David Boaz, Cato’s executive vice president, has been with the organization since 1981, giving him a good perch to put the current libertarian vogue in perspective. In an interview this week, we talked about the political currents propelling libertarianism into the political mainstream, the Supreme Court’s libertarian turn, whether Paul will be our next president, and much more. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Is there a libertarian moment happening in America?
Libertarian ideas — and I’m never using a capital L [i.e., referring to the Libertarian Party] when I say that; in this case I don’t even mean consciously libertarian, so not just the people who read Reason magazine and Murray Rothbard and call themselves libertarians — libertarian ideas are very deeply rooted in America. Skepticism about power and about government, individualism, the idea that we’re all equal under the law, free enterprise, getting ahead in the world through your own hard work — all of those ideas are very fundamentally American. Obviously, from a libertarian point of view, America nonetheless has done a whole lot of things, from slavery to Obamacare, that offend some number of those libertarian values, but the core libertarian attitude is still there. And a lot of times when the government suddenly surges in size, scope, or power, those libertarian attitudes come back to the fore.
I think that’s what you’re seeing. I think you’re seeing a growth of self‐conscious libertarianism. The end of the Bush years and the beginning of the Obama years really lit a fire under the always‐simmering small‐government attitudes in America. The TARP, the bailouts, the stimulus, Obamacare, all of that sort of inspired the Tea Party. Meanwhile, you’ve simultaneously got libertarian movements going on in regard to gay marriage and marijuana. And I’ll tell you something else that I think is always there. The national media were convinced that we would be getting a gun‐control bill this year, that surely the Newtown shooting would overcome the general American belief in the Second Amendment right to bear arms. And then they pushed on the string and it didn’t go anywhere. Support for gun control is lower today than it was 10 or 15 years ago. I think that’s another sign of America’s innate libertarianism.
This year you have a whole series of scandals that at least call into question the efficacy, competence, and trustworthiness of government. The IRS, maybe the Benghazi cover‐up, and the revelations about surveillance. All of those things together, I think, have lit a fire to the smoldering libertarianism of the American electorate.
None of which necessarily means that there’s a libertarian majority that will sweep Rand Paul to the White House or anything like that. But there are a lot of people who care a lot, and a lot more people who care some, about these things, and a majority of Americans think our taxes are too high, a majority of Americans think the federal government spends too much, a majority of Americans think it was a mistake to get into Iraq. A bare majority of Americans now favor gay marriage, a bare majority favor marijuana legalization, a huge majority think there should be a requirement to balance the federal budget. So if you’re a presidential candidate you don’t call yourself a libertarian and run on Murray Rothbard’s book, you run on those issues. And on those issues, you find a lot that a majority agrees with.
What is the significance of Rand Paul to this discussion?
Rand Paul is clearly the most significant libertarian‐leaning American political figure in a long time. There are a couple of issues I disagree with him on, but when you look at issues that cut across left‐right boundaries, like his interest in reduced spending, less regulation, reining in our adventurous foreign policy, protecting America’s rights against surveillance — that’s a combination of issues that libertarians have waited a long time to find together in one candidate. I think he can have a lot of appeal. A lot of libertarians, including those who came out of the Ron Paul movement but also others, are very interested in seeing how far his political ambitions might take him.
How does libertarianism figure into the war of ideas that’s going on in the Republican Party? Is the GOP poised to embrace libertarianism?
I think they’re poised to debate it. Rand Paul is going to be in the middle of the people debating the future of the Republican Party. Rand Paul has said he doesn’t call himself a libertarian; he calls himself a libertarian Republican, small L‐capital R, and he does sometimes say that the party needs to move in a more libertarian direction to broaden its appeal to young people and independent voters.
One of the things Ron Paul’s campaign showed was that a lot of young people who were not Republicans were interested in these ideas. But [as a Republican politician] you either have to get those people into Republican primaries or you have to get the nomination for that to do you any good.
Rand Paul’s supporters believe as soon as he starts to look like a contender, the establishment is going to see him as a threat and try to destroy him.
There are all sorts of Washington establishments who are going to want to take down Rand Paul. The spending establishment is certainly not going to like what he’s talking about. The Republican political establishment doesn’t particularly want to change. And certainly the national security establishment is extremely eager not to debate our policy of global interventionism. They have always sought to rule out of bounds any challenge to it.
They tried it in the Republican primary in Kentucky [in 2010]. The neocons organized one of their emergency committees to stop Rand Paul in the primary. I think they will continue to do that.
And yet some libertarians have started to criticize Rand Paul for going squishy as he tries to appeal more to the GOP mainstream.
If you want a pure libertarian to run for president, you’ve got the Libertarian Party. If you think the Libertarian Party’s candidates aren’t pure enough, you can write in Murray Rothbard. When we talk about a U.S. senator running for president, you are talking about the real world of politics. Nobody is going to be a doctrinaire Ayn Rand libertarian. Rand Paul has rounder edges than his father. He has a number of other advantages over his father: He’s not 77 years old; he’s a not a House member, he’s a senator; and he has rounder edges in the way he presents libertarian ideas. There may even be issues on which they actually disagree, though I’m not sure I can think of one.
Well, Rand Paul says he would audit the Federal Reserve, not end it as his father promised to do.
Does he, in his heart, believe in ending the Fed? I believe he does. But the next president is not going to get rid of the Fed. If we can audit the Fed — and, more important to me, we can rein in the incredible powers the Fed seized in 2008 and put some governor in control of the creation of new money — we will have accomplished a lot.
Rand Paul is also strongly against abortion rights, which many libertarians disagree with. What is the libertarian position on abortion?
I don’t think there is a libertarian position on abortion. There was a study done by a graduate student at UCLA that found that about two‐thirds of people you would identify as libertarian are pro‐choice. From a philosophical perspective, libertarians generally believe the appropriate role of government is to protect life, liberty, and property. The question is, is forbidding abortion a way of protecting life, or should it be viewed as a restriction of liberty? There’s a plausible libertarian case on both sides. People who are consciously libertarian are more respectful of the other position on abortion, in my experience, than most pro‐lifers and pro‐choicers. I do not think there is an official position.
The Supreme Court had a remarkably libertarian term, and Cato had a very successful year at the Court, isn’t that right?
Yes, we filed briefs in 18 cases and were on the winning side in 15 of them. [Cato was also the only organization to file briefs on the winning side of the four highest‐profile cases: affirmative action, voting rights, the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8.]
That’s maybe less a sign of the zeitgeist and more a sign that Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote, is a bit of a libertarian.
Of the 15 cases we won, Justice Kennedy was with us 14 times. If you look at his record over his 25 years on the court, you could argue he’s the most libertarian member of the Court. He’s made some egregious errors in that time. He was wrong on the Kelo case [in which the Court ruled that the state has the right to take private property for private development]. However, on a lot of civil liberties, personal freedom, and gay‐rights issues, he’s been on the liberal side, and on a lot of business regulation, size of government, and federalism cases he’s been on the conservative side. And that means we often agree with him.
There was a lot of whiplash among partisans over the big Court decisions — progressives anguished about voting rights one day and thrilled about gay rights the next, and vice versa for conservatives. But from your point of view, a libertarian point of view, there was a consistency to be seen.
Yes, and not just the broad consistency of individual freedom versus the power of government, but on the narrower issue of treating people equally under the law. We would say that the issue of race in college admissions and the issue of equal marriage rights in the DOMA case are both applications of equal protection of the law. We actually had a similar experience 10 years ago, in 2003, when we were the only organization to have filed amicus briefs in support of Lawrence in Lawrence v. Texas [the case that struck down sodomy laws] and Jennifer Gratz in her lawsuit against the University of Michigan [for its affirmative‐action policy]. There were a lot of gay‐rights and liberal groups on our side in the Lawrence case, and a lot of conservatives on our side with Jennifer Gratz. We felt that we were asking for equal freedom under law for both Gratz and Lawrence.
Is this part of the attraction of young people to libertarianism — that it seems to stand outside partisanship, in a pure, consistent way?
I think that’s true. I think having a consistent principle that organizes all these issues was very helpful for Marxism, and I think it’s also an attraction of libertarianism. It may also be that on a gut level, there are a lot of people who like not being a Democrat or a Republican. Millions of Americans — 59 percent, according to one poll — would tell you they are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, and that’s a real loose definition of libertarian. We consider those people to be a large constituency that libertarians should be able to access. Especially for young people, saying, “Nobody tells me what to say, I’m not a partisan Democrat or Republican,” is attractive. To see Ron Paul, in the Republican primary debates, clearly challenging the things the rest of the Republicans were saying, but also clearly not a Democrat.
You mention Marxism. Some would extend the parallel and say libertarianism is another ideology that works in theory but not in practice.
I’ll tell you the difference. We’ve tried stunted and cramped versions of libertarianism in the world, and we’ve tried versions of Marxism that were less stunted and cramped because they had all the levers of power. I am willing to match England, the United States, Canada, and Hong Kong, which are all approximately libertarian societies, against the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba any day.
In my view, the farther you go toward actual, existing libertarianism, the closer you get to a society with prosperity, economic growth, social dynamism, and social harmony. More and more countries in the world are moving toward broadly libertarian principles. Freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of travel, freedom of movement, freedom of occupation. Sometimes we forget how different these things are than what went before. Economic and personal freedom, and the extension of the promise of the Declaration of Independence to more and more people — to black people, to women, to gay people — all of those things are trying libertarianism in real life, and I think it works pretty well.
Can someone like Rand Paul win a national election? Won’t he get painted as weak on national defense by his political opponents?