David Boaz is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute, an American libertarian think tank. He is the author of Libertarianism: A Primer, published in 1997 by the Free Press and described in the Los Angeles Times as "a well-researched manifesto of libertarian ideas." He is also the editor of The Libertarian Reader and co-editor of the Cato Handbook for Congress and the Cato Handbook on Policy. He frequently discusses such topics as education choice, the growth of government, the ownership society, his support of drug legalization, and the rise of libertarianism on national television and radio shows. Boaz's 1988 The New York Times op-ed on the high cost of the drug war generated much debate over the decriminalization of drugs. His articles have also been published in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Review, and Slate. He has appeared on ABC's Politically Incorrect, CNN's Crossfire, NPR's Talk of the Nation and All Things Considered, Fox News Channel, BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other media.
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EDIT: Thanks for tuning in. I enjoyed chatting with all of you! Follow me on Twitter at @David_Boaz and let's keep up the conversation.
I hope you will check out a copy of my new book and let me know what you think on Twitter using #LibertarianMind. Amazon and Simon & Schuster are out of stock, but you can find it at http://www.cato.org/libertarianmind.
Want to learn more about libertarianism? Check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2kHLTA9zO0
I am David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute—one of the oldest and most well-established libertarian think tanks in the world.
You may have seen me on TV or in the news speaking about domestic policy and the rise of libertarianism. I am author of several books which are credited with introducing the philosophy of libertarianism to mainstream America, including the famous “Libertarianism: A Primer.” I even wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on libertarianism!
Over the course of my career, I have played a key role in the development of both the Cato Institute and the libertarian movement at large, and have seen how the ideas of liberty can shape politics and civil society.
Two long wars, chronic deficits, the financial crisis, the costly drug war, the campaigns
of Ron Paul and Rand Paul, the growth of executive power under Presidents Bush and Obama, and the revelations about NSA abuses have pushed millions more Americans in a libertarian direction—what, just last year, the New York Times called America’s “Libertarian Moment.”
My new book, “The Libertarian Mind,” is an updated take on “Libertarianism: A Primer,” rife with new information on the threat of government surveillance; the policies that led up to and stemmed from the 2008 financial crisis; corruption in Washington; and the unsustainable welfare state—the ultimate resource for the current, burgeoning libertarian movement.
It only officially hit shelves today and both Amazon and my publisher, Simon & Schuster, are already out of stock! Luckily, you can still get a copy at
Here I am: http://instagram.com/p/y8XYa9FLbz/?modal=true Ask me anything.
Former Cato intern here. Does this book answer the age-old question: Who will build the roads?
Not directly. But I believe that all useful goods and services can be provided through the voluntary market process, so I'm confident that transportation could and would be provided more efficiently through markets.
Could you beat Tom Palmer in a debate?
Do you see the Republican party as the place for the political manifestation of libertarianism/classical liberalism, or do you think the GOP will remain true to their conservative values in the next few election cycles?
That's a longstanding debate. Libertarians tended to be Democrats back in the days of Jefferson, Jackson, and Cleveland, Republicans in the FDR-Reagan era. What now? If Rand Paul runs for president, then I'd guess most libertarians will want to support his campaign. If he isn't the nominee, then our studies show that the libertarian vote can swing between parties.
Also: not all politics is parties. Libertarians can get involved in tax-cut, school choice, term-limits, antiwar, and other social movements and initiatives.
What was the background and resolution of the conflict between the Cato Institute and the Koch brothers? Is the Cato Institute currently affiliated with the Koch brothers?
There was an agreement that involved the retirement of Cato's founder and CEO, and an end to the shareholder arrangement. Cato's governance is now in the hands of its 20 Directors, one of whom is David Koch.
Big fan of the Pauls here, but I find their almost justification of anti-same sex marriage and pro-life very confusing and contrary to their normally libertarian feelings.
What are your thoughts on the topic?
I think libertarians can and do differ on abortion. It's the role of government to protect life AND liberty. I can see both sides. Gay marriage is a tough issue for lots of people, especially older people. But there I do think that if the government offers a benefit or license, it should offer it on an equal basis. So I think they're wrong -- but not as wrong as most Republicans, who have tended to endorse a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Is there a single issue that you believe is overlooked that could bring enormous and sweeping positive change to many other problem areas our county faces, but no one seems to want to deal with it? In other words, what issue do you think should get more attention?
The drug war involves a million arrests a year, hundreds of thousands of people jailed, police diverted from real crimes, corruption in law enforcement, communities destroyed, and too many poor young people saddled with a criminal record early in life. That would be an important thing to change.
The title The Libertarian Mind suggests that libertarians have personalities different from those of conservatives and progressives, which Jonathan Haidt (author of The Righteous Mind) indeed showed in his recent Cato lecture.
Libertarians are the smallest of the three ideological camps, so in a two-party system we’re the ones without a seat at the table. What do you see as the most promising strategies for us to achieve influence?
BTW, I’m a long-time Cato sponsor who once visited you in 2005 to promote the Free State Project. I’m real happy to see you among the speakers in the FSP’s New Hampshire Liberty Forum next month.
Thanks. It's not really about psychology, more like a guide to libertarian thinking. Politically, Gallup finds that there are just as many people with (moderately) libertarian views as liberals or conservatives. We just have to organize! One goal of this book is to make people who like lower taxes, social tolerance, and staying out of foreign wars understand that they're part of the broad libertarian group of Americans.
See you in New Hampshire!
What do you believe the libertarian solution to curbing global warming would be?
The first question is whether there's a problem that needs a solution. Cato may be the only think tank with an actual climatologist on staff. Based on his analysis, I believe that the earth is warming, that it's partly manmade, but that it's not a serious problem. If that changed, then I would urge that we consider solutions (see page 323) that rely on markets, customary law, and science.
Which libertarian predictions over the last 20 years were the least accurate? Which were the most accurate?
Hmm, good question. Go back a bit more than 20 years, and you'd have to say we were right on the long-run prediction that communism would collapse, but not very good at realizing in the 80s that the collapse was imminent. Non-interventionists warned that U.S. intervention around the world, especially the Muslim world, might well lead to "blowback" and terrorism. Libertarians also predicted that debt and Federal Reserve money manipulation would cause an economic crash, but -- perhaps because we really don't have much faith in economic forecasting -- few of us called the timing in 2008. In re-reading the 1997 edition of my book, I was surprised to see how optimistic I was about school choice, given the poor state of public schools. They're still in poor shape, and yet 90 percent of parents still send their kids there.
David, Thanks for taking the time to do this AMA.
What do you think Cato's role in the libertarian movement is?
And what would you suggest for young people looking to get involved in the liberty movement?
At Cato we try to apply libertarian analysis to current policy issues. I hope we're supplying high-quality policy analysis to members of Congress, the media, and interested people in all walks of life. I'm too modest to say
Interested young people should join Students for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty, check out the programs at
If elected President, will Rand Paul make the US more free? If not, is his campaign a risk for a libertarian future?
I think he'd move the country in a libertarian direction. He wouldn't make it Galt's Gulch. Of course, any president can disappoint his fans. They promise not to raise taxes, and then do. They promise not to abuse the power of the presidency, then do. I believe Rand Paul believes in liberty, so I feel reasonably confident about his intentions. But nothing is without risk.
I consider myself ideologically libertarian, but as I consider running for public office in the future, it seems to me that so many of the positions I would like to espouse and advance are simply politically unfeasible. The Fed, for example, isn't just going to go away, not after almost a century of reshaping our economy to depend on it. In the same manner, attempting to privatize or phase out Social Security and Medicare would likely leave many Americans who depend on those programs in a painful situation.
So I guess my question is: do you believe that a libertarian government could be politically effective? What policies could it implement that have widespread support while still enacting significant change? And should such a hypothetical government focus on macro-scale reform such as abolishing the Fed, or take "baby-steps?"
Running for office may not be your best way to change the world. Maybe you should write, organize, make films, donate money, etc. But political change does happen, from abolitionism to the New Deal to civil rights to Obamacare. Libertarians in government can have some effect, and won't have as much effect as they'd like. At Cato we urge policy change in the right direction and try to stay within the parameters of political feasibility, while trying to broaden those parameters.
What is Cato's version of the rothbardians' lament (here in an article by David Gordon at Lew Rockwell.com) that Rothbard was basically pushed out of Cato for insisting on proper Austrian principles while the wider "libertarian movement" was pushed into mainstream ideas with people like Tyler Cowen and so on -- as mandated by what he colorfully calls the Kochtopus?
NB: I'm a mainstream economist, and fairly opposed to Austrian economics from methodological reasons, so I'd have reasons to applaud pluralism in the libertarian movement, but David Gordon's take is quite sinister.
I wasn't here then, but I'd say that Cato happily works with economists of all stripes, including Austrian, neoclassical, Public Choice, etc. In any case, nobody "mandates" us to do anything.
Mr. Boaz: Big fan, your speech at Cato University in 2007 was a huge inspiration in my formative collegiate years. In an increasingly binary political system, what can us young voters do now to make a dent in politics that seems to focus less on whether a government SHOULD do a thing, rather than one of two interpretations on HOW the government should do that thing?
Thanks! Like I said, the first thing I want to do is make libertarian-leaning Americans KNOW that they lean libertarian and understand that they're not really part of the red team or the blue team. Then political organizers and candidates can try to organize them. But you're right, it's just so easy to see a problem and ask "what should the government do about it?" We just have to remind people that government programs tend to fail, and to cost money.
Hi Mr. Boaz! Could you shortlist some of your own favorite writings? Sorry I'm not familiar with your work. I've only read Justin Logan and Dan Ikenson's papers on China.
THIS BOOK! And THE LIBERTARIAN READER, which will be reissued next week. My studies on the libertarian vote with David Kirby. My articles on government funding of the arts, on gay marriage, my NYT article on the drug war in 1988 -- many of these online and in POLITICS OF FREEDOM.
Thank you for taking the time to answer my question.
Will you be speaking at ISFLC of CPAC? I heard President John Allison speak at NC Young Americans for Liberty conference on Saturday, and he did a wonderful job. I meant to grab a copy of your book there at the CATO booth, but a friend of mine grabbed a copy. Can't wait to read it!
Yes, I'll be speaking Saturday night at ISFLC. Y'all come!
What qualifications, experiences, and characteristics do you look for in your researchers and authors?
Knowledge of subject area, commitment to classical liberal/libertarian values, analytical ability, and a genuine interest in changing policy. Ideally we believe in qualifications, not credentials, but realistically college degrees and better yet advanced degrees are expected for policy scholars.
Why do you think libertarianism has had challenges getting a foothold in Europe?
All the libertarians fled the ancien regime! Maybe only the statists stayed. But don't forget, Europe is a society of private property, markets, rule of law, human rights, and religious toleration. Not as much so as we'd like, but pretty good in hisotorcal context. And Students for Liberty is now drawing hundreds of students to multiple European conferences, so keep your fingers crossed.
Many prominent members of the Republican party have taken strong stances against reforming our immigration system, why do you think that the party of supposedly free enterprise is so against reforming a system that even they admit is broken?
Partly politics. They think the base of the party is anti-immigrant, though in fact polls show most Republicans want a reasonable solution. Partly they focus on the illegality of some immigration and are concerned about the rule of law. Partly they just forget their commitment to free enterprise when it comes to foreigners.
Ron Paul's campaigns made libertarianism a bigger political phenomenon and movement, especially when you add the election of Rand Paul. He talked about war, overspending, and sound money, and showed how peace and smaller government go together. All good. I do regret that he has allowed people to attach his name to eccentric and even unsavory ideas.
Cato Institute has long had robust internship program, so I'm curious: are you seeing a growth in applications that reflects the growth of libertarianism we so often hear about among young adults?
Cato summer internships are more competitive than admission to Harvard. Easier in the spring and fall semesters. So yes, I think we're saying an upsurge.
What do you think is the key to social change? Public opinion? Political action? Influencing academia? Agorism? Something else? All of the above?
Thanks for doing this AMA and I hope to talk to you this weekend at ISFLC!
All of that. And who knows? Seriously, I think ideas are created, and some of them spread. Sometimes technology prompts change. Some changes only happen when political action happens, but what causes the political action? Social scientists don't seem to have definitive answers to these questions.
For those of us that have read Politics of Freedom and Primer, give us the 30 second speech on why we should pick up your new book?
The new book includes a lot of the core material on individualism, pluralism, law, and economics, updated with new numbers etc. But the chapters on policy and the parasite economy, and the first and last chapters are very different. New material on Bush and Obama, cronyism, inequality, terrorism, overcriminalization, etc.
Thanks for doing this AMA! How would you explain Libertarianism to someone who is absolutely sick of both the Republican and Democratic parties?
In 2008 voters rejected the extreme social conservatism and the endless wars of the Republicans. In 2014 they rejected the bankrupt spending of the Democrats. If you dislike both those things, you just might be a libertarian. If you like lower taxes, social tolerance, and avoiding foreign wars, you just might be a libertarian.
Do you ever get negative feedback for the use of the word manifesto? I was raised in a pretty conservative environment, and still have a sort of gut reaction to the word. It's probably not so much an issue in today's world, but once upon a time... So, do you ever find yourself having to overcome any residual connotations? I'm pretty sure you're neither a "commie" or a terrorist, but in my defense, I only look stupid.
Appreciate you stopping by and answering questions. I hope you enjoy it and come back.
Interesting question. Just published today, so not yet!
Do you do many talks in NH? I would love to go to one.
Only when I'm invited! Check out New Hampshire Liberty Forum.
How do I get a job editing video at the Cato Institute?
Look on our website and apply.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about the modern libertarian movement?
Also, probably the wrong place to ask, but what kind of employment opportunities exist at Cato for young, liberty minded individuals with a BA in Political Science?
A lot of people see libertarianism as a brand of conservatism, as "on the right." We talk a lot about free-market economics, so that's understandable. But as I discuss in chapter 1, libertarians come out of classical liberalism. We're for human rights, toleration, religious freedom, etc. And today we work against war, police misconduct, crony capitalism, the drug war, gay marriage bans, and lots of other things that might seem to put us on the left.
Check our website for opportunities. We hire lots of interns and a few research assistants, video producers, etc.
Will UK go undefeated and win #9?
Yes! Don't pay any attention to my political predictions either.
Hi Mr. Boaz:
As you can tell by my username, I am a big fan of your organization and consider myself to be a strong libertarian. Considering the paradigm shifts in the Republican Party right now (with figures like Rand Paul, Thomas Massie, Justin Amash, and other newcomers championing libertarianism) and its original roots of social tolerance in the party of Lincoln, do you see the GOP becoming a libertarian party in the future? If so, how do you think it'll get there?
As someone who has studied the Republican Party's history quite extensively, I think it's interesting that the Cold War/Baby Boom era generation changed the GOP from being the party of "live and let live" (in social, economic, and foreign policies) into the party of "live our way, or else". What do you think it'll take for it to see a full revival to being like the party that freed the slaves again, being a party that actually stands for freedom?
A full revival! That's a tall order. Parties change because of generational change, and I do think there's some generational change in a libertarian direction. They also change when a charismatic leader comes along, like FDR, Reagan, Clinton or Obama. But then I didn't find GWB all that charismatic, and he really made the GOP a party of war and big spending. So maybe just being president works. Mostly, parties change when people push them to change. So push!
Elizabeth Bruening recently published some harsh criticisms of libertarianism on her New Republic blog. It's nothing really new, but one thing did catch my eye. She said that libertarianism is incompatible with Catholicism. I'm not sure of your religious background (if there is any), but do you have any thoughts on this?
I'm no expert on Catholicism, but I would say that Christianity sets moral standards for individuals. I don't see that it requires coercive actions by government. Christianity, in someone's view, may tell people to help the poor, avoid premarital sex, or whatever. But Jesus didn't say "tell the government to help the poor with tax money." He said you should help the poor.
I don't know if it's a "libertarian moment" or not, but some of the bigger public policy shifts of recent memory imply that Americans are getting at least slightly more libertarian -- same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, the growing backlash against the surveillance/security state and police militarization, etc.
Do you think there's anything to the concept that we're getting somewhat more libertarian as a country, at least in terms of becoming more skeptical of the inherent goodness and capabilities of government?
Skepticism, even cynicism, about government is definitely growing. People think the government is inefficient and dishonest.And yet so many of them turn to government to give them stuff or ban things they don't like. Still, you're right about the recent shifts and battles moving in a libertarian direction. Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch put a lot of emphasis on cultural and technological changes that undermine all sorts of establishments and allow more diversity and flourishing.