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Friday, June 7, 2024

Celebrating David Boaz: A Luminary of Liberty, A Champion of Progress

Despite the challenges facing liberty, Boaz remained an optimist and a progressive libertarian.

Image Credit: Custom image by FEE

It was with a heavy heart that I received the news of the passing of David Boaz, a friend, mentor, and an intellectual giant in the libertarian movement. A distinguished senior fellow at the Cato Institute, Boaz’s influential work and leadership shaped the modern libertarian movement and championed the enduring principles of classical liberalism.

Over his 43 years at the Cato Institute, Boaz served as a moral lodestone for a libertarianism that took the broader liberal tradition seriously. As an intern and later a full-time employee at Cato, I witnessed firsthand Boaz’s intellectual firepower and his pragmatic, productive work as an editor and mentor to a generation of scholars. His book Libertarianism: A Primer, later updated as The Libertarian Mind, was a tremendous influence on me and many others. I had the honor of working to translate Boaz’s primer into Portuguese, and it became a key book in influencing a new generation of libertarians in my home country of Brazil.

Boaz’s brand of libertarianism was persuasive and historical. Rather than advocating a narrow, sectarian view, he situated libertarianism within the greater context of liberalism, presenting it as a manifestation of long-standing principles. Boaz’s focus on tracing classical liberalism’s origins back to the Scientific Revolution served as a reminder that liberalism must remain a learning philosophy to stay relevant. He argued against nostalgic libertarianism, stating that there was no golden age of libertarianism, not even at the American founding. Instead, he emphasized the importance of continuing progress, particularly in expanding freedom and opportunity for marginalized groups.

When asked about libertarianism’s greatest achievement, Boaz initially pointed to the abolition of slavery, and then broadened his view, emphasizing that “bringing power under the rule of law” was the underlying raison d’être of the libertarian movement, of which abolitionism was a most remarkable accomplishment. He recognized that “the eternal struggle of Liberty versus Power will never end” and that “there will always be people who want to live their lives in peace, and others who want to use power to impose their agendas.”

Boaz acknowledged that challenges to freedom remain, such as “the continuing lack of Enlightenment values in much of the world, the unsustainable welfare states in the rich countries and the interests that fight reform, the recurring desire for centralized and top-down political institutions such as the Eurozone, Islamist theocracy, and the spread of ‘populist,’ antilibertarian responses to social change and economic crisis.” However, he remained optimistic, stating that “libertarianism offers an alternative to coercive government that should appeal to peaceful, productive people everywhere.”

Although often pessimistic in the short term, Boaz was a long-term optimist about freedom. He helped establish a brand of libertarianism that, as president of the Foundation for Economic Education, I see as perhaps the most successful. Boaz was not afraid to change his mind in public, acknowledging the ongoing fight against slavery, racism, and other forms of oppression as essential to the liberal project.

Despite the challenges facing liberty, Boaz remained an optimist and a progressive libertarian. He believed that “the simple, timeless principles of the American Revolution—individual liberty, limited government, and free markets—are even more powerful and more important in the world of instant communication, global markets, and unprecedented access to information than Jefferson or Madison could have imagined.” Boaz saw libertarianism not just as a framework for utopia but as “the indispensable framework for the future.”

David Boaz’s legacy is one of intellectual rigor, principled advocacy, and a commitment to the ongoing project of human progress. He understood that the challenges to liberalism and freedom today are not the same as those faced when he joined the Cato Institute, and he worked to ensure that the classical liberal tradition remained dynamic and responsive to the needs of an ever-changing world. Boaz will be deeply missed, but his tradition and brand of libertarianism will continue to inspire and guide us at the Foundation for Economic Education and beyond.

  • Diogo Costa is the President of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). He holds a bachelor's degree in Law from the Catholic University of Petrópolis and a master's degree in Political Science from Columbia University.