school choice programs" to actual free markets for education. In every field, free markets have led to innovation, lower costs, and plentifulness. I'd like to see education benefit that way. Why should we pay for education through tax dollars and bureaucratic administration? Why not buy education the way we buy food, shelter, cars, and computers? Imagine what education might look like after 25 years of market-tested innovation. And if we had such a market, we might decide that some people couldn't afford adequate education, either because they are poor or because their children have extraordinary needs, AND that charity wasn't solving the problem. And in such a case, we might decide to help needy families through government. But we don't nationalize the grocery stores in order to feed poor families; we give people food stamps. We could give "education stamps" or some other targeted help, and still get the benefits of capital investment and innovation that could -- and surely would -- revolutionize education.
Hi David! I have two questions for you.
1)How does the free market go about solving problems such as homelessness and natural monopolies?
2)Is libertarianism just radical Social Darwinism that comes from a extreme individualism or is their something more?
The latter is not a jab, it is a genuine concern of mine.
I was talking about monopolies just above. There are very few natural monopolies that could exist without government support. As for homelessness, I've written above a couple of times about welfare and charity. But we should also talk about the ways that zoning and land-use regulations reduce the supply of housing, including low-price housing. See this new study and also William Tucker's books from about 1990, The Excluded Americans: Homelessness and Housing Policies and Zoning, Rent Control, and Affordable Housing. Freer markets would mean more housing and more charity.
Libertarians consider cooperation so essential to human flourishing that we don’t just want to talk about it; we want to create social institutions that make it possible. That is what property rights, limited government, and the rule of law are all about. The market is THE social institution that makes cooperation possible. As Adam Smith wrote, the market gives people an incentive to serve others. Instead of my just taking what you have, I can come to understand that I'll do better by trading with you. Which requires me to figure out what I have -- or could create -- that you want. It's that process, replacing theft by force with trading, that created civilization and led to the incredible increase in wealth and standard of living that we enjoy today. Nothing about libertarianism or the market tells anyone to be an extreme individualist. A society of liberty under law allows people to act as they choose so long as they don't violate the rights of others -- but it rewards those who serve others' needs and wants.
Cato Institute seems to perform a balancing act between the Mises Institute's absolute commitment to Deontological rights-theory and the Niskanen Center's consequentialist classical-liberalism. Cato seems to go both ways in this respect based on the issue. Note: Not asking you to comment on the above non-Cato organizations, just using them to illustrate the point.
1. Is the "big-tent libertarianism" at Cato driven by a larger organizational design or is it just a product of allowing scholars to shape their own subject areas?
2. Are there any noteworthy examples you can think of when Cato's de-facto stance on a particular policy issue markedly changed?
3. In your experience, what present-day policy issue would you say is most internally contentious amongst libertarians?
4. Finally, speaking personally for yourself, how do you decide which way to go when deontological rights-theory and consequentialist market-economics contradict each other on a policy issue? There are huge areas of overlap here, but also many notable divergences.
Thanks for answering questions!
As Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say, You ask a lot of questions for a guy from New Jersey!
I'll note as an aside that any differences I have with the Mises Institute are not about rights theory (well, except maybe the universality of rights).
We want to find the best libertarian/classical liberal policy scholars we can. Inevitably, that means they're not going to agree on everything. Our general guideline is to propose the most libertarian policy ideas we can while staying within the parameters of national debate. We want to stretch those parameters, push them in a libertarian direction, but not fall outside the debate. (Let me note that I have no objection to libertarians who propose ideas that ARE outside the current boundaries of debate. That's an important part of the intellectual process. We've just chosen a different institutional mission.) And a healthy debate among natural-rights libertarians, consequentialists, abolitionists, pragmatists, classical liberals, and even a few conservatives and liberals is good for us. Bryan Caplan wrote a very nice analysis/appreciation of our approach at Econlog.
Formally, of course, "Cato" doesn't take stances beyond a broad commitment to liberty and limited government; our analysts do. In publications like Cato Journal you will find differing arguments on many issues. And I can't think of many examples of our "de facto" position changing. One might be that early on we argued that marriage was a state issue that the federal government should stay out of, and later we urged the Supreme Court to find a constitutional right to marriage equality. That might be a result of (1) different scholars and (2) a changing "Overton window" on the issue that allowed us to move beyond tactical considerations. We published lots of studies on the benefits of term limits back around 1990; now we're not so sure that the results have borne out our hopes. I still think rotation in office is a good idea, but it's hard to point to empirical results. We're probably less sympathetic to vouchers, and more supportive of tax credits, than we were some years ago.
Libertarians can always argue about abortion and anarchism. But in current issues, I might point to arguments about how much libertarians should ally with the right, which are more heated now that "the right" seems to mean Trump (and Roy Moore and the alt-right and a rejection of all expertise and journalism). But libertarians can also differ about tax systems, school vouchers, foreign policy, and lots of other issues.
I don't really think natural rights and good consequences diverge. If I had a rights theory whose consequences were bad, I'd rethink my rights theory. In a snapshot view, of course, it might seem like a coercive government action would solve a particular problem, but I would expect the long-term consequences of such action to be negative. Here's something I wrote in the introduction to THE LIBERTARIAN READER: "Do libertarians believe in free markets because of a belief in individual rights or an empirical observation that markets produce prosperity and social harmony? The question ultimately makes no sense. As Hume said, the circumstances confronting humans are our self-interestedness, our necessarily limited generosity toward others, and the scarcity of resources available to fulfill our needs. Because of these circumstances, it is necessary for us to cooperate with others and to have rules of justice — especially regarding property and exchange — to define how we can do so. If individuals using their own knowledge for their own purposes didn't generate a spontaneous order of peace and prosperity, then it would make little sense to advocate either natural rights or free markets."
Thanks for the questions!
Thanks, everybody! And thanks, FEE folks. This has been great. You can find more of my writing and broadcast appearances at https://www.cato.org/people/david-boaz . Follow me on Twitter @David_Boaz. Read my books The Libertarian Mind and The Libertarian Reader (both Simon & Schuster, 2015). And for Cato perspectives on public policy The Cato Handbook for Policymakers.