Right On!

RU Sirius in Conversation with Reason Editor Nick Gillespie


A few months back, Nick Gillespie, editor of the relatively popular libertarian magazine Reason sent me a copy of Choice: The Best of Reason (get the double meaning?). Now, I don't self-define as a libertarian, but thanks to this conversation with Mr. Gillespie I realized that I am libertarian. (Figure it out.) Anyway, the first several articles in Choice kind of blew my mind (as we used to say back in the day).

At the time of this reading, I was engaged in conversations about counterculture and consumerism. In fact, I found myself in a state of rebellion against what seemed to me a kind of neo-puritanical obsession that many countercultural types have with this particular "ism" as a locus of all evil. As a lover of personal choice (kill my fuckin' TV and I'll kill you) and ambiguity, I found this not merely alienating — I found it lame. Here we'd presented a range of philosophies and thinkers from the Socratics to the Sufis to the Surrealists and all anybody wanted to talk about is how Iggy Pop songs were being used to sell cars.

So I was particularly receptive to the piece In Praise of Vulgarity: How Commercial Culture Liberates Islam — and the West. I sent the piece around to friends (and I'm sure Iggy would agree) and I started reading Reason magazine more carefully and more enthusiastically.

And I got in touch with Mr. Gillespie for this interview, which was conducted by email.

NEOFILES: Lots of libertarian periodicals read more or less like Marxist magazines or religious magazines … in the sense that they are narrow, stiff and insular. Reason is hip, diverse, and accessible. How did this come together?

NICK GILLESPIE: Hey, I've got nothing against Marxist or religious magazines! Some of my best friends are Marxists and others are religious. What I find interesting in both those groups is that such people at their best are asking fundamental questions about society and human meaning. That's something we spend a fair amount of time doing at Reason, too. I tend to disagree with the answers that Marxists and religious people come up with, but we can always have an interesting conversation because we're asking similar questions.

I defer to your judgment of hipness and welcome the compliment (it is a compliment, isn't it?).

We do work at being diverse and accessible in all sorts of ways, ranging from who contributes to the magazine, how we define "libertarian," what topics we choose, and how we present information and analysis. Whether we're yapping about education reform or liberatory trends in Middle Eastern pop videos, or bullshit public funding for sports stadiums, many of our stories deal with pretty technical and demanding issues, so we're always trying to combine original reporting, intellectual rigor, and clear presentation. In an ideological sense, we strive for diversity within the broad framework of libertarianism—a political philosophy rooted in Enlightenment liberalism's interest in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and an appreciation for a modicum of rationality. The cover story of our April issue, for instance, was a debate over whether Social Security should be privatized. It featured two hardcore libertarians, financial writer James K. Glassman and economist Tyler Cowen, slugging it out. One of our main functions is to stage a conversation within the libertarian universe in which our ideas can be refined and hashed out. I should add that I'm increasingly drawn to defining libertarian as an adjective rather than a noun—it's as much as impulse as anything else. I've got a catechism of what a proper libertarian should believe on any number of issues, but I also think you're libertarian if, in any given situation, you think people should generally have more freedom and choice rather than less. There's no reason to be overly dogmatic on the point: If you believe, say, that most drugs should be legalized and that freedom of expression is a good thing, then you're pretty libertarian, even if you don't necessarily think that the top marginal income tax rate should always be cut by two percentage points (I'm happy to argue that, by the way). I've found that many people are libertarian in that adjectival sense, even if they're not scoring 100 percent on the World's Smallest Political Quiz.

I want Reason to be a magazine written by libertarians but not simply for libertarians, so we've been expanding the scope of the content for the past several years. Policy stories are still the bread-and-butter of the mag, but we've supplemented that traditional focus with stories that have more of a cultural dimension. Or, same thing, we're casting policy stories in more human terms. A few months after I became editor-in-chief in 2000 (I've been with the mag in various capacities since '93), we ran a piece that noted the massive popularity of the Beatles Anthology 1 and asked the question, "Why are we still listening to the Beatles?" Some longtime readers were sort of puzzled by that topic; they wondered why we would write about that. But the fact is that more people can name the members of the Beatles than could probably name their U.S. representative and U.S. senators. The Beatles matter a lot to people for all sorts of reasons and if we're serious about exploring and explaining contemporary America, we need to figure out why. A couple of years ago, we ran an interesting personal essay by a woman named Joli Jensen, a great cultural critic who teaches at University of Tulsa. Her story was about her decision-making process about whether to take anti-depressants or not. In many ways, it's a policy story about the pros and cons of SSRI drugs. But it's told from a very human, compelling perspective: Should I take these pills or not?

I'm interested in two large questions and these guide most of what ends up in Reason: What sorts of political, social, and economic institutions help create and sustain free and open societies in which individuals have the greatest ability to choose how to live? And what do people do with the freedom and liberty they have? That second question has pushed us to explore things ranging from the Burning Man and Rainbow Family festivals … to run pieces on how Frank Zappa was a self-hating capitalist … to how homeschoolers are doing really radical things when it comes to education. Most important, these types of stories bring us into the real world— and that excites and interests readers regardless of their ideological predilections.

One of the things I'm proudest of is the way we're fucking with the conventional political spectrum. Christ, it's the 21st century and we're still talking about Republicans and Democrats! As someone who is neither liberal in the contemporary sense nor conservative, neither left-wing nor right-wing, I'm always happy when folks appreciate that we're trying to inject a very different sensibility into played out debates about politics and culture. The New York Post recently reviewed our new anthology, Choice: The Best of Reason, and wrote that "If Jane Fonda and Alan Greenspan ever decided to go into business together and start a kick-ass, no-holds-barred political magazine, it might look a little something like Reason." The review concluded, "[It] turns out, we all have something to learn from those libertarian weirdoes." You bet—and the first thing is that we're not the weirdoes.

I'm really lucky to have an incredibly talented staff and stable of regular contributors who can go back and forth between hard-core policy and philosophical issues and cutting-edge cultural topics. My own background is a mix of egghead high-culture—I've got a Ph.D. in American literature—and low-brow pop—before heading to grad schooI, I spent a number of years editing teen mags, new wave mags, and heavy metal mags. That sort of range helps keeps the mag diverse and accessible, I think. Our February issue, for instance, featured a great piece on how certain types of trendy urban planning increase crime, an intense interview with novelist Neal Stephenson, a hilarious takedown of Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert's inane memoir, and an essay about the unsung influence of Isabel Paterson, a now largely forgotten literary figure in the first half of the century who also helped create what we now call libertarianism. That lineup is pretty interesting. I hope, anyway.

NF: I have my doubts about the magazine name. Is there such a thing as pure reason, beyond discovering and obeying certain (local) physical laws? Isn't subjectivity integrated into almost everything we do, think, and believe?

NG: Well, it was Marx who said that we make our own history, though not under circumstances of our own choosing. I edit a magazine, though not with the name I would have chosen for it. I know a lot of people who love the name Reason, but I've never been one of them, to be honest. I joked when I took over the mag that I wanted to change the name to "Limits to Reason"—because that's actually the intellectual position we're staking out. The magazine is heavily influenced by the great Austrian economist and Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek on this point. Rational analysis is an incredibly important tool—it's one of the things that marks us as human—but we always need to be recognizing that at best we're apprehending very partial truths, especially when it comes to making other people live by our "truths." Such epistemological humility is really at the heart of the liberal Enlightenment project—that within the widest parameters possible, you have to defer to individuals when it comes to how they want to order their lives. We're big believers in what John Stuart Mill called "experiments in living," the idea being that different people trying different things is hugely beneficial. From all of these subjective experiences, we might approach something like knowledge about what works and what doesn't. More important, different people want different things, and the purpose of society is really to let us all pursue happiness in the most peaceful, tolerant way. So to the extent that the mag's name conjures up the image of some ruthless philosopher-king with a supercomputer for a brain that calculates and then enforces the single most rational, efficient, etc. way to live, it's a total misnomer. By the same token, to the extent it conjures a bunch of people who are going to apply the self-interested and often-mendacious statements of politicians, corporate bigwigs, professional do-gooders, and others to a bit of rational analysis — it's right on the money.

A historical note: Reason was founded in May of 1968 — what a month for political expression, right! — by a Boston University college student named Lanny Friedlander. He was pretty heavily into Ayn Rand, as were many of the early contributors to the mag. In Rand's philosophy, rationality is the gold standard of human activity, so calling the mag "Reason" meant something extremely special to Lanny. While nobody on the staff nowadays is a Rand buff, his original credo for the mag is a pretty good one: "Proof, not belligerent assertion. Logic, not legends, coherance [sic.], not contradictions. This is our promise; this is the reason for REASON."

NF: "If you believe, say, that most drugs should be legalized and that freedom of expression is a good thing, then you're pretty libertarian." That's a pretty loose, "liberal" interpretation of libertarianism. I know some pretty hardcore socialists who subscribe to those views. If there are two economic poles: one that says that the state can best solve all social problems and one that says that the market can best solve all social problems, most would presume to align libertarianism with the latter absolutism. But I detect more nuance in Reason and a tendency toward more nuance in libertarian circles in general these days.

NG: I think you're right in terms of the poles that you suggest above. Since you think Reason is in flagrante nuanco (so to speak, and thanks for the compliment), let me push on this a bit more: It's not even a question really of whether the state can solve social problems better than the market. Libertarianism proceeds from the assumption that the state doesn't necessarily get to define social problems. Or that the individual is subordinate to the state. Libertarianism proceeds from the great classical liberal axiom that the indivdiual exists before the state and that the state exists to serve the individual. So that certainly puts us at odds with doctrinaire socialists, but even here, there's room for interesting alliances and overlaps and not simply on issues like drugs and free speech (and I rush to point out that the contemporary left is not particularly interested in legalizing drugs or in free speech … the bastards. They've turned their back on one of their more interesting projects—liberating people to enjoy self-defined pleasure. Today's left is incredibly suspicious of pleasure — they think it can be easily manipulated, if not created, by corporate interests to protect a status quo they find objectionable, etc. And if the academic left is any indication, they're not particularly interested in robust exchange of ideas; instead they'd rather police language and thought through speech codes and the like or, even more insidiously, create an intellectual circlejerk where nonbelievers are systematically weeded out of faculty ranks through a tenure process that mostly exists to further ideological conformity.

But I digress: I said in my earlier response that I'm interested in using libertarian as an adjective as much as a noun. I'm happy to recognize common tendencies and impulses in people even if I don't share all or even any of their political beliefs. And I should point out that some socialists were socialists at least in part because they thought it would give rise to a less-onerous state that enforced mass conformity. That was the thinking of the people who founded Dissent in the 1950s; they were socialists but also individualists railing against big government and big business as stultifying (and they were anti-Soviet, which was no small achievement for leftists of that period). I disagree with them — I think the logic of socialism inevitably leads to conformity, to the grey culture of the Soviet Union — but at least we share certain goals, including the creation of a world where individuals have many options and possibilities in self-development.

Let me also add that while I do think it's obvious that markets do a better job of creating wealth and spreading it around — as Schumpeter wrote, the great accomplishment of capitalism is not that it creates more stockings for queens but that it makes them affordable to the factory girls who make them—I'm not libertarian or pro-capitalist primarily on efficiency grounds. I think the "Free Minds and Free Markets" Reason stumps for in the mag's subtitle make the world a more interesting place by giving more people the chance to innovate, fuck up, and try again. It's a sloppy world in many ways, but just that much more interesting—the difference between — I don't know — the Italian Market and Penn's Landing in Philly, or Greenwich Village and Lincoln Center in Manhattan.

NF: Libertarianism has been closely associated with the technoculture that first started getting attention in the early nineties. And this, in turn, provoked some hostility. Did you follow some of the discussions around this, like "The California Ideology" by Richard Barbrook? What are your thoughts on the links between digital culture and libertarianism?

NG: I think the links are real and they are not simply a sociologicial accident (i.e., that some Silicon Valley CEOs used to jerk off to Ayn Rand novels as teenagers). The logic of libertarianism and the logic of digital culture overlap to a huge extent. The primary explicit link between digital culture and libertarianism stems from each system's interests in decentralization, antinomianism, and constant innovation and exploration of new and different ways to live, love, and die. They're both experimental systems in the best sense of the word. The clearest example of the close connection between digital culture and libertarianism might be found in the person of Louis Rossetto, the founder of Wired and, in many ways, the creator of the lexicon of what we talk about when we talk about "digital culture." As a college student in the late '60s and early '70s, Louis—who eschews labels wisely—ran with a libertarian crowd at Columbia. In fact, he and a friend even wrote a cover story for the New York Times Magazine about how libertarianism was going to be the next big thing with youth culture (a prediction as bad as Wired's belief that push technology was the wave of the future!). But what Louis and a lot of digerati understand is that personal computers, especially networked computers, radically alter the balance of power in society. In markets and computer networks alike, power leeches from centralized authorities and into the hands of what we call end users—individuals. Hierarchy and power nodes remain, of course, but the terms of exchange have been radically and I think irrevocably altered. Think of almost all the high-status jobs of four or five decades, professions that relied on tightly controlled flows of both economic and cultural capital: Stockbrokers, priests, doctors, lawyers, professors, politicians, you name it. They may still be doing well financially, but they now have to beg for clients and customers in ways they never used to.

I want to stress that this decentralization of power is part of a centuries-old dynamic, one that really gets cranking in the liberal revolutions of the early modern period, when aristocracy started taking it on the chin. At least in the West, we've been moving towards a DIY world at least since the Puritans in mid-17th century England started to demand the right to worship God on their own terms, not the ones laid down by the state church. That basic cultural/social deregulation eventually lead to economic deregulation, which in turn lead to more and more dispersed power. I don't mean to imply that there's some sort of easy, clear, and linear sense of progress. I'm simply trying to say that digital culture, which has so vastly enriched all of our lives in the 20 or 30 years, is itself an epiphenomenon of a much longer-lived trend.

NF: What would you say about the whole culture around file-sharing, open source, free software etc? Here we have a situation where clearly some profit seekers put up roadblocks against the dynamic liberties of those involved in sharing and collaboration. Indeed, it seems to me that voluntary collaboration and cooperation is the emergent force in technoculture today. And, in fact, the open source culture is chock full of libertarians. Do you think the economics of "intellectual property" — which is what we're headed into as a society — demands a whole new analyses from libertarians? Is there one — an analysis — that I'm not aware of?

NG: On a lot of cyberculture, let me first note that we're talking about a loosely affiliated group that is often hysterical and manic. Consider a couple of examples: When email, which remains the killer app of cyberculture in very many ways, emerged, it was taken for granted that it was public—that there was really no privacy involved, since the stuff passed through servers here and there, was sent and received on workplace computers, etc. A couple of years ago when Google introduced gmail, which would scan all messages for certain words and then match ads to the probable content of the email, there was this great hue and cry. Or when ISPs like AOL got into the game in a big way and started providing email for the masses, or when e-commerce started to matter, there was this ruckus about the soul of the net being killed, etc. The hysteria is closely related, I think, to both the utopian dreams and realities of digital culture. It really can and does deliver a much better world to everyone, a much richer, more connected, more textured, world. And it's really only just begun to deliver on its promises.

To turn to your actual question: Let me throw out some barely connected thoughts about this topic, which is as huge as all the seven seas times seventy—and is central to the present and future of not just creative expression but creative living.

  1. Why worry, whether you're a big corporation or an end user? The march of history always seems to point in this direction: The big companies get a good chunk of change (occasionally they do go out of business, for sure) and end users always get more of everything, authorized and unauthorized, at better and better prices. There is no status quo in what I called the "culture boom" back in 1999 — producers and consumers of culture keep getting more and more ways to make and enjoy all forms of creative expression. As a practical matter — not a legal or normative one — I think nothing is capable of stopping the culture boom, which really got cranking at least a couple of hundred years ago. There are simply too many ways to route around blocks against expression. During the English Civil War in the 1630s and '40s, smaller, more mobile printing presses made it possible for literally tens of thousands of political pamphlets to be published. The Internet is like that now, multiplied by 1,000. Even execrable laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act—which throw DVD hackers in jail—won't stop the march toward more and more stuff, at better and better prices (or totally free) and more and more convenience. By the same token, big content providers will not disappear because they really do make distribution easier, better, and more convenient. They not only sort stuff for us, assure certain basic levels of quality and competence, but they give consumers meaningful information by offering up various sorts of imprimaturs: Disney could own Miramax or Pixar, but each company's offerings were different and internally coherent. You didn't mistake an Olympia Press book for a Random House title, right? There's a huge amount of useful information for consumers of culture embedded in the (god help me) corporate branding of an item.
  2. I think that intellectual property laws are always undone by technological advances; that's why they have to get rewritten on a regular basis, especially copyright, whose history is mostly a shameless capitulation to big moneyed interests (let's give Sonny Bono, the avatar of the last major change in copyright law, this much: that motherfucker co-wrote "Needles and Pins," [with Jack Nitzche, if memory serves, another insane and disturbing and wonderful influence on pop music], a song so great there's never been a bad version of it that I've heard). Intellectual property laws and debates are lagging indicators that we're in a particularly fertile period for free expression.

    I think that technology may have finally outstripped copyright owners' ability to hem in "pirates" or unauthorized users, though I'm not certain of that. The key thing that big content companies can do is provide convenience and reliable quality—that's why book pirating was never the problem that music piracy became over the past few years. Content companies are overly worried about piracy or unauthorized usage. The fact is, that sort of thing builds brand loyalty and market share. The most popular music, software, etc. is always going to be the most pirated, too. When I was in grad school in the late '80s and early '90s, I used an unauthorized version of WordPerfect, which at that point was the most popular word processing program for PCs. As soon as I could afford to, I bought licensed versions of the program because I was used to it, generally liked it, and wanted to be able to get technical help, documentation, etc. without a hassle. That WordPerfect also only cost around $100 sealed the deal. They — like Netscape — fucked up by not coming out with good supporting programs and taking forever to come out with new versions. But my point is that if I hadn't pirated it, I never would have bought it later. The same goes with music. I was a pretty early user of Napster in its original outlaw format (used a few other programs, too). The chief result of such "theft?" was that =after years of not being into music (I'd written for a bunch of punk/new wave/heavy metal mags back in the '80s), I got into it again and started buying legit versions of old and new records—a progression that is borne out by at least a couple of studies of Napster users. The free stuff grows the market for the pay stuff. Where things stand now — music services allowing listeners to get high-quality music at relatively low, low prices — seems like a good compromise. The pirated stuff is still out there as well as a wealth of non-commercial stuff, but you can know that you can go to licensed outlets for stuff too.

  3. We've written a lot about intellectual property in the pages of Reason and I've thought about it a lot myself. Libertarians as a group like property rights—first and foremost, property in self, right? So how can we be against intellectual property? Well, it's pretty easy actually. Intellectual property rights are government-granted monopolies that allow the holder — whether a drug company with a cure for what ails you, a record company with the next Britney Aguilera disk, or a lonely author starving in a garret somewhere — exclusive rights to the money generated by the property for a number of years. We know from copyright history that what that really means is that whenever we get close enough to Mickey Mouse going public domain, the number of years gets extended by X. The justification for this monopoly — mentioned in the U.S. Constitution — is not that intellectual property laws are like property in self or land, but that they are necessary to get people to create culture and technology that makes the world better and more interesting. That's the rationale — a pragmatic, utilitarian one, not a natural rights one.

Here's an interesting thought experiment that energized a story we ran a few years back: Is that justification empirically true? The subtitle of that piece, written by Doug Clement, asked, "Does innovation require intellectual property rights?" Evidence from highly competitive, highly innovative fields such as fashion and food suggest that intellectual property rights are not a prerequisite for innovation or volume of output. Apart from a few trade secrets (e.g., McDonald's "special sauce" — otherwise known as Thousand Islands dressing), and fraud protection, neither industry has much in the way of IP protections. Yet you can't find more innovative industries than these two.

I've yet to be convinced that piracy and unauthorized use is ever truly an unmitigated economic drain on the IP holder. We can all remember that fool Jack Valenti's cry that the VCR was as big a threat to the movie industry as Alberto deSalvo, the Boston Strangler, was to the women of Beantown, right? It's worth noting that there's strong evidence that deSalvo was not the Boston Strangler. But we know for a fact that the VCR, while not quite saving Hollywood (it didn't need it), ended up contributing a bigger revenue stream than selling movie tickets did. I think the free unauthorized distribution almost always ends up growing the legitimate market, sometimes immediately (the Offspring topped the charts even as it was the illegal Napster's number one download band) and sometimes later. But that argument is really moot: We're always going to have some form of licensing and IP and we're always going to be able to get around a lot of it for the most part. The content providers — whether big corps or indie DIY types — who will flourish are the ones who have stuff people want to hear, read, taste, etc and who make it easy for their audiences to get the stuff. Because this conversation usually takes place very much in legislative arenas dominated by big corporations, we're treated to scare stories about how, say, the music industry will go out of business because of piracy, rather than how it would go out of business because it puts out overpriced products that suck. Where's the congressional inquiry into how long it takes bands to put out new music? Led Zeppelin's great career would have taken 30 or 40 years to come out under the way things are done now. That's not because of piracy.

I like many elements of the open-source movement precisely because it really tends to sidestep most of these debates and get on with the creation and dissemination of things people want. And the things get better and better because they are driven from grassroots up, from a network rather than a hierarchy. I'm also interested in variants and alternatives that steer clear of either absolutist position on IP, such as the Creative Commons approach. Ideally, I guess, we'd have a variety of IP regimes to choose from and sort through. In fact, we have that already.

For libertarians specifically, I suggest remembering that the question about IP is not, first and foremost, about "property rights." It's really an issue about maximizing output and innovation and minimizing restraints on expression.

NF: In light of the recent depredations of the Republicans; like the late night congressional session to save Terry Schiavo, the virtual declaration of war on the judiciary in the interests of the religious right by some Republican congressmen, and other seriously theocratic maneuvers, shouldn't libertarians who support that party either stop or take it over?

NG: One of the great tragicomic elements of America is that we really do get the government we deserve. As someone who is extremely uninterested in partisan politics, I've found the past few years fascinating, especially as they unmask the emptiness of both major US political parties. The Dems and Reps are close enough that they can change positions without having to change their membership by and large. Under Clinton, liberals pushed for humanitarian interventions everywhere possible and conservatives cried that this was imperialism. Under Bush, the sides have reversed almost exactly. Same goes with the Schiavo case, which in the end is about federalism: Should the federal government be involving itself in issues properly settled at a lower level of government. The entire Republican ascendancy was based on super-federalist rhetoric, of returning or devolving power back to the states. Curiously, the GOP's interest in doing so evaporated almost exactly the moment they secured control of the federal government. So now they're intervening in the Schiavo case, pushing for federal tort reform, banning gay marriage at the federal — or constitutional(!) — level, going after cannabis clubs that are plainly legal by state law in states such as California. And the Dems are starting to discover the benefits of federalism. One Dem congressman even said something to the effect that "If we don't draw the line at Schiavo, then there's no stopping the federal government from intervening in every issue everywhere." This from a Democrat, whose party just spent forty years in power doing just that. The simple fact is that there's a grand consensus in American politics now — overlap between Dems and Reps on about 90 percent of the issues before them. That consensus gives way too much power to government at all levels than I'd like to see, but there it is. Because of that overlap, I think politics in America, especially at the national level, is largely a symbolic activity, expressive of a group identity but little more than that. The differences between the parties matter far less than constantly asserting that there is a difference between the parties: You Republicans are neanderthal god-squadders! You Democrats are liberal America-haters! But the general policies are pretty similar. It's almost tribal, based on where and how you grew up. The good news? The strength of party affiliation continues to decline.

I hate to sound like a French philosopher in the '70s, but if you're still talking about partisan politics or taking them very seriously, you're looking so far backwards Satchel Paige might be gaining on you. All in all, the great achievements that have really shaped our daily lives, that have really improved our lives, have little to do with politics. Things such as the development of the automobile, the creation of the birth control pill, the rise of the personal computer and the Internet (and let's not pretend that the Net is a government-created entity; if it were, it would have turned out like Minitel for god's sake)—these all happened beyond the reach of politics by and large. So did the social experimentation that lead to the breakup of the "mainstream" in favor of so many alternatives that there is no more mainstream anymore (thank god). There are exceptions to this general rule, of course: Politics might have solved the problem of slavery short of a war; and there is a legitimate need for at least what Robert Nozick called a minimal "night watchman" state that provides common defense, courts, etc. But by and large, politics is a realm of clearly defined winners and losers; every interaction is zero sum and if you're on the losing end, that's tough shit. The private sector tends not to work that way. Markets generate all sorts of alternatives and midways of doing things; the cultural realm has never been freer than it is now (I'm confident that congressional attempts to extend federal content regulation to cable and satellite services may well backfire and end up giving broadcasters First Amendment rights). So a pox on politics.

But let me at least take a stab at actually answering your question: Ronald Reagan told Reason magazine in 1975 that "I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals—if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is." The whole thing—really worth reading, if only because it really shows that Reagan was never the mental defective many people took him to be.

My point here though is that whatever political success the Republicans have had is because of libertarian rhetoric — about reducing the size and scope of government so people can get on with their lives — not because of Religious Right stuff. If the Republicans have become the majority party — and it's not clear that they have in any decisive way, especially at the state level, where Dems made gains around the country —it's because they posed as libertarians: You deserve to be able to spend your money the way you want to, you should be free of the petty dictates of bureaucrats, you should be allowed to innovate, trade with whomever you want, etc. Note that I say they "posed," because no Republican — certainly not Reagan — has ever done anything except try to involve themselves more intimately in every aspect of our lives. Which makes them similar to Democrats. Or politicians more generally. They don't gain power by giving it away, do they? But to the extent that conservatives and Republicans forget that, they'll go down the drain pretty quickly. There's a struggle going for the GOP right now, between the likes of the generally libertarian types such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Religious Right types like Tom Coburn, the new senator from Oklahoma, who term-limited himself out of Congress a few years back telling Reason, "Why would you want to come up here to stay? Ask yourself that question. What is it that addicts someone to Washington? Most people who want to do that have a deep-seated insecurity or they wouldn't be up here in the first place." During his senate campaign, Coburn complained about too many "lesbians" in Oklahoma's public university system and has praised Cuba's AIDS registry system. He and Arnold are pretty close on economic issues; it's the social issues that separate them. And whichever of those two, symbolically, gains control of the party will determine a lot about its future.

You'll note that I haven't really mentioned foreign policy in detail. I do think that the broadly construed war on terror — or more precisely, the attempt to bring liberal democracy to the Arab Middle East and related areas — will be a defining activity for our future. I was against the invasion of Iraq but am guardedly optimistic about what's been happening since then. I'm not convinced that foreign policy for any ideology is particularly clear — you've seen splits on the War on Terror on the left, right, and libertarian fronts and I think that will always be the case. But it is a place where politics matters. But we're also talking about countries and regions that are outside of the liberal tradition. We're lucky in the West that we don't have to fight those first-order battles for the most basic rights of speech, property, etc.

So my short answer to your actual question — and to return to my earliest statement about libertarianism: I see libertarianism as a pre-political, certainly as a pre-partisan impulse. If libertarians are interested in partisan politics (and of course many are), I'd like to see them infuse the Reps with more social tolerance, with an understanding of laissez-faire in the cultural and social realms as well as the economic. And I'd like to see them do the same in the Democratic party, which should once again embrace free trade (Clinton did, and he won!) and free speech and actual liberal tolerance instead of stultifying identity politics and stupid economic regulations that serve no good purpose. Not that the Dems, who coughed up one shitty hairball of a presidential candidate in John Kerry, will do anything smart.

NF: What do you say about the underside of post-enlightenment Western capitalist history: slavery, colonialism, and Justin Timberlake? Do you lend any credence to the left wing complaint that our comforts and privileges have come at the expense of other humans (a cheap holiday in other people's misery)?

NG: Post-Enlightenment Western capitalism is responsible for only one of the three evils you list above: Justin Timberlake. Historically, it's more accurate that the rise of liberalism — of which capitalism or freer markets is an epiphenemon — either ended or provided a devastating critique of slavery and colonialism. On this score, I highly recommend David M. Levy's great How the Dismal Science Got Its Name (2001). Levy is an economist who does great cultural studies reading of the 19th century battle among English intellectuals about slavery, "natural" aristocracy, and the brutal beating deaths of freed black Jamaicans at the hands of the British colonial governor. Thomas Carlyle's castigated economics as "the dismal science" because free-marketers and liberals were claiming that blacks had rights and were the equals of whites, whereas "progressive" figures such as Dickens, and John Ruskin said no way. They hated the idea that markets — and democracy—flattened social hierarchies. (You can read our short interview with Levy. The belief in self-ownership and the rights matrix embedded in liberalism helped end slavery in the West. And Adam Smith and other early theorists of what came to be called capitalism were writing in opposition to mercantilism and the worst elements of colonial exploitation. Justin Timberlake — that is, a performer who is wildly popular with millions of people but offensive to the taste sensibilities of elites — gets a wide distribution. That's something I can live with, because the same system that allows him to flourish allows all sorts of other people to live their lives on something approaching their own terms.

Embedded in your question is the international variant of a Marxist "immiseration" hypothesis — that is, in a market economy, those at the top gain by shortchanging those at the lower end of the system. This is the basis of the anti-globalization argument and it's simply not true. What is distinctive about a capitalist system — and let me define that as simply a system that allows private property and the relatively open and free exchange of private property — is not that some people get super-fucking-rich. That's a facet of every society beyond the most basic caveman clans. What is distinctive about market societies is that they deliver a generally higher standard of living, with most material goods spread around very much. If I've already mentioned this, forgive me for repeating myself, but I refer again to what Joseph Schumpeter said back in "Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy" (1942): "Queen Elizabeth [I] owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort." Bill Gates is massively rich. What's interesting is that most Americans — the vast, overwhelming majority—live an approximation of his life, with a car, a house and appliances; you name it — even a shot at going to college. The proper baseline here should be comparing the poor of today, the middle class of today to the poor/middle class of 30 years ago, 50 years ago, or 100 years ago. In virtually all the particulars, we're better off. And while in dollar amounts, the gap between the middle class and the super-rich might have grown; the lived reality has gotten closer. That's because market exchange is generally based on the idea that both parties gain when they do business.

Something similar happens at the international level, too. Increased trade doesn't lead to one country or partner gaining at the expense of the other. Both tend to be better off. We've got a story in the latest issue of Reason about how Taiwan gained a huge amount of wealth by being among the first wave of countries, back in the '60s, to get jobs offshored out of the US. Eventually, many of those jobs migrated out of Taiwan to cheaper places such as India and Mainland China. But Taiwan is still way better off than it was before it started trading a lot with the West. Indeed, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a country that increased its trade and did not see its standard of living rise. So as long as trade is not happening under the worst sort of mercantilist, old-style colonialist exchange — and enforced at the barrel of a gun — it will bring benefits to all who participate in it. Which isn't to say that the West in general isn't often acting badly when it deals with developing nations. As Johan Norberg, author of the invaluable In Defense of Global Capitalism, has pointed out, Western countries generally subsidize domestic producers and/or maintain tariffs precisely on goods that the Third World can produce more cheaply than the First World can — namely crops and textiles. That's hypocritical, especially if Western nations insist on "open markets" but then protect certain industries. (For Norberg's fuller case on both the benefits of globalization and Western backsliding, go here

This isn't to say there aren't costs to globalization, by the way. The economist Tyler Cowen has written an absolutely brilliant book about the cultural impact of globalization that takes its title from Schumpeter's famous phrase about "creative destruction." Cowen notes that globalization indeed makes virtually everyone better off materially, partly by plugging us into a much vaster, richer, more robust network that gives us not only goods and services but all sorts of connections, opportunities, and ideas that we wouldn't otherwise have. On the one hand, that connectivity gives us individually a lot of power and options. But it also makes it very difficult for smaller, more closed-off cultures and groups to survive. As Cowen told me a few years back, "As the world becomes more integrated, we lose a lot of dysentery and diarrhea and malaria and women dying in childbirth who don't have to." There's a whole list of benefits that we're all familiar with, and those to me are most important. But in terms of culture, there is a loss. For instance, it's absolutely true that a lot of languages are dying. There's a gain because you bring people into a broader language network where they can write for others and they can read things by others. I don't have a problem with that trade-off, but I don't want to deny that something is lost. These vanishing languages are rich, and they're interesting. There's a net gain, but you can't just paint a picture of an advance along all fronts. It's not the reality." (My whole interview with Cowen is here).

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This interview originally appeared in Neofiles, and can be viewed in that format here.